Samantha Harvey on Grappling with Insomnia and Reckoning With the Past
From Her Memoir The Shapeless Unease
Fifteen years ago, a homeless man in Australia took against me one night when I was walking home on my own, and he pummeled my head with an unidentiﬁable object while I, hands on head, scrambled—ill-advisedly, I can see that now—into a small clearing under some bushes. When he had ﬁnished pummeling my head he disappeared, and I ran out of the bushes towards a taxi rank which was the only source of help in a deserted little town.
Waiting for an ambulance, on a bench with my head in my hands, my hands ﬁlled with bright blood and blood soaked the lap of my jeans and dripped onto my shoes in a way I couldn’t comprehend, because it was coming from my head and was the sort of quantity of blood that suggests death, yet I was alive.
At night, 15 years on, I force myself to remember this. The supposition is that remembering something objectively bad and frightening might take my mind from the abstractions of anxiety, might alert my skittering heart to the good fortune of being safely in bed. Feeling for the long scars at the crown of my head might prompt me into self-care and away from the impulse to hit my head against a wall. Enough damage to one skull for a lifetime, enough. Go gently with that good head. Likewise with my hand whose bones have been pinned together with a metal skeleton. And maybe if I replay that memory I might ﬁnd it, the thing, the source of malfunction that 15 years later surfaces as sleeplessness. Maybe a fear of the dark, a residual feeling of threat, an anticipation of attack that keeps me on my guard?
But it yields nothing. It evades analysis. Instead, with each replay the memory of the attack itself becomes more distant and uninteresting, a mere story. Even immediately afterwards I failed to ﬁnd it much more than a story. In the hospital they offered me counseling, which I took because I was friendless in Australia and it was company. You’re bound to feel traumatized, they said, appraising my broken, reconstructed hand and bandaged head, and I earnestly tried to, but in the end had to admit I didn’t. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to draw and paint again, and that I wouldn’t be able to play tennis. I might have played tennis four times in my whole life previous to that, so it seemed an odd worry to have.
I feel, I said. I feel. I feel blank. That’s normal, they said, to feel blank at ﬁrst. That’s part of trauma. No, I said, I feel. Not blank like that, blank as in white. I feel—white. I feel white.
Whenever I’ve thought of the attack since, this whiteness presides. I waited for my experience of it to turn grey or black, and now understand that it won’t. It was there when I had to single out the man from a photo identity parade, and to my surprise I recognized him at once. It was there when they said he went to prison; just a whiteness. I couldn’t ﬁnd any judgement or aversion to him or to anything. There seemed in me what I suppose I could call a universal well-wishing. A little like an evening I once spent on ecstasy, staring peacefully at a bush. Everybody else danced, and I sat for ﬁve hours on a tiny bridge in a Japanese garden in sultry August heat, wishing a bush well.
The feeling is white like a sky whose cloud cover is evenly backlit by an invisible sun, bright white; not empty. It goes straight to the belly. Warm, white, constant. It won’t be further quantiﬁed. It refuses to compromise its whiteness or to break up or explain itself. I long ago gave up trying to understand it. Well-wishing reaches it only part way. The only word I’ve ever been able to ﬁnd that gets to its center is love.
A girl and a boy—cousins they are—are roaming around the back garden, done with crouching in the laurel bed staking out the enemy line, bored with thudding the ball into the Norwegian spruce, no longer seeing the point of laying worms out on the patio and waiting for robins, incapable, today, of knocking the stone off the fencepost with another stone from ten meters. They’ve run around the bright grassy paths of their granddad’s vegetable beds too many times.
Let’s play something else, they say, but are out of ideas and catapult a couple of snails over the garden wall with hazel twigs, somewhat listless, and sorry for the snails.
At that a tall ﬁgure appears in black with a scythe and says, I have a game.
Yeah. I won’t tell you the rules, or what the aim of it is, but you have to play it anyway, and reside with the persistent feeling of playing it wrongly—though there are no rules and there is no aim—and when you have ﬁnished playing you will both die. OK?
Not really OK. OK?
Not rea—OK! Go, kids.
Off sloped the ﬁgure in black and the girl and boy, despite themselves, began to play the game for which there were no rules and no aim, because it seemed there was no choice. The sky, summery, thickened to autumn and thinned to winter and lifted into spring and spread into summer, and they played while that pattern repeated, until several years in, both of their now-ripened minds comprehended the notion of death in a way their green kid-minds never could have, and they wondered in unison, Was that death, who visited us that day? I’m sure now I think of it that I saw a scythe—
And the sun, from afar, warmed the boy’s scarred cheek, and warmed the girl’s scarred hands, and negated the question with its gloriousness.
It would be years before they, the boy and girl, with their now-wise minds, comprehended the sun in unison and realized it hadn’t been wholly honest that other time, with its optimistic warming of faces and ﬁngers. Wasn’t the sun halfway through its ten-billion-year life? Didn’t it warm us up because it’s burning hydrogen and making helium, and isn’t it going to run out of hydrogen at some point, and contract, and die?
Isn’t its very afﬁrmation of life just the dynamic process of death? asked the girl.
I feel pissed off and cheated, said the boy. He went for 70 miles on his bike.
Love, love, grief, all bundled up, your stepdad died suddenly, too young, in a wealth of pain, your two granddads, your nan, your uncle, your cousin, some friends of friends, some friends of family, ﬁve dogs, two cats, that’s all, you’ve been lucky, luck, pain, love, grief, life, love, loss, bundled up as one, the miscarriages you had, pain, much of it physical, Christmas passing under a blanket, bundled up childlike.
A child no less no more, watching a table being turned in a cottage in Stratford, all chilly and dark and beamed and thatched. School trip, nobody to tell about the wringing of the insides and the rap-rap-rapping of death. School-trip death; would make the local papers. Later the blood and the shame and the reckoning with a sanitary towel, and bafﬂement at being just that morning a child then passing all of a sudden into a woman. Not ready, not ready! Stampeding down the stairs unreadily, TV on, watching Dallas in a rage.
Two dozen years later bundled up, more blood, life is blood blood blood, Christmas a grey smudge. Well, that’s lost then. You weren’t ready. No wonder. No maternal urge ever urged in you, no wonder it all slipped away what with your doubts, what with your fears. Brimful with self, no room for a new self, so much more you always needed than to be always needed by someone else; “mother” a strange word, brings to mind a rock, don’t want to be a rock but rather to move, to ebb or ﬂow, don’t want to burden another with life. Feel the weight of life. Too much at times, not enough at others, ups and downs, sting in the tail. Death. Don’t want to make and love something that will die. So. Onwards and upwards, get writing, comfort in that, the inﬁnity of words, you’re piloting a plane, you can tilt the world.Two dozen years later bundled up, more blood, life is blood blood blood, Christmas a grey smudge.
A half dozen years on (counting your time as eggs are counted), you realize. A hoax! The whole lot, the whole sorry lot. The question itself was a hoax, a sham. Will you won’t you? Can you can’t you? Yesno. Ready or not? A sham, a shambles, it was never a choice, it was never your choice. What did you think was happening—all that time, body like that, hips, womb, that blood, what did you think? Every month for three dozen years, gathering yourself ready to house a life like someone packing their bags for a grand adventure.
Grit, is what you see, persistence is what it is; a voice has called for thirty years. No thanks, you say, but it wasn’t asking. No thanks! There’s you: a stampede of rage. There’s you, a child no more no less at a table, the table of Shakespeare’s future wife no more no less. There’s you, grown up, tilting pilot of your own craft, what-you-thought-was-your-own-craft, airstruck, wordstruck; there’s you thinking maybe your destiny, maybe your destiny wasn’t to reproduce yourself but to somehow produce yourself, bring yourself forth in words. Maybe because your womanhood started in so Shakespearean a setting your destiny was words, not dummies and nappies and schoolbags?
Not a lofty feeling, that. More a hope. Daughter of a builder who can barely read or write. First book he ever read was the ﬁrst book you wrote; a year of anguish is what it took him. The only books he’s read since have been the other ones you wrote. Falteringly read with gritted teeth. Bowled over with love is what you are at the love this shows, and proud and scared is what he is, proud his daughter can write those things he doesn’t understand, scared because he doesn’t understand. Doesn’t know how literature ever got into your bones, Findus Crispy Pancakes and boil-in-the-bag curries more in your bones, your reading fodder the Sun, dad averting gaze daily from breasts. How did you ever write a novel then ﬁve? There’s you, twelve years old in Anne Hathaway’s kitchen, tables turning, destiny revealed. Coming-of-age. Womanhood, adulthood is for making words not kids. That’s what you came to think.
Five novels later. Come to think, what were you thinking? Words. Words! All that blood just for words? Didn’t you notice? It’s not a choice. Motherhood not a choice. It chose you, it was there when your two X chromosomes ﬁrst showed up, nothing to do with Shakespeare or tables. Way back, thirteen years before, that’s when. You turned down an unturndownable offer. Let your brain decide on what your body had already decided. Not your fault. Nobody prepares you.
Never got round to doing what everyone else was doing. Never managed to get a mobile phone, maybe will one day when everyone else has progressed to telepathy. Never could buy into it all—kudos of mothering, the bump, the blooming, the breastmilk, the birthdays, the boredom, the blessings. Mother nature, mother earth, virgin mother of Christ, mother of all. Mother. Never minding about all those dreams. Set them aside. Never mind about shaping your life, its shape is what’s left, the negative space made by this new creation. Become a negative space, be eclipsed by your own light. That’s what you thought. So you didn’t.
Also thought overmuch of death, of dying, of leaving or being left. Extrapolated from love of nieces (ﬁerce and deep) to love of own child (ﬁercer and surely tiger-like and unbearably hot to the touch). Then extrapolated from love to loss, as too often the case. Overthought. Life is hard. A strange gift. Oft-unkind gift. Not my right to be the giver, to make such a choice. Not my right, you thought. So life said: Who’ll give me then? If not your right then whose? Not my right, you answered. Fair and stubborn like you are.
What, then, will you do with this wash left by a gone-out tide? What’s here? Words. The past, corpses strung up in a row. Sleepless nights. A dog barking. A walnut tree shrugging off summer. A morning mist. A white, bright sky, not empty. A white feeling. Surfeit of white, the double kiss of your female chromosome, underused, overspilt, the wash of a gone-out tide.
A choice, you thought. A take-it-or-leave-it? Not your fault, you weren’t to know. Can’t leave what’s gene-bred, can’t leave yourself. Watch. Your own tide going out. White sky is what’s left. So bright, as if backlit. What will you do now with all that? That white? For-want-of-a-better-word-love. Love, grief, loss, love, life, love, all bundled up. Irrefusable. Now. So much of it, hands full, not enough places to pour it. You refused the irrefusable. So now what will you do?
Excerpted from The Shapeless Unease © 2020 by Samantha Harvey. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.