“Crying does not indicate that you are weak.
Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”
A friend of mine tells me she remembers the womb. The womb was a red room, and in it, only a mirror made of blood in a frame made of tissue in which my friend watched her face become her face.
I heard how a woman I work with witnessed her own birth (though she’s well past forty), by participating in a ritual: Buddhist meditation, Native American peyote, Catholic transubstantiation—whatever it was in whatever combination—she was shown an apparition of the red room turned inside out, the mirror made of blood shattering, the frame that held the mirror ripped to shreds.
She was terrified, also in awe. Trembling, weeping, she called her mom and said, “Mom, thank you.” Her mom replied, “Honey, I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Jane Eyre was locked in a red room when she was naughty. It shared some architectural details with other red rooms, but it was into its drawers and secret crevices that Mrs. Reed stuffed remembrances, not of her children, but of her husband and her money. We’ve all heard those legends about women who cram guns into their vaginas and are surprised when the guns go off. I might say the same of Mrs. Reed. By cordoning off her red room for punishment, she condemns Jane to a life of apprehension.
Looking back on her time at Gateshead Hall and in particular the red room, Jane says, “The housemaid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the mirrors and the furniture a week’s quiet dust.” Where Jane might have found comfort, she finds “divers parchments.” Where she might have found a mother’s heart, she finds a painted miniature. Isn’t it rumored that Queen Elizabeth I carried with her—even unto her deathbed—a miniature of her own criminal mother? When Jane is locked inside the red room, she’s forced to recall what she doesn’t remember. How horrible. For both my friend who remembered and my coworker who saw the insides of their mothers, their mothers’ hearts appeared as enormous as the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and as inelegantly cut.
Of course, a fetus wouldn’t be able to see her mother’s heart; this is what I mean when I say no memory and no vision can ever be absolutely true—at least not scientifically. The insides of our mothers’ bodies are the only places that are most certainly past.
From then on, from there on, every room is just an echo of that first, red room, and we drift through them as women drifted through the Great Exhibition of 1851, pausing to look at the Koh-i-Noor no matter what humble station they occupied, whether kitchen maids or schoolteachers, daughters of businessmen or bakers. They stopped and looked because that diamond was a prize they’d never get their fingers on, or get on their fingers. Or wear on their heads. Or sparkling at their throats. That diamond is a memento of underground transformation, unseen processes proving there’s still mystery abroad, but to own it requires the luck of a good birth.
After the exhibition was over, Prince Albert hired a jeweler to recut the Koh-i-Noor into sixty-six facets, and in the process a large percentage of the diamond’s caret-count was lost. He was frustrated by that fact, but he softened when he saw the Koh-i-Noor nestled inside the queen’s brooch, and how what it lacked in heft it gained in light refraction. A mother’s heart, over time, is bowdlerized to meet the latest fashion.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 left in its wake a cache of oddities with nowhere to go. These days, call an artist after the show and she’ll come fetch her paintings. Naturally, the British refused to telegraph India and tell it to come get its sovereignty. So, in order to house unclaimed artifacts, new museums were built across London—a project spearheaded by Prince Albert himself, whose crowning achievement would become the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.
In Bethnal Green another building went up, first as a matter of storage and later as means of educating the neighborhood’s working poor. Its black-and-white tile floors were made by women prisoners in Epping—the fish-scale motif meant to give wayward female inmates a sense of purpose and pride, and to delight, even hypnotize, museumgoers into a state of intellectual curiosity.
But many of these criminal women were mothers and sometimes fudged the pattern, until, well into the 20th century, the Bethnal Green Museum was renamed the Museum of Childhood—not a children’s museum in the way we understand it (STEM activities, interactive exhibits) but a museum about childhood.
Childhood to the English must be sad. There are objects in this museum that existed before childhood existed. But even before childhood existed, people must have considered how their offspring liked dolls, and how those dolls liked little houses. They must have discovered how their offspring liked to play at things like tea parties and matrimony, meanness and profiteering. They considered their offspring’s affinity for daydreams, aliases, and alliances. One child, for example, made his mother wake him twice each morning. The first time he would be himself, and the second time he’d be a fairy child lost in the wood. The mother grew exasperated after months of this, and so employed an automaton-mother to take over, thus saving time and psychic energy.
This “mother” is now on display at the Museum of Childhood, along with a picture book in which Circle, Square, and Triangle are playing hide and seek. Circle tells the others not to hide behind her waterfall, but Triangle is a rule-breaker and hides there anyway. When Circle searches for Triangle, she encounters another shape in the darkness, an unknown shape that must be conjured by her imagination, and so—if we’re being honest—the conjuring of a shape out of perceived darkness is just another way of saying I own you.
II. I Shall Rise Again
We might say these are my children or this is my country, but in saying so we’re only fooling ourselves. In another heartbreaking act of foolishness, a woman in Korea, through the magic of virtual reality, was able to see her dead child again.
In the mother’s VR goggles, her daughter—who died of leukemia in 2016—had only been in a park, crouching behind a camphor tree. Now she materializes, leaving off her long game of hide-and-seek. Wasn’t it Marianne Moore who said poetry is “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”? If neither the girl nor the park is real, then the camphor must be—the camphor tree behind which the imaginary girl hides. But the girl used to be a real girl, and this is the scope of her mother’s poetry:
“‘Mom, where have you been?’ she asks. ‘I’ve missed you a lot. Have you missed me?’”
I don’t know whether the game is played solely in the park, or if it moves inside, into a house, maybe the very house where the mother and daughter lived together, or maybe some other house—the palace little girls dream about, filled with enough rooms for a most sumptuous game of hiding and seeking: wardrobes, attics, off-limit wings. She might hide inside a red room.
She might tiptoe barefoot down a back stair, get lost in a box of very old things, never to be heard from again, only to rise again, now in Jane Eyre’s Lowood School, built to accommodate perspicuous observation but, against all odds, allowing for fine, shimmering secrets like silkworms in a lacquered box. Just out of sight, around corners, hidden inside the high rhetoric of religious obedience, in the shadowy oligopticon of Lowood’s communal bedroom, girls have their private visions, especially Jane Eyre herself who
wandered as usual among the forms and tables and laughing groups without a companion, yet not feeling lonely: when I passed the windows, I now and then lifted a blind, and looked out.
I remember the tumult of school. I was meant to be formed by teachers’ scrutiny, but really it was the diagonal looks, the trapezoids of “laughing groups,” notes passed surreptitiously in the shifting hierarchy children build, that gave me my shape, that and occasional glimpses out windows; through them, the scene’s diegesis becomes a collection of disconsolate images, my bored, sullen reflection pasted onto snow— grass—street, whatever world it is. No wonder I turned to poetry.
And the oligopticon is poetry’s friend, for unlike the panopticon it resists absolute surveillance, offering a space where not everything can be seen, but what can be seen is seen at close range: girlhood friendships, puberty, death, the mingling of social classes, democratic exchange. At Lowood, Jane Eyre sees the minute details of disease, malnutrition, abuse, hears conversations unspool themselves in doublespeak, learns to play hide-and-seek.
We might say these are my children or this is my country, but in saying so we’re only fooling ourselves.
The oligopticon is French sociologist Bruno Latour’s term, coined in 2005 to describe the smaller, intimate spaces inside which larger systems are reified. The oligopticon seems to me an opportunity for both submission and resistance; if, for instance, Lowood’s intention is to solidify longstanding notions about the spiritual fragility of children generally and lower-class female children specifically, its administration will look for and find that fragility.
If, instead, the girls themselves want to see spiritual bravery, then they’ll see it, if only in a very small, three-inch-long mirror, for example. If they want to see a girl’s capacity to learn, to demonstrate complexity of thought, strength of character, then they’ll see that too, and, little by little, connections, however tremulous, will be made. Little by little, the master narrative will change.
It’s inside the oligopticon that Jane witnesses Helen Burns’s death—not just witnesses but absorbs it, hugging it close to her own body. This is Helen Burns who
looks as if she were thinking of something beyond her punishment— beyond her situation: of something not round her nor before her. I have heard of day-dreams—is she in a day-dream now? Her eyes are fixed on the floor, but I am sure they do not see it—her sight seems turned in, gone down into her heart: she is looking at what she can remember, I believe; not at what is really present.
Poor Jane. She’s only just “heard of day-dreams”—what my daughter calls the thing she does at night to put herself to sleep, the seeing-and-not-seeing she engages in. But engages is not really the right word—it’s more passive than that, like looking out a window onto a snowy street and letting the eyes cross slightly, lose focus.
After Helen dies, after Jane is lifted, weeping and brokenhearted, from the bed they shared, she tells us,
Her grave is in Brocklebridge churchyard: for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word “Resurgam.”
The tablet’s inscription means resurrection in the Christian sense (as a gift bestowed), but the Latin is translated, I will rise again, giving Helen herself some agency in the matter. Maybe Helen is telling Jane she’ll come out of hiding someday. Maybe Helen is speaking directly to Jane the skeptic who wondered aloud while Helen was still living, “What is God?” to which Helen responded, “My maker and yours, who will never destroy what He created.”
The creator of the “city of toys” in Consonno, Italy, never destroyed it, only abandoned it, though he (Count Mario Bagno) razed the original medieval town in order to build it. “When bulldozers began demolition in 1965, the residents had little, if any, notice. Several residents reported learning of the plans when they first heard the sounds of the bulldozer engines. The villagers gathered what they could and fled, narrowly escaping with belongings before the walls came down.”
This account comes from a website called Sometimes Interesting, which attempts “to uncover the history of the abandoned, forgotten, and unexplained”—a triptych of words each in its own sad, little frame, hung in the sky for Consonno’s refugees to point to. See, they said. See how they took our home and gave us daydreams instead?
All that’s left of the first Consonno is its 13th-century church and its little graveyard filled with so many Helen Burnses, so many promises of resurrections, that the earth itself decided to show; having been leveled by dynamite, its rock pulverized, the earth let loose landslides so devastating that Bagno’s second Consonno was deserted and left to rot deep in Lombardy, plans for Italy’s folly-rich playground permanently delayed, until they came. They came to Count Bagno’s Italian Las Vegas, his fantasyland, his city of toys, to spray-paint graffiti on Doric columns. To have sex on top of cannons. To dance in empty storefronts.
As Helen Burns says, no creator would (absolutely) destroy what he created, and if we know where to look, the fountains, pagodas, the minaret-topped arcade reveal themselves, rising from the subalpine forest like the spires of a church inside which there is, as Bruno Latour tells us, “no control and no all-powerful creator, either—no more ‘God’ than man—but there is care, scruple, cautiousness, attention, contemplation, hesitation and revival.”
In the context of Consonno what I mean is this: graffiti, bird shit, bonfire parties in the ashram of an old hotel lobby, the ritual of discovery and revival—as if every pilgrim is the first to see and recognize the place for what it is—is the gorgeous reverse of a shining city on a hill. Care, scruple, cautiousness, et cetera: these are intimacies gone unseen panoramically, gone unrewarded systematically, but revealed by delicate negotiations between what’s hidden and what’s found.
In 2017 the Nascondino World Championship in hide-and-seek was held at Consonno, followed by “hidden concerts” in the city of toys’ ruined buildings, though they remained “structurally unsound” and possibly dangerous, rendering every happened-upon musician as vulnerable as a child. The game’s players themselves weren’t children, though they had been once and wanted to be again, all four hundred of them confined to an obstacle course just beyond Consonno—a rolling lawn with hay bales, plastic rocks, barriers for hiding behind, and, of course, trees: cypress, cherry, laurel, spruce. There were food trucks, live feeds, men and women decorating their bodies with dirt and leaves, announcers giving the play-by-play in lush northern Italian accents.
And watching the footage from very far away, I can still see the specific joy in their faces; everything else falls away. I see a young woman crouching behind a pile of firewood tapped on the head by a young man sprinting past her, and she—shining in her Day-Glo shorts—rises to full height and strides, disappointed surely but laughing, to center field, shaking out her long hair and shouting, Ti sono mancato? Ti sono mancato? And all of Consonno—the ancient town that’s gone, the newer town only half there, and the town yet to be built—calls back, Sì, mia cara! Sì, and she, simply by rising, raises me with her.
III. Even in Arcadia, Here I Am
The blemishes and irregularities in the floor at the Museum of Childhood are likely glossed over by the casual visitor, but if one looks closely, every line begins to move. Every tile is, in some way, wrong.
Inmate Florence Maybrick said, “In the winter the prisoners get up in the dark, and breakfast in the dark, to save the expense of gas. The sense of touch becomes very acute, as so much has to be done without light. Until I had served three years of my sentence, I had not been allowed to see my own face. Then a looking-glass, three inches long, was placed in my cell.”
When the mirror arrived at last, it only showed Maybrick pieces of herself—some forehead, a slice of chin—depending on the tilt of her head. The prisoners at Epping who mended clothes and made tiles were missing their own mothers, their own children, and some were tossed into solitary confinement where the only thing they saw was the day’s residue on the back side of an eyelid.
Looking into her mirror, Maybrick saw, instead of a nose or a mouth, a stitch, then another stitch. The women who made the tiles saw, instead of a cheek or a brow, the kiln and the fire. The fire and the kiln. No wonder the floor’s pattern fails at precision. No wonder they couldn’t see the overall effect. They weren’t, in fact, allowed to.
Care, scruple, cautiousness, et cetera: these are intimacies gone unseen panoramically, gone unrewarded systematically, but revealed by delicate negotiations between what’s hidden and what’s found.
When Jane Eyre is tossed into the red room, she sees dust on the mirror instead of herself. She sees the massive bed “like a tabernacle” and a white chair “like a pale throne.” She sees the “divers parchments” and “jewel-casket”—the whole room under “the spell” of the “last words” that “kept it so lonely.” She means Mrs. Reed’s miniature of her dead husband—not words at all, but an icon, though she requires words to describe it. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Jane is thrown into a kind of church, made to stare at its symbols, then articulate them in the only way she can. She’s an outsider suddenly inside, trying to remember something there is, in fact, no way to remember. Like the womb. Like the mother’s heart.
Only in this moment, Jane is trying to remember a god she’d never met, and the red room as that god’s inner sanctum. It’s terrifying to her, blinding in its effect. “I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene,” she tells us, then a new chapter begins. It’s a chapter about losing one kind of vision but gaining another.
Once, during Mass, I followed my classmates up to the altar and let the priest drop a wafer in my hand. “Body of Christ,” he said, and made the sign of the cross over me. I put the wafer in my mouth, letting it dissolve rather than chewing; this is how I saw the other kids do it.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned I’d committed a sin. I wasn’t confirmed. I had no right to take the wafer, put it in my mouth, and let it dissolve, as the other kids had done. I’d been, for all intents and purposes, an outsider suddenly inside, trying to remember something there is, in fact, no way to remember. And the effect on me was a “species of fit”—namely, the feeling that I was a splinter of glass under the skin, an irritant in the eye born of my own badness, a terrible girl.
After this—my foundational mistake—I felt myself irrevocably described as an outsider who’d somehow wormed her way in. And if, as the priest said, I’d indeed eaten the body of Christ—why, then, Christ was swimming inside a sinner, my body holding his body in a sort of prison, and when he looked in my own red room’s mirror, he saw only pieces of himself. How could he be whole now, in me, here?
Erwin Panofsky, German American art historian and refugee, wrote a monograph on Arcadia, that miraculous pastoral place, arguing that the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego has been wrongly translated by some poets and artists as I once lived in Arcadia too, when it was King George III—that madman—who said it actually means, Even in Arcadia, here I am. Panofsky tells us that, according to George’s interpretation, in Arcadia “human suffering and superhumanly perfect surroundings create a dissonance. This dissonance, once felt, had to be resolved, and it was resolved in that vespertinal mixture of sadness and tranquility.”
But resolution is a forced conversion, or, at best, false speech in a lonely room. The dissonance Panofsky describes is love, and love must be allowed to spread, to seep under doorways, over dormers, to creep inside the bowdlerized heart, unconfined and unconfirmed, given access to everywhere.
But since there’s no such place as everywhere, someone gave it an address, called it the Museum of Childhood, and now displays its impressions behind glass. It categorizes its holdings not necessarily by time period but by kind: all the sight gags are grouped together—the 19th century’s myriorama, thaumatrope, and kaleidoscope along with the 20th century’s View-Master. And all the dolls—an ancient wooden figure, an 1850s Autoperipatetikos (the Walking Doll), an 1880s Johnny the Dunce that “plays a sad tune” on his toy violin, and a 1980s Cabbage Patch baby with a face like a prune.
It was a tranquil Christmas morning in the 1980s when I walked up the hill with my new Cabbage Patch doll to show Melanie, who answered the door holding her own Cabbage Patch doll. I was looking into a very sad mirror.
And it was in the 1980s when nurses came to elementary schools and systematically screened children for scoliosis, though they’d been doing it for nearly a century, first to catch disease-made spinal curves, then to surveil for the idiopathic version, meaning: no discernible cause. Because no one knows where idiopathic conditions come from, they are prime opportunities for moralizing. Government programs branded scoliosis a sort of slippery slope, a dangerous curve that with time and lack of intervention might become a deeper twist, a disastrous turn of events that, like drugs or sex, could lead to severe pain, maybe even death. I was never consigned to a back brace, though I heard some kids were. Looking at my X-ray was like looking into a very sad mirror.
In 2014 when an anesthesiologist felt my back before plunging the epidural needle deep in the middle of the night, I was reminded that my spine isn’t right. “Did anyone ever tell you,” he said, “that you have…” Because of my crooked spine, the epidural didn’t take, and I spent all night vibrating in pain—a pain so righteous that when I closed my eyes, I saw red, red, red, red, pulsing. I thought to myself then, I really must write a book someday. It’ll be about Jane Eyre and mirrors and wombs and toys and researchers in China who constructed a classroom made entirely of glass because, they hypothesized, exposure to natural light would help prevent myopia in children, and it worked—somewhat.
But the classroom was hot, sometimes uncomfortably so, and the children grew luminous, and the pages of their books far too bright to see. From the outside, their parents looked in (because they could) and saw the children put their hands over their eyes. “Bet you can’t see me now,” the children said, and though all the parents agreed that they in fact could see their children, they lied and said (because this is a game, after all) that they couldn’t, calling out, “Where, oh where did my little baby go?” and with that, their children—absolutely and without flourish—vanished from view.
This essay was originally published in Issue 113 of Image under the title “Labor.”