The first year of my daughter’s life pushed me to the edges of my abilities as a human, and it inspired me to research, and obsessively postulate about the core of what it means to be human. Very early in our cognitive formation, we develop our ability to connect to others, all formed through touch. There was little other than touch that could soothe my daughter who intermittently spent the days and nights of her first year crying. My child was not in peril, nor was nourishment ever withheld. But if she was not in constant contact with my body, she writhed, cried, and seemed tormented with neglect.
This infant type is called a “sensitive and high need temperament,” and these babies are in the minority. Only 10% of infants are born with this temperament but according to researchers; it’s just one of the normal variations of human temperaments. In a culture like ours, where work hours and small, (nuclear or single-parent) families need to keep a baby on a schedule; this kind of child is considered a bad baby. In a capitalist country, the worker must put the employer’s needs before everything. This applies to an Amazon worker forced to wear adult diapers rather than get behind on orders, or the office worker pumping and dumping in their work bathroom. Maximizing productivity and extracting profit takes precedence over the general well-being of human life.
An ever-growing body of neuroscience scholarship exposes what psychologists have long known: our brains are wired from birth to cooperate as well as punish those who do not share. The need to live in empathy is an extension of the endeavor of self-preservation. In the words of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, “to care and share is to survive.” Homo-sapien infants are the obvious evolutionary evidence of this beautiful truth. The absence of alloparenting creates an immediate deficit to parental and infant wellbeing. Everyone with a newborn can bore you with stories of hallucinations from sleep deprivation.
Human infants are far too demanding of our individual resources to survive without help. We could not have survived as a species if mothers had not had helpers beyond their own mates to raise their young. The elegantly complicated skills of negotiation and social flexibility further accompanies this covenant of shared offspring. And it makes for good human company.
Within three weeks of conception we have developed a primitive nervous system that links skin cells to our rudimentary brain. Dr. James L. Fosshage, in his essay The Meaning of Touch, writes that “The tactile system is the earliest sensory system to become functional (in the embryo) and it is the last to fade.”
It is our most powerful form of communication in the course of human life. Touch is our first language and, if we are lucky, the last meaningful language we partake in at the end of our life. This potent tool, of course, has enormous potential for harm as well as healing.
As many as 93% of American parents use physical punishments to correct children. There is a higher incidence of beatings and murders by parents in the U.S. than anywhere in the world, writes Sharon Heller in her book The vital touch. Americans rely heavily on impersonal childrearing aids, such as carriers, bottles, pacifiers, strollers, swings, playpens, and cribs, adds Heller. It is postulated that this type of parenting would produce individuals who are able to function in office cubicles, online socializing, and survive in a lonely, isolated urban world. Materialism becomes the poultice, the fancy things of adulthood replacing the faux breast baba of infancy. A perfect populace of consumers with built-in addiction to things instead of human connection.
My daughter’s disposition needed constant contact and this very nearly broke me, and it most certainly changed the way I see innate temperament. It made me see the very unfair division of labor in my marriage. It also allowed me to reevaluate my family members suffering from psychosis and their substance abuse struggles and wonder, were those family members afflicted with these conditions just the bad babies whose sensitive natures just didn’t fit into the family’s economic survival?
These more sensitive humans are deeply wired to touch, and are wired to be our society’s empaths, peace-makers, and healers. I surmise that if the soothsayers and horse whisperers don’t get the vast loving they require early, to quote Toni Morrison, “they go crazy so as to not lose one’s mind.” It seems we need the 10% of humans to remind the other 90% to care about everyone else.
I worked my last shift at the barbecue joint while in labor, carrying big trays of ribs and beans that rested upon my enormous belly. My midwife said that first-timers take a long time to labor, so I figured I might as well occupy myself with what could be my last bit of income for a spell. The bar had a big jar of money like a super bowl pool, betting on my birth date. And nobody gets better tips in a barbecue joint than a woman in her last trimester.
26 hours later, I gave birth to my girl at home in a pool set up in my kitchen. The doula, midwife, and the child’s father can all attest, it wasn’t an easy birth. Foreshadowing her sensitive nature, and her deep attachment; my daughter’s caul never broke. This created a bubble that my body’s contractions fought against for hours, until my midwife hooked her fingers into it and punctured it. This was as painful as any of the other parts of the birth. And as vastly difficult as her birth was, the real challenge was going to unfold over the coming months and years to come. Her caul was like a veil of truth that would leave her vulnerable and hypersensitive. Her attached nature and emotional sensitivity would link her to me, allow her to feel things deeper than most, and also suffer more as a result of the connection. In Irish lore, a child born with a caul was lucky as well as having the power of prophesy and an ability to communicate with spirits. This veil linked them deeply to both worlds, the living and the dead.
My daughter needed to feel the constant reassurance of touch to relax. Her little body would contort into a deep purple whenever she was put down. I bought books, spoke to infant experts, and enlisted advice from seasoned parents who assured me everything would be fine, but her need to be constantly held and touched never stopped. Nothing short of holding and rocking her back and forth or breastfeeding could soothe her. The women of my mother’s family would slyly comment that my daughter would have been ignored “or worse” back in their day. One relative confessed to me her that her daughter had been “one of those,” and she said she once fantasized about throwing her screaming infant against a brick wall. She described her long shifts at work and then returning home to the shrill cries throughout the night. She said that what was so baffling to her, was that everyone else seemed to have babies that could be soothed by a pacifier or a mobile, or even just a propped up bottle. She sympathized with my situation, but she had zero idea how to solve it.
The women in my mother’s family came from poverty, and rarely had a partner either available or willing to help. A child with such a temperament among a throng of other children and responsibilities just wasn’t going to thrive. I wondered how many of the mentally ill in my family were these “bad” babies born with their cauls, symbolically linking them to feeling more. I know so much of our complex cognitive development happens during these critical months and years of early childhood. And I knew whatever my daughter was experiencing when she wasn’t being held elicited sounds of utter terror from her. So I held her, rocked her, and slept very little.
I wondered about this throughout the endless days and nights of screaming cries every time I tried to shower or sleep. Her father worked in Manhattan. He wrote and completed a novel during her first year. He met with friends after work. He went to poetry readings. I stayed with her and I tried to find a way to comfort her. He held her and comforted her, when he was home. He offered help. But her needs were still far too much for two people in this arrangement to satisfy her needs.
I knew from my research that the intricate webbing in our brains desiring positive emotional-touch is wired to develop language; humor; emotional and social attachment; and, of course, empathy. I was terrified to doom her to my family’s curse of mental anguish and depression, so I just hung on. I kept her close. I desperately wanted to understand the brain’s symphony of touch related intelligence. Children with autism, Silvia Federici, male breast feeders, sex workers, addicts, and Romanian orphans ultimately gave me some answers.
Touch has a high degree of cultural variation. In her seminal work Touching: The Human Signifigance of Skin, Ashley Montagu brought together various studies of people from different cultures, with extremely different attitudes towards touch. In one study they counted the number of times people of different cultures touched each other in a one-hour period of conversation. Touching occurred on average 180 times an hour in Puerto Rico, 110 in Paris, and not at all in London 0. The U.S. subjects averaged two. The restrictive concept of innocent touch as being sexualized is as old as the Puritans who imported it. The legacy of these repressive attitudes continue to infect our social customs of touch. In our culture love, sex, power, and dominance are dangerously confused. Not long ago, John B. Watson, the premier parenting expert of the turn of the century, warned mothers “not to sexualize their infants by kissing or touching them affectionately,” lest those babies think they should be touched lovingly later in life!
Neurons in the skin collect information constantly through a variety of nerve fibers and sensory receptors called mechanoreceptors, much like the rods and cones of the eye, which deliver separate pieces of information that become blended into the whole of what we see. Similarly, we have a variety of nerve fibers that respond differently to various types of touch. One kind of nerve fiber, A-beta, does most of the grunt work of discriminating. It’s pretty much found all over the body, especially the palm. It’s sheathed in mylineated covering, a fatty material, that conducts messages rapidly, a good evolutionary trick for avoidance of danger, something sharp or hot let’s say. Some of our nerves want light touch, with erratic and unpredictable movements. Some respond to more firm touch. Being touched by someone with the intuitive intelligence of touch is a very different experience, like hearing a pianist play your piano after years of hearing a kid practicing chopsticks. It is often felt by people the first time they go to a massage therapist. Culturally, we have a limited vocabulary for discussing it. Most language of touch implies sex, so people shy away from even describing it. My young daughter quite innocently once described it as an electric current she can feel in her head, when I touch her forearm. This amazed me for a number of reasons, one of which, because I believe she was describing how her CT afferent cells work in her brain.
The newly discovered fiber that has come to dominate all talk of touch in research circles, and has become the rosetta stone for the exploration of social and psychological coding in childhood development, is the CT afferent fibers. They do not have the fatty super conductors encasing them, and are called unmilineated. These nerve fibers are very unique. They are found only on the forearm and back, not areas of sexual intimacy, but those of mutuality. The gesture seen at a funeral, or even a casual failure at work, is usually met with an instinctual touch of the back or forearm. These are nerves meant to read feelings, not sensation.
Researchers have found various ingenious ways to study this ability to process feeling through touch such as robots that use a small brush to gently touch forearms in various degrees of speed and pressure in one study. Slow and gentle is the preferred style of pleasure touch for these nerves. In another fascinating study, a woman who had a rare condition called neuronopathy, where she had no mylineated nerve cells only the unmilineated ones. Her brain’s reaction to this forearm delicate touch done during an MRI revealed no activity in the area of the brain that normally responds to touch. She couldn’t feel the touch directly but described the sensation as creating pleasure. Her brain responded to each of the movements on her forearm in the insular cortex, connected to the limbic system, which monitors emotion and awareness of one’s own body, and internal state’s such as hunger and exhaustion. In another study, scientists found a family in Sweden who all had the opposite condition. They had all inherited a condition where they only had no CT unmylineated nerve cells. This family felt the touch directly but did not find the caress at any speed on degree of pressure as pleasant or creating any pleasurable sensation. In short, the MRI revealed that the touch on their forearms created no feeling beyond the sensation. They felt no emotional response.
Autism researchers also found similar reactions to CT touch, wired through limbic emotional brain response, being unpleasant to their subjects. They still aren’t sure if perhaps this lack of emotional pleasure could be the result of autism or perhaps the lack of CT touch could trigger those with a preexisting tendency to develop autism.
Our socially dexterous, infinitely adaptive brains are formed in the first few years of life, in certain ways that impact us the rest of our lives. I read about attachment parenting while pregnant, which in evolutionary biology makes perfect sense. Living in cooperative close-to-earth cultures, since the beginning of time for most of human’s history, we shared child-rearing and nursing. Hell, it’s probably why we have two breasts, not a high rate of twin births. We are supposed to share the good stuff. Milk, jokes, and getting a nap.
And the chemical pay off? People who aren’t the biological parent will produce milk and get the breastfeeding benefits of the hormone oxytocin, the neuro transmitter and hormone that triggers attachment and a pretty sweet high. Communal mammalian pay off from the collective mammary glands.
Researchers have also found that oxytocin levels are predictive of maternal behaviors such as infant gaze, vocalizations, and affectionate touch during the postpartum period, and mothers who exhibit a pattern of rising oxytocin during pregnancy and the early postpartum period self-reported stronger attachment to offspring. In addition, higher oxytocin levels are associated with greater infant affect synchrony and social engagement.
An interesting fact–males can nurse. Nipple stimulation in males triggers a supply-demand that allows them to lactate. Japanese POW’s and concentration camp survivors nursed babies without mothers. As recently as 2002, a 38-year-old Sri Lankan widower nursed his daughters through infancy after their mother died. It seems that need triggers the hormonal cascade necessary.
Medical anthropologist Dana Rapheal claims that male lactation can be induced simply through nipple stimulation. Charles Darwin wrote in his 1871 thesis “The Descent of Man” that early humans of both genders were ably outfitted with mammaries for this very purpose, to divvy up the feeding equally with women. Even babies, boys and girls, spontaneously lactate in the weeks after birth a phenomenon called Witch’s Milk. This is caused by excess prolactin from the mother’s body passing through the placenta. It can take weeks for the newborn to filter out the hormones.
The overall philosophy? Our oxytocin soaked mammalian brain development needs caregivers to hold and nurture us much more than a mother can provide. If you want an elegant polymath mind and social vocabulary, look no further. Attachment parenting, and nursing on demand, has a map for the human heart, soul, and mind. But within the limitations of a modern family living in capitalism, this style of rearing creates an unsustainable strain. The duress of work hours causes parents to become socially isolated, only living for their child, sleep deprived with an unrelenting schedule. If one of the parents is breastfeeding, it’s even worse. The physical demands then rests mostly on the mammary laden gender, causing a rift of stress equity in the couple. They are doomed to fail or, at the very least, lose their mind.
If you have a high needs sensitive baby, this system breaks down even faster. Breast feeding for a baby’s comfort, “a human pacifier,” and babies worn constantly in a sling with the hope that being nestled within the constant safety of their caregivers, they will grow up secure and with a deep sense of well-being. That’s a good theory, and one I still support. But, unfortunately, we don’t live in a social network of shared boobs and material support. Capital and employment are the priorities and culprits for why our brains and cognitive development are completely at odds. The affluent in our culture often outsource the sensual touch and nurturing to hired caregivers making it now a third-world sourced job performed in the homes of the first world.
The brigade of aunts, uncles, and other nursing woman, all sharing the burden of childhood, are long gone. Now impoverished women move to the first world to perform the task of child rearing that forms the building blocks of humanity in the elite, nurturing the very children who will inherit wealth that allows them to continue to ignore the suffering of the third world.
I have seen affluent NYC children hand backpacks to nannies without a word or even a glance of eye contact. The understanding, is that these women work for them, how did they know that? Nurturing and creating empathy intelligence is not valued; their “love” is monetized from the start. I often wonder who this generation of the elite-condo-robots will grow up to be after being taught classism, racism, and gender roles all before first grade.
The flip side of this of course is that what works best for developing fully realized, empathetic human brains is unsustainable for working people in our culture. If you have a high-needs child, this becomes even more demanding for a nuclear family unit. A child raised with attachment ethics becomes accustomed to sleeping with a warm body and heartbeat next to them at all times, and they naturally become dependent on it. Child development expert Emma Jenner, in an article in The Atlantic wrote “Perhaps what’s most concerning to me about attachment parenting, though, is the thread that runs through each of these practices—sharing beds, feeding on demand, keeping the baby close at all times. It is a philosophy of putting children’s needs above parents’, all the time. Parents are at their best when they’ve taken care of themselves—when they’ve had a decent night’s sleep, when they’ve had a chance to connect with their partner, and when they’ve had the opportunity to move around baby-free.” And with a single- or two-parent home, these high needs children are going to need more than the parent has left to give. So children are kept from touch, locked in bedrooms, on what is called a sleep schedule, but is really just a polite way of sweeping away the guilt, but admitting the reality of the situation. No one can go on endlessly without sleep. An infant crying out in desperation in the middle of the night isn’t learning self-soothing, but instead that no one comes when they cry. And that instinct to trust and learn the complex language of touch is stunted. That shrill cry, which makes your core wince, developed over millennia of evolution to call the community of alloparent care givers to soothe and comfort them. And the crib becomes normalized because the alternative is a too tired parent rolling over and suffocating their baby. Attachment parenting is ultimately not a solution if performed by two or one person alone. Individual touch is a start, but community of touch is ultimately what has to happen. A community must support mothers, so that they can care for themselves and their children.
In a finding that is not so surprising, developmental psychologists report that as many as 80% of children, mostly from high-risk groups, are born with disorganized attachment, and a shocking 15% of those are from normal middle-class families, not children from high-risk groups. These children are unable to derive comfort around a caretaker they trust or to organize their emotions. Perhaps, for the first time in human history, exceedingly high rates of child survival coincide with emotionally malnourished children.
I first read about the science and psychology of touch intelligence when the reports came out about Romanian orphanages in the 1990s. It clicked for me personally, having witnessed a modified version of institutionalized neglect in my mother’s extended family. Children with a history of neglect have trouble with a list that reads like the index of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM—poor impulse control; social withdrawal; problems with coping and regulating emotions; low self-esteem; and pathological behavior such as tantrums, tics, stealing and self-punishment.
Neglect is not isolated to Romania, of course, but it is actually everywhere that poverty exists. In the U..S, the neglect is less obvious but quite real. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 676,569 children were reported to experience maltreatment and 78% of this abuse was from neglect.
“Neglect is not a disease,” says David A. Wolfe, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Toronto. “It’s entwined with the delivery of proper social and medical services. It’s embedded in socioeconomic disadvantage. The brain will often recover, if it’s allowed to.” The research reveals that the lack of touch, care and time given to children is causing them to have altered brains and behavior. Their abilities to reason, listen, and respond to corrective feedback are all effected. Wolfe believes the research outside of the convenient bogeyman of Romanian orphanages but not within the richest country on earth is one of politics. Americans don’t want to believe their very culture supports an economic structure that is systematically altering the brains of its populace. The future of our government, how we understand the consequences of global warming and human rights are all in the hands of a populace that cannot access the well-being of living wages to form the communities needed to support a culture capable of empathy.
The affluent children of our culture have access to health care and education, but the development of their brains still shows symptoms of emotional neglect. The hired hands providing attention by proxy for absent parents can make sure they are physically safe. But according to researchers working in addiction and recovery studies, the wealthy elite create a type of emotional neglect that will develop many of the same problems with substance abuse as the neglected children of the poor. The reasons for neglect—say being a full-time, lifestyle influencer with millions of followers and a staff of make-up artists as opposed to working double-shifts at Walmart with no health care— just aren’t the same. Being. The priorities of our culture are perfectly illustrated by our elites; their children are encouraged to be high achieving and successful, not to fight greed and destructive institutions, but to join them. The researchers of addiction and brain development tell us that the wealthy of our culture display reduced empathy, low tolerance for frustration, lack of appropriate guilt, poor coping skills, a tendency toward hierarchical power relations, and a sense of entitlement.
Imagine, however, if you had a culture of children raised with a sense that everyone was as deserving of compassion as their own family through providing social services that prioritized the enrichment of society’s empathy neurons. This could certainly be more vital than the GDP—the creation of a generation of people who don’t hoard resources, destroy the environment for short-term goals, or turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.
Out of touch
I used to admire the shape of forearms and necks as a child. These areas of the body seemed inexplicably beautiful expressions of musculature, the epitome of physical beauty and touch sensitivity from my own limited physical experience. The grace of a dancer’s neck held high. The curve of a shapely forearm playing guitar. Unlike eyes or a bee-stung mouth, you could steal glances of the back of someone’s neck and forearm without much risk of discovery. Those areas gooseflesh like a momentary micro-mountain range formed at a gentle touch.
In middle school I’d be sure to position myself on the glossy gym floor right in front of Kate. She had “the good touch.” She’d sweep my long hair up, gently collecting the delicate bits from the neck, and push it aside to run her hands down my back. Then eventually, while gym teachers droned on about who knows what she would sweep my hair back and start to braid it. Not in a perfunctory way. She would first touch my scalp, the back of my neck, my scapulae, all to gather the hair. She had a nuanced and empathic touch that perhaps first sprouted from innate ability, like someone with an eye for drawing, and likely also nurtured by parents who touched her with that same intelligence. It was at that age that I began to notice the patterns of who had this propensity for intelligent touch.
Out of a half a dozen cousins, one found a perfect compendium of the contrasting pattern of neglect and love. Mothers who had lost their children to traumatic divorces, death, or forced adoption (a Catholic’s birth control) tended to dote touch on the children they had that reminded them of the ones they’d lost. The cousins who were given extra touch were just more apt to touch you. Back rubs, hair brushing, a kind of nurturing through touch. More often than not, it was just a gender bias though. There was an unspoken misogyny. Boy children were just more desirable as children, and they received a lot more touching. I remember how the tough female cousins acted about hair braiding or back rubs. There was a bristling frozen reaction to being touched and a perfunctory awkward way they touched.
What creates pleasurable touch? A growing body of research has uncovered an entirely new dimension of touch, completely separate from its discriminative function. This new system, known as affective or emotional touch, and it consists of nerve fibers triggered by exactly the kind of caress a mother gives her child. Researchers tell us that these neurological foundations of attachment might play significant role in human behavior. Forging the ability to connect with individuals, integrate a sense of self and other, inform our awareness of our own bodies, and our ability to empathize to people around us, all of this triggered by being touched.
Oxford researcher Francis McGlone believes that affective touch is crucial for our brain development, and he worries about what will happen as we transfer more our socializing online. “This C-tactile system
is not there to sense the physical world, it’s there to have feelings about the
physical world,” says McGlone. “It’s coding something very important
particularly during early development. Something that might very well be the
key to empathy itself as an innate and necessary human adaptation of working
cooperatively to thrive and survive.”
One can become a bit touched after years without it. I visualize it sometimes as a houseplant kept in a tiny pot. Desperate for water, aeration, and nutrients, the plant will develop roots that coil the confines of the container again and again, futilely searching for nourishment, until it’s strangled itself into a knot. Its own roots like fingers on a neck unable to breath. This thick chokehold of roots eventually cannot absorb any nutrients, even if it was somehow released from the container, its gnarled form still withers away.
My roots spiraled, searching for nourishment in my marriage, and I very nearly lost the ability to trust my own pain. After many years deprived of empathetic touch and regularly exposed to a touch that did not seek to create joy but harvest it from my body like a crop, I forgot what it was like to have any needs of my own at all. The consequent birth of a high needs child absorbed what was left completely. Suddenly the small cruelty of being diminished daily became incrementally more visible to me. I feared this becoming a template for my daughter’s life. Living to please an emotional parasite and being gas-lit to expect nothing more. The deprivation of never being touched for my own pleasure changed me. It began to really break down my being when I had my daughter.
I exposed myself to conditions that unfortunately changed me forever. I had been a confident woman in my twenties, if still inexperienced. Experimenting with identity; sexual fulfillment was still through codependent avenues. And I was ripe for being taken in by a person who devoured my adulation and rejected me in the just right way. I most certainly found him.
What most drew me to him; I wanted to be part of a coterie of creative people, and I thought my partnership to a writer from a privileged background was what allowed me access to this world. Many of his friends were incredibly talented and intelligent. I was in my mind, an imposter, that didn’t deserve those friendships without being on the guest list. He was charming, intelligent, self-obsessed, and completely unavailable. Sex was only pleasing to him if I was already asleep (absent), or tensing in pain (disconnected). Perhaps these conditions allowed him to feel something. I wanted to be valued by this complicated and confusing person. My pedestrian and limited sexual experiences did nothing to prepare me. So I assumed all intellectuals had such predilections. According to a Victim Focus research group, out of 22,000 women questioned if they had ever woken to their male partner having sex or performing sex acts on them while they slept; 51% said yes. The common thread of these relationships were a certain power dynamic. A sleeping woman is no threat- she is absent. Of the 51% of women surveyed, they have trouble trusting sexual partners for decades after these incidents, and severe trouble sleeping through the night.
He was great at imitating affection if there was a respected audience, in what my mother always called “his grand gestures.” He would invite a dozen poets over, and it was up to me to plan, clean, shop, and cook the feast. He would mingle while wearing his velvet jacket, as I toiled, him telling guests that the house I had bought long before meeting him, was something “he built.” Referring to renovations we made I guess. When respected notables were in attendance he’d touch my shoulder and I’d jump at the shock of the simulacra of a tender gesture. Without fabulous witnesses, there were no shoulder touches. I was just a personal assistant for the banal chores so he could write. After some negotiations a few years down the line after having a kid, I would receive a designated writing night. But of course the chores still awaited me when I returned. He was always carefully accounting any act of service. Nothing was given freely. It was all being tabulated for the rationalization of what he took; cooking the books.
I was convinced he was my superior, having ingested his passive classism muddled into the creative life I’d always wanted, like a bitter but mind-altering cocktail. He monopolized conversations in our social situations, telling numbingly terrible puns, and never actually listening to people’s responses to his stories. He had a routine set of them; one about Prague, one about studying with Ginsberg, another about seeing ghosts. (Yes, ghosts!) They were all scripts. And the person listening had to just inertly stand there and let it happen. You weren’t supposed to do anything other than be delighted in him telling them.
Like many people in his circle, he avoids conversing below his station. For all their proclaimed allegiance to racial or gender equality, there is a sharp absence of empathy for the economic class structure that constricts race and gender unequally. Poets who profess allegiance to the causes of LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter, will still judge you based on the pedigree of your cheese board, or grad school lineage. As academic opportunities dry up, the elitism has only escalated in the culture of scarcity. I’ve worked at enough bars that host reading series, and the overall behavior of this population when dealing with the lowly bar’s “servers” is very telling.
When any member of my blue collar family came to visit, he’d just leave, without apology. If someone wasn’t his perceived “equal” or, better yet, a person of notoriety, he felt it was a waste of his time. Also, it’s just another act of service, to spend time with in-laws, and he was not going to do that without tabulating and subtracting it elsewhere. My favorite experience of travel, meeting people from all walks of life, made him noticeably uneasy. It made me wince when he’d change his demeanor to talk to laborers, assuming they couldn’t be just as clever as him.
He was inordinately concerned about how those chosen few of the literary elite perceived him. Would his letters be archived someday? Would he be published in the anthologies? I became quite adept at cheering him on. He would come home depressed from readings, convinced that no one recognized his true worth. Of course these were readings and events I couldn’t attend because I was at home with our daughter. But I would dutifully breath confidence back into him again. I figured I’d write and make art again at some other juncture in my life. I wasn’t worried. I knew being a mother was giving me something that nothing else in my life would.
His social standing began to slip as we closed in on middle age, and younger writers began to fill the spots he previously had at readings. His witty banter wore thin with the people in his circle. How many times can you hear that story about seeing a ghost in Venice? His work was skillfully acrobatic in its use of language. But it was vastly hollow of any duende. It existed for no other reason than to show you how clever he was. Poetry about poetry from poetry. He obsessed over his status among the poets, and whether or not he was in the perceived inner fellowship. He had a keen talent for writing essays, but he had nothing to write about. We made a practice of outlining a concept together, for his essays, mining subjects that were meaningful to me. I’d drink too much coffee and ramble. I considered it a great honor to be of service to his writing. I still think he’s a fantastic essayist; far more skilled than I. But nowadays, I think people like me should have a voice, because we have something to say. Telling your story, can be personally liberating, but also act as a catharsis for others who have kept their stories in silence.
His education and privilege is something that used to intimidate me. He advised me what to wear, how much I should weigh, and most importantly, what I was. But now I feel this descendent of tenement trash putting a pen to paper is an act of defiance. Vox populi. If I laugh a little too brashly or if I let the Brooklyn accent slip into a story, so be it.
“She won’t go to Harlem in ermine and pearls…”
Being seen & seeing
Early on, in the glaring and unforgiving light of morning he said, “Your eyes are a pale green-yellow in the center and grey-blue around the outer edge.” I braced myself for what I thought was going to be his first compliment of my physical being. I was stunned he even noticed such a detail. My blood pounded in my eardrums with hope to be told, finally, that there was a part of me that was notable. “I don’t like generally light-colored eyes. I think darker eyes are much more striking.” I remember the feeling this blunt comment gave me. Not so much hurt, but as to confusion. To me, physical attributes were a randomly occurring element of genetics. And when you gazed into the eyes of someone you adored, the idiosyncrasies of their physical form became beautiful. Because they were uniquely them. He said he loved me, but what exactly did he love?
He didn’t really notice me as a physical being until we were going to an event, even then he wasn’t really aware of me, I was simply a representative of him. When I met him, I was working as a line producer on documentaries and wearing jeans represented a kind of punk-powersuit to me. He noted that I wasn’t particularly flattered by jeans. His opinion about the appearance of my body type in jeans became yet another failure of mine and long-term rejection. Even my body was failing.
“My mother was bulimic, so I guess I inherited a rather thin aesthetic.” He’d say, kind of apologizing and kind of joking, but not really. I knew he tended to admire bodies who resembled pre-pubescent male bodies. Controlling my curves seemed like a direct way to eventually become good enough. To be in control. When I was still trying to convince him I was beautiful, I used all my miles to fly him to a Greek island. He would wake up and get dressed and spend every day on the other side of the island writing poems. I waited for him, hoping he’d to want see me during the day. To the very end of the trip, I thought he’d want to explore what my copy of Lonely Planet enthusiastically described as “the greenest island in the Aegean.” I kept busy on those days. I took photos, kept a botanical list, collected flower specimens I’d never seen and pressed them into my notebook. I sketched the choppy shoreline from our balcony. And I waited. The lover always waits. But he would only meet me in the evening. We’d eat meals, splitting the bill always, and get ouzo enthusiastically given to us by locals who seemed a hell of a lot more interested in me than he ever did. But even the ouzo didn’t lower his walls. He in fact became even more dissociative after drinking.
My friends tried to intervene after that dismal adventure, but some obstinate and broken part of me refused their advice. They saw the weight dropping off my body, they saw the way my face tensed for his approval at every social function. I believed I didn’t deserve him. I also began to believe that I didn’t deserve empathetic touch.
I imagine my ex knows certain critical features of female anatomy exists. I think he found me just unworthy of the existence of this small bit of nether truth. Anatomically and otherwise, I was not of value. Ultimately, he was just more in love with himself than he could ever be with another person. I existed like an out of focus figure in the background of a faded photo. I figured my fantasy about spiritual fusing, and transcendent sex magic was just some antiquated left over from ample occult reading and the Prince records of adolescence. I hoped to finally evolve into someone worthy of connection and getting married felt like great validation. So did having a child, initially.
The hopelessness deepened, as my daughter grew. After a few years, I desperately made a Hail Mary pass. If he couldn’t treat my body kindly and was incapable of finding pleasure through creating it in me, perhaps we should see other people outside the marriage. He agreed all too quickly to this arrangement. He was excited to be liberated. And he seemed completely absent of any jealousy at all. In fact he was immediately smitten with the prospect of notable writers and artists being interested in me. It’s the closest I ever saw him being into me specifically, there was the look on his face when one of his favorite writers tried to kiss me. I turned away from the kiss, I knew it was just alcohol induced and had nothing to do with me. And ultimately, it all just saddened me more.
Opening the relationship did nothing to help the inequity of labor. I was still doing all the domestic chores, paying bills, managing to provide sleep deprived child care, unless I was bartending late into the night. What waned was my fantasy of being romantically cherished. I had loved him. The sadness that filled that void was enormous, and I truly didn’t know if I would ever trust someone again.
Years into this deprivation, I became a bit touched, in the head. I would erupt in anger about random failures. A pen run dry. A broken glass. Everything felt out of control. The endless imperfections. I was desperate for his approval, of course. I thought, if I just tried harder, became more disciplined, and more physically appealing, I’d be worthy of affection.
Our block was the kind of place riddled with kids and mothers, up and down the street. We’d all set up chairs on the sidewalk and hold court. And I would watch the neighbor’s assorted partners walk up our hill from the subway, in the late day light approaching in the distance, making the steep climb up. I loved watching their faces soften and beam when they saw their child or spouse. I wished that some day I could see that look on his face, that gaze of contentedness. The face that said, “I’m home.”
Often he would wait till I was asleep, because that was the simplest way to remove me, if my body was unconscious and therefore without my being connected. The feedback loop of wanting approval and escalating ennui became inextricably entwined. I was a hostage to whatever it would take. To make it stop, as quickly as possible. If I initiated eye contact, and empathetic touch, it would just take longer. So I grew to accept the emptiness. The more time that went on, the less I had any feelings at all.
Anthropologists have recorded the quickening of heart rates, and brain MRI’s lighting up like pinball machines when subjects simply heard the audio of a female orgasm replayed. In a moment of brave futility, I mentioned this to him. “I don’t have patience for this. You’re just broken… probably that something is wrong with you. I have never had any problems with any other women.” I came to fear there was actually something wrong with my body, with my mind. Maybe he was right, I simply wanted too much. I was lacking in the confidence and experience. The roots of the plant were so twisted, there was no very little lucid understanding left.
Breast feeding had allowed my body to rebel from the curve less aesthetic. My daughter’s voracious appetite created a ferocious hunger in me. The constant touch and deep attachment she and I shared opened me up. I wanted to feel emotions. And I began to enjoy food. I was done with the habitual invalidation. I began to see all of these indignities reflected in my daughter’s future well-being. I found a therapist and began the work. My therapist helped get me past the burden of guilt, and see the blueprint for my daughter was still being written. I wouldn’t be a martyr for staying married, I would be dooming her to repeat the pattern in her own life.
Silvia Federici, the great radical teacher and activist, connects the expropriation of women’s unpaid labor as a historical precondition to the rise of capitalist economy predicated upon wage labor. Instead of seeing capitalism of the liberatory defeat of feudalism, she interprets the ascent of capitalism as a reactionary move to subvert the rising tide of communalism. She situates the institutionalism of rape and prostitution as well as the heretic and witch hunt burnings and torture of women at the center of a methodical subjugation of women and appropriation of their labor. As she observed, if American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year.
The marriage came apart as I began to ask for more, and I awkwardly tried to liberate parts of myself. A gamut of suppressed emotions began to burst through at the seams. I was becoming unmoored emotionally, and it was terrifying to not have much control over the sadness and anger. The inequity of being an unpaid maid and personal assistant and an overall disregard for my being finally eroded my need to please my abuser. The Stockholm-haze began to lift, I couldn’t be a hostage any longer. When asked to move out of the house he panicked. He threw himself on the floor in front of our daughter weeping and grasping at his face and writhing. I’ll never forget that moment, as my daughter’s giant eyes looked at him in tears and then looked up at me in anger.
“Mommy you hurt papa! Look what you’ve done to him!”
I knew that she would blame me, maybe always. He of course told all the people I liked the best in the poetry world about the divorce, with I’m sure some cherry picked timeline of infidelity and spin. I’m surprised they didn’t ask me to emblazon my shirt with a letter A. Some of those people still barely condescend to acknowledge me at readings today, no matter how sophisticated my cheese board has become. It was what I feared all along in a way, being ostracized from the community he allowed me access to, and had just as deftly pulled away.
I remember after he finally moved out, he left everything in dismembered piles, the books he didn’t want, papers and debris all scattered across his office floor. He’d left behind all the refuse of our years together. A few days into cleaning the two foot debris pile, I found a notebook. I was hesitant to look in it. I didn’t want to know what he thought of me. I felt less than triumphant in these moments, more like I had failed at creating a life. I opened the small moleskin book. Apparently in this small notebook he had itemized everything he had ever bought for me. In neat calligraphic columns. “Pendant–crow–silver chain– $43” Itemized affection, so he could prove his beneficence to himself.
I knew my ex’s reputation in the literary community was the paramount focus of his life. I had no desire to expose him. I was going through one of the most challenging times of my life. I wanted to keep the divorce as amicable as possible for my daughter’s well-being. His Machiavellian tendencies also concerned me since he had already ruined a few friendships with his creative retelling of our last year. I figured the drama could only get worse. I continued to have 80% custody, and everything that entailed. The only change of him moving out was having to enlist my friends as babysitters when I needed to work extra shifts. When my volunteering gave me some rare opportunities to do work in human rights, he wouldn’t give up even a single night of bar hopping to cover childcare. It wasn’t in the accounting. I began to see the lowly mule as my allegoria animalis. It gave me some strength in tough times, imagining all the songs laborers have created, to sing to a mule.
Why did I allow someone to use my home, subvert my mind and degrade my body and diminish me? After almost a decade of therapy, and introspection I’ve figured out some of the patterns that my ex fit into. Mostly power dynamics of my own home growing up. Now that I’m in a healthy partnership with an affectionate person the exploration of my remnant pain from those years has given me a gift. I’m no longer guilty at my anger. I no longer worry about his reputation. His feelings. His legacy. I am filled with a freeing rage, for myself, for my daughter, and for all the women ever oppressed by these dynamics. Even more than the rage, I have finally at long last found joy. A feeling of fulfillment derived completely from my own social, creative, and emotional well-being, liberated from any romantic relationship. I imagine the self-help gurus among us would advise me that the next emotional evolution I need is forgiveness. But please, don’t rush me. I’m enjoying this.
I began to look at my daughter’s temperament as something I doomed her to suffer through genetically. The divorce hurt her deeply. I thought I was strong enough for both of us, and that I could help her navigate this as well as protect her from his narcissism. What I didn’t anticipate was my own anger. What I didn’t account for was how overwhelmed I felt at the continued inequity of labor. I found it more and more difficult to mask my feelings about her father. I knew it wasn’t healthy for her, and I struggled with suppressing it. It filled me with shame, because he seemed to be living his happiest life, without any ill thoughts toward me. He has the adoration of a daughter but without the encumbrances of providing her health care or maintaining the daily grind of her life. She seemed temporarily distracted by the face paint, costumes, and just reveling in the attention of a doting weekend father.
PTSD with regards to intimacy came in waves, along with a reckoning for the creative community. Generally speaking PTSD involves persistent mental and emotional stress as a result of a singular injury or psychological shock. Complex PTSD applies to events that are extreme, prolonged, or repetitive, from which a sufferer finds it impossible to escape, such as childhood sexual abuse or prolonged domestic emotional abuse. People with a history of complex PTSD also tend to seek out employment in areas where trauma is an occupational hazard, like police work or sex work, with the potential to compound their trauma further.
The decade of working and providing child care while my ex attended literary events, probably had more to do with my disappearance in the scene. The time I spent designing book covers, hosting readings, and helping to publish other writer’s work in our literary magazine seemed erased with my divorce. This had an enormous effect on my social confidence. I pulled away from public settings. I had lost the ability to trust and know what my needs even were in a relationship. I had a boyfriend for a few years, who found it aggravating and baffling that I let my ex have access to my house whenever he picked up our daughter. I’d leave for work, and they’d watch tv and tear through whatever bagged food they could find and leave everything strewn across both furniture and floor. Coming home exhausted from bartending, it was like having a house-crashing raccoon Goldilocks. The boyfriend wasn’t a very kind or insightful person, but he was right on target with observing how obsequious I was towards my ex. During the week, I dealt with schoolwork, PTA meetings, pediatricians, dentists, cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the old crumbling house. Her father took her to Ren Faires and museums. He never openly disparaged me to her. But the power dynamic was clear. My worth was my toil. His was being a creative person who prioritized his needs above all else. And there was a chasm growing in her from this disparity. Feeling the inequity of this imbalance dividing her heart, if not exactly yet understanding why.
I struggled financially, in order to maintain the house as her inheritance someday. I fantasized about just taking the big exit-stage-left during this time. I imagined the executors could just sell the house and set up a trust, if I was gone from the equation. I began to feel like she’d be better off without me in the picture. The anger I felt for her father would be gone forever, and she could just go through life believing in the identity he manufactured on Instagram. On one such night, when my daughter was at a sleep over, I asked my ex to meet with me outside his apartment. I was embarrassed, but I told him that my thoughts were very dark, I should probably not be alone. He was on his way out, “You’ll be fine. ” He made an excuse and went on his way. I walked back home and did a lot of thinking. He posted selfies throughout the night, first at a reading and then at a bar.
A wise woman once told me, “Oh honey, don’t go to the well–there’s no water there.” I should have known better than to reach out to him. But it was an important final lesson. It confirmed in my mind his complete lack of character and his antipathy towards anyone that doesn’t serve his immediate needs. I made it through that long night, and I decided to live. I simply couldn’t leave my daughter.
The world seems too much for her at times. She’s a teenager now, and doesn’t generally want any touch from her mother. Our old tactile rituals of nightly hair braiding and neck rubs are of course obsolete. But, every once in awhile, there is a moment where those tools still serve her. She is often stricken with migraines and with that a symphony of chemical imbalance for days afterward. That is when she’ll ask for the “good” touch from her childhood, that she both loves and she actually wields herself. I’ve been astounded by her touch. It has shocked me how knowing, and beautiful it is. I’ve been moved to tears at moments thinking how much this wiring and vocabulary means. It means she will be okay. She will adapt and survive. Because no matter how cruel this world can be at times, and how much she has a hyper awareness of it, she also has the ability to heal. She has the touch, with which she can help others and, ultimately, herself. It’s been a source of bonding between us since she was born, written in her CT afferent fibers, giving her the ability to read the feelings of others. I like to hope that this brain blueprint of touch will lead her out of the darkness of adolescence and I know that this compassion will make her a relentless fighter for justice in her adulthood. Her vast and ever-expanding power to feel and empathize with others is needed in this era of climate crisis and social inequity.
I look in at her now sleeping in her own room, away from me. Independent, astute, brutally funny, and obstreperous. She would never suffer anyone telling her to diminish herself. She has the empathetic touch, as she once described, like an electric current, running through her mind to her fingertips. And even now, at her most insubordinate, a 13-year-old who rolls her eyes at my every word, I still look at her with tears brimming in my eyes and I say to myself at last, “We are home.”
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TRACEY MCTAGUE is a writer and visual artist born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She utilizes a language informed by ecopoetics and the oral traditions of the seanchaí. Gathering from cross-cultural cosmogonic myths from our collective unconscious, she harnesses the micro protests of our ancestral mycorrhizae as weaponized forms of macro survival.
McTague received her education in fine art and film at The New School for Social Research. She worked for Michael Moore on The Awful Truth, harassing CEOs via the art department. She has also worked for the Association for Cultural Equity and in the Allen Lomax archive, helping to preserve and prepare his vast collection of music for the Library of Congress while contacting all living descendants for ancestral reparations for everything we call music. She works for the Irish peacemaker Prof. Padraig O’Malley, who specializes in the problems of divided societies such as South Africa and Northern Ireland. She also created a photo project for an 11-nation secular collective seeking to help empower European Muslim youth through self-expression and socio-political documentation.
She was an editor and the art director of Lungfull Magazine for 12 years, and hosted the Battle Hill Reading Series for five. Her art, essays, reviews, and poetry have been in The Brooklyn Rail, The Poetry Project Newsletter, and The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books, among others. She is author of Super Natural and Marginal Utility, both published by New Orleans’ Trembling Pillow Press.