No Archive Will Restore You

Julietta Singh

A Thief, a Desire

It was 2004 and unapologetically frigid in Minneapolis. The radio had pronounced it the coldest day of the year, though I had learned by then to trust nothing that came from news channels. The heat in my studio apart-ment was out again, and I was bundled indoors in woolly socks, long johns, and a bulky coat watching my breath billowing out of my body in smoky plumes. My building had been robbed twice within the past week, though my apartment had been magically spared. This is not quite true, because the intruder had in fact come to my door and taken from my doormat my sole pair of sneakers. He had been at the threshold, not quite inside my home but at its border. And he had taken something from that bor-derland, something that held value for us both. In this sense, it seemed to me that we were undeniably linked. Despite the fact that he had not entered my space, I could feel him palpably inside – not only in the fearful sense of anticipating his return, but in the sense that some trace of him had been left behind, had made its way across the threshold and into that tiny frozen space that had become my makeshift American home.

Anticipating that the thief would strike again, I searched the apartment trying to evaluate what else of mine might be seen as valuable to him. Attempting to abate my fear,I decided the ethical move was not to defend against him but to find a way to welcome him, to make his forced entry feel less violating. I put a postit note in the fridge affixed to a can of Red Bull that read Please Feel Free. The note was a strange welcome to my unwanted intruder; an offering of something that it would not hurt me to lose. In fact, the Red Bull was the remnant of some other visitor, someone I had already forgotten who had left behind an item I would never consume. I knew there was an ethical flaw at work in my act of strange hospitality, of offering something to my intruder that I myself did not want. I was deep in selfcritique even before the sticky had stuck; I was young and cold and could feel my body aging.

As a brown Canadian kid, I had imagined America as a two-headed monster. One head was a gleaming blond-haired boy with a mouthful of exotic American candies, a big perverse smile chewing unrelentingly. The other head was cloaked in the clownish headgear of the Ku Klux Klan. I found both heads silly and terrifying; both in different ways seemed to want to devour me.

I came to the United States to study, urged by keen Canadian professors that a PhD in hand from an American university would make me “golden” upon return. I came with hesitancy, never once considering that I might not return, that moving south would over time transform me into an expatriate. When that frigid day in Minneapolis had come to pass, I had been living in America for months and no longer envisioned the nation as a monster. In fact, I had grown to love monsters, recognizing their social function as the abject edges of society. The creation of the monster, I had discerned, is a way of crafting an outside so that a collective can imagine itself as bounded, cohesive, and impenetrable. The monster is a being who will not or cannot fit normally, whose existence makes others uncomfortable and who therefore must be shunned and exiled. No, America was not a monster, though it was highly skilled at creating monstrous figures and exerting force against them. My intruder-guest felt like a monster – like something lurking at the edges of what I had come to believe was properly mine. Something that threatened to come inside, and in so doing to force me to reckon with my relation to it.

Waiting to be robbed is like waiting for an imminent accident in which both you and your assailant are together in disaster. Your assailant in that single moment wields more control, and in response you become in a sense other to yourself. You cannot uphold the usual fantasy of being a selfgoverning body; you are palpably exposed. I responded to this crisis of being by doing what I always do in moments of critical uncertainty. I did what I had come to America to do: I studied.

I constructed a makeshift nest on my ratty old orange sofa, aesthetically a cross between a bus seat and a church pew. The cushioning inside was endlessly disintegrating, leaving piles of dust beneath it that spread across the floor like a listless diaspora. But I loved the look of that sofa and in any case had no funds to replace it. I was burrowing myself between blankets, flipping through the pages of a foundational work of postcolonial studies, Ed-ward Said’s Orientalism, when I came upon a passage written by the Italian neo-Marxist political theorist, Antonio Gramsci:

The startingpoint of critical elaboration is the con-sciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory… Therefore it is im-perative at the outset to compile such an inventory.
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publications, 1997), 324. Cited in Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 25.

An infinite history of traces without an inventory! An endless collection of oneself that is impossible to gather… I had no concrete idea of what it meant, or what currency it had in my own life, but I knew how it felt. It felt as though the broken thing I was might be restored, and it felt like an embodied idea I would never stop desiring for myself and for the world.

The heat kicked back on in the middle of the night. I could hear the strange clanking of the radiators fumbling back to life. But by then, it was not the double threat of freezing and burglary that left me sleepless, but the opaque and desperately seductive idea of my own impossible archive.

There are at least two ways to understand the emergence of a desire: one is through a moment, when something shifts and the way you act and react, the way you turn things over, is fundamentally altered. The other is through accrual, how over time and repetition our his-tories draw us toward certain practices and ways of feel-ing and wanting. My desire is the idea of the archive. Or, more accurately, it is the idea of what the archive might have to offer. While I know that my desire for the archive is in reality a long accrual, I imagine it as this single solitary moment.

No Archive Will Restore You

We were scrambling toward the archive. We knew it was crucial, but I suspect that few of us knew what it meant, or where it was, or what to do with it.

We were graduate students in a small cultural theory pro-gram, plummeting deeper and deeper into debt, which is in a sense its own hellish kind of archive. We were hoping to be one of the rare exceptions that would be plucked into that almost mythical land of tenure-track work. The job market had undeniably tanked, and a PhD had radically changed over time from being a gateway into stable academic employment to being a credential with almost no real currency in the world. As the university became more and more corporatized and increasingly driven by exploited labor, it was also churning us out in droves, spitting us into a world of highly competitive and highly unstable employment.

Most of us would become underpaid adjunct laborers without access to healthcare, facing our mid-30s without a clear sense of what it had all been for. We told ourselves there was nothing else we would rather do than to study, to be trained into cultural critique over the course of a decade. And it was mostly true. We were trying to stay in solidarity with each other as we competed for scarce fellowships and dwindling jobs, watching the cohorts ahead of us fail to live out the promise of it all, wondering in more and less public ways why we had started down this anxiety-riddled road in the first place.

Why did we stay on, with the odds so stacked against us? I don’t blame the archive per se, but it undoubtedly held out a kind of promise for each of us that kept us tethered to academia. The archive was an elusive hope of our individual salvation. If we could find the right archive, the right stash of materials that was sexy enough to sell ourselves, we could be spared the depression, the anxiety attacks, the pre-mid-life crises that would come when, one by one, we realized we were not going to be chosen. When, in the face of that brutal rejection, we had no idea what the fuck to do with ourselves. If only we could stum-ble upon the right archive, the secrets that no one else had yet discovered, we might still be one of the chosen ones. The archive was an opaque hope, yet it kept slipping away as though it didn’t want to be found, plundered, excavated. It became outright seductive in its evasiveness, and it kept making clear that it didn’t want our mastur-batory desire for it. The archive was pure tease, and we were unabashedly shoving borrowed dollar bills down its skimpy thong.

If you are like me and you didn’t roll into graduate school knowing the highfalutin importance of the archive, you learn it the moment you step into the seminar room. There, everyone is required to pretend to have one, and everyone wants to know yours. “What’s your archive?” you’ll be asked repeatedly, and your answer will reveal how seriously you should be taken. You learn quickly that “archive” in this context can mean almost anything. In its most obvious iteration, the archive might be a physical place where a collection of documents is housed.

(It behooves me here to admit that I have almost no ex-perience of the brick and mortar archive, that in fact I have a long history of becoming discomfortingly over-whelmed in spaces that contain masses of information. Since childhood, I have felt like a shrunken mind that knows too little, that cowers like a beaten dog each time I am confronted by vast architectures of knowledge.)

But “archive” has more expansive meanings too, which can signal a body of literature (as in the literature of a group of politically motivated writers in South Asia be-tween the 1930s–1960s), or a series of monuments, or a collection of images… In other words, “archive” in gradu-ate school simply means what you are studying, and call-ing what you study an “archive” gives it heft, grants it the status of an intellectual pursuit. Your archive is an expected declaration – a pronouncement that makes manifest your worth and belonging in the great halls of higher learning. The archive, it must be noted, is also your enabling fiction: it is the thing you say you are doing well before you are actually doing it, and well before you understand what the stakes are of gathering and inter-preting it.

“Nothing is less reliable, nothing is less clear today than the word ‘archive,’” writes Jacques Derrida,
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

who begins his meditation on the archive (and its particular relation to psychoanalysis) by turning us to arkhē, the linguistic root of the word. Arkhē, Derrida explains, ar-ticulates both commencement and commandment. In the first iteration, arkhē is the place from which every-thing emerges, the location from which the thoughts and things of the world spring forth. In the second, it is the place of authoritative law, from where authority is exer-cised and externalized. How, the philosopher asks, can we hold these two meanings together? What is this place – the archive – where the beginning of things and the authority to govern over them both emerge? For Derrida, the archive is troubling; it marks a series of secrets be-tween the public and the private, but also and most inti-mately, “between oneself and oneself.”2

The Body Archive

Why this desire for a body archive, for an assembly of history’s traces deposited in me? (I worry over how to describe it, how to frame it without sounding banal or bafflingly idiosyncratic.) The body archive is an attune-ment, a hopeful gathering, an act of love against the fore-closures of reason. It is a way of knowing the body-self as a becoming and unbecoming thing, of scrambling time and matter, of turning toward rather than against one-self. And vitally, it is a way of thinking-feeling the body’s unbounded relation to other bodies.

I begin then to compile an archive of my body, an activity that from the start feels discomfortingly intimate. Too intimate and too bewildering an undertaking, because like all other bodies mine has become so many things over time, has changed dramatically through forces both natural and social. I am also, it must be noted, a person whose body has been broken and maimed many times over – a fact that I cannot yet entirely account for.

How, then, to undertake this desired body archive? There are, of course, those obvious places that are marked on the body, places where the body has been cut, or burned, or broken. I could begin simply by cataloguing these in-flictions through the traces they have left behind. Just as easily, I could also turn to my body’s naturally occur-ring oddities, the ways that it has grown and developed against perceived social norms. Both approaches empha-size the body’s surface, and both dwell on its “imperfec-tions” – those aspects that we (especially those of us trained as women) see magnified so acutely that when we look at ourselves we see not body but flaw, not the histories that produced us but a catalogue of deficiency.

While these topographical oddities may indeed become part of my archive, they cannot constitute its core. This is in part because I do not want to gather a body archive strictly in order to convert culturally produced deficien-cy into historical value; to begin to love, in other words, what I have been trained to perceive as flaw.

There is an archival crisis already looming here, because the body’s surface is ultimately not stable ground upon which to build an archive. While the skin is a visual sign of the body’s exterior limit, the physicist Karen Barad emphasizes how in fact bodies extend into space well be-yond the skin. Molecularly, we spread into the “outside” world, mingling with it in ways that are not apparent to us. Our bodies are porous, as Nancy Tuana reminds us when she calls into question “the boundaries between our flesh and the flesh of the world.”

Nancy Tuana, “Viscous Porosity,” in Material Feminisms, eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, 188–213 (Bloomington: Indiana Univer-sity Press, 2008), 198.

These feminist for-mulations of the body insist on our vital entanglements with the outside world, complicating any easy binary de-marcations of “inside” and “outside.” For better and for worse, we are made up of an outside world which consti-tutes, nourishes, and poisons us in turns.

This is not only a material problem for my body archive, but also an affective one. In the end, we are not bounded, contained subjects, but ones filled up with foreign feelings and vibes that linger and circulate in space, that en-ter us as we move through our lives. We likewise leave traces of ourselves and our own affective states (which are never really just our own) behind us when we go. Af-ter all the discipline we have endured to teach us that we are self-governing and self-contained, responsible for how we feel, Teresa Brennan insists that “the taken-for-grantedness of the emotionally contained subject is a residual bastion of Eurocentrism in critical thinking.”

Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 2.

How we think about ourselves as material and emotional be-ings turns out to be a style of thought, one that emerges from a specific place (Europe) at a specific time (moder-nity). Against this historically imposing style of thought, I am fully invested in the conviction that our bodies and minds are less discrete than we have been led to believe. Bodies and minds: I confess, I have already lost the differ-ence between them.

There is something haunting to me about the fact that I lean on contemporary feminist new materialist discourse to account for the fact that the body is not and has never been singular. Something haunting about the fact that the non-singularity of the body, its vital entanglements with other kinds of bodies, was once so obvious across cultures, geographies, and histories that it didn’t need to be argued. Something changed, something was changed. A monumental worldview swept in and tried – with brute force, with discipline, with pedagogy – to make us each one self. But there is a prolific past that tells a different story of the body as an infinite collection of bodyings. And the grand historical force of producing the singular self has made these pasts difficult to gather, difficult to archive.

Pondering the idea of the body archive, I cannot resist thinking toward those palpable bodily openings: the ori-fices. Those holes in our bodies where other bodies have unabashedly entered and left their deposits. Among other things, the body’s archive might be framed as an archive of penetration. A cellular recounting of sloughs of skin, of bodily fluids that have been shed or excreted into each body, into each of the body’s canals. A history, in other words, of foreign bodily matter left inside us. In this sense, the vaginal archive also turns out to be an anal and oral and acoustic one… Each orifice an entry where we palpably open, where other bodies have been, and by leaving their traces in us have, in a molecular sense, be-come us.

This thought is at times distressing to me when I reflect upon a history of forced and unwanted bodily entry, or of those fleeting shameful affairs I have so often wished to make disappear from my archive. I do not want to retain those remnants, nor at times can I bear that to some de-gree, however infinitesimally, I am constituted by them. Lest I forget, though, that we also shed ourselves over time. This body is not the body it was then and is already becoming another body. This formula offers degrees of relief and panic in turn. It is also another kind of fiction. Suddenly I am aware of the body as both archive and ar-chivist – in a crucial sense, it gathers its own materials. Control over the assemblage that I am turns out to be pure fantasy.

In grauate school, i wrote a shoddy dissertation about representations of food and eating in postcolonial literary texts titled The Edible Complex. The title was its crowning achievement, and even that was given over to me by my doctoral advisor. What is important to me now about that dissertation is that it is a sign of my histori-cal preoccupation with what enters the body and how and why. With the ways in which we take in, refuse or expunge things that are external to us. It was a novice attempt to conceive an anti-colonial archive of ingestion, with special attention to how colonial legacies continue to inform our bodies and minds.

The French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once famously pronounced: Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (“Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are”).

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du goût (Paris: Flammarion, 2001), 19.

He claimed a critical relation be-tween one’s identity and one’s diet, reminding us that eating habits reveal or betray so many forms of identity, including race, ethnicity, class, culture, gender. And also, perhaps, sexuality… but I will come to that.

The Inarticulate Trace

Extreme physical pain swallows its object. It dwarfs you. I find a certain perverse comfort in being with others who have endured indescribable pain. It is a comfort of its own order, and in this sense is almost antithetical to other forms of comfort that tend toward stability. The comfort of discovering others who share the experience of indescribable pain is, oddly, one that mirrors pain’s dwarfing effect; I feel shrunken by my proximity to oth-ers who have been fundamentally altered by pain. And in the strangest sense, I relish this feeling.

Though pain is internally felt and appears to belong to discrete bodies, it is also vitally bound up with the out-side world. Pain comes through an already existing body, but it is interpreted, diagnosed, and valued from the outside. Before there is an evaluation of pain, there is a suf-fering body. And this body is always already interpreted before pain is assessed; pain is, in other words, diagnostically secondary to the body that feels it. The more imme-diately “legible” forms of bodily assessment – the gender, race, class, and sexuality that are often revealed by the body – come first. Put simply, pain cannot be disassoci-ated from the political, cultural, and historical legacies that give rise to us as particular and particularly embodied subjects.

I have been told repeatedly across my life that I am a per-son with a high threshold for pain. This state of being poses a crucial problem for the interpreters of pain, who rely on specific affects, sounds, expressions, and phrases to inform their diagnoses. I reveal these signs later than others do. In other words, I withhold the extent of my damage until it becomes unbearable to do so.

I have often wondered over what it means to have a “high threshold for pain.” This question became a preoccupa-tion of my childhood, a time when I briefly imagined myself to be a brown girl superhero – one who might cut herself and instantly heal, or fall from a great height and emerge unscathed. I engaged in painful experiments with my body and learned through recurring injuries that whatever “high threshold” meant, it did not mean that I was immune to injury or its felt manifestations.

Later, I came to wonder whether “high threshold” meant not that I was immune to pain but that I felt it differently from others. Yet this formulation kept falling apart, for no matter how many conversations I engaged in about pain there seemed no convincing way to measure my pain against the pain felt by others. In trying to measure the distance between the pain belonging to me and the pain of others, I came face to face with the limited vocab-ulary and insufficient metaphors we rely on to articulate something that, in the end, does not really have a place in language.

Eventually, I began to examine the phrase “high thresh-old for pain” not by circling around pain, but by turning to the term “threshold.” That space – physical, psychic, and temporal – from which you can no longer sustain a performance of yourself as a discrete and bounded en-tity. The threshold of pain is the body’s breaking point, where you move from a recognizable version of yourself to something wholly estranging.

I have a lingering and unprovable suspicion that my own threshold is not natural, not something organic to me. Rather, it grew over time, emerging through more and less subtle forms of training. Threshold is pedagogy. When I feel pain, I hush it up and keep my head high. I push the threshold into a distance, so that it becomes a thin line that tests my endurance, as though I am medal-worthy for my capacity not to succumb to it.

My life with acute neurological pain is now sev-eral years past, yet it haunts unlike other ghosts I have known. It is not quite the memory of pain I am point-ing to, though the memory is always near. It is as though the experience of pain produced another body that trails after mine, close at hand but spectral. Those urgent, in-tolerable sensations have subsided, yet my body is unde-niably changed by the pain it suffered. I live, as a physical and emotional being, very differently in its aftermath.

After a year of abiding and intensifying pain I underwent a precarious emergency neurosurgery and entered there-after into the phase called recovery. Throughout this pe-riod – through post-surgical visits and therapies both physical and psychological – it became increasingly clear that recovery was a kind of assuaging fiction. Before my life with pain, I had been living a fiction of my body as a stable thing – a thing that would remain intact sim-ply because I couldn’t imagine life otherwise. In recovery, movement became not freedom but threat. Everyday life produced a kind of terror in which every motion signaled the possibility of irreparable damage. In pain, something had been uncovered that could not be covered over again.

In her memoir A Body, Undone, Christina Crosby writes the bewilderment of her life with quadriplegia. The memoir shuttles back and forth between life before and after her cycling accident; between memories of her own body and the bodies of others; between an embodied life full of pleasurable sensations, and a life that has become nearly unlivable. Pushing against a tendency within a discourse that advocates for the embrace of differently-abled bodies, Crosby insists on writing about her refusal to find optimism in the intolerable nature of her pain. For her, there are crucial stakes in not pretending to embrace something that swallows your life.

Other Women

I have fallen in love with someone far away, someone whose physical distance is unbearable to me. To a signifi-cant degree our relationship is unfolding in the virtual realm. I am one for whom distance is structurally painful, but I discover that it is the distance of the postmodern age that I find particularly agonizing. S and I communi-cate overwhelmingly through text messaging, a funda-mentally tricky mode that keeps my love object feeling close at hand but fails over and again to make him fully manifest.

A friend of mine, an artist devoted to the figure of the other woman, insists that her virtual relationships – those that have taken place entirely or predominantly through technological devices – have been no less felt, no less erotic, no less powerful in their emergence or devastating in their unraveling. In other words, no less real. She tells me that in fact the deepest forms of attachment she has had are the ones that have been exclusively vir-tual. She thrives in that realm; for her, it is artful.

Yet for me, virtual relations feel excruciatingly remote and leave me anchorless. What I desire in the physical absence of my love is to gather and hold our correspond-ence – to feel it as a substantial body. My imagination of long-distance love conjures expansive exchanges of words on paper, letters carried across time and space, an archive of confessions and meditations to comb through. This imagination is partly informed by 19th-century liter-ary depictions of love unfolding at a distance, and partly generational, since my idea of love was cultivated before the digital age.

I am often struck by a desire to return to the beginning of this love, to those first textual missives between us that mark the site of our inaugural contact. But I would have to scroll forever to reach them. I have a suspicion that even if I were to spend that endless time jutting my thumb up the screen to go back and back and back in time, my iPhone would refuse to permit me into that virtual past. Has this device archived my romance, or imprisoned it?

I entered the cellular age in 2008 when my vaginal library friend C was about to give birth and wanted me on call for the immanent event. I procured a small grey flip phone that stayed with me for five years, until I stumbled into a duplicitous affair with the Love Addict. The Love Addict was in a long-term live-in relationship, one she presented as “in transition” from romance into friend-ship. She adored my flip phone – it may well have been what attracted her to me in the first place – but the fact that our relationship was compulsively textual meant that neither my device nor my phone plan could handle the bewildering form and frequency of our secret com-munications.

I therefore joined the international iPhone community in the form of the other woman, the object crashing into my life as a symbol of my need, my lack, and my capacity to deceive myself and others. It turned out that the Love Addict had a host of other women likewise tethered to their phones, vying for her to make their devices come alive. When my iPhone suddenly stopped relaying her unabashed affections, the device became a palpable sym-bol of my romantic annihilation.

Shortly after the end of that affair, I inadvertently let the iPhone slip from my back pocket into the toilet where it died a prompt and befitting death-by-urine. To my surprise, the new iPhone – a less expensive model that looked palpably different and felt infinitely less sleek – remained haunted by a feeling of ubiquitous lack and de-ception. As though the concept of the iPhone itself had a hand in making duplicity manifest.

Many moons later when I fell wildly in love with S, my iPhone continued to feel like a conduit for my idiocy, a messenger I relied on fully but also desired to annihilate. A tool that made me feel disappeared.

I wait (often sesperately) for the ding of my iPhone, for the sonic register that, only an instant earlier, S was thinking of me. I know that this is a biochemical desire, that I am as addicted to the sound of his attention as I am to his attention itself. At times it becomes difficult for me to decipher the difference between them. In the instant of the text receipt, aware of the tiny temporal gap between his sending and my receiving, I can’t help but to wonder: “Am I still the thing he is thinking, or has he moved on by now to other thoughts?” The fast pace of the transmission feels like a commentary on the fleet-ingness of his devotion, as though the form is revealing something suspect about the content and its sender.

I lack technological savvyness, which gives me pride and frustration in turns. Among the troubles of love unfold-ing virtually, at a distance, and primarily through screen interplay, is the fact that I am not well versed in this dia-lect. Perhaps the trouble is less that I am technologically inept, and more that I am a close-reader of language. Through many years of formal academic training and an unrelenting desire for depth, I look for nuance in eve-rything I read. And text messaging, for all of its utility and playfulness, is not an emotionally subtle genre even while it is replete with codes.

The Ghost Archive

Early in Leslie Feinberg’s queer classic Stone Butch Blues, the protagonist Jess narrates the setting of her birth. What she tells is her mother’s story, a story echoed across Jess’s childhood, one that thus comes to constitute her own sense of being. The story, in sum, is this: Trapped alone inside her apartment during a fierce storm, Jess’s mother weeps loudly in labor. Hearing these sounds of distress, the Dineh women who live across the hall inter-vene to help birth the baby. When they offer the newborn over to its mother, she responds with a chilling declara-tive:

“Put the baby over there.”
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (2014), 8, First published in 1993 by Firebrand Books.

Reading this passage aloud to my students, I was sudden-ly drawn headlong into my own history, as Jess observes that the “story was retold many times as I was growing up, as though the frost that bearded those words could be melted by repeating them in a humorous, ironic way.”2

My mother narrates a similarly chilling albeit recurring scene from my own youth. It unfolds in the late 1970s, in the context of a mixed-race and oftentimes violent family. “When you were young,” my mother says, “you used to scream at the edge of your playpen and tear out your hair, offering it to me in clumps, fistful after fistful.” My mother smiles when she relays this story, chuckles at what a difficult child I was, without ever folding into the narrative the conditions under which a child would be-come so brutally selfdestructive… “As though the frost that bearded those words could be melted by repeating them in a humorous, ironic way.”

I metabolized this story over time, offering it over one day to my therapist in a tone that unconsciously replicates my mother’s humorous retelling. My therapist can-not conceal her distress, taken aback by the whimsy with which I can relay a story of my own early trauma. She re-sponds with an assertion: “You did not yet have language through which to articulate your distress.” My hair was a stand-in for my anguish, each strand a word I had not yet learned, but needed urgently to give over.

Like Jess, my memory of this early scene is fabricated through repetitive maternal narrations. The stories that comprise us have left us both wanting more, wishing we had access to a fuller narrative frame. I call this wishing-wanting desire “the ghost archive.” Everything we need to know but cannot know as we keep circling and sniff-ing around the edges. Everything that keeps affecting us and affecting others through us. Everything that remains right there, but just out of reach.

According to Psychoanalysis, the true origin of our obsessive behaviors exists in the unconscious. Freud calls those things that appear to disappear, those things that are invisible yet no less inscribed in us, permanent memo-ry-traces. They are our unidentified ghosts making them-selves queerly manifest. One of the primary frustrations of psychoanalysis, at least from the vantage point of the couch, is that we cannot ultimately access the root of our obsessions. The unconscious is the most evasive archive of all, yet is pulsing right there inside you.

Replete with Memory-traces, i am all feeling and response. Each time my therapist returns me to my child-hood, she asks me to image my own daughter in my place. To imagine my own daughter trying to reach me by tear-ing out her hair in screaming fistfuls. Each time I under-take this exercise, I discover myself to be a deep and en-during fracture. Each time, I am undone.

I have an acute memory of my mother as a child, desperately lonely on the shores of Belfast. She is gathering treasures from the sea. At age 4, she is all blustering whiteness with full rosy cheeks. She has been sent away to boarding school and is crushed by the absence of her parents. She brushes a long strand of hair from her face, looks out into a distance that appears eternal. She seems to know, even then, that she will cross an ocean, that she is destined to transport her solitude to another conti-nent.

Somewhere in this memory there is an overseer, a body who is making sure that my mother is not swallowed up by the sea. But whoever she is, she is well beyond the frame.

The one I once pushed from my body turns five. To com-memorate this life-shift, we embark on an off-season road trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to undertake a shell hunting expedition. What we search for is whole and swirl; what we find is fractured yet stunning. I think of this child, who is herself a fragment of my body. And my own body, which is also fragment. Something born, something shattered, something that articulates its in-terest in a mythical whole.

The ocean’s calculus, scattered bits, everything evidence of a once-was. These once creaturely homes have been smashed into smallness. I walk through intense gusts of cool wind, a desiring seeker. We have come with the aim of finding a whole, special thing. The longer I search, the more I realize the fantasy of it, the more I believe in the meaning of fragment. Of these infinite, fractured oceanic offerings, I cull a triangular piece of clam shell. Its exte-rior unspectacular, save for the fact that I discover on it a wet groove the precise color of my skin. On the inside, another color altogether – that of a well-earned bruise.

Nature is repeating itself, repeating me. What if we could choose our injuries? What shapes would we become?

This oceanic bruise is a queer gift I want to give to S – a way of speaking something beneath language. To of-fer it is pure risk of being spit out as a broken thing. So instead, I tuck it away as a fantasy offering. Folded into my clothing, it is the material remnant of a gorgeous whole I never was. Soon, I will instruct S with precision on how I want his body to open mine, on how to handle the bruised fragment.

Into the wind and waves, my child dances across the beach as she calls to me: Amma! Amma! Amma!

What I hear is bird: Caw! Caw! Caw! A simple reminder that she is animal, that her mother listens through queer tongues.