This is the story I tell myself:
Once upon a time there was a little girl who went wandering in a wood in the sweetness of springtime. She came to a well and leaned far down to see her reflection, but she leaned too far and fell in. The little girl was afraid that the fall would kill her, but when she reached the bottom of the well she found herself in a tunnel, wounded but alive. It opened onto a different wood, far from her home. In this place, trackless snow covered the paths and the crackle of frozen branches silenced the birds that the girl loved. When the girl came to an icy pond, she did not recognize her reflection in the smooth, barren surface of the lake, so transformed was she by the wounds from her fall. Lost, hurt, and mortified in body and soul, she wandered through the wood, searching for a way back home.
A Rip in the World: Entering the Space Between
This is the true story of how I journeyed through an interstitial world, and how that journey transformed me. It’s also the story of how fiction saved me. Some of these memories are confused and some may be entirely false, but they are the memories I carry, and so I call them true.
When I was a little girl, I had three operations that required fairly long hospitalizations. These surgeries took place when I was ten, eleven, and twelve. After each operation, I lay for days in a space that was entirely detached from the rest of the world. To soothe me and to fill the hours, my mother read to me. Some of my most vivid, and yet least reliable, childhood memories are of drifting into a morphine-induced sleep as her voice went farther and father away from my conscious mind and her stories became my dreams. I spent my time floating between reality and fantasy, in a place that was both part of and removed from the world.
A hospital is a space between life and death. Every moment is ritual. The nurse is your guide into the hands of your healers, wheeling you from your bedroom to the operating room, from dysfunction to repair, from consciousness to trance. Regardless of the nature of the surgery, the surgeon must warn the patient that she might die under anesthesia. This is part of the lengthy ritual of preparation, and because of this warning I never assumed that I would wake up after my surgeries.
I was very aware that if I did wake up, I would be physically transformed, although I could not imagine what that transformation would look or feel like. When I entered the hospital, I looked like a healthy child, but my spine was slowly and invisibly crushing me to death and my knees could not support me when I stood and walked for more than a few minutes at a time. With each new surgery, I had new changes. When I left the hospital after my final surgery, my spine was fused from the base of my neck to the top of my hips. I had long scars on the fronts and backs of both knees, a scar that ran from the base of my neck to the top of my buttocks, and thick, wide, ragged scars across the backs of my hips. My torso stopped growing because of the fusion, giving me an oddly proportioned, slightly crooked, and abnormally short body. It was as though I had fallen through the looking glass and been replaced by a fun-house mirror image of myself. I no longer looked healthy and yet my life had been saved. It was difficult for me to grasp the abstract future I had gained when I was confronted with the concrete immediacy of the mobility I had lost. I grieved for the somersaults I loved to do on the lawn in the warm summer evenings. I despised my shape (even more strange to me as I entered early adolescence) and my scars. I had undergone a metamorphosis but I couldn’t grasp what I had metamorphosed into.
He had been light and lithe and strong. Now, lamed by pain, he went hesitantly, and did not raise his face, the left side of which was white with scars. (LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, p. 65)
Each time I entered the hospital the ritual was the same. Like everyone else who undergoes general anesthesia in a hospital, I was a participant in a complex ritual. I had to fast for a day and a night, remove my clothing, and dress myself in a white gown. Sometimes the ritual raiment was pea green, which lacked the poetic quality of white raiment but still conveyed a sense that I was leaving my outdoor, everyday existence (and any notion of autonomy or dignity) behind. I hated the cold sterility of white. It felt cold in the emotional sense and the literal sense, as the thin cotton left me shivering against the air conditioning. I hated the green because it was not only cold but ugly as well, and I was a little girl, almost a teenager, and I hated to wear something ugly. The loss of my own clothes meant the loss of choice and familiarity. It meant that I was leaving everything I knew behind.
Of these events, Ged knew nothing. For four weeks of the hot summer he lay blind, and deaf, and mute, though at times he moaned and cried out like an animal. At last, as the patient crafts of the Master Herbal worked their healing, his wounds began to close and the fever left him. Little by little he seemed to hear again, though he never spoke. (LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, p. 64)
Once I came out of surgery, I was in the world and yet completely removed from it. My room, which I couldn’t leave for most of my hospitalization, was a tiny, white lifepod. I craved color and happy sounds. I treasured a red fabric balloon decoration that my aunt gave me and a brightly colored card that tinnily played “Tomorrow” from Annie. I craved food, real food, but most of what I ate was as bland and colorless as the room. Surely my room must have had windows, but I don’t remember them. I don’t remember natural light or weather or news. I do remember that the first time I was allowed to get out of bed and sit in a wheelchair, I parked the chair in front of a window in the hallway and stared out at the night, entranced, like an astronaut peering through a porthole at the stars.
On a clear day of autumn the Master Herbal opened the shutters of the room where Ged lay. Since the darkness of that night he had known only darkness. Now he saw daylight, and the sun shining. He hid his scarred face in his hands and wept. (LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, p. 64)
The Swamps of Sadness: Endurance and Escape
A common element of transformative ritual is the stripping away of the self. My memories of the hospital involve fear and pain, but above all they are about humiliation and ultimately a complete absence of personhood. Every part of my body, including my genitalia, was subject to scrutiny, invasion, and embarrassment. At various times, there were tubes in my arms, tubes in my nose, and a tube in my urethra. I bled on my sheets and peed into a pail and vomited into my own hair. I was a self-conscious girl on the very brink of adolescence and my body was on constant display to anyone who wanted to look at it and do things to it. I encountered many kind, respectful people in the hospital, but I also encountered many who were so focused on keeping my body alive that they forgot that I was in it. People spoke about me and touched me as though my body were a piece of malfunctioning machinery. No one in the hospital intended to abuse me but because I was a child and I was handled painfully and without my consent, I felt abused and helpless and utterly without recourse. I couldn’t protest, so I endured.
My surgeries took place in a teaching hospital. This means that several times a day, students would come in and the attending doctor would talk about me to his students (it was always a “him”) as though I was not in the room. I was both patient and object in these lessons. I loathed this. I didn’t mind the teaching aspect but I hated being so profoundly dehumanized. I was a person, a unique and therefore precious person, who loved horses and hated math and wanted to learn to play guitar.
To the doctor and the students, I was just a body. This left me humiliated and enraged. “She has terrible ankles,” one doctor was fond of saying. “Wiggle her foot”. Then the student would obediently wiggle my foot and I would scream, because I did, in fact, have terrible ankles. One time a student reached for my foot, stopped, looked into my eyes, and said to me, “Do you mind?” For a moment I slipped through the space in which I was object and I was able to be a person again. I’ll be grateful to this person for the rest of my life for that moment of recognition. The feeling of my humanity rushing back into my heart was so intense that it made my chest ache. I would not recognize the face of that student today, but I believe I would recognize those eyes because although many people showed me respect, kindness, and compassion, his were the only eyes that looked directly and deeply into mine during years of medical procedures.
In humiliation, and suffering, and frustration, and anger, and anguish so great it was dizzying, Westley cried like a baby.
“Interesting,” said the Count, and carefully noted it down. (Goldman, The Princess Bride, p. 207)
When the doctor had gone and the students were gone, I could heal in earnest. The very motion of my breath was agony. Even my hair hurt. I had no sense of time except I knew that I was to get morphine every four hours and I watched the clock for the minute of its delivery. After my first spinal surgery, I was placed on a mattress that was set in a giant wheel. To prevent bedsores and avoid disturbing my spine, the nurses strapped a second mattress on top of me and turned the wheel once every few hours. Then they would remove the now top mattress. The wheel seemed more in place in one of my fantasy books than in any part of reality as I knew it. I could only see a patch of ceiling when I was on my back, and a patch of floor when I was on my face. I couldn’t think. I could barely speak. I could only listen to my mother’s voice, and rotate through space on my macabre wheel-bed and in my morphine-addled dreams.
“You can’t help me, master. It’s all over for me. Neither of us knew what we were getting into. Now we know why they are called the swamps of sadness. It’s the sadness that has made me heavy. That’s why I’m sinking. There’s no help”. (Ende, The Neverending Story, p. 52)
In The Neverending Story, Atreyu is protected from the effects of the swamps of sadness because he wears the amulet AURYN. Atreyu is forbidden to pass the gem onto his horse to save him, but through these stories, my mother placed AURYN into my palm. She wrapped my hand firmly around it, and tethered me to the world of the living and the healthy by AURYN’S golden chain.
I floated on morphine clouds through the space that was both awake and asleep, real and hallucination, and my mother’s words became my dreams. As the drugs transported me away from my body, the stories gave my mind surcease from the fear and helplessness I experienced. Without the ability to escape to Colonial Boston, or Earthsea, or Florin, or Fantastica, I would have drowned in my own fear, humiliation, and pain.
“Once someone dreams a dream, it can’t just drop out of existence. But if the dreamer can’t remember it, what becomes of it? It lives on in Fantastica, deep under earth. There are forgotten dreams stored in many layers. The deeper one digs, the closer they are. All Fantastica rests on a foundation of forgotten dreams.” (Ende, The Neverending Story, p. 373)
A Man Can Stand Up: Becoming Whole
It may seem odd that my mother read me so many books that featured mutilation and despair, but they equipped me for survival in ways that softer books could not have. The theme of the arrogant hero being humbled and then rising, a better person, to greatness, is common. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is an arrogant young man who is almost killed while showing off. He must face the shadow that almost killed him in order to be free and whole again. In a similar vein, Johnny Tremain is about a boy just before and during the American Revolution who is arrogant until he’s injured. Much of Johnny’s coming-of-age story involves him accepting his wounded hand. It’s pointed out that while the hand is ugly, it’s the way he tries to hide it that paradoxically draws attention to it. His struggle to regain his sense of self-worth in the face of his injury parallels that of the revolutionaries, who fight “that a man can stand up.” (Forbes, Johnny Tremain, p. 129)
“It is you who put the idea in their heads”, said Rab, pulling off his shirt. “You know you usually go about with that hand in your pocket, looking as if you had an imp of Hell hidden away, and then someone asks you and you pull it out with a slow flourish, as if you said, ‘This is the most disgusting thing you ever saw.’ No wonder you scare everybody.” (Forbes, Johnny Tremain, p. 129)
Books like Johnny Tremain convey a message that enduring suffering can purge us of our worst natures, but also that every person is worthy of respect and recognition. The idea that there is virtue in suffering can be harmful, because it suggests that pain is the fault of the wounded. My parents berated a doctor who told me that I would bleed less if I thought positive thoughts because they knew that I was the kind of child who would blame myself for my own suffering. I did not deserve to have the kinds of physical problems that led to three major surgeries and half a dozen minor ones by the age of twelve. I did not deserve to be treated like a doll or a piece of machinery or a soulless problem to be solved. In the hospital, I was taught that I should endure in silence, but stories showed me a way to be both enduring and proactive, and they offered me the self-respect that the hospital had stripped me of. In the books my mother read to me, I saw people come to terms with their physical suffering and refuse to be ruled by it. The world tried to break them, but they rose, devoid of arrogance but secure in their right to dignity and personhood.
And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life is therefore lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or the dark. (LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, p.180)
“And Now, I’ll tell You a Story,” Said The Woman
The truth is, with a few exceptions, I’m not always sure which stories my mother actually read to me. I know that she read to me, and when I pick up a book and hear my mother’s voice, I assume that must have been one of the books she read. Her books gave me a road on which I could escape from a painful world and they gave me a road by which I could return. I think of her when I read a book in which a protagonist goes into a place (a magic school, a silver crafting workshop, the pit of despair, the swamps of sadness) and comes out changed, especially when these people come out stronger. I went into an in-between land and came out a different child, mentally and physically. I was tougher, because I knew what I could endure. I was gentler, because I saw so much suffering in the hospital that dwarfed my own. I was, by conventional standards, uglier. I bore the marks of my hospitalization like tattoos upon my skin and shadows in my heart. But like Johnny, like Ged, like Atreyu and Westley, I was alive, I was myself, and I walked out of that land and into the world triumphant.
“And they lived happily ever after”. (Goldman, The Princess Bride, p. 282)
Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. 1979. New York, Doubleday and Company, 1983. Print.
Forbes, Esther Hoskins. Johnny Tremain. United States, Houghton Mifflin, 1943. Kindle file.
Goldman, William. The Princess Bride. 1973. New York, Ballantine Books, 1987. Print.
LeGuin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968. Canada and USA, Bantam Books, 1984. Print.
Paragraph headings credits:
A Rip in the World
(Paraphrased from: LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, p. 61)
The Swamps of Sadness
(Ende, The Neverending Story, p. 52)
A Man Can Stand Up
(Forbes, Johnny Tremain, p. 129)
And Now, I’ll tell You a Story,” Said The Woman
(Ende, The Neverending Story, p. 52)
Carrie Sessarego is the resident ‘geek reviewer’ for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She’s also the creator and writer of Geek Girl in Love, a blog devoted to science fiction and fantasy reviews, interviews, and discussion. Carrie’s first book, Pride, Prejudice, and Popcorn: TV and Film Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, was released in 2014. When not reading and writing, you can find Carrie volunteering for the Sacramento Public Library, and getting into trouble with her mad scientist husband, amazing daughter, suitably mysterious cats, and highly neurotic dog.