April 28, 2011
“Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under:
“The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge. She guided me to a special shower. The shower had a chair and the spray came down lightly, warm. She said, That feels good, doesn’t it. The water. She said, you are still bleeding quite a bit. Just let it. Ripped from vagina to rectum, sewn closed. Falling water on a body.”
I am a father, but I am not a mother. I know the difference. I was there when my twins were born, my boy and my girl pulled out into the harsh lights of the sterile, cold hospital room. I watched them cut my wife open, and I saw the pool of blood on the tile creep ever closer to the little blue booties on my feet. It was violent and beautiful—it was a miracle and a shock. But it was life—my life continued, our children, finally here. To have it end in death? If one of them (I can barely even utter the word BOTH) had died, I would have been hollowed out, gutted. I am not a mother, but my heart went out to her in the opening sentences of this novel. She had me. And this was the first page of the book. What could possibly come next? Where would this go? How do you climb above this, survive? In a number of ways: you scream and you cry, you drink yourself to oblivion, you hallucinate other worlds, you bond and you break, you hide and you seek, and if you’re lucky, you are seen, you are found.
Lidai Yuknavitch grew up in an abusive household. Her older sister did all that she could to protect Lidia, but in her own time, her sister left, she fled, a matter of survival. They were both trying to flee a violent father and a drunk of a mother, running for their sanity and their lives:
“In my house the sound of leather on the skin of my sister’s bare bottom stole my very voice out of my throat for years. The great thwack of the sister who goes before you. Taking everything before you are born. The sound of the belt on the skin of her made me bite my own lip. I’d close my eyes and grip my knees and rock in the corner of my room. Sometimes I’d bang my head rhythmically against the wall.
I still cannot bear her silence while being whipped. She must have been eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Before it stopped.”
Lidia’s father was abusive, physically, and sexually. And her mother? She was also fighting to survive, but often drowned under the weight of it all, disappearing into a bottle, and herself, rarely the savior she should be:
“My mother was an alcoholic manic depressant borderline suicide case with a limp. All of that.”
That would have a weight as well. Which is worse: the father that breaks you down or the mother who turns her back on it all? Eventually, her mother would be her saving grace, signing the paperwork that would get Lidia out of the house, and off to school, a full ride to pursue her swimming, a way out of that demon box, the anger and screaming, the nights spent huddled under blankets in sheer terror, the days spent pretending it wasn’t real.
Often, Lidia would turn inward to herself, retreat into the world of swimming, for underwater things were magical, and reality was never quite clear. Which is the real world and which is the imaginary? Why not flip them, why not retreat, or expand, or create? Unfortunately, even in the tiny corners of the world where she could succeed, with her swimming, life was unfair, random acts of cruelty, dreams crushed without hesitation. No father, no mother, no coach (Randy Reese) worth much of anything:
“At the State Swimming Championships my senior year our 200 yard medley relay had the best time in the nation. I stood on the podium with the three other girls and looked out into the stands. My father wasn’t anywhere. My mother smelled like vodka – it seemed I could smell it all the way across the pool. Randy Reese didn’t even look at me. Then Jimmy Carter took all little girl dreams of swimmer glory away from our bodies with a boycott – Randy’s famous pool full of winners included – anyway. There was no word left to belong to. Not athlete, not daughter.
I hated Randy Reese. I hated Jimmy Carter. I hated god. Also my math teacher, Mr. Grosz. I hated my father most of all, a hate that never left but just changed forms. My life had been ruined by men. Now even the water seemed to forsake me.”
Her life ruined by men, it’s no wonder that she sought out women. She sought out women to fulfill her sexual fantasies. She sought out women in order to create a sisterhood. She sought out women to become her surrogate mother. Anyone that was a safe place to land, that didn’t smell of her father, didn’t remind her of his hands, his face, his voice. But, that wouldn’t be enough. Sometimes we seek out that which destroys us, drawn to the very flames that have burned us before. It’s complicated, the psychology of abuse—how girls beaten and molested by fathers can only be satisfied by men that do the same thing. But that circle of shame, the feeling of being less than worthy, of not being entitled to happiness, it stays with you. When the habit, the ritual, is to be punished, told you are worthless, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept any sort of kindness, to be happy with a gentle partner, to love and be loved. It takes time.
Along the way, Lidia sought out punishment, striving to free her demons, to release the pain and branding from her past. She got involved in bondage and discipline—complicated, freeing, sex play with an older dominatrix:
“When she bound my wrists with thin black leather twine Christ-like to the wood I started crying.
‘Mother, I would like to be whipped.’
Then she would present a long cat of nine tails – its dark red leather strips the color of blood. ‘Tell me where you would like to be whipped, Angel.’
So I told her. And begged her. She whipped my breasts. She whipped my stomach. My hipbones. Late into the day. I did not make a sound, though I wept a cleansing. Oh how I cried. The crying of something leaving a body. And then she whipped me red where my shame had been born and where my child had died, and I spread my legs as far as I could to take it. Even my spine ached.
Afterward she would cradle me in her arms and sing to me. And bathe me in a bubble bath. And dress me in soft cotton. And bring me dinner in bed with wine. Only then would we make love. Then sleep. Ten years to bring a self back. In between seeing her I swam in the U of O pool. I swam in the literature of the English Department. In water and words and bodies.
My safe word was ‘Belle.’
But I never used it.”
Lidia evolved. She slowly freed herself from her past, becoming her own woman. She started to have success, and like many things in her life, when it rained, it poured. Four letters with four acceptances, finally the world understand her work, wanted her to study, to teach, to publish. In the spirit of Virginia Woolf she arranged whatever pieces came her way.
Eventually her parents would die. Her mother first, her father two years later. These were not easy deaths for her to swallow. But she would care for her father, even after all that he had put her through, choosing to be the bigger person, to transcend his trespasses. She would not leave her father in a nursing home in Florida:
“Have you ever visited nursing homes in Gainesville, Florida? I have. Let me put it this way. Walking in the door of one brings a disgust to your throat like someone grabbed it. They smell like urine and dead skin and Lysol. The creatures tooling around in wheelchairs or ‘walking’ down halls look befuddled. Like hunched over zombies. In the dining room women whose hair and lipstick are not on straight and men who’ve wet themselves shove pureed gruel in their mouths. But what makes them particularly hideous in a Floridian sense is the heat. The humidity. The air conditioning that doesn’t work quite right. The mold on the walls here and there. Cockroaches. Sometimes the old meat sacks sagging toward death in their beds are restrained.
Whoever I am, I am not a woman who could leave someone to rot in a place like that. Even him.”
But later, when disposing of his ashes, there is still a fragment of hate:
“His ashes were in a plastic bag about the size of a loaf of wonder bread. The ashes were white. I went to the funeral home to get them, but that’s not all I got. I had asked for his pacemaker and defibrillator. The two mechanical things attached to his heart that had kept him alive after he drowned. How strange they looked, without a body. Eventually Andy helped me smash them on the garage floor with a mallet.”
Lidia Yuknavitch is an inspiring woman. Her story brought me to tears several times. The abuse she survived, ingested, and spit out in order to transform herself into the swan that she is today, no longer the ugly duckling, the failure she was so often called by her father, was indeed a life-changing upbringing. The entire time I was reading this book a mantra of mine kept flitting about my ears. I’ll paraphrase here, but in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “What does not kill me makes me stronger”. Lidia must be made of stone by now, marble—diamonds perhaps. Her prose is lyrical, and raw, and dynamic. Her story is haunting, touching, and heart breaking. But it is the truth, and it is all here in an expansive, Technicolor dream.
I can’t end this review any better than the final chapter of her memoir, so in the poetic words of Lidia Yuknavitch, persevere:
“Listen, I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love.
It’s the love of art. Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.
In art I’ve met an army of people – a tribe that gives good company and courage and hope. In books and painting and music and film. This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through…Come in. The water will hold you.”