“The Resident”, the seventh story in “Her Body And Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado.
It is a powerful description of what it means to live inside your own head, aware that others see you as odd, aware that you are odd, knowing that a past you don’t normally allow yourself to remember has damaged you, that you are tethered to the world everyone else lives in only by the love of the wife you’ve chosen to leave behind so you can live in your own thoughts long enough to write your novel and then discovering how difficult your thoughts are to live with.
It is a story about identity: how finding it requires you to acknowledge your past as well as live in the present; how it needs to be defended against the pressure to be normal and what it means truly to meet yourself.
The story has two threads through which our main character confronts her identity. The first is that our main character has been accepted as a Resident at an artists’ colony in the woods, where she can write her novel and live among other artists. The second is that the colony is on the same lake where the main character suffered trauma while camping with as part of Brownie troop. I won’t share the Brownie troop incident here because it would spoil the reveal in the story but it links past and present in a process of discovering your identity and the pressure other people’s reactions to your identity.
From the start of the story, it’s clear that our main character perceives the world differently from the people around her. This is her reaction when she sees the main building of the Colony for the first time:
I hesitated before the opulent entrance, disliking how the wood curled in organic tendrils from where the doors met, like an octopus emerging arm-and-suckers-first from a hiding place. My wife had always teased me for my feelings and sensations, the things that I immediately loved or hated for reasons that took months of thought to articulate.
She interacts with the world with all her senses, unfiltered by reason, reaching conclusions that don’t change but which she can only later rationalise.
That her wife teases her shows an indulgence but perhaps not an acceptance of this way of experiencing the world. Later, she says of her wife:
I believed that my wife loved me as I was, but I had also become certain that she’d love a more relaxed version of me even better.
Using “believed” rather than “knew” here shows how tentative and provisional the main character’s attachment to the world is. The wife’s wish for “a more relaxed version” shows the pressure the main character is under to become someone different, even from the person she’s closest to.
One of the things that I liked about the story was the way in which the main character was as sensitive to words as she was to the direct sensual stimuli. Here’s what she says when the word “resident” snags her attention.
A curious term, resident. It seemed at first glance incidental, like a stone, but then if you turned it over, it teemed with life. A resident lived somewhere. You were a resident of a town or a house. Here, you were a resident of this space, yes—not really, of course; you were a visitor, but whereas visitor suggests leaving at the end of the night and driving out in the darkness, resident means that you set up your electric kettle, and will be staying for a while—but also that you are a resident of your own thoughts. You had to find them, be aware of them, but once you located your thoughts you never had to drive away.
Being “a resident of your own thoughts” is a central theme to the story. Taking up residence is what allows our main character finally to confront her past and understand what it means for who she now is.
While at the colony, the main character falls sick. It’s not clear if this sickness is truly physical. It seems to be a rebellion against her environment and a resistance to the stress of being a resident in her own thoughts.
As she recovers from her illness, there is a nice piece of prose showing how those of us who live in our heads sometimes struggle with the day to day mechanics of life:
I reached out, instinctively, for my wife, and met only high-thread-count sheets and a perfectly fluffed pillow. I sat up. The wallpaper was dark, and dappled with hydrangeas. I could hear sounds coming from the first floor—murmuring chatter, the kiss of silverware and porcelain. My mouth tasted terrible, and my bladder was full. If I could sit up, I could use the toilet. If I used the toilet, I could then turn on the light. If I turned on the light, I could locate the mouthwash in my suitcase and get rid of this musty feel. If I could get rid of the musty feel, I could go downstairs and have supper with the others.
One part of the story made me want to cheer on behalf of everyone who is pressured to behave against their nature so as to make the “normal” people around them more comfortable. Here’s how the main character responds to one of the artists calling her crazy and demanding that she be more considerate of others:
“It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right,” I said. “It is my right to be unsociable and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around. Do you ever listen to yourself? This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.” The volume of my voice caused me to stand on my tiptoes. I could not remember yelling like this, ever. “You may think that I have an obligation to you but I assure you that us being thrown together in this arbitrary arrangement does not cohesion make. I have never had less of an obligation to anyone in my life, you aggressively ordinary woman,”
“…you aggressively ordinary woman”, that’s a phrase to savour.
At the close, this story becomes a direct address to the reader, who is seen as sitting in judgement not just on the story but on the writer. It seems to me that what’s being referred to here is the process of mining their own experience that all writers who want to dig deep into identity are bound to do to a greater or lesser extent and so are being judged by the reader.
Our main character first poses some questions:
What is worse: being locked outside of your own mind or being locked inside of it?
What is worse: writing a trope or being one? What about being more than one?
The first question seems to refer to the challenges in confronting your identity. The first being the refusal to look honestly at who you are. The second being to avoid becoming so self-referential that you can’t connect to or communicate with the wider world.
The second question seems to refer to the concepts we use for dicsovering, assessing and sharing our identity. We are now a society that is well educated in tropes. They provide a library of forma for describing people. Because they are forma, we distrust and disdain them, yet, without that library, how do we communicate what we mean?
The story closes with a question to the readers that I think might refer to Carmen Maria Machado’s experience of writing this intense colection of stories:
But I ask you, readers: Thus far in your jury deliberations have you encountred and others who have truly met themselves? Some, I’m sure but not many. I have known many people in my lifetime and rarely do I find any who have been taken down to the quick, pruned so that their branches might grow back healthier than before.
This framing of confronting your own identity as a form of rehab is challenging. I think it speaks to the passionate honesty that underlies all of the stories in this collection.