Swanlights, Turning

Jessica Friedmann

In her debut essay collection Things That Helped, Jessica Friedmann navigates her recovery from postpartum depression. The essays weave a memoir that touches on class, race, gender, and sexuality, as well as motherhood and mental illness. Each essay chooses a separate totemic object as its focus, from pho to red lips, to tell a story both deeply personal and widely resonant. What follows is an excerpt from the moving essay on the trans musician Anohni that takes us into the mind of someone charting her return to the world.

With the outside world at bay I turn and turn, interior. At my core, I keep a resting place for girls and women. Nina Simone resides there, as does Cristina Yang, the painter Helen Frankenthaler, Amy Winehouse, Ruth Park. Closest and most protected and cherished are two artists whose work feels so attuned to the rush and flow of my own thoughts that they feel physically present, sometimes inhabiting my body as ghosts. One is the writer Rumer Godden. The other is Anohni, once the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons.

When I first hear Anohni sing, I think for a minute that she might be my older sister. I have always wanted an older sister. I have grown with the idea of a phantom presence hovering a few years ahead of me, someone who could have put her foot on the path first, shown that it was steady and firm, held my hand. It has been in books and music, and history and art that I have found her: someone who reflects me like a mirror set at a slant, familiar but somehow unknown to me, living in my skin.

Listening to Anohni sing, I am astonished to realise that there was a time that I had not yet heard her. It is one of those moments of peripeteia, of vertigo, of something taking flight. I find myself in tears, not just at the beauty of her voice, but at the sense that I have found, as Anne Shirley would say, a “kindred spirit”—not a girlish, plump Diana, but a grown woman whose longing is shot through with loneliness and pain.

Nobody tells you, as a child, that your initiation into womanhood might come at the price of a craving for misuse and violence; that you can protect yourself from others, but that nobody can protect you from yourself.

• • •

It is the feeling of being bitten hard on the neck and shoulders; it is the feeling of being held down during sex; it is the longing for obliteration; lust has turned itself inside out and gone feral.

• • •

I daydream about sleeping in the garden, on a bed of moss, comfortable and autonomous until a maleficent being carries me away. When I read the news, I don’t know what is real and what is fantasy anymore.

The nursery rhyme that I am trying to think of is “Ring a Ring o’ Roses,” which is apocryphally about the Black Death. Historians reject this idea, but other rhymes have their feet more firmly in myths and folklores based on historical practices.

“London Bridge is Falling Down” is supposed to refer to rumours of infants immured in the bridge as a sacrifice to the gods. There is no evidence of bones there, but immurement happened; foundation sacrifices have always been an idiosyncratically accepted practice, as hitobashira in Japan, and in Serbia, Hungary, and Romania, where again and again myths make reference to the wife of a wealthy landowner being the one sacrificed to propitiate any evil spirits. It is not just that women are buried in the earth; we are also buried in the structures that populate the earth, holding them up invisibly; invisible pillars.

It is not just that women are buried in the earth; we are also buried in the structures that populate the earth, holding them up invisibly.

• • •

If the earth’s virtues are femininely passive, to be rewarded, praised, and plundered, so, too, are her storms, her earthquakes, her thundering torrents feminine; they are the darkly transgressive, uniquely female ebbs and flows of a treacherously membranous body. Where the calm, pacific mother lives, there will always be the temptress, the heretic, the witch.

Now it is not just that nature is disordered when it deviates from its subservience to the industry of man—women, heretical women, derive power from its disorder; they control it. They can summon hail from the blue sky, brew plague, send disease skimming across an otherwise healthy crop. Those claiming these powers are sometimes “ordinary” women, as well as anyone who visibly or socially transgresses: the infidel, the disabled, the intersex or transgender woman.

These women do not need the hierarchies of spirituality that the Church clamps down on its faithful. The world is animate; it is imbued with a soul, and trees and squirrels and streams can speak to women, much as its minerals and ores have been calling to men. Some of these women will take up witchcraft actively; others, perhaps a vast majority, are simply troublesome. Whether too carnal, too elderly, with too sharp a tongue, there now exists a helpful and legally sanctioned social category that will strip her of her autonomy, and put her to her death.

Resistance, resistance to hierarchies, stops being necessarily an active endeavour, and instead becomes rooted in the dissonance of bodies, the dissonance of minds. If a woman does not want to pray; if she is not a natal woman, but born with genitalia that deviates from the norm; if she does not celebrate the birth of her child, but mourns instead and turns her face to the wall, then she is likely to be condemned a witch, to die. And if she is already condemned, why not take up the powers and pleasures of control?

• • •

As illness clamps down on my shoulders, music becomes almost intolerable. Any noise feels viscerally assaultive, with the exception of certain string arrangements, one film soundtrack, and Anohni’s voice. It is like a harp, it is like whale song, and I need a small core of stillness within me to be able to receive it. With illness pressing down fast, I spend more and more time in the bath, where the hot water is almost scalding and depresses my sympathetic nervous system, and the mist of steam frazzles and curls my hair.

With my baby and husband in another room, with the thin evening light slanting through the window, I feel as though I can inhabit every atom, as if through the pressure of the water and the weight of the song I can hold my body together at least temporarily, not dissolve or fly into pieces. When the anxiety hits I find myself floating outside my own skin, wanting desperately to find a way back inside—but I have never floated above myself in the bath, only resisted the temptation to sink down completely.

Anohni’s voice coils around the vibration of strings, protecting the sound like the sheath of a nerve.

Outside the window it begins to drizzle, shutting me in. Anohni’s voice coils around the vibration of strings, protecting the sound like the sheath of a nerve:

• • •

Her eyes are underneath the ground
I have heard the crying sound
No one can stop you now . . .

• • •

But the crying sound is coming from outside the door, and Mike enters the room with a wailing infant, and I rise out of the steam and hold him gingerly to my suddenly-leaking breasts, hating them both for interrupting this reverie, this small pocket of time in my day that is psychically and physically bounded only by myself. I am touched out; this is what they call it when you have been stroked and suckled and grabbed so much that you cannot bear a second more of physical contact, like a cat that turns vicious out of the blue.

Feeding my baby, I take care not to let his heels dip into the scalding water. Someday, I think, my body will fly apart.

• • •

Watching ballet videos in bed, an algorithm takes me from Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta rehearsing for Giselle to a fan video for Anohni’s “River of Sorrow.” As usual, the words carry me along on a swell of pity:

• • •

There is a black river.
It passes by my window
and late at night
all dolled up like Christ
I walk the water
between the piers . . .

• • •

The song was written for Marsha P. Johnson, after whom the Johnsons are also named; a tribute to a queer black woman, a fierce activist who threw one of the first bricks at the Stonewall riots and spent her days walking the streets decked in flowers, a mother to lost children, a “saint.” I think of Johnson leaving her Santería-influenced offerings to the spirits of the water in the river where her body would wash up in 1992. The police ruled Johnson’s death a suicide, and it took twenty years of activist intervention to see the case reopen as a potential murder. But the evidence, by now, has washed away.

There are women in rivers, and women in the earth—wilis who have died for love and are rising up and calling out for us. I think, almost constantly now, of the Maribyrnong, its soft, cold silt and the sprouting grass covering the ground like pubic hair at its lip. In some rational corner of my mind I know that suicide is an affront, not just to myself—my self which is already in danger of splitting up and flying away—but to the thousands of women who end up in rivers not by choice but by violence, who would raise their hands out of the water for a chance to pull me in and take my place.

On good days I try to jeer myself out of it. Isn’t it just like a white woman, I tell myself, to think that she can choose to go where so many black, gay, poor, elderly, sick, disabled women have gone unwillingly. But this jeering isn’t laughter—it’s a long nail of self-abnegation that I take pleasure in impaling myself upon. If I cannot die, then at least I can be pierced with small holes for the wind to whistle through.

• • •

The women in the news are nearly always dead. If they are not dead, they have been raped; if they have not been raped, they have been mutilated, and they are speaking up as survivors, survivors of cancer, survivors of violence, survivors of female genital mutilation. We, as women, like women to survive.

Mostly, though, they are dead—either dug up from the ground or killed as fertilizer, in service of it. Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres wins the Goldman Environmental Prize and is assassinated, killed in her own home, shot dead by two men for her brilliance agitating for Lenca land rights and for her ferocity in exposing the ecological devastation that has been allowed by the corruption of her government.

She is something like the hundredth environmentalist to be murdered in Honduras in the last four years. Of course she had received warning, she had many warnings, but these days, who doesn’t receive death threats? Women I follow on Twitter receive them for speaking out about politics, for telling the stories of their rape, for writing video game reviews. We speak of them in the way we speak of our periods: when did you get your first?

For those women who do not menstruate, the threats are exponentially intensified, as they are for women whose bodies flout accepted norms in colour, in health, in ability, in scope. We speak of intersectionality as though we are describing the two pieces of wood that meet to form the cross upon which we will be hung.

• • •

Is it any wonder that when the hierarchy we live with is unknowably cruel, and a place in the “natural” order is denied, strange and transgressive powers spring up? It is not only menses, breast milk, wandering uteruses that cause us to turn to sorcery. Anohni, like Marsha P., is not a natal woman, but a newly born woman, born of difference, and this gives her automatic initiation:

I’m a witch. I actually de-baptised myself. And what’s great about being transgender is you’re born with a natural religion. It applies almost across the board; no matter what culture or economic group or nation that you’re from, you’re almost automatically a witch. None of the patriarchal monotheisms will have you. It’s very clear that in most of those religions you’d be put to death. In many parts of the world you still are put to death.

In the parts of the world where one is not put to death, the transgender person is often revered as a shaman, with access to both men’s and women’s knowledge, or the knowledge of the natural world and of animals. The shaman’s role is to enter a trance state, commune with spirits, to heal, to sing, to guide newly departed souls into the land of the dead, to divine the future. This is a tradition that dates back to the Neolithic era, far pre-empting Iron, Bronze, and Stone.

To inhabit, to channel, to commune; these are the gifts of shamanism and witchcraft, they are the gifts of flow.

I think of the flow of blood, a monthly tide, or the blood that wells up to sustain the heart and lungs in song. I think of the hypnotic ebb and flow of Anohni’s strings and voice, suggestive, transformative, and her heart that encompasses both masculine and feminine aspects of the world; the queerness of it, both queer in the original sense of eerie, and in its joyously contemporary use.

There is something profoundly powerful in the word made flesh, through music, or song, or a whispered mantra, a secret spell.

I don’t know if I believe in magic. It seems to rely so heavily on perspective. But there is something profoundly powerful in the word made flesh, through music, or song, or a whispered mantra, a secret spell.

• • •

When the baby is three months old, I make a phenomenal effort to leave the house. I dress not in the faded black maternity skirt I have been wearing for months, but in a vintage two-piece set, the top scooped low and edged with a knitted black lace, the waist nipped in with a proper, non-elastic closure. I give myself five minutes more than

I need to walk to the train station, and wait with my thumb hooked through the slats of a seat until the train arrives.

In three years Anohni will be in Australia again, but I do not know that now. She will return to perform at mona, and I will be well by then, blossoming, happy on and off, with a beautiful child and an antidepressant that works, but unable to go to gigs for lack of cash. It is money I would willingly give if I had it; she will give the proceeds of her concert to the Martu people of Parnngurr in Western Australia, to aid in their legal battle against the construction of a uranium mine on country. There seems no end to things fought over and dug out of the earth.

Tonight, she is restaging “Swanlights” for the Melbourne Festival, and I have bought a ticket; a cheap one, a last-minute release, which leaves me no time to think of reasons I should not go.

For an hour and a half I am out of myself, out of time, back in my skin at last. Anohni herself is reassuringly present—a tall, solid figure in white, her long dark hair straggling on each side of her face. She looks like Cassandra, but her voice is not prophetic, only revelatory, in the sense of revealing to the audience what is already there, has always been there. A ripple of humour goes through the audience as the orchestra plays the opening bars of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” but stripped of its beat it, too, is an elegy. The sparseness of its poetics, about the love that turns you to madness, and makes you plead to be saved from yourself, pulled out by the wrists, touches on something inside me that has been iced over for weeks.

It is a thumbprint on a sheet of frozen water. Anohni draws a breath and a tumble of words spills out, and she is no longer Cassandra—she is something like the plump sister in a ‘30s screwball comedy, giggling and flirting and leaving the fervour of transcendence behind.

• • •

I sit a long time in my seat once the concert is over. The curtains have closed; the lights are up again. I do not want to break the spell, but the room is emptying and my nipples are beginning to leak. Making sure I have my coat I leave the auditorium, find an accessible bathroom, then lean over the sink, one side of my bra unhooked as I lower my breast and press down above the areola. For a minute the sink fills with a milky blue light; then, stickily,

I repeat the procedure, emptying myself out until the pangs of discomfort have passed.

Jessica Friedmann is a writer and editor living in Canberra, Australia, with her husband and small son. A graduate of the University of Melbourne with an honors thesis in creative writing, for which she won an R. G. Wilson Scholarship, her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Lifted Brow, Smith Journal, Dumbo Feather, ArtsHub, The Age, and other publications. Jessica is the author of Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression.