Image Credit: Anna Gaskell, Untitled #35 (Hide), 1998, from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee in 2000.
When I was twelve a friend of my parents’ gave birth to a son. His name was Adam, and at first he seemed fine. But, after he’d been a week or so in the world, the doctors were troubled by his ears and eyes.
We had been visiting my aunt in Donegal and were about an hour into our drive back to Dublin when my mother pulled over to take the call; my sister and I were in the back and my grandmother was in the front. Inside the stopped car my mother turned to her own mother and repeated what my father had told her; the baby’s eyes didn’t seem to register sight, likewise his ears and sound.
While they couldn’t be certain they were very nearly certain that Adam had been born deaf and blind.
At the time, I was going through a kind of rapture for Jesus—a dark knot thick with sensations I thought were entirely particular to me. In my twenties I’d learn this is a common compulsion for girls who spend their adolescence in schools abutting convents: we sensually fixate on the only man we’re encouraged to think about and speak to.
(There’s another fantasy common to the pubescent girl: her death at the hands of a disturbed stalker, the ensuing funeral unfolding at voluptuous length.
A man deserving of your devotion strung up on pieces of wood and a man waiting for you to chance walking home alone; it can be the work of a lifetime, figuring out what they have in common.)
My mother and my grandmother were speaking and I was looking at my rosary beads—coiled in my lap, an infant serpent sleeping.
Between the ages of eleven and thirteen I always had them on my person, and now I took them in my fist and rubbed them across my pelvis and hips. I rubbed those tabooed parts of myself and told Jesus what I wanted in very simple terms.
I want you, I said, to take my children. Any future children I might have, I want you to take them away.
While I didn’t know the exact details of my ovaries and womb, I understood they were a trio of tender sacs vital to ‘conception’. ‘Conception’ was still very much a sound to me, rather than a word—part of an acoustic sequence including ‘sacred’, ‘humble’ and ‘immaculate’. Still, I knew that an exchange involving these hidden vessels would see a newborn recover his hearing and his sight. It only took a minute, and it was seamless. Pure, somatic compulsion of a kind I’ve only known since in moments of exquisite pleasure or acute terror.
(Something I can’t remember: my little sister in the car beside me, did she laugh at me muttering and rubbing myself with the beads? Was she sleeping?)
And then we all got out of the car; probably to eat something, to break up the journey. I left the beads on the seat behind me and when we got back half an hour later they were gone. I put a hand on my low stomach, over those unspoken organs, and thought I’ve been heard.
Maybe three days later, back in Dublin, another call came through; he could certainly hear, and they were almost positive that he could see.
And I was so happy, when I heard this. I remember that very clearly; it was like a blister rising, this happiness. It was insurmountable, irreproachable. A high, cool wall of stone.
Now, what strikes me most about those moments in the car is the violence we were so familiar with as children in a Catholic school. How that violence was teased out in symbolic terms and how deftly those terms rendered it palatable. What strikes me is how much of my childhood was spent in rooms hung with images of a man weeping as he was dying. These coded incantations, these brutal visual devices: they wore a divot in the ground, made space for other cruel rituals to present as normal. Rape culture, reproductive injustice; so much fits snugly into this capacious outline, is sanitised by the transactional logic of sacrifice.
When I was diagnosed with endometriosis at twenty three, it made perfect sense to me. I’d always known it would take form in some biological way, that it would have a name. It did seem a little needless that this condition meant I’d been developing interior streams of scar tissue—clotted, hormone-rich—that were causing me excruciating pain.
But then, I thought, who knows what goes on in those corners of the cosmos where such details are decided? Impossible, from my fixed point in the universe, to glimpse the full arc of this logic still only beginning to unfold.
Between 2013 and 2018 I wrote a book called Follow Me To Ground, a novel about a girl called Ada who isn’t in fact a girl but a fusion of soil and symbolism. People come to her with their ailments and she opens up their bodies, sings at the sickness until it appears in the pantry or the tall grass in the garden. When it was first published, I wasn’t prepared for the recurrent fixation on genre: was this gothic, new weird or magic realism? It seemed a cheat to say I hadn’t thought too much about it; that there are simply days when I wake up and this is the nature of the world.
In the end, I said a lot of things that were true.
I said I was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva, that I felt moved to ask what we do to female flesh when we graft it with certain symbols, certain kinds of language. I said I was struck by the tropes of horror film, by visual metaphors that are both sensual and violent.
I did not say I wrote the book from inside an unquestioned truth. I did not say when I was twelve I struck a very simple deal that shaped my life. I did not say I considered myself lucky because my sacrifice had been worth it, which is never a given.
Another question I wasn’t sure how to answer;
Ada is so lonely. When have you ever been that lonely?
Again, I hadn’t thought too much about this theme, this word.
But the answer is a simple one: no one likes to discuss a broken womb.
Having spent just under two decades with an organ that is almost always hurting, I think this is because—unlike a broken limb or a broken heart—a womb is messy even when whole. At the healthiest of times, it threatens stains and secretion. Having a womb, then, that only performs half its functions, that refutes prediction and refuses rhythm—this kind of wet, red chaos casts a near constant silence.
I’ve been lonely because there are wounds you can tend to with people watching and there are wounds you try to suture yourself, with coarse string and a kitchen scissors.
I used to see Ada in the trees, watching me while I wrote her. I’d look up from my desk and she’d be there.
What do you want?
and she’d tell me.
It’s been suggested to me I wrote her because I would like to meet her and have her sing the sick out of my pelvic floor. Have her undo a promise I shouldn’t believe in, and perhaps should not have made.
But: another belief.
If I ever do become pregnant, a young man named Adam will wake up in the silent dark of his own head and I will have put him there.
The obvious tropes aren’t lost on me: female sacrifice, female guilt.
Involving yourself, unbidden, in things that are not your fault—not even your concern.
But, more than that: the strange behaviours that come from a little bit of knowledge, misspent. The dangers of misplaced sexual feeling and carnal confusion.
Is there anything sweeter, to a young girl, than seeing her words bear consequence? Is there anything else, growing up, that she is more systematically denied? Is there anything she will not teach herself to desire for the chance to see her desire take shape in the world?
I think of myself in the back of my mother’s car, so readily seduced by a scenario in which someone not only heard me but took me at my word.
I don’t know if I should regret the years I spent living in the belief that such an exchange was possible. I don’t know what effect being immobile with pain and believing it was the result of a covenant I’d voluntarily entered into did to the pliable tissue of my brain.
Regardless, while they’re fewer between, there are still days when I wake up and this is the shape of the world I live in. A fact as simple as the sun hitting the trees, the piece of toast I drop on the floor. These are days when there is nothing so matter-of-fact as the secret functions the female body holds: its cruel, effective magic. Vicious and irrevocable. Precious and wounded.
These are melancholy days, deeply lonely and secretive—they are days I know my heart’s interior is a thing I cannot speak no matter how I twist and sculpt my words. They are days I look into the trees and wonder who else might be watching. They are good days for writing.
Sue Rainsford is an Irish fiction and arts writer living in Dublin. She is a recipient of the VAI/DCC Critical Writing Award, the Irish the Arts Council Literature Bursary Award and a MacDowell Fellowship. She was writer in residence at Maynooth University (2019-2020) and is currently a visual arts writer in residence at Roscommon Arts Centre.
Her début novel, Follow Me To Ground, received the Kate O’Brien Award when it was first published in Ireland by New Island Books, was long-listed for the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Award when it was published in the UK, and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews when it was published in the US with Scribner.
Her second novel, Redder Days, is forthcoming in March 2021 with Doubleday.