A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing

By

NONFICTION

Que sais-je?

In a dream once, I traveled toward my mother on the back of red-brown horse, through towns and cityscapes and heavy night and gray fog and merciless winds. Geography was endless, though it signaled, through passage and movement and the world of blurring shapes, that space could be navigated, collapsed down. Like my mother, the horse, too, didn’t want me and so hurled me around so that I was inches from her backbone at every other moment. I was, in effect, thrown up and down in simultaneity, into the half-lit and darkening sky. From a distance, the outline of my mother stood against a bright and angry sea. She could be measured against the horizon. But no matter how fast the horse galloped, how much land we covered, I never got closer to her, (though she remained, always, in my eye-gaze). She was both absence and presence, longing and distance, reachable and unreachable. The harder I snapped the reins, the more the horse threw me violently from side to side. I thought of abandoning the horse and running across the earth to her, but when I looked down my feet had disintegrated away; nothing there but two stubs rawed at their ends. I cried an animal cry, but there was no one to hear me. And if the mother could, had ears and opened them, the sea might drown out my sound so that I was mistaken for a wave’s crashing. Or another child crying. I thought, I am alone in the world. I thought, the mother is there, I just can’t get to her.

Love, as you know, is a difficult subject.

Even in the dream, I could not fathom the impossible idea that no matter how long it took, I would never reach her. Even when my hands began to disintegrate, too, and I could no longer hold on to the reins or the horse’s mane. Even when the horse disappeared, and I was a floating subject, bouncing across space through endless time. Even when the world became so dark, I could no longer see what was in front of me: the mother, the horizon, the sea. Even when I stopped thinking and closed my eyes and slept, dreaming in the dream: a mise-en-abyme. Even then, I could not understand it.

I am rattling now, as in the dream, through the physics of memory, across experimental surfaces. What story do I want to tell and how do I tell it? I entered this not knowing what language could do for me. Knowing only that it would not stop doing it.

“The continuous work of our life is to build death,” said Michel de Montaigne. But rather, I think it is to defy erasure in the inevitable building of death.

What do I know? That as long as I write, I cannot be erased.

Memory has worked to bring me here. Everything that was once unimaginable I try to manage now as if I am a body made of glass. How do I distinguish what is verifiable and what is unverifiable? How do I tell the truth of a fact that only my mind owns? Sometimes I do not know how to compare what is remembered, what is imagined, the way the wind changes in me, the conditions that pain creates, or how to follow the correct direction of opposite swimming fish. But I do have this one wish: to not be disappeared to the world as I have been to the mother.

Like Montaigne said, “my ideas and my judgement merely grope their way forward, faltering, tripping, and stumbling.”

Progression is the ultimate illusion. That we can arrive somewhere different than where we began. But still we try, as if movement were a promise the legs make to the body, the mind to its pain.

Try. Even if you remain in fragment, like pieces of jade dropped from a storm’s mouth and strewn over a childhood beach you remember the feeling of, but whose name you have forgotten.

 

 

 

TRAUMATIZATION

Blue slate of the sky laid itself out for us. My husband and I drove down the California coast, as if driving were an act of erasing. When we rounded the rail-less curves in Big Sur, I screamed and gripped the seat. I talked with my eyes closed, past the most fathomably beautiful scene.

Though I grew up swimming in the Atlantic, the Pacific did not completely stun me. When I opened the window, the ocean was every ocean I have ever put myself into. I was a child again briefly; salt hit my lungs. Even with the country stretched long between me and her, and the time and years that had brought me to this moment, it was only then that I understood that I’ve been traumatized by my mother. 

Trauma, the Greek word for wound. A word I never thought I’d use.

Birth wound.
Time wound.
Light wound.
New wound.
Old wound.
The sound-of-her-voice wound.
Trust wound.
Dark wound.
Thought wound.
Thinking wound.
Lover wound.
Mother wound.

It is sometimes called an affliction, I learn.

 

Five years together in New York, then five in California. Marriage is a phenomenological thing. We didn’t love each other less, but the loving was more glassy. I feared at any moment we would break. Who was the one less loved, was not a question I needed answered. There were many nights I had to beg him to turn his body around. To be toward me. I wanted to not be ignored by him, as I am by the mother.

 

A mother wound becomes a lover wound and then you have double wounds. A deeper affliction. I learned this late, at the end of marriage.

 

Campgrounds are for lovers. We drove past them, until the sun began to dip below San Simeon. Each night I thought, this will be the night he will make his way past the darkness to my body. An empty motel room by the Pacific has the ability to be momentous. But he’d fall asleep immediately. Hoops the size and shape of different wounds fell, in sequences, down through me. I have been, my whole life, designed by them.

I now understand this, what the nervous system remembers is what is remembered. The body knows what the mind cannot. No action can stop it. When I hear a child in the supermarket scream uncontrollably for her mother, my body shakes and cannot stop.

 

I hope, by writing this, language can jar a wound.

 

I wish this is what I knew: a new life in California does not mean love is renewed. My husband never noticed what I was reading, but every night when I curled away from him, I entered theories.

The more I read, the more I learned that traumatic memories lack narrative and context. They are encoded in the form of image and sensation and also called indelible or death images. Pierre Janet explained this: “Like all psychological phenomena, memory is an action, it is the action of telling a story… A situation has not been satisfactorily liquidated until we achieve, not merely an outward reaction through our movements, but also an inward reaction through the words we address to ourselves.”

It was Freud who called the recurrent intrusion of traumatic experience the “repetition compulsion.” An idée fixe. It comes and it comes as if the sea and you must enter it, even if you can’t remember exactly how. Trauma shatters the inner schemata of the brain. Psychiatrist Abram Kardiner describes this experience: “the whole apparatus for concerted, coordinated and purposeful activity is smashed.”

I think it is still true that if you stay on the road, keep moving, you are circumnavigating it. The pain. Keep the wheels turning and try to reinvent the broken-down schema of the brain.

 

 

 

DYSFUNCTION

During my first winter in Ohio, I sit with the great poet in a hotel lobby. She is visiting the university and has come to talk about my poem.

“You know,” she says, before any formal introduction, “the greatest myth ever told is that all mothers can love their children.” She says, “can love,” as if no fault should be bestowed. As if it is an abnormality claimed by some force that is out-of-the-mother’s-hands.

She holds my poem in front of her, seconds pass, and then, “What I understand from this is “bad, bad… not a good mother.”

I wait for more, but there is silence.

She says she’s sorry, that she can’t help me with that, but that there is something she can tell me. She asks me if I know how “living rooms” got their names. Before I can answer, she explains.

Up until the late nineteenth century, these rooms were called parlors, she said. A word that derives from the old French word “parloir” or “parler” which means “to speak.” Gatherings happened in them. Sometimes happy events, like weddings or births, but most often the dead were laid out here before funeral parlors came into existence. People would gather between these walls at the side of beloveds to say their mournful goodbyes.

So, she says, laughing, “The living room is actually the death room. Ironic huh?”

In an essay, once, the great poet wrote, “The human mind is capable of a great elastic theater.”

Surely, this is it. This thought-game we play. The meaning of words detached from their meaning. This spectatorship of our own thinking.

In another piece, “A Short Lecture on Translation,” which I had read after our meeting, she discusses a translator friend who offers an historical example of the first known translation of mankind. In this piece, the great poet decides the translator’s answer is wrong. She writes instead, “surely it was when a mother heard her baby babble and cry, and had to decide in an instant what it meant.”

(As I read this now, alone in my living room, the mid-January day dark as evening, I let out an audible sound. Not quite a wail nor a whimper. With no one around to decipher it, I look down at my arms. I see my mother’s arms: brown freckles dotted over me from the sun. My arm indistinguishable from the image I held of hers. My arm on fire, burning, even though it is winter.)

After discussing death rooms, the great poet asked me if I want a cigarette. I said I don’t.

We continued to sit together, and we didn’t make another sound.

Outside the Ohio snow fell up and down.

 

 

 

REPRESENTATION

One summer, while house-sitting a large home in California, I stare at the same painting every day, over and over. It hangs in the kitchen where I stir and then dispose of my coffee spoon in a fancy farm-style sink. The house belongs to a psychiatrist who is in Vienna for the summer. He has given me the space to write and in return, I water his flowers, retrieve the mail. The painting, by René Magritte, is of an apple; its brilliant red fading to green, with a French phrase scribbled above it:

Ceci n’est pas une pomme.

This is not an apple.

Strange, I think. Of course it is. I experience a momentary resistance. But, then again, Magritte was interested in playing with logic, in making the ordinary unusual. Among his most famous painting was a portrait called Les Amants, which depicted lovers obscuring their faces with cloth. I fell in love with his work when I was an undergraduate, studying writing and art.

His constant play with reality and illusion has been attributed to the early death of his mother. When Magritte was thirteen years old, she committed suicide, after many previous attempts, by drowning herself in the River Sambre. According to witnesses, he was present when her body was recovered from the water and it had been reported that, when found, her dress was covering her face.

Magritte described his paintings as “visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

It is the ordinary that conceals the unusual. The unusual, the ordinary. 

What is ordinary is having a mother.

What is unusual is having a mother who will not have you.

A trauma I share with Magritte. His play with reality and illusion is a formal mirror held to the experience of his traumatic loss. If “what is” can be claimed to be “not,” then perhaps (illogically) his mother’s death can be undone.

Psychoanalysts have surmised that Magritte’s back and forth play with reality and illusion reflects a “constant shifting back and forth from what he wishes—‘mother is alive’—to what he knows—‘mother is dead’.”

In another painting, Magritte repeats the same logic: Ceci n’est pas une pipe, he wrote over a picture of a pipe. Later, he offered further explanation:

“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!”

What he means is, the word is not the thing, as the map is not the place. The way the mother, in this story, is not my mother. Not exactly.

 

Ceci n’est pas une pomme.
Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
Ceci n’est pas une bouche.
Ceci n’est pas une bleue.
Ceci n’est pas un arbre.
Ceci n’est pas une fleur.
Ceci n’est pas une maison.
Ceci n’est pas une ville.
Ceci n’est pas un pays.
Ceci n’est pas une langue.
Ceci n’est pas un monde.
Ceci n’est pas un carte du monde.
Ceci n’est pas un son.
Ceci n’est pas une chanson.
Ceci n’est pas une ancienne langue.
Ceci n’est pas l’art.
Ceci n’est pas une image de.
Ceci n’est pas une image.
Ceci n’est pas ton esprit.
Ceci n’est pas la mer.
Ceci n’est pas la mère.
Ceci n’est pas un journal.
Ceci n’est pas l’actualités.
Ceci n’est pas un doigt pointé vers toi.
Ceci n’est pas une pensée.
Ceci n’est pas un poème.

 

 

 

HALATION

To look is a simple action. To see, more difficult.

I think about this as I stare at childhood photos. I keep them out of sight. In one, I see brothers and sisters: arms around arms around arms. It is them and it is me. We are almost all together, not separate. In the photograph, light forms us. I think the mother took this photo, placed us here, this particular way. I wish that we had the light of knowing but instead we have this light: a halation of fog spreading us into each other. All of us her wounds in a row. None of us know yet.

Halation, meaning: “light that is improper” or “light that has spread beyond its natural boundaries.” In other words, an error of light.

A mother is an error when she cannot love her child. A malfunction of instinct. If she is not hard-wired. If she cannot feel shame. If she does not feel at all or feels hardly. If she can banish you. If she cannot love you. If she cannot love.

Would we still call her Mother? other? her?

Halation concerns a phenomenon of the eyes which spontaneously creates the effect of a gradient. Artist Gabriel Mott explains it using the metaphor of a family. He says, “A color awakens among its family and becomes aware of its surroundings.” He says, “two parent colors spread into each other achieving a child color. The child color vibrates a little and suddenly they all know about each other and become luminous.”

Light is a temporary fiction. Like a story. I try to expose it through a specific lens and all I get is blur. What do I want? Not merely to tell the truth. I want the truth believed, like a hyper-focused image: sharp boundaries, clean grain, concrete and abstract meaning attainable.

It occurs to me I am trying to shed light on light. Light on the mother. How entirely imperceptible.

 

 

As I write, I read a book called Happily. In it, the author states: “If you ask what’s under the apple skin you’re exposing exposed-ness.”

I want there to be an image for you to see.

Look: Children like fuzzy bulbs on the top of light poles. Their bright face-rings attached to dark bodies.

Halation: to make of the thing a halo.                           Anagram: anti-halo.

Look: Language, too, can be an optical illusion.

 

I wrote a book called The Opposite of Light, knowing it was an equation I could not solve. The reader will decide, I told myself. But my husband woke me up one January morning, cold as stone, and told me knowing answers to the questions I make is my burden alone.

He was light, my husband. A temporary fiction. Whatever knowing occurred in our twelve years together was a knowing born out of distance. I chased, he ran. A miracle we were ever in the same room together. Said Jacques Roubaud, “Light has already, while you were giving it boundaries, while you legislated the impossible, turned the corner.”

When we married at City Hall in San Francisco, the mother was not there. It was the end of November and brightness poured through the rotunda on all sides.

Roubaud says, “Light leads the eye beyond the where.” I would have loved him beyond any distance, to any where, if only I could see the where.

 

I’ve felt closer to the dark all my life. But light itself is not strange to me. It is the most commonly used phrases of light that I find most foreign:

light dawned
light dawned (on one)
as light as
the light of day
(and, most, enthusiastically)
the light of light of light of my life

Said a philosopher, “Our exposure to different seas and suns have changed us.”

Said a poet, “Each child still has one lantern inside lit. May the Mother not / Blow her children out.”

 

 

 

DECONSTRUCTION

I thought I could stop time by taking it apart. Something Derridean. Time reconstructed as a story. Beginning, middle, and end. An end to the pain. I wanted to find it.

When summer begins one June, I drive the New York State Thruway upstate to a large lake surrounded by trees. The water glows from the sun’s rays and when I dive beneath the surface, I enter a different world. I cannot stay below, I know, but while underneath, I feel an odd keeping. Does the water want me or do I want it, I think to myself. I circle my arms to try and grasp it. An impossibility. But in this moment, I think if I never come up, the pain cannot have me. That I would be able to eschew it, remain in perpetual baptism.

Eventually, I give in to breath.

Elaine Scarry says pain is the absolute definer of reality; that its experience is purely singular. “Whatever pain achieves,” she claims, “it achieves in part through its unsharability.”

She’s referring to physical or mental pain. Or both. Trauma ravages the body. The spine becomes a stake in you. It holds you up, yes, but the nerves dotted up and down it burn like thousands of little fires. Your chest carries on it the heavy material of the past. Once, a few years back I went to the doctor, sure I had a tumor in my ear. The pain was unbearable, and I was having trouble hearing. She looked at me, sternness in her eyes, and said you must stop clenching your teeth when you sleep. The jaw is the most important hinge in the body, one you need to keep.

In water, you can be all mind. The body can disappear in its weightlessness, and with it, the pain.

When I tell a friend going through a trauma that she should start swimming, she asks if the muddled underwater world only exacerbates the brain’s thinking. “Without sound, doesn’t your mind become louder?” she asked.

No, I explained. The world becomes a mere echo and is so distant, it is like Derrida’s trace; a track or path toward or away from. An absent presence. In it, your body becomes so body-less, so estranged from its own knowability, that you can imagine the pain leaking out of you, washed of you, going.

“But that is just your imagination,” she said.

Pain is never imaginary. But it is not, as Scarry also claims, an object. You cannot throw it like a stone toward the sun, smash it in your hands, or leave it on a highway road.

She uses variables to outline this logic:

“…desire is desire of x, fear is fear of y, hunger is hunger for z; but pain is not ‘of’ or ‘for’ anything—it is itself alone.”

Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe I’m trying to unmake a thing that you simply can’t unmake.

Pain equals pain, I thought, when I finally lifted my body from that lake.

 

 

 

IMAGINATION

I’ve used the phrase more times than are countable. Can you imagine? I, in my desperation to have people understand, beg of them to use their faculties not as a mechanism of empathy or transference, but a mechanism of knowing. I wanted them to know what it feels like. Can you imagine? I do not mean it rhetorically, I mean, if you are one who has been loved by your mother—if you had, instead, been jettisoned, could you imagine it?

Or a husband you think will love you forever, who makes you tea, who rubs your back, can you imagine, you wake up one day and it’s the last? Some can, I’m sure. I cannot. I cannot imagine these things, these things that have happened. I cannot translate them into value or live anywhere that is not the mind.

When I was briefly outside of mine, it was late summer and in-between the afternoon heat and haze, a morning chill would rush through me and it was so startling, I thought I could see it. Actually see it. The cold settling itself into, off of, the morning clouds like soft hair strung from their bottoms.

The weather is not important, except that it is what I remember. How the chill felt on my arm-hairs. The sensorium in control. The rest, lives inside images, lost and reproduced from somewhere else, outside of the intellect. A place I know but cannot distinguish from truth.

“Resistance,” Wallace Stevens said, “is the opposite of escape.”

In my imagination, fragments resist:

Sunflowers by the house twice as tall as the trees.
A wooden bench leading toward the sea.
A mother folding laundry in the dim midnight light.
She is larger than the sea.
Her face is the middle of the sunflowers.
She shakes in the breeze.
The light leading toward the sea.
A wooden mother folding down the middle.
She is large and dim. Like a house.

Scale is the world as you remember it. “Reality is things as they are.” But that only works in the present. Anything that has happened is remembered. And memory is an activity of the imagined.

Barthes wrote a whole book based off a haunting photograph of his mother. “A ghost story,” an article calls it. After losing her, he looked for her in old photographs, finding, repeatedly, that each image, no matter how similar, is lost of her person. But he describes, repeatedly, one photo of his mother, age five, the only image he found of her true likeness. In a journal about this discovery he wrote two words: “Je pleure.”

“There are nightmares,” he says in another book, “in which the Mother appears, her face hardened into a cold and severe expression. The fade-out of the loved object is the terrifying return of the Wicked mother, the inexplicable retreat of love, the well-known abandonment of which the Mystics complain: God exists, the Mother is present, but they no longer love. I am not destroyed, but dropped here, a reject.”

If I’ve been trying to escape the mother, I’ve had it all wrong. She has escaped me. I am, in my mind, doing only what I can to resist her. The reality of her. Her goneness. It is like the iris in a reverie trembling in its awakeness, unable to actually see. Close-up on it and you’ll notice, reflected in the pupil, a face.

Brutality requires imagination. I’ve seen it. The old life transfigured with the new. The family around the dinner table, a daughter missing. She is in a field far away behaving like the clouds. Appearing and disappearing. Her wedding ring is in the dirt and her body is sprawled out like a star.

Stevens said, “It is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era. What happens is that it is always attaching itself to a new reality and adhering to it. It is not that there is a new imagination but that there is a new reality.”

In this reality, I live eventually. As in, a life that doesn’t work but maybe one day will. One, I imagine, where the mother no longer exists, or her image can be replaced with the likeness of someone other.

This reminds of a film I can’t remember the name of where the lover says to another, “Beautiful to leave you here” and then the screen fades to black. From nowhere, off screen, you hear a voice whispering, “and where precisely is that?”

 

 

FICTION

The first time I spend Christmas alone, I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on the beach in a Mexican port village. It rains for two days straight and I lie in it while people shield themselves under canopies. They watch me with curiosity. I transform to them, become a little less human; woman who allows the rain to have her. (And look, she doesn’t even flinch).

I am too mesmerized by the book to care. Shocked at how wrong I had it. I’d always thought Frankenstein was the monster, made with good intentions by a man who wished to animate a thing to life. But now I understand that Victor, the story’s narrator, is Frankenstein. His monster, the character we have come to familiarize with his surname, is never referred to as anything but creature and its synonyms.

Victor Frankenstein’s desire to explore the unknown mysteries of creation is preceded by three profound events: first, his father dismisses his interest in a book by German theologian Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the “lords” of Victor’s imagination. Second, he witnesses a tree electrocuted by lightening (“It was not splintered by shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood”) during a terrible thunderstorm in Geneva. “I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed,” he said.

Then his mother dies, (“My internal being was in a state of insurrection and turmoil: I felt that order would thence arise, but I had no power to produce it”) and it’s in the midst of this grief he begins his creation.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” Nothing so painful as loss. And how suddenly the mind desires order after it. A form for continuing.

It is these events that also facilitate his ruin. Victor is admonished at the “catastrophe” of his creation and runs from it, only to be faced with the greatest of ironies. The monster, who was not created “bad” but becomes bad because of his exclusion from the world, suffers, and so decides his creator will suffer, too. Thus, a series of events unfold toward Victor Frankenstein’s own psychological demise.

It is not lost on me, what I am doing. Putting this down into language. But I realize, in this rain, that this has not all been about power (as I thought it was). It is also about loneliness. Do not tell me becoming a mother is not about both. That a mother never thought, as Shelley wrote, “[a] new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me,” so that she would not have to feel, as the creature in the story felt: the indefatigable solitariness of humanhood.

I imagine this was my mother’s thinking. She who dreamt of making life but didn’t like what she made. I feel the harshest truth of this fact: I am her failed creation.

Of course, she would tell you a different story.

 

Suddenly, there’s brightness in the periphery. When I lift my head, I see the horizon and think the rain has stopped, but it’s just a mix of light and water. I am unsure what waiting for “good” weather means and if it can ever be truly good. If the sun expands itself into the sky and the rain disappears, my skin will burn itself into welts and I’ll have no choice but to cover myself from its light.

“Destroy your own creature” is what I’m trying to do. An act of decreation. And I must get on with it. How else will I ever believe in human goodness?

Under the sky and split shadows of the palms, I cry hard because my marriage is over. Because I am losing sight of my mother. And time keeps moving on.

The first time I saw her, I could not say. I was a tiny body pulled from an incision in hers. No intellect yet. No machine for memory. But the last time I saw her, I will not forget. She stood her body in the doorway of that house, a home as one had ever so been, and I knew, I knew I would never get back in.

Pain is the instrument of my life. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, I do not think my grief is an indulgence, though I indulge it. It is a necessity to me. Writing this is a duty I must perform. What else to do with my pain? Where to put it but set it down into language?

After many hours pass, the sun is gone, the rain stops, and my eyes close-up on our one magnificent night-object, perhaps the only thing the mother and I still share, its celestial position holding itself far away and between us. It’s only in this exact moment that it occurs to me that I am my mother’s monster as she is mine.

We are both each other’s creation.

***

Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson.


Kimberly Grey is the author of three books, A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing: Hybrid Essays, forthcoming form Persea Books in 2023, Systems for the Future of Feeling (2020) and The Opposite of Light (2016). She has been awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and teaching lectureship from Stanford University, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and Taft Research and Dean Fellowships from the University of Cincinnati, where she earned a PhD in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. More from this author →