“When I was a music journalist,” begins Amy Berkowitz’s book-length lyric essay Tender Points, “I wrote that the best noise music venues are places where you walk in and think: Someone could actually die here tonight.”
Tender Points becomes that venue.
Originating in the Old French for a thrust or a bout in fencing or law, the word venue most commonly refers to the place where something happens. As Tender Points attests, a venue is also the structure with an emptiness at its center—“The hole is the story,” in Berkowitz’s evocative phrasing—that lets sound pass through to you. The venue itself is the other half of the attraction, the site of amplification and diminishment, what combines with what’s happening to give it sense and inspire belief.
I’m thinking of the venue as something like a flute or conch shell, a shape that instills in the air passing through the instrument a particular timbre.
But I’m also thinking of the venue as both a void and a holding of that void. In Tender Points, Berkowitz gives her story over to that hole while moving the walls of the venue around to modulate and extrapolate the sound. I’m thinking that the venue called Tender Points instills in this story nothing less than an experience of time being forced into coherence, the catch of trauma.
I have a wolf in my story. But he will not interrupt my walk through the forest. Which is to say he’s already interrupted it: He’s the reason I’m here, sorting out the aftermath. Which is to say the wolf is eternally interrupting my walk through the forest: emerging from behind the same tree again and again to block my path. Imagine it repeating like a GIF.
Although technically non-fiction, Tender Points nevertheless meanders, reverses, circles through the woods, often subverting the expectations for a story with a wolf: a well-trod path through flowers and dangers, a certainty of cause and effect. In Tender Points, Berkowtiz manages to represent this diffusion of the wolf within the body—and even within the time signature—of her story.
A diffused sense of pain exists already in the title of the book, which borrows its title from the diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia, an invisible illness that holds the author in chronic pain. As Berkowitz writes,
Fibromyalgia is largely defined by a lack of visible symptoms or identifying lab tests. The only diagnostic criteria are the frustratingly vague tender points. Press here and I’ll tell you if it hurts. Now press here. Now press here.
All I have to do is tell you. All you have to do is believe what I tell you.
While this contingency of belief and sense-making flashes at the epicenter of Tender Points Berkowitz seeks less to speak truth to power (to speak back to any authority who would deny her illness) than to boldly interrogate the conditions for a woman’s speech to be acknowledged as truth at all within our own viciously misogynist culture. I read the final two sentences of the preceding passage not as a plea for the reader to believe but instead as the exposure of a vulnerability (a tenderness) within language.
Berkowitz reproduces this vulnerability across genres, frankly rebutting the “oblique nature” of poetry as a failure—colluding with both archaic and psychoanalytic opinions of women’s speech as essentially nonsensical—and insisting on prose: “Sentences. Periods. Male certainty. These are the facts. No female vocal fry. No uptalk. No question about what I tell you. No metaphor. Go ahead. Fact check. ‘Did I stutter.’ Fuck off.”
The clarity and force of her prose convey urgency to get the fact of fibromyalgia across—this illness exists, my experience is real—even as doctors and internet trolls arrive to mute and limit such a reaching out.
My body is reading a book and it’s in pain. My body is at work and it’s in pain. My body is writing this and it’s in pain. My body is walking to meet you and it’s in pain.
The truth of this pain, everywhere attached to Berkowitz’s routines, labor, and intimacies, cannot be told unmediated, conveyed directly from her body in pain to another. Tender Points incisively asks, “When you have all this stuff you want to say, how do you get people to listen?”
Before she is diagnosed with fibromyalgia (“before the pain diffused throughout my body”), Berkowitz has ongoing, localized pain as a result of vulvodynia. Through a LiveJournal group of persons with vulvodynia, Berkowitz is “introduced to a woman who was doing a survey about vulvodynia for her PhD thesis.” At the end of a series of related questions, this woman asks Berkowitz, “Have you ever been raped or sexually abused?” to which Berkowitz responds, “I… don’t… know.”
I was shocked by my answer. I thought I knew. I thought I knew I hadn’t. But no one had ever asked me that, and the question was an invitation to feel something I had been trying not to feel for a very long time.
At some point following the interview, Berkowitz remembers being raped during a medical exam years after it happens. It is this rape that lies at the root of Berkowitz’s fibromyalgia (Berkowitz goes on to cite findings that “‘more than half of women with fibromyalgia have experienced childhood sexual abuse.’”)
The venue of Tender Points structures itself around a void. But we risk misreading Tender Points if we are to reduce this void to either Berkowitz’s rape or her fibromyalgia. It is their complicated interaction and the systems of power which allow both to proliferate and remain unrecognized, unrecognizable, reflecting the venue itself as a point of tenderness. So it is not only Berkowitz’s body kept in pain, made coherent by capital and gendered violence, but also it has been her story and her memory molded by such institutionalized nonsense as linearity and progress: the conditions of masculine authority. Tender Points twists and turns between events and temporal vantages (“The story of my pain is not an easy story to tell… I mean the plot itself is confusing. Trauma is nonlinear.”), but Berkowitz gives the details of her story as authoritatively as she can—knowing that the genre of her remembrance will affect the force, the thrust of her authority.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering her earlier disavowal of poetic speech, Berkowitz takes to the lyre,
One of the most persistent lies is that boys are angry
And the shadow lie: that girls aren’t angry
But even though we aren’t formally trained to hate
like boys are, every girl is a natural expert:
We have so much to hate
A growl that tastes like blood
Of anger splashing
Closer than you think
Beneath the slimy dock of everything I say
In my person voice
Nice woman voice
Does the inclusion of poetry recuperate poetry to a certain extent? Does this inclusion raise an enthusiastic middle finger raise to masculine authority and the violence of its sense-making? Such a proliferation of genres exemplifies the artfulness of Berkowitz’s achievement in Tender Points—a deliberate amalgam of prose, poetry, quotation, even internet forms such as the listicle: whatever is necessary in whatever genre to convey her story to us.
In this way, the fragments of Tender Points are a sequence of thrusts, parries, offenses, rigged by different modes and temporalities. Taken together, these fragments marshal their own negation of cohesion, linearity, the doctor’s diagnostic truth. I read the venue that is Tender Points not as an immobile or passive point of entry, but as a dynamic, crafted instrument that blasts Berkowitz’s story in high definition.