Death of a Thousand Cuts

Chauna Craig

“Death of a Thousand Cuts” is a featured essay in Lime Hawk’s debut print publication, a collection of personal essays that share the realities of mental illness and challenge its associated stigmas. The collection is due out in early 2015.

To begin means that we are in some way cut, that is, we are in some way opened up.
                                                      —Jenny Boully
                                                      The Book of Beginnings and Endings

To begin—

Two facts about human skin: it is the largest organ in the body, covering an average area of six and a half square feet, like an entryway rug. And it regulates body temperature by deciding how close to let the blood vessels come—closer, closer, we’ll let off heat (never let ‘em see you sweat). Now retreat, shrink, preserve your shivering self. Skin is meant to hold what is inside, all the wet and secret parts we don’t want to see. To protect and conceal.

A thin-skinned person lets too much in. She is sensitive, vulnerable to depression as a numbing counterbalance to feeling far too much. But this is not a story about what covers. This is a story of the slices in the veil, the glimpses of what’s inside. The truth told on a scalpel’s slant. This is the story of a thousand paper cuts that, like ink, never bleed long enough. This is the story of feeling too much, then not enough, of skin so sensitive that the deeper cuts go unnoticed.

Skin on skin started it all, but this isn’t that kind of story either. I became Sylvia Plath’s metaphors, stretched as if to split. But skin is tough, resilient: only a few faint silvery ripples marked my rapid inflation. I was glorious in my fecundity, in love with the still nameless, sexless, emerging human within, in love with every latticed leaf clinging on winter branches, every snowflake pressed to the window where my breath melted the edges as I waited.

Too, I was in love with the White-Haired MD because he would, like Virgil, usher my beloved first child from one world to the next. But this essay is not about that man, not specifically.

I would—still will—do most anything for love. And I loved my perfect unborn (for everything unborn—a child, an idea—is perfect). I would bear all the pain possible, no chemicals other than the miracle hormone bath, no drugs to overstimulate the tiny, blooming heart. I studied and read. I took classes. Ever the good student.

I learned: the skin of the fetus is, for some time, coated with lanugo. Fine hair of the primate. Another layer of protection. I lathered my own skin drum with cocoa butter, with myths and old wives’ tales. I smelled tropical. After those final pound-packing weeks, only a few shiny traces remained. Tiny abandoned roads, disconnected tracks. You could lose yourself trying to scale the tropical island of my pearly belly. My baby lost his tail, and the dark monkey hair left over his tailbone was his mourning shroud, an arrow pointing to what was missing.

Medical professionals wear latex gloves when they draw blood. Protection from what is inside (much like that careful term, “medical professional”). The White-Haired MD was gloved when his large hand painfully probed my cervix. But he never wore gloves when he pressed the mound of my abdomen, checking the baby’s position to determine where to aim the Doppler. It was only skin, after all, a clean wrap, and despite my million neurons cringing at the cool slide of his palm, he felt safe feeling the inside from outside. I know that feeling: feeling safe feeling the inside from the outside. Later, carving up my anatomy, he draped and wrapped hands, arms, legs, feet, hair, face, everything that made him human. Carving up my autonomy, auto meaning self, self a gap now, an absence, the beloved I lost when I made another.

Autonomy = The Myth of the Whole Self

This story, like skin, must stay on the surface. Like narrative, skin tries to knit the torn flaps into something whole. (That isn’t scar tissue you see.)

News stories of baby-hungry women killing pregnant women and cutting their babies out in crude, irreparable c-sections. Called now “newborn kidnapping by cesarean section.” These babies survive in strange arms painted with familiar blood. Many of these murderous women have lost their own babies, and such craving to fill an emptiness terrifies me. But I think (after I swear never to answer the door to a stranger) that I’d want my baby to go down with the vessel. That my love, too, is selfish. But I am composing this with my body, and the body is selfish, seeking—impossibly—to survive everything. With my body I remember, and so this is the only way the story happened. I couldn’t have known that the White-Haired MD was a stranger when he dressed like a friendly neighbor and knocked on my door.

Did I say I was in love with the White-Haired MD who hoarded my test results like secrets, who never admitted that he was wrong, that the baby was breech? (The nurses whispered it to me when they saw I thought the c-section was my own failure.) I was in love in the way of a schoolgirl crush, believing him the priest with esoteric knowledge that would save me if I earned it. Bless me, Father-Doctor, help me achieve immortality through these dividing, clustering cells.

 Journal Entry, 6/7/06
          I’ve suddenly become body...The medical body, the sexual body, the social body...Now I fear that my birth scars and the sag of my stomach will waken in my lover only reminders of “used to be,” of physical pleasures somehow more whole and—at least in the imagination—more precious because that unmarked body no longer exists. I’m terrified of his first gaze on the pink scar, a sealed mouth holding in the secrets we can’t speak.

Myth of the Whole Self = Autonomy

I was in love with the White-Haired MD because he was well-educated. I believed he was serving a higher purpose, this Virgil. But in the end, I was a sum of my parts: milk-swollen tits, open vagina, child chamber. In this way, he is like other well-educated men who have broken my heart:
  • The Admired Manly Writer of stories of hunting and fishing in the great outdoors who complained how his female students are always asking for recommendations of good female short story writers. “Read the pros,” he advises and hands them only stories by men. Ever the good students, they obey.
  • The History Professor, a friend, who can’t imagine a future where women aren’t on their pedestals. In this way, he says, he can love them.
  • The Graduate School Advisor who told a middle-aged mother she’d never go on to do anything great in her field because it was too late. I listened, hidden in the hallway, only twenty-two. I fled before he turned his crystal ball on me.
  • My own Writer-Husband who, wanting his college-bound son to have a private space to return to, suggests I give up my office and share writing space with the baby. He has a room of his own and a lock on the door because men who write need their privacy.

  • But this is a story of surfaces. To protect and conceal. Like a sealed mouth. I didn’t give up my office, so there is no need to dwell.

           (I nearly just gave up.)

    What horrifies me most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising, and fading out into an indifferent middle age….Must never become a mere mother and housewife. Challenge of baby when I am so unformed and unproductive as a writer. A fear for the meaning and purpose of my life. I will hate a child that substitutes itself for my own purpose: so I must make my own.
                                                                      Journal of Sylvia Plath, Nov. 7, 1959

    I believed I could make the White-Haired MD (and the others…) see me as a whole (person, story, body) if I showed my knowledge, all I’d read. That, too, is a mistake I’ve made before. Nobody likes a womb with a view.

    When I said, defeated in a Seconal haze, “Make a nice incision,” the MD laughed. His words: That’s not a challenge.

    When you carve up my anatomy, you carve up my autonomy. Auto, as in self, as in what we’re always chasing or trying to find.

    It is impossible to stay on the surface of things when the surface is all lateral depth.

    A former student, a brilliant young woman with a new MFA, told me to hurry and write my novel because there were so few good women novelists out there. She meant it as kind, complimentary. I felt it as scalpel.

    I can’t read Tillie Olsen’s Silences anymore. Women artists and their long, painful silences. To open the cover is to open a wound. A paper cut.

    Novelist Marianne Wiggins: Olsen's masterpiece is not so much "written" as gasped…

    Gasp. The sound you might make at the touch of a scalpel if your whole body weren’t numb.

    [Baby awake. Another ga[s]p.

    Another silence……………………….my arms fill it, tuned to how he likes to be cradled. Minutes gather like pleats, and I forget—on purpose—that to him I am still a milk-swollen tit. When he reaches for the dry ends of my hair, he tucks them in his mouth for comfort. I ache to remember “The Shawl” and Magda sucking cloth, nothing else to nourish her. A stunning story written with the urgency of beauty and terror. But there are no good women short story writers, Cynthia Ozick. Only men who don’t read enough.]

    “How to express anger creatively?”
                                  Journal of Sylvia Plath, 1958

    I didn’t say that bit about not reading enough to the Admired Manly Writer. I stayed silent when my future was written on the end of a sterile scalpel. I left the History Professor and the Writer-Husband to their perpetual laughter and late-night martinis. In another room I stroked the baby’s soft hair. I pressed my ear to his chest where wild horses galloped and expected he too would one day trample me. Because I believed, then, that love meant to be always under the hoof.

    FACT: Women suffer depression at twice the rate of men.

    Soraya Chemaly, writing on girls and depression, notes how depression is often anger turned inward. What do girls have to be angry about? Nothing except the common experience of “intuiting and experiencing the world’s relentless desire to cut you in to bits and pieces while retaining the wholeness of your male counterparts.”

           How to express anger creatively?

    You must have a thick skin to be a writer. To be a woman. A mother. But if you write about those topics, you will always be a “woman writer.” If you write about the thick skin, you will wrap yourself in that writing until you can’t breathe, until your child seems a vampire and you fall bloodless, your “you” leaked out. They will try to fill you back up with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, or Lexapro.

    FACT: New mothers are more likely to suffer postpartum depression when they’ve already experienced depression. Unfortunately, two-thirds of cases of depression go undiagnosed.

    Thick-skinned women writing short stories I love: Ann Hood, Annie Proulx, ZZ Packer, Lydia Davis, Jean Thompson, Alice Munro, Melissa Pritchard, Bharati Mukherjee, Andrea Barrett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Hempel.

    Women novelists I have loved: Lessing, Atwood, Erdrich, Barnes. Maso, Shields, Wiggins, Smith. Winterson, Walker, Patchett, Tan. Morrison, Kingsolver. Woolf. To name. Only a few.

    VOICE IN MY HEAD: You spoke of love—something you women do. (You said, and I’m quoting, you’d “do most anything for love.” A bit cliché, like that Meatloaf song, but we’ll sidestep that since it might get under your thin skin.) So love these writers. But are they any good?

    Are they any good?

    Where does the intellect meet emotion in the body? Where does critical observation give in to raw, irrational pain? To love?

    I scamper all over these surfaces chased by Time’s winged chariot (had I but world enough and time!) How do I get from one world to the next intact? The baby made it there when my belly split wide. That’s not a challenge. How do I turn myself inside out? To feel the outside from the inside?

    “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
    The world would split open.”
    —Muriel Rukeyser

    The only woman on a panel on publishing, I say that my abandoned novel is unpublishable. Well-meaning man says, “Since the author is dead, since you are dead, you can’t say that.”

    I know what he means. I once loved that well-educated man, Roland Barthes, too. But still…

    another man takes my pulse and finds it


    I don’t want to be dead (anymore). You can’t say that.

    “Although few women in the West actually die in childbirth today, we deny the many symbolic deaths a contemporary pregnant woman undergoes: from the end of her solitary selfhood, to the loss of her prematernal shape, to the eclipse of her psychological carefree identity, to the transformation of her marriage, to the decline in her status as a professional…”
                                                                                     Naomi Wolf, Misconceptions

    All the blood vessels retreat from my typing fingers: preserve your shivering self! Instead they bloom on my face in the form of shame, a sense of failure.

    After, a woman in the audience tells me privately she can see how passionate I am about what I do. What I [want to] do is squeeze her and soak her blazer with my tears.

    What I do is nod, say thank you. (Not dead, just somewhere else. Preserve…)

    You can’t say that.

    “If I were a man, I could write a novel about this; being a woman, why must I only cry and freeze, cry and freeze?”
                   Journal of Sylvia Plath, March 6, 1956

    The world is always about to split open, but I won’t sound the alarm. I will keep gnawing the skin around my fingernails, a habit the Writer-Husband hates.

    Ragged edges

                 feathered bright with weeping blood. Ugly. Ragged. Open. (My mother always said a crying face was an ugly face.) Sometimes I want it to hurt

    to write. (It hurts to write. It hurts

                                                 to stand straight after someone’s sliced through

    seven of your layers.        It hurts

                                                 to peel back your skin with your own teeth to


                                                                                    how raw it is underneath.)

    In another room I am always stroking the baby’s soft hair.

    In another room I am pressing down on the keys so blood collects under my nails.

    The scalpel, shining silver fang, drew the line: five inches long, upturned at the end like a Mona Lisa smile ___,

    My wound wept for two weeks after. This, said the nurse, is perfectly normal. I wept for many weeks after. This, said the nurse, is perfectly abnormal, but nothing that good psychotropic drugs can’t solve.

    This started as a story about skin. The outside, my cover.

    FACT: The average human sheds 40 pounds of skin in a lifetime.

    I stopped dusting the house. This way, I hoped to save a little of myself. And I sneezed, over and over. Allergy to dust, the doctor said. And if dust is made up mostly of human skin, I am allergic to my own skin.

    Later, after another baby, after a miscarriage, after a winter that got under my skin and threatened to freeze my vital organs, I talk in a small, contained room with a well-educated man who doesn’t treat me in parts. He doesn’t try to cut or peel back or marvel at his own incisive skill. He doesn’t believe, like the Writer-Soon-to-be-Ex-Husband, that hormones alone are causing this crazy. He doesn’t believe this is crazy: voices in my head that never were mine.

    The Good Therapist waits for the voice behind the Voice, the self behind the Self. Waits for my story, however I need to tell it. Body first. Brain. Then origami tissue heart, carefully unfolding. In this way, the wounds all open and weep and heal over together. My skin breathes in and exhales a thousand silent sighs, shedding what I no longer need.

    To begin again.

    Chauna Craig's stories and essays have appeared in magazines such as Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, and CALYX and the anthologies Sudden Stories (Mammoth Press) and You Have Time for This (Ooligan Press). Her work has been recognized by the Pushcart Prize anthology and as a Notable Essay by Best American Essays. She’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat. She is Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches creative writing and women’s studies courses.