Excerpt: Nelly Arcan, Author of Burqa of Skin/Writings

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When I was little I often looked at myself in the mirror, but being as small as I was, I couldn’t see myself right away. I showed up only bit by bit, and even when I could see myself I could make out only my head, since the rest of my body was still too low—the mirrors were hung for adults, they were nails as high as balloons that had slipped from a hand and bumped into the ceiling —The mirrors were like changing tableaux in which different angles of walls were projected, depending on where you stood in the room. You have to jump to see yourself in flight when you’re young. When I was little I believed mirrors were as dangerous as vials of pills, and that they came with directions to be kept well out of the reach of children, and you have to agree that nowadays kids are so well-protected by instruction manuals that all adults have to do is read them. This reading lets them feel protected from the dangers and damages of children, and then parents lose their vigilance; they tuck dangers onto the highest shelves of their cupboards, sometimes so high that even they have to go on tiptoe to touch them. Very soon parents find themselves reaching so high that they become mystics, they detach themselves completely from worldly things, and they may return to their faith. All instruction manuals imply the children will instinctively try to kill themselves by swallowing anything they can grab; apparently at the beginning of life death flows in through the mouth. They say that at the beginning of life, no one is sure they want to live.

My mother hit me only once—she slapped me across the face. It’s still a mystery to me why. My mother was a woman of action; she never played cards or gossiped with her sisters over the holidays, and when she was 20 all her hair turned white. To have been on the receiving end of the slap across the face I must have insulted her, and yet at home we were liberal with our insults. When my father found out my mother had slapped me, he wouldn’t let it go. He never hit her, but he threatened to punch her—he only hurt her with his words. He was a sweet talker.

Today parents don’t spank their children, not just because they lost their right to do it but because it doesn’t matter how much time has passed, they still want to contradict their own parents who hit them. By not hitting their kids, parents are giving payback to their parents, they’re shaking them up with their abstinence. Today parents talk to their kids like they’re their equals. They talk to them like they’re instruction manuals, explaining everything about life to them, they tell their kids it’s okay to cry, to scream, to hack out their lungs until they lose their voices because it’s a release, it’s an expulsion of negativity, because everything that’s buried has to surface as quick as possible, right away; they encourage their kids to cry big time, by opening their maws wide, to hell with the neighbours. Instead of punishing their kids by forcing them to kneel in a corner, they use psychology, they listen to their arguments, they allow them to talk back. Sometimes, when faced with their children’s tears, they begin to cry too, they express their dismay at their inability to tame their children like beasts, to shut up sadness with their fists, they express their powerlessness before the legitimate crisis of their children’s cries, and when that happens, when the parents cry, the kids stop crying instantly, they become their parents’ parents. My father cried, once, seeing me cry. Maybe he wasn’t crying for me so much as he was because one of his mistresses had left him. My father had a secret life he had difficulty keeping from us, his indiscretions secreted through the house, my mother and I would see them without ever being able to pin them down. Some days my father exhausted us with his good humour, his laughing fits scorched us; other days he shut up, he observed a silence from which my mother and I were excluded, and she and I knew instinctively that my father’s bursts of laughter or jags of silence came from outside the home, and we were persecuted by this knowledge. One day my father told me in a trembling voice that I would find inner peace, that I would find this peace when I would no longer wish to cry, when my life’s brusque revelations would end; he told me that day that the imminence of my own death would kill my capricious nature, he said that someone who knows they are dying no longer has any reason to cry. He thought inner peace solved everything and the moment we finally felt this inner peace, nothing could ever touch us, we would detach ourselves from material possessions. This peace was a great estrangement, it was the distance through which we see ourselves as someone else, as another, as a stranger who must be cared for, cajoled, put back on their feet, as an indulgence towards failures of the past, a release of the future. As an adult I often found peace when I did cocaine; since peace was tardy, I made it come by force.  

From Burqa of Skin/Writings by Nelly Arcan, translated by Melissa Bull, Anvil Press 2015, anvilpress.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

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