A Thousand Gentle Smotherings


Celeste Marcus

For my mother


  She was lithe, slim, and so pale that when her cheeks flushed the pink seemed almost painted in watercolor onto her iridescent white skin. Thick blonde hair spilled over her shoulders and down her back, and her wide, sapphire-blue eyes gave her an aura of innocence and delight. This small, lovely creature embodied fully the clean goodness of our shared religious universe. In the ceremonies and the services that the congregation came together to perform, she flowed effortlessly into the spirit of collective holiness to which every other participant was, to varying degrees, failing to give themselves over. Quiet, modest, tiny, and sweet, she was a model member of our community — a chosen one among God’s chosen people. In the knee-length skirts and simple long-sleeved blouses that we were required to wear at our Modern Orthodox Jewish high school, she was wholly comfortable and naturally pure — so far above and worlds away from anything crude or even complicated. It was mesmerizing, the way those clothes wrapped her body, the way her little hip bones gently punctuated the folds of her skirt and her shoulder blades were just barely visible beneath the flowing fabric. She was sublimely delicate. For four years I adored her, and the adoration flickered into an obsession, not because I wanted her but because I wanted to be like her, and if I could not be like her — as I was later to discover, brutally, I could not — I would be near her, study her, and admire her.
  We met first when I had just become what I would always remain within that world — an outsider, thrown into and enamored of the peculiar energy of Modern Orthodox Judaism, and especially of Modern Orthodox Jewish women. It seemed to me that all of the many laws governing the temperaments, the orientations, and the actions of Modern Orthodox Jewesses were designed to create a girl just like her. There are so many rules and restrictions, so many carefully delineated categories. Consider only the room, the “sanctuary,” of a Modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue. Through it runs a mechitza, or partition, which divides the men from the women. In the men’s section is the closet or “ark” which contains the Torah, towards which the congregation faces; and the bimah, or stage, on whichstands the shulchan, or table, from which the Torah is read; and near it the amud, or podium, from which the shaliach tzibur, or “messenger of the congregation,” leads the service. From their seats in the women’s section, the women watch the ritual and liturgical action of the men, except in those synagogues in which they cannot adequately see it — there they merely listen. Men can be rabbis and women cannot, and this, coupled with the centrality of the male section of the sanctuary, conditions women to be comfortable as quiet spectators. (We were often told that men need to be bribed with positions of leadership to convince them to participate in rituals, whereas women, naturally holier, are inclined independently to worship.)
  Men and women who are not related to one another are forbidden any form of physical touch, and even husbands and wives are forbidden from touching while the woman has her period because menstruation renders her impure, a condition that can be remedied by her immersion in a mikvah, orritual bath when her period ends. A woman must at all times be tznuah, or modest. The practices of tznius vary from community to community, but broadly they require that when in public a woman’s skirts must cover the knees, shirts must cover the collarbone and the elbows, and married women must cover their hair.
  These are all facets of Orthodox Jewish life which are the products of concrete and time-honored laws, which, with the proper training or guidance, one can look up and read for oneself. All of these statutes, and the cultural etiquettes and norms — the minhagim or customs — that are more powerful for not being written down, conjure an image of femininity entirely fulfilled by that tiny blonde’s chaste, cherubic smile.


  I make people think of sex. Among the long-skirted mothers who kept watch over the sacred plot of earth surrounding our synagogue, there developed the suspicion that something filthy had been smuggled in and let loose. The women intuited this, they detected it, long before I knew what that thing was. Since I was a little girl, a creature in me — the highest, dirtiest iteration of me — has emanated a kind of intense awareness, an energy that induces others to feel like they are being seduced and stripped. I wanted to excise this sexed thing who robbed me of any pretensions to modesty, sweetness, innocence, and purity — the certified conditions of proper girlhood. She is discomfiting, this daemon of mine. People, especially other girls, don’t like women at a high pitch. (Judging from the insecurities and the prejudices of the women I have encountered in adulthood, I gather that this initiation into girlhood is near-universal.) “Softer, gentler, calmer, please,” girls think, silently tensing their fragile bodies. When we are still toddlers, girls are taught to suspect womanly intensity, to fear it and abort it. “They can smell it on her,” one rabbi told my father when I was still in high school. I was a pathogen.
  Purification is always an act of violence. Eventually, when all else failed, I tried to kill her. I began to associate the sensation of my ribs and knee sockets jutting into the underside of my skin with goodness, with sisterhood. They would like me this way. A ferocious need for acceptance sustained me while I sat in my seat, pinching and twisting excess skin on my arms and hands to distract from the buzz in my ears. I so badly wanted them to like me. If I starved her down to a fidgeting, senseless slip, the inner vixen would be neutralized and I would be clean. The girls in my class would not be repelled by me. I could stop hunting their mothers’ faces for side glances and pursed lips, listening for the steel in their voices. I would be like them: blunted, muted, small, and supremely innocuous.
  I became a girl who starves herself the way a riverbed erodes — steadily, irreversibly, after a thousand gentle smotherings. Years of grating my sex against their purity sanded me into that peculiar self. Circumstance is always messy. Within the experience, it was difficult to interpret accurately what was happening, how I incited the responses and made the choices I did. Now I will try. From this vantage point, with the clarity of hindsight and a full stomach, I will plot the strange trajectory out of childhood into that hospital bed.


  Even in middle school, my sex inspired different responses in men. Some were wary of it and kept their distance. Others interpreted my dirtiness (even now, reflexively, I accept that descriptor) as proof that I fell within the jurisdiction of their desires and appetites. Those who indulged the impulse considered me their thing. I was for them. When I was young this sort of man — fathers of classmates, teachers, religious leaders, parents’ friends — manifested their sense of possession through paternalism. It was a guiltless expression of ownership, a legitimate way to assert an illegitimate claim. They didn’t touch me, they just protected me from corruptions beyond my ken. They imagined the sins for me and sometimes they even described them to me.
  An early memory is particularly illustrative. In a synagogue parking lot after a bat mitzvah party, I hoisted up a sequined JC Penny cocktail dress that shimmied downwards while I walked towards our car. A few paces behind me, Solomon Goldberg, whom I still associate with beer, football games, and too-tight polo shirts snug over an expanding gut, whispered to my father “Your daughter’s a fox.” My dad relayed the message, probably to justify his disapproval of sequined cocktail dresses. At the time I was relieved that this man had been honest or grotesque enough to say it out loud, to put words to the suspicions I so often had that there was something transgressive and unjustifiable about me. “They do see it,” I thought. And simultaneously I recognized that my relief was a vile response to his prurience, and I was ashamed of that, too.
  In the years between bat mitzvahs and twelfth grade, my family became rapidly more religious. Whereas in elementary and middle school I attended Conservative day schools, I transferred into the Orthodox high school in ninth grade, and the Orthodox bubble into which I had only ventured with my father for synagogue on Saturday mornings became my entire world. It felt like being thrown without warning into a dance for which everyone else had been learning the choreography since infanthood. The steps were unfamiliar to me. Diligently, almost obsessively, I studied the etiquettes and behaviors of my new peers, convinced that if I could only learn enough, if I could only become proficient in their vernacular, this marrow-deep alienation would dissipate. Over time as I came increasingly to love it, I nonetheless realized that there was something essential about me that would always be at odds with the texture of that place.
  I was not the only one to notice this. One afternoon just before the start of senior year, a rabbi from school visited my house. Apparently, he had asked my father for permission to warn me about the evils that were awaiting me in the big world beyond our bubble. (“Your father told me I could have this conversation with you.”) Standing in the middle of my backyard armed with his iPad, he navigated to the Aeropostale website, and held the screen out to me for inspection. Thin, perky teenage girls wearing logo-emblazoned t-shirts and tight jeans grinned up from the screen. “How would you describe these models, Celeste?” I didn’t know exactly what he was getting at, and so paused for a moment before muttering “They’re pretty.” He said: “Pretty. Okay. How do you think the boys in your class would describe them?” I said: “The boys in my class would say those girls are hot.” He smiled. “Right. And how would they describe you?” A little nervously, I replied: “Not…. Not like that.” “Correct,” my would-be protector concluded triumphantly. “You’re not hot, Celeste, you’re sexy. That’s more dangerous than being hot. And if you go to a secular college, you’ll attract the wrong kind of attention. Not just from boys – from professors, from men.”
  I stopped eating just before graduating from high school in part because the many men who prophesied that trouble awaited me outside of our religious haven had inspired a foreboding, a mounting fear. Male lust was among the catalysts of this fear, but it was not exactly its object. I was not afraid of men, not yet. I was afraid of who I would become and what that development would cost me, how far it would force me from our haven and the ideal it preserved and protected. Leaving would mean admitting that I had no place inside the Jewish framework in which I had first encountered holiness. The term itself was bound up with that place, as were the concepts of goodness, beauty, and wisdom. My understanding of those ideals was entirely shaped by a world in which I did not belong. And so I could not conceive of those things existing in a world away from the one I knew, and I could not conceive of myself as consistent with any of them, since they were a part of a world the essence of which was inconsistent with mine. I could not have them — could not even imagine them — outside, but I corrupted them by staying.
  What is to be done when one is fundamentally wicked? How can you honor the very values your nature violates?
  The crime was not consciously conceived. I didn’t decide that I was going to kill her. I merely stopped eating. I did that to purify myself of that physical, titillating fullness, to snuff out my own strength and all of its manifestations — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and of course sexual. Among the axioms that I absorbed from the normative profile of Jewish womanhood was that any sort of seriousness is fundamentally un-feminine, that a forceful woman is a guilty woman. When I finally left that little world, of course, I discovered that this understanding is fundamental also to the secular communities to which I fled. It turned out that mechitzas come in godless settings, too. The barriers abound, we just can’t see them.
  Starvation, as I say, was my form of absolution. Through the hunger I was absolved of responsibility for sex. I was doing nothing less than abdicating womanhood. Sexual power is a complex responsibility for anyone, but particularly for someone so young who wears it so openly. It was as if I was walking around naked no matter what I was wearing. Ever since I can remember, my presence made people feel in turns violated, excited, compromised, and defiled.
  From ninth to twelfth grade the tension between the part of me that was forceful and provocative and the part of me that fetishized quiet cleanliness intensified. It manifested in odd ways — in explosions of energy that I at once feared and relished. I pity every teacher whose responsibility it was to look after me during that period. I was a liability, and a perplexing one because I never did anything technically wrong. I didn’t break the rules. Mine was a strange sort of subversion: I upset our wholesome ecosystem simply by staying inside it, putting on a pathetic performance of membership. Usually everyone pretended not to notice. Direct acknowledgement that I did not belong was rare. The memory of one such clash still resurfaces like a recurring nightmare: during my freshman year of high school, the head of secular studies called me into her office and told me that, though I hadn’t broken the dress code, though my skirt covered my knees and my shirt covered my collarbone and elbows, still I “dressed promiscuously.” I told her that, according to the handbook, dressing promiscuously was not a punishable offense and, proud and humiliated, I went back to class. That was the closest anyone ever got to telling me that I wasn’t playing the part convincingly. No one else did me the cruel favor of saying it outright.
  Most of the members of that world were wary of me. They weren’t cruel, they were distant. If I sat with the other girls at lunch time, they would not send me away, but they didn’t naturally make space for me. Their eyes glimmered at jokes I did not understand, and their lips curled out of step with mine. In the social hall after services on Shabbat, if I were talking to a rabbi his wife would materialize like clockwork a minute or two into the conversation and tell him it was time to leave. There was no cataclysmic eviction, there were infinite tiny ones. Even in the mind of a teenage girl (especially in such a mind) one begins to detect a pattern and draw the proper conclusions. I was not despised, I was suspected.
  Most were disturbed by me, but some of them were drawn to me against their better judgment. I coveted that magnetic pull, seduction’s lifeblood. Even while I was disgusted by my energy, I indulged it. In casual conversations I would stare too long and too directly into the eyes of interlocutors who caught my interest, stripping them without loosening a button. Can I claim I was too young to be held accountable? That I could not adequately have understood this strange power? It must be partially true, because over the years I have learned to control it, to modulate or shut it off. I have, in other words, grown up. But even early on, I must admit the outrageous energy was fueled by a disquieting, precocious conviction, brazenly communicated, that I knew exactly what I was doing. They understood me: “All I want is privileged intimacy with the deepest parts of you. I don’t need to touch you in order to have that. You can show it to me; your wife or your husband won’t mind. They won’t even notice.” Can I claim that, technically, I hadn’t done anything wrong? That even if I had, the power was out of my control — that I couldn’t help it? I don’t know. I didn’t help it, I know that.
  In my purer phases, I tried to channel the intensity into virtuous ends, telling myself that it was religious fervor. It was an elaborate, absurd game of imitation. In those periods I would wear long skirts and sleeves all the time, whereas when I first started high school I used to change into leggings and a t-shirt as soon as I got home. I began to pray three times a day, even though women are not obligated by Jewish law to pray with regular frequency, as the men are. There were many instances when I was the only person on the woman’s side of the mechitza: a pious young girl. Once, at a service after an event at school, men had to build a makeshift mechitza for me because they hadn’t expected any women to be there. Wasn’t this the proper use of my maelstrom? Didn’t this render it clean? Longing for union with God, longing for spiritual extremity — what was wrong with that? (How many others have disguised surfeits of libidinal energy as religious zeal?) But my religious solution failed. Piety ignited the powerful fullness that both thrilled and sickened me. There is a type of woman whose passion, no matter its catalyst, is always interpreted as a provocation. Whatever her intention, if she is forceful she is also seductive. Her excitation is illicit even when it is religious. The more intense her excitement, the more powerfully she provokes. I, a child inflamed by the possibility of touching the infinite, was like this. Fervor fed fervor. When I pushed myself to develop a religious passion, my sex got stronger too. I encouraged it by accident.
  I did not mean to do this, and I was ashamed of it. I longed to be small and sweet, I longed to blunt myself. My shame was what perversely bound me to my community — not Judaism itself, which is a vast civilization that provides for all the varieties of souls, but Modern Orthodox Jews. Since I had come from a Conservative Jewish world in which members were, by orders of magnitude, less Jewishly educated than their Modern Orthodox counterparts, it was impossible for me not to associate Judaism itself with this particular community’s construction of it. They certainly did know more, but the price of their knowledge was intolerance — they had riches to protect. As long as I lived inside their fold, the shame secured my space there. It was a pact: I wasn’t like them, I possessed a disgusting vitality that compromised their purity, but so long as I was ashamed of it, I could still operate within their framework. I wanted to belong with them even while my membership in their ranks sapped me of the parts of myself that gave me strength.
  I worried, though, that after I graduated and entered the world about which they warned us the shame would dissipate, and I would be free but cast out. My nature would cost me my membership. What sins would I commit? What would I become? Who could forgive such a woman? Who could love her? She could be no one’s wife, and certainly no one’s mother. I knew that out there there would be nothing left to suppress my strange power. It would expand and mature in my new circumstances, and my connection to my community and all the uncomplicated goodness that it safeguarded would be destroyed.


  Starvation is another kind of extremity, so I was very good at it. Counting calories was my primary activity. I did everything else around that. I was stuck inside the calculations, the material metrics of self-worth, and I couldn’t go anywhere else inside my own head. It felt like swinging in tiny, swift circles over and over and over again, and while trapped in those circuits the distant worry that my entire life was going to be swallowed up by numbers and hunger beat itself against the back of my brain.
  After only a few months my spine would scrape against the backs of chairs. Bent forward, I could reach my hand around and run my fingers over the vertebrae, which I did often, ritualistically, to calm myself, to assure myself of my straitening progress. My hip bones jutted up above my legs, my hair began to fall out, my period stopped. I was cold all the time, dizzy, irritable. It was hard to concentrate, it was impossible to read. This was all a relief. This was very good.
  I remember an afternoon lying face up on a couch in our living room staring at the ceiling, which appeared to be fading from bright white to baby blue and back again. (Colors and lights fluctuated mysteriously during those months, as if rebuking me for waging a war against my own nature.) The hunger was so fierce that the room was spinning. I knew that I was too dizzy to do any of the individual actions required to get food, and I also knew that even if I could manage to get to food I wouldn’t permit myself to eat it. I was proud of all this.
  The teachers in my small school had noticed that suddenly I was skinny. One woman, a very sweet and small woman, pulled me aside after class one day to express concern and support. Even in that deepening pit, I didn’t respect other women just for being thin. On the contrary, I was contemptuous of skinny girls. Skinny girls, if they were not sweet, waif-life, and cherubic, if they were merely bony, were then, like me, afraid to be full. While I wanted a tiny waist and a jutting collar bone, I didn’t admire those things. They were my punishment. If I were bony I would not be worthy of respect, and that was why I was doing all this.
  Contempt colored my response to the concerned, tiny teacher. It didn’t flatter or scare me that she was worried about my problem. I nodded and smiled back at her, simultaneously calculating the number of calories that I had permitted myself so far that day. (Between 340 and 350 – there was a dispute among the nutrition websites pulled up on my phone and laptop regarding the caloric value of medium-sized navel oranges.)
  Somebody convinced a rabbi, a man infamous for his acidic intellectual pride and snobbery, whom I revered for precisely those qualities, to intervene before I did serious damage to myself. After school one day he asked if we could talk. We sat in an empty room for a long while in silence, and then he said in an almost bored tone of voice: “Everyone knows that something is wrong with you. I’m not going to make you explain it to me. If you want to tell me, I’ll listen, and if not you’re free to leave.” For years afterwards I could not understand why his intervention worked. Now I suspect that it was his derisive tone, the disgust he exuded which inspired my trust. The tiny woman had been loving, she had behaved as if the central problem was starvation — as if she didn’t know that being skinny kept me from being something worse. What use was that to me? But this man with his detachment and his smirk radiated the same contempt for me that I had. It did the trick. A doctor’s appointment was scheduled.
  Naked beneath a thin paper smock, a nurse checked my vitals while I glared at the rolls of skin at the base of my belly. She shook her head and muttered, “Maybe the machine is broken. Sweetie, hold out your hand. I’m going to check your heart rate the old-fashioned way.” The woman pressed her fingers hard against my wrist and stared at her watch for sixty seconds. “Is something wrong?” I asked, still focused on my stomach. “Just wait a second, honey,” she anxiously said. “I’ll get the doctor.” The doctor explained that my heart rate was dangerously low, because “your body is not getting enough energy, so it’s begun to suck the fat out of your heart and your brain. As your heart gets weaker it will lose the strength it needs to regulate blood flow. It will destabilize and you will be at risk for a heart attack.”
  I was taken to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In the waiting room I wondered whether I would be back in time for poetry slam practice that evening. I was sure I would be home within a few hours, the next day at the latest. The dizzy seventeen-year-old in the waiting room had no idea what she had brought on herself. The next two weeks would be a boot camp in the rhythms of life as an invalid, a patient without the trust or freedom of a functional human being.
  What a hell it was. The overwhelming associated sensation was of being filthy in a sterile place, which was exactly what my adolescence had been. I was filthy because for the first week I wasn’t allowed to shower. I wasn’t allowed to do anything that required excessive movement. There were strict rules to keep patients from burning calories. Those first days I was made to lie flat on my back in bed all the time. If I had to go to the bathroom I would be wheeled in a wheelchair and the door would be left ajar to keep me from forcing my fingers down my throat. When they finally allowed me to shower (praise God) I had to sit down on a plastic chair beneath the faucet so that I wouldn’t burn calories standing. Predictably, meals and consumption were highly regulated: breakfast at 8:15, snack at 11:00, lunch at 12:15, snack at 3:00, dinner at 5:30, snack at 8:30. They warned that we were required to clear the plate entirely within thirty minutes and if the patient resisted, she would be force-fed high calorie protein shakes.
  So, in a perverse sense, I had ended up exactly where I had hoped I would — in a hospital bed, hooked up to an EKG, unable to sit up or even read a book. (“The brain is a muscle, and you aren’t allowed to exercise those.”) That bed was a blunting booth, it was sanding down everything sharp in me, transforming my body and my brain into vats of jelly. I took orders, put my arm out when they wanted to draw blood, chewed and swallowed as directed. The hours stretched, and crawled forward on their bellies into one another. All along I had intended to reduce myself, but I have never again known such misery.
  Nights were the most dangerous time, because one’s heart rate slows while one is sleeping. If the numbers slipped below 30, an alarm would sound to wake me up in order to prevent a heart attack. During my entire stay in the hospital, my mother kept vigil while I slept. From the moment I fell asleep until 5:30 the next morning, when the nurse would awaken me to draw blood, my mother would stare at the EKG, silently ordering the numbers to rise. Towards the end of those two weeks, semi-deranged, incapable of gratitude or graciousness, I would sob and beat the floor, begging her to take me out of the damned cell.


  I did recover. That particular battle ended, the hair and the weight came back, I got my period again (for which I was grateful exactly once). But the demons do not disappear, they merely regroup. This war is lifelong.
  My demons, like all people’s demons, cannot be disentangled from who I am. No precise surgical removal, leaving only the strengths, is possible. A part of my mind, a sphere within it, is governed by a bottomless compulsion to self-sabotage. That injurious dimension of me is fully the match of my better elements in strength and in cleverness, and is nourished by the same wealth of human experience, which means it can never be defeated or satisfied. It can only evolve as I do, and be described correctly, and be managed by means of both reason and feeling. My objective is not to defeat my demons, but to study and to understand them. In high school, the sheer power of these two forces, my demons and their enemies (my angels?), both of which had only just become aware of themselves and each other, vastly surpassed their maturity, or rather my maturity, which is why the battle that I have just described was so crude, explosive, frightening, and perhaps ridiculous.
  Whatever else it was, it was certainly a feverish response to coming of age in a system which regards women primarily as dangerous temptations. Even years after I left the world in which that conception had been imbibed, I conceived of myself and my womanhood first and foremost as a stumbling block for innocent but susceptible men. The men must be protected, the women must be blunted. And who must the men be protected from? From the women, of course — but not exactly. The truth is that the men had to be protected from the women because the men had to be protected from themselves — from their strength of desire and their weakness of will. And since they were incapable or unwilling to protect themselves, since the reality of their lust was regarded as an unalterable fact, a system was devised in which the women had to protect the men. They accomplished this by changing the way they looked and acted — the way they moved through the world as women. We lacerated ourselves and each other so as to leave men unblemished, and unencumbered by decency and restraint. We hurt ourselves and left them intact.
  There was never an occasion to unlearn this system. I never discovered how to reconfigure my mental architecture. Moreover, the dangers of which the rabbis had prophetically warned me did find me: I have experienced awful violations. And it was the old system of womanly impurity, the old myth of female responsibility for male behavior, that dictated how I interpreted those violations. Inside my own mind I was already guilty — guilty before the skirt was lifted, guilty before the zipper was pulled down. Curled in a ball after the violence was over, it was myself whom I accused. I had not fallen victim to my assailant’s entitlements and cruelties, he had fallen victim to my provocations.
  Countless times alone in my room I howled “Why am I like this? What is it about me that makes them do this?” Is it not obvious that guilt is an insane response to having been assaulted? But reason yields in this realm of raw pain, especially when one has been trained to doubt and even despise oneself. Empirically speaking, the self-torment of the victim is certainly not unusual. I need two hands to count the variations on the following conversation I had with friends after whispering the details of my unwilling role in the latest enactment of the old story. They would say, “Did you report it?” I would shake my head and then fall silent, wrestling with the barbed knot of reasons why I hadn’t sought justice. And in that bewildered silence I would hear my friend say, “I didn’t report it when it happened to me either.”
  There are still voices in my head which hector that if I had only stayed in that sacred haven, my origin bubble, these crimes would never have been committed — that they were the wages of my tastes for autonomy and curiosity, of my thirst for full strength and a larger horizon. But I cannot believe in such a merciless binary. Women must not be forced to choose between suppression and predation, between the blunting booth and an assailant’s open mouth. Even now, after centuries of sweat and fury, we remain prisoners of our own misconceptions. Men, and bless the exceptions to this brutish rule, will always demand what is not theirs to claim — either unqualified access to and ownership of our powers, or their asphyxiation. But punishment for our strengths requires our own complicity. We are lost so long as we believe that a powerful woman is a guilty woman. It is not true, my friends, it is not true.