The following is an interview between Amy Berkowitz and me for her new book, Tender Points (Timeless Infinite Light), to be published this month. A narrative fractured by trauma and named after the diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia, this book-length lyric essay explores sexual violence, gendered illness, chronic pain, and patriarchy through the lenses of lived experience and pop culture.
My body is washing dishes and it’s in pain. My body is on hold with California Blue Cross Blue Shield and it’s in pain. My body is dancing and it’s in pain. My body is Skyping Beth and it’s in pain. My body is taking a shower and it’s in pain. My body is riding BART and it’s in pain. My body is politely saying no and it’s in pain. My body is reading a book and it’s in pain. My body is at work and it’s in pain. My body is writing this and it’s in pain. My body is walking to meet you and it’s in pain. (127)
Geraldine Kim: So… are you experiencing pain this very moment?
Amy Berkowitz: [Nods] It’s not excruciating. The best way I can explain it is that it feels like I had a hard workout yesterday… but I didn’t. Which is why it’s a problem. A lot of people with fibromyalgia and other chronic pain syndromes have pain that’s much more unbearable than I usually experience.
GK: Why do you think women suffer from fibromyalgia more than men?
AB: I’m not sure. One thing to consider is that there’s a connection between fibromyalgia and sexual abuse that hasn’t been fully explored yet. In Tender Points, I quote fibromyalgia specialist Dr. Ginevra Liptan, who writes that “studies estimate that more than half of women with fibromyalgia have experienced childhood sexual abuse.” (89) And in general, more women than men have experienced childhood sexual abuse, so this may be a factor, but I’m sure it’s not the only factor.
GK: How do you feel about call-out culture?
AB: I’m mostly familiar with it in the context of survivors calling out their rapists, so I think it’s important and useful. At the same time, I have seen cases where it’s not done responsibly, for example, cases where folks called out a rapist without making sure they had the survivor’s permission to call him out first. Because when you write a rapist’s name on the Internet, you’re essentially writing the survivor’s name on the Internet. So yeah, let’s call people out, but the survivor is the only person who can lead that process.
GK: Totally… So, since I just learned from you that Tender Points is non-fiction, have you ever thought about calling out the doctor [who raped you]?
AB: No, I haven’t. Repressed memories are so complicated. I would have absolutely no case. I didn’t remember it until 12 or 13 years after it happened. But I do have a distinct memory of it in my head, which makes me think of this quote from the book:
My memory of that day is in miniature. Although it’s very clear, it’s about two-and-a-half inches tall and stuck inside my head. I can’t show it to anybody. I can’t locate a corresponding full-size memory out in the world. And I can’t even tell you what day that day was. (44)
I know that it happened but I don’t have the certainty around it to feel like it would feel good to say, “This happened!” because the memory of it just doesn’t connect with the world enough in order to use it as a useful piece of information in the world in any other way than I am using it by including it in the book.
It’s a shame that I can’t help out with the situation. He’s still practicing. I just hope that he’s not doing this to anyone else, although statistically, if he did, then he is.
I have a wolf in my story. But he will not interrupt my walk through the forest. Which is to say he’s already interrupted it: He’s the reason I’m here, sorting out the aftermath. Which is to say the wolf is eternally interrupting my walk through the forest: emerging from behind the same tree again and again to block my path. Imagine it repeating like a GIF. (15)
GK: I want to say… After reading your book, I wanted to call out someone that did something similar to me and I was like, “Why didn’t I do it when it happened?” I got kind of mad at myself for not acting on it. It had to take me reading your book and really thinking deeply about it… I have to say, as I read your book, I thought it was going to lead to some… “and that was the guy!”… and that it didn’t made it feel like that experience is still lingering. That presence of that absence is kind of haunting. Part of me wanted you to…
AB: …say the name?
AB: I think I just wouldn’t feel safe doing it. Which is why I made the decision not to.
GK: Yeah of course! Totally understandable—
AB: I understand that as a reader, you wanted that. Maybe I’m leading by example with the first rule of call-out culture, which is to respect the wishes of the survivor. So even though I may be a big proponent of call-out culture, I also made the decision of not naming my rapist. That’s what’s right for me. There’s also this from the book:
There was a professor in our department
Who thought he was Ernest Hemingway
He famously touched students’ breasts
He had these signature moves
Like these tried and true tricks
For how to surreptitiously touch his students’ tits (108)
GK: We had one [at my graduate school] too… He would invite students to his room to ostensibly workshop poems or whatever and just like, grab their breasts… Thankfully he’s no longer working there but still… but the fact that he’s out there [(e.g., prominent in the community)], and no one said anything about that… but I’m not the survivor—I’ve heard first-hand accounts of this but it’s not my job…
AB: Exactly! I’m in the same position with this guy, which is why I did what I did in the book. This is as close to the situation as I feel comfortable getting.
Stephanie Young, who really likes naming names, not necessarily in regards to sexual assault, but generally using specific person/place names as part of her politics of writing, helped me with editing Tender Points. And I remember her asking me, “Why don’t you name the professor?” But again, it’s not my fight, it’s someone else’s fight. And also, it’s not hard to figure out. It’s fucking folklore around the university.
GK: Who influenced your writing of Tender Points alongside Stephanie Young?
AB: There was something about the book with the way that I wrote it piece by piece and assembled it as a patchwork, where for the two years or so that I was writing it, I felt entirely porous and interested in taking in new information. So I was doing a lot of research and also really engaged in communicating with other writers. I quote a letter from Yosefa Raz, a poet who has written wonderful material on pain: “Chronic pain is always on a side slash main note.” (42)
Also, Maggie Nelson’s writing was a big source of inspiration at the beginning. When I started writing Tender Points, I knew I wanted to write about my experiences and that I wanted to write them in fragments, because my story is about trauma, and trauma is essentially nonlinear and fragmented. And I had read Bluets a while before and that felt like a kind of roadmap, a kind of suggestion that my parts could also amount to a coherent whole.
GK: Was it hard to finish the manuscript?
AB: It was hard to feel like it was in order. Stephanie [Young] and I spent an evening literally cutting it into pieces and spreading it out on my couch and floor. And once that was done, it felt like it was a book. I was a writer-in-residence at Alley Cat Books at the time, and that was also hugely helpful. I sat there for two days straight agonizing over the fact that I didn’t know how to end it… but I did. Now I’m sad that it’s ended.
AB: Did you see The Punk Singer, the Kathleen Hanna documentary? There’s this part at the end where she’s talking about abuse she’s experienced, and she says, “I wouldn’t want to tell anybody the whole entire story because it sounded crazy… Like, who would believe me?” And she’s swinging her arms in a big circle when she says “entire story”—and that’s like what I feel like I did. I feel like I’ve just succeeded in telling my whole entire “crazy” story with all of its uncanny, unsettling details in a way that makes sense, and in a way that people can actually connect to, and maybe find support in.
And that’s why I’m sad. I’m glad that I did it. But I’m sad that I’m no longer working on a project that feels so essential to me.
GK: I felt like Tender Points did a really good job in that it was thoughtful and conceptual but it was also really emotional/hard. I felt engaged with the content but the form was also really interesting—it felt almost like a philosophical treatise that was leading up to something…
AB: Did you feel like it led up to something?
GK: I felt it did. There was an accelerative feeling to it… [The quotes felt] like philosophical evidence for a point. [And] I could see how one point led to another. It all felt seamless. Even though it “looks” fragmented, it didn’t feel that way.
AB: Good! To some extent—I didn’t think of this at the time, because I generally like the style of mixing quotes with personal narrative—the book is a little bit preoccupied with, “Hey, I’m going to tell you this in a way that you’re going to believe me.” The “male drag” or what I call “écriture féminine en homme.” Undermining male authority by adopting a male voice.
That’s why I so firmly want prose here. Sentences. Periods. Male certainty. These are facts. No female vocal fry. No uptalk. No question about what I tell you. No metaphor. Go ahead. Fact check. “Did I stutter.” Fuck off. (24)
GK: What are you working on now?
AB: I’m thinking about writing fiction focused on some of the same issues I touch on in the book: rape culture and disability.
GK: Why fiction?
AB: I feel terrible doing this to poetry, but I feel really frustrated with what I perceive to as poetry’s limitation to reach people who don’t already read poetry. [Laughs] You’re making a face.
AB: Tell me about that face?
GK: I agree! But at the same time, I don’t really connect to most writing/fiction that’s not aware of its artifice somehow.
I just find it so much more compelling. I generally care more about how women experience the world. I find it more relatable and less ego-driven.
GK: I feel really bad that you’re in constant pain. That sucks.
AB: It does. I think at some point I’ll probably try more things to relieve the pain. I’m just taking my time with it because of my own trauma around medicine. I think I needed to write the book first; as soon as I finished the book I started getting acupuncture, which is the first thing I’ve done for the pain.
GK: Has acupuncture helped?
AB: Yes, it has. And I think one reason I was open to it is that it’s not western medicine.
GK: Aren’t you angry?
AB: Sure, of course I’m angry. I fantasize about shooting him sometimes. But it’s mostly a more diffuse anger: I mean, it’s an anger at rape culture. It’s an anger at the patriarchy of western medicine and how it is informed by and informs rape culture.
GK: I have so much respect for you.
AB: [Laughs] That I haven’t shot my doctor?
GK: That you’ve found some level of peace with it.
AB: What else can I do, right? It’s less about him as one idiot who took advantage of somebody and it’s more about the societal structures that let people like that exist. So yes, I’ve had fantasies of killing him, but it’s mostly more productive anger geared toward fighting the societal structures that permit this kind of violence. That’s why I wrote the book.