Working with Available Light: A Family's World After Violenceby Jamie Kalven
On a golden autumn afternoon, photographer Patricia Evans, out for a run on Chicago's lakefront, was attacked by a man who severely beat and sexually assaulted her. Evans's husband, Jamie Kalven, has written the story of a family shipwrecked in the midst of everyday life, each struggling in his or her own way to make sense of the violence that has entered their lives. It covers a period of five years, during which Evans remaps the world in light of the terrible knowledge inflicted on her, and regains her place in it.
Evans's honesty and refusal to embrace easy answers create the space in which the story unfolds, and Kalven bears witness to her experience not by presuming to understand but by deepening his questions. The narrative evokes a richly textured world of family, friends, and neighbors; it takes in the sweetness of everyday life as well as the desolation of grief, the play of light upon the world as well as the enveloping darkness of terror. A profound inquiry into the effects of violence and a singular love story, this startling book again and again rewards the reader with fresh, unexpected perceptions.
The New York Times Book Review
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 9.55(w) x 6.47(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
It's as if a deep wound, long buried, has been laid open. Lying beside my wife, I'm confused by my maleness so hard, so insistent and feel somehow implicated in her wounding. Every caress feels coercive. Yet there is another kind of touching she welcomes. In the past, I often gave her massages; sometimes as a prelude to lovemaking. Now massage has become a lifeline between us. I imagine my fingers are drawing out the tension and fear that have invaded her body. And for the moment at least, it seems to be so.
She lies on our bed on her stomach. I straddle her from behind, lean forward, and work my fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp. I rub her neck and shoulders, then work down her back. How fragile she seems, this woman who runs marathons, climbs mountains, skis the most demanding trails. Her shoulders and neck, her wrists and fingers seem impossibly delicate. This is a perception I have often had of the children but never before of her: how breakable a human being is.
I move down to her buttocks. Years ago she taught me how to make bread. Now I am the baker in the family a better bread maker than breadwinner, we used to joke and the children have grown up eating what they call "Daddy's bread." As I massage her there, I am invariably, helplessly, reminded of kneading dough. And vice versa. This is one of the surprises life has held: this ripening of sexual passion over time the way it deepens and ramifies, embracing not only children but also garden and kitchen in the sexuality of the household.
Looking down at Patsy's backside, I am shadowed by the knowledge that there was a moment when he was in much the same position I am in now. After smashing her in the face with his fists, he dragged her off the lakefront running path, his hands around her neck, choking her. In the middle of a small grove of trees he forced her to the ground and straddled her from behind. With one hand, he yanked her head back by the hair, blood streaming from her face, as he forced his other hand inside her. The perception is hard to absorb: tenderness and cruelty inhabit the same space in the world. All it takes is two bodies.
I massage her strong runner's legs: thighs, calves, and her favorite moment feet. She relaxes completely, gives herself over to pleasure. Her feet are endearingly ugly. Misshapen and calloused, they testify to all the miles she has run and skied. Bunions protrude. Her toes are a tangle. Some toenails are blackened or missing altogether. Yet these abused extremities are the sites of such feeling. Thousands of nerve ends converge in the feet. Hence the sensations that radiate through the body when they are rubbed. (And hence the widespread torture technique of beating the soles of the feet: the torturer, like the lover, is drawn to concentrations of nerve ends.) When I have finished this is part of the ritual Patsy asks, "Are you sure you did both feet?"
Heavy with relaxation, she turns over and lies on her back. A lovely sight. Amid all my confused feelings of desire and frustration and grief, I feel much simple affection for her body. I stroke the area defined by hips and pelvis a loose and fleshy drum, as soft as an infant's skin. No number of sit-ups, thank God, will completely eliminate the hint of a pouch across her abdomen the residue childbearing has left on her body.
We had been together close to ten years before we had our first child. The pregnancy was a revelation for me. After a lifetime of being excited by women's bodies, I found that they finally made sense. Patsy's round belly seemed not a distortion but the missing piece that completes the female form. It was as if she had always been slightly off-balance, then in pregnancy had found her center of gravity.
Bearing a child was, for her, an immersion in her animal nature. Soon after she learned she was pregnant, she stood before a supermarket meat counter and sized up an eight-pound turkey, taking the measure of the thing inside her. As the pregnancy advanced, she grew even closer to the presence within her. A photographer by vocation, she compared the process to the focusing of a lens. Toward the end, she interacted with the fetus constantly feeling it hiccup and change positions, making out its limbs, head, buttocks. When she was by herself, she was not alone.
I remember being awakened by an August thunderstorm several weeks before the birth and seeing her naked by the shuttered bedroom window, in full pregnant profile, inhaling the night. It was as if the natural world were reclaiming her. No longer simply an individual in the environment, she was herself an environment for another. I came to think of her as a watery sort of ecosystem a bog or a marsh or a tide pool.
When she felt the first stirrings of life, she laughed.
"It feels like a little fish," she said, "like a fish's tail slapping against the side of the bowl."
For me, it was different. I put hand and cheek on her belly, felt the kicks, made out the shape of foot and buttock. Yet the child was not there for me in the same way. Early in the pregnancy, Patsy had a funny punning dream: she was in the ninth month, awaiting the birth, when she received a phone call. The voice on the other end informed her "Your baby has been delivered in Buffalo. You must come and pick it up." My experience was more like that as if the baby were en route toward us, traveling across a great distance, getting closer day by day. One day we would go to the hospital as if to the train station and pick it up.
The second pregnancy was in some ways different. No longer pioneers pushing back the frontiers of the unknown, we knew the shape of the process, knew where it led. We didn't joke, as we had the first time, about the fetus as a blind date. Also, this time there was another male looking on, one deeply implicated in the sexuality of the house hold: our son Josh, then three years old.
It was Josh who named the fetus. Given a doll for Christmas, [illegible] christened it "Tummy" as in "the-baby-in-Mommy's-tummy." We followed his lead and throughout the pregnancy referred to and addressed the fetus as "Tummy." After the birth, it took us all a few days to break the habit and get used to calling her Betsy Rose. Today she is wholly Betsy. What the name "Tummy" evokes for me now how my feelings for my children began as an extension of my love for their mother, how loving her body I felt within me the first gentle fish-tail slaps of love for the life it contained.
For some minutes during the attack, Patsy lived with the thought that it was up to him whether she lived or died, that she would only live if he let her. Overpowered physically, utterly alone, she sought in him something she could appeal to. Prepared to concede the rape, she pleaded for her life.
"You can't kill me," she sobbed. "I have a baby at home."
This falsehood was not calculated. It issued from her deepest sense of what a human being is. He was unmoved.
I massage her breasts, trace the line of her collarbone with my fingers, stroke her cheeks and forehead. It's astonishing how quickly the physical wounds, the visible signs of suffering, healed. The effects of the attack are intensely physical, but they are on the inside. That's how she talks about it. The knowledge, the fear it's something she carries within her. Harrowing images seize her in the night, and she cries out. I hold her and feel the terror inside her a shudder in the hollow where she carried our children.
When I arrived at the emergency room, I was met at the door by a woman doctor.
"Your wife has been assaulted and badly beaten," she told me. "She's hysterical. She needs you to be calm. Can you do that?"
I nodded, and she led me to the curtained enclosure where Patsy was being attended by nurses. The police were in attendance, too, at a discreet distance. Patsy was half upright on the bed. She was dressed in a hospital smock. Her running shorts and T-shirt, blood-soaked, lay on the floor. Her face was impossibly swollen; her eyes almost sealed shut by the swelling. A nurse was cleaning caked blood from her face. I took her hand and tried to comfort her. She released a sob and began, in discontinuous fragments, to tell me what had happened.
I didn't know what she was feeling, only that it was overwhelmingly powerful. At one point, there in the emergency room, she spoke of a conversation we'd had the week before about endings, about last things the last time we'd go out for a walk, the last time we'd awaken to dawn light, and so on. She recalled that I had said, "There'll be a last time we make love."
"Last night," she said, "might have been it."
Our children were born in this hospital. As Patsy labored, her face swollen with effort and pain, I stood by the bed and held her hand: a man, looking on, filled with awed recognition of what it means to be a woman. I find myself saying now words I said then. "Breathe deeply. "Try to stay relaxed." "I love you." Flooded by feelings I haven't the words to speak, I stand by her savaged body and hold her hand. A man looking on.
Betsy was surprised to see me; usually Patsy picks up the children at school. I told her and Josh to get their lunch boxes and come with me. We sat on the curb outside the school: a forty-year-old man in jeans and a work shirt, speaking softly to his four-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, who listen with startled attention, as if they had suddenly found themselves falling through the air.
"An angry, crazy man hurt Mommy. It happened while she was running. She's in the hospital. She won't be home when we get there."
Betsy's tears were immediate. She leaned against me. I put my arm around her. Josh was very quiet.
As we drove home, I tried to reassure them.
"Mommy was very brave," I said. "She got away. She's going to be okay."
"Why was the man so angry?" Betsy asked.
"I don't know, sweetie. He wasn't angry at Mommy. He didn't know her. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
I parked illegally in the alley. Our co-op apartment building is located at the edge of the University of Chicago campus, across the street from the library and athletic facilities, on a block that includes several fraternities. Parking is a problem. I left the emergency lights on our rust-pocked 1980 Honda blinking on and off.
We entered the building through the backyard. A full city lot, much of it devoted to a flower garden, this is Patsy's domain. Since we had returned two weeks earlier from our annual August visit to her parent in Vermont, she had been addressing herself to the weeds that had thrived in her absence.
Before I left the emergency room, Patsy had asked me to do several things. To call our friend Vera Mihailovic and ask her to come to the hospital. To bring fresh clothes for her to wear home when she was released. And to drop off photos at one client's house, a note at another's. I had been surprised she had the presence of mind to focus on such details.
I went into our bedroom and gathered jeans, a shirt (one with but tons, so she wouldn't have to pull it over her battered head), and under wear. Inhaling the fragrance that emanated from her closet, I felt a so begin to rise but didn't allow it to surface. There wasn't time.
Our cat a spirited young calico named Casey had been inside a day. Frantic to get out into the world, she brushed her body insistently against my ankles. I opened the kitchen door, and she bolted into the backyard.
I made arrangements with friends in the building, Kick and Cindy Chrisman, to watch the children while I was at the hospital, and took Betsy up to their apartment.
Josh went out into the backyard with his baseball glove and ball. A I drove away, he remained in the yard. A solitary figure throwing a ball in the air and catching it, throwing a ball in the air and catching it.
En route to the hospital, I delivered Patsy's photographs. As I walked back to the car, I encountered our friend Martha Friedberg, out for walk. Growing up, I had known her as the mother of a high school friend, a high-spirited jock. Years later, I discovered she was a poet who wrote with unsentimental lucidity of domestic life. The ardors and griefs that animate her lines are also inscribed in her face, giving he in her seventies a fierce sort of beauty. She greeted me warmly and asked after Patsy. I told her, in a few sentences, what had happened. He expression reflected back at me the gravity of my words. I hurried on to the hospital.
Patsy now had a broad bandage across her nose. She seemed calmer Vera was at her side.
When I had asked if she wanted someone to come to the hospital. Patsy had not hesitated; she had asked for Vera. Born and raised in Yugoslavia her father was Montenegrin, her mother Serbian Vera had as a teenager been imprisoned in a Croatian concentration camp during World War II. In 1956 she came to this country, newly married to a Serbian doctor. Soon they divorced, and she was left with two small children. For many years, she had worked at the university as curator of slides in the art department. A fascinating woman her beauty somehow enhanced and complicated by the plastic eye that replaced the eye she had lost several years earlier to cancer Vera is passionate, moody, unrestrained in her affections and disaffections, full of emotional color and drama.
Commenting on her own emotional reticence, Patsy once observed that she has always been drawn to women like Vera who give strong, full-throated expression to their feelings. She herself is pitched differently. Her manner can seem distant and diffident; the flow of her feelings into expression subterranean. As a result, others sometimes misread her. It takes a while to discern the passionate turbulence beneath her seemingly calm self-command. Several lifetimes ago, when we were first getting to know each other, this reserved Vermont Yankee with her no-nonsense air of competence and self-control told me that she fantasized about being a torch singer belting out songs. And over the years, she has had a special fondness for rough-voiced singers like Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker who give the impression of risking everything on the song they are singing, holding nothing back. She, by contrast, holds a great deal back. Yet when unimpeded, she is wonderfully eloquent, expressing herself with clarity and force, making her own soulful music. I savor these moments, even when her eloquence is animated, as is often the case, by anger toward me.
A nurse came with a fresh cold compress. For my benefit, she described the damage to Patsy's face: broken nose, broken eye socket, a gash in her nose apparently left by his ring. Before releasing her, the nurse said, the doctors wanted to run some tests to check for possible damage to her eyes and nervous system.
While I was gone, a doctor had stitched up her nose.
"I told him to be sure to do a good job," Vera said. "We don't want our beautiful Patsy to have any scars."
The nurse asked one of us to leave. Emergency-room policy was that only one person at a time could stay with the patient. I walked Vera out to the waiting room. Once past the emergency-room doors, we embraced. The last time we had been in this hospital together had been the day Betsy was born. Patsy used to joke that Vera was responsible for our having children. Once, as we lingered over one of her wonderful meals, Vera had announced, "What we need around here are some little babies." The line had become part of our household vernacular. We repeated it, imitating Vera's accent, as we edged up, after years together, on the decision to have children.
Now Vera spoke of her love for us, of Patsy's strength, of the quality of our marriage. I only half heard her. What struck me was that she didn't seem surprised. Composed and grave, she seemed to be encountering something familiar, something she recognized.
I returned to the emergency room. Patsy was reclining, with her head tilted back. A still point amid the activity around her. Her swollen face was a mask I couldn't see behind. She took my hand. She seemed at once immediately present and very far away.
The call from the emergency room had been alarming not because the person on the other end of the line told me what had happened but because she didn't. She had refused to answer my questions, and her reticence had conveyed what it was meant to withhold: Patsy had been sexually assaulted. I didn't know how badly hurt she was. Running across campus to the hospital, I knew only that she was alive. Everything hung on a verb tense. When I saw her, touched her, heard her voice, my senses were flooded by her physical presence. Something terrible had happened I knew that but the first and dominant emotion I felt was relief that something worse had not.
Hours passed. We were waiting for X-rays to be taken. Vera returned and sat with Patsy, while I filled out insurance forms at the desk. When I finished, I paced the halls. The emergency room reflected the population of Chicago's South Side: overwhelmingly black and poor. For the most part, people sat near the television set in the waiting area. They sat with the patience of those whom experience has taught not to expect much from institutions. Police officers came and went, accompanying crime victims and suspects in need of treatment; often the cops too would stand around for long periods, waiting to question someone. The emergency room was a world unto itself. A peculiar floating world that confounded one's sense of time. Perhaps that was its true function to convert emergencies into bureaucratic ordeals, desperation into boredom.
We met in the mountains. The year was 1971. Patsy was teaching French and skiing at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private school on the west slope of the Rockies. I was hired to teach anthropology.
Just out of college, I had grown up in the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago near the university, where my father was a law professor, and had attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut during the political and cultural turbulence of the late 1960s. Five years older, Patsy had grown up in Burlington, Vermont the family business was the ferry company that provided service across Lake Champlain and had attended Skidmore College in upstate New York during the early 1960s. In some respects, we almost belonged to different generations. She seemed at once vastly experienced and somehow naïve.
Tall and graceful, she had long tawny hair and watchful eyes. Poised and reserved, she didn't impose herself on others. I loved the way she moved. Her body was beautiful. It was also strong and autonomous; it had other uses than to please men. What, I wondered, would it be like to make love with such a woman?
I soon knew.
The basis of our deepening friendship was a shared appetite for travel and physical adventure. Patsy had spent years abroad. Studying in France and Germany. Working on a kibbutz in Israel. Traveling overland from Europe to India. Working on development projects in Morocco and Tunisia. And on whatever continent, at every opportunity, heading for the mountains to ski or climb mountains anywhere being a sovereign realm in which she was at home.
My life, too, had been full of movement during those years. Backpacking and mountaineering out west in the Sierra Nevada, the Sawtooth Mountains, the Wind River Range. An expedition on Mount Logan in the Yukon. A motorcycle journey from Paris to New Delhi. A year spent living in a village in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Until I met Patsy, it had never occurred to me that a beautiful woman might want to share such experiences to be a companion rather than a fantasy one carried as part of one's gear. I had never known anyone like her. I loved the way she inhabited her body, and through her body the world. Her beauty was illuminated by her vitality. During our early days together, I felt like a boy in the presence of a woman amazed that she was in my life and had admitted me to hers.
After spending a summer together in a primitive cabin in the Rockies, we traveled in 1970-71 to South Asia for six months during which, by chance, we witnessed the Indo-Pakistani war over Bangladesh from several perspectives. We were in Lahore on the eve of the war; in Delhi the night it erupted; and afterward were among the first Westerners to enter the bereaved city of Dacca.
We returned to the States unsettled by what we had seen. It no longer seemed possible to knock around South Asia, to travel and climb, without performing some useful function. In my case, vague to be a writer I had published a few small pieces began to harden into a sense of vocation. I set out to become the sort of journalist who combines an appetite for firsthand experience of distant realities with the craft to make his explorations immediate to readers back home.
Patsy shared this vision. She had always traveled with a camera. Now she decided to make photography her profession. A novelist friend once asked her how she became a photographer. She understood, the friend said, how writers are made "They're born with pencils in their hands" but photography, perhaps because of the technical apparatus involved, seemed different to her. Patsy was unsure how to respond, but it occurred to me later that she has always been a looker, someone who takes the world in through her eyes. Early in our relationship, I used to get irritated when we were out walking together and she would drift out of the conversation as her eyes became engaged by something in the environment we were passing through. "You're not listening to me," I would snap, a creature of the word who didn't yet recognize that for her the eye had priority.
We spent two years in San Francisco. Full of plans to return to India as journalists, we lived and worked with the sense that life was elsewhere. Patsy studied photography, and I submitted to writing as a daily discipline. We thought of ourselves as apprentices, learning our crafts. I felt the need to withdraw from friends and family, to exile myself, in order to become a writer. Storms of grandiosity and self-doubt blew through the rooms where I spent my solitary days rooms located in various houses and apartments throughout the Bay Area in which, to minimize our expenses, we stayed as house-sitters. Groping to locate the real issues in our lives and work, we lived among other people's things and slept in other people's beds.
Our lives revolved, in tight orbits, around one another. A note that had been present but muffled while we were on the road became stronger. Being out in the world was a kind of refuge for Patsy; on unfamiliar terrain, she was bold and resourceful. It was at home, on intimate ground, that she sometimes seemed oppressed by unnamed sorrows. At such times she would become distant and wordless. Guilty and confused, I was confounded by her silences. Her reserve had been part of what had drawn me to her; it promised much. More and more, though, it felt like a withholding of herself. We began to talk about her "problem."
When we first became lovers, I had been thrilled by the idea of Patsy and bewildered by the reality. Something was missing. Some range of movement and expression was denied her. She seemed half-formed, like a bird with stunted wings, a dolphin whose flippers had not fully developed. At first I didn't recognize her sexual unhappiness. For a time, her willingness to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it had been enough. As we grew closer, though, her sexual fluency began to give way to stuttering distress. When we made love, a strange dislocation occurred. Her effort was not to enter the experience but to absent herself. It was as if she had to numb herself before she could bear to be touched. To my alarm, the lovely body I embraced in the night came to seem uninhabited.
Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this. I talked and talked, as if there were some misunderstanding I could clear up, some argument I could make that would persuade her. She listened and said little. Often we arrived at impasses where I waited for her to respond and she stared back at me in mute distress. Her pain seemed to lie beyond the reach of language. She just stared at me. I didn't know what she was feeling. I didn't know what she saw. At moments of deepest distress, her face became puffy and swollen, as if bruises from some injury deep inside were ripening outward.
As we were about to return to Asia, the trajectory of our lives changed. My father died. He had been working on a book about the American tradition of freedom of speech. He left an unfinished first draft of more than a thousand pages. This manuscript posed a painful dilemma: on one hand, it was unpublishable in the form he left it; on the other, it was too good to put aside, too precious to cede to death. The solution, insofar as there was one, was for me to edit and, where necessary, to rewrite and supplement the manuscript.
I returned to Chicago and set to work. Patsy followed. Isolated by my absorption in the book and oppressed in my parents' house, she became increasingly depressed and restless. When an opportunity to reenter the world came in the form of a Fulbright fellowship, she took it and spent nine months in Paris doing a photo study of Gypsies. Distance proved clarifying for us. Soon after her return, in a ceremony held in the garden of her parents' home in Vermont, on the side of Mount Mansfield, we were married.
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