Book by Jessica MacCormack (Toronto: Paper Pusher, 2013)
Review by Sarah Mangle
The word “survival” seems to imply strength and resilience, but we don’t survive by being strong. These things don’t bounce off. We don’t overcome shitty things that affect us. We move with them, we absorb them. They become a part of our bodies.
I’m swimming down or I’m in the bathtub, and everything outside is muffled and different. It’s just my breathing and the exaggerated sounds of my own body. There’s a time limit to being down here, away from everything else.
Jessica MacCormack’s The See delivers me back to my childhood, and to my childhood feelings. My individual illogical logic, overlapping explanations, memories and dreams. Intense isolation and longing, mixing pain in with everyday life.
The weirdness (and abuse) in everyday life is also just everyday life. As children, or really at any age, we find our own ways of explaining these difficult things, especially as they continue to happen. There are rarely acknowledged rules dictating how we write and talk about sexual assault and rape. When sexual abuse is written about in the newspaper, or in memoir, it is handled in a uniform way. There is a tell-all. All the gruesome details but no nuance or emotion beyond a short list of appropriate feelings felt in appropriate ways. It is a tragedy in a predictable fashion. If your story is to be told it must fit this same mould. This is seen as the way to get to the truth, the truth someone thinks is real. This script deeply affects my own conversations, and my own body: What do I think is acceptable to say? How does the hidden script change my own telling of my stories, so that I can reassure myself that they will be believed? That is the thing with these scripts; we internalize them in our bodies. They limit what we can imagine we can feel, and what we can imagine can happen to us.
And then MacCormack delivers The See. It tells an authentic story that has its own form and logic. It does not follow the classic script. It paints a picture of trauma and personal experience that exists as itself. It has shaken off the acceptable script and expands outward, to paint the real picture — surreal, weird, tense, in-the-body; in dreams, in surreal explanation, in feeling and in touch.
The See swallowed me up. Reading it, I couldn’t quite hear the outside world. In The See I found legs separate from bodies, poppies, fish heads, clouds, seeds, rain, recurring child faces and overlapping tears. But the story doesn’t go too far into abstraction. The See takes me on a specific trip. The images are gorgeous and carefully chosen — blood, wounds, wings, the ocean, white socks in shiny black shoes.
The images make sense. MacCormack delivers us to emotive places within ourselves through this rich, sharp and emotionally aware work. Being brought to these places is bone-chilling. It’s dizzying. Many of us never bring ourselves to the point where traumatic moments meet memory, or face how our body swallowed up those impacts, in order to stare down our traumas with enough playfulness, love and stillness to deal with them wholeheartedly in our work. What a relief to hold The See in my hands on the streetcar and cry.
I have a memory of being two years old, sitting in the basement of my babysitter Sandy’s house. Totally alone, I am staring down at a specific picture in a picture book, staring at it hard, until my eyes lose their focus over it. Breathing into that storybook page, I don’t want anything else to exist. I want that page to never leave me because it belongs in some part of my body, in my chest. Twenty-nine years later, I can’t draw up the specific image I was so concentrated on except in vague colours and shapes. But I can remember my legs stretched out in front of me on the warm carpet, the weight of the large book on my legs, my arm up against a speaker, the warm light of a lamp projecting slightly past me. I remember my hard work, determination and love of the images on that page. They had something to do with me.
The picture book is an invitation to a magnetic dream world, a place that especially holds the attention of children. I want to highlight here MacCormack’s telling of a moment in their childhood through the use of an illustrated book; prioritizing, in this way, the emotional route instead of the logical route. Illustrations and words combined take us to an emotion-saturated, evocative dreamspace. They hold magic and mystery and take us to fantasy places, into our interior worlds. The See returns us to our childhood and invites us to enter those spaces in ourselves, holding that space for longer than we would expect to be there while awake.
The See delivers us to a difficult dream world that is entirely embodied, demonstrating a rigorous practice of self-knowledge, long-term work, messy introspection; engaging in image-making and emotional feedback loops to see if there is a relationship. Risking being-too-much, going-too-far.
I climb off the streetcar. I wait for the bus. I hold The See in both hands in front of me, despite having a backpack to put it in. Trauma follows a person around, but it is also asleep most of the time, dormant in the body. Sometimes it is awakened because it is shaken awake, or rudely poked. The See brought me to difficult places, with love and attention to feeling. It was still difficult to read, but The See respects the reader, and brings us somewhere where we can face ourselves, as well as sit with MacCormack’s story.
MacCormack delivers us into trauma, memory, sadness and dreamlike logic with an ease that allows us the space to recognize it for what it is: a lot of damn hard work, self-knowledge, artistry and guts.
Sarah Mangle is a writer, artist, event curator, educator and performer currently living in Montreal.