Notes on the Unfathomable

Notes on the Unfathomable

I had been chosen for the exercise because of my size. Because I was the smallest person in the room. And still, I wasn’t small enough. No matter what, I couldn’t make myself small enough. I couldn’t make myself disappear. This is the border between anorexia and suicidality. This is the border between madness, sexuality, femaleness, and lack of restraint. This is what it means to be a borderline. On the borderline. To not be able to make yourself disappear.


I could write something eloquent about this. I could develop a nice, neat, tidy framework to explain the causes, mediators, moderators, and effects. I have that now. For so long I didn’t even know where to start and now I have a framework. This is science. Science saves lives. Science gives you a narrative to put your findings into. A story to tell. A way to structure the events. Science and storytelling are not so different, really.

But is that truth? Packaging something nicely and neatly into a particular framework - does that do justice to any of this? Is there any way to capture the feeling of not having a framework onto a piece of paper? If I’ve learned anything from my experience of being an editor, if I am certain of anything, it is that words are meaningless. Words reduce. You can never fully capture any part of reality with language. With narrative. With a framework. Things don’t happen narratively. The universe is chaotic. There is no order. The world is not just.


Notes on Victimhood:

  • Who is deemed worthy of the status of victimhood?

  • Who is recognized as having been legitimately victimized?

  • People who are perceived to have a greater degree of restraint = more recognized as victims

  • People who are perceived to have a greater degree of restraint = perceived as more deserving of care

  • Mad people, fat people, unattractive people, people of color = perceived as lacking restraint - excessive, insatiable, manipulative

  • This is one reason Anorexia Nervosa is seen as being at the top of the hierarchy of psychiatric disability - seen as evidence of restraint

  • Physical signs of illness/disability = evidence of restraint and evidence of victimhood (evidence that pain is serious enough and real enough to be deserving of care) - the person is not making it up/exaggerating for attention/manipulation

  • Fat people = any expression of romantic/sexual desire perceived as predatory

    • Perhaps even delusional?

  • Borderlines = perceived as lacking restraint over their own emotions to such a strong degree that they will manipulate you into caring about them

    • Borderlines = illegitimate victims

    • Believe they deserve victimhood status, manipulate you into believing their victimhood status (attention seekers) - but they are not victims, they are perpetrators

    • Through lack of restraint - can’t manage their own emotions, needs you to care about them

    • Manipulates you through tears and if you don’t respond to tears, she will manipulate through other recourses (i.e. false rape allegations)

  • If someone attempts to convince you of their legitimate victimhood status when they are not in fact deserving of care/sympathy, this means they are a perpetrator and their identities become inextricably tied to perpetratorhood


I’m at a Hearing Voices training, and we’re learning about an exercise called “family sculpts.” A voice hearer, Kristy, stands at the center of the circle and selects participants to play the role of members of her family, arranging them into a configuration that best reflects her view of the family dynamics.

It’s time to select someone to play herself. “I need someone who’s small,” she says. “I need to be able to show how small and powerless I felt as a child.”

Inevitably, she looks straight at me. I am 5 feet flat and 100 pounds. “You’re the smallest,” she says. “Come act the part of me.” Others in the room laugh. I show my teeth, force a laugh. It’s supposed to be funny. I’m used to this.

I stand up, come to the center of the room, wait for her to place me in the arrangement. She opens her mouth to speak but then pauses. “Hmm,” she says. “Well - uh. I was going to ask you to lie down in a fetal position to represent how powerless I felt in my family...but you’re in a dress.”

I laugh nervously.

The trainer interjects. “That’s okay,” she says. “You can ask her to lie down.”

Kristy laughs. “Well, I mean, I want to protect her dignity.”

“You didn’t have any dignity when you were a child, did you?” the trainer asks. Kristy shakes her head.

I lie down in a fetal position. Immediately, half the students in the room begin to giggle. One woman hands me her suit jacket. “You should probably use this. To...protect your dignity.” I place it over my legs. After a brief awkward moment, the exercise moves on, and Kristy begins to select more participants to play other members of her family.

For the rest of the exercise, I try to be as still as possible. If I am frozen, maybe they won’t see me, I think. After a minute or so I realize that my teeth are chattering and hands are shaking. I bite my lips and dig my nails into my palm. Don’t let it show, I tell myself. I wait and wait for the exercise to be over. Please don’t let me draw attention to myself, please don’t let me move in any way that makes people notice me, I pray silently.

After the exercise is over and the participants are allowed to return to their seats, I rush out of the room and sprint to the bathroom. Inside the stall, I text one of my closest friends. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I type. “I just know it’s going to be seen as a come on. I know it’s going to look like I was trying to get sexual attention. Like I was trying to flaunt my body or something. Like I was flashing some of the men in the training on purpose to get their attention. Like I’m delusional.” At this point tears are streaming down my face. “I hate having a body, I hate it so much. I feel like I can’t move around in space without being seen as a predator. And what if I am? What if, by virtue of having a body, my body, I am a predator?”

I conclude with a line that by this point, I’ve gotten rather used to repeating. “See? I told you. I’m permanently screwed up.”


For the record, I was, indeed, wildly in love with him. The way I thought about him felt BIG, HUGE, GIGANTIC, beyond what anyone else could possibly understand. I was obsessed with him. It was intense. I thought of him constantly and continuously. When I woke up, when I fell asleep, during every task of my daily life. I fantasized about him - sexually, romantically. It was all consuming. I admired him - his coffee brown hair, his mischievous smile, his deep laugh, his confidence, his intelligence, his willingness to listen. He was the first person to ever make me feel truly valued - beyond just a series of accomplishments or my GPA but for me as a person, for my hopes and dreams and desires. I wanted to be his favorite person. I yearned, desperately, for him to think about me as much as I thought about him. I would’ve done just about anything for his attention.

I was 15. Isn’t that how love is supposed to be when you are 15?

I would wait outside his classroom door so that I could “accidentally” run into him when he finished teaching a class. I came up with lists of questions about Spanish grammar that I just had to ask and set up appointments to meet him in his office. I wrote novels that dramatized some of the hard stuff I was going through in high school and shared them with him. “They’re just fiction,” I would say, hoping, praying he would doubt me. I asked him to partner with me in forming a “Spanish table” where students could practice their Spanish at lunch, secretly knowing that I would be the only student who showed up. I would cry in his office. I would cry if he was talking to other students in his office.

After a year or so, when I was 17, he began to avoid me. He made excuses for why I could no longer set up appointments with him in his office. He cancelled Spanish table due to lack of student interest (which hadn’t been an issue before). I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t understand why he was suddenly withdrawing his attention.

I don’t know. Maybe I did understand. Maybe I understood perfectly. Maybe, deep down, I really truly did understand but I didn’t want to. I just know I hated myself and blamed myself. I had ruined a good thing.

I began to stand outside his office and cry some more. I cried during his class. I wanted him to notice me. To sympathize with me again like he had before, to care about me. I would come back to my dorm room and cry and cry. One of my friends saw me crying every day and decided to write him an email. “Emily feels like you are avoiding her,” she said. “She is going through such a hard time. She is being bullied in school and her parents don’t understand at all. Can you please just talk to her again? Can you please be there for her? You’re the only one who gets it.”

And that, my friends, is how this writer - this former award-winning 4.0 GPA-earning high school student - ended up in the headmaster’s office.


Notes on Knowledge/Insight:

  • Knowledge = a form of power

  • Knowledge = restraint

  • If a person who lacks restraint KNOWS they lack restraint and ADMITS they lack restraint, we are less afraid of them

  • In admitting that they lack restraint, they transfer the knowledge of their lack of restraint to US (we/us = general public, other people in their life)

  • A person who lacks restraint = mysterious, scary, unpredictable

  • In some way, this is power. This is dangerous - predatory. They lack restraint and we don’t know what’s going on in their head. We don’t know when they will lash out, manipulate us, be violent

  • If they ADMIT they lack restraint, then we KNOW. We KNOW what’s going on in their head

  • Our knowledge = power over them

  • If a person lacks restraint, we want them to confess to lacking restraint

    • The first step of AA = admitting powerlessness

    • “Schizophrenics” are said to “lack insight” - they need to “admit”/”confess” to having an illness

    • We need to gain back power through their admission/confession

    • Their lack of restraint is much scarier/more unbridled/unrestrained if we don’t have knowledge of it

    • It may also be much scarier/more unbridled/unrestrained if they themselves don’t have knowledge of it (if they have knowledge of it then it is more cold and calculating which is still dangerous but more acceptable/predictable - it is kind of “badass” versus the crazy unrestrained uncontrollable Mad person)

  • This aligns with Melanie Yergeau’s work - autistic behaviors are usually presumed to be unconscious/unintentional; intentionally claiming an autistic identity makes space for autistic behaviors to be an intentional form of communication that takes agency

  • Same with claiming a mad identity or a fat identity - instead of these things being unknowable mysterious traits, they are KNOWN to the individual and intentionally performed

    • Does this unintentionally create disavowal and distancing of ourselves from people who do lack restraint? From behaviors that genuinely are unrestrained?

    • Does this send the message - “Being Mad is okay because I am CHOOSING to be Mad and performing being Mad and because I KNOW I am Mad and I like it” and therefore the subtle message that those who don’t know they are mad or are not choosing it/performing it as an intentional identity are less acceptable/less valuable?

    • Are Mad Pride and Autistic Pride the equivalent of tripping, saying, “I meant to do that,” and then tripping some more?

      • Don’t get me wrong. If it is, that’s cool. We should be destigmatizing tripping. If tripping (=madness, autism) because an okay thing to do, an okay identity to perform, then by all means, let’s do this shit.

      • But what about the people who really don’t trip on purpose? Who are tripping all over themselves and aren’t aware of it and it’s totally accidental and not possible or feasible to perform or know as an identity? To “mean to do”? What then? Are there cases like this? Is it possible to make something acceptable or reclaim something without requiring its performance/chosenness as an identity?


My headmaster was a British man with a long beard who sat perfectly rigidly upright in the board room. I sat across from him at the table, cowering. My body was doing the shaking thing. I was trying to make myself small.

“This is a very personal, intimate part of your life that you need to be honest with yourself about. You have some very inappropriate feelings for your Spanish teacher. Very. Inappropriate. You are crying in his office, you are seeking attention, you have engaged in self harm. It is very clear that you are willing to go to quite some extreme lengths to receive special attention. From now on, you won’t be rewarded for that. You’ll be treated just like any other student. These feelings must be put an end to.”

My parents sat on either side of me. I wanted to disappear.

“I need to protect the safety and well-being of the employees within this institution. Your crying publicly, your crying in a male employee’s office, your feelings - do you know how this looks? The appearance of impropriety - that is enough to destroy an instructor’s livelihood. Your actions show a disregard for this man’s well-being. And I need to put an end to that. To protect him.”

He paused, sighing disgustedly.

“We don’t know what could happen if we didn’t put a stop to this behavior. We don’t know, for example, if you would be willing to make up a story - to conjure up an accusation - to get some sort of revenge. We don’t know if you would say that Sr. Smith had, for example, been sexually inappropriate to you. We just don’t know. And that is why we need to get your behavior under control.”

Afterwards, I stood, frozen, paralyzed, beside my locker for 10 minutes. My whole body shook violently. Inside I was numb.

Then, I went back to my dorm room, played Ke$ha’s “Mr. Watson” on full volume from my computer speakers, and sang along at the top of my lungs. I made sure to leave my door open so that others would hear me.

Looking back at that moment, I sometimes ask myself, “What the hell was I doing?” And then I remember: what other option did I have?


Mr. Watson Lyrics:

[Verse 1]

Oh boy, I just can't wait for history class

It's my favorite hour of the day

My favorite hour of the day

Up on the chalkboard, I just love your ass (mm)

When you write notes it shake, shake, shakes

So when you get back my pop quiz

What will you think when you read this?


Mr. Watson I want to get with you

I won't tell a soul what we're gonna do

Wanna get my hands in your Khaki pants

Teacher, teacher, what you gonna do?

Teacher, what you gonna do?

Cause I am coming on to you

[Verse 2]

Can't put my finger on what's so sexy

And why I want you in my bed or on your desk

Is it your power, your authority?

Or the thrill of being so so bad

Can I please see you after class?

There is something that I have to ask


Mr. Watson I want to get with you

I won't tell a soul what we're gonna do

Wanna get my hands in your Khaki pants

Teacher, teacher, what you gonna do?

Teacher, what you gonna do?

Cause I am coming on to you


And I know it's a fantasy of yours

You know it's a fantasy of mine

So why waste time?

Let's do this thing tonight


Mr. Watson I want to get with you

I won't tell a soul what we're gonna do

Wanna get my hands in your Khaki pants

Teacher, teacher, what you gonna do?

Teacher, what you gonna do?

Cause I am coming on to you

Mr. Watson I want to get with you

I won't tell a soul what we're gonna do

Wanna get my hands in your Khaki pants

Teacher, teacher, what you gonna do?

Teacher, what you gonna do?

Cause I am coming on to you

Come and get it, mm


Like my headmaster, my mother just wanted me to admit it. That was her entire focus. “I know you have a crush on Sr. Smith,” she would say. “And it’s okay. It really is. I just want you to admit it. To be honest with yourself. To be honest with me.”

I vehemently denied it. “I don’t,” I would say, turning red. “I admire him professionally. I want to learn from him.” And I wanted that so badly to be true. Because the shame was eating me alive.

I asked a boy I had met at writing camp to be my “fake boyfriend.” If I could just tell my parents I had a boyfriend then they would believe me. Maybe my classmates would believe me too.

My “fake boyfriend” came to visit me over his winter break. It turns out he was interested in a little more than being my “fake” boyfriend. He wanted to get sexual fast. When I told my mom how uncomfortable I felt with his actions, she responded, “What’s the matter? Are you not really interested in this nice young man who’s come to visit you? Who’s come to give you attention? Who actually reciprocates your interest? Is your little crush on Sr. Smith preventing you from spending time with this nice young man?”

I pretended to have carpal tunnel and wore around a wrist brace on both arms to get out of giving a hand job. “It’s really too bad,” I said to both my “fake boyfriend” and my mom.

“I hope you’re being honest with yourself and with those around you,” she replied.


Internal Dialogue Time:

Emily 1: Come on, Emily. You are being SO dishonest with this piece. First of all, you changed his name. It was not Smith and you know that. Second of all, and more importantly, you’re really paraphrasing what people said here. It took a really, really long time and a whole lot of prying for your mom to finally admit aloud that the only reason she pushed you to be sexual with Nat was because she was worried that your crush on your Spanish teacher was preventing you from dating guys who would actually reciprocate your interest. I mean, you always knew it all along, I get that, but it was like, senior year of college before she said it aloud.

Emily 2: I know, I know, but I only have so many pages, and so much time, to talk about this. I have to pick and choose so carefully. What is the big deal if I have her admit that aloud in the last section? What is the big deal about paraphrasing? Creative nonfiction writers do it all the time. Researchers do it all the time too! In anthropology class last week, our professor literally told us we can create composite research participants! How crazy is that?

Emily 1: Just because a professor said it doesn’t make it ethical. People look at research, and they look at nonfiction accounts, and they expect the truth! And after all, this is about being honest with yourself too. Not just your audience. I mean, think about how much you’re altering the story. The characters. You’re making your mom out to be the villain here. You know she revealed that information to you in a long, heart-to-heart conversation about how she was always so scared you’d be alone, and how she felt like Nat was kind of like, a real shot at normality - your one shot at normality in high school - and your crush on the Spanish teacher was taking that away from you. That could change the audience’s entire perception of your mom. Focusing on that more could change your entire perception of your mom.

Emily 2: You could say that about any of the missing details though. The headmaster took way longer to give you that lecture - that was like an hour long meeting - and we paraphrased it into two short paragraphs! There is SO much missing from this. I mean, the act of writing dialogue itself is a boldfaced lie - you can never really fully capture any act of speech that someone performs. There are way more stops and starts, incomplete phrasings, and nonverbal gestures than you could even begin to write down. The idea that people speak in nice, neat complete sentences is the furthest thing from the truth I’ve ever heard.

Emily 1: So what? Are you just saying that we shouldn’t even bother to accurately capture the truth here because it’s impossible to do it fully and completely?

Emily 2: No, I’m saying, where do you draw the line? Where do you draw the line between paraphrasing and a lie? Between omission and a lie? Between reduction and a lie? Why is leaving out one detail a lie and paraphrasing a lecture into a paragraph considered standard creative nonfiction? To some extent, isn’t it a lie to even pretend that we can fully capture reality?

Emily 1: Why is it that your work always goes here? Why is it that no matter what you try to write, you always feel the need to break it down and explain and like, almost, apologize to the reader that you’re not fully capturing reality? That you’re not being fully honest? Why do we always do this? Every single time we write anything?

Emily 2: Probably because of what happened with the Spanish teacher.

Emily 1: See? Even that. “What happened with the Spanish teacher.” You know, when you say it aloud, it makes it sound like something terrible happened. Like he abused you in some way. When it wasn’t his fault at all. When you were actually the-uh, when...when it just wasn’t that kind of thing at all.

Emily 2: When you were actually the perpetrator. That’s what you were going to say.

Emily 1: I just think it’s about time for you to be honest. With yourself and with those around you.


My mother was very concerned when I came home one day and said I wanted to be a Spanish teacher.

“But you’re such a gifted writer! You could be a playwright. You could go to New York. That’s so prestigious, so glamorous. Why would you want to be a Spanish teacher?”

“Well, I think I actually like Spanish better than writing,” I said. I wasn’t lying. “It’s more stable. It doesn’t feel like I have to produce and produce and be liked and get picked up and noticed and be financially dependent on someone else constantly liking my work. It feels like, I can just get good at Spanish, and then use that skill to teach others. And I think it would be a lot easier to get a job that pays a decent salary. I feel like playwrights are always struggling to even live. As a Spanish teacher, I could find a stable job almost wherever I go. And besides, Mrs. Rodriguez is going to be retiring in about ten years. At that point I’d be done with school and I could take her place and teach alongside Sr. Smith.”

My mother gasped. “Is this some delusional plan of yours, Emily? Are you serious about this? You think you’re going to come back to teach at your high school and Sr. Smith will fall in love with you? You need some serious help.”

I maintained that I wanted to be a Spanish teacher all the way up through my senior year of high school. My mother maintained her level of shock and also, genuine panic. She could not believe that I wanted to do this for any other reason than as part of some plot to get Sr. Smith to fall in love with me.

She was very relieved when I gave up on my dream of being a Spanish teacher, but the same shock and horror returned for both my parents when I decided to pursue social work school.


Notes on the Upper Middle Class:

It’s a cult.

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My worst fear throughout high school was that my Spanish teacher would find out about my feelings toward him. That he would know that I had sexual feelings toward him. I did not ever make any sort of physical move or explicitly flirtatious remark. And I told myself that because I wasn’t doing those things, it was fine. I was fine. No one would ever find out, or at least, no one could ever definitively prove, my true feelings. So long as I never acted explicitly flirtatious and always talked with him under the guise of academic purposes, everything that was happening was kosher. Basically - as long as I could keep my actions fully under control, I would be fine.

But I became terrified that I would not be able to keep my actions under control. I feared that I would do something accidental, unintentional, unconscious even, to betray my true feelings. That I would slip up and my body, or my voice, or my gaze would betray me. That I lacked restraint, that my mind could not fully subjugate my body. I had repeated nightmares that I would show up to class naked. Prepared, smart, competent, professional, ready to talk about yesterday’s reading and give three whole separate layers of analysis - but completely naked. I had the constant, ever-present feeling that I was covering something up that was in actuality uncoverable, sealing it in, trying to keep a lid on an overflowing container.

When I was called into the headmaster’s office, it confirmed my worst fear: that I did not have control over my body. That my body had betrayed me. That I had tried as hard as I could to keep the lid on my feelings, to cover them up, to not say or do anything suggestive or romantic, and I still hadn’t been able to reign myself in enough to stay out of trouble. This was the moment when I discovered that I could not, no matter how much I wanted to, subjugate my body.


Notes on Consciousness:

  • Are we trapped inside our bodies?

  • Are our bodies trapped inside our consciousness?

  • Half the time I feel trapped inside a body, and the other half of the time I feel that my body is trapped inside my consciousness

  • Is self-harm a power struggle between these two paradigms?

  • Bodies as trapped inside consciousness:

    • Consciousness as violence over the body (societal values/systems/influences alter our bodies)

    • Bodies as tied to consciousness

    • Bodies have to be dragged along with us wherever we go

    • Bodies as the price we pay for consciousness

    • If we have lofty thoughts and ideas, then we also have to feel physical pain and maintain our bodies

    • Self-harm = power struggle - body is saying, “I am here, feel this, you can’t escape the pain”

  • Consciousness as trapped inside our body:

    • Solipsistic

    • Other people literally exist within the body

    • Consciousness wants to escape, wants to merge with others but cannot

    • Self-harm - consciousness trying to subjugate body by inflicting pain onto the body

    • Trying to “rise above” the body - rule the body

    • Not be inside the body but OUTSIDE the body

    • Consciousness trying to escape the body?

    • Self-harm = exercise of restraint

  • Reasons to self-harm: to regain control of the body

    • Regain agency - overcome instinct to resist pain

    • Punish body/inflict pain

  • Jay Watts says, “Self-harm can make people feel like they exist again”

    • Existence = not being alone

    • Being trapped inside a body = being alone

    • Self-harm temporarily frees you from your body, from the will of the body

    • Skin as boundary between “me” and “not me” - cutting temporarily breaks this boundary, or attempts to

I want to exist in someone else’s body.


It’s 2017 and I’ve just been through a break-up. I’m standing outside a Starbucks, about to walk to a therapy appointment. My boss calls me.

“I need to ask you something kind of personal,” he says. “One of my contacts in the movement says you are sleeping with multiple people in the movement. Is that true?”

Nausea sets in immediately. I begin to sob.

It’s not true that I’m sleeping with multiple people in the movement (or at all). But it is true that I have feelings for multiple people in the movement. They know. Somehow they know. I’ve been found out. Everyone knows. It is all I can think. It is all I can repeat to myself over and over. I have been found out.

“Uh...I didn’t mean to upset you,” he says. “You know - uh - it doesn’t matter.”

Everything is closing in. I wrack my brain for any small gestures or moments in which I might have revealed how I felt, in which I might have unintentionally let it slip.

In session, my therapist reassures me that I haven’t done anything wrong. But I can’t get it out of my head.

Right. Now. I can’t get it out of my head. As I write.


The top 5 unanswerable questions on my mind:

1) What does it mean to be a perpetrator?

2) What does it mean to be a victim?

3) Where is the line between strong/unbridled feelings and perpetration?

4) Where is the line between addressing inappropriate behavior and pathologizing madness?

5) What does it mean to recognize experiences of victimhood in people whose bodies and minds are automatically perceived as committing an act of perpetration just by existing?


Am I writing this to let myself off the hook? To humanize a perpetrator? To claim victimhood where there is none?


It’s time for a good, old-fashioned therapy session. Well, a snippet of one.

Emily: I just wish I could get inside his head. You know? Really understand what he thought of me.

Therapist: And if you could get inside his head - if you could ask him any question that you know he’d answer honestly to - what would you ask him?


Emily: Okay, so my best friend and I, we have this thing. You know the expression that a guy either needs to shit or get off the pot?

Therapist: Yeah, I know that expression.

Emily: Okay, so, my best friend is an evangelical Christian and when we were in college she didn’t curse. So one time I told her that the guy she was seeing needed to poop or get off the toilet. And, I don’t know, it became this whole extended metaphor. Like, the guy she was seeing wasn’t committing, and so we kept talking about how constipated he was. And then, if either of us was seeing a guy who was being like overly effusive and overwhelming us with their love - like, “I love you” after two weeks or “let’s move in together” after a month - we would talk about how the guy was having diarrhea. And our goal was to find guys who took moderately sized poops. (Pause.) Anyways, so...the person I dated before Andy. Let’s just say, I was texting her a lot about how I felt like I had to clean up diarrhea. And I felt terrible - they were a great person, really nice, really smart, and I just wasn’t feeling it, and I did end up feeling kind of pressured and uncomfortable whenever I was around them. Even after we broke up it was really hard to be friends because I felt like there was always this unspoken romantic interest they still had in me, this hope that we would somehow end up together...and I felt this whole level of guilt and shame that I didn’t reciprocate their feelings and that I was contributing to how rejected they felt. I mean you already know this - I felt so terrible about it that I was really, really suicidal at times. And...I’ve just been thinking, is this how Smith felt? Around me? Is this how other unrequited romantic interests have felt around me? Is this how many, many people feel around me and I just don’t know it? Does that make sense? Does what I’m saying make sense?

Therapist (without missing a beat): You want to know if being around you feels like having to clean up diarrhea.

Emily: Yes. That’s my question. That’s my unanswerable question.

Therapist: Isn’t that the definition of being in a marginalized group though? To be thought of as diarrhea by society? To be treated like diarrhea by society? Isn’t that what you’re fighting against? The blame can’t be all on you, can it?


It’s 2018 and I’m crying in front of my boss at Alternatives. At some point it hits me that I’m crying in front of a male authority figure, and then I become nauseous, and then I want to kill myself.

I ask to speak with a friend in private. “Okay. So. This is the most autistic question I’ve ever asked in my entire life. But I trust you enough to keep it confidential and answer it and then forget I ever asked it.”

“Okay,” she says.

“Why is it so bad to cry in front of your male boss? Why is that like super super inappropriate?”

“Oh that’s easy,” she replies. “Crying is seen as a come on.”

“I’m never going to fully wrap my head around this, am I?” I ask. It hits me like a punch in the gut that I may spend the rest of my life going around and around in circles over it, not fully understanding it. “I’m permanently screwed up.”

We proceed to stay up until 5:00 AM trying to figure out a framework. She’s a good friend.


Notes on Crying in Front of Your Boss:

  • Women’s tears = a come on

  • Tears = signifier that you are in need of rescue, fixing

  • Attractive women, sane women = legitimately in need of rescue

  • Unattractive women, mad women = falsely in need of rescue, manipulating you into rescuing them

  • People want to see themselves as the victim of the unattractive/mad woman

  • Tears usually a signifier of victimhood, but in mad/unattractive women they are a signifier of perpetratorhood

  • Mad tears as predatory


External Dialogue Time:

Emily: So I’m writing this new thing. I think it qualifies as experimental writing? I’m not sure.

Andy: Well what is it about?

Emily: Uh, I’m not sure. Well, I guess it’s about the whole Smith situation, and trying to make sense of it.

Andy: And how is it experimental?

Emily: Well, it includes like different chunks of my life, little moments and snapshots, and then they’re interspersed with notes on different things. Like, notes on victimhood, notes on insight, notes on consciousness, that kind of thing.

Andy: Okay, so you’re basically telling the narrative and interspersing it with other types of stuff?

Emily: No, I’m telling different parts of the narrative...the high school parts, the family parts, how it’s affected me now, and kind of mixing them up. I guess I’m trying to capture what it’s like to not have a framework for figuring something out. And to be driven mad by not having a framework. To not be able to make sense of something.

Andy: So you are basically asking, “What does this mean?” and then using the notes as kind of a way to talk about possible meanings.

Emily: Kind of. I don’t know. I guess more than “What does this mean?” I’m asking “Am I a victim or a perpetrator?”



This is the story of a Mad woman who is trying to understand whether she is a victim or a perpetrator.




Borderlines are on the border between:

  • Neurosis and psychosis

  • Victimhood and perpetratorhood

  • Having agency and having no agency

  • Powerfulness and powerlessness

  • Wanting to live and wanting to die

  • Knowability and unknowability

  • Body and mind

  • Danger to self and danger to others


Notes on Embodiment:

  • Borderlines = too embodied. Their bodies feel too much and their emotions come out as embodied actions/gestures.

    • They (their bodies) desire sex when they are not supposed to, with people they are not supposed to

    • They (their bodies) enjoy sex more than they are supposed to

    • Their desires come out as embodied gestures - tears, self-harm, manipulation...maybe even glances? Posture?

  • Narrativizing trauma = getting it to leave the body

  • Knowledge subjugates the embodied feeling, places it in the mind and not the body - reduces it to words

    • We want borderlines to confess, to have self-awareness/knowledge/insight so that their feelings will stop being so embodied, so that they will exercise restraint (in the form of knowledge) over their embodied emotions


The definition of fathom is “to understand (a difficult problem or an enigmatic person) after much thought.” It is a process of coming to know, to figure out. It involves methods, analysis, results. It is a procedure that involves crunching, grinding, chewing on embodied events, people, actions, wrapping words around them, translating them into words, until they are nothing but words, nothing but thoughts, nothing but numbers on a page. To fathom is to flatten, to deflate, to unidimensionalize, and then, to disintegrate.

I am haunted by questions and at my lowest moments I stare at myself in the mirror and can think of nothing except how I would like to tear apart my body limb by limb. To destroy it. To no longer be embodied. If I could just stop being embodied. It is not so much that I don’t want to exist, it’s that I don’t want to exist in my body. I don’t want my body to be a part of me.

If I cannot sever my body then I can at least try to reduce it into words. I can at least attempt to fathom it. I can at least attempt to take my skin and blood and bones and replace them with consonants and vowels, flatten them onto paper where they will be imprinted. I can at least attempt to make my body a story.

Then, and only then, can I answer the question. Then, and only then, can my tears no longer be predatory, my body no longer uncontrollable. Words, after all, are not so dangerous. Not compared to tears, not compared to cuts, not compared to glances, not compared to attention seeking emails. Only when I become wrapped, replaced, and disintegrated by words will I be able to cross over.


“To Know” Synonyms:

  • Appreciate

  • Experience

  • Have

  • Learn

  • Notice

  • Perceive

  • Realize

  • Recognize

  • See

  • Apperceive

  • Apprehend

  • Cognize

  • Comprehend

  • Differentiate

  • Discern

  • Discriminate

  • Distinguish

  • Fathom

  • Grasp

“To Grasp” Synonyms:

  • Clasp

  • Clutch

  • Grip

  • Bag

  • Catch

  • Clinch

  • Collar

  • Corral

  • Enclose

  • Glom

  • Grapple

  • Hold

  • Hook

  • Seize

“To Seize” Synonyms:

  • Ambush

  • Apprehend

  • Arrest

  • Capture

  • Force

  • Hijack

  • Impound

  • Kidnap

  • Occupy

  • Overrun

  • Take over

  • Conquer

  • Overcome

  • Overpower

“To Overpower” Synomyms:

  • Clobber

  • Crush

  • Defeat

  • Drub

  • Knock out

  • Smash

  • Subdue

  • Take care of

  • Trounce

  • Vanquish

  • Bulldoze

  • Bury

  • Drown

  • Immobilize

  • Murder

  • Overthrow

  • Prostrate

  • Quell

  • Reduce

“To Reduce” Synonyms:

  • Curtail

  • Cut

  • Cut down

  • Diminish

  • Lessen

  • Lower

  • Pare

  • Scale down

  • Shorten

  • Slash

  • Trim

  • Weaken

  • Abate

  • Abridge

  • Bankrupt

  • Break

  • Cheapen

  • Chop

  • Clip

  • Contract

  • Debase

  • Deflate

  • Depreciate

  • Depress

  • Diet

  • Dilute

  • Discount

  • Drain

  • Impair

  • Impoverish

  • Moderate

  • Pauperize

  • Rebate

  • Recede

  • Ruin

  • Shave

  • Slim

  • Taper

  • Truncate


I can very clearly remember the first conversation I had in Spanish with someone who couldn’t speak English.

No, that’s not true. I don’t remember exactly what was said but I remember the rush, the euphoria. The feeling of unstoppable aliveness. Of having made something that I had learned in a textbook alive, living, of having embodied it and performed it.

I rushed to tell him. “That’s a foreign language speaker’s high,” he replied. “To speak and be understood.”

It was so pure. So simple. Is there anything more human than the desire to speak and be understood? To be comprehended, grasped, fathomed, made knowable?


It’s 2018, just a few days before the writing of this piece. I’ve just left my job to start graduate school.

My boss gives me a call. “I just want you to know how much I’ve appreciated being able to work with you,” he says. “Having you on board really has given me hope for the future.”

I want to reply. He is the first living Mad Pride activist I’ve met, the person who introduced me to the movement that is almost the entirety of my existence. I want to say something to that effect. I want to say how much his words mean to me.

But I can’t. Even with all of the research, all of the framework developing, all of the going around and around in circles with different concepts and reliving various events again and again, I just can’t. It’s too scary. There are just too many “what if’s.”

“It’s been great working with you too,” I manage.

After the call I look over all of the notes I have taken. All of the ways I have tried to reduce the experience over and over again. To put it into words, to understand its impact. Cause and effect. Rising action and climax. Mediators and moderators. All of the ways I have tried to gain knowledge, to gain some form of agency, to pour data and theory into my brain so that it can overpower my body, rise above the corporeal effects that I feel within every limb of my being every moment. If I could just possess enough knowledge, could I control my body then? Would that give me agency?

I shake my head. It’s not true. The idea that anything could possibly be reduced, conquered, overpowered by words is a myth. The reality is that the body will always have a hold.

There is no happy ending. There is no life-saving scientific discovery, no piece of information or system of knowledge that will come down from the heavens or from some sort of savior to explain it away. There is no narrative, no formula. There are just endless question marks. This is not a story.

Blank Space, Taylor Swift, and Borderline

Blank Space, Taylor Swift, and Borderline

Borderline Jewish

Borderline Jewish