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May 11, 2009

“To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” –Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

At my student review last Thursday, one of the professors asked me, “But how do you escape the pattern–the repetition?” He meant the hallmark repetition of trauma. After a traumatic event, the body and mind respond to other events (called “trigger” events) as if the original violence is recurring. It doesn’t matter if the current event barely resembles the original. One of the ways trauma survivors protect themselves from further pain is to distance themselves from others. Even others that could help them. 

I wish I would’ve finished Tobias Wolff’s Old School before I answered the professor. “You don’t necessarily stay stuck. You can re-write it” is what I said. We both then acknowledged the importance of others in being able to do so. But I couldn’t yet clearly articulate the connection between relationships and the acts of writing and reading. Finishing Wolff’s novel that night brought home the liberating power of re-writing in relation to others’ stories. I remembered that in the quest to find my own voice, Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” was one song that gave me words for re-writing. 

In Wolff’s Old School, a boy–the narrator–finally claims the heritage and lower socioeconomic status he’s hidden from the other boys in the prep school he attends. Already sparked by the work of Ernest Hemingway to embrace what he sees as his frailties, he comes upon a five-year old story written by a girl from a local prep school. “This is my story!” he thinks as he reads it. It perfectly captures his own experience at his school. He takes the story, copies it, changes some details, and puts his name on it for a competition to speak to Ernest Hemingway privately. He wins. The thought of plagiarism doesn’t enter his mind. Instead, he worries that revealing himself will ostracize him from his peers and teachers. The irony, of course, is that the story he sees as a revelation of himself is not his story at all. When his plagiarism is exposed, he is expelled. 

Is this cynicism about the ability to discover the self through reading and writing–or even to know the self at all? 

Sarah McLachlan was sued for taking the words of a deranged stalker and using them to write the song “Possession.” The case was actually frivolous, a ploy for the man to get close to her–but it is true that the many love letters he and others had sent her inspired the words for the song. She wanted to enter the mind of such a violent obsession in order to understand their actions. Doing so became therapy for her. The Canadian video for the song (considered too controversial for the US), which she directed, plays that therapy out visually. The power of the male stalker is reversed, and female figures such as Eve, Salome, and Venus stand dominant. The men are their objects or servants. But the men are not the only ones dominated. Throughout, McLachlan, wrapped in white gauze (which she says symbolizes her bound personality and sexuality), dangles in the air and swings back and forth as a pendulum. Only at the end does her binding fully unwrap. She emerges free. 

McLachlan, like the narrator of Old School, takes the words of another (albeit more indirectly) and writes them into her own story. In doing so, she discovers a corresponding similarity with the other (the stalker) in herself, one that empowers. Granted, this type of mirroring may not always be liberating for the self or the other. Had McLachlan simply reversed roles with the stalker by identifying with his need to control and possess–she would end up repeating the violence, just reversing roles. Instead, she emerges free from the swing of extremes, free from the binding logic of the pendulum. 

Although closing down his future at Columbia University, the boy’s journey to freedom in Old School begins with his expulsion. From here he makes choices without hiding who he is as he had before. He becomes a writer, and writes Old School as his memoir. But Old School is not a memoir. It is a novel–written by Tobias Wolff–who never gives his narrator a name and has the narrator write the last chapter of his memoir as a story of another (formerly minor) character’s life. 

The last chapter tells the story of the dean of the school, a story parallel with the boy’s. On the day the boy is expelled, the dean resigns because he can no longer allow people to believe a falsehood that he’s not corrected. He is not a personal friend of Ernest Hemingway’s. Not correcting this belief he considers worse than the boy’s offense–which simply took place on paper. He leaves the school, but gains his integrity. After a few years apart, he returns to the school to teach. But this time, he’s come as who he is–even if others don’t want to acknowledge it. The boy also has a type of homecoming to the school. After becoming a well-known writer, he is invited back as a visiting writer, as Ernest Hemingway had been. The first invitation he turns down, but the second he accepts after learning the story of the dean. At the end of the book, he hasn’t yet gone back, but he will by retracing the steps of one of the “masters” (teachers) at the school, gaining courage by re-writing the dean’s story into his own. 

The narrator–the boy–doesn’t have a name–but this suggests that the self is always evolving–and that evolution is always in relation to other people. Stories are always being told and re-told, identities forming and re-forming. Where the self ends in its story with others is a tricky thing to figure out, because we are birthed in/to others’ stories and they are birthed in/to ours. And language is the medium we all share that shapes every story. For those recovering from trauma, gaining a voice–however hesitant–through those of others helps re-write a story of suffering, helplessness, and alienation into possible connection, healing, and discovery of strength and courage in the self–not just on paper, but in life. 

I used Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” to begin to re-write my own story several years ago, when I was only beginning to understand the journey I needed to take to heal childhood trauma. I had to do this not just to gain a voice in writing, but to have a deeper connection with others–particularly in intimate relationships where I lost myself to the needs of others. I couldn’t begin the journey yet, but I constructed a script that gave me the courage to believe my story could be different, redeemed.

“Possession” is the first track on Fumbling towards Ecstasy, but it recurs as a hidden track after a long silence at the end of the album. The music is a beautiful piano rendition–tender but passionate, more conducive to a reading as a love song. For me, it occurs as the potential, culmination, and re-telling of the two songs before, but with room for more than one voice. My three song pastiche script:


Wind in time 

Rapes the flower trembling on the vine

Nothing yields to shelter it from above

Winter’s end

Promises of a long lost friend 

Speaks to me of comfort 

But I fear

I have nothing to give 

I have so much to lose

Here in this lonely place

Tangled up in our embrace

There’s nothing I’d like

Better than to fall

But I fear I have nothing to give.



Fumbling Towards Ecstasy:

All the fear has left me now

I’m not frightened anymore

It’s my heart that pounds beneath my flesh

It’s my mouth that pushes out this breath

and if I shed a tear I won’t cage it

I won’t fear love

And if I feel a rage I won’t deny it

I won’t fear love

Peace in the struggle 

To find peace

Comfort on the way

To comfort

And if I shed a tear I won’t cage it

I won’t fear love

And if I feel a rage I won’t deny it

I won’t fear love 

I won’t fear love

I won’t fear love


Listen as the wind blows

from across the great divide,

Voices trapped in yearning,

memories trapped in time,

The night is my companion

and solitude my guide,

Would I spend forever here

and not be satisfied

And I would be the one

to hold you down,

kiss you so hard,

I’ll take your breath away

and after I’d wipe away the tears,

Just close your eyes dear

Through this world I’ve stumbled

so many times betrayed,

Trying to find an honest word,

to find the truth enslaved,

Oh you speak to me in riddles

and you speak to me in rhyme

My body aches to breathe your breath,

you words keep me alive,

And I would be the one

to hold you down,

kiss you so hard,

I’ll take your breath away

and after I’d wipe away the tears,

Just close your eyes dear

Into this night I wander,

it’s morning that I dread,

Another day of knowing of

the path I fear to tread,

Oh into the sea of waking dreams

I follow without pride,

Nothing stands between us here

and I won’t be denied

And I would be the one

to hold you down,

kiss you so hard,

I’ll take your breath away

and after I’d wipe away the tears,

Just close your eyes dear


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