Image Credit: Mikko Palonkorpi
It is 1994, the year of a catastrophe, the verge of lifelong aftermath. Finland is beginning to recover from economic depression – a depression worse than the one in the 1930s. My father takes on debt for life for a company that he doesn’t own. My mother buys me Barbie dolls and I rub them against each other fiercely. In my father’s town flat, I watch women on Music Television move their perfect bodies. The boys I will meet have no Music Television but a German porn film on VHS. The touch and loss of capital reach all corners, even a small village close to the Arctic Circle.
I live in this village because there’s a light green mental hospital where my mother works and where villagers go to work or rehab. The hospital is a peculiar landmark in a boring place with nothing to do. Here, nothing is normal either.
A railroad passes through the village. For me, it marks a border, another landmark. When I reminisce about my late childhood, I map locations of abuse. Eastside of the tracks. Westside of the tracks. I have a destination, but I take no journey. Like I never walked and left no footprints. I just end up in sites of brutality.
I am twelve and have started menstruating.
Not just the railroad, but also a gorgeous river passes through the village. Kemijoki is the longest river in Finland, and we swim in its currents even when the ice is still floating around. After World War II, the river was tamed by hydropower. The dams were deadly to migratory fish but they produced eighty percent of the country’s electricity. My grandmother – a refugee, daughter of a soldier and mother of seven – settled in the village with the river’s first hydropower plant and took part in rebuilding a country which, for women, is the second most dangerous place to live within the European Union.
In the river, there is an island. In my memory, the island is so tiny that I can see through to the other side. Only a few pine trees and bushes grow there. You need a boat to get to the island and back. You need to be very confused to get into a rowing boat with someone you know will hurt you again.
One day, I remember the island and the body next to me, fingers sneaking up on me like tiny snakes. One day, I really want to remember what happened on the island. I remember the boy-not-man-enough, the boat, the sand, the sun, the air, the trees, almost like a paradise island where a couple in love could hold each other, but this is not us. He is needy and takes what he wants.
When he wields his power and asks me to step into the rowing boat, I might not be confused at all. Maybe I’m already addicted to abuse. This speculation drives me mad, literally. I wish I could remember even one single thought from that day. Perhaps I would finally know why I had to forget and why I kept the island a secret.
The island isn’t the worst place in my memory. Many more crimes are committed in other locations, crimes never investigated. Indoors, outdoors, in apartments and houses. But there is no archive of loss, no evidence, no witness. In In the Dreamhouse, Carmen Maria Machado writes, ‘Sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive – it is not considered important enough to record, or if it is, not important enough to preserve.’ There is only a body of evidence, but that body has been long composting, going through a slow death, forgetting.
I became a body of ruin for three long years. I’m traumatized, but no one knows that. They think I’m a mad girl, and they set me loose. I self-medicate with destructive behavior and substance abuse. I disappear into mosquito summers and arctic winters and move from one bottle to another, from one abuser to another and back again. When I finally meet a boy who loves me, makes me a home and keeps me, I find a new place for my neurosis. I hide my madness and grief in my studies. Academia turns out to be the perfect place for emotional numbing. No prospects for the future but an endless race to do more and be better.
Unfortunately, I can never be good enough to prevent the tragedy that has already happened. Because I’m not a good girl. Because I can’t imagine that it wasn’t my fault. Because I can’t rewrite a history that I don’t remember.
I’m not sure which is more frightening, to forget or to remember. Regardless, I’m searching for proof. In 2020, I found a diary dating ten years back when I had given birth to my second child. Something triggered a memory. A tongue of steel was pressed, the hammer of the lock released, and I remembered a detail. They recorded my screams and played them back to me. It must have been a tape recorder. I can almost remember this, but I can’t. Does this count as evidence? Can I archive a fragment that I have once remembered but I no longer do?
My body gives me the beautiful gift of forgetting, but I fail to forget fully. I fail to remember enough. There I linger, wondering if I’m making this stuff up. But I’m not making my illness up, or if I am, then I’m definitely ill. Whatever I fabulate about the past, the obsessions, compulsions, disintegrations, dissociations, panic attacks, hauntings and pains are real.
I want to archive my loss, but it is not graspable. From Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race, I read that also the invisible counts as evidence. Thus, we need to register loss even when we can’t recognize the content. I borrow from her the idea of writing an anti-documentary that refuses to recite an atrocity as a containable event. I abandon sequencing, but also the beginning and the end. The archive of abuse remains open in all directions. It expands to different bodies of violence and evidence. It begins before I’m born, and it continues when I’m gone.
I wish I didn’t have to archive. But I can’t help it. I have an obsession with the past which comes with a particular restraint. I keep turning into a weak little girl. I keep getting hurt. I can’t forget because it isn’t over. Memories that are too overwhelming to be owned are not gone for good. Unbearable experiences lurk at the outskirts of my autobiographical memory, holding me hostage. My grief needs to become words. I need to remember what I had to forget. My friend thinks this is a bad idea, and she’s right. But I’m stuck in time, and I’m hysterical.
At the end of the 19th century, research on traumatic memory progressed through the study of hysteria. In the Parisian Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital for the mentally ill, Pierre Janet assisted the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in establishing a laboratory devoted to the study of hysteria.
In Ancient Greece, hysteria referred to the wandering womb of a crazy woman, and it was to be handled through good old marriage and pregnancy. During the Middle Ages, hysterical women were either possessed or witches. But Charcot wanted to scientifically study the symptoms of an illness that, he thought, resulted from an external trauma rather than a feminine predisposition. Janet, on the other hand, wasn’t so much interested in the study of illness as the cure of patients. He discovered that behind hysteria was a split memory caused by the attempt to contain an imprint of past terror.
It is September 2019, and I’m in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a political science conference. This is my favorite conference, and I’m eager to meet my colleagues around Europe. On the day of my presentation, I meet a young man. I introduce myself, take his hand and shake it. He looks surprised and tells me that we had already met yesterday. I have no recollection of ever talking to this man. I don’t know what to say to him anymore. The next day, I stand in the university hallway during a break, drinking terrible coffee and chatting with another male colleague, when I suddenly wonder why a woman who looks like me is talking but, annoyingly, saying stupid things. I stare at this peculiar replica of myself, her lips moving. She speaks with a stolen mouth until the ‘split me’ leaves to listen to another conference panel. Then, after the long conference day, I walk around the city with my friend, looking for a bar to have some drinks. We come across a familiar male colleague and stay for a while to talk to him. My friend does most of the talking because I begin to see a mountain and cherry trees in front of me. I feel as if I’m moving backwards while their voices become more and more distant. I can still see the other me standing there, but we are two different bodies.
I get triggered by men in conferences because I’m hypervigilant, my senses detecting danger even when my conscious mind does not. When a threshold is crossed, my nervous system hits the brake. I taught myself that. I practiced the skill of dissociation, honing it devotedly, when I lay in beds, on the floors, on the asphalt, on the beach. I learned to leave my body, to escape into the depths of my consciousness. In my leaving, a sort of silent hysteria takes over, except this is not hysteria. I’m experiencing dissociation – the new name Pierre Janet gave hysteria – the mysterious capacity to leave while staying.
After my friend leaves on an earlier flight and I’m alone in our rental flat, I comfort myself with pain. I press my back against the sharp edge of a white Ikea bed, harder, harder.
Janet established the connection between past life events and mental illness that we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. This theory must have appeared unimpressive to Sigmund Freud, who in 1885 came to study under Charcot. After a short honeymoon with ‘the seduction theory’ (repressed memory of early childhood sexual abuse), Freud insisted that repressed sexual fantasies, rather than actual sexual violence, caused hysteria.
Dora is the pseudonym Sigmund Freud gave to his 18-year-old patient Ida Bauer whom she psychoanalyzed in 1900. Ida Bauer had suffered from mental and physical illness since childhood, and when her father took her, against her will, to see Freud, her symptoms included a nervous cough and loss of voice. She had also threatened suicide. Dora shared with Freud how a family friend Mr K. made sexual advances toward her when she was fourteen and sixteen. Freud was curious about Dora’s outrage, which he considered an overreaction. Mr K. denied the advances ever happened. He said that they were Ida’s fantasy.
Ida’s father had an affair with Mrs K., and it seemed that Ida was an offering from his father and Mrs K. to Mr K. As the drama of actual life wasn’t nearly as fascinating as the non-conscious realm, Freud tapped into Ida’s dreams and memories. Freud, talented in discovering sexed monstrosities, determined that young Ida was in love with her father, Mr K. and Mrs K.
With disregard for trauma as a cause of illness, Freud’s psychoanalytical procedure erased Ida Bauer. She was an object body and not the witness of her own experience.
I have a nightmare about a horrible accident. In the dream, no one cries but me. I pass a transit space with no furniture and no people, only tiled walls and a bathtub. Dreamworlds are my passages to not knowing what happened on the small island and other liminal spaces that make my liminal memory. In between worlds, dreams are true in a different way. Wrapped in my body’s time machine, I experience temporality like time itself is collapsing, moving back and forth, or standing still, and often, I feel all of this at the same time. Are memories like dreams, not real?
As a child, I had a recurring nightmare about my father chasing his family. When I started writing a book about my memory loss, I began to have dreams of my mother and father. I saw dreams in which I was being chased so often that it became like a nightly prayer. Dreams in which I remembered the eyes of a boy, the body of a man, the space that they took, the movements we made, the weapons I held in my hands. Sometimes I feel dreams are the only proof I have. Not proof of my hysteria, but proof of my existence.
The former director of The Freud Archives, Jeffrey M. Masson, was intrigued by Freud’s insistence that sexual abuse was not real but fabricated by the patient suffering from hysteria. Masson studied Freud’s letters to Wilhelm Fliess, in which Freud expressed how impossible it was to believe that sexual violence was so frequent. According to Masson, Freud was, at the same time, genuinely concerned about the sexual abuse of children.
Whatever Freud truly believed, harm was being inflicted on the unreliable witness of her own experience, the feminized narrator. It took feminist activism of the 1970s and 1980s, and academic research, such as Judith Lewis Herman’s and Lisa Hirschman’s book Father-Daughter Incest, published in 1981, to finally bring sexual abuse into public discussion.
In the 20th century, trauma research focused on war veterans. It was the study of Vietnam veterans that resulted in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Bessel van der Kolk explains in his book The Body Keeps the Score how even though awareness about the imprints of trauma was on the rise, the diagnosis of psychological illness of soldiers and veterans wasn’t exactly compatible with the image of the ideal soldier. Men couldn’t be hysterical, not real men, not real soldiers. In 1922, the British government even attempted to ban the diagnosis of ‘shell shock’ and prevent compensation for a mental war injury.
Even though mental breakdown was ill-fitting with the ideal of the heroic warrior-soldier, the veterans’ traumatic experiences were not questioned. Soldiers’ experiences were real. The war was real, not a fantasy.
Rebecca Solnit writes that rape causes post-traumatic stress four times more likely than war. But we never get to enjoy the hero myth. All we have are myths of our derangement.
In the early 1990s, newspapers began to refer to ‘false memories’ – a term that had been used by experts testifying in court in the several paedophilia cases involving the Catholic Church in the United States, Canada, Australia, Chile and Europe. During these trials, Bessel van der Kolk examined over 50 adults who remembered being abused by priests as a child. Only half of them were believed.
In 1992, an American mathematician Peter J. Freyd founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation with his wife Pamela after their daughter Jennifer accused her father of sexual abuse. The false memory syndrome theory claims that repressed memories are fabricated and even implanted by the therapist. It’s true that memories can be implanted, especially in the case of children. But the terror of a memory can’t. Procedural memories don’t bend to will. Of course, the false memory syndrome is a political move, Freudian mistrust of the subaltern.
I’m sitting in the office of an occupational psychologist, a woman in her 50s. My employer paid for three sessions, and I thought, why not. I tell her. I tell her as much as I remember. She asks me how old the perpetrators were. I tell her they were boys, one and two years older than me. She says, ‘Well, it wasn’t that bad, then.’ In one sentence she normalizes violence, tells me how to feel about it, how to remember it.
Memories become vulnerable every time they are brought to consciousness. The act of remembering affects the memory, and it is stored in a new form. I wonder how my memories are being stored at this moment when she tells me it wasn’t that bad. Since I have habitually questioned my memories and my sanity, the distance between ‘not so bad’ and ‘didn’t happen’ is very short. And so is ‘not so bad’ and ‘I am bad/ass’.
Imagine there had been mobile phones in 1994. I might have ended up dead. That’s how bad it was.
My memory is a palimpsest, a script from which the original scribble has been erased by the jerky movements of a forced wank. The new text replaces the old but without managing to fully erase the past presence. Once, we stood queuing for ice cream at an amusement park with my husband and our kids. I saw a man and froze. The man was from my past, so I believed, and I couldn’t move my limbs. All I could do was look at him until his face changed and I realised I had seen a ghost.
Surely, I am possessed. He entered me and began to inhabit me. That’s why I still see his face. His hands never left me. Their hands never left me. I am the result of their handprints. I am the material of a palimpsest. We became one. I am as merciless as they were.
I stopped seeing him after my therapist told me that the man I knew when I was fourteen can’t possibly look the same anymore. He is much older now, and after my therapist did a Google search on him, and could find no trace, I concluded in some relief that he was probably dead.
I became enchanted with the Arabian word barzakh. It’s a word on the edge of which I can travel, although I don’t speak it. I found it in the documentary film Barzakh. The film is by Mantas Kvedaravicius, an anthropologist who spent time in post-war Chechnya with people whose family members had disappeared when the Russian Federation with its soldiers and commanders created an economy of terrorism by abducting young Chechen men. Bodies and corpses were sold to the families, or they vanished. Barzakh is a word for this loss, for this waiting. A Chechen man in the film speaks softly. He says that barzakh is the dust of sand rising in green water, a boundary between sweet and salty water, a border not to be crossed. Barzakh is a border between the living and the dead, separating both worlds but being neither. Barzakh is a reflection in the mirror, the land where you travel in your sleep and where you see unknown visions. A non-place in between two worlds, between land and sky. The island – the little piece of my memory – is barzakh.
There are other words my investigation leads to. Like kū. Kū in Japanese, shūnya in Sanskrit means non-substantiality, a void. Non-substantiality is the nature of all phenomena. This means that phenomena can’t be defined through existence or nonexistence. Memory cannot be defined in terms of existence or nonexistence. My memory of the island is kū.
My memory of the island is a place of thereness where no dead and no living dwell. In Finnish folk mythology, the underworld is called Tuonela. A river separates Tuonela from the world of the living. To get to the side of the dead, one must cross a dangerous stream. The river never freezes. It is a sacred black stream between worlds. In the river Tuonela stands my island of kū. The island is the place of feeling. The island lives in me, manifests in me, falls silent in me. Where do feelings go when they are not felt? Where do memories go when not remembered? Between two worlds.
I lean against a horse’s body, hands over their back. Linda Kohanov writes in her book Riding Between the Worlds that in traditional cultures all over, horses were perceived as carrying riders between the seen and the unseen realms. My therapist has four horses. I breathe in rhythm with them, sing to them, play my guitar to them, lie on their backs. I can feel their muscles and bones against mine, warmth spreading across my body. I feel ashamed about how good I feel. I feel guilty that I ruined the moment. I’m scared of feeling pleasure.
No one knew how to deal with my anger, but horses don’t judge emotions. They can take anything but pretense. They don’t mind me sobbing. Eventually, they teach me to accept that they don’t have to love me or even like me, how I don’t have to please.
The second summer of my psychotherapy, my therapist takes me for a longer ride and promises we can canter. I ride an old white mare, Candy, and my therapist leads the way with a Finnish horse of over 600 kilograms of beauty. The Finnish mare, Liisa, is faster, and Candy tries to keep up. I have the wrong kind of shoes, and my ankles keep painfully banging against the metal stirrup. But I’m riding through time. There’s no time to contemplate. Pain in my ankles, oh shit branches, side of the road, I won’t fall off. My identity, my past, my suffering, all irrelevant.
The ride is so wild, wild like a woman I want to be, wild like a girl of earth, dirt, desire. Not a girl monetized and petrified. This beauty isn’t too wild for me. Candy takes me to the threshold, between worlds, offers me a view not to the other side but to the passage itself, the present.
The archive states I cried a lot when I was a child. My crying must have been underwater. The truth is, my lips were pressed together so hard that I still can’t connect words of violence to my experience.
Why did you not say a word? You had a mouth, right?
Why did you not leave? You had a home, right?
I might have told a friend, but I never told anyone who could make it stop. I never told anyone who could assure me that it wasn’t my fault. I never told anyone with the capacity to recognize and correctly name sexual violence. How could I speak about something I had no words for – to people who couldn’t take the truth. How could I articulate something everyone closed their eyes to? How could I speak without revealing my complicity?
Or did I speak and forget I ever spoke? Did I speak with more than words?
I don’t accept any legal terms because my experience is beyond law. It was too long ago, crimes and bodies have expired. But I also refuse because the language of rape tastes alien to me. The word rape doesn’t imply what it takes to get there – the subtle and not so subtle cultural practices and beliefs, the broken families, the alcoholism, the domestic violence, the homes made homeless, the masculinities, the femininities, the mothers, fathers, friends, teachers, zombies.
I refuse to name what happened to me because it wasn’t the worst thing to be battered. Worse are women who can summon the fury of the ten demon daughters, a cigarette burning between their lips, spitting bitter words that sting, but who still fail to shoot them dead. Worse are stories too ruthless to share. Worse are words never spoken to me – words like ‘boundaries’, ‘your body’, ‘sacred’. Worse to confuse a beating with love. Worse to be too tired to ask questions. Worse to be s/mothered.
Why the archive, now, almost thirty years later? Because my silence haunts me. I willfully wore a Scold’s Bridle, the painful iron muzzle placed on a woman’s head in the Middle Ages to prevent her from speaking out. The most horrifying devices had stings that cut through the tongue. And I wore it.
Silence was my agency. To agree, comply and bend was my agency. Maybe it was better to be fingered and groped than not to be touched at all. Maybe it was better to be seen like that than not seen at all. Maybe I allowed violence to seduce me so that I could become it. Maybe they just annihilated me. But once a body of shame, I materialized out of reach of language. I screamed until I didn’t. I screamed until I became orphaned from my voice. That was the end of my thought. I don’t even remember being called by my name. That was the end of me as a person – if I ever had been a person at all.
There were times when I couldn’t recognize my body as my own. I would look at my face in the mirror and see a monster. One of the many monstrous aspects of my body was my voice. In hindsight, it makes so much sense. My voice was the very thing stolen from me. My screams played back to me. Of course I hated my voice. It had failed me, and my silence made me guilty. I don’t know where I found the courage, but eight years ago in Switzerland, I decided to seek a vocal coach. I was tired of being terrified by my voice. I was sick of hating myself.
In Greek mythology, sirens, the dangerous half-birdlike female creatures living on islands, lure sailors to their death with their enchanting voices. Later, sirens became mermaids, sometimes evil, sometimes loving. They weren’t human, and they had dangerous voices. A dangerous voice.
I began singing. I sang until I spoke the death of me. I sang until my girlhood mattered. It wasn’t emotion or knowledge I composed. I wrote songs from the empty holes of not remembering. And there was more to come. I joined collaborative vocal improvisation with people who didn’t write songs. They wrote their life in singing. I wasn’t writing. I was sucking on chaos, and it was sweet.
Screwed between remembering and forgetting, I decided that voice was the boat that would take me to the other side. I thought that there was a place called healing, an island where I was destined to row. There I would remember and let go. One time, singing a supported solo in our virtual meeting of singers, I felt so close to transitioning, finally, to the side of memory. I tried to see across the border, the river, the railroad but saw nothing. There was only a deserted island of kū, trees clear cut like they were outside my grandmother’s home, an island as naked as me, full visibility but no memory to tell me the truth. My loss couldn’t be disclosed. I was left in the liminal.
Liminal comes from the word limen. It’s a point at which a stimulus is strong enough to produce a response in the organism. Since the island was a lost cause, I jumped out of the rowing boat into the water. I began inhaling water, my mouth pouring. Something had to be drowned, the body of a woman, maybe.
Abuse creates conditions for dislocation and distortion of reality. Water turns to voice in my mouth. This reality is the threshold. Healing is a broken metaphor compared to the madness which is only a sensible reaction to the surrounding cruelty. So, I was wrong. Remembering isn’t cathartic. I’m not passing through and emerging as solved and salvaged. I discover a self in both remembering and forgetting. The liminality of my memory is where I want to stay.
A couple of decades later, I walked past the car park from which I was found at the age of fifteen in panic, although I didn’t remember what had happened. The small car park is located right at the centre of the city where I drifted on weekends at the mercy of liquor, vomiting black goo, also known as ammonium chloride booze, or salmiakkikossu. I will remember later, in the small hours, when I hear a voice on the landline saying, ‘Can we do it again?’.
Since then, I have often walked this street, but now I pause and turn my eyes towards the past. I take a good look at the sad, grey, lifeless construction. I can see myself lying in the filth and dirt, and I let myself feel sad and horrified. I’m grieving, I remember. I archive the moment in which time folds.
- Bernheimer, Charles and Claire Kahane (eds.), In Dora’s Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism, Columbia University Press, 1985.
- Kohanov, Linda, Riding Between the Worlds: Expanding Our Potential Through the Way of the Horse, New World Library, 2003.
- Machado, Carmen Maria, In the Dreamhouse, Graywolf Press, 2019.
- Masson, Jeffrey M., A journey into the dangers of orthodoxy from the former director of the Freud Archives in Routledge International Handbook on Critical Mental Health, ed. by Bruce M.Z. Cohen, Routledge, 2018.
- Solnit, Rebecca, Recollections of My Nonexistence, Viking, 2020.
- van der Kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Penguin Books, 2014.
Susanna Hast a Finnish writer, researcher, dance pedagogue and a songwriter. She is a post doctoral research fellow at The Center for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts (CERADA), Uniarts, Helsinki. This essay is part of a creative research project Subtle Corporealities funded by the Kone Foundation (2020-2021). Susanna is currently writing a memoir on failed remembering.
Image Credit: Mikko Palonkorpi