Amber Brooks’s “I Believe Love Is Largely An Act of Imagination” in The Establishment
In her lyric essay, Amber Brooks sets the stakes: she’s on the other side of a seven-year relationship, in the beginning moments of butterflies and fireworks: He promises to make her French toast, and despite how much she anticipated that moment, it never happened. She takes a small desire, the desire for tasty breakfast and to be doted on by her partner, and explores that fantasy’s impact on her relationships, and the power of imagination as it relates to love.
She uses Clancy Martin’s book Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love to analyze her experience through the lens of philosophy, exploring the merits of truth versus harmony, and how to accept that truth is subjective.
Although I fulfilled my philosophy requirement in college with one Intro to Eastern Philosophy class and Brooks’s references to Bonhoeffer and Kant fly over my head, I have a moment of recognition when she mentions the Buddhist ideal that “mitigating harm may take precedence over naked honesty.” Brooks twists and turns between what these philosophical teachings mean to her and how they have changed the way she thinks about her own relationships. This piece dips in and out of poetic license, philosophical explanation and scenes from her relationships, each section lending itself to the writer’s reflections and conclusions in her own life:
[Martin] has helped me understand how good people deceive, and even how we can deceive ourselves—how we can create representations and narratives which are essentially lies, but somehow form our identity and become a type of truth…I now believe love is largely an act of imagination, a creative process: of building meaning, imagining a relationship, and placing it into an abstract realm outside of any literal facts. It’s contemplation. It’s a bestowal of value, a bestowal of value so creatively woven from strands of daydreaming that it permeates all windows of the psyche. This is “true,” but again, it is not a literal truth, not a “fact.”
Brooks writes confidently and clearly about complex emotions and the fragility of the heartbroken. This is a piece I’m likely to return to again and again.
Naseem Jamnia’s “Heirlooms” in The Rumpus
Naseem Jamnia offers up a rich, brave essay pondering how a long family history of trauma might have contributed to her depression. Jamnia speaks beautifully about lost memories, perhaps purposefully forgotten, while telling stories in snapshots of what is remembered. We hear about the many difficulties her mother and grandmother experienced throughout their lives: abandonment, abuse, loss of children. She weaves the complex science of epigenetics: of its hotly debated potential to pass on trauma or stress from mother to fetus, affecting the health and lives of all future generations.
Maybe my mother’s early-life trauma and subsequent amnesia imprinted itself on genes forming my hippocampal neurons, and this twisted what I can remember. It’s the concept of epigenetics: methylated cysteine-phosphatase-guanine islands control gene expression. Maybe cortisol and corticotropin releasing hormone receptors were up-regulated in the amygdala, signs that our physical stresses feed into centers of fear and anxiety. The brain is a curious, malleable thing, and just as cigarette smoke and alcohol can be tucked into a fetus, so can trauma. My mother’s experiences settled into her eggs and shaped me.
Could trauma have such a cascading effect, as to alter the genes of your offspring so they are able to withstand a similar trauma? Sounds plausible enough, and some animal studies and a few very small studies in humans do back up the theory. Jamnia’s inherited trauma simmered into a childhood where self-hate led to self-harm. The essay makes it clear—through fond, sensory-filled memories of the sounds and smells she recalls—that growing up, she had a happy home with loving parents; the demons came from within.
… I look at my experiences and wonder not where the trauma isn’t, but where the trauma is. It’s not in the wax ripping spindly wires from my face, or sitting on the plush couch, across from my first therapist. No, my childhood is the belly-clench before the biggest slide in the park, the sweat from too many layers before stepping out in the winter’s cold, the blackened layer of marshmallow stripped away to ooze melted sugar.
Michelle Dean’s “‘She Would Have Been The Perfect Mom For Someone That Actually Was Sick’” in Buzzfeed
In Michelle Dean’s “‘She Would Have Been The Perfect Mom For Someone That Actually Was Sick,’” Dean goes to the next level with the murder case of Dee Dee Blanchard. Even the bare bones outline of the story is enough to warrant the read: Dee Dee is the seemingly perfect caretaker for her seemingly disabled daughter, Gypsy, until one day Dee Dee is murdered and Gypsy—who isn’t disabled and who plotted the murder—disappears, leaving all of her wheelchairs behind.
The word “harrowing” comes to mind, though I’m reluctant to use such a cliché descriptor for a story that so thoroughly smashes clichés. Everything I thought I could apply and dismiss here—from disability-related “inspiration porn” gone horribly awry to a tidy abuse narrative—was completely upended by the complexities of this story.
In Dean’s hands the story is deftly told in such a way that it seems inevitable and straightforward. In other words, it’s the type of storytelling that seems invisible. You think nothing of it, but you also cannot stop reading.
Dean on Gypsy:
Often, it didn’t occur to her to question any of it, and when it did, she worried about hurting her mother’s feelings. It often seems to Gypsy, even now, that Dee Dee really thought she was sick.