Please note: I have similar thoughts as Roxane Gay regarding trigger warnings. You can read her thoughts on the topic here. At any rate, this note can probably be considered a trigger warning.
Today I walked home from Park Slope to Flatbush after visiting the dentist. (Ugh, a visit I put off much too long…) Along the way I passed a cute little brunchy restaurant – probably passed a couple dozen, actually, given the neighborhood. But two servers stood outside this one, a man and a woman. The woman was talking rapidly, her voice and body tense. “And then he said to me, ‘You’ve worked here how long, and you still don’t know the menu?’ Which was completely not necessary – I’ve been trying so hard…” Her voice, taut and frustrated a moment before, flooded with the sound of tears at trying so hard, syllables growing liquid and tremulous and vulnerable. The man said something to comfort her, and she calmed herself before they went back inside.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the invisibility of suffering.
Some of this has been prompted by Emma Sulkowicz. Emma is a student at my alma mater; maybe you’ve seen her on the news. Emma was raped on campus by a classmate accused of rape by two other students. All charges against him were dismissed. Emma, along with other students, filed a Title IX complaint earlier this year regarding the university’s alleged mishandling of their sexual assault cases. In the meantime, Emma carries her mattress with her everywhere she goes, part protest, part performance art, and a visible reminder of the more intangible burden of sexual assault she is forced to carry.
I’ve seen Emma several times, and each time I am struck by the absolute ordinariness of her movement around campus. She is not drawing attention to herself; she is not trying to draw a crowd. She simply is going from one place to another, making her way through others doing the same. Always, I have seen her with a companion (a different one each time), helping her carry the mattress. A statement is being made in that act, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was just two friends struggling to move some furniture.
Emma’s act makes visible what was previously unseen and undiscussed – in other words, what was easily dismissed. How strong of her, in so many ways, and how brave, to remind everyone – friends and strangers alike – every single day, of the presence of her assault and her unresolved case. Of their weight on her. Of the way they shape how she lives her life. The first time I saw her in person was when it really hit me that she was the only person on that street whose burden was visible. Of course, that didn’t make any other passerby’s burden less real.
How differently would I judge people if I could see the mattresses they carried? How differently, if they didn’t have to swallow their words and go back inside to wait tables?
There are things I haven’t liked about myself lately – ways in which I have been distant or needy or angry or all of the above. Sometimes, of course, such emotions are justified. Sometimes though, they are a way of shouting at someone Can’t you see how long I’ve been carrying this thing?! when I can’t say it directly.
Most living things cannot survive too long without light, else they grow deformed. And there are some experiences which, if not brought to light, will fester and grow deformed within you. I am thinking tonight about Emma and her mattress, and the server and her friend – how scary it is for one’s suffering to be known, to be shared with another. How scary and how necessary. Please, talk to someone if you are hurting.