Love: the struggle between the familiar and the unknowable

 

Quint Buccholz

A, my late husband, decided in his early seventies that he wanted to learn how to play the cello. In his sixties he’d decided to learn Hebrew, the language of his tribe. While he was at it, he took up the ukulele, and he started teaching Shakespeare’s comedies in classes run by the University of the Third Age.

All the years we were together and before them, A. took himself to a variety of therapists and psychiatrists in his pursuit of self-knowledge and what is popularly known as personal growth, a term he loathed. I did the same. Sometimes we went together, united in our curiosity about the mysteries of the self, our mutual desire to make sense of being here, our longing to deeply understand our family stories and the story of us, and to learn how we might assuage past griefs, and so free ourselves for present pleasures.

I never felt I would run out of discoveries about A. I loved his vision of other people: he unfailingly recognised their complexities, and that, wondrously, included mine. I was, he told me, the “richest” woman he’d ever known, and while to myself I seemed boringly ordinary, he never found me so.

I was used to being described as “difficult” “intense” “volatile” to which descriptions I would respond by donning a suit of chain mail and brandishing my lance. But when A. revealed me to myself as “rich” I lost my defensiveness, and my shame at apparently being outside the parameters of normal. This is what the sustained loving vision of another can assist into being: love and acceptance of the self.

We also fought, furiously. We shouted, and wept and threw things. I don’t know how it could have been any other way between us as our progression wasn’t always synchronised, and one would inevitably, if temporarily, leave the other behind. The left-behind-one felt anguished rejection, while the forging-ahead-one grew impatient and felt shackled. These roles never entirely belonged to either one of us: we shared them. It was his turn to feel left behind, or it was mine. This exchange took place quite without the conscious knowledge of either party: we were, on a level inaccessible to our everyday awareness, committed to fairness and equality of experience.

Both writers and academics with considerable expertise in the spoken and written word, both with a high degree of psychological savvy, our fights were fierce and wounding. We knew how and where to strike.

We also struggled, as every couple must, to find a balance between the familiar, and the ultimate unknowableness of another human being. The familiar can indeed breed contempt, the contempt of taking for granted, of being unable or unwilling to see the complexities of the other, of being afraid of any change in the other that threatens the comforting familiarity.  The fear of this loss can compel one to subdue the other’s struggle to  change and develop. It’s a terrible thing that humans can do: hold another back, because we fear what their advancement might do to the familiarity that is our security.

It’s possible, I think,  to be familiar with another and not know him or her very well at all, because familiarity is not the same as knowledge.

To settle for familiarity is lazy, and demeaning to both parties, is the conclusion I’ve reached. Love is dynamic, love is an action, a practice, love refuses familiarity and its seductive comforts. Love sings self and other into becoming and when I’m engaged in becoming, I never arrive at a final destination.

A. is gone now, though he always said he believed we become energy in the universe and in that sense, never die. But he is gone from me in his human form. I consult him, in my imagination, on all kinds of subjects, just as I did in our life together. He isn’t always helpful.

After his death, a mutual friend told me he had once confided in her that he’d had the best sexual experiences of his life with me: I was immensely embarrassed, and momentarily pissed off with him. He’d tell people anything, he really would.

I see now that was a most extraordinary thing for a man to say about his marriage, and his partner of thirty years, and that while our bodies and minds and hearts were inevitably familiar to one another, their fundamental unknowableness remained to the last.

Respect the unknowableness, is the only advice I’d give. Of everyone. Of everything. Then you will truly be alive.

 

A. talks about poetry shortly before his stroke.

 

 

TEN: Songs of innocence and experience

leonora-carrington-max-ernst

At the end of our first physical meeting, after almost two years of public conversations, he said, I’m worried you’ll think I’m an internet predator.

I laughed. Affable, intelligent, thoughtful, humorous, protective, affectionate,  encouraging and gently critical, none of these traits caused ripples in my reservoir of wariness. Of course, a predator isn’t going to get far if they present themselves in a manner that announces their intentions, but that is the kind of realisation one usually attains only after the fact.

We’ve been done a disservice with the cultural emphasis on stranger danger. It’s the ones under your nose you have to watch.

It’s our own fault. We don’t want to think about it. Far easier to believe the predator is an aberration.

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At our first meeting, when his wife rings to ask if he’s ready to be picked up, he says, Yes, I think Jennifer has had enough of me now. I laugh. He’s endearingly self-deprecating. Reassuring me (and her?) there is no cause for concern in this encounter while unknown to both of us he is thinking (as he later confesses to me) shit, she is lovely I will never see her again, shit, shit, what can I do? How can I touch her?

Months later his wife shouts at me, I knew I should never have let him meet you on his own! I knew I should have gone with him!

I still don’t know what this outburst means. I still don’t know what knowledge she possesses that led her to this alarming conclusion. What had he done?

I laughed that day because his concern seemed so engagingly fanciful. I laughed because I was confident I’d know a predator when I saw one.

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In the dream I was in an unknown street with a boy child of six or seven by my side. I turned from him for a moment to talk to a woman friend, and when I turned back, he was gone.

I searched the streets, my fear and desolation increasing with every dead-end. I’d lost him.  I would never find him. I would never know his fate. There was nothing left to do. He was gone.

The implacable nature of finality. That’s what I was up against.

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When I was studying these things I learned that everything in a dream, animate and inanimate, is an aspect of the dreamer. To understand the dream or to attain some insight, it’s helpful to imagine oneself as the boy child, as the street, as the friend, and take note of the emotions that accompany each imagining.

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There exists in most of us, to some degree, a certain innocence, a certain trustfulness, without which society could not function, without which we would be uncivilised, feral, murderous. In the child, that innocent trustfulness can be undiscriminating. Maturity teaches us the necessity to temper those qualities with judgement. Yet, for all kinds of reasons, in certain situations that judgement can desert us and we regress to childlike faith, blind trust, abandonment. And then we see the foolishness of it, and then we see that innocence is no longer a part of us and then we see that trustingness has no place in an adult world and suddenly the child is gone, lost to us, we will never find him, we will never know his fate, we are facing the implacable nature of finality.

Innocence trumped by experience. Paradise lost. The getting of wisdom.

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I am saying to the doctor I visit each week, this is what he took from me. This is what my dream is about. That trustingness. That innocence. I told my lover once, I say to the doctor, I told him I will never trust anyone after this and my lover replied, you are strong. You have survived so much more than I ever could. You will be all right.

Do not, I snarled at my lover in a voice I did not recognise, do not dare to use my strength against me. Do not dare to use my life’s story as a comfort for yourself, to make what you have done to me less because you think I have withstood more. How dare you.

Who says such things, I ask the doctor. If I see someone who has suffered do I think, no matter what I do it can’t be worse than what has already happened so I can be sure that whatever I do, she will survive? Who thinks in such ways, I demand, and the doctor has no answer.

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I sang the six-year-old back home. I sang and sang until he peeped out at me from around a corner and I said, come back, I will take care of you, I will never let such things happen to you again, come back because without you I am fractured and without me, who knows what strife you will encounter, ill-equipped as you are to recognise the true from the false, indiscriminately as you love.

Innocence nestles with experience. Paradise is regained, enriched. The lessons are learned. The woman ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and when she had recovered from its poison she cried out in her new and full-found voice :

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom. †

† Ansel Elkins Autobiography of Eve

NINE: Power

Leonora Carrington Crow Catcher

Power is not a thing but a relation

Power is not simply repressive but it is productive

Power is not simply a property of the State.

Power is not something that is exclusively localized in government and the State (which is not a universal essence). Rather, power is exercised throughout the social body.

Power operates at the most micro levels of social relations.

Power is omnipresent at every level of the social body.

The exercise of power is strategic and war-like

Michel Foucault.

Prior to the day of it, an agreement had been reached. There would be lunch and talk in a public place, that was what I insisted because I did not want to continue the intimacy on his terms, which was my right. I had, up to that point, accommodated his wishes. Now I was done with that.

It was, for me, the end of the affair, and it was my intention to gently tell him this over lunch in the public place, without rancour as my feelings for him remained strong, though I knew I didn’t want to maintain our situation.

There is that point one can arrive at, when it becomes undeniably clear that something is finished as it is, and must either change its form, or end. I had reached that point. All that remained was for me to speak it, and for us to say goodbye.

He would have sensed this, the counsellor said. Your insistence that the meeting take place in public. The first time you’d exerted that kind of control, up till then he’d set the conditions. You took the control away from him and he must have known it was the end.

Sexual assault is about power. He’d lost control of you. He had to get it back.

No one has set the conditions for my life since I was fifteen.

I think about this. I think about the many and varied ways in which power can be exerted, some difficult to detect. Ignoring a woman’s expressed wishes. Pretending helplessness in the face of her “irresistibility.” Driving her without permission to an unknown destination. Telling her you know you both want it, even though she has spent at least a month telling you she doesn’t.

Altering the terms of engagement without consultation and negotiation, as one would never do with someone considered an equal.

The projection of desire. She must want it just as much. He knows better than she does what she wants, and how, and where, and when.

Later, he said, scoffing, You weren’t really going to leave. You know you weren’t.

You are wrong, I told him. You don’t know how wrong.

I’m not, as an adult woman, used to my decisions being the subject of mockery, used as an expression of triumph over me. I’m not used to telling a man, I do not want to do that, and being ignored.  It took me completely by surprise, that particular type of disempowerment, that specific variation of male entitlement, that denial of my humanity, and my right to be heard when I said I do not want.

It has nothing at all to do with love. That much I do know.

No man will do those things to me, and walk away without accounting for himself, keeping them hidden. That’s my power. I won’t keep his secrets.

And when he’s named, I will not care.

I wonder sometimes, what of his wife, his adult daughters, what will they make of this?

It’s possible to spend a lifetime with another, and never really know him.

I think, you don’t know anyone until you’ve seen them at their worst, their dark side, the desires they conceal, sometimes even from themselves. There’s no deep intimacy without knowledge of the dark side. There’s no real choice either.

All I can think of with regard to his family, is that I’m eternally glad I am not one of them. Predators don’t only groom their victims, the counsellor told me. They groom everyone around them to see them in a particular way. This is their cover and if they’re caught, everyone exclaims, I can’t believe that of him, he seemed so honourable, so kind, so community-minded, so unlikely to behave in those ways!

Of course she’s right. I hadn’t thought of that.

And yet…I knew I should never have let him meet you without me, shouted his wife.

Why? What did she know about him that made her think that, then shout it at me as if her lack of vigilance was somehow my responsibility? As if I should have known what she knew? As if it is an ordinary thing, that grown men may not meet women without the supervision of their wives?

This was not a custom with which I was familiar. Or one I would have chosen in my married life.

My anger remains white-hot. My eyes will burn holes in both their hearts.

Power is not a thing, but a relation

 

 

EIGHT: It

Leonora Carrington

Since it happened, I’ve been encased in armour. I could detonate any bomb. I could walk through fire. I could leap from forty stories and not break as much as a bone in my little finger. I feel nothing. I feel no one. Try me.

I said, I don’t believe I will trust anyone again. He said, Oh, I’ve destroyed your trust in everyone, have I? I knew from his tone he knew well what he had done but more, he resented that I had been there for him to do it.

It was not meant to happen, he later wrote, as if it was an abstract in the control of some other agency in the face of which he was entirely helpless. It was not meant by whom to happen? Who did not mean it to happen? What it, which who?  

Another thing that troubles. He knew my childhood. Asked questions.

After it I wrote, Did you sense something does my past reveal itself, unknown to me, as a point of vulnerability? It can’t be a coincidence that you knew my childhood, and then it that was not meant by whom just happened.

They don’t usually take ownership of what they’ve done, said the counsellor. They usually do everything but acknowledge it. 

You will trust again, she said, but you will likely be more wary.

You are angry, she said, I’m glad you’re angry.

She rings the detective. J is ready to make a statement, she tells him. It will be beneficial for her. She wants me there.

They organise a mutually convenient date. I nod my agreement.

I am angry. I am white-hot angry. This bullshit. This it wasn’t meant to happen bullshit. How does a man accidentally violate a woman? Let’s see how the smartest man in any room explains that, shall we?

 

 

 

 

 

SEVEN: Details.

Silence Of The Night A Meditation

The almost four-year-old insists on sleeping beside my bed. So we make up a little nest for him and when it’s time he tells everyone that his sleeping place is downstairs, and he is now going there to be with his Giddy.

I read him bedtime stories. He says: Giddy, I’m choking, I am going to choke, but if you rub my tummy I will be all right. Then he shows me how to read his book to him and rub his tummy at the same time. After a bit he says, Giddy, I think my arm is breaking too. Can you kiss it? So I kiss his arm and rub his tummy and read his story. Then he says, there’s something wrong with my foot, Giddy.

And immediately falls asleep.

I lift him gently from my bed into his own. I have to climb over him to get to the bathroom, where I brush my teeth. The electric toothbrush has taken to nipping the inside of my lower lip. I can’t work out how this is happening. I should ask someone, but I can’t be bothered.

It’s early, but I’m tired. I don’t go back upstairs to the others. I look at my book and pretend I’m reading.

I think about how people who do harm depend on the silence of those they’ve harmed. I think how there is a battle going on between those who need the cover of silence in order to perpetrate their harms, and those who know that if they are to survive, they must speak.

I think that too often the greater disgrace is attributed to those who break the silence, rather than to those who need it as cover for their crimes.

The counsellor tells me I’m still not ready to make my statement to police about the sexual assault. It’s all right, she says, there is no statute of limitations. Part of me wants to get it over with. Another part tells me to listen to her, she knows what she’s talking about.

They will want every detail, she tells me. Ok, I say. They will have what they want.

He depended on my silence. What is it in a man that makes him believe he can do whatever he wants, and still depend on a woman’s silence?

The details don’t matter, he told me impatiently. With arrogance. As if it were beneath him to consider, let alone discuss, the details of what took place. Silencing me with his male authority, his intellectual prowess, his assumed entitlement to decide what matters, and what does not.

And I was silent.

As long as I’m silent he’s right, the details don’t matter. But when I speak, the details become everything. I will bring the details down upon his head. I will parade the details in all their complex shades before his eyes, and he will be unable to look away. I will pour the details into his mouth until he cannot swallow and they spill out, down his chin, onto his shirt front, choking him with their significance.

Then he will see how they matter.

I’ll give life to the details. The silence will be destroyed by the details. Forever and ever.

I have fallen asleep, the bedside lamp left on, my book across my chest. The child is whispering in my ear. Giddy. I am still choking and my arm is still breaking. Can I come into your bed? He climbs over me and snuggles under our covers. He strokes my face. He sighs, and rolls into my arms.

It’s two in the morning. The world is silent.

Details are everything. I will show you that much and this time, you will not be allowed to turn your face away.

 

SIX: What will happen next?

Leonora Carrington Figure in Water

 

What will happen next, I ask.

They’ll arrest him. Or they’ll ask him to come in for an interview and if he doesn’t they’ll arrest him.

They’ll question him. In the most thorough detail.

He won’t be able to have his wife there to hide behind.

OK, I say.

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It was a great relief to me to arrive at the point where I could say yes, I love and desire you but there are limits to the circumstances in which I will agree to the expression of those feelings.

It likely never occurs to most women with safe lives that they might have to take a stand on these things. In my experience of adult love the question of limits had never before arisen. That was a great good fortune for which I never showed any gratitude, taking it for granted.

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Bodily Integrity. Is the inviolability. Of the physical body. 

It emphasises. The importance. Of personal autonomy.

And the self-determination of human beings. Over their own bodies. 

It considers. The violation of bodily integrity. As an unethical infringement. Intrusive. 

And possibly criminal. 

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There is the moment of confusion when you first dimly perceive things are not going as planned. You doubt your perceptions and you think, oh, it will get back on track in a minute and we’ll do what we’d said we’d do.

It’s one thing if this happens in the abstract. It’s an entirely other when there are bodies involved. It’s like the difference between speaking and writing. We honour the written down, but we have it back to front. It’s the speech act that counts. Body to body, eye to eye, presence to presence. The integrity of the body.

People make this mistake all the time when they expect a correlation between the writer and what the writer writes. I did. It may be there. Equally, it may not. But what a body enacts upon a body is unmistakable.

For a brief instant when he turned the vehicle in an entirely unanticipated direction, I wondered if I was being hijacked. But I did not know the city and for all I knew he could have been heading for another car park. And the notion of a man you love and who loves you hijacking you, is ridiculous in the extreme.

A warning from another dimension that flashes through the mind, immediately dismissed, recalled in retrospect where did that foreknowledge come from, which part of me knew and sounded a warning, what sixth sense, underdeveloped but alarmed enough to break through the concrete walls of rationality told me you are being hijacked, like someone who at the last-minute refuses to board a plane that goes on to crash. What is that, and why did I give it no credibility?

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The idea that because a woman has consented to a sexual relationship with a man it infers that he may have her whenever wherever and however he wants, is not quite as prevalent as it once was, though it has not entirely disappeared.

A woman does not give up her right to  personal autonomy when she loves a man. A woman does not relinquish her right to self-determination when she loves a man. A woman retains her right to bodily integrity when she loves a man. All this is self-evident.

No, it is not.

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What will happen next?

He will be arrested. Or he will be asked to come in for a very thorough interview. If he refuses he will be arrested.

His wife will not be able to answer for him, or tell him what to say.

He will be held accountable. 

For unethical infringement.

Intrusive.

And possibly criminal.

OK, I say.

FIVE: Collating cobwebs

cobwebs

Yesterday morning the detective rang to see how I’m doing, am I seeing the counsellor, when’s my next session. It was humid and raining but I did the washing anyway. J was at work all day. I forgot the washing and it sat in the machine till evening. I ate fruit.

Lately it’s been necessary to spend much time collating emails. After the detective rang I visited G, who assists in unorthodox ways and to whom my GP turns in times of stress. The calm that came from being in her presence meant I could carry on collating for the rest of the day.

I took my lap top to the cafe and collated. After a while a friend came by and ruffled my hair. The smallest thing, the phone call from the detective, being with G, affection from a friend, can poke holes in the thin tissue of my composure, and then the real breaks through.

Sometimes I see the real as light, like sunlight funnelled through clouds over the river on gloomy days. It’s a strange way to imagine what distress might look like, I know. But there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Rays of sunlight

What I had imagined doing for many months was confronting him. I thought if I looked him in the eye and told him what had happened to me that day and ever since, and if he acknowledged it and apologised, I could, as they say, move on. I wouldn’t have done it alone: I would have taken a witness and protector. And then it would not have kept me tied to him, unfinished business of the worst possible kind.

But he would not permit this. It’s probably better this way, others doing it for me with far more authority than I could ever bring to the situation. So he learns men can’t take hold of women when we’ve said, I do not want this.

I look out of the cafe window at my friends who are sitting in the garden drinking their coffee. I wrangle with the problem of what it means that a man can so disregard a woman’s expressed wishes he does take hold of her against her will, because he finds her irresistible. 

What it means is that we can never be safe. Who knows when and where some man is going to find you irresistible and bingo, without any warning you’re in a world you never in a million years imagined you’d inhabit, grappling with new language, new customs, new meaning.

Make sure you are never irresistible. Anticipate what it is about you that will contribute to your irresistibility, and nip it in the bud. It is impossible to predict where the assault will come from. A man who publicly boasts of his truthfulness. A man who writes, I treat everyone equally. A man whom others believe to be honourable. All of these qualities in him will be undone by your irresistibility. Yes. Imagine that.

What I would have said to him, among other things, is this: It is not that I am irresistible. It is that you decided you had no obligation to honour my wishes. It is that you decided my desire not to be intimately touched was of far less importance than your desire to intimately touch me.

A man may, when he is an infant, demand to suckle at his mother’s breasts. The man who never learns a woman’s body is not his to feed from by right remains an infant, and dangerous.

I wore that day black jeans, a cream-coloured sweater with a high neck and short sleeves,  a short woollen coat and dark brown boots. The inside of his vehicle was dirty and my coat became covered in cobwebs. He thought that amusing but what it meant to me was that he had performed the most intimate acts in an environment that was uncomfortable and dirty, and that I had done my utmost to avoid. That he found the cobwebs on my clothing amusing was a humiliation that signified the greater humiliation of being unable to control where he took me in his vehicle, and what he did when we arrived at our destination.

Oh yes. The cobwebs were so funny. I discovered this phrase in one of the emails I collated. Oh yes, I saw I had written. The cobwebs were so very very funny. I am dying. From mirth.