Spines of the Finwomen

By

1. Water Creatures

Some of you will remember the movie Creature From the Black Lagoon. The movie was made nine years before I was born, in 1954. I loved this movie so much I used to cry hysterically at the end when the creature is killed. I didn’t give a shit about the woman or anyone killed by the creature; like all idiots who only care about themselves, they shot at the creature as a first encounter. The movie has all of my favorite elements in it: geology, fossil evidence from the Devonian period, a postulated link between land and sea creatures, an ichthyologist, and the best monster I’d ever seen in my life: a piscine amphibious humanoid. The original movie was black and white, and the creature was called “Gill-man.”

I never, saw the creature as a man. I saw the creature as a finwoman. By the time I saw the movie I was ten years old and already a veteran competitive swimmer.

Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi, otherwise known as Milicent or “Mil” Patrick, created the creature but was eliminated from the credits. A jealous idiot named Bud Westmore stole her credit and ended her job at Universal Studios. She died in 1988. Her credits have since been restored. It took 2019 book by Mallory O’Meara, The Lady From the Black Lagoon, to resuscitate her value from the depths of the Hollywood.

 

2. Scoliosis

A family trinity sitting silently at a dinner table finishing our food. Or in my head we make a family—mother, father, daughter. My sister, the only ground I have ever known that is not the kaleidoscopic chaos of this place, has left for college, for good. Five years now. Gone forever. Saving her own life. I am the left-behind younger daughter coming of age inside the fragmentation. I have somehow, impossibly, managed to roll up most of my lettuce with sour cream into my napkin. Hidden in my lap. Lettuce with sour cream makes me want to barf. My father loves it because his Eastern European mother made if for him. My father’s rage has instigated the silent eating. Again. There was a moment when things seemed fine, like a family eating dinner, a family in my head or on TV, and then there was a moment when the utensils jumped, his fist on the table, two cartoon images of a woman and a girl clamping shut, their jaws clicking, their spines clattering.

Mercifully, he stands up and leaves the table. Goes into his home office to sit at his drafting table smoking and making architectural drawings. The stool he sits on for years and years hunched over an architectural drafting table will eventually give him chronic back pain. But his spine is perfectly formed. He is a handsome man.

My mother clears dishes. I stand up to throw away my lapful of lettuce and sour cream but something freeze-frames me between sitting and standing.

In my spine. Something gone wrong. A numb shooting up my vertebrae, across my hips, making my mouth fill with saliva. I drop my plate and the napkin holding its secrets.

“Mother?” A word children in distress say whether they mean it or not.

My mother comes. Doesn’t know what to do.

“Mike?” she says.

My father comes. His footsteps angry and heavy. I drop to the floor like wilted vegetables. “What are you doing?” he blares.

“My legs,” I whisper.

He carries me to my bed. A heaviness consumes me. He asks me if I can feel my legs.

I can feel my legs. I just can’t move them right.

I miss swim practice in the morning for the first time in many years.

I miss swim practice that afternoon, that whole week.

My life malforms that quickly.

My mother takes me to the doctor. My legs still feel weird and my back is killing me. He says, “Stand up and bend over to touch your toes.” He puts his hand on my spine. He says, “Now slowly come to standing.” Halfway to standing he says, “Wait.” Then. “Okay.” Then, “Stand up.” I stand up. We all sit there in the silence of a man’s authority for about a minute. “Scoliosis,” he says. “She needs a back brace.” He says, “Bend over and touch your toes again,” and I do, and he says to my mother, “See this S shape?” After I return to standing I look at my mother’s face, wan with the memory of her own years in the hospital, squirming inside a full body cast. The doctor goes on and on about back braces—truly Frankensteinian contraptions at the time. My mother doesn’t say a word. The doctor tells me to put my hands against the wall and look up. He gives me a giant shot of cortisone straight into my spine. The doctor then gives me six Percocet “to get me through the weekend and back in the pool for training.”

Percocet was approved by the FDA in 1976.

In 1976, I was thirteen. No one in my family ever speaks about my spine, or any kind of back brace or back treatment, ever again. My spine makes its twisting journey the rest of my life.

I win medal after medal in swimming, biting my cheek underwater against pain. At night in bed I learn to sleep with the ache like a fist at the base of my spine. My legs never feel the same again. To this day my legs have a faint numbness in them. They are always just this side of floating, my feet never feeling like they are on the ground.

My mother’s unstoppable pain and misshapen leg were the most important markers of her place in my life story. A lineage is born here: I will carry a malformation in my body the way my sister, my mother, her mother, her mother did. We all carry pain like a ghost limb.

My mother drowned her pain in alcohol.

I dove as deeply into the water as possible. Girl underwater who could take it. I made up a creature self in place of weakness. Spine of a finwoman.

 

3. Cesarean

I was born cesarean. I have thought about that endlessly. What does it mean? Does it mean anything? Does it mean nothing? To be born cesarean means to be born extracted from the motherwaters. Her body sliced open to free you, the creature. I’ve constructed elaborate theories at different times in my life around my own birth—intense fictions about how I think I missed something important by not fighting my way through water into and out of the birth canal. About how maybe I was lifted too soon from the mothergut. Or about how I didn’t want to leave her body at all, and I was pulled out and thrust into some fucked-up dimension that had nothing to do with me. They say I resisted extraction. That I turned my stubborn little baby back and butt to them. They say when they rolled me over and pulled me out, my eyes were already wide open. Like I had my stink eye on them from the start.

Yeah, What do you want, motherfuckers?

My whole adult life I built stories around the idea that my entrance into the world was malformed. My mother was born with one leg about six inches shorter than the other. Even with several surgeries in her childhood her leg ended up three inches shorter than the other. Misshapen and asymmetrical.

Malformed: Abnormally formed. Distorted, crooked, contorted, wry, twisted, warped, out of shape, bent, bandy, curved, skewed, asymmetrical, irregular, misproportioned, disfigured, hunchbacked, abnormal, grotesque, monstrous, thrawn…Here is a dictionary sentence putting the idea into motion: “Usually it is the weak, undersized, malformed beasts that are weeded out from the herd.” Look at that shit. What kind of fucked-up sentence is that?

I think about form and malformation all the time. You have no idea. Obsessively. You might say I’m a malformation junkie. Especially on the page, especially in language or art, but also the form of the human body or the bodies of animals or trees or bodies of water. Form is everything to me. The forms that interest me the least—the forms that I find close to useless, the forms that make me want to shoot myself a little bit are the mainstream, perfectly shaped, well-received, and popularized traditional forms that the majority of people find pleasing and whole and and beautiful. I am passionately obsessed with and devoted to malformation in art and literature and people. Not just structurally, but also in content. I love the monster. The creature. More than I ever love the hero, by about a gazillion. Heroes bore the fuck out of me unless there is something seriously, beautifully, and irreconcilably wrong with them. I know what you are thinking. Antihero. Not enough for me. Give me the squirming tentacled blob or grotesque medusa or oozing alien. Now I’m trying to think of a sentence that will accurately convey to you the extent of my devotion to the differently formed in art, in language, in people. A sentence something like this: “I’d rather lick pus ooze than embrace the so-called well-formed hero. The beautiful heroine. The beautiful object of any sort.”

You heard me. I’d rather lick pus, that whiteish-yellow or brown-yellow protein-rich fluid called liquor puris that accumulates at the site of an infection. It consists of a buildup of dead, white blood cells that form when the body’s immune system responds to the infection.

Gross, isn’t it. Monstrous even. I’m saying I’d rather lick pus than fall for the perfectly formed beautiful anything ever again. What a shitheap of nonsense we’ve tried to define ourselves with. No wonder women try to kill themselves so often.

Yes, I can see and feel the rage in that sentence. I’m not sure exactly why this pisses me off so much. I was born cesarean because the doctor told my mother that her babies would be deformed if she dared to let us enter the birth canal of her crazy crooked hips.

Sometimes I just wish someone would put me back into the water and be done with it.

 

4. Rush

There is a running joke between addicts or recovering addicts—whichever nomenclature you prefer—about the intense glory of the sensory world coming back to you after a hard kick: its tastes, sights, and sounds—have you ever tasted anything this good in your life? Did you see the azure blue of that water? I’ve never heard jazz like that before in my life, man, I think that saxophone just saved my soul. Almost feels like being born again. Except that it’s not. It’s just your regular human biological senses coming back to life after the long, dull numb of being thickly sedated for long periods of time. The intense glory is funny to those around us. I remember my third husband saying, “But Lidia, it’s just a cheeseburger. It’s just the sound of rain on the back deck. Just the regular stars in the sky.”

I wonder, who is right? Whose experience counts, and why? If you are a person who has been there and back, it’s a question you carry with your whole body.

The crawling-around-on-the-floor-like-a-monster vomiting sessions from the drugs leaving your body is over by then. The trillions of tiny spiders making your arms and legs jerk involuntarily has subsided, mostly. The heavy ache in every bone in your body—like an extended flu that makes you think you’ll likely die—has been replaced by a kind of measured fatigue. The uncontainable hallucinations retreat back toward your more fluid and oceanic subconscious where they belong, to where dreams, nightmares, and art live. Your sweat is your sweat again.

Hydrocodone was patented in 1923, and the long-acting formulation was approved for medical use in the United States in 2013. The United States consumes ninety-nine percent of the worldwide supply. It is made from the opium poppy after it has been converted to codeine.

When I was kicking Vicodin after a twelve-year addiction, I had a fever dream at the end of the first month. I was a sea creature with spine-like fins who emerged from the ocean. I ate a man.

 

5. Cripple

My mother was a cripple. That’s the word that was put upon her as a child, a teen, a young adult, a woman, a mother, a wife, though that word was never used in our house. The reason that word was never used in our house was that there was a sacred transgression story that my sister and I grew up with. My grandmother—my father’s mother—told my father not to marry my mother because she was a cripple. She weaponized that word. She said, “Well, too bad she’s a cripple.” When this story was birthed into our household we knew that it was an evil word, not to be repeated. We could feel its ugliness; the word was meant to harm our mother.

My mother was born with one leg six inches shorter than the other. It’s not a mistake—you are correct; I already used this line. A good editor would take it out, but the line doesn’t need a good editor. It needs something else. I keep coming back to that sentence and image. Not just here, not just in more than one story, but for my whole life. It recurs. She did not have polio, though that would have been situated accurately historically. She spent years in and out of a children’s hospital, in and out of a full body cast. Think about that for a second. Being a tween in a full body cast. Alone, for the most part, in a hospital in Texas. Even after the surgeries to implant a steel plate in her hip where bone should be, one of her legs remained a good bit shorter than the other. She had to have her shoes built up. She had to grow up in Port Arthur, Texas.

Mostly she just limped. Dramatically.

Children taunted her mercilessly. Young men shunned her. Young women shamed her. There was no room she ever walked into in her life that everyone didn’t notice her limp. And yet. Her spirit was the counterweight. In high school, when by all rights she should have been ready to kill herself from being shamed, she danced harder than anyone at her high school dance. She danced so hard crowds parted on the dance floor, like in a movie. She smiled so big the whole room fell for her. Lips red as a Coca Cola can. Poodle skirt. Who can stop the will of a young woman dancing the night away?

Cripple. That word has fallen out of favor. We know not to use it, right? My question is, have the ideas and emotions behind the word receded, or did we just pretty them up with softer language that makes us feel less shitty about ourselves? I truly wonder. I admit I’m smitten with the reclamation of the word by young activists with attitude and guts and lust in their bodies.

I remember how people looked at her in the world. Every day of her life while I was with her growing up. At the grocery store. At the mall. At movie theaters. At parent-teacher conferences at school. The way people saw her crept into my identity as I came of age. I saw the weird combination of pity and disgust. Abjection. Maybe you thought I didn’t notice, but I did. I see that look alive and well in the world all the time. No matter how pretty we make our words. Our mouths.

According to Wikipedia, a cripple is a person or an animal with a physical disability, particularly one who is unable to walk because of an injury or illness. The word was recorded as early as 950 AD, and derives from the Proto-Germanic krupilaz. The German and Dutch words Krüppel and kreupel are cognates. From Proto-Indo-European *grewb- (“to bend, crouch, crawl”), from Proto-Indo-European *ger- (“to twist, wind”) +‎ *-ilaz.

Sounds kind of like an animal, doesn’t it? Or a creature.

 

6. Hunchback

Everywhere, in all times, hunchbacks are either beaten or reviled. Choose your country, your mythologies, your literatures. The hunchback is always a creature. A monster.

Among my favorite hunchbacks in literature are Quasimodo and Richard III.

Quasimodo was a fictional character, although there is a theory that there really was a bell tower person with a malformed back who worked at Notre Dame during Richard Hugo’s time. Quasimodo finds “love” only through the pain of death.

Richard III in Shakespeare has a quite radical disability. In life, he likely had scoliosis. Did you know that today, 3D models of his spine have been created? He had the classic “S” spine of a scoliosis body, not the monstrous affliction from Shakespeare’s famous drama.

What the hell kind of word is hunchback?

I’ll tell you.

Hunchback is a descriptive yet derogatory term for a person who has severe kyphosis (from Greek κυφός kyphos, a hump). Hunchback may also refer to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, an 1831 novel.”

Bodies and art making a helix.

 

7. My mother’s leg

My mother was mercilessly ridiculed as a child because she was born with one leg six inches shorter than the other. There is a pull I feel around that line. I want to keep going back to that sentence and image over and over again. Hold that image in your head for a minute. Hold the image of your child being born with a leg like that in your head.

There are worse things that happen to children. Much, much worse. Worse ailments, worse malformations, and the horror of a dead child, which I know well. But stay with the image for a second—never mind that you’ve never seen it in novels or in film. Remember The Elephant Man? How you thought my god, I’ve never seen that in film? So. Her malformed body. It’s not nothing. A little girl with a misshapen leg.

My mother was hospitalized in a full body cast for years. The children and then teens around her ground her heart into dust. And yet she emerged as someone more capable of joy than most anyone I’ve ever met. A joy that could match the depths of her pain.

We speak of children as if they are pure innocence, but children are also on occasion cruel little cretin fuckfaces—can we just say that out loud? What they are capable of doing to each other? Their sense of right and wrong all balled up inside some untamed rising of desire, their possible budding compassion and empathy curled up like as-yet unfurled ears. Sentences just beginning to form around the seed of power: What can I get away with? What can I own if I do this? Who will stop me? Born into the image of their makers. Not yet language. Not yet human. All lunge. Little creatures.

My Texas cousins used to light firecrackers in the mouths of garter snakes and frogs and mice. Watch them blow up and then twitch before they died. I was there, so who am I to distance myself? All I can say is that I cried like a baby, and I’m positive I didn’t yet understand why I was crying. But I was for god damn sure taunted for being the crybaby girl. If I had been a boy, they would have given me a smack or two upside the head. When you are a girl there is a small window of opportunity where young boys will let you hang out with them and participate and then there is the day that they will not, all about your body taking a shape that makes you more like the snakes and frogs and mice.

By the 1970s, the word “cripple” generally came to be regarded as pejorative when used for people with disabilities. Cripple is also a transitive verb, meaning “cause a disability or inability.” Think about that. Cripple is a transitive verb. A transitive verb has two characteristics. First, it is an action verb, expressing a doable activity like kick, want, paint, write, eat, clean, etc. Second, it must have a direct object, something or someone who receives the action of the verb. Here, I’ll make a sentence: “The way she danced with abandon, as if she freed herself from everything around her, crippled his masculinity for life.”

My first memory of my mother’s leg is the first time I saw her swim. I was three. I don’t have a cogent sentence to describe what the image of her leg was to me at three years old. That’s the lie of language and storytelling, isn’t it. I mean I can try, right? At three years old I saw that one of her legs didn’t look like the other leg. Even at three years old, I could see that my legs and most peoples’ legs—the legs of my sister and the legs of my father—looked symmetrical. Not that I had any idea what the word “symmetrical” was. Just legs sprouting from hips in two lines down to the ground. Her misshapen leg was mesmerizing, not that I knew what the word “mesmerizing” was. I do know that I stared. That I stopped what I had been doing, which was arranging small plastic spoons and one paddle board and more spoons on a picnic table in a row. Current scholarship says that obsessively making rows and patterns with objects is an early indicator of autism in children. In our house there was no space for disability or non-neuro-normative anything. In our house there was the fact of my mother enduring pain and the fact of my father’s violence and the bodies of daughters making their curves and the choice to survive or give up. The image of my mother stepping into the lake with one different leg, one misshapen leg, interrupted my obsessive pattern making there at the picnic table. The giant, ghost-white, pearled scar running up the side of her leg like tracks. Her body slipping into the water, her side stroke, the off-white of her swimsuit. I remember this perfectly: she was smiling. Even a three year old knows what a smile is. It’s one of the first things a mother gives an infant. If we’re lucky.

My mother’s beautiful smile and beautiful swimming was threaded with unending pain.

 

8. The Eye of a Storm

My sister was born with a wandering eye. Sometimes her eyes would cross; other times one of her eyes simply drifted outward. She had eye surgeries as an infant and then again as a toddler. When I think about it now, as a mother, my chest feels like it might supernova. I wouldn’t show up in my mother’s gut to be born for eight more years behind my sister, and when I think about my sister as an infant or a toddler having to go through eye surgery without me, when I think about them leaving her alone in a crib, when I imagine my mother not holding her enough, or my father—well when I think about my father I want to burn an entire house and possibly the planet to the ground. Her aloneness and isolation as she waited for her eye to heal inspires a rage in me I can barely contain. It’s a good thing my parents are dead. When I think about my sister having to go through those eye surgeries so young, so alone, before language even, sometimes I feel like I could become a human superstorm… like the spot on Jupiter. A monstrous obliterating storm eye… or I.

 

9. Spine

My legs are fine. Well, one of them is shorter than the other, but not in any way you’d notice. I only learned that at a physical when I hit forty-four. Right about the time I was prescribed Vicodin for the pain caused by a twenty-eight-percent inoperable scoliosis curve shooting off to the right and a twenty-five-percent curve shooting inward. A twelve-year ocean.

 

10. Bodies

My mother was born with one leg six inches shorter than the other. It’s not a mistake. Or it is. The line that won’t leave me, or the line I won’t leave alone. This may be a reclamation story.

I’m bringing my mother back to body.

I’m bringing my mother back into my body.

I finally see it—though it took me more than half a century to feel it, and it took me this entire act of writing to name it.

In my family, we breed the malformed woman’s body. Our bodies bend away from the beautiful objects we were supposed to be.

My mother’s leg.

My sister’s eye.

My spine.

Our bodies don’t fit that story.

In my head there is a movie that runs like water, and in the water the malformed bodies of women leap and dive, surge or drown, thread in between one another like unapologetic teeth gnashing mermaids and sirens, our creature selves returning to the black lagoon before the moment of our entrance into a culture that would kill us.

 

11. Monster

noun

mon·​ster | \ ˈmän(t)-stər \

1a: an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure; a mythical monster, a sea monster

1b: one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character; an immoral monster

2: a threatening force

3a: an animal of strange or terrifying shape

3b: one unusually large for its kind

4: something monstrous, especially: a person of unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness, or cruelty

5: one that is highly successful

 

The father was a monster who molested and beat his children for no reason.

***

Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.


Lidia Yuknavitch is the nationally bestselling author of the novels The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children, and Dora: A Headcase, and the memoir The Chronology of Water. She lives in Portland, OR. More from this author →