The Press of History on the Nerve of the Moment

On 9/11/2003, two years after the destruction of the twin towers, I wrote a letter that was published in the NY Times:

To the Editor:

With the loss of the World Trade Center, we collectively underwent an amputation. What remains is a collective phantom limb.

Much as a severed limb leaves behind an incontrovertible feeling that it is still part of the body, the twin towers continue to be a part of us.

The condition of phantom limb has a message for us. It tells us that an amputation – a loss – cannot leave behind a void. Whatever is built in the future in place of the towers, we live now with a necessary phantom, helping sustain us in this difficult time between absence and presence.

Janet Sternburg

I received a number of interesting responses to that letter, but for the purposes of today’s talk, I want to quote from an e-mail I received from a colleague at the California Institute of the Arts:

“In a case of mass murder in which thousands of unidentified body parts are still held in warehouses for future verification and when even last week pieces of human remains, metaphorical talk of “amputation,” “severed limb,” and “phantom limb” as a common experience for this specific experience does not adequately describe or recognize the horror of the actual amputations . . but rather taps us into a collective, poetic “feeling” of gratuitous mourning . . . “

And, from my response to him:

“I’d agree with you if indeed the phantom limb metaphor were to have anything like the impact and influence that, for example, the metaphors for cancer that Susan Sontag wrote about . . . But mine is really not a culturally infiltrating metaphor. Rather, it’s a way of talking about what is to me at least a kind of comfort — that loss does not equal nothingness.”

And, finally, from him:

“Of course, art requires such transformative acts, as does mourning.”

My own transformative act came about after my mother lost first one leg and then the other, suffering severe phantom limb pain throughout. In an attempt to assuage that pain, I began to research – first, extensively in books and articles, and then apprenticing myself to the former head of the Somatosensory Lab, now emeritus at UCLA, Dr. Lawrence Kruger, (referred to in my book and in the excerpt to come, as Dr. Fisher).

When I began to think that phantom limb is a universal condition – that is, we all have somebody or something no longer with us who remains part of us – it was this work that allowed me to test my metaphor against the realities of the body.

My reading also brought me to Madame I (pronounced ‘eye’), as she was known in 1905, in the neurological literature from Salpetriere. Madame I could feel nothing at all — the opposite of course of my mother who felt too much, including a body part no longer there.

I’m going to read several excerpts from my book, PHANTOM LIMB, a meditation about loss and consolation. In the final excerpt, you will meet Madame I in an imagined encounter with my mother.

Excerpt 1
‘Rub it, not too nicely,’ the visiting nurse says. ‘Slap it until it becomes callused, like an elbow.’

She must sense that I, the visiting daughter, disapprove because she tells me this is regular practice: amputees are routinely instructed to slap their stumps in order to stimulate a phantom limb.

Why would anyone in her right mind want a phantom limb? She doesn’t answer; that’s not her job. But from my reading, I know the answer. A phantom limb turns out to be essential for walking. When a prosthesis is strapped on, the phantom shoots out and ‘fills’ it. The brain then begins to accept the artificial leg as though it were part of the body, able to be used for walking.

There’s also a bad phantom that mysteriously appears to some amputees but not to others, the one that causes my mother to say, ‘Right now as we’re talking, a corn I had on my little toe is killing me.’ Sometimes she feels as though a red-hot poker were scalding the leg that’s not there.

Her first prosthesis was a heavy contraption of metal and straps given to her after surgery . . . The hospital has now given her a much lighter one, covered with a thin layer of spongy stuff and ending in one of her own shoes. . .

. . . Most of the time my mother doesn’t wear either artificial leg, but she keeps both close by just in case. The apartment seems filled with them. They move around a lot: a leg against the sink, a leg propped against the kitchen counter, a leg against the aluminum railing that helps her get up from the toilet.

My mother asks if I could please bring her the light leg. The heavy leg is now in the back of a closet, serving as a receptacle in which to store rolls of gift-wrapping paper.

Excerpt 2
Internal organs get removed all the time; nobody’s happy about it, but they’re not as horrified as if they’d had to lose an external part of themselves. Is it the spectre of helplessness? Is it the way we use legs as metaphors: in homage, we walk in another’s footsteps. ‘Isn’t it time he stood on his own two feet?’ Or maybe it’s because standing on two legs is what defines us as human beings?

The earliest known footprints of an erect person have been discovered at Laetoli, in Africa. What if only one footprint had been discovered? Would anthropologists have known it for what it might well have been, the imprint of a woman who had lost a leg? *

Excerpt 3
My childhood trained me to see the wince hidden under the public face. It made me aware of how much ordinary pain there is in the world, made me question why so universal an experience is so little acknowledged.
We need new words for illness, not to be drawn from the lexicon of complaint or from the book of invalidating phrases: Have I used up my ‘sick days’? Am I sick enough?

Sorry, I’m a little ‘off’ today.

Get better.

We need subtle words that allow for degrees between healthy and sick, descriptive words for naming the in-between states where we spend much of our lives. We obscure these states with silence, or catchalls – ‘I’m not feeling well’ – but our lives are more complex. They ask not for confession, but for calibration, so that we may tell one another how we are.

We need a new language for pain so we don’t experience it as simply a message delivered by an insulted nerve. Instead, the message is made up of a vocabulary of singular words that, when near one another, let us read pain as a story of all that has happened in our lives.

Excerpt 4
My mother no longer offers her goodness as a weight against horror. She faces up to the nothingness, to the soon-to-be-empty space where something should be.

She will no longer have a footprint, no longer make a tread upon the earth.

Excerpt 5
I run into Dr. Fisher and ask him something that has been on my mind.

‘To a pain specialist, what would the phrase, “the pain of the human condition” mean?’

‘Strictly speaking, it doesn’t mean a thing, at least not neurologically.’

I wouldn’t want to be a neurologist if knowing the body’s circuitry kept me from apprehending a deeper truth: that the pain of the human condition is death, the one condition we never get over. And it means we all lose parts of ourselves along the way. No one survives intact. No one is exempt. In that democracy of sorrow lies our consolation.

Excerpt 6
The movers have gone, leaving me to look around at what’s here. Once, I’d placed the inconsolability of loss against the visible signs of consolation. Now I see the rooms, the objects, the words as consolatory once more. Memories may be diasporic, but they can also be congregant, telling me I’m not alone.

This afternoon, the old heavy artificial leg will be leaving, picked up by a nearby rehab center that will adapt it for someone else to use. This is the last time I can look at it, the time when I must not turn away.

I sit in front of it, cross-legged. With the rolls of gift wrapping paper still inside, the leg is a head taller than I am. The toes are slightly darker than the rest of the fooot, as though the leg as been out in the sun. The foot ends a little below the ankle where a solid piece of wood, shaped like a funnel and painted a soft pink, rises to the beginning of the calf. At that point the leg becomes a brace of brown leather, the color of a fine saddle.

Handsome brown laces are threaded through brass eyelets in the back. Metal rods rise vertically the entire length of the leg. At the top rim an ivory leather strap connects to a waist belt. More straps keep the upper leg in place, adjustable by pulling on dangling metal rings. For about three inches between the upper and lower parts of the prosthesis, space has been left empty between the rods in order to accommodate the real knee.

I put my arm inside the leg as far as it can go, as though it were a sleeve. I wave the leg in the air, like someone saying goodbye to a departing ship

With my arm still inside the leg, I bend at the elbow and place the leg on my lap. I lay the foot in the crook of my other elbow. I’m cradling her limb in my arms.

And, the last chapter of the book:
Excerpt 7
I’ve remained fascinated by Madame I. After the report was published, her case was no longer followed. Denys and Camus ended their account with these words: “She claims that she is lost, that her disease is incurable; she accepts neither treatment nor consolation.”

The researchers did not solve the mystery of Madame I’s compulsion to rub herself “as though trying to confirm that her body existed.” Perhaps Madame I had discovered, all on her own, the instructions of the visiting nurse: for my mother, to generate a phantom limb; for Madame I, to bring forth another phantom, a continuous memory.

It is 1907, a good year to be in Paris. Atget lugs his camera everywhere. Proust observes his friends. Madame I is walking in the Bois, greeting acquaintances.

She strolls past my mother, the two women exchanging a nod of recognition when, with no warning, Madame I drops to the pavement with a sharp cry. She is helped to her feet by passers-by, my mother among athem. Along with all else that has been restored to her, Madame I now can feel pain.

Once recovered, did Madame I ever long for her painless days? She’s talking this over with my mother in the garden behind her house. They are sitting at an iron table, on ground covered with pebbles. On the table are violets; in the far distance, the clamor of children at play.

My mother asks Madame I whether she thinks remembering is worth it, if it brings pain.

Madame I answers tartly: That’s nonsense. Do you realize what I’d lost? I couldn’t imagine the taste of food, nor the scent of flowers. I’d forgotten my parents, even how my own children sound.”
From across the garden, voices draw nearer. “I can hear my children,” says Madame I. “At last.”

After I finished PHANTOM LIMB, I found in my “outtakes” – pages I’d edited out – the following notes which, assembled for this talk, speak to the question of metaphor.

From the “outtakes:”

I spot an amputee, this time in a post office near my home. He’s in a wheelchair which he seems able to maneuver well, even though he looks to be in his seventies with that wrinkled, long-planed face one sees so often in Southern California. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but . . .”

Phantom limb pain had caused him terrible suffering. Then he went to a pain clinic where they told him to exercise his legs, both of them, just as though he still had both. To do ankle circles with both ankles, even though
one is real and the other imaginary. To do leg lifts with both legs, although one doesn’t exist.

He says that this has helped him. Or at least distracted him, since the concentration required is intense.

The point is that it’s still there. Not just the pain but the unshakeable belief that the leg remains, even though all the other senses say it’s gone.

What sense is this, that keeps us feeling long after the fact?

Perhaps the condition of phantom limb isn’t so strange after all. We all live with something that’s no longer present in our lives, but still seems to be with us.

Could phantom limb be itself a meaning? A marker, to trace of what has been?

I shared this idea with a therapist friend of mine who said she spends her entire day listening to people who are suffering from phantom pain. I’m not certain she and I are talking about the same thing. There’s a difference, I think, between repetitive neurotic suffering — the kind that stands in your way for no good reason, so you work to get rid of it — and another kind of suffering that it may not be possible to lose. It just might be the human condition — what Nadezhda Mandelstam found herself wishing for in the midst of Stalin’s atrocities: “a peaceful life with ordinary despairs.”

In a book on the former Yugoslavia, refugees in Croatia were likened to amputees: “They can still feel their homeland, even though it’s gone. It tingles.” When the condition of phantom limb is experienced by an entire people, and then recounted, it becomes history.

In a recent documentary film, a survivor who had avoided capture by pretending to be Catholic, tells of standing in a crowd on the sidewalk as Jewish prisoners were herded through town on what was unmistakably a death march. Not long afterwards, the camps were liberated and the townspeople, including many who had stood in the crowd with her, claimed they had never seen the march. By then, the inmates had become refugees, their homes and families forever cut off. They were gone from sight, dispersed. The townspeople who had witnessed them were able to deny their existence. Like scoffers at the suffering from phantom limb, they said of history, “It’s not real. It’s all in your mind.”

Another survivor interviewed in the film speaks about going back after his release to the city he’d grown up in, hoping to find traces of his life before he and his family had been deported. The people living in his former home refused him entrance, so he knocked on a neighbor’s door where he was greeted warmly. “Gerhardt’s come back!” the woman called to her husband. A half-century later, the survivor tells of his shock when the neighbor came out to greet him wearing a suit that had belonged to his own father.

As he speaks to the camera, he warns that he may be approaching too close to what he calls “a hole in the ice”, a place where his numbness might give way and he could drown. For him, the amputation called forgetting is life-saving. Better the ice than a phantom who might crack it. Nonetheless, his condition won’t go away; he cannot deny the existence of that limb, not only because it causes such pain but because it has made him who he is, as much a part of his identity as the suit once seen on his father’s shoulders.

Phantom limb – the press of history on the nerve of the moment.

I WENT TO the dictionary to look up amputate and found that it’s derived from the Latin word amputatus, to be pruned,
or trimmed.

Phantom limb then is proof that while the leg can be amputated, it can’t be annihilated. Annihilate, from the Latin nihil, meaning nothing.

The lost limb can’t be turned into nothing, can’t be made not-to- exist, which is one definition of annihilate. It refuses to become a void.

I ALSO encountered what one theorist (I believe this is from Damasio’s Descartes’ Error) has called the center of neurobiology:

“The process that allows for microstructural changes in neuron circuits to become a neural representation, which in turn becomes an image in our minds that we each experience as belonging to us .”

By this definition, phantom limb isn’t a weird outcast. It’s one of countless integral images, a member, in all senses of the word.

a synonym for limb.
A member of a body.
Of a congregation.
To dis-member is to take apart.
Phantom limb begins with a dismemberment,
but becomes a re-membering,
a way to bring the member back
into the being,
part of the whole.

I want to conclude these notes – and this talk – with something that brings us back to the beginning – not only the amputee I met in Southern California, but also to the question of metaphor and the transforming power of art:

To do ankle circles with both ankles, even though one is real and the other imaginary. To do leg lifts with both legs, although one doesn’t exist.

To write; from the truths of the one real leg, from the fiction of the other.

To feel one’s own losses. To know what still is there. To transform one’s own losses. To live.

To write: to welcome the phantom when it returns, long after it had seemed to depart.