Putting gendered violence into words is a site of struggle. Press here and I’ll tell you if it hurts.
Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points opens with a riddle: “Why, exactly, am I constantly in pain?” This question positions itself as a point of urgency and entry into the difficult work of investigating inexplicable pain in order to uncover the original source of trauma. For Berkowitz this pain manifests as fibromyalgia, a medical condition characterized by the presence of widespread chronic pain in at least 11 of 18 designated “tender points” throughout the body. In Tender Points, the body that is mapped out becomes a conduit for cultural and somatic reflections on memory, rape, male authority and the cruel assumption that a female truth is never a truth but an exaggeration. Using a fierce, lucid prose, she writes in a refusal to accept her diagnosis as a sentence of silence. The following is an interview—or rather an expanded conversation about our mutual experiences of trauma and pain—conducted this past summer.
Cassandra Troyan: I am someone who comes from a very distinct mindset—Midwest salt-of-the-earth, work hard, work-until-you-die kind of mindset. For so long that has unconsciously affected the ways I have sublimated my pain or body to the will of my ethic. You referred to this as “the dust yourself off” approach, which defers pain to an experience of the mind that can be “shook off.” In Tender Points, one of the most powerful reclamations for me is that of illness, as a way to legitimize the experience of pain. To be a woman in pain is to be hysterical or invisible. You quote Melissa Buzzeo: “Why people who are sick are also looked at as waste products in society. Why people, especially women, especially sick women, do not want to draw too much attention to themselves… What does it mean to talk about yourself.”
What does the process of writing this feel like now? How has it changed your own experience of living with fibromyalgia? To make this public, to take up space in unprecedented ways through your use of “écriture féminine en homme”?
Amy Berkowitz: One of the best things that’s come out of writing Tender Points is that a lot of people (now including you) have been coming up to me and telling me about their experiences with pain and trauma. And because women are encouraged not to talk about their pain, it feels really wonderful and important to be creating a space for these conversations. It wasn’t something I specifically knew to hope for when I started writing, but it’s a really great surprise.
I love the binary model you propose, that a woman in pain is either hysterical or invisible. It’s so true. And pain aside, you could say that women are generally walking that line, in the sense that it’s so easy to get called “crazy” or “too emotional” for asserting yourself, for taking up the same amount of space as a man. Brittany Billmeyer-Finn has a poem where she says, “I like taking up space,” and I’ve always liked that line, how such a simple statement can be quietly revolutionary when spoken from a woman’s body.
Tender Points plays a lot with masculine drag; early on I vow to write the book in “male” speech that will be taken seriously (declarative sentences, authoritative tone, lists, medical jargon), and this turns out to be a lie. Pretty quickly the book ruptures into hysterical moments, and even the content of the “male” speech tends to contain more emotion and uncertainty than “male” speech should. It’s this fusion of male and hysterical speech that allows the book to fully succeed in taking up space: claiming the space like a man, then filling it with unacceptable female/hysterical language.
CT: Rather than rupturing into hysterical moments, I would say your book calls into question what hysteria is. If the voice of refusal is a shrill harpy, does claiming that space involve a commitment to embodying excess? What about widening the accepted register of emotional intensities? Instead of flattening, what could be included?
The discourse around pain, trauma, women’s bodies and sex seems to be so limited because of the rift between sex positivity and sex negativity. I hope I’m not going too off-topic, but these recent articles by Laura Kipnis about the Title IX legislation I see as a failed attempt to reconcile what she perceives to be an “assault” on her feminist politics, which depend on limitless sexual opportunity and could be encapsulated as: To fuck is to know, power is fluid in sexual relations, you can control any situation if you want to and are smart enough, come on suck it up the world is a rough place! What Kipnis views as a current sex panic might actually be an inability to articulate sexual agency amidst trauma.
Without crying panic, I’d rather ask what can we hope for in sex? What would it be like to desire sex without optimism? What are we left with?
AB: Yes. When I say rupturing into hysterical moments, I’m thinking of the places where the prose lapses into blunt poetry that comes from a deeper, lizard-brain place (“fuck the doubt / I mean fuck it dead”). Which is to say I agree with you. For me, in this project, writing the hysterical is writing outside of one standard (masculine) mode of expression. I quote that Anne Carson essay, “The Gender of Sound,” where she talks about how the women of classical literature were portrayed as lacking self-control in speech, and were “given to… shrieking, wailing, sobbing, shrill lament, loud laughter, screams of pain or pleasure, and eruptions of raw emotion in general.” Including these expressions in writing invites hysteria in, and whether the hysterical voice serves to embody excess or works to widen the range of acceptable registers is to be determined, right? It’s an ongoing process, and to some extent it’s subjective.
I really can’t take Kipnis seriously. I don’t have a lot of patience for her “Blurred Lines” rhetoric, her narrowing down the act of rape to a category so slim nothing seems to fit in it, her making fun of survivors. And not once does she take into account that the drama she’s describing unfolds in the context of a society where men have more power than women; to say this is a major oversight is an understatement. I agree that her supposed “sex panic” is a gross exaggeration, and that we, as a society, are still struggling to articulate sexual agency in the context of trauma. It’s a process, we’re not there yet, and we aren’t always articulating this agency in the most eloquent way. But Kipnis is quick to cut down those who try. She describes young women’s accusing men of predatory behavior and students’ opting out of film screenings as infantile, but in reality this behavior is nothing if not mature. To recognize your boundaries and be proactive when they are violated, to recognize your PTSD and know when you need to prioritize your health over your studies—this is what agency looks like.
CT: Your reference to the lizard-brain is so apt here. The limbic system is linked to the responses of fight, flight, or freeze during a traumatic incident and although phylogentically primitive, it remains central to the experience of human emotions. I think you really give in to the “lizard-brain” by the fact of even writing your book. It is another register within the hysterical, women seen as essentialized, primordial creatures left to shriek in pain even though this shrieking enables the capacity to process trauma. Peter Levine’s invocation of the tiger during a session with a patient in Waking the Tiger always reminds me of this necessity to give into the deep knowledge of the body in order to regain agency.
Surrendering to my own intense fear, yet somehow managing to remain present, I had a fleeting vision of a tiger jumping toward us. Swept along with the experience, I exclaimed loudly, “You are being attacked by a large tiger. See the tiger as it comes after you. Run toward that tree; climb it and escape!” To my surprise, her legs started trembling in running movements. She let out a bloodcurdling scream that brought in a passing police officer (fortunately my office partner somehow managed to explain the situation). She began to tremble, shake, and sob in full-bodied convulsive waves. Nancy continued to shake for almost an hour…I now know that it was not the dramatic emotional catharsis and reliving of her childhood tonsillectomy that was catalytic in her recovery, but the discharge of energy she experienced when she flowed out of her passive, frozen immobility response into an active, successful escape.
Levine’s work has helped me understand the body always remembers even if the brain does not. I was raped when I was in high school by someone I really trusted but I didn’t remember it until almost 10 years later. But now I can’t un-see it and I know my body has always remembered this trauma in its own awareness, as the residual bodily pains I feel are one of many manifestations. The body responds holistically to trauma and the spot-treatment of Western medicine is not fit to address it. In relation to your own diagnosis of fibromyalgia, do you believe Western medicine can even treat trauma? What does a diagnosis mean if it refuses to see how the environment of patriarchal society perpetuates sexual violence and abuse?
AB: Thank you for sharing your experience with rape. No matter how many friends tell me they’ve been raped, it always surprises me. At this point, it shouldn’t. Erin Morrill introduced me to that Claudia Rankine quote: “I think surely some percentage of women hasn’t been raped. I don’t know though, really. Perhaps this is the kind of thing I could find out on Google.” I just read an Inside Higher Ed article about a new survey that reinforces the validity of the “one in five statistic”—the often quoted and often doubted statement that 20% of female students are sexually assaulted in college. It just amazes me that people doubt this statistic when my personal survey yields a figure closer to Rankine’s tentative 100%.
It’s interesting that you also have pain associated with your trauma. I think more people have this kind of psychosomatic pain than are aware of it—I think there’s a lack of knowledge around the mind-body connection, and a lot of people living with chronic pain don’t think about the psychological trauma that may be at its core.
My chronic pain, which is diagnosed as fibromyalgia, is very clearly psychosomatic: One evening, I recalled being raped by my pediatrician as a child, and the next morning I woke up with pain all over my body. I suspect that a lot of fibromyalgia cases are psychosomatic, too, but there isn’t enough research on this. Most books on fibromyalgia gloss over emotional trauma in a sentence or don’t mention it at all, but there’s an excellent book by Dr. Ginevra Liptan called Figuring Out Fibromyalgia that dedicates a chapter to the connection between trauma and pain. She theorizes that fibromyalgia pain is caused by a chain reaction that starts with chronic activation of the fight-or-flight response (which brings us back to Peter Levine), and suggests that many cases can be linked to a psychological trauma. She cites studies that show correlations between fibromyalgia and PTSD, childhood sexual abuse, and sexual assault.
Dr. Liptan is an exception: Most doctors don’t see the link between fibromyalgia and trauma. Western medicine can’t successfully treat trauma because, as Levine points out, it refuses to acknowledge the physical component—western medicine doesn’t really get the mind-body connection. There’s a tremendous stigma around psychosomatic illness: If “it’s all in your head,” you’re not really in pain, and there’s a lot of shame around mental illness in our culture, too. So if your pain stems from trauma, then a) it’s not really real and b) you’re a wacko.
Sometimes a diagnosis is more a diagnosis of the society that invents it than it is a diagnosis of the patients it claims. I’m thinking about hysteria here. There are a lot of comparisons to be drawn between the way female fibromyalgia patients are treated by the patriarchy of western medicine and viewed by our society, and the way that hysteria patients were treated and perceived.
CT: A large part of the supposed 20% is that you have to know what rape means to even say you were raped. I was recently talking about this encounter with my therapist and how deeply the perpetuated myth of the rapist goes. The mace on your keychain given to you by your mother won’t help in the bedroom of someone you know, trust, or potentially love.
I feel only recently has the misconception about rape started to enter into a larger public discourse about the interconnections of intimate partner violence, gendered violence, domestic violence, etc. Historically in feminist movements the question of rape as the ultimate example of violence has been challenged as reductionist and a concern of white feminism. And recently we’ve tragically seen what happens when white men want to secure white women’s sexual purity at all costs (in the case of Dylann Roof.)
Within all of this, is there a way that rape, trauma, and gendered violence can be a site of struggle? How can we conceptualize individual pain back onto the structures that bear them? Talking about all of this is exhausting, but in a recent conversation with my friend Jackie Wang, we acknowledge that talking with other survivors is the only thing that makes going on possible.
AB: Absolutely. The myth of the rapist as a stranger is a dangerous myth, because it gives us permission to doubt survivors who weren’t raped in this one statistically improbable TV-movie way. And it encourages us to give rapists who don’t seem like rapists (i.e., not-strangers; e.g., boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, friends at parties, etc.) the benefit of the doubt. And when I say “us,” I include survivors. And this brings us to the subject of Dylann Roof: His idea that black men were raping “[his] [white] women” was a delusion related to the myth of the rapist as stranger.
And of course there’s a connection between the long and ugly history of racists using rape to defend lynchings and other murders and the contemporary view of rape as a concern of white feminism. Let me also add white cis feminism. One of the things that bothered me most about that awful Elinor Burkett piece in the was when she ends a list of reasons why transwomen are “trampling” on her own female identity with this dramatic flourish: Unlike her, they “haven’t had to cope with… the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.” This is disturbing because it reveals a total ignorance of (or apathy regarding?) the number of transwomen who are murdered in hate crimes. It’s a similar kind of privileging one kind of misogynistic violence over another.
I believe that rape, trauma, and gendered violence are sites of struggle. I have come to the same conclusion as you and Jackie: that talking is the only way to move forward. And I believe that this talking brings us more than just the strength to “go on”; I believe that it will bring change. Not quickly. Not without discomfort. But it will. There’s an essay toward the end of Tender Points that was also published in VIDA where I talk about the labor of talking about rape, and one of the points I make is how important it is to break the silence around rape, because the silence (born of guilt, trauma, and shame) gives the rapes and the rapists more power. In that way, I believe that talking about gendered violence is an inherently political act.