Porch Swings and Serial Killer Novels. And Grief.

My friend SKG wrote an awesome blog post the other day (well, on September 26–the last time I was conscious in a writerly sort of way) and I’ve been wanting to respond to one small part of it since then. You can read SKG’s post here.


I’m trying to crawl out from under the little black cloud that’s been following me around for the past few weeks, and I’m finding it easier to read serial killer novels and take long naps and sit on the porch swing and stare than to do anything productive or intellectually or emotionally challenging.

My advisor has my dissertation, and I really can’t do anything else with it until I hear back from her. And that’s bothering me, making me feel like I’m stalled, which isn’t fair to J, who is, to be fair, reading my nearly 400-page dissertation, and not just for fun, but in the in-depth way one must read in order to offer suggestions, all this while teaching, reading other dissertations, advising other graduate students, running a department, and so on, and so on, and so on.

And I, in my own peculiar way (see the serial killer novel reference above), am grieving. I can feel myself moving slowly away from complete denial that my Aunty Ann, my godmother, has died. I can feel this because when I try to think about this fact, my brain doesn’t resist quite as much.  These past few weeks, whenever I tried to make myself really think– really believe–that she’s not at my cousin’s house, sitting on the deck, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, rolling her eyes at someone, I could feel my whole brain recoil from the idea, as though all that gray matter were flinching, squeezing itself into a tiny corner of my skull to avoid being pricked by something sharp.

I want to compare this flinching, this denial, with my “can’t touch this” stance on the adoption story, the meant-to-be-a-family story, because it’s similar, although not, as I examine each more closely, exactly the same.

The truth is I can no more imagine life without Aunty Ann than I can imagine being born to, or adopted by, a different family. And I can hear Aunty Ann sighing, and saying, now, one more time, right in my ear, “That’s because you were meant to be with us.”

And I can play, and have played, a million intellectual games to help me imagine, to break the narrative, and none have really worked.

But I have not, perhaps, challenged myself emotionally.

In SKG’s awesome blog post, Joan Houlihan describes the ideal reader as one who “enjoys being intellectually and emotionally challenged.”

I enjoy being intellectually challenged, most of the time, and I’d like to think that although I’ve called it a collection of intellectual games, my dissertation rises to level of intellectually challenging and contesting life narratives, my own in particular. But maybe what’s been bugging me, maybe the “You can’t touch this”-ness of the dissertation, of the story, is my own lack, my own downfall, my own flinching.

Maybe I am not allowing myself to be challenged emotionally. Maybe I am just not going down that road. Maybe my gray matter is recoiling.

I know I do it in life. I imagine I do it in writing, too. I am almost so good at avoiding feeling that I no longer realize I’m doing it at all.

Breaking the narrative should hurt, or disturb, at least in some small way. And maybe that means the dissertation is not true. I could touch it. If I really tried. But how?

Is this the power of narrative? Of grief? Of denial?

But today. Today when I thought about my Aunty Ann, about Jaci’s house without Aunty Ann, about Christmas Eve without Aunty Ann, my brain flinched less, and instead, I felt nauseous. And sort of tight in the throat.

And I think this is good.

3 Responses to “Porch Swings and Serial Killer Novels. And Grief.”

  1. One of your best posts yet. You are such an amazing writer (and person)

  2. sarahkaingutowski Says:

    I know that you *finished* the dissertation, but this kind of feels like the beginning of the last dissertation chapter — or maybe something shorter, more succinct: an epilogue to the entire thing. (A prose piece that breaks the narrative even more. In trying to disrupt one narrative, you create another, and then this blog disrupts THAT narrative and so it goes like holding one mirror to another and seeing a never-ending hallway of mirrors/narratives/I’m getting lost in my own metaphor.) Anyway. This might be a really bad suggestion, considering I’ve only ever read a very, very early draft of your dissertation and it’s now an entirely different creature. And yet, it seems very connected, and like an apt ending to a story: An ending that is not really an ending, but a definite insight, and a doorway leading to another related, useful conversation.

    Sorry I’m so late in catching up. I hope you feel a little less black-cloudish soon.

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