Growing up, I remember very little embarrassment surrounding the body. For instance, my abuela never shut the bathroom door. She simply didn’t care who saw what. Whenever my mother chided her about it, she would simply reply, So what? Your body is my body. She would say this to me all the time as well. Your body is my body. It became a kind of mantra.
I didn’t know if this behavior was commonplace or not; I simply took it as another fact of home. Occasionally walking to and from places in our apartment, I would see her in the bathroom through the open crack of the door, slumped over on the toilet, her belly hanging between her legs. In the shower, she would often call for me to help her wash her back, a place she could no longer reach, and I would see the whole shape of her: square and caramel. Heavy at the hips.
Later, no longer able to stand, she would need my mother’s help to bathe at all, and I would see this too, the two of them under the faucet: your body, my body.
I am used to talking about my body. I am used to defending it, too. I am too thin, or too hunched. I should cover up my collarbones and hide my elbows, obscure my knees with clothing to delay the discovery that I am all bones and long limbs. These are some things that I know of—of which I am well-versed in—but to think of my body in the language of violation is still a thing I’m learning.
I often struggle with language. There are words that we know that are used to describe violation, but even these feel insufficient to me. We are touched, but what does this mean? We have words to describe the tactile experience—burning, hairy, knotted, ribbed, sandy, sharp, damp—but what word belongs to us when we are infringed?
The first time I tell someone about my father, I’m holding two dolls and I do not know the word for it. So, I tell the clipboard with the face behind it: He touched my two bodies. I read it later in type. Two bodies. I find the transcript in a file in the bottom of an old box. Since then, I’ve turned these two words over in my head probably ten thousand times.
I sometimes feel of two bodies, only half of me mine. I go to sleep as two people and wake up a clumsy version of one.
I grew up with this piece of knowledge as if it were another truth of the world, like the known color of the sky: He touched my two bodies. What this meant was not explained to me, only that he should not have done it, and that I should not talk about it much, for fear of outing myself as a strange and broken thing. In the hole of my memory, silence took up its residence, like a cat curling up to sleep.
But I could not avoid the corporeal completely. In our cramped quarters, privacy was always at a premium. Without walls between us, I began to know the terrain of the bodies around me intimately. My abuela was hairless, save for the tuft of curls atop her head. My mother’s body, too, completely bald. Their smooth arms and bare legs were a source of fascination to me as my own body changed.
In contrast, mine was covered in it: legs furry by the time I hit puberty, underarms crowded with curls, eyebrows crawling across my face like a caterpillar, kissing in the middle. I was not one of these seal people with their beautiful, hairless bodies. I was the opposite of aerodynamic; I tangled on every stray scrap of air.
It seemed to me another sign of my misplacement: my hairy bad-body, touched by someone that should not have touched it.
There are many things about the body I find mysterious. Even Darwin struggled to explain why we would evolve a response that puts us at a social disadvantage, describing blushing as “the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions.” And while most researchers reject Freud’s belief that dreams are expressions of our unconscious desires, then, what on earth are they for?
Perhaps chief amongst the mysteries that capture me is touch: how deeply its varieties manifest themselves in us, a whole system of language capable of embedding itself in a single graze.
Take, for example, Harry Harlow. In the 1950s, when the boundaries of many things were being tested, American psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of cruel experiments on baby Rhesus monkeys. He set out to study the effects that separation from their mothers have on children.
He raised the baby monkeys in isolation in a cage that contained two surrogate “mothers”—one made of metal wire, and the other, wrapped in terry cloth. Although the wire mother contained a bottle from which the monkeys could nurse, the monkeys would cling to the terry cloth mother when they were frightened, even when this led them to dehydrate and starve.
Harlow’s monkeys were literally starving for a warm, comforting touch. That is how important touch is.
As a child, I suffered from many sleep problems. First came the insomnia. I would lie in my bed and stare at the inside of my eyelids. My mother tried many things to help. It became a sort of routine for the two of us, the clock striking a certain hour and our work beginning: hot teas and warm milk, long baths, incense, a prayer. No matter what we tried I tossed in bed for hours waiting for sleep to come, watching the light change from night to day against the wall.
Later, when I was finally sleeping again, I started to sleepwalk, as if my body were trying to replace one kind of waking with another. My mother described it as a time in our home measured by the sound of my stomping feet, going this way and that during the night. Once, I woke in my mother’s bed, disoriented and woozy. The worst feeling was always that of this displacement: going from one thing to another and missing the in-between.
The night terrors, my mother told me, happened even earlier than all that. My parents were still together then. I remember one night you woke up one screaming, curled up in a little ball, she said. I’d never heard you make that kind of sound before. Eventually, she put me in my abuela’s bed, where the warm round of her belly against my back soothed me back to sleep. When my mother tells me about this, I feel the way she catches on the words, as if some part of the terror was now hers, too.
It is clear to me now my body has been fighting to be heard for some time.
My father used to take home movies, the camera affixed to his face like a protruding eye. He recorded hours and hours of footage of me: at the table eating breakfast, at the zoo feeding animals, at Christmas unwrapping my gifts. I know because I’ve watched all the tapes, more than I can count.
Sometimes I would see my mother in them, like in the kitchen avoiding the camera. Sometimes she’s telling him to shut it off. She seems tired and annoyed, invents new swears to lob at him. I hear him say: You won’t like that mouth when you hear it again.
When we left him, the tapes stopped. There are years during that strange transition in which not a single photograph of me is taken. And then one day, later, when another picture of me emerges it’s as if we had all awoken from a deep slumber, but we were in another bed, in a different house, far from where we’d started. Disoriented.
Sex does not come easy to me at first: everything somehow at the wrong angle, hurts emanating from indiscernible places. The more pain I felt the more I feared my own abnormality, which became its own wall to surmount.
In those first learning years, young and clumsy, the boy and I tried many things: we start by drinking to distraction. We make long nights of it, the warm rush of liquor at our cheeks. We finish off bottles of wine with dinner, or, more frequently, cheap boxes of beer. We let the feeling of this consume us: careless and effervescent, a lightness bubbling up around us.
But every time he touched me, I sank back into pain. Or, the anticipation of it.
We tried other things, too: extending the minutes, or shortening them, changing positions, or locations, or, for a while, talking it to death. The thing, whatever it is, came alive between us. It turned sour, grew resentful. It demanded our attention at all hours.
At the very last, too late for us, I tried honesty: My father touched me, I told him, the confession square and dry in my mouth. It was not quite enough for us anymore. I don’t remember it, I said. But maybe it means something.
That is the fear, of course. Maybe it means something. My whole life rests on this truth: whether my father touched me. It depends on a memory I can no longer recall.
Without that certainty, I have built my life on other truths: the particular way I stretch awake when I sleep in, or the rush of joy I feel when a friend shares a secret with me. Memory, intangible, is not a very good place to go looking for answers.
My mother is very adamant about what happened, but sometimes, her conviction is mixed up with her own hate for him until it’s difficult to tell one from the other. He, too, is very adamant about what happened, which is nothing. My therapist says, “You have to learn to balance what two people can say about the exact same thing: somewhere in the middle is the truth.”
If there were a prescription for achieving a cohesive narrative, I would certainly have asked for it already. There is only so deep you can excavate your own flesh.
As a child, I found an old tape recorder stowed away at home. So, I began to record myself. At first, I would simply read from books, delighted to hear the sound of my own voice playing back at me; the strange newness it took in its echo. Then I started to make up stories about my stuffed animals and the elaborate lives they led. Later, I began to pretend I was someone else. I narrated my navigation around the house like a conquistador, detailing the strange lands I traversed.
Other times I would simply speak into it as if I were conversing with a friend, sharing my secrets into its open mouth. Over and over I would turn the same tiny tape, recording new thoughts on top of old ones and so on, filling in the blanks: I am afraid of, I am happy when, I do not like, I wish more than anything for, on and on, discovering the boundaries of my desires.
The first time I touched myself, I fingered the rise and fall of my pelvic bone with some shyness, tracking its curves. I felt for the first time that tightening below the belly, a different kind of hunger. Here, I took the tape recorder and put it near my mouth as I moaned.
Afterward, I would play the sound back and marvel and what I had produced. That tightening, tightening always winding smaller, like a noose around my middle, but what came next?
In one of my father’s movies, we are home alone together. I might be four years old. I’m eating a hardboiled egg. Every now and then I try to get up and leave, distracted and bored. I can hear him say, Not yet, finish your food. I return to the plate once again, picking at the carcass of the egg.
Was it that day? Could it have happened then?
Some days, it would be easier to have an answer. Mostly, I wonder if erasure is a saving grace.
In our culture, there is a cure for almost everything. And if one does not exist, it just hasn’t been found yet. Even for a child like me.
A child who has been touched carries this heavy thing. It is unwieldy and shaped perfectly to the child who it belongs to, shaped exactly so that their arms are just a bit shorter than required to hold it. And there is no getting around the time it will take to become comfortable under its weight, or to learn how to make your arms longer.
While I learned to carry this strange history, my abuela made it her life’s work to heal me.
She invoked the traditions of her own ancestors to rid me of the darkness she was certain had taken up residence in me: raw eggs run over my body, their yolks cracked and hidden away. Baths made of boiled rue plants. Sticks of burning sage. Candles lit at an altar of saints. My cards read diligently. She even cursed my father, wrapping his photo in a jar and burying it in the soil in our yard.
Your body is my body. She never stopped fighting what had infected us both.
Many of the boys I’ve been with have told me my body is beautiful. And when they did, I would smile, because that is what you are supposed to do when somebody tells you you’re beautiful. But if I’m honest, I did not always agree. I hardly saw my body. I saw through it, or around it. I could see it reflecting back at me in the mirror, but I could not always see the source from which it originated. It was easier to not see one’s body than to accidentally catch something wrong with it.
They perceived this as confidence; more than once, they whispered about how sexy I was. But anybody can be confident when they’re not looking hard enough.
The first time I’m able to have sex without pain my body slumps with relief. The particulars are unimportant, like the boy, who was fleeting, or the season, which was winter. What remains is that rushing feeling: the shock of hope flooding into me, liberating and sweet. For a moment, I saw myself as unbroken. For a moment, I had healed.
Shortly after we left my father, an advisor gave my mother a harsh warning in order to safeguard me: that no one in my family should touch me. My mother states this plainly to me now, but I do not remember much of this time at all.
She was warned against all kinds of contact, even the benign. I should not be kissed much, or held much, or hugged much. If I were to be consoled, it would have to be at a distance, to avoid a child’s inadvertent confusion. If I were to mix up good and bad touching, then we would all be somewhere else.
I try to imagine myself, a toddler still, devoid of touch. Like Harlow’s monkeys, perhaps I had learned early to starve. Perhaps there is a reason desire and hunger are two sides of the same face.
Jean Ferruzola received her MFA from the University of Washington. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Offing, Hobart, ELLE Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s been the recipient of fellowships and grants from Hugo House and Artist Trust. Currently, she’s simultaneously at work on her first novel as well as a short lyrical memoir grappling with issues of family and abuse, biracial identity, and the use of folk healing practices in a modern landscape. You can follow her work at jeanferruzola.com.