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How to Be Seen.

"What do you like about the WWE?" I asked.

"It's a story," he said, "it's real, live fiction."

Why did you want to know about the WWE in the first place?

When I was young, my stomach churned the first time I watched Jake the Snake's python glide over his opponent's body. I became nauseous moments before, too, when his body slammed into another's and when he climbed the ropes and flew down with his elbow out, slamming into another wrestler's collar bone. I knew it was fake, and yet the experience gathered within me--it made me feel.

You were curious about a feeling?

Darren Aronosky's film The Wrestler opens with a nearly washed-up wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, sitting in the back of a classroom in his yellow spandex, coughing. His back is turned toward the camera, and his body is framed with walls covered in various pieces of children's art and a blackboard. His promoter brings him a wad of cash, saying he thought it would be a better turn out, and then the camera follows him out, to the gymnasium, where the fight just took place. The folding chairs are being put away, and the guys are pulling off the ropes, one-by-one. After signing the autographs, "The Ram" continues through the gym, his hair pulled into a ponytail, matted in sweat. He leaves the shiny floors and padded walls and moves with his head down. Watching, you get that feeling--the one you feel when you've done the bit that everyone was waiting for and you have nothing more to give.

That doesn't quite explain it--

I felt something when Jake the Snake's snake made its way over the shiny tights of his opponent's legs. That's a segment of it--I wanted to know how performance can create a response, how it ends up in a physical body as a feeling one can still experience. I also wanted to know how it ends up in the body of the performer themselves, how so many wrestlers end up like Randy "the Ram" Robertson, performing in high school gyms, knowing that the turn out will never get better. Here's another thing: Jake the Snake is afraid of snakes. When I found that out, it didn't just make me wonder what fears were part of my performance but what fears could be.

"The only way to understand a character is to force yourself to ask just how it is that you could end up in his or her position," my acting teacher said. He had us draft a list of statements: "if x happened, I would y." We had to write the statements until we found it quite possible that we could end up as, say, a cocaine addict in an abusive relationship.

Once I discovered I could be anybody, I had a hard time deciding not to try.

If x happened. If x happened. If x happened.


I suppose I thought I could be anybody before I discovered just how to become somebody because, when I was five, I decided to propose to a boy even though I didn't yet know what love was. I asked him to meet me under the sink in the bathroom downstairs, I had a flower in my hand. A red rose. I gave it to him as I asked him to marry me. I do not remember his face. All I remember is how the words arrived in my mouth, and how I then carried them over to him, not at all attached to their meaning, not at all connected to their definitions. The moment was so much about my performance that I cannot even remember his reaction, except that it must have been painful or, at least not rehearsed, because I remember that I needed to move quickly, and that it was challenging to do under a sink, in a dress, sitting with my legs crossed over one another.

In professional wrestling, they say that faking hurt is more challenging than faking joy.

My mother sent me my "first day of school" pictures from elementary school, and in all but one, I am smiling. In the one where I'm not, my cheeks appear to be pulling my face down; my head is tilted to one side, and I'm staring rather blankly at the camera, seemingly unaware that a picture is meant to deliver a certain type of expression. In the rest, I'm smiling a big, toothy smile, with my head up straight, my eyes gleaming for the camera. My hair is curly sometimes, in braids in another, and towards what must have been second and third grade, straight and held back. The smile remains the same--big and proud, exuding joy or a preformed joy that was demanded of me in that moment and that I was clearly happy to give.

I did not then know that this smile would become a fraught component of my identity, and that I would find myself not just explaining it but defending it often, putting a flag with the words "authenticity" into my teeth at every moment of joy. "Your smile is so big it's unreal," I am told, and my laugh, the one where my chin sinks into my neck and my head whips back makes people "feel good" about themselves. Both my smile and my laugh have been caught enough on camera for me to understand why they might make someone feel good and yet, I worry people think there is an aspect of both that is disingenuous. Sometimes, a person will say as much, saying, "you're the only person who thinks I'm funny," and when I try to tell them it's because they are actually funny, even I am no longer sure that humor has everything to do with it. I learned from my father that having a good sense of humor cannot just deliver you from many situations--getting caught for driving in the breakdown lane, sitting through a boring sermon at church, wading your way through a cocktail party--but also make you well-liked and fun to be around. In that sense, I'm aware that part of what I am doing is piracy--I am out to capture another's joy. I want nothing more than to be named the champion.

In middle school, I asked for a book bag with the word "ACT" mono-grammed on it instead of my initials. I wanted "ACT" because I wanted to be an actress, and it made sense to me that this be sewn into the blue L.L. Bean backpack that I'd wear to school every day. When the package came from UPS, I pulled the backpack out of the plastic bag, still stiff in its newness. When I took it to school the next day and friends asked about the ACT," I told them that L.L. Bean got my initials wrong. I couldn't admit that I was actually passionate about something. I couldn't admit I was truly interested in acting and that I was silly enough to think that putting the word on a back-pack might actually reinforce or construct the dream itself. There was too much at stake, and perhaps a part of me knew that the dream was an illusion, something that I would never achieve. My belly stuck out, and my nose? It was crooked. Perhaps it wasn't simply physical, but it was also internal--if I committed to it, then I'd have to embody it. I could not risk that; it was easier to not commit with my full self lest I fail, and so when my classmates asked me about it, I told them that my mom had made me keep the back-pack instead of returning it.

That year, I played Cassandra in a play about the fall of Troy, and even though I was only twelve and must have looked strange in an empire-waisted dress with billowy sleeves, I felt like I really sold that role. After the play ended, I always tried to fit her character into stories and plays I wrote because Cassandra's curse--being able to see the future and not being believed--felt just right to me. I could relate. I prided myself on being a person who could see what was going to happen, too. I thought I knew more than other people about what their fate was going to be, and so I went around the stage in an anguish I thought I understood, begging and begging that I be heard. I pleaded with my hands. I furrowed my brow. I railed on and on about war, and shook my head in a kind of madness that I thought the crowd would relate to.

Once the play was over, I had trouble leaving acting behind. I found ways to perform around the school. At a middle school dance I found out a girl had just given her boyfriend head, and I suppose something about that fact offended me, or maybe I thought that she needed to know just what I thought that symbolized about her life. I decided to tell her that she was a slut. My body moved through the crowd with a drive and a purpose that I can't fully understand now and I certainly didn't understand then. I pointed my finger at her, said the words, and then instantly turned away. I couldn't look at her face.

In the same year my grandfather died and had two funerals because apparently he was famous enough to have two funerals. I didn't really understand how famous he was because I was a teenager obsessed with really famous people and so, at his funeral in New York, I was more interested in the fact that George Plimpton had a cameo in Titanic than that he was speaking about my Grandfather. I also felt more about my father breaking into "Danny Boy" at the end of the service, rising up in the front row and belting it out, than I did about my Grandfather's passing. I tugged my father's jacket when I watched him rise. I was embarrassed, and I understood there was something that set my father apart. I wondered what these people thought of their friend's, coworker's, board member's, son. The next day, it was the picture that went into The New York Times: my father with his hands up in the air, singing for his father, performing a kind of joy.

"Go where there is shame," a writing teacher told me. He could have been an acting teacher or an art teacher or any teacher looking for a show of self-awareness because shame is a conscious feeling: it is a feeling that requires you to tell yourself something. It forces you to say: if you hadn't done x, you would not feel y. Sometimes, it is not a decision to do anything at all. Sometimes, it's: if x hadn't happened, you would not feel y. How could you have let x happen?

One year, my cousin and I made the decision show our naked bodies to everyone on the public beach in Norfolk, Connecticut. We were on a surf-board, gliding around the lake, and we paddled over from my cousin's dock to the beach where kids were making sand castles and running into the lake. We paddled closer and positioned ourselves just right. The surfboard was parallel to the beach. We decided to rise. We moved from our stomachs to our knees, and once balanced, lifted up onto our feet, our arms lifted and our hands waving. We did this a few times until we stopped, but the laughs didn't cease until we arrived home.

As soon as our mothers heard the story, they yelled at us. At first, we were surprised. Skinny-dipping was normal in our family. My grandmother did it every summer morning. My mother, my aunt, my sister and I would go down most evenings to swim naked in the water that my aunt often de-scribed as "velvet--doesn't the water just feel like velvet against your skin?" We knew that what we had done on the surfboard that day was different--being naked in front of strangers was not exactly the same as being naked in front of family members--but what we didn't understand until that moment was just what that difference had meant. Our mothers weren't mad because we were naked in front of strangers. They were mad that we'd performed our privilege so obviously, so directly, so freely; after all, it was our grandfathers who gifted the public beach to the town. It was they who had said: here is your corner of the lake. The corner was blocked off with a rope we swam under, and a fence we walked right through.

"Performance as a locomotion across boundary," wrote Vito Acconci. He wrote it while reflecting on a piece he was performing in his apartment. Every day, at 8am, he woke up and stepped on a stool repeatedly for as long as he could. Then, he wrote down the results. People were welcome to come and watch him.

I saw his scrawls on a still in The National Gallery, and I could not look away from his legs. I thought of them tiring as he moved up and down from the stool. Then the word "locomotion" grabbed me, and thought about the train I saw in Ashcroft, Canada--the one that moved through the desert-like landscape at a rapid pace--and how that train, with the separate containers, one after another, captured my husband's attention. He put it in to a video that I watched over and over, and yet that was not necessarily the part of Ashcroft that I wanted to remember. Instead, I prized the old boarded up Opera House in a town had nothing more than a cafe and an old hotel and a few wrinkled men sitting outside, smoking in the sun. The boarded up Opera House: brown and white and crooked. Leaning into the ground. I took a picture and wondered: what voices rang through its walls?

The poet, CAConrad, tells poets to "let" their "toes" know the truth for seven days. He says, "EVERY DAY FOR THE NEXT 7 days you will pay attention to the SIGNS OF DISHONESTY in your voice and your body, and whenever you are not who you REALLY WANT TO BE at any moment in the day ... CLENCH YOUR TOES!"

Clench your toes as you imagine x. Clench them harder as you move to y. Clench them for longer, clench them more fiercely, clench them until your foot cramps. You are sitting in a hot tub telling your friends that you went to second base with M. and you aren't just telling them that generally, but you are using details about how he took your shirt off slowly to make the story more believable. No one has ever taken your shirt off. Not quickly. Or slowly. As the water bubbles in your lower back, you must keep clenching your toes because you are not who you REALLY WANT TO BE. Or, are you just that? Exactly who you WANT TO BE.

In middle school, I repeatedly was forced to clench my toes. For one thing, I wanted to pretend that I found actors and models attractive. My friends talked about Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and I put a picture of Tyson Beckford above my bed, but I did not understand, actually, how to be attracted to those men. My body did not feel anything when I watched them move across the screen. I also made up the fact that I had a favorite animal, and I was constantly pretending to enjoy things I could not in fact feel anything toward. Often, I lied through omission. If I did not tell anyone whether or not I had gotten my period, then they could assume I had. If I did not tell anyone how I used too much tongue when I had my first French kiss, then no one would know.

I didn't just pretend to feel what I could not feel, but I also faked what I felt if my body did feel a charge when I looked at my math teacher, Mr. C. I learned to spin my pencil around my thumb like him, but I would not tell anyone that. Instead, Id put the skill on display, spinning the thin, blue pen around and around, while I thought about that tall, lanky teacher with the long face.

If I never said x, then no one would know y.

Could shame be your weapon?

I was not only confused about what I was meant to hide, I was also confused about which parts I was meant to show, and I read Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, and learned about what boys really wanted. I also learned that there was nothing more embarrassing than a body: a period stain, a braless chest, a smelly armpit. It was important to make sure a body clenched up. It did not want food. It did not want its hair. It did not want to know how to actually want. But: it needed to learn how to smile.

When one of my friends became anorexic, I was jealous. I wanted to exhibit that kind of control. For a weekend, I ate what she ate. I watched her eat bananas slowly, peeling the pieces off bit by bit and putting them into her mouth. I could tell it was painful for her to eat, and I tried to mirror that pain. I only ate whatever part of the banana I could catch in the tiny space I created between my thumb and forefinger. We were also allowed to eat pita and hummus, and so we did. Thin pieces, one after the other, with tiny amounts of hummus on top.

When I came back from the weekend, I put two pieces of bread in the toaster. I took them out before they were even toasted, and even though I tried to eat them slowly, I could not contain my hunger. Each bite became bigger and bigger until I was putting another piece of bread in the toaster and eating that too. I told my friend that I hadn't, of course, and she told me I should tell my family about my disorder. Even though I knew I had shoved bread into my mouth moments before, and that it was not in any way painful for me to place the bits of banana on my tongue, I told my mother that I had an eating disorder. As the words came out of my mouth, I watched them race away, one after the other, disconnected from me, aware of a certain level of fraudulence.

What is at stake for this narrator? What is at stake?

My first year teaching, the ninth grade teachers had to adjust the curriculum for a student who could not watch anything violent on a screen. We taught Buffy the Vampire Slayer as part of our heroism unit, and we had to figure out something that she could watch and write about that did not include blood, punches, or death. The issue was not that it made her upset or that she got nightmares. Her parents said it was a felt experience for her; she felt a stab when she saw a stab; her body rolled on the concrete when the character's body did. I remember scoffing when I heard about it, and being somewhat dismayed that we were going to make the adjustment. But I also can't help recalling that when I was twelve, I had to remove myself from the room after seeing the first scene of Kids. I had never seen sex so real, and I had never felt such a visceral reaction to two people on a screen. The sweat. The soft voices. The way his eyes scanned her breasts. Her head on the pillow, and the way it moved with the motion of her body. My body buzzed, and I walked myself into a room with a full length mirror and stared at myself--my heart raced, and I wondered just what I was capable of.

"Body of work: the results of the work remain inside the body" Vito Acconci reflected, as he worked on the piece in his apartment, stepping up and down, up and down, up and down, every morning at 8am. Meaning: he did not board up his body. Meaning: that would be impossible. Meaning: the performance was inside his body. Meaning: his body of work was connected to his muscles and his flesh. Meaning: the art he gave was all of him.

Does this also mean that there's no separation between the self I'm creating, and my cold fingers, typing on the keys? Does the work have everything to do with my sore shoulders and my dry eyes? Does he mean to say that what remains in the body--in the nerves, the gut, and the muscles--is my masterpiece?

Kayfabe is a professional wrestling term, it is the philosophy that the very notion that what is presented is real. In other words, it is the contract you sign so that, when don't see a bruise on the face of the man whose head just got slammed into the pole, you do not wonder at it. In fact, you pen: this is true--the man's face just got slammed into a pole. I saw it presented. It must be true.

The grandmother who was married to the famous grandfather got to go back to school when she was in her forties, and she wrote an essay titled, "Continuing Education." In it, she wrote not just about the self she became through her work at Sarah Lawrence, but the selves her children became at home: "and there was the earnest play of Dress-UP, when each child changed identity and became Anyone, or Any Thing."

Earnest play. Earnest play. Earnest play. What is earnest about play?

When I was five, I could barely spell, and yet I knew something about how to perform the act of writing, how to put a pen to a blank page. I had a journal with a blue and yellow paisley design, and I only wrote on about five pages before giving up. On the second page, I drew a stick figure of myself, with straight lines for hair, and a huge circle for the belly. I also included my freckles, and drew them in a dramatic fashion: they nearly took up my entire face. I wrote: "I am fat. I wish I was skinny like Jesika." I wrote, "I hate my frekls." On the next page, I became a different person. I said I was happy. That I didn't care. "This is me!" I wrote. Flip the page. Back forward and back again. In a simple gesture that takes less than one second: there's a new me.

Even though I'm aware that there is something playful in those pages, I am always surprised that when I show them to people, they laugh. I understand how they could giggle at a young self so clearly playing dress up, but there are actual photographs pasted in the book, and in one, I am holding up a caught fish, beaming, as my belly protrudes over the elastic band of my shorts. I can't laugh when I see that child call herself "fat," even if I can humor it for a time. The next page displaying confidence devastates me a bit more, however, and perhaps in the witnessing of the shift I actually shatter. I'm forced to acknowledge the pain in the thin edge of the paper, and the incredibly narrow division between a five-year old who projected unworthiness and the five-year old who projected a worthiness she did not believe she possessed or deserved.

Oh, now we are getting somewhere--what is at stake in performing a kind of joy?

When I lied to my mother about finishing Little House on the Prairie, I did so enthusiastically. I ran downstairs and exclaimed: "I finished! I finished!" I did not realize that this was not necessarily the way people finished books. I didn't know that if I'd actually loved Little House on the Prairie, I would not be cheering about it, but instead mourning the end. It was unfortunate that I didn't have this knowledge because I lied about it for the purpose of joining the club of people who loved the book. I wanted to be able to talk to my sister and my mother about it; I wanted in on their conversations about Ma and Pa and Laura. I think my mother knew I was lying the instant I came down the stairs, and I think I knew she knew I was lying, but I could not admit that I did not like the book, and that I could never finish it. I hadn't liked it for the wrong reasons: I was too distracted to pay attention to the language; I was too focused on myself to let a book take me away.

Even though I knew enough to know that one could not act out this passion, I continued to try, and in my senior year of high school, I attempted to join the club of people who cried while reading Light in August, and were up all night writing about James Baldwin. There was a part of me that understood how language gripped them, but I could not entirely disassociate from the part of myself that became distracted at the sound of a crush's name or the temptation to smoke a cigarette with him in the north woods.

That same year, I was taking a nonfiction writing course, and we learned to write New Yorker style profiles and memoir, too. At the end of the year, the classes voted on one another's pieces and decided which essays should go in the nonfiction anthology. I knew my profile on Dunkin' Donuts was not good, even though I had been quietly proud of myself for getting to the Dunkin' Donuts headquarters in Quincy, where I stood awkwardly in the white room with the grey tables and the rolling chairs, learning about franchises. Instead of the profile, I submitted my personal essay for consideration, because I actually did think it was good, and I was sincerely proud of it. I wrote about my mother's father dying of Alzheimer's and my first crush, Jake. One of my favorite lines was about the sole of Jake's shoe colliding with mine because I liked the double meaning within the word "sole." Another was about my mother trying to explain that my grandfather was in the sky when the sun burst through the clouds seconds after his memorial service. I know now that these moments were cheesy and saccharine, but it was my first attempt at writing a more complex narrative. After my piece was read in the other class, a friend came to me and told me that they voted for it. When the anthology came out, however, my piece was missing. Either my friend was lying or the teachers voted to put another student's piece in my place. As I stared at the table of contents, I told myself I did not care, and I told myself that if I could lie to people about my "ACT" backpack, I could lie to people about the tears and the fact that I recognized my fourteen-year-old self and five-year-old self in the fingers that pulled at the carpet of my dorm room, telling myself it wasn't a big deal anyway, that writing was never really my thing after all.

What is it, exactly, that the narrator wants to say?

What people think of as the flower of the zinnia is really just a show. The outer petals are protecting the flowers themselves that sit in the middle, close to the pistil--they are tiny, they are perfect, they are like stars.

Sometimes our outer petals are inconsequential, or at least unnoticed, having no bigger consequence than those of a zinnia: so what if people don't know the real version of who we are when the one they get is beautiful? Other times, we are asked to look at the more devastating consequences of a costume. Aronosky zooms in and asks us to look, to stare, to consider Randy "The Ram's" chest as he flies from the ropes in the last scene of The Wrestler. The viewer knows he is healing from coronary artery bypass surgery, and so she has to recognize that the glory of the performance kills him. When the screen goes blank and the credits roll up, she is asked to consider it--the way it must have felt when he pounded his chest on the mat and the wound from his bypass ruptured, killing him on the spot.

Have we figured out which fear is your weapon?

In college, I took a class on Victorian Literature. We read Carlyle and Ruskin, and the professor taught us about what it meant to be a philistine. In his description of the word, I felt that he was talking directly to me: he was talking about people who dipped into various subjects, but understood nothing about them, about people that stayed on the surface of everything, those with an aversion to jumping in. My grandfather called himself a philistine in a lecture he gave on the uses of art. When I see him say it on the page, he seems to be claiming ownership. When he says it, I imagine an audience laughing dressed in black tie. When I say it, my shoulders collapse. When I say it, I think it's true. I am a fraud, and I have not yet learned out how to own it.

X is y.

I also signed up for Fiction 101. Darryl Pickney was my teacher, and he wanted us to read ten books along with our writing work. I read none. Or at least I think I read none, even if I tried to read Pasternak's Safe Conduct and have taken it with me to every house I've lived in. The bigger failure was that I couldn't write fiction. Anything I wrote was thinly veiled nonfiction, and I despised having to write it. I didn't like to make up voices and settings for people and places that I knew. But I kept trying, even when the class was over. I thought I was getting somewhere when I wrote a story about a girl who liked to meticulously peel her grapes before eating them, who pulled the fruit's skin strand by strand until every piece was gone; she was so unlike me, I thought, as I wrote about her slow, detailed uncovering.

Vito Acconci also wrote, on pieces of paper just below the photographs of him stepping up and down and up and down on the stool: "performance as a time travel-performance as re-preforming the past."

What is the past you can no longer preform?

Maybe I'll start with the pasts I know I can perform. Or maybe I'll simply time-travel, which to me doesn't always feel like a performance, but an actual experience of moving through time. By that I mean that I don't simply move my fingers across a keyboard, but that my chest actually clenches as I recall sitting on my babysitter's lap, weeping in her arms on her eighteenth birthday. That's strange, I know. Not just that I was crying on my babysitter's lap on her eighteenth birthday, but that this is the moment I am choosing to bring up right now, as I time-travel. It's just that, in the same way I wept when my friends graduated high school before I did, I understood that loss was the most authentic experience I'd ever known. I time-travel to know that I'm a person who feels actual shifts. I time-travel to know I don't always perform.

And yet, it's sometimes impossible to know the difference. When a friend told me that my investigation of the WWE made him uncomfortable, I tried to convince him that the interest was genuine. A part of me knew that what he was sensing--that I was interested in it as a novelty--was real, but I wanted to assure him that I was not judging, that I was only there to understand why had I felt something when I watched it so long ago and why, at the age of five, I felt ashamed that I could not turn it off. He was unimpressed with my argument. He saw that I was in it for the story, for the fact it was strange, for the purpose of the page.

When we went to a show together, I began to understand his unease. There is a language and ritual to the WWE, and there are rules and structures that I could not comprehend. Beyond that, there is a reason that people find solace in the fiction; there is a joy they find in the performance. He knew I would not be able to fully recognize it, and he was concerned with what happened between the experience and the page. Would I forget the way I jumped out of my seat to "boo" the heel, and instead focus on the neon shirts, and sweaty backs, leaving out the excitement I felt as I watched Fandango go down? Or, would I focus too much on the excitement, and leave out the fact that underneath that enthusiasm was an internal questioning, a wondering: what is this and what does it mean to me?

What neither of us could know was that what moved me most was the size of the ring. It was small. It was as if it took up no space, and that everything around it mattered more. There was the walkway, and the audience. The announcer's table, and the large sodas. The foam fingers, and the cheers. But the ring? Where the action happened, where the wrestlers threw their body on top of one another, and put themselves on the line? That was a mere sandbox. Hardly detectable, totally inconsequential, and ready to be torn down in a matter of minutes. That fact didn't necessarily make the performances matter any less, but it reminded me that they really didn't matter at all.
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Author:Gill, Laura Childs
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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