We buried my grandmother’s body in a plain pine coffin marked with a single six-pointed star. We wore our kriah ribbons and stopped seven times, poured a shovelful of dirt each into the grave. We held a shiva and lit a candle and said the mourner’s Kaddish all grouped in a circle with tears still wet on our faces.
Three and a half months have passed. Life has gone on. That’s where the pig comes in.
Leaving to buy the pig, my father asks me to come along. I am twenty years old, living at home for the summer. For almost two years, since my first semester of college, I have been struggling with bulimia. Things are better now than they have been, but how much does that really mean? My mother and two younger sisters are out of town. I get in my father’s truck without a second thought; like most twenty-year-olds, I long for approval, for closeness, and here is an opportunity. My father has been different since his mother died. It’s as if he’s aged ten years in three months, and that scares us both.
We look alike, my father and I. Dark hair, dark eyes. Short bodies made even shorter by a tendency to curl our shoulders forward and wrap ourselves inward as if we are trying to hide from an angry world.
The potbellied pig farm is about twenty minutes outside Baytown, Texas. As we step down from my father’s truck, we see her, the woman, the breeder of pigs. She is blonde, diminutive. She holds a shiny nylon rope like a leash. Harnessed to the end of the rope is a minuscule piglet. He runs back and forth on the cropped green grass, screaming. Perhaps this is a bad sign. But when the woman picks the pig up, he calms. She shows me how to hold him. “Be sure to hold down his tail,” she says. “Like this. That way he won’t poop on you.” Ever dutiful, I hold the pig firmly, making sure to press my hand hard against the hairy pink butt. Even so, I cannot help but imagine the pig forcing his warm, smelly fear directly into my tingling palm.
Before we transact, the woman gives us a brief tour of the farm. The pig enclosure resembles a small airplane hangar—a concrete slab with an imposing corrugated roof spreading overhead and a low, encircling wire to keep the pigs from stepping out. Inside, the bright, musty smell of hay mingles with the carboxylic stench of pig shit. Ten pigs, maybe, meander across the concrete floor, all of them the size of small dogs. When they see the woman, they run, snorting, circling around her. The pigs are round, bristly, with pouched sides bulging out to make them as wide as they are tall. Their cheeks curve outward in the same way, quivering beneath the canny fervor of their eyes. And their noses. Their noses are like fingers, wet and probing. One male, old enough to have lightning bolts of gray streaked across his otherwise black face and sides, pushes past all the others. His brow is fat and impressive, hanging down in a prickly fold to obscure his brilliant black eyes. This is the piglet’s father, the woman tells us. Hard to imagine that the miniscule thing I am holding—only six pounds, five ounces, and just eight inches from snout to tail—will one day grow into such a behemoth.
Our pig is the perfect pink piglet, a potbelly bred to stay friendly and small. His hair is wiry and translucent, his skin pale rose like cherry blossoms. He has elfin ears and a straight little tail and thin, tapering feet that click on floors like high heels. He nestles close in my lap as we bounce along in my father’s truck. His nose, pressed into the crook of my elbow, is filmy and wet. My father wants to name him Osama Pig Laden. When I ask what my mother will think of that name, what she will think of the pig at all, his face spasms with a transparent guilt. So he hasn’t told her, then. I won’t tell her either. I tell myself it is because I am detached, amused, but really it is because I don’t want to betray this adventure with him. My father lets the secret slip that night over the phone. My mother, two hundred miles away, is not pleased. “We can’t call him Osama Pig Laden,” she says. We call him Pig, instead.
My grandmother died at 4:53 p.m. on February 18, 2016. It was a Thursday. She had been a long time dying—two and a half years from her first diagnosis, through surgery, chemo, and finally an autoimmune disorder, a paraneoplastic syndrome. Antibodies triggered by the tumor attacked the body’s nervous system. Initial symptoms of slurred speech and muscle weakness quickly gave way to the loss of most voluntary motor functions. A shrinking circle of the self, constricting inwards until there was nothing left. No walking, no talking, no control of facial movements. The slightest flicker of the tiniest muscle became nearly impossible. Several months before her death, my grandmother elected for in-home hospice care. Eventually, all the furniture in her living room was rearranged to accommodate a hospital bed. She died in that bed, barely able to move an eyelid. My father thought she was no longer in there, toward the end. Believing this, perhaps, was easier than believing anything else.
The pig, it turns out, likes to eat. He eats pig food, dog food, people food. He eats bits of plastic and grass and ants and anything that drops onto the kitchen floor. A tiny little thing, he falls on every meal, screaming, as if he had not been fed in days. He eats and eats and eats without shame or remorse. He eats first and asks questions later. Or never, really. Watching him, I feel disgust and fascination. Is this what I look like? I wonder. Eyes glazed, mind focused on forcing food down my throat in order to block out the world.
At some point Pig learns that he can use his nose to knock over the trash can, so we put a brick in the bottom. He learns to open the cabinets and pull out the contents, leaving them strewn across the floor. We cover the house in baby locks. He learns to tear up tissue paper and untie shoes, so we put the gift wrap up and watch our feet. He is a precocious little pig, fierce and intelligent, learning with all the fervor of a child at play.
I am eating. I am eating too much. As I realize my fear, I hear the lick of delicate hooves. The pig snorts gently as he walks toward me across the tile of the kitchen. He knows I am eating. He wants to be eating.
Impossible to ignore those beady, dissatisfied eyes. Reflected in the sparkling liquid of his intelligent irises, I begin to eat faster and faster. “My body is a witch. / I am burning it.”1Eavan Boland, from the poem “Anorexic.”
Why do I hurt myself? I’m not always sure why. When my bulimia was worse, when there was a binge once, twice, three times a day, I often felt as if I were about to die. About to die if I didn’t start eating, about to die if I stopped, about to die if I didn’t shove something down my throat and heave until all of it was finally out. I lost hours to planning, bingeing, purging. I lost hours to staring at myself in the mirror, picking at my flaws like oozing scabs.
Every day, the pig is growing. He gets bigger and bigger. After a month and a half, he has gotten so big that he’s started to chase the cat. Periodically, two blurs will run by, one pink and one tuxedo. Cat silent, pig squealing.
When I watch my father with the pig, it becomes easy to picture him as a young child. Excitement animates his face in a way I have never seen before. He is delighted, bashful even, around his latest pet. Often, he will stand with his arms crossed and watch the pig eat, enchanted.
My grandmother left a binder filled with about one hundred vignettes, autobiographical snapshots—a project begun in her old age, intended to keep her memory alive after her passing. She appears to have written the earliest vignettes on a typewriter, then transitioned to printed pages typed on a word processor. The first page was a letter explaining the binder, leaving it in my care. On the day after she died, I sat on the floor in my grandparents’ living room with the unmade hospital bed for company and began to read. My grandmother’s life, familiar and strange, unfolded before me. I read about her childhood, her flight from her native Lithuania with her parents in 1940, how Nazi soldiers killed almost every relative, friend, and acquaintance who stayed behind. I read about her father’s early death and about how, when she was thirteen, her mother remarried. I read about how her stepfather, a German Jewish refugee with ties to the family, sexually abused her. I read about how, when my grandmother told her own mother about the abuse, the older woman suggested that it was the girl’s fault and insisted that they needed the man in order to survive. My grandmother left the house at twenty and severed contact with her stepfather, though she did keep up a distant and strained relationship with her mother, for whom I am named. At the base of my skull, a secret, tightly wound, began to unfurl.
When I was a child, I was raped by a man I trusted. He was not a stranger. He was not a member of my immediate family. He was an adult in my life, and for reasons I don’t yet and may never understand, he took advantage of that power.
I don’t remember how old I was. I don’t remember what happened before or after. I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding the event, or if it was a single event at all. I can remember only in flashes, involuntary fragments that rush like a tide across my mind and rip away the present. I can remember only in dreams, on nights when I wake up screaming and in physical pain. I can remember only in the panic, the terror that sometimes sweeps across me when a man enters me or simply comes too close with a body that I suddenly realize is much larger than mine.
I am deeply ashamed of these absences. I’m afraid they mean I’m insane. Many of the experts I’ve read tell me people don’t forget that much of their assaults. And why on earth would anyone believe my story when I can’t remember most of it? I know I was a child because in the flashbacks and the nightmares, my body is much smaller. I see something coming toward me, and though I’m vaguely aware of the existence of penises, I am confused because I’ve never seen one hard before. I am confused because I don’t know the word for rape. I am confused because it hurts and I can’t stop it, because I’ve never felt so much terror, because I can’t get away, I can’t get away and though I don’t quite know what death is, I’m sure this is going to kill me.
Some call #MeToo a revolution. Others say it’s a witch hunt. A red scare. I think of the psychiatrist Judith Herman’s observation that the study of psychological trauma is allowed legitimacy only when it can depend on the support of a political movement to “counteract the ordinary social processes of silencing and denial.”2Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery. Only in such moments, when their stories are heard for the sake of a political cause, are victims allowed to come forward. And then, eventually, “the active process of bearing witness inevitably gives way to the active process of forgetting. Repression, dissociation, and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness.”
Or, as the writer Dorothy Allison put it: “We are the leavening to the salt-crusted fear of this society that only wants to read terrible stories on paperback covers at a distance.”3Dorothy Allison, “A Cure for Bitterness.”
It is the end of 2016, the middle of my winter break. My grandmother has been gone for ten months. My father is clothed for work in pressed khakis and a striped dress shirt. We are both drinking coffee. Mirror images, each of us wrapping a hand around the mug and an arm across our chest. We are talking about sexual harassment. The recent presidential election has made such conversations common in the world around us. I’ve brought the topic up in the abstract, angrily, impulsively. My father doesn’t want to discuss it. But I am compelled, pressed forward by a force I am only beginning to recognize. For me, at least, this conversation is urgent.
“Well, I just don’t think it’s a thing the way some people make it out to be,” he says. “More of a he-said, she-said type deal. Women angry and trying to manipulate men.”
I don’t know what to say. The force pushes words out of my mouth. “I guess,” I say. “Some of the time, maybe. But not as much as you think.” These words burn me. They feel like a betrayal of my budding self, hard won. It is a dangerous thing, my unending hunger for approval.
“And all of that stuff about domestic abuse, adults molesting children,” he goes on. “I don’t think that really happens either.”
“How can you say that?” I say. I am filled with a sudden rage. “Go take a look at Grandma’s journals, if you really believe that!”
My father pauses, sends a puff of air flying from his nostrils. Anger. Inside me, alarms go off. I cringe but hold my ground. “Well, I.” He forces his hands downward. Every line of his body screams with tension, with fury. “I. Well. Just forget it.”
“No.” I will not I will not I will not forget. “What were you going to say?”
“I just don’t—I don’t necessarily believe that really happened.” He looks up at me, defiant. “Okay?” Inside me, a deep sadness opens. A fundamental rejection. I can feel my mind scrabbling for a foothold in its rigid downward spiral.
“What do you mean?”
“I just don’t necessarily believe you should take everything she said at face value.” Can’t believe her, I hear. Won’t believe her. Tears begin to slip down my face. I hate myself for this. I hate that I can’t control my tears, that something inside me has run away with my face and left my mind to flounder. It feels as if someone else is crying, not me.
“How can you say that?” I ask.
My father is surprised, unsettled, but still angry. “She just exaggerated a lot, y’know? Made a big deal out of little things.”
“I don’t know.”
Exasperated hands. “Like when I was a teenager, she would always make this big deal about dinner. God forbid we weren’t on time to dinner. Or cleaning the house. She made such a big fucking deal about cleaning the house.”
My mouth falls open in shock. Tears continue to stream from my eyes. “You don’t believe that her stepfather terrorized her because you had to be on time to dinner?”
“It’s more than that.” My father shifts uncomfortably. There is a silence. I continue to cry. My father looks away. “You’re awful emotional about this,” he says. “Do you feel . . . do you feel like you were molested?”
“No,” I lie. I can’t tell him the truth. Not me, I tell myself.
Not me, not me, not me.
My father’s words leave me furious. How can he let his adolescent anger be so blinding? That jerk, that dick, that fucking piece of shit. His thoughtlessness, I feel, feeds my silence. His unresolved bullshit is eating a hole in my stomach. He is selfish. He can’t see a thing outside his own head. All day, my rage leaves me breathless, leaking and shaking as Pig’s delicate toes click across the floor.
But I know I am not being generous enough. After all, I knew my grandmother too. And with my father, especially, she could be . . . demanding. The anger inside her was wrapped up tight, and when it erupted, it terrified. My father was expected to play by her rules, or else risk facing that rage. Surely there are things she did that I will never know about. There are parts of my father’s experience I will never be able to imagine. And though I can empathize with my grandmother’s insecurity, her unyielding need in the face of a world that had never given her enough, I can also see my father’s side of things.
My grandmother loved her children. But she also demanded from them obedience, fidelity, success, as if they were a part of her and not their own selves. And, looking back at the relationships I observed between them, I can’t help but wonder if my grandmother assigned to her two sons the impossible task of making up for the wrongs done to her, the hardships she had to bear, much more numerous and devastating than anything my father or I have experienced. My father, I suspect, was burdened as a child with an emotional responsibility he didn’t feel quite able to handle. He became a man unable to fully trust himself, a man who loved his mother but could not forgive himself for his lingering need to escape.
My father and I have never spoken about my eating disorder. I’ve never spoken to him about my assault. We don’t talk about how I go to therapy, or how I take antidepressants. We don’t talk about the fact that he takes them too. We do talk about the pig, though. We talk about how big he is, how much he’s grown. “He’s just so cool,” my dad says, and I agree. Pig is safe to talk about. Pig is easy, Pig is known. And Pig isn’t hard to read. When he’s hungry, or angry, or scared, he lets you know. He headbutts the door and nips your feet and screams his little piggy screams. Sometimes, when he’s either excited or terrified, he pisses. Takes a great flooding leak right on the floor. If only we could all be so eloquent.
I once read a news story about a potbellied pig named Lulu, who saved her owner’s life by lying down in the middle of a road. As the story goes, Lulu and her humans were vacationing on Presque Isle, a finger of land that protrudes into Lake Erie. While one of Lulu’s owners was out fishing, the other had a heart attack. According to Lulu’s owner, Lulu cried “big fat tears” and pushed her way out onto the street. She flopped down in traffic. After forty-five minutes, a passing driver finally went in search of Lulu’s owner and realized that she was having a heart attack. The woman’s life was saved.
It is a curious story, full of strange actions that take the place of words, revolving around a pig so distressed that she forces a harried world to simply stop.
Bulimia is an extreme coping mechanism. Maladaptive, actually. That’s the word. It’s a difficult problem to explain, because it’s so many problems all at once. Growing up awash in media didn’t help, of course. But to say that was the end of it would be wrong. It wasn’t just the too-skinny girls on TV. It was something much larger than that, something so enmeshed in our society that most of the time, we can barely see it. The only way I can describe it is through connections. Slowly, I trace back these many interwoven elements of pain. Depression and anxiety, sure; a way to quiet the alarm bells always ringing inside my head. A little dopamine lever designed to make life seem more bearable. Except it is also a descent, an antidote that makes everything worse. When I think back on the things I did in order to satisfy my illness and adhere to the rituals it demanded, I can hardly understand the illogic of it. Stashing spoons in bathrooms, throwing up within an hour after a binge. Scoping out single-occupant restrooms and varying my sources of food with careful attention. No one could notice how much I was eating, lest they start to suspect. People still noticed—it was hard not to. But people don’t tend to ask. It’s part of how I could hide everything for so long. But the irony is that the bulimia was, more than anything else, a cry for help. Something to point to and say: Look, all is not okay.
We don’t like to think about sexual abuse. It disturbs us to the point of silence. Best to wrap it up and shove it in a box, place it on a shelf in the back of the closet: those who do it are monsters, and children who have it done to them are damaged. Children, we think, should not have such knowledge. But all children, really, know more than they let on. Children are not passive actors, unaware of the world and the concerns of adults. For the most part, they are not asexual. They know what should happen and what should not. And they know what is to be talked about and what is not. Shame and guilt come from that place of hiding.
I don’t remember trying to tell my parents about what happened. I know that now, when I contemplate talking about it, I am terrified. Like water, my mind runs off in all directions. Anything to get away, to evade. My ears and my eyes stay wide open, alert for any signs of disbelief, imagined or otherwise.
I entered treatment for my bulimia in the fall of 2015. About a year after I sought help, my symptoms began to ease. I started to peel back the layers beneath my disorder, and soon enough I found myself thinking about it again. A few months later—I don’t remember exactly when—I tried to talk to my mother. My breath came fast. I went to another place, a place where it was dark and I was scared. She tried to touch me, to comfort me, but feeling her grasp, I panicked and began to scream. His hands, my body thought. His eyes. Later, when I half
–lied and told her I didn’t remember who it was, what happened, she said this:
“Some people wouldn’t want to remember. Some people wouldn’t think about it.” A sigh. What was that in her eyes? Was it condemnation? Reproach? “But that’s not who you are, I guess. You have to think about it.”
I didn’t think about it for a long time, after that.
I can’t remember a time when I felt safe in my flesh. I can’t remember a time when I felt right. For as long as I can remember, I have been at war with my body. I have pinched and prodded, sucked in and shaved and screamed at my reflected self. Too thick, too broad, too fat. Just a little more, I tell myself. If that line were just a little different, that curve a little less soft. If I were thinner, prettier, quieter, smarter, maybe I would feel okay. The worse my disorder, the more panicked I am, the tighter the circles. Every moment becomes an onslaught of thoughts and sensations. I feel I might disintegrate at any second. I cannot breathe. I cannot think. I need all of this to be turned off.
There is a string between the mind and the body. If circumstances demand, that string can be cut. The mind floats up, up, and the body remains. Dissociation, my therapist calls it. For me, it feels more like sinking backward, curling up in a dark place somewhere at the back of my head. Retreating, I pull back until there is nothing left of “me” but a small, hollow voice. It can watch, it can protest, but it cannot do a thing about this body that it has given up. Limbs, no longer my own. I am possessed. I am frozen.
That’s what a binge feels like. But bingeing is not how I first learned to dissociate. No. I learned long ago, as a child, faced with experiences I did not understand. The mind can float away, but it must eventually come back. And when it comes back to the body, it rarely fits. The snaps and catches that once anchored it have warped. The mind and the body can no longer connect. Like a face drawn ever so slightly wrong. Something isn’t right. And all of me writhes in the difference.
Several months after our conversation in the kitchen, my father and I are walking alone, hiking up a large, rocky hillside at Garner State Park. I pick up sticks and throw them off into the dry, whispering woods. My father trudges ahead, clouds of dust swirling like wandering thoughts behind him. We have always felt safer in the silent concentration of physical exertion. Quickening my pace, I catch up to him.
“Why can’t you believe Grandma?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I guess because I don’t think of her the same way as you do.”
“Why are you so angry at her?”
“I don’t know,” he says. I can tell he is irritated that I am bringing this up again, but I do not shrink, though my body wants to.
“If one of us came to you and said something happened.” I flail for an example that lies far from my truth. “You know, at school or something. Would you believe us?”
It takes him a long time to answer. “Yes,” he says. “I would.”
I’m not sure if he knows, or guesses, what lies behind my words. I don’t bring up my own memories. I can’t. My fear—of his disbelief, his distress, his questions full of shocked, unconscious aggression, or, worst of all, his silence—wins out again. I don’t want to tell him, and I give in to that not wanting. And so, at a loss for words, I fall silent instead.
My grandmother wanted so badly to protect us. My sisters. Me. “If you’re ever in a situation you don’t like,” she told each of us, “if anyone is ever pressuring you to do something you don’t want to do, then you call me. You call me and I’ll come get you.” When I was leaving for my sophomore year of college, her illness had progressed so far that she could barely speak. Nonetheless, she struggled to open her mouth. Two words she forced out: “Be safe.” Thinking of those words now, I cry because I cannot tell her that they were so many years too late. I cry for her secret. I cry for my own.
Imagine taking all the things you’ve never said and sculpting them into a space the shape of a pig. My father, for example, often says that he loves the pig. He has said this since the day we first brought Pig home. He still says it a year and a half later, now that the pig is the heaviest member of our family, a prickling pink mass of cunning and fat. “I love the pig.” But he does not touch him. He does not pet him. My father has only two kinds of interactions with the pig. He likes to feed him, watch him eat. And he likes to pick him up, just to prove he still can. Whenever the pig is picked up, he screams. Rage and fear, pouring from a pulsing pink throat.
Pig is angry. So am I. The difference, though, is that I am terribly afraid of my anger. On occasion, it leaps forth, pouring out of my mouth and attacking the people who least deserve it. I scream at my boyfriend, my sisters, my mother. I box myself up and shut myself down and freeze them out. Just imagine, for a moment, looking into the eyes of the people you love most. Imagine ripping at them, tearing at them. Half because you know you can. Half because you are desperate, aching to be hurt back. A many-segmented worm, my anger is curled inside me, chewing at me, releasing a bitter anesthetic so that I cannot feel its corrosive bite. Sometimes, when I look back, I think that the only reason I threw up was to force this creature out.
The stories of sexual assault and harassment and misconduct in the news often seem to me far away, indistinct. I tell myself that they have nothing to do with me. But at other moments, they rush forward from the page, grab my shirt, and scream at me. This is you, this is you, this is us. It’s happening again! It’s happening again! It’s always, always happening, and in this world, there is no escape.
I don’t know where we humans learned to hurt both so thoughtlessly and so efficiently. I don’t know why stories of sexual violence are so difficult for us to believe, so hard to talk about when it matters most. I don’t know how to forgive those failings in others, or in myself.
But I do know how to understand. We’re all warped. We’re all twisted into painful shapes by the things that came before. “What we learn in crafting the story of our lives is some way to love ourselves even in the midst of our horror. To forgive ourselves, our broken damaged hurt places, an appreciation for the muscle we have created in order to survive.”4Dorothy Allison again.
At 3:43 p.m. on February 18, 2016, I asked my father to come with me to my grandparents’ house. We knew my grandmother did not have long to live—a few hours, maybe, or perhaps a few days. Death can prove an imprecise science. My father agreed to go with me; whatever his resentments, he was always a dutiful son.
As it turned out, my grandmother did not have hours. She died roughly sixty minutes after we arrived. When I sat down beside her bed that day, I could see death gathering like a summer storm. I could hear it on her breath. Often, when bodies shut down, their final breaths come in a labored, irregular pattern. Between the exhales and inhales, things catch. Things stop. An apnea, it is called. Then, from deep within the chest there is a gasp, a bursting back into life. Not one death but many. Because I was sitting the closest to my grandmother, I was the first to notice what was happening. In her mouth, in her chest. Awareness dawned. As I watched, every breath she took became her last. Her eyes floated upward, to a point behind my shoulder. I became convinced that she was looking for my father, her son. I tried to call him over, but I could not open my mouth.
Soon, the hospice nurse noticed what was happening. When she told us to say goodbye, my grandfather kneeled before my grandmother and cried. He told her that they would meet again, said the Shema for her lips, which could no longer pray. My middle sister and I cried and kissed her, told her goodbye. My father stood behind us, immobilized. I knew that if my grandmother was in there, all she wanted was for him, her son, to say that he loved her. I felt him standing behind me, and I knew that he could not say it. Paralyzing tension rolled off him in waves. I understand, now, that these were his own hurt places, tearing him apart.
I sit on the ground in the backyard, watching the pig. He has tripled in size since we brought him home two months ago. His tail swings as he picks his way across the grass, snuffling and content. Looking at his happy backside, I cannot help but smile. A pig in the yard—what would my grandmother think? Around me, a sudden breeze stirs. The trees wave. She would have been amused. Beside me, my father stands hunched with his arms across his chest.
“I love the pig,” he says.
“I love him too,” I respond. And I wonder if we’ll ever find the courage to say everything else.