. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

For example

I noticed, over the last few months, as my mother was dying, that I had taken pictures that seemed very specific. Now I am looking at the archive, as one appraises a drying hand after a manicure.

My mother died of femininity.  I told her that I would say this about her. She had said, “Will you write a book about me?”  and I asked if she wanted me to. She said “Yes. I want you to say that I left the world a better place because I had you!” I said I thought that this was a bad idea: people would think it an excuse to write about me.  She said, “Can you think of another topic?”  I offered this phrase about femininity, and explained why.  My brother-in-law thought that it would be better to say that my mother died from vanity rather than from femininity. I can see why he would prefer that story; it’s interesting to see how a label shifts the implication.

In her late teens she took up smoking, because it was sold as a weight-reduction aid.  When she died she had aggressive stage 4 lung cancer.  In her teens she started wearing high heels, to enhance the back arch and ass-to-calves posture whose strut transforms the whole body to a sexual tableau, shifting between teetering and stillness. Later, she had an abortion and on the way out tripped down the stairs in those heels, hurting her back permanently.  Decades later, selling dresses at Bloomingdale’s, she was forced to carry, by her estimate, 500 lbs. of clothes each day. Shop girls, you know, are forced to dress like their customers. They have to do this to show that they understand the appropriate universe of taste, even while working like mules in that same universe, carrying to their ladies stacks of hanging things and having to reorganize what their ladies left behind on the dressing room floor. She liked this job, because she liked being known as having good taste.

These tasks threw her back out anew, and the result of this was an overconsumption of painkillers that ultimately blew out her kidneys.  She had to go onto dialysis: she died three days after turning off her dialysis. In the meantime, more comically, she had two fingers partly amputated because her nails got infected by a “French wrap” gone wrong, and she was too ashamed to tell anyone about it, numbing the pain of infection with Anbesol, which she had also used for many years to avoid going to the dentist. This is not the half of it: ok, maybe it’s half.

Her name was Joanne.  She asked me whether knowing this story might change any woman’s relation to her health:  I said I didn’t think so, although you never know.  First, no one thinks they’ll be defined by disaster until they are. They can sense it on the horizon, but the gamble is a gamble, and speculation comforts.  Second, things are so bad, so minimally imaginative for sexual relations, that people tend to do the thing they heard about doing just to keep things going, and if it means poisoning themselves and wearing out their bodies, or being over- or under- stimulated, even, they’ll do it. I do it. I make better decisions but not different kinds of decision.

Once scavenged, we take habits on as beloved objects, as partners in the project of getting by, as ways of gaming the situation of making a life. I learned to think about this from Michael Eigen: you wake up, you see the world, it’s your eyes that are seeing that thing, you breathe, you sense your next breath. Those are your feet, your skin, your hands. You begin to read beyond the body. A singular world is there, it’s your partner, fixing in images the sense of continuity you carry around. Which is why loss is actually loss whatever else it is—even if it’s also a relief, a victory, an occasion for sentimental self-encountering, or a thud, almost nothing, as it is also the loss of a revitalization of sense that was bound to the image, which was itself just a stand-in for relation as such.

This is why deriving modes of attention and conceptualizing skills matters to me, you know. Once you see all objects as placeholders for the encounter with the world, as organizing the process of moving through the situation of the ordinary life, they become enigmas alongside of the ways they gain specificity through use, over time. You can rely on them and have curiosity about them, and not only be scared of the way you don’t understand them. The fact that a thing is an enigmatic relation means not that the thing is replaceable, because it isn’t: but that it changes when it’s close to other things.  Take a glimpse of this modernist phone I shot, for example.


27 Comments so far
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What a splendid piece of writing. It resonates loudly for me. I think of Carolyn Steedman’s ‘Diary of a good woman’ and of all the pressures on us women everywhere to be women and then some more. Your mother is/was right to want you to write about here as much as in writing about here you write about yourself and others along the way. As the memoirist, Nancy Miller writes ‘the six degrees of separation’ between your life and that of another are in fact ‘degrees of connection…my memoir is about you’ .

Thank you for this, Lauren. It’s inspirational.

Comment by Elisabeth

“Can you think of another topic?” Whoa. This is amazing LB.

Comment by Mandy Berry

Much to think about here. Thank you.

Comment by Caren Kaplan

Beautiful and deeply seen–the detail about the Anbesol tells the story…

Comment by Richard McCann

amazing telepoetic call to your mother. in making me think about habits, this piece makes me travel, taking stock of how my habitations have spoiled me to their immediate physical realities. i remember that at the duke feminist theory workshop on the third saturday of march 2012, you shared with us in your comments some of the conversation you had with your mother earlier that day.

Comment by Ali Altaf Mian

I am at a loss for words. Poignant and beautiful

Comment by Sangeeta Ray

gorgeous and stirring

Comment by Lynne Huffer

This is a profound piece about (and with) your mother. I am thinking about your idea of things as placeholders for encounters with the world. This makes the thing stay mysterious yes, but also it is a non-narrative way to understand objects and bodies (and memories) in relation. I’ll be thinking about this for awhile.

Comment by Julie Rak

I am a hospice volunteer. Last year, I had a client who was dying of various ailments. She confided in me that she had put off treatment because if she were hospitalized, her facial hair would soon be apparent to anyone who saw her. This was at a time when she could barely walk because her legs were so swollen.
She died in November. She would have died eventually of course but the timing was due to vanity. Not unusual.

Comment by veryslowwriter

She died of vanity only if you define vanity as socially enforced standards of female appearance.

Comment by erikagillian

You’re quite correct. I should not have used that word.

Comment by veryslowwriter

I felt you trying to get your head around what it means now to look without being seen, which is heartbreaking. Loved this.

Comment by Jaime

gorgeous and stirring

Comment by Paul

[…] “My mother died of femininity.” […]

Pingback by Weekly Feminist Reader

Very rightly said; Profound !
“I make better decisions but not different kinds of decision.” : This is something that i am going to debate with myself for a long time !!

Comment by soniyaarya

[…] “My mother died of femininity…” is a wonderfully written piece on the loss of a mother and the years that got her to that place. […]

Pingback by » Time-Wasting Tuesday Ramblings of a 20-Something Wonder Woman

I lost my mother last year. If only I had the insight into the complexity of who she was to be able to find a theme to tie it together, to understand. I am forced to examine the silences to find her.
My mother was still comforting us, even the day before she died, wondering if we were too tired staying there with her.
I love this. Thank you for posting it.

Comment by Karen Schmelzkopf

Mark told me to read this as soon as I got up, and I did – it’s so great.

Comment by Sianne Ngai (@Spebbit)

A recommendation: Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.

Comment by Wendy Kroy

“First, no one thinks they’ll be defined by disaster until they are.” – I’m not sure about this. I always knew I would be. I lived in expectation/anticipation of it.

Comment by Sharif M. Youssef

[…] A blogpost by Lauren Berlant, on the death of her mother earlier this year, where she takes the risk of ‘theorising’ […]

Pingback by Reading while waiting | Pop Theory

“Habits as beloved objects”: yes, we all do this, your mother, you, myself. We have different habits, but we have the same attachment and dependence (and the same clinging to and shying away from the world). I’m so moved by this.

Comment by Wai Chee Dimock

Thanks so much for this amazing piece of writing, Lauren. I have so much to say to you about this–but not here and now.

Comment by Elissa Marder

This is wonderful. Thank you for letting it be read. I’ve done so twice now.

Comment by Kelldicott

[…] There is a really lovely, brief post by Lauren Berlant on Super Valent Thought… about her mother, reflecting on her life and habits as she is passing away. I just pulled the last two paragraphs, but you can read the entire piece here. […]

Pingback by My Mother Died of Femininity | The Lantern Daily

[…] I know that there are in fact others out there that have faced this issue, but it has always bewildered me. How can I judge the very person that has a tattoo yet want the exact same thing? Is that the reason I have still yet to get a tattoo – thinking that society doesn’t affect me when really it has somehow its found a way to plant the seed of doubt in my mind. In saying this are the people who do these ‘rebellious acts’ so to speak stronger than I am? They have the strength to give society the middle finger and do what they please or is it that they simply don’t care? Either option seems to be better than the what I go through. Am I trapped?  […]

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At turns elegiac and mind-bending, darkly comic and genuinely heartbreaking, you have transformed the genre of the brief obituary into a meditative cris de couer for all the things we try to know in the face of all the things we believe we do.

Comment by Joseph Dimuro

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