A few things became clear in the moments and months after I was attacked by a dog at age nine. Within months, it was clear that my consequent fear of dogs had engaged a far greater fear. Within moments, it was clear that the dog, our dog, Sam, was my father’s dog, loyal to him foremost. Sam, a mature blue-black purebred Chow, rushed to the door one evening just as I did, to meet my father who had been away awhile. My mother was in the kitchen. We had just moved back to Charlotte, from Paris, Tennessee, undoing the relocation we all had made when he left Roadway to work for Transcon nine months earlier. He was sort of at large, still, out on days-long interstate truck runs and still stationed in Tennessee, without us, orchestrating the sale of the life that never quite took. The tractor trailer he parked outside shook the Charlotte house a bit. At the back door, his dog and his son had both come to welcome him; and when he appeared there, Sam turned to his rival in the tight space of the mud room and in a single motion, prefaced by a low growl, seized and ripped the flesh off the right side of my face, cheek to jawbone—so that in the stunned minutes thereafter both of my parents would later say they could see my clenched back teeth when my mouth was closed.
Sam was banished instantly to the back lot, or retreated there ashamed, confused; and swiftly we made preparations to ride to the emergency room. Despite spilling blood and saliva where my face had been, I was numb to the pain, doing as I was instructed, completely mobile, cooperative with the towels, functioning in shock. On my father’s lap—so rarely availed to me—in the passenger seat, as my mother drove, I was prevented from flipping the visor down to see the damage in the mirror but repeated often that one desire, to see for myself what was clearly disturbing my parents, neither of them even thirty years old, it now occurs to me, the year they divorced. What was the damage was the question, yes, but also, what does it look like inside me? I could hardly contain myself.
A friend of mine who recently confided in me that he had tested HIV positive described how he knew the flu symptoms he had in November were more than flu.
A plastic surgeon was airlifted in, and that night I had reconstructive surgery, and came away sewn up with many stitches inside and outside my mouth. A phenomenal operation, everyone said. It was 1982, and with insurance then, I suppose, a secretary and a truck driver could afford it. I was swollen and in bandages for weeks, a pathetic, dopey monster at school for awhile; and then the wound became scar and for the next eight years tightened and traveled from my cheek to my chin as I grew into the face I have. There are a lot of nerve endings gathered in it, and it drives me a little crazy, distributes a sort of unsettling, illocable energy within, when a lover plays with that part of my face. I feel the same about my navel.
It’s my recollection that the Winicottian psychologist and essayist Adam Phillips himself extrapolates from his analysis of tickling, but, if not, the generality I have found so insightful is mine: beyond any fear is a greater circumambient fear, a terror, that one will be insufficiently able to hold that fear. That if the stimulus is present and ongoing, unchecked, one might fall apart, come to pieces, in her faculties disintegrate. In sustained tickling we know (we learned) there exists an outer lip or membrane between the simpler immediate excitement of fear and the shameful and complete loss of bodily control and mental composure. That sensible, pleasurable brim of containment is what makes tickling a good study for Winnicott’s concept of holding, his determination that healthy child development needs a responsible, aware, caring adult “good enough” to hold (to stay with and make room for and validate and check) a child’s pleasures and fears and emotions and acknowledge even the most confounding of them—in the child’s independent trials and explorations—as in-bounds and worth expressing, and celebrating, in their human specificity. Without such a parent—if a parent has diminished capacity, or is narcissistically attached or in trauma or private crisis or absent altogether—protective self-sanctity is a greater necessity, sooner, and the child’s retention of control, for instance, can be acute and maladaptive and difficult to reverse. On into my twenties I can remember struggling to destroy a kind of metaphysical conviction that disclosure was the enemy of integrity.
Proprioception, the term Charles Olson made famous for poetry, is the sense of the body’s orientation and balance and the weighted proportion of its parts. Knowing I face forward is proprioceptive. Interoception is the sense one has of what is inside him. If I have pain in my urethra from dehydration, or if my heart skips a beat, it is interoceptive sensitivity that detects it. A friend of mine who recently confided in me that he had tested HIV positive described how he knew the flu symptoms he had in November were more than flu. He knew something was different inside. He said he even knew the moment, weeks after contracting the virus, he seroconverted. He described this interoceptive sense as body-consciousness, but couldn’t say where he felt it. He didn’t need to, to make himself understood. Likewise, where is fear, or desire, or grief, if not inside? I know it is within, because I contain it: my enabling delusion as a child, essentially, was that affective experience was like a pain in the gut or a lump in the throat. It was something inside yourself that you could choose to hold in.
It is so intrinsic that you could not, at so young an age, begin to know how to explore it. How you feel is the secret. Or, it is not untrue to say, the secret is how you feel.
In Charlotte we shared the neighborhood with a number of large, ferocious dogs. This was true before the dog bite and I was wary of them then; but, afterward, in my presence, it was as though they were lit up with bloodlust and rage. In particular there were a pair of German Shepherds and a Doberman Pincer along my walk to the bus stop, and each morning seemed to be the morning one would finally vault the fencing that barely kept him in. Naturally, I was terrified of what could happen if any of them got to me, and their threat was utterly convincing. Walking in a group was worse because, sauntering apace with everyone and even keeping up conversation as we passed, I nonetheless set off the savagery of the animals around us, and it could not be denied. It could not be covered with my pretenses to normalcy. When they charged, it was obvious they were charging me; it was evident their nasty, murderous mania had an object and I was it. Even today, I feel the need to point out that my performance was flawless. I know I betrayed no trepidation in my mien or manner. I was very good and practiced at keeping it in. When an older boy said it aloud, and when I worked out what he meant, I felt my situation grow in dimension: he smells your fear.
You wake up to the new reality that walking the same Earth you have lived on all these years, growing increasingly proficient as the keeper of your contents, is at least one creature endowed with the singular ability to sense something you are concealing for your life, a creature whose report is loud as a gun.
Early on you have a secret. It is almost as though the secret is there before you. You are ever in relation to it; you are its container, and because by definition the one imperative is that you cannot share the secret—perhaps you develop the understanding that no one in your small world may be entrusted with the knowledge of what’s inside you—you become, through and through, a holding environment for the secret. It is so intrinsic that you could not, at so young an age, begin to know how to explore it. How you feel is the secret. Or, it is not untrue to say, the secret is how you feel. Because when someone asks how you are feeling and you cannot say, you can see them try to access what’s inside; and it troubles you enough to close tighter, or cover more. Your little mastery over it you know to be a life or death matter. It is the end, the very edge of abyss over which you send yourself, if the contents are accessed. Then, one day, you wake up to the new reality that walking the same Earth you have lived on all these years, growing increasingly proficient as the keeper of your contents, is at least one creature endowed with the singular ability to sense something you are concealing for your life, a creature whose report is loud as a gun. It smells your fear.
In its presence I could not contain myself. Even then, starting then, with new dread, I felt myself; I couldn’t have said by what extroversion, but I knew eventually I was coming out.
What was that going to look like?
At the end of King Lear, a mirror is brought to the face of good Cordelia, to be consulted. Lear calls for it, disbelieving the worst. At the beginning of the play, when she tells him that she cannot be wholly devoted to him—that she will need to divide her devotions, in loving herself and her eventual mate, as well as her father the king—he replies that honesty alone will be her dowry then. Honesty is what she is left with, disinherited. A birthright for one entitled to nothing. At his own tragic end, after Cordelia is presented to Lear, with the news of her death, the looking glass is brought, on his command, to her face—closer: to her mouth. There is a moment, a last viable moment, before the glass is withdrawn, having captured no vapor from what would have been her breath, that the mirror is called a stone. A repurposing happens. The mirror is not a depth into which to view the reflection of one’s composed façade, but, rather a surface on which to manifest what comes from within.
There is only the one conclusive turn in the mortal story, I suppose. Before that one, because of that one, there are a number of opportunities, precisely when one is petrified, to break the glass.
This piece is part of a series excerpted from Onesheets. You can read the rest of the series below.
Brian Blanchfield is the author of two full-length books of poetry: Not Even Then: Poems (New California Poetry), published in 2004 by University of California Press, and A Several World, to be published this coming March from Nightboat Books, as well as a chapbook, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012, forthcoming imminently. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
The above work is from a collection of short, unresearched, disinhibited, single-subject essays called Onesheets. (The full working title is Onesheets: Brief Studies, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.) Central to the go-it-alone, internet-off nature of the writing project is a suppression of the impulse to consult secondary sources, print or electronic, and on his own authority he gets a few things wrong. The collection has a rolling corrective endnote therefore. Relevant portions are offered here.