(This is an excerpt from Face, a Memoir, by Marcia Meier, just out from Saddle Road Press. Marcia was hit by a car at the age of 5 and dragged under the car for 200 feet. She lost her left cheek and eyelid and underwent 20 surgeries over the next 15 years. Face is the story of how she survived and came to terms with the complex trauma she experienced. Marcia will read from her memoir tonight, Jan. 21, with Chaucer’s Books of Santa Barbara, at 6 p.m. Pacific. Join her.)
April 6, 1962 – Surgeon’s notes: Composite graft from left eyebrow into the left upper eyelid, transplanting hair of the eyebrow as lashes of upper eyelid.
I awake. I am blind. My head is bandaged. I am anxious and afraid; no one is here. Then I am floating near the ceiling. I look down and see my body, head wrapped in gauze and tape, lying in the hospital bed. Intravenous tubing runs from a pole next to the bed into my arm. I watch the liquid drip into my veins. I hear the hiss of the oxygen tank next to the bed. I see the bed table nearby. I see the waist-high counter along the wall, with trays and medical instruments atop it. I float there for what seems a long time, watching, absorbing the scene, trying to comprehend how I can be in the bed and at the ceiling at the same time.
A nurse walks in and I am back in my body, lying on the bed, as she explains she has come to check the dressings on my face.
At midlife, I was struck by the realization that whenever I thought of myself, I did not see my face. There was only an essence, like that disembodied self floating at the ceiling, a bright being without shape or form. Body-less. As if, because I had to give over my body to nurses and doctors and hospitals as a child — a body that I believed, at my deepest level, was disfigured and useless— it was safer and more accurate to see myself as essence, just personality.
In time, I began to see my faces — separate and many. There is the young ravaged face that others saw; the unmolested five-year-old face that exists only in a black-and-white photo that hangs on my wall; the face people tell me today they see as beautiful, though I still don’t believe them. My long limbs became visible to me; my thin awkward frame with its patchwork of skin grafts on my stomach, chest, legs, transformed into a physical house I could inhabit. But still, the essence face is the only one that allows me to move through the world.
When I was young, people often asked about my face. Especially kids, who were often unkind or unthinking. As I grew older, I developed a standard response. Adults seem to know better than to ask, “What happened to your face?” And in fact, over time I rarely thought of my face and how I looked to others. I can’t remember a friend or even a new acquaintance in recent years who has asked about my face. Eventually, somehow the question comes up and I explain. And usually the friend will say, “I don’t even notice it.”
But when I was in my late thirties, I was invited to read to a class of second-graders at an elementary school in Santa Barbara. I was about halfway through the picture book when a kid sitting in the front raised his hand.
“Yes?” I said.
“You look like a witch!” he said.
My stomach clenched.
“Your eye, it looks like a witch.”
The other kids laughed. In a flash I was at St. Joe’s again. I felt like crawling under the chair. But instead I smiled and explained what had happened to me, adding a lesson about always looking both ways before crossing a street. I read the rest of the book and escaped as fast as I could. I hadn’t felt that stab of pain and shame in a long time.
A week later, I got a packet in the mail. It contained letters of apology from the whole class, including a note from the teacher saying how embarrassed and sorry she was for the rudeness of the boy. I threw them all in the trash.
I asked earlier, how is the self created? Certainly the physical is a major part of how we become who we are. Our sense of self is closely tied to the image we see, or imagine we see, in a mirror. The face is the first thing people look at. How people respond to our faces is internalized from our earliest childhood.
Since my face had been rejected by almost everyone I encountered from the time I was five, I believed my face—and my scarred body—were worthless. I began to live in my head, without consciousness of my body. I slouched; I hid behind oversized clothing. In high school I let my long hair fall to hide my face. I moved into that essence person whom my family loved, if no one else seemed to. I did not have a single friend until fourth grade, when a little girl named Debbie Deyman moved to Muskegon from Tennessee and started school at St. Joe’s. Debbie was new, and I was scarred. We became fast friends. I loved her mom, who had a lilting Tennessee accent, and throughout that year and next we often slept over at each other’s houses, and clung to each other during school. My scars didn’t seem to matter to Debbie, and she gave me the hope that maybe I could have other friends. Gradually over the years I made my way out of my shell.
Away from St. Joe’s, I found acceptance among new friends in junior high and high school, and college gave me the opportunity to be the person I desperately wanted to be. It was safe, finally, to reveal myself to others, to explore new interests and forge a path toward a career in journalism, where, ironically, I found safety in interviewing and writing about others, turning attention away from myself, even while getting the immense satisfaction of seeing my name in small type at the top of a news story.
Even with this newfound confidence, it wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I began to learn to drop out of my head into my body. To re-embody myself, to feel comfortable in my physical being. My default even today is to stay in my head, to intellectualize everything, and to keep emotional feelings and physical sensations at bay. I paid a terrible price for those years of rejecting my physical self, and it has been a long journey to be able to feel physical pleasure from touch, mine or someone else’s, and to be sensual in all senses of the word.
“I think my marriage is falling apart.”
It’s January 2006, and I am sitting on Michael’s white couch for the first time.
“What makes you believe that?” he asks.
Where to begin?
My husband and I were good friends. But I hadn’t felt an emotional or physical connection with him for a long time. I knew there were reasons that had to do with his own upbringing and family dysfunction. And I would come to understand that my own emotional deficiencies contributed to this. But I never imagined our relationship would wither to a shell of sadness, anger and recrimination.
I’m not fond of the phrase “mid-life crisis.” It might rather be described as a mid-life reckoning, an assessment of days lived; for me, it was a growing sense that I was not doing what I was on the planet to do. I was shocked to feel that my life was half over and I had accomplished little – that, even more, I had ignored my purpose for being.
Jung theorized that this questioning at midlife is actually a key to individuation, or the process of integrating all the various aspects of personality into a cohesive whole. This is sometimes called self-actualization or self-awareness. For me, it hit with a suddenness and intensity for which I was unprepared. And it started with my fiftieth birthday.
Christmas Eve is a terrible time to have a birthday. You share with half the world a day that is supposed to celebrate you. And more often than not, people forget.
But as my fiftieth drew near, I couldn’t help dreaming of all kinds of wonderful things my husband might do to show he cared. I had thrown a huge surprise party for his fiftieth. Surely he would want to express love for me?
I tried to be realistic, since usually I got a card and whatever I carefully wrote on a wish list. But still, I kept thinking, fifty is a big birthday. And our daughter by then was thirteen, old enough to offer some guidance to her dad.
On that morning, I woke to birthday wishes from the whole family, and Kendall urged me to open her gifts: a piece of flagstone hand-painted in a Southwestern design – she knew that New Mexico is one of my favorite places – and a beaded bracelet. They were perfect.
Then I opened John’s gifts: a set of four nondescript coasters to protect furniture from drink marks. And a mini-tool set.
I didn’t know what to say. I thought, We’ve been married twenty-four years and this is all you could think of? I would have been happier with a gift card from Borders Books. At least that would have shown he knew I liked books. Did he know me at all? Did he care enough to know me?
I got through the day, but later that evening I went into my bedroom and sat on my bed and cried. I thought, My marriage is over. When Kendall knocked gently on the door and came in and sat beside me, she didn’t ask why I was crying. She knew. “I’m sorry you’re so disappointed, Mom,” she said.
A couple of days later I asked John to go for a walk. We took our two Australian shepherds and went out to Ellwood, a long beautiful stretch of parkland and bluffs that runs for several miles along the ocean north of Santa Barbara. We strolled in silence for a long time as the dogs romped ahead of us. I knew he would never open a conversation about our relationship, so eventually I did.
“John, I don’t know what’s happened to us over these past few years, but I want more than this.”
He was silent. We kept walking.
“I need emotional engagement. I need intimacy.”
I asked him about the birthday presents. Didn’t he know of anything I would like to have? Something that was personal? Something that reflected my likes and interests?
He was silent.
And then I said something I had never said to him, even when things were really bad between us.
“If you can’t give me what I need, I’ll leave you.”
It may have sounded like a threat, but it wasn’t. At that point, I was simply stating a fact.
Robert Grudin, in his lovely book, Time and the Art of Living, writes: “We lose what is valuable in [relationships] – love, joy, communality – less through conflict and tragedy than through long series of shadowy and often unconscious refusals. Withdrawing, forgetting, falling out of touch, ignoring or avoiding or withholding the unpretentious but essential details of friendship, destroy more relationships than death or anger and tend to isolate their perpetrators quite early in the solitary confinement of old age. To the Latin adage Qui tacet consentit (‘He who is silent consents’), we might add another, Qui non agit negat (‘He who does not act, denies’).”
We were both complicit in the former and the latter.
As I look back at that time, I realize my sense of abandonment reverberated through all my relationships, not just with my husband. Certainly with my mother, who had been distant most of my life. I was close to my sister Cherie, but she had moved to Oregon with her husband in 1996. I knew she didn’t intentionally leave me; they were making a choice as a couple to start a new life somewhere that would be better for them. Still, it had felt like abandonment.
My dad had died four years before – the one person I always knew would take care of my heart, would be there whenever I needed him. And while I knew intellectually, of course, that he, too, didn’t “leave” me, his death compounded my sense of abandonment by those I loved. It may in fact have been the triggering event.
I suppose I could also say that, in a way, I felt abandoned by Dr. Kislov. We had moved to California when I was eighteen, and I never saw him again. Just as I stuffed all my feelings about my childhood and my surgeries down to a deep place, I buried Dr. Kislov. I didn’t understand the relationship I had with him, nor had I ever considered how I felt about the person in my childhood who – perhaps more than any other – had held the power to determine the shape and direction of my life.
(Face, A Memoir is available from major booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop, and can be ordered from any bookstore. Please consider supporting your local independent. Marcia can be found at marciameier.com; follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.)