As the current publisher of Split/Lip Press—the home of Melissa Wiley’s first essay collection, Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena—I’m obviously a big fan, but I was drawn into Wiley’s work before I even worked for Split/Lip. I was fascinated by the way Wiley allows her essays to sprawl without straying off the path. A master of the long-form essay, Wiley beckons the reader to enter a meditative space where her unflinching honesty, craft, and willingness to deconstruct herself on the page is utterly seductive. It was no surprise when I learned that Melissa’s next book, Skull Cathedral: A Vestigial Anatomy, had been selected by Paul Lisicky as the winner of the 2019 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize.
Lisicky writes that, in Skull Cathedral, “there isn’t a sentence that isn’t in awe of consciousness and the cold, clear ache of being alive.” Jenny Boully describes Wiley’s book as “a stormy, haunted thought-scape that strives to reach and clutch and keep close the inevitable losses of a life.”
Melissa and I emailed across the humid Midwest this past August, her in Illinois and me in Nebraska, about the evolution of humankind-ness, the sneakiness of memory, and what remains when necessity evaporates.
The Rumpus: Melissa, I’d love for you to talk about vestigial organs, as metaphor and presence, and what drew you to structure your essay collection around them. For those of you who don’t know what vestigial organs are—no shame; I had to look it up myself—they are those organs in the human body which once performed necessary functions, but as humans evolved, became superfluous. Those organs or body parts—the appendix, the pinky toe, the hymen—are still present in our bodies today. Skull Cathedral uses the vestigial organs as thresholds into the exploration of what we carry embedded within ourselves, and perhaps what remains despite its seeming uselessness.
Melissa Wiley: I wish I had a straightforward answer as to why these parts of the body have resonated so strongly with me. My interest began, though, when I inserted a small discussion of the philtrum—the groove connecting the nose and upper lip—into the title essay of Antlers in Space. Once I tried writing more essays informed by vestigial organs and reflexes, associations seemed to flow more smoothly than when they weren’t there in the background, acting as a guide or anchor. Somehow they provided an opening, almost collapsing time, shortening the distance between past and present, though I know that has to sound overblown. Still they made me more conscious of my own embodied presence as I was writing, which helped the writing feel more like a meditation at times, even though I’m terrible at meditating. As I kept researching and finding more organs to connect to my own experiences, I also hoped this aspect of our anatomy might speak to something beyond my personal history—as a reminder of the real scale of this human journey—despite these essays dwelling in particularity. That’s the grandiose hope, anyway.
Memory itself, by its very nature, also seems to me to share something in common with vestigiality. By now, I’ve long outlived the usefulness of so many memories, and yet they still remain. No matter how irrelevant they might be, I can’t get rid of them. In the same way, certain organs or reflexes persist long after we’ve evolved beyond their function. So, I found a reflexive relationship developing between my life and this facet of our evolution. The body’s seeming reluctance to shed its old baggage felt almost sympathetic, and this sympathy kept me going.
Rumpus: The philtrum! I’ve always been hyperaware of the philtrum, since mine is fairly prominent as well, though I’d never known it was vestigial before your essay in Antlers in Space—I always thought those face-lines were just a weird quirk of the body. The way you close that essay, “for every heightened sense you gain, you lose another one,” makes me wonder at how we can accept loss, but require a physical reminder that we once had the moment—or experience—and how the human body is fearfully and wonderfully made, to coin the phrase, as a vessel of that need.
Wiley: This is such a beautiful point, and I don’t think it could be phrased more eloquently. For all the time I’ve devoted to thinking about vestigiality, I don’t believe I’ve ever defined it as a gift before, but it really is. All evolution—in every sense—entails loss, the need to let things go. Yet the letting go happens so gradually in terms of our collective, biological evolution that we’re given the opportunity in this way to savor our deep ancestral past.
Rumpus: Some vestigial organs are overtly visible—the male nipple, the pinky toe—while others are hidden and we can forget they even exist until they cause pain, like an inflamed appendix. The essays in Skull Cathedral toggle between this idea of invisibility, the threat of pain, and the desire for acknowledgment. I’m thinking, in particular, of the innate presence of Sandy Allen’s seven-foot-tall body in “Traveling Circus” and how the isolation of being so visible is precisely what causes her vestigial organ—the unbroken hymen—to be useless.
Wiley: These are connections I wasn’t aware of when I was writing, so thank you for pointing them out. Along with visibility and invisibility, many of the essays might also play with vulnerability and what comes closer to security. All vestigial organs, by definition, tend to receive less attention than other parts of the body even when they’re visible, so I might be anthropomorphizing them in this sense, feeling they need or want my attention. I tend to find disregarded or discounted aspects of life—the quieter, subtler things—more interesting in general. Though going unnoticed, as you’ve observed, might imply a desire to be seen as well. And there’s often pain, or fear of pain, that comes with exposure.
For most of us, our appearance conceals far more than it reveals, making it difficult if not impossible to ever witness another person’s full beauty or for our own to be glimpsed in turn. Someone like Sandy Allen had to live her life being seen only for her height and so not really seen at all, not for the most part, I imagine. Even for people we come to know extremely well, we’re never able to know that person completely. Even in a relationship where everything seems visible, as with our partners, total visibility never exists. Some space always refuses to close, even in the longest relationships. An indeterminacy always hovers between the factual and certain. If this were not the case, there would be no room for creativity, none for mystery.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that, during the writing of Skull Cathedral, you tried to remind yourself that you “took—and take—odd reassurance in the fact our bodies as a species are unfinished.” What organs do you think are on their way to becoming vestigial—or, I should add, what emotions?
Wiley: I should probably say that vestigiality exists along a spectrum, meaning you can more easily find a use for some of these organs than others, and in Skull Cathedral I’ve admittedly appropriated what is a slippery field of science for my own purposes. Some scientists argue the list of vestigial organs should be shorter, as they keep discovering new potential roles for organs like the spleen, for instance, as we keep living to longer ages. Some parts of us, though, clearly don’t serve much purpose anymore, and while I can’t speak to what organs might be due for obsolescence, on a personal and emotional level I can cite fear and anger and all forms of unnecessary pain as vestigial, as no longer necessary in my own life. As with other things, they’ve stayed anyway. As much as I try to be done with them, a lot of the time they refuse to budge.
Obviously it could not be clearer on a collective scale what we need to evolve beyond and do so quickly. Our capacity for hatred and violence, for all forms of racism and othering and nativism, only signals how much of a work in progress we are as a species. I like to believe we’re headed toward a deeper healing—a genuine connectedness on a global scale—in spite of everything we’re seeing. But evolution doesn’t necessarily follow a straightforward path, which may be why we seem to be devolving in dramatic ways. I’m not sure how relevant this is to anyone else, much less humanity at large, but in my own life there have been strong regressive periods, followed by more lasting change that feels positive. Anything destructive to the human organism, I would like to think, becomes vestigial at some point. The question is how much destruction we’re willing to tolerate before deciding we’ve inflicted enough pain on each other.
Rumpus: I think, constantly, about the fact that every time we access a memory, we alter it slightly. Can we whittle one down until it no longer serves a function? Can a memory become vestigial?
Wiley: This is so vital, Kristine, for creative nonfiction writers especially to realize. Because all memory arises from a subjective consciousness, it has to serve the needs of that consciousness in the present. Few things can be more unstable than memory, as the person who does the remembering is always changing, always adapting to new circumstances. So maybe the best way for a memory to become vestigial, or useless, is to try to deny the fact that who you are now is actively shaping a memory, working it into a narrative that never existed at the time in reality.
That said, this is where the craft comes in, and craft is a beautiful thing. Along these lines, few things are more dispiriting to me than reading obituaries, not necessarily because someone died but because of the lack of any engagement with the mystery of who every person is at bottom. Of course, an obituary might not be the place for this. Journalists have to be pithy, relying on what we call “hard facts” for a reason, because of their sharp edges, because they’re lacking in warmth and softness. While getting your facts straight is primary, facts alone can leave out a lot of truth, including the one concerning the person sitting in front of a computer screen as she’s writing about something from twenty years ago, as she’s selectively cobbling together fragments in a way she might not have even a month earlier.
Maybe memory can also become vestigial when we’ve relied on it too long to tell the same story, either about ourselves or someone else. Most narratives, like everything else, have a lifespan. No matter how empirically valid, there usually comes a time when we don’t need them anymore, or not nearly as much. Most of our personal narratives probably become vestigial far sooner than we realize, but coming to terms with their lack of usefulness is, I would say, where the pace of personal evolution sets in. At some point, we recognize we don’t need to continue feeling helpless or angry because of past circumstances. We can claim and then let something go—if not a memory itself, then a story we tell ourselves in which the memory plays an integral role. One of my main reasons for writing in this genre to is gain some clarity about what’s no longer needed.
Rumpus: Finally—this one’s for all the Split/Lip Press fans—I’m dying to discuss how you feel your writing (or process) has changed since Antlers in Space, your 2017 debut essay collection. What intentions or fascinations have been captivating you recently?
Wiley: Since Antlers in Space, I’ve become a lot more focused as a writer, more deliberate, though this comes with tradeoffs. You open yourself up to going more adventurous places if you’re willing to get lost, to wander without a goal in mind. With Antlers in Space, I didn’t realize I was writing a book at all when I started. Whereas now I tend to write only with the intention of creating a whole book from the outset, though again, that has its advantages as well as limitations.
Over the past year, maybe wanting to return to a more innocent mindset, I’ve tried writing fiction seriously for the first time, though the stories have ended up being more of detailed character sketches, all of which relate to a species of animal going or gone extinct. As with the vestigial organs, this tells me that I’m still intrigued by disappearance. In that same vein, I have an idea for a novel in which the characters’ past lives feature explicitly in the present, where time folds over itself. I have no idea if I can carry this off—right now, I’m thinking not—but I’m envisioning the book as revealing people’s root systems. In my mind, this project contains every unknowability out there, which alone means it’s worth exploring. It’s hard to grow while staying in your comfort zone.
Photograph of Melissa Wiley by Danielle Heinson.