Five Attempts An essay by Elena Ruiz
“I am absolutely one of those people who learned, through graduate school, to address a white readership in my writing … The advice that steered me toward the process of revision was coming from life experiences that were not familiar with the thoughts and ideas that arise when you are moving through the world with brown or black skin.”
—from “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” keynote by Aisha Sabatini Sloan at NonfictioNOW, in Reykjavik, Iceland, June 2017
As a first year student at Pratt Institute, an art school in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, I took a journalism class where students wrote for the school paper, The Prattler. Our theme for the first issue was “Fierce and Femme.” In order to share the abundance of fierceness required to succeed as a black woman at an academic institution, I sat down to write this essay, “Five Attempts.”
Thinking about how to configure this essay, I asked myself how I was going to make a predominately white audience understand my experience as a black woman at Pratt. I took inspiration from Aisha Sabatini Sloan, whose keynote last year pointed out how even trying to communicate this way obstructs voice and vision. As an act of reclaiming black readership and black revision, I am writing without a white reader in mind. With that being said, I offer five attempts to summarize my experience as a black woman at Pratt, for a black audience.
I. My journalism professor asked the class what first came to mind when hearing the word institution. Our heads tilted upward in thought, but everyone feared the direction of the conversation if they were to be honest. Finally, one of the students broke the tension, “I feel as if the word institution usually holds a negative connotation.” My professor’s face contorted with confusion.
“Prison,” I interrupted, and looked at my professor. She appeared shocked.
“Prison?” she scoffed. She actually scoffed. “Really?” I felt the anxiety of being around white people I suddenly must explain myself to and I shyly explained that institutions are usually seen as a system built to perpetuate oppression. I wondered why that wasn’t the first thought she had. Then it hit me: this is not a reality that upper middle class white women must acknowledge or think about on a daily basis. It was after this class that I came up with my favorite phrase to summarize my experiences in institutional academic settings: I always knew I was black, but I never felt black until I came to Pratt.
I was alone in the revelation. There is a moment when even your white supposed ally with a “Resist” T-shirt and a “Black Lives Matter” sticker can’t help you explain why your teacher ’s ignorance is doing the entire class injustice. I was at college, finally immersed in what had always been described to me as “the real world,” and found the same old world where the systems of oppression succeeded at infiltrating institutions, like this one of “higher learning.”
II. When I first arrived to college, I was on the constant prowl to find other students and teachers that looked like me. Unsurprisingly, my first acquaintances were cafeteria workers and security guards, as people of color dominated these parts of the staff.
At the one Black Lives Matter meeting I attended, a student brought a pie chart on CollegeFactual.com displaying diversity percentages at Pratt. Black people made up 4.2 percent of the student population and 11 percent of the faculty. Where was I supposed to see myself? In the classroom—or serving other students?
III. It seemed that my professor had finally come to her senses when our next journalism assignment was to visit and write about the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” I was excited. My writing is inescapable from the politics of womanhood and blackness, so the art rang close to home. I was ready for my white classmates to get a glimpse of my truth through the work and eager to begin our class discussion on the lawn afterward. After seeing this exhibition, we would have to address the divinity of the black woman as displayed in the exhibit.
As we made our way outside, I awaited a fruitful discussion on the complexities expressed in the show. Were they going to address Blondell Cummings’ dance “Chicken Soup” in which she mimicked the action of shaking a skillet the same way I had seen the women in my family cook?
My professor led the conversation. She asked about the different ways that writing can be implemented in museums to enhance an exhibition. I offered that the exhibit was as an epic and complex rendering of the black woman experience. My classmates and professor nodded but remained silent on the topic. While the class moved on to the next discussion prompt, I looked at the photo I had taken of a Carrie Mae Weems’ portrait from her series “Ain’t jokin.” In it, a black woman peers to the side of a frame that a white woman stands behind. The caption reads, “Looking into the mirror, the black woman asked, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all?’ The mirror says, ‘Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!’”
IV. During a meeting to discuss my goals as a writer, I explained to my teacher the importance of writing for my communities: “I want my writing to be accessible and comprehensible for the common person. I feel like my future work might move from the book to the screen; videos are far more accessible to lower income minorities who already feel failed by the school system.”
She replied that she didn’t understand why books would not be commonplace in the hood. I responded to her, “Sometimes the last thing a kid wants to do at the end of a day is pick up a book after having adult responsibilities or suffering familial trauma. In my experience, if the school system is already failing to address the child’s home life, and the school is the only place providing the child with books, the page is one of the last places they’re going to turn to for help.”
Speaking of adult responsibilities, many days at Pratt I assumed the position of the instructor and taught my elder the most successful ways to gain the attention of under-resourced black children. I was not (necessarily) talking about myself, but upon retrospection, I should have spoken personally. Perhaps if I had made it clear to the professor that what I was offering was not just a powerful way to teach and address the “other”—i.e., “under-resourced black children”—but the way to speak effectively to me, her student, it would have made more of an impression.
One time the teacher even said in class, “I can’t believe you guys are thinking this critically as freshmen; maybe you should teach the class.” Although she was being sarcastic, I thought about how much more successful of a teacher I would have been. There are some skills a credential can’t provide, such as how to navigate an environment created to fail you, how to refrain from exuding your ethnicity like the bright light it wants to be, and the exact moments when to assert (or hide) your blackness in an unfamiliar territory.
V. Every time I’m in a difficult point of life, I cross paths with a black female writer and embarrassingly cry to her. When Aja Monet visited Pratt as a guest speaker for the writing department, I was teased by powerful black energy. After her reading I sobbed—about my feelings of isolation and about my lack of connection to the faculty. Monet reassured me of the power of the black woman, and held me in her arms compassionately. She encouraged me to use my frustrations as fuel for change. So, I use each day at Pratt as fuel for transformation and growth; I make thread to support my future self; I keep spinning and cocooning, cocooning, cocooning.
Elena Ruiz is the lead singer of the rock band The Jamming Nachos, and a creative writing major at Pratt Institute who uses both music and writing to build community awareness and evoke change.
The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy By Anna Clark
New York, NY; Metropolitan Books, 2018, 320 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
This is the story of how the city of Flint was poisoned by its own water,” writes Anna Clark early in her richly detailed and unsparing book The Poisoned City. It’s the story of public trust in city officials, and how people’s lives were damaged thanks to the failure of government to protect its citizens—most of whom were poor and black—and how that public trust vanished. Lives were upended. Children suffered irreversible harm. Twelve people died. It is an American tragedy, and a haunting cautionary tale.
As Clark reports, back in April 2014, the city of Flint opted to change its water supply to a new public water system, allegedly to save money, even though the new pipeline would literally parallel one that already existed. In the interim, while this system was being built, state officials decided to use water from the Flint River. Disaster ensued.
Many saw the indelible images on TV and social media—desperate and angry Flint residents holding up murky and brown-tinged water in plastic bottles that Michigan officials adamantly claimed was safe to drink. But Clark takes us behind those disturbing images to the far more disturbing facts of how it happened: State officials switched the water supply, and then broke federal law by not checking for corrosion. The water was corrosive, and flowing through the city’s aging lead pipes; without proper treatment, that corrosion caused the pipes to rust, flake and leak. Lead and other toxins leached into the water, contaminating it and exposing an entire city of 99,000 people to potential harm. Residents complained and complained that the water tasted, smelled and looked funny, and worse yet, people were getting sick—nausea, hair loss, rashes. Even people’s pets were dying.
Meanwhile, officials from the state environmental department and other local officials stonewalled and outright lied for eighteen months, refusing to take residents’ complaints seriously. People were told their problems were “isolated,” or due to individual plumbing; parents were advised to consult their doctors because ailments afflicting their children were not due to the river water. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling even sipped the water for TV cameras, claiming incredulously that his family drank it. This while the State of Michigan installed new water coolers in its Flint offices and imported cases and cases of bottled water so that state employees would be spared from drinking the city’s tap water; this while General Motors decided the water was too corrosive for its car engines and opted to switch back to Detroit water for use in its factory.
Clark is a young, accomplished journalist who lives in Detroit, grew up in a small town along Lake Michigan, and has done advocacy work for several years in the city. She’s the right writer for this tale, and with her rich narrative skills, the story reads like an environmental thriller, its villain in plain sight. A stunning account of a manmade disaster, the book traces with breathless pacing the build-up of problems caused by this insidious monster, water, a seemingly innocuous element used by all. Clark takes us through the journey of how the culprit’s hazards went from discoloration (“dark as coffee”) and foul-smelling odors, to carrying E. coli bacteria, to containing a carcinogenic disinfection byproduct, to causing Legionnaire’s disease, to the worst and most egregious crime of all, lead poisoning.
Clark delivers the story of a major tragedy we thought we knew with rich and in-depth detail that makes us realize how much we didn’t know. Her narrative is coupled with well-placed context that fleshes out our understanding of various histories—for instance, lead itself and its role in our modern lives, the Flint River, environmental activism, and the adoption of federal laws to deliver clean water to Americans.
“Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance.”
One of the most compelling aspects of The Poisoned City is how it situates this crisis through the lens of systemic racism, one “built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry, and the suburban area surrounding it,” as stated by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s 2014 report on the water crisis. Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance. Clark also powerfully shows how emergency management—when a governor foregoes democracy to appoint an unelected individual to have decision-making power over a city—has “unmistakable racial overtones,” as the communities affected like Flint and my own hometown of Detroit are nearly always majority black.
“The people of Flint had no say at all in what came out of their showers and kitchen sinks,” writes Clark. “Certainly not with four consecutive state-appointed emergency managers in place when critical changes were made to the city’s water supply ... there was no accountability for poor decisions made under the EMs tenure.”
As with any extraordinary tale, there are heroes at the center of this one. Brave community activists who protested and organized, as well as journalists and concerned scientists all did their parts to force the real story to emerge. Yet, two heroes in particular shine through in Clark’s book, both women who worked doggedly in search of the truth.
LeeAnne Walters is one of those bright lights and Clark renders her story with powerful effect. Walters set out to prove the toxicity in her Flint home after she noticed that her family had developed rashes, including her husband, her teenage son and daughter, and her three-year-old twins (who had streaks of red across their hands, feet, and buttocks). After a pool party for her daughter ’s graduation, Walters noticed that everyone who emerged from the water had “angry red blotches on their skin.” Then came hair loss and abdominal pains. She knew it had to be the water. So, Walters and her daughter brought plastic bottles of the murky stuff to a meeting at the City Hall dome, and showed them to the emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose. His reply? “That’s not your water.”
Infuriated by the insinuation that she was lying, Walters persisted. It took a doctor ’s note about her son Gavin’s compromised immune system for the city to test her water. Turns out, lead levels in her water were seven times higher than federally acceptable levels. Gavin had such high lead levels in his system that he developed problems with his speech. Essentially, he had been poisoned. Yet the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality denied that her family’s ailments had anything to do with the river water or city pipes. Eventually, Walters would go above the state agency to the EPA’s District office in Chicago, connecting with a conscientious regulations manager who himself put her in touch with an activist civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech. As Clark writes, “The alliance of these three would make a citizen scientist out of LeeAnn Walters.”
Soon, Walters uncovers the lie told by a state official to the EPA that Flint’s river water had been treated with corrosion control, by tracking down public documents to the contrary. She later shares with a journalist a copy of an eight page report, “High Lead Levels in Flint, Michigan,” written by that EPA regulations manager, that details her home’s contaminated water. As a result of Walters’s efforts—and, as Clark elucidates, the fact that she was a sympathetic “face” of the crisis, as a white woman married with children—an unconscionable disaster that had stayed local for an entire year became a national story.
Another clear champion in this story is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a 38-year old pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, who treated some of the city’s poorest families. With the help of a research assistant, Hanna-Attisha sorted through 1,746 test results of blood-lead data for Flint children and 1640 records for children living in the same county, but outside Flint. She made sure there was no room for error before she held her now famous press conference to deliver the news. Hanna-Attisha stood in her white lab coat facing the press at Hurley Medical Center and delivered the facts: Since Flint had switched is water source, there was more lead coming out of Flint’s taps and much more lead in the blood of the city’s children. In just eighteen months, the percentage of children under five with high blood-lead levels had doubled. And in the poor areas with large African American populations, the levels had tripled. She said as many as 27,000 children were vulnerable to persistent lead exposure. “These results are concerning,” said Hanna-Attisha. “And when our national guiding institutions tells us…that lead poisoning is potentially irreversible, then we have to say something.”
Thanks to Hanna-Attisha’s own citizen science, the state finally admitted the water was poisonous. Citing the doctor ’s study, county commissioners at last declared a public health emergency. Even Governor Rick Snyder finally reversed his claims and conceded the truth. The fallout continues to this day, writes Clark, with Flint residents still using bottled water as they await the replacement of all lead pipes, a project due to complete in 2020.
Two decades ago, Thomas Sugrue’s seminal book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, detailed the abandonment and government neglect of American northern cities. Anna Clark’s book is equally important for detailing the urban crisis of this century. In the epilogue, Clark warns: “Lead is one toxic legacy in America’s cities. Another is segregation, secession, redlining, and rebranding: this is the art and craft of exclusion. We built it into the bones of our cities as surely as we laid lead pipes.”
“The cure,” she writes, “is inclusion.”
Bridgett M. Davis is the author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, forthcoming from Little, Brown in January 2019. She is Professor of Journalism and Creative Writing at Baruch College, CUNY, and Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness By Austin Channing Brown
New York, NY; Convergent Books, 2018, 192 pp., $25.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Erynn Porter
I would like to preface this review by saying that I’m a white woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black woman, or any woman of color. I learned much, however, from reading activist and author Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. What I learned includes a deeper understanding of the term “emotional labor.”
Emotional labor is many things, such as when you have to manage your emotions for a job. It is also when you are expected to be responsible for someone else’s emotions—for example, the responsibility of explaining big and painful lessons, ideologies, and sociological ideas to those who don’t experience them without causing the “student” upset or distress.
White people expect a lot of free emotional labor, and most don’t acknowledge it as labor at all. Sometimes it’s a Facebook argument that goes on for too long or challenging everything a person of color says, by relentlessly asking for proof or examples. The impact on people of color who are providing this free labor has been discussed on Twitter, where there are threads and threads dedicated to it, as well as in articles on Everyday Feminism and Huffington Post. Largely in digital spaces, the question of just how much emotional labor marginalized people are supposed to give is currently debated. Is it more appropriate for dominant-cultured people to do their own research? Why is there any expectation at all that marginalized communities should teach people of privilege?
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is an act of emotional labor. Channing Brown bares and bears much in this memoir, putting herself in a very vulnerable place. She breaks down big ideas about white supremacy (often unnamed and therefore unaddressed) through painful personal stories. She exposes herself in every way she can in the service of shedding light on racial dynamics in the US.
The memoir opens with a chapter called “White People Are Exhausting,” in which she describes how white people usually expect her to be a white man because of her name. She writes that her parents chose her first name in part so that people would think she’s a white man on paper—“One day you will have to apply for jobs,” her mother tells her, “We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.” People definitely assume she is white and male, but it doesn’t always work out in her favor. Brown recounts an early incident—she’s seven—in which a librarian implies that she is lying and using someone else’s library card. Brown writes of her growing understanding of this racism:
People’s reaction to my name wasn’t about my gender. It was also about my brown skin. My legs stilled. That’s why the librarian hadn’t believed me. She didn’t know a name like Austin could be stretched wide enough to cloak a little Black girl.
How white people are exhausting extends to small, innocent/ignorant (i.e., they don’t realize are hurtful) comments that add up to a big drain on her energy, such as “comments about my hair. Accolades for being ‘surprisingly articulate’ or ‘particularly entertaining.’ Questions about single moms, the hood, ‘black-on-black crime’ and other hot topics I am supposed to know all about because I’m Black.” Brown describes her usual interactions with white people as being massively generalized: Brown isn’t so much an individual as a stand in for all Black people. White people are never similarly treated, she writes. Still, when she has a racist encounter and reports it, white friends and allies are quick to dismiss it as a misunderstanding or a one-off bad apple—not behavior that should be attributed to white people, just that white person alone. In the same chapter, she describes how white people attempt to exploit a relationship with her. They want to use her to prove they are diverse, use her to prove they aren’t racist, use her to learn about Blackness. But of course, they don’t really want to learn about Blackness, because that challenges whiteness.
These are the ways of “Nice White People,” which is the title of another chapter. The big problem with nice white people is that they believe there is no racism inside them. They think racists are easy to spot, because of their Nazi flags and tiki torches from Pier 1. But, Brown argues, that’s not how racism works. “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.”
Tellingly, when Brown challenges nice white people’s actions or attitudes, they get defensive and angry and seek her to affirm that they aren’t racist. They deploy the standard “I’m not a racist, ask my Black friend” sort of comment. Brown is pointing out racism, not attacking their intrinsic value, but nice white people can’t see that. They take Brown’s emotional labor and throw it away.
Guilty nice people may be worse. They see her as a cleanser figure and confess all their racist sins. Again Brown, and countless others, lose their individuality as they are transformed into tools for white people to feel better about themselves. They shove their burden onto Brown and others, expect them to hold this weight on their shoulders. Phew, now they feel better—the burden is lifted!
I’m Still Here has many moments of heartbreak, ranging from her favorite teacher worrying that two Black girls sitting together was “disruptive” to the class to having to deal with ignorant people saying random idiotic things about affirmative action. Maybe the worst example she gives of everyday punishment, though, is a trip she takes in college to learn more about Black history; the trip is called Sankofa. In it, twenty Black students are paired with twenty white students for a three-day journey in the South. The first stop is a plantation in Louisiana where the guides tells of “happy slaves” who sang while working in the fields. Later, the guides—having espoused inaccurate, romanticized versions of slave life—invite the students to pick cotton. “Black students,” she writes. “Picking cotton.” The Black students are enraged; the whites are confused, especially about the rage. After this, the group heads to a museum dedicated to lynching. Brown looks at bodies that look like hers hanging from trees. Bodies that had been beaten, brutalized, and burned. Tears are shed.
Unsurprisingly, this trip exposes a racial divide between the white and Black students. White students immediately distanced themselves from the museum’s images of white people gleefully pointing to the hanging Black bodies. They want to push those events as far away from that moment as possible: It’s not their fault, they weren’t there, they are different, this has nothing to do with the white students, they argue.
Meanwhile, the Black students are overwhelmed by feelings of connection to those who were lynched. To the Black students, this was a palpable reminder that their ancestors lived in fear and Black people still live in fear of white violence today.
While Brown helpfully narrates examples like this to illustrate concepts like white supremacy, white dissociation (i.e., innocence), and white fragility, she isn’t only writing to whiteness. In fact, she writes about why loving her Blackness had to be learned, how that happened, how crucial it is, and how trying to be a “white culture whisperer” alienated her from her community, leaving her lonely.
I want to reiterate that this memoir isn’t a bashing of white people. I experienced it—and Brown intended it—as an act of love, a term that she focuses on quite a bit throughout the text. As a Christian, Brown has had to reconcile her faith with reality. How can God be a loving entity when there is so much hate geared towards her and those who look like her? How can she love those who hate her for existing? She explores Christianity and these conflicts deeply in this book, and I will leave it to you to read how she resolves them.
Austin Channing Brown’s act of love was tough to read but also so very kind. Her accessible style is intimate and effortless. She uses simple, concrete language so that anyone can understand her complex ideas as well as empathize with experiences not their own. Her book was an act of emotional labor—and I honor the strain that it must have taken to bring I’m Still Here into being.
Erynn Porter is assistant editor for Quail Bell Magazine and the creative nonfiction editor for Blanket Sea. She lives in Manchester, NH, and has written for Bust, Bitch, and Brooklyn magazine, among other venues. See more of her work at erynnporter.com.
The Terrible By Yrsa Daley-Ward
New York, New York; Penguin, 2018, 224 pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Erika Gallion
Yrsa Daley-Ward’s new memoir, The Terrible, posits that “there is no word to describe the feeling of disappearing and being there at the same time”—and then creates a rich vocabulary for that feeling. Ward is an acclaimed poet whose visceral 2014 collection, bone, was self-published via CreateSpace. It became a best-seller and, in 2017, was repackaged by Penguin with a foreword by Kiese Laymon. Born to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, Daley- Ward grew up in Northern England with her maternal grandparents, devout Seventh Day Adventists, and went to a majority white school. Daley-Ward came to poetry as a way to process her inner life, and she expands on that journey of selfdiscovery in The Terrible.
The memoir is structured in four sections. First, is her childhood in Northern England, in which she confronts childhood-ruining concepts such as racism, addiction, male violence, and the hyper-sexualization of girls. During her depression-plagued adolescence, she battles with body image, disillusionment, continued experience with excessive male dominance, and the beginnings of sexual power. In the third part, her early adulthood features experimental drugs, sex work, her brother’s loss of innocence (which so closely mirrors her own), “a pure romantic love, her mother’s death, and surrendering to the darkness,” and, finally, Daley- Ward reckons with The Terrible—her mental illness and trauma made tangible—and eventual acceptance that The Terrible both disrupts and defines her.
The first reference to The Terrible occurs before the prologue begins, in a short opening note: “in love with how it happened so far, / even the terrible things. / and God, there were terrible things.” The last line exists at the bottom of the page, distant from the previous two lines, and is flipped upside down, creating a mirror-image before the book begins. Daley-Ward sets the tone of her memoir here, showing the dual nature of her battle with depression—the beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.
Many of the beautiful moments lie in Daley- Ward’s relationship with her baby brother, “Little Roo,” to whom the book is dedicated. In the prologue, Roo and Daley-Ward see a unicorn in their garden: “Sometimes, when the world around us grew indistinct, when facts would blur into less certain truths and frightening things looked set to occur, the two of us could see clearly into the Fourth Dimension.” These magical capabilities offered a reprieve for the two siblings, sustaining their hope amid the terror of their reality; as long as the two of them could see that unicorn in the garden, The Terrible starting to form would not win. Readers witness Roo and Daley-Ward struggling against their own versions of The Terrible, and see the siblings’ attempts to comfort each other as well as their inability to bridge the gap of one another’s pain.
As in bone, structure, spacing, and repetition play important tonal roles here. Daley- Ward purposefully plays with the visual representation of her words on the page, producing further metaphorical language in negative space. For example, in her poem “a test—things our bodies have been,” Daley-Ward makes an alphabetical list, each word existing on one line, creating a slim corpus of words edging the page. The Terrible uses similar tactics—her prose broken into stanzas or repeated via enjambment and spacing. Daley-Ward also uses subtitles through her memoir ’s sections, as if titling poems; in section one, pages are titled “Aa” and “Bb,” perhaps indicating her age and learning to read and speak. Later, Daley-Ward uses numbers (ages) in the same way, indicating a linear passage through the memoir. The Terrible varies between verse and prose, employing poetry (and in one instance screenplay) to build distance around the especially traumatic moments of Daley-Ward’s story. Her ability to traverse different genres amplifies the movement of the memoir, accelerating the story and disrupting readers’ grooves to intentionally ask for a closer reading.
“Beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.”
In sections one and two, Daley-Ward introduces readers to the racism and misogyny that bring forth The Terrible and force her to deny it. As a young girl, her mother tells her that her stepfather will be tempted to commit sinful acts because of her sexually maturing body. Meanwhile, her grandfather asserts that men are biblically above women and that male violence is inherent—male prerogative—so she must avoid triggering it. Later, at school and in her modeling career, Daley-Ward is encouraged to view her black body as a negative to be overlooked and forgiven due to her “cool” attitude and acceptable personality.
When Daley-Ward’s grandparents and mother begin taking notice of her gray moods, she is mocked, so she commits to hiding her pain. “I learn what not to feel,” she writes. Little Roo, too, is learning not to feel, a slippage that Daley-Ward notices early but is incapable of addressing. Nor can she address her hatred of her reflection and her obsessive eating habits; she believes that by following instructions laid out to her via the Bible and Disney, she will bloom into a likeable beauty.
As Daley-Ward grows, she gains “powerfear,” the name she gives to her ability to tempt men by playing in to her sexual appearance. Powerfear plagues nearly all sexual relationships Daley-Ward recounts in The Terrible. In one powerfear-fueled moment, Daley-Ward abruptly has sex with a window cleaner at her mother’s house: “He gets it out right there and then / and slides on a yellow condom. Yellow, she thinks. Ha, / yellow, she thinks. / My favorite color as a kid. / Yellow, she thinks. / Shit, I used to be a kid. / Yellow; / am I still / a… ”
Awareness percolates under The Terrible, which contaminates something as innocent as the color yellow with something to be scrubbed off in two sessions of bathing. Daley-Ward is masterful in how she depicts her constant distancing from awareness that The Terrible is real and has control. She turns to drugs to lift her out of “the terrible here and now.”
In section three, Daley-Ward meets William, falls in love, and finds a new narrative for relationships: “He stays. I can hardly believe it. It feels like the bottom will drop out of our thing. Any / Moment / Now. When he sleeps, I stare at his eyelashes in the dark and hope he never leaves. Sometimes I hold my breath to give the thing some weight. Some promise.” In the safety of this relationship, Ward faces The Terrible in a new way; instead of escaping, she looks: “There is something underneath my seams. What’s new?”
Things don’t miraculously resolve, and by the fourth and final section Daley-Ward is an adult coming back to visit troubled Little Roo. She tells him: “unicorns don’t exist / I say. Roo / says / ‘yeah they do / remember the garden?”
There is a satisfying reckoning as she ultimately faces The Terrible. “You may not run away from the thing that you are/because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you breathe. As certain. The thing is deep / inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have a lot of words for it. / Wherever you are, it catches you up.” Daley-Ward names this lonely pain, over and over again: The Terrible, this undeniable force in her life. She has bled out, silenced, and loathed The Terrible, but it thrives. The Terrible gives her poetry and darkness; The Terrible encourages her to distrust and to be alone. How can one combat The Terrible?
Yrsa Daley-Ward grabs The Terrible by the face and insists: “There will be more love.”
Erika Gallion is a writer and reader originally from Ohio and currently living in Los Angeles. She works at UCLA as an Academic Advisor.