Psychic Cartographies


As if going into hiding from the onset, my parents immigrated from Mexico to the United States, to a place barely visible on most maps. They moved to the capital of the smallest US state, Providence, Rhode Island. Like many immigrant families, they followed male laborers, joining my uncles, who had been working in Providence for about a year, to work in the city’s jewelry factories. They lived with those uncles and together, they were one of the few Mexican families in Rhode Island. They were also undocumented. When I was around four and we moved into an apartment of our own, they taped plastic over the windows to keep out the New England cold. They kept the plastic on in the summers, too.

Never open the door to anyone, my parents said. At first, I couldn’t–I didn’t know what would happen. Then I wouldn’t, because I knew what could.

When I was nine, a landlord demanded to be let in. He said he needed to get a rent check. My parents weren’t home; they’d left suddenly to tend to an uncle at a hospital. I didn’t know where the check was even after looking all over. He didn’t believe me and started shaking and pounding the door, threatening to call child services because my parents had left me alone. Nothing I said would make him go away, despite my crying and pleading, and wishing my parents would come home. I braced myself against the door, feeling the smack of the wood every time it was struck from the other side.

When my parents came home, I told them what the landlord had said and done, and that I didn’t open the door, hoping for something to counter the shaking and pounding, but my dad, helpless, screamed at me for even answering the landlord with words.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I didn’t need reminding. When a worker for the 2000 Census came to our building to take our household count, we ignored her. The doorbell didn’t work, but we heard her shouting outside. My brother turned up the TV volume.

Do people who know about doors find each other, feeling safe in another who is also closed? I met a friend who understood doors in grad school. She was a first-generation Latina right out of college, like me. We met at orientation and decided to live together, maybe also sensing that together, we would be able to bear more, including the growing fear that we didn’t deserve to be there. A class assigned Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. We sat side-by-side at the kitchen table, going over every line together to make sense of it. While reading, we heard a knock at the door. We froze.

I walked quietly to the door, looked out the peephole and saw the top of a brunette’s head.

It’s a strange girl, I whispered.

My roommate put a finger to her lips then made a Follow Me motion. We went to her room and shut the door. Sat on the floor and waited until the girl had left.  So automatic, the fear, the flight, the making of ourselves smaller.

The next day, a fellow grad student and friend tells us she tried to visit.  I couldn’t tell her then what had happened as I wasn’t able to understand it fully myself. Years later, I know how much it has taken to hide. Time spent waiting for people to leave but fear that those I loved would. Energy spent trying to calm myself down when half of me says stay vigilant, the other says rest. Connections and relationships lost when I couldn’t return eye contact let alone calls or emails.

Act as if you care, my friend R. tells me he would tell his younger self: what he learned over time, because he too felt less shaky behind closed doors.

I’m now a professor in Los Angeles, far geographically and experientially from where I grew up, but, as is true for many, childhood is still close. My experiences growing up afraid of what lay outside and inside wherever I lived, still guides me through different spaces.

For years, I was able to hide in work, which provided reasons not to open, invite people over, or be present. But then the world slowed down and people went into actual hiding.When we were in our homes, sheltering in place to avoid contact with the potentially fatal virus, many of us wavered between feeling defenseless and protective, fearful and resigned. The Covid-19 pandemic was described as a collective trauma. It also raised questions about whether we need new vocabulary for what happens individually and on a large scale. I thought about how many people I knew who had previously experienced trauma, and the various ways we had to cope with the present, given the embeddedness of the past. People were fighting with systemic conditions and also with each other. Many of us were also fighting with ourselves.



What would our psyches reveal if they showed these terrains of fear? If the psyche could be thought of as a landscape, a psychic cartography, the following is just one way to map one out. It would have fences, barbed wire, open fields, and landmines.

The fences would be of varying heights, and would be used to guard against and deflect threats posed by people, feelings, and uncertain situations. We’re tempted to think these fences are invisible to others, since they’re internal. (Sometimes they remain hidden even to ourselves.) But they can be perceived. Most strongly, felt. Those around us may register them as character traits. A person is Reserved. Cold. Aloof. Closed. Maybe always, or it’s apparent only when we react, readied for defense, raising our posts.

My fence was built in childhood. But it does have a door, and I’ve been working on opening and walking through.

In the summer of 2021, I flew from Los Angeles to Rhode Island to attend the funeral for my dear friend S. We became friends in 7th grade social studies, learning about political cartoons. She was drawing a picture of our principal nun crushing us students with her high heel and asked me to help her with the back of the shoe. We laughed so hard. It would be the first of many times we’d get in trouble. For not hiding in our coursework, for expressing joy. For just being. Two girls of color in a majority white school. It was like light shined on you two, a mutual classmate said, words that can still make me tear up.

I rarely saw S. cry. She and others in my neighborhood, children of refugees and immigrants–we all became experts at never revealing.

After the funeral, some friends and I gathered at a restaurant to talk about how much she meant to us. I hadn’t seen any of these former classmates since high school. The conversation turned to how one friend there, C., was able to hang out with so many different people in high school, athletes and drama kids alike, a rarity back then.

It’s because my inside doesn’t match my outside, he said.

I wondered if he meant assumptions about race, gender, and class–ways we are often read.

What do you mean, what does your inside look like? I asked, on my third drink.

I don’t want to talk about it. 

Swift, solid, his fence had gone up. We dropped the conversation.

Some things we can’t or won’t say. I too have a silence I’m forced to keep.

H., a professor and a woman of color, tells me her fence has a lock on the outside.This makes me think about how we are exposed to conditions that create the locked-in feeling, or we inherit fences from our caretakers. Don’t trust. Don’t tell. Don’t open. These lessons were passed down to me and so many others I know. Another friend, whose parents experienced civil war in El Salvador, mentioned that he and his sisters were never allowed to join school clubs because his mom feared what would happen to them. She felt safer with them home, or only interacting with other family.

But what can be an attempt at creating safety can feel like imprisonment. He still has trouble making and retaining friends outside of his family.

Sometimes in addition to our defenses, we have offensive tactics. Barbed wire spirals around some fences. Flares of anger and critique. I learned in meditation class that the word emotion contains the word motion. Emotions want to move. In these prickly barbs, feelings get directed outwards, but in ways that can hurt. Comments or actions that are unnecessarily mean or cruel and seem to come out of nowhere.

I have an acquaintance with permanent barbed wire around his fence. He is critical all of the time as if to keep people at bay. But the barbs are sometimes couched as jokes, commentary that some find funny unless they are the ones being jabbed. It wasn’t uncommon for me to witness him criticizing people’s appearances or abilities. If you tell him that something he has said bothers you, he’ll rear up and make it seem as if you’re offending him. I’m a cultural critic, he once said. Other people would call him a hater. Can tear down, can’t build up.

Mexicans never say congratulations, comedian George Lopez jokes in The Original Latin Kings of Comedy because we can’t be happy for other people. The greeting cards at Hallmark are too happy. We need Mexican cards. A now you think you’re all bad card. A you ain’t shit balloon.

Fences and barbed wire can come from not feeling safe, cared for, loved. If we’ve experienced abuse, dismissal, criticism, or neglect, we protect ourselves to manage feeling anxious, vulnerable, and afraid. I’m going to reject you before you reject me. Hurt you before I’m hurt.

Barbs can serve as testing strategies. Will you stick around?

I have a mother and a friend who are open fields.

My mother cannot always say in words what she says through cooking. People have noticed that she cooks for twice the number of people present at any meal, as if there were more people coming. It’s a waste of food, I would say. But to tell her this is futile because my mom grew up in scarcity. Abundance on the table and in the fridge comfort her. I have enough and am taking care of those around me so that they have enough, the overcooking says.

I didn’t always see her openness. When I was young, I was frustrated at her half-English, of her sixth-grade education and her misspellings, of her hiding behind me as I translated on buses, in offices, in clinics. Older, I was able to see that she taught herself  how to drive, stopped if she saw someone loaded with groceries, insisted her kids would go to college even when told otherwise, and pushed through my father’s fear to open a family restaurant and consoled everyone when it failed.  She makes room anytime someone needs a place to stay and even brings back acorns from her walks in the woods to feed to squirrels in her neighborhood during winter.

But because my father is so closed off, it’s hard for her to have friends outside of family.

My open field friend J. was the first to show me you could be open inside and outside of one’s family. She was the friend in grad school who came to visit and from whom we hid. But she never stopped coming back, even when I didn’t answer again and again and made excuses. It’s because of her that I’m now able to be there for others in ways I never could before.

Showing me it’s OK to open, she also taught me how important it is to affirm and soothe. Years ago, she rubbed my back when I was crying, and I realized I didn’t know that one could be physically comforted in that way. That one didn’t have to cry alone. My parents are not huggers or exclamation point people. J. is both and is comfortable expressing joy aloud and in writing. She can also hug with her whole self. I once tried to hug another friend and she stiffened. I thought you were trying to rob me, she joked.

If I have news to share it’s with my open field friend first. She listens. Helps without impatience.

People like her and my mom can be givers from an intense desire to be needed. They can be vulnerable too, with people taking advantage of their generosity. They can be exhausted and depleted by people taking and not reciprocating.

Fences can be helpful, boundaries to protect the self and body, built from prior and present experiences. My fence allows me to have time and space away to recharge. Sometimes, to rethink.

I prefer the image of a fence to a wall, because it implies one can potentially see through it. We can be aware a fence is there and even if we react to a threat, real or perceived, we can raise or lower it, never permanently closed off, nor defenseless.

In reading about trauma, I learned that one of its effects is an inability to differentiate between the past and the present. A present experience can serve as a trigger, and what could seem like an overreaction or volatility is actually embodied memory expressing itself. I was attacked by a dog once and have been afraid of them ever since. It was my brother’s dog and it happened in my own home. She was a Pitbull mix and I think she was feeling territorial because my mom had come to visit, and she was especially close to her. I was feeling weak and vulnerable that year because of job pressures so she might have also been trying to climb the family pack order. Pitbulls are bred to be fighting dogs so all signs that they are about to attack, like growls or barks, can be bred out of them. I was working in the living room and got up to get a glass of water. I saw the stare and then the lunge. The dog tore a chunk of my side as I screamed and covered my head. My mom threw herself on top and only then did the dog stop.

The gash on my side has healed but when I see a large dog, my fight or flight response acts as if no time has passed. The worst is when I’m in an elevator with one. I want to be out of that space immediately. The attack made me think of victims of sexual assault. I can cross the street when I see a dog. I don’t know how one can avoid other humans.

My father protects himself with a barbed wire fence and is a landmine waiting to go off. A comment or action can set landmines like him off and they explode, perhaps in a verbal or physical attack, or a silent one. Maybe you’ll see or hear from them again in hours, days, weeks.

If my dad hurts you with his response, he reveals the depth of his own hurt. My mom once forgot to get him some razors so he could shave before a holiday dinner. He lashed out about how she cares for everyone except him. He took to his room and didn’t come out for days. His withdrawal and silence hurt us, but I thought of what he’s told me of his childhood, full of abuse and neglect. I suspect it was the little boy of the past, alone and scared, who was behind the explosive outburst, while the man of the present who withdrew from us remained unable to say why.


These images–fences, barbed wire, open fields, landmines— came to me one by one as I was working on this essay, and I realized they related to war. I’ve never experienced war, but I grew up with its effects–around family withstanding state-sanctioned violence enforcing class and caste systems on both sides of the border. Around descendants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Diasporas. Whether they traveled by foot, boat, or plane, they felt the need to keep moving, but always on guard. A shielding from and a fighting for. Volatility and the unsaid and the too much to say.

To bear it and understand, I chart it out.

What do your mental maps look like, I ask other friends.

Razor wire fences that are in front of (maybe behind) tall dense unkempt hedges but also lots of openings and a nice but flawed space inside–with landmines sprinkled in. The idea being that it is unwelcoming to look at but once you are inside it is not so bad – mostly. At the same time because there are lots of openings it is really easy to walk away.

A high, high fence, then an open field.

Alligator moats. 

After unfolding and surveying various mental maps, I’m drawn to mapping as a practice and concept. The first known cartographers were cave painters. Since then, humans have used all sorts of tools and technologies to map the known and unknown: clay, bones, paper, satellites.

According to writer Peter Turchi, To ask for a map is to say, ‘Tell me a story.’

Thinking about psychic cartographies has helped me understand that many interactions are more than their present moment. They’re informed by times and spaces preceding. Whether we are open or closed, we are products of the receiving and defensive practices modeled to us and learned over time. It has helped me understand when people like my father act out of hurt. It’s hard not to take things personally but I try my best. I’m also working on more accurately gauging when I actually do need to protect myself and when I need to tell myself I’m safe.

Years ago, though I forget where, I read about a woman who was experiencing nerve damage in her legs and pain in her back. She went to multiple specialists and no one could explain the cause. But they suggested treatments. She tried different kinds without success. Then one doctor told her to talk to her legs. To encourage them to heal themselves. To tell the nerves to repair. She started to do this nightly. She spoke to them, and in time her legs did indeed heal.

I’ve started to talk to my own limbs at night while lying in bed. By night time my body has stored a full day of tension and I’ve often struggled to go to sleep. I’ve done progressive muscle relaxation, where you start at your toes and relax your muscles one by one until you get to your head. So now I do that but also talk to my muscles, telling them it’s OK to relax. That they are safe. I live in Los Angeles, where people wear crystals around their neck and get energy facials, so maybe I’ve become predisposed to not thinking anything is too wacky. But the limb conversations have really worked. They make me feel more relaxed and indeed safer.

I think about how the wars we fight on the inside might perpetuate the violence we’ve experienced on the outside, so I lie still and speak to my body in the hope that it can be a way of moving forward. I’m trying to develop ways to not be at war.

In a mental map, where we locate ourselves might reveal how safe we feel. Many see me as open, and I’m able to be so now. Yet I know I’m in front of and behind my fence. It feels like wanting to connect and retreat at the same time, stepping outside while looking out. I try to avoid the barbed wire, the landmines, but this means I still walk carefully, a sign I’m still afraid. It’s one thing to walk openly with ourselves, another to encounter another person at war, their maps overlapping or clashing with ours. I want to be aware of all kinds of maps. To not always be telling myself you are safe, but to finally feel that I am. Or if that’s not fully possible, to at least not repeat the routes and ways to harm.



Rumpus original artwork by Iris L.

Elda María Román (first name is Elda María) is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Southern California. She studies race, class, literature, and media. She is currently working on a collection of essays that combines personal stories with cultural criticism. She can be found on IG @_elda_maria_ or Twitter @profeldamaria More from this author →