by Ivy Johnson
71% of them are just fat women who don’t want to get up off their ass. Sorry if you don’t like the facts. Are you sure you want to call it rape? You were really drunk. Drug Approved. Is Disease real? They’re just nasty, fat women who want to collect disability checks. Maybe you should call a rape hotline. Rape hotline: Did you have a sexual history with your attacker? Lazy ass slugs who sit at home watching Judge Judy.
Sometimes I just need to scream and cover myself in blood.
In Amy Berkowitz’s debut book, Tender Points, she cites Anne Carson, who observes that “the women of classical literature are a species given to disorderly and uncontrolled outflow of sound—to shrieking, wailing, sobbing, shrill lament, loud laughter, screams of pain or pleasure, and eruptions of raw emotion in general.” Carson says, “Woman as a species is frequently said to lack the ordering principal of sophrosyne,” which can be understood as the use of moderation or self control in speaking. This is why, as Berkowitz claims, she decided to write Tender Points not as an écriture feminine, but as an écriture feminine en homme. In the words of SF Weekly, Berkowitz wrote Tender Points in male drag.
With Berkowitz’s act of repositioning herself to a place of authority, which, sadly, is the male voice, I start to think about the gender roles that recipients of violence are forced into and in the case of this book, Berkowitz’s complicated relationship with the stereotypically feminine role of victimhood. In fact, a large part of Tender Points’ project is examining the link between fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder, and sexual trauma. Amy looks at the link statistically and historically, but also examines the link through her own experience of remembering a rape trauma that occurred when she was ten. And when I think about the precarity of a female body in social space, specifically, the precarity of Amy’s ten year old body sitting in the doctor’s office as the rape trauma occurred, I think about how in the book, when traversing the folk forest of meta+physical trauma and memory, Amy compares herself to a Little Red Riding Hood, but she’d rather not. She’d rather be a Nancy Drew, a Harriet the Spy. And here she is, in the dark thicket, holding her basket, trying to collect evidence from a trauma that occurred when she was ten and wasn’t remembered until she was twenty-three. (“A handful of fur or a whisker she yanks from his face. Could be DNA tested later.”) And when I think about all of this I am reminded of how recipients of violence and concomitant trauma can’t really resist being fated to, what I have thought about as “the Aristotelian moment of recognition” category. What I’m trying to say is that there is this moment in tragedy where a character’s state changes from ignorance and passes into knowledge, and their destiny of good or bad fortune is revealed. You can guess the nature of recipients of violence’s fate. Hello Little Red Riding Hood.
Up to 90% of fibromyalgia patients are female and “studies estimate that more than half of the women with fibromyalgia have experienced childhood sexual abuse.” How does one go about re-embodying trauma through language when one’s body has already forced this upon them? How does one go about teasing apart what Berkowitz calls the “sphinx’s riddle” of the mind and body, when the meta+body refuses that teasing? Look: we don’t even have language for that, just as Berkowitz didn’t have the word “rape” when she was raped, so how could she understand it, commit it to memory? When medicine approaches pain as a “riddle to be answered, a puzzle to be solved” but when the pain, at least at times, seems more accurately described “not (as) a puzzle but as a mystery…mysteries (that) introduce us to unusual states of being…mysteries that disturb the world we take for granted,” (Berkowitz quoting David B. Morris, The Culture of Pain), what does that do to how one perceives one’s own pain? If pain is a mystery, how does the outside world perceive it? How does one get paid leave at work? These are all questions that come up in Tender Points. As a broader question: how does anyone write about pain/trauma that is both a mystery and a puzzle to be solved?
A few months ago, a performance art collaborative I co-founded with Kate Robinson called The Third Thing pitched a ritual tent in E.M. Wolfman books and held a panel discussion / salon centered around issues of writing and performance pieces that arose from sexual violence. It was a gorgeous and sunny Saturday afternoon and there we were, in a muggy tent, in a dark corner of E.M Wolfman, talking about the duress female and non-gender-conforming bodies undergo under capitalism, in public and private space. It could have been a scene from a series of paintings Berkowitz proposes in Tender Points, which you can also read on Vida here: http://www.vidaweb.org/reports-from-the-field-paintings-i-wont-paint/. As an essay it’s entitled, “Paintings I Won’t Paint,” which is a proposal for paintings that depict scenes in which intelligent, talented women talk about rape instead of talking about anything else.
When discussing gender violence, Kate said, “Sometimes I just need to scream and cover myself in blood.” Of course, she was referencing a few past Third Thing Blood Rituals, where, in response to gender violence, we do just that. My body has been holding a rape trauma since 2011 and up until our first Blood Ritual I had yet to inhabit a space of felt mutual empathy in terms of my rape. For real. Or maybe this comes as no surprise. It took me four years to write my own rape story and approximately fifteen hours to remember my rape. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that when I told my best friend at the time, a cis man, what had happened, his response was, “Well I don’t know a man who wouldn’t have done that in that situation,” possibly referencing the fact that I was on the verge of blacking out. Possibly referencing the fact that I had a sexual history with the person who had raped me. Possibly referencing the fact that Will Sullivan, the Virginia-born lawyer’s son and NYC chef who raped me was not, in fact, a monster. He was not a wolf.
Towards the end of Tender Points Amy talks about when she and some mostly female friends would have “Twin Peaks Tuesdays.” They’d borrow a projector, bake a pie. Eventually, there was a discussion of BOB and how his character was problematic because he is seen as the monster who possesses men who then carry out acts of violence against women. “It strips these characters of their guilt and enforces the misconception that men who rape and harm are all sick monsters, which ignores the social roots of violence.” Although Amy seems to agree with the content of that statement she disagrees that the metaphor of BOB doesn’t work. She sees him as “the perfect metaphor for rape culture. The ongoing cycle of sexual violence. The evil that men do,” (113). She describes the scene where a circle of men stand in a forest, trying to solve the murders and having a hard time believing that an evil demon is possessing people in their town, causing them to kill. Amy asks, “Is it easier to believe that a man would rape and kill his own daughter? Is that any more comforting?” Of course, the answer is no. Of course, outside of Lynchian reality, in our day to day lives, it’s easier to believe that the men who have raped us or the men who have raped our friends are monsters.
This is something that came up in the tent discussion. It was a response to a piece Joel Gregory had read from his project Summer Fever, which had used some text messages he had received from a poet/rapist who had been kicked out of the Bay Area scene and also, consequently, the house that Joel lives in. With the text messages folded into the manuscript, eventually the poems trace Joel’s mental process of posing the question: Is he a monster? The general consensus was no. The general consensus was thinking of the insidious ways patriarchy creates a very conducive environment for rape culture to grow. There was also talk about rage, how one has the right to simply write a poem out of pure rage for all this stupid bullshit we had all been through and all the stupid bullshit our friends had been through and all the stupid bullshit people we didn’t know had been through and all the stupid bullshit that has yet to pass.
Yes, sometimes I want to just scream and cover myself with blood. Yes, The Third Thing actually does this on a semi-regular basis. No, you don’t have to be a rape victim to have the duress of capitalism and patriarchy inflicted on your body. Yes, it’s possible that The Third Thing could be perceived as embodying a certain stereotype of female rage and written off by some who ignore the other, more thoughtful aspects of the performance because our performance of female “hysteria” has made us lose our credibility. And come to think of it, Amy doesn’t see herself as having the option to risk losing her audience. The stakes of this book are too high. “I’m 31 but I feel like I’m 60. People in my life may think I am exaggerating but I’m always in pain. Every morning I wake up feeling like I was run over by a truck. I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus.” Phrases like this open and close the book. As Amy talks about, this pain is no metaphor. This pain is real.
At Amy’s release party, she opened by reading a quote from a comment thread attached to the East Bay Express Article, “Pressing Where It’s Painful”, about Tender Points.
Tender points were a ripoff of mysofacial touch points which are supposed to be sensitive in healthy people. There are a lot more mysofacial than tender points and there was never a consensus on which ones to use; many reputable clinics used very different charts. They have not been used to diagnose fibromyalgia in over 10 years, the official reason being that more women were being diagnosed than men.
In 2010 they started using a survey to “diagnose” fibromyalgia . The WideSpread Pain Areas make up most of the body. If you’ve had pain in 3 of them in the last week and claim severe insomnia, fatigue and cognitive issues you qualify for the worthless label. If you don’t have one of these, you can still get it by claiming a great deal of other symptoms, for which there are no right or wrong answers.
After reading the quote, Amy mentioned how common these types of comments are, something you will understand after you read the book. And even after spending time with Tender Points, knowing full well this is something she constantly deals with, I texted her, “God, what an asshole” after she texted me the comment link that I asked for. Her reply: “It’s super common.” After reading the comment at the book release, she said how when reading comments like this, she knew she didn’t have to question the book’s relevance. People laughed because it was true. And she’s right. This comment and the abundance of comments like it show the stakes of the necessary work of Tender Points.