by Leora Fridman
In the speculative I draw on what I see to make what I haven't seen, whether this is performed by following the language in and through a set of my own obsessions, by following the thread of writers who've written in the world I'm writing into, or by believing toward something until a set of threads can make it true.
to become a ruin, to ruin by becoming —Sarah Ahmed
My favorite thing about my worst breakup was how far gone I got.
Mostly wary and noncommittal through my early 20s, I’d floated through the ends of relationships or executed them coolly myself. I was a daughter of a proper second-wave feminist with a bad-ass career and no tolerance for ditsy, dependent women—something I’ve been afraid of being since as long as I can remember. I cherished independence from a young age, always split the check, never depended on boyfriends for emotional solace or any forms of support. Even with my close friends, I was careful to need very little, to make it clear that I could take care of myself. I always had a plan: for my semester, my evening, my source of income after college. I had a tight grip on all of it, and no one was going to interfere.
But at the tail end of college I finally got swept. Noah, a man I’d been flirt-friends with for years, but pretended always I wanted nothing from. That last week of college we found ourselves both single at the same time. We danced closer and closer together one night at a party and later that same night, in my sweaty bed, agreed we’d partner for life.
Then we graduated. A few months of hot summer together and I got on a plane for a planned year many time-zones away, which led into long distance months of pining and Skyping and planning our future. We wrote poems about the Skype gaze, the romance of distance, the ethics of sustaining a relationship that felt impossible. We were play-arguing over Gchat about whether Boulder, Colorado was too white a place to raise our children when I realized how far gone I was. I reeled, suddenly not in control.
“You’re the first to really win me over,” I told him, and his smile stretched in the Skype window.
At the end of that year the first thing I did was go to him. Just off the 8-hour plane ride, I wasted no time getting on a 2-hour bus ride to his town. And stepping down from the Greyhound to his face, I could tell right away that something wasn’t right. He didn’t clutch me. His smile was small. Instead of the magic reconnection we’d fantasized about all year, the sudden ingathering of sparks sharpened by distance, he was withdrawn, withholding, and I had to quickly pull back into myself so as not to pool against him in the car.
Still, I thought, maybe this is awkwardness from so much build up, from not seeing each other for so long—surely we would spend the rest of our lives together and just look back on this moment as a short skid before landing. I asked him careful questions about his home and job, but he answered slowly and held his body back.
Once we arrived at his house, he sat a few feet away from me on the couch and announced officially that his feelings had changed. He was over me, he said. Having fantasized about this reunion and been fed his love letters all year, I froze. I stared into his face as he spoke and nodded distantly.
“I understand,” I said. “Totally, I get it.” What I knew to say, an automatic reaction. Trained well, I knew how to react politely, how to listen empathically, but as soon as he stopped talking, my body didn’t know what to do. Without the future I’d fixated on having with him, I didn’t physically know how to move. So instead, I collapsed. I slid to the floor below him on the couch. The cheap rug against my legs, looking up at the underside of his chin. Though a moment earlier I’d tried to keep it together, something about being down below made me ready, for the first time, to beg. I reached up for his limp hand.
“But remember, Boulder,” I said. “We are the only people who know us. You can’t give that up.” He finally smiled then, benevolent above me, and unwrapped my fingers from his.
“Oh,” he said, placing my hand on the couch pillow, “I get that’s how you feel, but it’s not how I feel.” Suddenly he was the temperate facilitator, his firm palm.
“But you promised when I got home we would—” my face began to heat, “you said we’d plan—how brave it would be to try—” He shook his head.
“You need time,” he said, “let’s just go to bed.” Parental, he pulled me up from the floor.
“But we—but we—” I sputtered. He guided me by the waist to the bed, sat down on the opposite side of it, and turned his back. I remember the clock on his side: it was very late already, and I threw myself across the bed toward him and its red light.
“Touch me,” I said, “you’ll remember.” Because I remembered: I curled my body toward him, thinking I might find him again if I could just get enough of our skins against one another.
“Please, Noah,” I choked—I was weeping by then, and curled tighter against the wall of his back as he twisted away. I began to bang on his skin with my fists.
This was a new kind of crying that I was doing. Emptying myself, his lack of response pulling only more from my insides. Here it all welled and I bashed, a supplicant, against his silence.
Eventually he tired of this, left the bed and said he’d take the couch.
“Please, just tonight,” I said, watching someone I’d slept naked beside pulling on grey sweatpants. He patted my head and whispered, “I’m always happy to be your friend,” as if that was what I’d been begging for, and closed the door behind him.
I continued, though, to sob, loud enough so he could hear me from the living room, keening sounds from my chest surprising even me, as though releasing an animal. I couldn’t stop. Or, didn’t want to, as over that night I began to sense—there was something here I was enjoying.
“I’m excited by the power of sex to turn a woman into a beast,” writes Dodie Bellamy, and the further I sunk into damp beastliness, a bravery rose in me, an appeal to the groveling.
In the morning I kept at it, staying naked, posing in the sun across the counter as he looked away toward the coffee pot, this man who once couldn’t take a piss without an arm around me. He padded over to my backpack and handed me my own sweatshirt.
“You’ll be ok,” he said. “You can always call me.”
I refused the sweatshirt, and sat stubbornly, my butt cold on the dirty linoleum. Face bloated and legs weak from sleeplessness, I felt a concrete core in me, a stone resolute to sink.
He locked the bathroom door to take a shit, and we never kissed again. Eventually I gave in and dressed myself.
There’s something here for me, I remember thinking in the miserable silent car ride with him after, there’s something here I want. And not just him, but the sinking itself. Yes, I wept much of the month after that, but also wrote in emails to friends of the beast I’d felt swell in me that I didn’t want to let go, the weird power I’d had flailing against his back.
“Running into the brick wall,” my friend Bari called it, “once you do it, it becomes very hard to stop.” Because, I began to see, I liked it. I liked watching my anxious grip on power loosen, the restrained, disciplined part of me die off and open to something else.
“Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego),” writes Julia Kristeva, “it’s an alchemy that transforms death drive in a start of life, of new significance.” That night, begging Noah, I began to learn of this resurrection— scraped along his rug, his bed, his couch, I left a self behind, a self who was attached to control and containment. I made a joke to a friend about my Christ moment, called it “my resurrection” the first morning I felt able to meet her for coffee. But the metaphor ended well: as a Jew mostly unfamiliar with the symbols and rituals of Christ, I began to see something in prostration.
Lately I’ve been reading medieval female Christian mystics. For a lot of reasons, but the way they lie down is one. I mean lie down as in prostrate, as in give over control. These women have no power in the patriarchal Christian church of the time, though they may gain it through prostration.
Here’s what I mean: tracing across the stories of several Western European women who became known as mystics in the Middle Ages, it becomes clear that their narratives revolve around debasement before G-d, becoming a tool in G-d’s hands, etc. The English mystic Margery Kempe took this so far as to stop all sexual interactions with her husband so as to have “deeper intimacy” and (what her visions depicted as) “marital relations” with G-d.
Hildegard of Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess, wrote often of commands she received from G-d. When she restrained herself from speaking these commands to others (passing on G-d’s will, as she phrased it), she is said to have experienced immense physical pain in her body. Her pains are recorded as part of what led to her eventual recognition as a mystic: the pains as G-d’s way of indicating that she should speak on G-d’s behalf. Though her woman’s voice wasn’t welcome in the larger Catholic Church, when she frames it as the voice of G-d coming through her, she was allowed it.
“But I am always filled with a trembling fear, as I do not know for certain of any single capacity in me,” she writes, “Yet I stretch out my hands to G-d, so that, like a feather which lacks all weight and strength and flies through the wind, I may be borne up by him.” Scholars observe that her purported lack of significance and willingness to give herself over is what convinced church authorities that she was speaking the word of G-d, and worthy of beatification.
So prostration becomes power. In both Hildegard and Kempe’s cases, as with others, the mystic’s relationship with divinity creates more capacity than the mystic believes or states herself to have on her own—spiritually, intellectually, and also economically.
Scholar Elizabeth Spearing studies the texts and lives of these women. Of Christine the Astonishing, raised in a cow-herding family in Belgium, Spearing writes, “a woman who three or four centuries later would have been burned as a witch, who nowadays might have been on medication, in an institution, or even living rough, in the Middle Ages moved from cows to castle, an honored and valued member of her community.”
The witch hunts of Europe were still to come, as was later carceral institutionalization of people deemed mentally ill, but already in this time period we had the narrative of women as irrational emotional beings who should be kept out of important decisions and positions of power. What’s fascinating here is that by pegging this “irrationality” to a male-dominated idea of G-d, mystics like Christine were able to subvert the suppression of their voices.
Over her lifetime Christine came to be positioned as a famous and valuable asset to her town. Spearing writes,
It has to be remembered when reading works which celebrate the lives and miracles of holy people that the local community and their clergy and religious houses stood to gain not only spiritually but also financially from the presence of such a figure in their midst, dead or alive. A well-known saint or relic could and did bring large numbers of pilgrims in search of help for their bodies and souls, and often a good holiday. Their money helped the local economy and church coffers.
Christine the Astonishing came to hold economic value through her purported debasement—her manic periods of living in trees and rivers, her wild raving in conversation with the voice of G-d. Instead of being considered crazy or dangerous, she was championed as a self given up to power.
In a recording of her life written by a male priest on her behalf, Margery Kempe is said to have prayed: “If it were your will, Lord, I would for your Love, and for the magnifying of your name, be chopped up as small as meat for the pot.” To be made into something meaty: I think of Noah here, his name biblically prescient, the first man to pull me open. I think of throwing my flushed skin toward him, how I got to be made into meat in that moment, and didn’t even need his agreement to do so. The way he turned his back, actually, was what it made it possible for me to let go of a version of myself.
Alicia Ostriker on Sylvia Plath: “Of course I too wanted annihilation.”
I don’t aspire to be burned at the stake or stick my head in the oven, but I do like to lose myself, go liquid in the face of power.
Speaking of liquid, my favorite part about Christine the Astonishing: Once, she’d run away from town in order to avoid being chained to a post by those who considered her possessed by the devil. She was starving in the forest, but is said to have begun to give forth breast milk spontaneously, which she then survived on for 9 days before returning home. This event was recorded as a miracle and a sign from G-d that she should remain alive.
But this didn’t last long. She freaked people out a lot. After she climbed to the church rafters screaming and batting at the birds living there, she was bound to a stake by her family and said to have been fed “like a dog with nothing but a little bread and water.” She became quite “feeble and faint” in this state, and another miracle occurred: “her maidenly breasts began to flow with a liquid which was the sweetest oil; and she took it and spread it on her bread to flavor it, and used it as a soup and as an ointment, anointing the wounds of her festering limbs with it.”
Christine’s captors wept and let her go.
Note the beastliness of this, how her female-ness in its capacity to nurture children becomes, G-d-like, a closed loop in which she can nurture, feed, survive upon herself. The scholar Spearing, again:
Their gender meant that by definition these women were weak; many of them suffered from lengthy periods of illness, and yet they found ways to turn their weakness into strength. They were able to manipulate their families, their confessors and other bystanders into serving them, they gained status and influence in their communities, they founded religious houses and reproved and advised people at every level of society.
As a white Jewish woman brought up to survive on independence and self-control, I’m compelled by this example of a different kind of power: weakness as subversive strength, vulnerability as an opening toward something much greater than patriarchal power. I read Hildegard, Christine and Kempe as permission.
Permission to consider prostration a choice, that I might be able to interact with men—even, occasionally, be hurt by them—and still retain power. That instead of attempting only withdrawn control, I could play fully on the stage of power dynamics, and survive.
The first time I related to Jesus was at his birthplace. Twenty-two and newly traveling on my own, I’d gone with friends to cross the border from Israel to the Palestinian territories, to spend Christmas in the in the church of the Nativity. The womb-like church air fell around us, fogging the globe lights and chandeliers, throngs tugging us in the line toward the altar.
As we neared it the crowd pushed from behind, the smell of sweat, frankincense and myrrh thickening everything. I remember points of red light and candles, and staying extra close to Dave, the man who had already turned his body toward me, although no words had passed between us about our mutual static. A press of five Jews toward the altar of baby Jesus, we didn’t bow or make prayer hands in front of it, though we did take the taper candles offered and place them in front of a Jesus statue, where they quickly melted against the others inside a large urn filled with sand.
I probably wasn’t supposed to, but I took a few photos there. One of the photos is mostly filled with the marble of the altar and hands reaching, the light toward the metal star said to be the precise spot of Jesus’ birth. In the corner of the photo, light shines onto the edge of Dave’s sleeve and a piece of his neck.
Later I’d place my palm on this neck. Later we all five piled onto one big bed in our coats, in a cold, bare, hostel on a bare mattress. Once everyone else fell asleep around us, he and I pulled closer, and I could feel his stare in the dark. I placed my hand to his neck so he would know: the sweat of my palm the first acknowledgement. We kissed furtively in the dark that way, between everyone else’s elbows.
I think that’s how it happened, or that’s how I remember it. The sweat, the cold, a sudden flash of fear knowing I’d given something over to him by meeting his lips—the oldest story about sex, giving it up. The wordlessness of us wrapping together as it crept toward Christmas morning and bells began to ring, and we all rustled apart.
He and I did not make eye contact for the rest of the day. It snowed on the streets, and for all of us that day was the first time—ever—that we danced joyously to Christmas music. I danced with everyone but him, though there was a riptide now, a hallway between us that I knew I’d have to walk down.
“Intimacy builds worlds,” writes Lauren Berlant, “it creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relation.”
We had set out to be friends, Dave and I, and we had set out to Bethlehem to “discover Jesus,” as we’d called it, hoping to understand something about devotion and Christ. But those between-elbow kisses, and more later, in Jerusalem, where he was studying Jewish thought. Where he would give me very intense eye contact while telling me I was the most special woman he’d ever met.
This fixation on exceptionalism—to be like no one else—made sense for someone as fascinated with the study of religion as he was. Not to mention our millennial births, our precious liberal arts educations, manic pixie dream girls, etc. For so many reasons, it was the best thing he could do to call me most special, to place me on a pedestal of self-contained remarkableness.
And when after a few months he ended it, saying I was the most exciting relationship he’d ever had but “the timing” was off, I would feel first frustration but then a softening, a mud puddle sliding from the pedestal. For a short relationship it didn’t feel appropriate to mourn hard, but I found myself picking at it, writing him longer emails than needed, asking for more and more explanation of why he didn’t want me anymore.
“Is it play acting or possibly perversion?” asks Kristeva about the draw to hold on to abjection—abject, from the Latin, that specific combination staying with the piteous, sinking into a position of debasement, to keep oneself re-jected, thrown away.
Kristeva argues that abjection is more than a perversion or roleplay. It is “better than that,” she writes, “a yearning after meaning together with its absorption, ingestion, digestion, and rejection.” It is the desire to stay fully with an experience, including its downsides, to fully process an experience and be changed by it. For me: to take in what was made by that kiss on Christmas Eve and to see the way it altered me, then us, and then just me again. Instead of needing to hold my particular specialness, to perceive myself as overwhelmingly malleable, remade.
I think of Boris Pasternak writing Olga Freidenberg of their long-term, on-again-off-again always-confusing relationship: “You can never understand how you yourself, expanding, entered into me as a distant, distant debt.”
This debt is one of possibility: a relation with the other that expands one’s insides. This is how I felt that night pounding on Noah, and how I felt hearing soon after our breakup that Dave had said to many other women how they were the most special, the most unusual, how’d he’d never felt this way…versions of that same line, and for years.
I felt debased initially, made small, manipulated. But also, in sharing this experience came a power: shared knowledge with other former partners of his, an absorption into a larger known narrative about romantic manipulation. A kind of knowledge I couldn’t have gained if he had been honest with me—met me eye to eye.
Margery Kempe writes that she “gave thanks and praise to our Lord Jesus Christ for the high grace and mercy that he showed to her, unworthy wretch.” More than ten years later, I’m ready to thank Dave for the way I felt pressed down. Because it took me someplace bigger, where I didn’t want to be put on that pedestal, most special. To a place where I could understand myself as part of an extremely common experience, a broad, open landscape.
“If we are to have a sense of the other that is not projective or selfish,” writes Luce Irigaray, “we have to attain an intuition of the infinite.” As in Noah’s bed, when a sense of loss coursed through me so large, my sadness suddenly infinite, not exclusively my own.
And as in a few months later when I met Emma, a willowy-tall woman I watched carefully fold herself into the passenger’s seat of my car. I didn’t know Emma yet, but a friend hosting a mid-summer potluck had asked me to pick her up on my way there. Emma had a slow smile and active hands, and was gracefully accepting when I quickly got us lost on what should have been a fifteen-minute drive. Eventually I U-turned and we spent our first hour together in traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike: plenty of time to get into our recent break-ups.
“He said I wasn’t ready for him, not mature enough.” She slid her hands under her thighs and rocked slightly. “But at the same time he’s flirting with this other woman who’s even younger than me.” She shook her head. “I guess it’s just not actually about me.” I nodded vigorously. By the time we arrived at the potluck, we were bonded for life. Before we went in, we bowed our heads together in my parked car, our hands clutched together over the emergency brake.
In that moment my breakup served a larger utility: It connected me to Emma, and, later, to others—a “distant debt” that by its very yawning open made room for new connections, other functions—as in Berlant: “intimacy creates spaces and usurps places.” Places, new worlds that established their foundation because of the “distant debt” before them.
I’m tired of looking at the woman broken-up-with as pathetic. I’m tired of a story that stops there. I’m tired of a white feminism that insists on self-sufficiency and cuts itself off from engagement with risk and interdependent forms of power.
For those of us white women who already hold so much control, I’m interested in a playful, even perverse sense of power, that sometimes means giving something up in order to play the game, knowing perhaps that it’s a long game, even a historical one.
I think here of Francesca Lisette, a poet and mystic (astrologer and tarot reader) herself, who argues for what she calls “revolutionary tenderness,” which, she writes, “signifies ‘the negation of negation.’” What does this mean? Lisette argues for a kind of caring politics which, rather than attack or blame another, seeks to offer care and inclusion with its revolutionary framework.
“In reaching for an affective politics,” she writes, “I ask that we make ourselves sociologically weaker.” This is the negation of the negation—the sense that by making oneself weaker (or, from Irigaray, “more porous”), one allows more to occur and thus negates the initial stance of weakness.
As a cis-white woman who relates with mostly cis-white men, I am trained well to be angry when I am manipulated or my voice suppressed. But I am excited by what else can happen around a knowledge of these patterns. I am excited by swimming around male power, playing with what it wants to do to me and turning it into something I want, splashing it back or, as poet Philip Metres writes, “Not drowning, but flailing up.
Poet Brittany Billmeyer-Finn writes, “Lisette calls for an active revaluing of the gendered position of tenderness, for a tenderness that escapes its patriarchal value.” The tender: the sore spot where one has been hurt before and could be hurt again easily. In regards to heartbreak, I think of a tenderness that escapes male power by being peremptorily motivated to accept the debased position.
I think again of how Christine the Astonishing had oil spring from her breasts: she (literally) expresses an over-the top capacity to nurture via a traditionally (dis-empowered) female role of breastfeeding, but in that same act gains her freedom, power over and from the structures of the Church and of her village.
Audre Lorde writes: “The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.” When she feeds on the oil of her own breasts, Christine the Astonishing invokes the erotic and simultaneously dashes the patriarchal hope: that which is expressed from her breasts is not for the survival of another, but solely for her own. Pressed down upon, she does not break—she gives in for the expression of a new form.
 Scott, Gail, Glück, Robert & Roy, Camille. (Eds.). (2004). Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Toronto, Canada: Coach House Books.
 Kristeva, Julia. (1982) Powers of Horror. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
 Dronke, Peter. (1984) Women Writers of the Middle Ages. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
 Spearing, Elizabeth (2002) Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality. New York, NY: Penguin.
 Kempe, Margery. (1985) The Book of Margery Kempe. New York, NY: Penguin.
 Ostriker, Alicia. (1983) Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
 Freidenberg, Olga & Pasternak, Boris (1982). The correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg 1910-1954. London, UK: Secker & Warburg.
 Irigaray, Luce. (1982) An Ethics of Sexual Difference. London, UK: A & C Black.
 Lorde, Audre. (1978) The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Brooklyn, N.Y: Out & Out Books.