getting naked

August 23, 2013
By

By Isabel Liu

feminist reading of-getting_naked-emily_gowen

By Emily Gowen

He asks if he can draw me.

It’s a mid-April evening, finally warm enough for me to open the windows at night. We’re sitting up in my bed, trawling through a Google image search of magical realist paintings. My favorite is one where brilliant, Turkish-looking mosques are sailing away like hot air balloons, the thick coils that had grounded it to earth winding like the tentacles of a jellyfish, gripped by little people sprawled nakedly on the reluctant earth. His hand has slipped underneath the cinch of my sweatpants and is playing around the curve of my hip.

It’s an easy question.

“Yes.”

There is a poem called “Persimmons” by Lee Young-Li, where the speaker tells of undressing his lover in a moonlight yard where the grass is hung with dew. He teaches her Chinese – crickets, chiu chiu, but the word for “dew” he has forgotten; the word for “naked” he has forgotten. There is something a bit like regression in that act; in reciting the names of the things that one first learns when one is a child. There is also something to do with caressing the things that one knows in a new tongue, with a new tongue. The body of a new lover is at once unknown and known; there is a way in which every first encounter is unscripted and a way in which it reenacts the gestures and the gazes blocked out with other actors in previous bedrooms. I told him that I needed to forget the person who had last loved me, but in loving him with my body we resurrected the ghosts of all the lovers who had come before, who had taught us how to graze and nibble and swallow, who now crammed into the tininess of my dorm room and gazed hungrily at we who hungrily tried to absorb each other, envious for the lives we once shared.

The poem is also absorbed in the fantasy of silence that accompanies the sight of an uncovered body, of forgetting the names of the things one sees when astonished by the purity of what one sees, of words falling to muteness and the choate becoming inchoate, of flesh melding into flesh, of the boundaries of the self eliding, of everything dissolving. The first time I took a lover, I wept because I remembered the first time that I had been taken, before I learned to say yes. Later I wept again because I realized that I had been riding him the way that I had been ridden. It was like you couldn’t stop, he’d said, beneath the streetlight where we stopped and I hid my face in his neck. We didn’t feel connected. 

Later, as we lie curled into each other in the dark of that mid-April evening, the laptop that had held the images of the Turkish mosques slumbering somewhere near our feet, I think of rain falling on an earth that had been crying for it.

My first foray into the realm of the bedroom was traumatic more than it was romantic. I came from a highly conservative evangelical Christian background, had a faith so limpid and rigid it was bound to break. He was a too-skinny hollow-eyed cage of battered emotions that to anyone else would’ve read “shit, deep shit” but to me, careening on the end of adolescence and still drunk on Jesus, he was my charge, my mission. My first love. I would save him from the insomnia, from the inability to eat, from the memories of a girl who had shipwrecked him into depression. I can’t hear Birdy’s cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” – the way that she throws out her voice and bays for her lover to c’mon, just last the year – without thinking of him. One night when we were cuddling after a movie he got on top of me without any preamble and started thrusting his hips into mine. I lay there like a blow-up doll, inert and speechless. After he was done, as a means of making it up to me, he asked me if he could kiss me. And I said yes, because I still loved him at that point. He kissed me once and said, “So now you know what it feels like.”

And that is the story behind my first kiss.

We somehow manage to hook up again after that. Suffice it to say that we were both pretty messed up and that I cried a lot. Like in some evangelical horror story, I lost my faith and my sexual purity in one blow. The apple was plucked and paradise was lost and I fell into bed again, too quickly, with someone who listened and held me when I wept. The moonlight coming through my bedroom window reminded me of bad things. Everything was a trigger. “So much memory,” I whispered. “I’m here,” he whispered back. He brushed his lips so lightly against mine that I hardly registered that he’d kissed me until it was over. I kissed him back and it was amazing to feel him kissing me back. And I didn’t cry. I laughed. I quoted Milan Kundera and he made fun of how nerdy I was, and when I drew breath again to blab about Andrew Marvell (“had we but world enough and time”) or Tom Stoppard channeling Oscar Wilde (“from his red rose-leaf lips comes music that fills me with joy”) or whoever the hell was tramping through my sex-drunk mind, high on kisses, he kissed me until I was breathless and broke away only to ask, mock-seriously, “So what is it you were telling me about Chaim Potok?”

I fell in love again. We spent six weeks at the beginning of summer together. I was still in love with him when he called me eight months later on my twenty-first birthday, which was also the one-year anniversary of my sexual assault, to say that he had started dating someone else and that by the way, she has the same birthday as you.

I am having lunch with a former professor a few months afterwards. I mention that I’m on a tight schedule, I have to be at the art building by one, because I’m going to be nude modeling. He asks me why.

I spin him some academic waffle about aesthetic nudity and about being a sitter who wants to find a way to gaze back as much as she is gazed at. My professor doesn’t look entirely convinced. I contemplate letting my story hemorrhage out of me, in brutal, caricature strokes – the assault, the trauma, the rebound, The Trauma 2.0.

But a year later I’m better at keeping my mouth shut. I don’t tell him that the guy who had called me not too long ago was the only person besides my mother who had ever seen me fully naked. Not even my assaulter had had that. My skin carried an imprint of every touch and every gaze. I wanted to break the distinction until it could no longer break me, until I could face all the memories that swarmed over me like flies at night, banish them in a single wave, enough.

“Do you draw every girl who comes in here?” I ask. I’m standing in the artist’s bedroom.

(Disclaimer: “The artist” is hardly an adequate epithet for him, but it’s the best and quickest way of preserving anonymity and insuring readability, always a concern among millennials who are narcissistic enough to think that other people give a fuck about who they fuck).

I’m naked – sorry, nude – and he’s shirtless. I’d stripped him of it in a mock attempt to make us more “equal.”

He chuckles. “Nah, I wish I had that kind of cred.”

When I tell my friends the story almost all of them respond by saying, “Oh my god, it’s like Titanic. You’re dating – oh right, you’re not dating – you’re fucking Leonardo DiCaprio.” No, darlings, it ain’t the Titanic. The Titanic was Kate Winslet draped seductively all over this divan, giving her best Mona Lisa smirk while a young DiCaprio fumbles with his charcoal and blushes when he starts shading in her breasts.

Instead, when posing for him I smile archly for around two minutes before I get bored and start yammering about, of all things, Sino-Japanese relations and about this writer who wrote a whole book about the Rape of Nanking and started researching for this other book in Southeast Asia with similarly traumatic subject matter and she eventually got so depressed that she put a bullet through her head.

“That’s terrible,” he says, absorbed in sketching my chin.

“Yeah,” I agree, feeling a bit terrible that part of Iris Chang’s legacy involves being bandied about in an overly cerebral round of verbal foreplay. I’ll show you my pain if you show me yours. How does anyone even begin to talk about stuff like that anyways? I told a friend over Facebook chat that I’d been assaulted and his response had been an emoticon. ( 0.0 )

“Can you stop talking for a bit? I’m drawing your mouth,” he says, and I shut up.

After maybe forty minutes of posing I get a cramp in my left leg and I wander over to him. “Don’t look,” he says, “I’m not done, it doesn’t look like you.” I look at myself, carefully etched in heavy paper. He’s only sketched the details of my face. The rest of my body is gestured at in a few descriptive lines. I am a bit surprised. I hadn’t realized I’d looked so sad.

I tell him about how I like it when people draw me and make me into their own thing. I bastardize Barthes and reference some line where he talks about the refuge of being an object. He snorts. This isn’t the first time I’m quoting Barthes. He slips the sketch of me where I am a disembodied head beneath his bed. I wonder how many naked girls are lying there, in his Bluebeard’s chamber of a crawl space. This one’s a lady killer and boy, does he know it. “I’ll write about you and you’ll draw me,” I say. “It’s a good deal.”

“It’s a great deal. You can objectify me,” he says, drawing me to his bed, “you can make me your thing,” and we do.

I don’t spend the night. I kiss his cheek before I go. “Thank you for sharing your body with me,” he says, very sweetly. I’d said the same thing to him earlier in the evening and he’d taken a shine to the line. It hurts a bit when I walk but otherwise I feel great. I feel strong. I feel like I can do this thing, or play this game, or whatever unsexy euphemism we’ve come up with to describe this naked grapple before we turn out to wake up in other beds, and not get hurt. For one of the first times since I received that phone call on my birthday, I don’t feel like somewhere inside of me there is a place that keeps howling.

I model for an introductory painting class at my college. In the studio, surrounded by grimy, tall-legged stools and jars of clouded water where paints find their murky deaths, where the dust of the cement floor marries my bare feet, I listen to myself discussed in the third person, in terms of my body. The professor is quizzing the class on my physical distinctions. It’s unnerving and wonderful to hear my body, which I have dragged through a decade-long ordeal of obliviousness, guilt, anxiety and ruthless diets, discussed with such objective remove. One girl offers that my shoulders are wider than my hips, something that I have never noticed. The professor agrees. I remember a short story I’d read where the girl only discovers her body in the moment that it is being discovered by someone else.

They take me and they make me their thing – anything they want, and I am theirs. There is a girl who makes everyone she paints look like an impressive alien version of themselves – elongated limbs with firm musculature, latticed with boldly colored stripes, posed against lurid backgrounds – she makes me blue, she makes me Avatar, she makes me look like emerald glass poured into the shape of a woman, triumphantly naked in an ochre sky, and I love her for it. There is another girl who really can’t paint that well, and I watched her struggle with her canvas. I watch her dab on a nipple, hesitate, and erase it. It elates me. I love the folding and unfolding of my body, that I had thought so pitiful, so meager in its range of contortions, so impoverished in the pleasure it proffered, blossom instead like a strange and newly discovered flower on thirteen canvases circled around me. For the first time I witness my body without any allusion to its history. It has no mother and no lovers. I feel like the center of an uncertain universe, orbited by floating refractions of my body, finally anonymous, finally free.

Later that night I slip back into the studio and take pictures of all the portraits that had been made of me. As I creep gingerly around the studio, marveling at the traces of me that winked back from every corner and every wall – the angle of my hip here, the scornful-looking sweep of my eyelids there, and ugh, I look like a monkey here – I think that this must be one of the most narcissistic things that I have ever done, although somehow, it is simultaneously one of the most self-celebratory things I have ever done.

But things don’t wind up well with the artist. I violate the number one dictate of hookup culture, which is I get attached. We’d talked about this before, the first time we hooked up. Emotions and sex don’t go together. (“How do you do it?” I’d asked. “I don’t know, how do you do it?” “I don’t. I’m terrible at it.”) I can’t make them not go together, when what’s driving me isn’t so much horniness (well, there’s that too) as some unspeakable need for absolution, something so good to come along that it will redeem everything I’ve been through. Tell me why rape happens. Tell me why the people you love turn on you. Tell me when all the pain ends. Tell me you can make it end.

I relive all those nights, fumbling over a rosary of regret.

I don’t know how to ask for what I want. I hide in words, one of the few places that I feel safe, invoking and inverting emotion and meaning as it suits me, spinning out an impossible game where I, like the people I sleep with, can never be pinned down. Can never be exposed, can never be vulnerable. Can never get naked. One of the last texts that he sends tells me to say it plain and to stop using code. I can’t play by these rules. We quit.

What gripped me about those Turkish mosques was the way that they floated, huge and beautiful and imperious, away, away, over seas studded with strange creatures and cities calcified in improbable architecture, while the naked people on the earth held out their arms, calling for them to stay, stay.

The girl in the portrait is standing, looking over her right shoulder at the viewer. Her gaze is soft; her mouth a dash of pink that blurs at the edges. Of all the portraits of me that were made by the class, this one is my favorite. She looks as though she’s turning from a window, but back to what, I’m not quite sure. A lover? An empty room? I can’t decide whether or not her eyes say regret. There is something about her that reminds me of paintings by American realist Edward Hopper, who painted several of women who are either standing or sitting naked, all of them staring out at wide windows. There she is on the edge of the bed, her lover naked and prone behind her, the storms gathering in the shadows. Post coitum omne animal triste est. Take a look at any Hopper and you’ll see that even more so than he was talented at rendering people, he was talented at rendering the spaces that yawn open between people, the inviolable chasms that surround each of them, swallowing every gaze and every caress, every word whispered in the dark that the dark will reclaim.

So much memory.

The first time after I slept with someone again after the assault, I stood half-dressed and gazed into the growing light of that spring morning where we had kissed and said see you later, and wrote him to say, “I feel like a Hopper, but without the loneliness and the desolation, which is to say: rather beautiful.” But what is a Hopper without the loneliness and desolation? The people in his portraits have wandered into their places from the streets, from the living room after dinner, from lovemaking. One often judges the merit of a painting from how pliable the figures are, how liquid their eyes, how ready they seem to spring to life. But there’s no urge to see or imagine the figures in Hopper’s paintings unfreezing themselves and continuing to tell their story. An icy dread sheathes each of his figures, foreclosing any premise of union. Even if he lifts his head from the pillow, if she uncrosses her arms, if he wraps his arm around her waist and pulls her back to him, what happens next is still inevitable.

They will mistake, they will misbelieve, and they will miss each other.

_____________________________________________

IsabelLiu-getting_naked-aIsabel Liu is the pen name of an English major at Williams College. She is a staff writer for the Williams Record, a senior editor for the Williams Telos, and a member of the college’s rape and sexual assault hotline. She became interested in issues surrounding female migration after a travel research fellowship on migrant brides in Southeast Asia and will be exploring the construction of sex trafficking narratives in her senior thesis.

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12 Responses to getting naked

  1. B on August 23, 2013 at 11:30 am

    This is incredible.

  2. Chris on August 23, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    A stunning, humbling piece of writing that I will come back to again.

  3. Sharon L. on August 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    This is really beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

  4. CG on August 27, 2013 at 2:19 am

    Stunning! I just keep re-reading this and getting lost in the complexity and power of your language. And it’s so brave that I know so many people who are going to benefit from reading it. Please write more!

  5. Augustine on August 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    I normally don’t respond to anything online, but felt compelled to respond to this piece. This is obviously written by someone who understands the many uses of language, and its technical praises are well deserved in this regard. But, as language theorists know well, language is useful both to “get naked” and to veil. And I wonder which use this tends towards.

    Those who praise this as brave are right in one regard and wrong in another. To the extent that this post represents the attempt to wrestle with the experiences of sexual assault, it is an act of bravery in the face of pain. Many others prefer to run and hide. To craft something like this takes skill, time and attention, and when the subject is of great personal pain, the act can indeed be commended.

    But what troubles me is the outcome, the conclusion of the labor. The final lines, “Even if he lifts his head from the pillow, if she uncrosses her arms, if he wraps his arm around her waist and pulls her back to him, what happens next is still inevitable. They will mistake, they will misbelieve, and they will miss each other” are not the clarion call of the brave, but seem to signal of an infinite surrender to the inevitability of the cycle of atomization and loneliness inaugurated by the assault.

    The implicit logic of the piece seems be: “I was treated like an object (in the assault). I have begun a cycle of objectifying myself (posing nude, and later revisiting the ‘scene’ to experience myself as object), trying to fuck myself into subjectivity – only to realize that this is impossible, because to fuck is to render objective, so I conclude that we are all just objects, atoms careening off each other into an ever-expanding, ever alienated and alienating universe.”

    If the author believes this to be the sum total of existence -an objective ontology- then perhaps she has “gotten naked” for us. But I doubt this to be the case, and this for several reasons. First, she seems aware, in her dissimulations to her professor about why she is posing, that these are sophisticated excuses to veil what might be really going on. Second, in her inability to have sex without emotion, she begins to understand the impossibility of the completely objective; she still feels – even when treating herself as object. Though she discovers this fact, she seems to hide it from herself in her conclusion. But more importantly, she continues to hide her identity behind a pseudonym, a rather obvious veiling.

    In other words, I wonder whether this post is really “getting naked” or whether it is just a sophisticated attempt by a stripped soul trying its best to continue hiding. To this extent, I don’t think the proper response to this piece is plaudits for bravery, but prayer for healing, for ending the cycle of objectification, and the postmodern-nihilistic logic it perpetuates, however well dressed.

    • isabel on September 14, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      I commend you for a highly sophisticated reading of my essay. There are several comments I would like to make:

      My life isn’t an essay. When I make the final edit and dot the last period, it isn’t over. This essay was an attempt at charting an emotional landscape, one that I unfortunately, often revisit, but do not inhabit. I don’t wish to interpolate everyone into my claim, but many, many people think nihilistic thoughts from time to time, and this does not that they have surrendered themselves to the inevitability of loneliness and perpetual remorse. I tend to think of myself as a composite of many varying moods and motives, of which this essay only reflects one. I hoped, while writing this piece, that other survivors might be able to find themselves partially mirrored in it. I have always had a distaste for the homogenization of trauma narratives, of imposing an easy sort of testimonial arch to them – I once was lost, but now am found. What of all the confusion, the hurt, the unresolved tension in between those two poles? In my own experience with working with survivors, I’ve come to think that sometimes we try to get people to heal too quickly, before they’ve come to understand more fully the depth of what has happened to them and before they’re emotionally ready. I think that that impartial understanding of self and of the trauma that has been inflicted often leads to impartial healing, and continual revisitation of the memory of the original trauma due to insufficient closure. This essay was an attempt to linger and to examine pain. I didn’t want to impose a “happy ending” on it. But neither do I particularly tend to think of myself and my sexual experiences in the sort of existential framework that your Augustinian-infused teleology boxes me into. I make no claims at all as to whether the universe is ever-expanding and I highly doubt that it is ever alienating.

      Which is not to say that I haven’t told this particular story in ways that are hopeful, and hopefully more inspiring. I’ve shared what you might think are more “courageous” renderings of the story at other mass venues, and with other survivors. I don’t believe in a single narrative. I believe that the same story can be retold in a multitude of ways, and I happened to want to tell this particular rendition of it in this particular way at this particular time. Especially in an essay that concerns sexual assault, this piece, more than it is about denial or “hiding,” is about control. I make the decision about every word on this page. And it is incredibly liberating. What I don’t have control over is how my readers will respond – but that is a form of freedom for them too, one that I am privileged to be a part of.

      As to whether it is cowardly of me to hide behind a pseudonym – until we live in a kinder world, or at least in one that is less dogged by the permanency of everything we post on the internet, I won’t necessarily choose to reveal my identity when writing about such intensely personal things. I rather hate to imagine what it might look like to a potential employer who googles me and discovers that the first result is an essay called “getting naked.”

      As to the actual pen name itself, I took my mother’s maiden and the name that she would have given me had my father been able to pronounce it. The essay is an homage to her, though she may never actually read it. And the fact that I chose that pen name is to me more intimate and revealing than my actual given name.

      • Augustine on September 16, 2013 at 5:00 pm

        “Isabel” -

        Thank you for your well-considered response.

        First, let me express how much sympathy I have with many or most of your points. I agree that we are very much ‘in media res’, beings-in-between. I do not expect every work of art, or every human life, to manifest completeness, or even coherence. I know my own often lacks it. And I too believe in the value of telling and retelling stories from a variety of perspectives, because it is only through such a practice that the simple complexity of the truth can come to light. In short, I am not a hermeneutical simpleton (not that you have directly accused me of being such) and I understand that dialogue is the medium through which this truth-greater-than-self is manifest, which is why I am grateful to share a conversation with you on such a personal and delicate topic.

        As far as I can tell, you list two separate but interrelated teloi for your piece in this response: 1) you have said the purpose of your piece was to give voice to and revisit the pain and tension of sexual violence and its effects in your own life; and 2) this telling was an act of gaining “control”.

        I see both of these desires clearly in what you have written. I want to respond by questioning whether you might not also be doing something more. I am wondering whether, in the final analysis, your piece isn’t also a tacit call for a tragic (forgive the jejune commonplace) YOLO ethos, which itself is but one manifestation of the post-modern zeitgeist: the ephemerality of the real, the relativization of the ethical, the deconstruction of ultimate meaningfulness, the permanence of the tragic.

        As regards (1), you clearly revisit the pain and its consequences. My initial response would be: to what end? No sane person wants to dwell on/in pain as an end in itself, so what is the purpose of this exercise? Here your suggestion is instructive: this was really about (2) control. You seem to want to wrestle control away from your attacker(s), to regain the bodily control stripped from you in the attack. Writing about your feelings gives you a sense of control, the ability to – as you say – “spin” things as you want them. Getting naked for others in controlled environments seems to offer you something of the same. If you will permit the observation, this corresponds well with your sexual history, as it seems like “control” was what you were after in the experiences you narrated: the controlling “yes” you had to learn to say. In fact, I think it no small coincidence how you worded this section: you had been “taken” in the assault, and now you were “taking” lovers, “riding them as you had been ridden”. This makes the “yes” you were learning thoroughly ambiguous. The Yes of consent? or, as I worry, Yes to the ultimate meaninglessness of sex? perhaps, both?

        Let me humanize myself (as academic criticisms, such as I am launching, often lack the requisite humanity for building meaningful understanding) by sharing some of my own experience with the effects of sexual assault. My wife was sexually assaulted twice as she came into adulthood, and we have had to deal with the consequences of that tragedy in our relationship. My wife is an amazing woman, in no small part because she had to overcome these and a host of other shitty life experiences (terrible family relationships, the southern racism of her parents, poverty, etc. etc). Like you, she fell away from the evangelical faith. But she found a deeper one, one that made it possible to live beyond the tragic cycle of inevitable violence or estrangement. I gave her your piece to read, seeing how much you two had in common. Her response to it was, in my estimation, spot on: “what this is missing is any observable break from the cycle instigated by the abuser.” Her perception was guided by her own experience: in her own wrestling with her rapes, in her desire to have positive sexual experiences afterwards (to regain control of/for herself), she began re-enacting the worldview of her attacker, giving the tragic event ‘a posthumous victory’ (to borrow from Fackenheim). The logic of this cycle, I tried to make clear in my earlier response: being treated as object, entering into objectifying practices, finding these to be unsatisfying, despairing, inverting, retrying. This was my wife’s objectifying cycle, which she had to overcome. Is it in you too? (Have you by any chance heard Jens Lekman, ” Opposite of Hallelujah”?)

        For your part, you claim that it isn’t, at least not totally. Some days are better than others. This was one rendering of the story, one artistic perspective. In fact, you say there isn’t even “a single narrative”, so how could there be a cycle? This belief is the fruit of the (French) post-modern hermeneutical tree, as I am sure you are aware. But as with all beliefs, it can be wielded in two directions: at its best, this can be a humble awareness of the subjectivity of others, an affirmation of what Buber has rightly called the world of “I-Thou”. Or, more negatively, it can be used as a denial of the existence of metanarratives, a denial of the possibility of ultimate meaning(fullness) and resignation to the world of “I-It.” I don’t doubt that you want to mean the former, but I am afraid you might also be promulgating the latter. If this is indeed what you are doing, denying the possibility of ultimate meaning in your rejection of a “single narrative”, then your desire for control has lead you to the rejection of the “Thou”, imagining the world merely as a realm of careening objects. Tragically, this is precisely the world into which your attacker inaugurated you. After all, it was “control” that he was after, too; and objects which populated his world.

        Despite the plausibility of this analysis, even if these are indeed the only intentions with which you have written this piece – and I don’t doubt they were positively intended – these are not the same intentions you carry with you as you publish. Or rather, writing and publishing are two separate actions, each with their own intentionality. And it is at the level of publication of your writing that your personal narrative, your private attempt to revisit the past and gain some control, has become something more, something public: a moral example. It has been offered up as a model for dealing with sexual assault, whether this was a conscious intention of yours or not. At least, your piece is a moral statement if you dwell in the world of “I – Thou”; only in the world of “I-It” are public statements not immediately referable to an intersubjective level of signification. You seem only semi-conscious of this public dimension and its consequences.

        If you will humor my obtuseness, I would like to point out what I think your piece recommends morally by correcting a miscommunication between us regarding the use of your pseudonym. Let me be clear regarding my comments about your veiling in the pseudonym that I was not accusing you of being cowardly. I mention the name Augustine as my name, which it both is and isn’t. Augustine is my confirmation name and also my patron saint. I too understand the desire for a modicum of anonymity online, for all the reasons you are shrewd to mention. I therefore cannot hold this measure against you. But the difference in our cases is that you are the one trying to “get naked.” It is for this reason, despite the irony of criticizing my own practice, that I felt justified in listing it as one of the “veilings” I saw in your text.

        You should know, however, that I am not opposed to veils in themselves. Indeed, I was consciously thinking of a quote in my response as I played with the binary of “veiled/naked”. The quote is from CS Lewis (please forgive him what the evangelicals have done to him):

        “Some will think it strange I should find an element of ritual or masquerade in that action [sex] which is often regarded as the most real, the most unmasked and sheerly genuine, we ever do. Are we not our true selves when naked? In a sense, no. The word naked was originally a past participle; the naked man was the man who had undergone the process of naking, that is, of stripping or peeling (you used the verb of nuts and fruit).

        Time out of mind the naked man has seemed to our ancestors not the natural but the abnormal man; not the man who has abstained from dressing but the man who has been for some reason undressed. And it is a simple fact – anyone can observe it at a men’s bathing place – that nudity emphasises common humanity and soft-pedals what is individual. In that way we are “more ourselves” when clothed. By nudity the lovers cease to be solely John and Mary; the universal He and She are emphasised. You could almost say they put on nakedness as a ceremonial robe – or as the costume for a charade.”

        So my mention of your pseudonym was not meant as a judgment in itself of the practice (which I myself find wise in many contexts), but only as a criticism of how that practice seemed to violate what I perceived to be the virtue(s) your piece (however tacitly) was recommending: the naked self as the good/honest/true one. Or, in the twilight “after virtue”, should you despair of belief in the existence of a universal ‘good’, at least the naked self as the real one. It is this denuding of the self, this calculus of subtraction, which your example suggests to me. Quite tragically, this is also the logic of rape: The stripping of subjectivity.

        Perhaps you will respond to this criticism by saying: “I wasn’t recommending anything; I was merely telling my story.” This would be true in one respect and untrue in another. You have not recommended your life for imitation, but simply (and indeed beautifully) told your story. However, in the act of publishing your piece, you move beyond an artistic account of your narrative history into the realm of the public (and thus the moral). I would argue that whether you intend to recommend it or not, your publishing of this is a de facto recommendation of its moral outlook, even if that outlook – as i suspect it to be- is the suspension of any moral judgment as you search for your “true” self.

        My concern is that one of the things you seem to divest yourself of in the process of getting naked is “the moral”, which ironically is the very thing you will need to protect you from the denuding gaze of your attacker. To put this another way, it is precisely the logic of your attacker, what I originally called the “objectifying” logic, that suspends the moral, that denudes and thus devalues the intersubjective element of human relationality. My point is that your attacker’s ontology is “I-It”, whereas the moral universe is populated by “I-Thou.”

        Is there any I-Thou in what you have written? Again I would appeal to your closing statements as proof that you despair of such, at least ostensibly. Failure to relate you say is “still inevitable”. This is the great flaw of your piece, in my estimation. Its resignation to the inevitable failure of human relations.

        If you will permit a quote on point:

        “Lee has said that he considers every poem to be a “descendent of God.” When asked about flawed poems by Poets and Writers, Lee explained: “There are great poems that have flaws. There are failures of perception, failures of understanding, but those flaws become a part of the poem’s integrity, so I still feel that those poems are descendants of God. But if a poem isn’t even good enough to be a poem, I don’t think it’s descended from God: [If] there is no “I” [as in Martin Buber’s I and Thou], there is no God. The ‘Me’ talking about ‘Me’—that’s not enough.””

        I would like to end by quoting Lee as (perhaps) better expressing the virtuous sentiments I see you wrestling to master…

        “There are days we live
        as if death were nowhere
        in the background; from joy
        to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
        from blossom to blossom to
        impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”

        … and with a question: is there no Impossible Blossom?

  6. G on September 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

    I’m lost for words. Regardless of whether or not the writer has veiled or undressed herself, she has shone a sudden floodlight into a dark corner of this reader’s memory and present. I was also sexually assaulted. And I also do life modelling, my motivation for which I had never addressed beyond the purely financial. Nor had I ever really considered a link between these two corporeal anomalies in a young woman’s life. This beautiful piece of writing will I hope open an internal discourse that allows me finally to better understand the effects that rape had upon my behaviour and my knowledge (or perception) of my self, and why the attentive but detached probes and caresses of the charcoal and brushes of strangers and amateurs is so soothing. Thank you Isabel Liu, whoever you are.

    • isabel on September 14, 2013 at 11:12 pm

      Thank you so, so much. I am so grateful that my essay has triggered a desire in you to better understand your own history. It’s hard, but it’s intensely rich and rewarding, as I’m sure you will find. I’m sorry if I somehow sound patronizing – I’m not, at all. I still struggle, but I’ve come a long way. All the best to you.

  7. Lauren on September 5, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    This is beautifully written. Please let me know if you write or have written a book. Or anything else for that matter.

    • isabel on September 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm

      Thank you so very much! It’s great to hear that. This is the first piece I’ve published outside of school-related forums but I hope to write much more in the future.

  8. Will on September 6, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Isabel, thank you for sharing this! I loved finding, reading –and musing on– your beautiful authoring. I think you have a lovely voice, more please! Also– the painting is delightful!

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