January 24, 2022

The Parasite

By Eta Demby

Suzanne Goldenberg, Condolences IV, marker, ink, and oil on canvas, 2022

I once watched a popular science documentary series about the nature of time. Each part in the show focused on a different one of time’s scales or aspects. In the episode on “biological time,” time as it’s lived inside organic bodies, we meet a teenage girl and her father who suffer from a rare circadian rhythm disorder. Every morning at four, while the rest of the family still sleeps, this odd pair rises and sets about their day. One clever camera shot in the segment peers into the windows of the family’s modest rural home. From some yards out in the moonlit cornfields of America, we see the small figures soundlessly making coffee and pouring cereal, moving like solitary cosmonauts in the glowing orb of their kitchen. 

I quickly recognized my kind.

Each morning I too get up in darkness, while everyone around me is still coasting in the vegetative fuzz of sleep. It’s like there’s a sun that rises on some internal horizon, my world spinning slightly quicker on its axis. With unholy energy I catapult out of bed and begin correcting the disorder night’s chaos brings, shaking out the sheets and smoothing the pillows, returning stray clothes to the closet and washing the leftover dishes in the sink, stretching the knots in my legs and shoulders with an urgent vigor. Then I sit down at my desk, where in the lamplight I start drawing up lists and making plans. Though the sky won’t begin its transition from inky blacks to pale purples, pinks, and blues for a few more hours, I’m forced to reckon with a day that’s already throwing itself mercilessly on me.

 A boy who was briefly my lover once gave me a name for this quirk. A collector of ancient things, he told me about the Old English word uhtcearu, from uhta, or the very early morning hours, and cearu, meaning suffering, anxiety, or care. Uhtcearu is that special dread you experience before dawn.

How can I explain the unique physics of being awake next to someone sleeping, of orienting yourself madly in their direction, running circles around their somnolent body so that you’ve lived out lifetimes before they’ve woken? My lover would get up groggy after daybreak. He would stumble out of bed into the shower, out of the shower into the kitchen. By the time he was caffeinated enough to speak I was a depleted shell. I’d be ready for bed again before he left for work. 

When I was young I was a gymnast. Sprinting hard, I would launch myself skillfully into round-off, back handspring, back handspring, back tuck, savoring the absolute stillness amidst the violent revolutions, the weightlessness before the inevitable descent, the straightening toward touchdown, the jolt of pressure up from the bottom of my feet through my legs, spine, neck and head like I was a substance being poured back into myself. Nothing since has left me in quite the same exquisite state of exhaustion and release. 

I can remember what it was like to be a body perfectly in motion, traveling a divinely tuned orbit, in step with myself in space and time. But a slip from the high bar one afternoon led me to spend the entire summer of my eleventh year sitting on the edge of the schoolyard with a broken arm, watching boys play basketball. By the time the cast came off, I’d swapped leotards and scrunchies for mesh shorts and baseball hats and begun inserting myself into their pickup games. But my newfound hobby was merely a strategic calculation. I was a queer, scrawny, shapeless ball of energy, lacking the attributes that I noticed were beginning to peel the boys’ eyes away from the court: budding breasts, shiny lip gloss, long hair flipped casually, but in a way that attracted maximum attention. So I concluded that basketball was my best and only option for getting close to them. But the gestures of dribbling, passing, and shooting were too small to contain my seismic fervor. I was fast and tenacious but fouled often, once or twice even inflicting minor injuries on my scrimmage-mates, who viewed me—not with lust and admiration as I’d fantasized—but with a mixture of bemusement and frustration. 

I am trying to piece together how I got here, to this broken place, trying to trace the progression of a collapse that seemed to happen so slowly—over the course of decades, or maybe even centuries—then so suddenly, all at once. How does an object become so warped, so distorted by events that have no inherent meaning in themselves? Is it like the universe forming itself after the Big Bang, when the slightest kinks in an almost uniform primordial soup, the tiniest differentials in mass, became amplified, small densities compounding, forming clouds of gas then stars then vast galaxies with a force so senseless yet so unstoppable?

By the time he was in Berlin living with Dora Diamant, the last and most promising of his relationships after two failed engagements, Kafka was already dying of tuberculosis. It was as if the pressure of his overwhelming desire for marriage had taken its toll on his body, all those years of anticipation and anxiety wreaking irreversible havoc there, the devastating wear of someone who attempts to travel at too high a velocity. “Eventually, under the superhuman demands of a desire to marry,” he had written, “blood came from the lung.”

My symptoms started in Berlin. I’d decided to spend my summer there following a particularly grueling year of PhD study. After two semesters of twelve-hour days in the library preparing for my qualifying exams and writing grant proposals, I wanted to go out on weekend-long club binges and while away hungover afternoons on the shady banks of the canals. I wanted to indulge the me I had glimpsed in rare moments, the one who fed on the friction of strangers’ bodies pulsing together on darkened dance floors, who would stay up all night without fear of the encroaching daylight. 

But one night while out with friends I took some cheap, speedy ecstasy someone had bought in the club bathroom. I didn’t roll, just felt tweaky and anxious for hours. When I finally got back to my sublet after daybreak, I couldn’t wind down. I lay in bed with my eyes spinning in their sockets, my brain a tangled mess of short-circuiting wires. Eventually, I gave up on sleep and went to the kitchen to smoke a cigarette. I remember leaning out of the large casement window into the leafy courtyard of the Altbau apartment complex, listening to the sounds of other people’s lives percolating from the different units: buzzing espresso makers and boiling kettles, lovers in the midst of pleasure, children screaming to be fed, dogs whimpering to be taken for a walk. I imagined my neighbors in apartments filled with framed prints and photographs, gifts from old friends and souvenirs from memorable vacations, shelves of well-marked books and rare collector’s items—the possessions of people who were getting ready to meet friends for brunch or to catch a matinee screening, or who were perhaps packing backpacks to head out of the city for the day, or settling in to catch up on work. I thought about the graduate degree I was beginning to suspect I would never finish, about all the projects half-started and the ideas never brought to conclusion, about the handful of failed relationships and the many glimmerings of what might have been relationships if I hadn’t snuffed them out like a child who accidentally suffocates the small animal he holds between his too-excited hands. The more I barrelled ahead, I realized, the more I had the gnawing sensation of being stuck forever on the threshold, caught in life’s waiting room as if some internal mechanism were barring me from both the hazards and the richness of experience, an existential safety lock that had been installed long ago without my knowing it. It was then, leaning out the window into the damp morning air, that I remember feeling the first pains in my abdomen. 

In the weeks that followed, what had started as a localized discomfort became a global shutdown. It was as if the organs of my digestive system had decided to stage a rolling strike, each part emboldening the others to stop performing their designated functions. Partially chewed globs of food would pass with difficulty through my swollen throat, inching with glacial slowness down my esophagus. When they finally reached my inflamed stomach, they would churn feebly inside the attenuated chamber, which emitted sad squelches and groans as acid backwashed up into my mouth. Further below, this poorly-digested foodstuff would sit as an inert mass for days until my colon finally expelled it in a fit of spasms. The discomfort of this grotesque and unceasing charade made it difficult to sleep. Far from the weeks of raging libertinism I’d imagined, I spent most of that summer in Berlin home alone in a bleary-eyed daze, simmering broth on the GDR-era electric stove and googling my many symptoms.

In 1964, Eva Hesse and her husband, fellow artist Tom Doyle, packed up their downtown New York studios and relocated to an abandoned textile factory on the outskirts of Essen, Germany, where Doyle had been granted a residency. The couple’s marriage may have been falling apart, but the year they spent there would be a period of remarkable artistic breakthrough for Hesse.

She had studied painting with fellow German expatriate Josef Albers at Yale. But in Essen she began using scraps of abandoned factory material to make three-dimensional reliefs. She threaded wire through mesh screens, tied cloth dipped in plaster into knots and laid down concentric rings of rubberized string, shaping these materials into sunken orifices, bulbous knobs, sagging protrusions, and concentric mounds culminating in nipple-like protuberances that looked, she wrote in a letter to her friend Sol LeWitt, like both a “breast and a penis.” These works were a momentous step toward the minimalist constructions in fiberglass, latex, cloth, paper, metal and twine for which she would soon become renowned, sculptures with a strangely unsettling, sometimes absurd, and often palpably yet nonspecifically erotic charge. 

But even as her artwork blossomed, Hesse began experiencing pain and paralysis in her legs that made it hard for her to get to the studio some days. It was her first time back in the country of her birth since 1938, when her parents had taken her and her sister to the Hamburg station and placed their two young children on one of the last Kindertransport trains out of Nazi Germany. And it was as if her return reshuffled the form these cataclysmic events had come to take in her over the years, which now manifested, like a good hysterical symptom, as a kind of insistent poetry of the body. “I always need someone to lean on,” she had written in her diary before, reflecting on her agonizing insecurities, her desperate need for others’ approval, and the fear that she would never be able to stand on her own. “That is sickness—the part of leaning child.”

How can we understand this confluence of psychosomatic illness and artistic evolution, personal cataclysm and professional advancement, crippling fear and creative boldness? “My life never had anything normal or in the center,” she would say five years later, in the last interview conducted before her untimely death. “It was always extremes.” And in my bones I understand that her inspiration was the underside of her anxiety, a realm of cool intimacy with the same chaos and decay that could also provoke terror, a place from which she could dispense with the comforts of stable identity, leave behind the human and let it return as something unrecognizable and strange, what droops and leans gloriously like evacuated skin.

“So the Holocaust is what’s wrong with your stomach?” the hot furniture designer asks when I fumble something on the phone about why I need to cancel our dinner date that evening. 

Though I had returned to the States from Berlin thin as a rail, I was trying to get my life back on track, trying to work and socialize as if everything were normal. But my persistent symptoms quickly got in the way. I would sit in the library for hours staring at books related to my dissertation, but my mind refused to come out from the place it had taken up residence deep inside me, occupied with tracking every tiny sensation that unfolded there. I tried making plans and dates, but the fear that my unruly condition would act up while I was out was enough to send my stomach into anticipatory convulsions. So I retreated back into my apartment. When I had to leave for an unavoidable reason, everything beyond my walls seemed hyperreal: the daylight too bright, the clothing on the young professionals who’d been moving to the neighborhood too crisp, the lines on the faces of the cleaners and construction workers on the subway early in the morning too sunken and defined. My own body had ceased being intelligible to me, and now everything outside had stopped making sense too, the hard angles so foreign to whatever radiating imprecision was unfolding inside me. 

When I finally went to see a gastroenterologist, she ordered a battery of tests and told me she could find nothing concerning. She said what I was experiencing was likely “just stress,” then prescribed one pill to tamp down the acid production in my stomach and one to “keep things moving.” I left her office filled with optimism, strangely boosted by this image of the body as a series of disconnected operations that could be turned on or off at will when they were underperforming or overfunctioning. But nothing I tried—not those pills, not the cabinets full of herbs and supplements I bought with my meager graduate stipend, not any of the meditation and mindfulness apps I downloaded—seemed to make any difference. As the months wore on, I sank into despair. 

Suzanne Goldenberg, Condolences III (we’re sorry for your loss), marker, ink, and oil on canvas, 2022

At the same time, I began to remember things, images from a past that felt remote and disconnected from my present life. There was Sarah Jacobson, the delinquent daughter of the head rabbi at our yeshiva day school, describing her chronic constipation in the bathroom where we regularly ditched morning prayers. There was Talya Rosenbaum announcing in the locker room that she’d been diagnosed with something called “Crones” that meant she hadn’t had a hard shit in months. There were the bottles of colorful antacids in the medicine cabinets of Upper West Side apartments, the milk of magnesia in the suburban hamlets of Bergen County and Westchester and the Five Towns, the lactose-free dairy products in my grandmother’s fridge in Flushing. And then there were the distressing noises you could hear through the flimsy bathroom doors of our bunks in sleepaway camp, the endless fart jokes that feature in the life of any kid, but which remained a leitmotif even among our parents, who were always thinking about food and fussing about it—its presence or its absence, its timing and whether its quantities were sufficient, the hazards of overindulging and its variable effects on digestion. Suddenly I saw that I had grown up surrounded by food neuroses too pervasive to consider unusual, and by an obsession with bowel function that only upon reflection seemed to stand in contrast with our manicured, well-heeled exteriors, the maid-laundered linens, marble floors, and gleaming Judaica in our many-roomed houses and apartments.

Researching, I discovered for the first time what I must have on some level already known: in addition to the other genetic diseases we carry, Ashkenazi Jews have significantly higher rates of lactose intolerance, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease. In fact, the link between Eastern and Western European Jewish heritage and pathologies of the gut is so strong that when Dr. Burrill Bernard Crohn identified the condition that would come to bear his name in fourteen Jewish patients at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1932, he quipped that it was unclear whether the cause was “Jewish mothers, Jewish food, or Jewish genes.” 

But what really accounted for this statistical anomaly? Probing further, I learned that medical geneticists traced it back to the European ghettos where Jews had been forced by Christian decree to live for centuries. In these cramped and squalid neighborhoods, a jumpy digestive system would have proven a competitive advantage: inflammation-prone intestines were added protection against the lethal microbes that thrive where there’s no light or air to breathe. But this trait had hung around long after its value expired. Now some of us ate gourmet food carefully prepared in Upper East Side markets and were allegedly protected by one of the most technologically sophisticated armies in the world. But a logic of preemptive hypervigilance remained encoded in our flesh. 

After high school, when I departed New York for college in sunny, sprawling California,  I left behind the metropolitan Jewish communities that had been my world, and with them any kind of Jewish practice and affiliation. In four years I never once set foot in the campus Hillel. And though I returned to the East Coast after graduating, the break, I assumed, had been a clean one. My Judaism was a footnote, something incidental to my thoroughly secular existence, my Orthodox education a quirky fact I could summon at art openings and parties to surprise people.

But now after all those years, they were calling out to me from across this gulf: mothers who stuck their clawing tongues into the gooey center of the cockroach present, who stretched out grabbing fingers to clutch the luminous flower sprouting there, the fathers who desired with the force of a thousand generations but who found themselves thwarted by some dark force that cannibalized their passions like a parasite. These ethno-cosmic parents whose names I now collected had wanted to shake the body clean of anything other than its reality as pulsating meat, to dance wildly into the night before falling dead into a dreamless sleep, but they too bolted upright in the small hours, the sun already creeping through their windows. 

Cue filmmaker Chantal Akerman cloistered in her Tel Aviv rental apartment with the blinds drawn tightly against the white-hot sun. In her 2006 film Là-bas she is in Israel with the same reasons and hopes as any other Jew traumatized by history. She recalls being a child in Brussels and thinking that là-bas, down there, her Holocaust-surviving mother might have let her play in the streets, rather than nervously keeping her couped up indoors. But when Akerman arrived, she quickly found herself struck by redoubled depression and a bout of food poisoning she got from eating Israeli salad. 

“And all this has to do with that,” she intones in the film’s voice-over in her smoker’s croak, “with Israel or not-Israel. Of course not the real Israel, but an Israel in which all of a sudden I would belong.”

Did I also have a nation inside my stomach, a people inside my bowels? 

Eta Demby is a writer and MSW student currently living in upstate New York.