Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book #35: Looking for Madame Sosostris

"For years she had drifted into fantasy as she lay in bed at night or sat quietly looking at a book without reading it.  Now her fantasies began to serve a more urgent purpose.  It was much more bearable to be a princess getting tortured in a dungeon than a crooked little girl being tortured by doctors."  -Judith Rossner, Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Last week, my boyfriend took me to his office Christmas party, where I had my fortune told.  While mingling over glasses of bubbly, you had the option of slipping off to a table in the corner where an old woman with battle-marked skin and dangly earrings shuffled a pack of Tarot cards.  At first, I was skeptical about going up - I've never considered myself the new agey, occultist type, not since junior high at least - but one of the other guests told me that this woman had discerned all kinds of intimate details about her life and yielded scads of insight.  Curiosity got the better of me.

Whether working from intuition or mystical powers, the fortune teller did draw out a good deal about my life.  She knew (guessed?) that I am a writer and that I'm prone to stress and neck pain (maybe she could tell this just by looking at my posture).  But in any case, some cred had been established in my mind.  So when she said that something - some key ingredient - is missing from my current project, I sat up straight indeed.

Although she couldn't say what exactly it was, I knew what she was getting at.  It's something that has been lurking at the back of my mind, a shadowy territory I've been reluctant to explore in my memoir.

When I was eleven, I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis, a curvature of the spine of unknown cause.  For two years, I had to wear a fibreglass back brace, and after that treatment failed to do much of anything, aside from giving me breathing problems, surgery was the only option.  Several vertebrae had to be fused and a metal rod was stapled to my spine and I was left with a bright red seam that both tormented and intrigued me for years to come.  (It's like the scar's a zipper into me... a reminder of my ability to become undone).

Since this event was so formative to my identity (my sexuality, my relationship to my body, my "escape" into reading and the life of the mind), it might seem obvious that I should include it in my memoir.  But I haven't, until now.  I haven't wanted to open that closet.  I've said to myself that it isn't important or relevant, but now I sense that just the opposite is true.

Thank you, Madame Sosostris.

So over the past few days, in between eating turkey at Christmas parties, I've been reading for inspiration Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner's 1970s bestseller.  Based on a true story, the novel tells a dark tale about a Catholic school teacher, who suffered from scoliosis as a child, leaving her with a sense of disfigurement that plays out in her games of seduction on the New York bar scene.  While her experience is no doubt different from my own (thank God!  I didn't end up being killed by a psychopath), I have to say that there are certain scenes dealing with memory repression, depression and fantasy that resonate with me all too well.  Now I have to curl up with my notebook and delve into that morass of my own memories.  A little light Christmas reading.

Photo from: here   


Mimi said...

Mme Sosostris sounds great! One of my friends had scoliosis and often talks about the surgery being like witchcraft. Every surgeon had his own favourite approach. I hope your back doesn't bother you too much now. Happy New Year wishes!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Yes, I agree with your friend! All of the treatments I received were out of the Middle Ages - even though my surgeon acted like god's gift to science. The only good thing was that I had fun writing a slew of letters of complaint against him (and come to think of it, that was how I got my start writing....) Happy New Year to you, too!


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.