Writers Bloc is very excited to share with you an extract from Sydney author Jen Craig's new book Panthers & the Museum of Fire. And if you love the story, you can join us on August 1st at 107 Projects in Redfern or on YouTube as we discuss the book and all things writing with Jen.
Panthers and the Museum of Fire
Pamela guessed that I probably hadn’t been in touch with Sarah for a while, I had told Raf when he came over to my place on the Sunday. As I walked past a series of shops that sold telephone plans, I recalled yet again what Pamela had said during the wake, and how much I had enjoyed relating to Raf this exchange we had had. Pamela had said I would hardly have recognised her sister these last few years before she died, it was so, so sad. Sarah had changed so much. She had become, did I know, quite a lot larger. She had never taken good care of herself, and this problem had only grown worse. Pamela had been worried about Sarah. She had worried constantly and for a number of reasons, but family can only do so much – no matter what she suggested, Sarah did her own thing – she could be amazingly stubborn, and so although the family were shocked at her passing, they weren’t that surprised. They had done what they could but Sarah hadn’t wanted to have a bar of any of their ideas, even when they had banded together and offered to pay for gym and swimming pool memberships, personal trainers, Weight Watchers programs, digital step counters, live-in-camps (in regenerating rural environments), Wii video games, even a spot on The Biggest Loser through a contact at work. And, of course, it was at this point that Pamela had looked at me, I told Raf as I shelled the prawns in front of him, involving him in the meal as soon as he arrived (Raf was rinsing the prawns after I’d gutted them and then patting them dry with piece after piece of paper towel) – this sister looking at me or if not quite at me, somewhere close to my head, even half a metre back, a change coming over her face as if only, at that moment, she had realised something that was vital – looking in my direction as she asked me whether I had changed my name – hinting at my name, my full although shortened name as she had known it once, and then saying it aloud with a sly show of innocence and an obvious smirk – she was sorry, she said, she had never realised it before – and it was the kind of smirk that I recognised from long years of hearing and seeing such smirks on account of my name. Every time someone smirks in this way, I told Raf, I can tell they are congratulating themselves for being on the ball and I hear these congratulations, these suppressed and so palpable self-congratulations. You have only known me since university, and so only since I had been robbed of my name by that weight loss company – a loss that I have never got over, as I’ve said before, on any number of occasions – because laughably – and this I have also said many times over – at the time of the launch of the company I had been anorexic, a bag of pathetic stick bones, as a neighbour of my parents had once called me to my mother in the garden. You first got to know me at university not long after I was anorexic – or in fact while I was still anorexic – and my name was a mockery, I reminded him yesterday, and so your getting to know me and having to accept the mockery of my name during those new, early days of the diet company, while I still walked the country as a bag of stick bones with a diet company’s name – or the diet company had named itself after me, the bag of stick bones – all this had occurred at the same time. I could have changed my name, of course, as I’ve said before, I had gone on to say. At the time so many people advised me to change my name, yourself included – do you remember? Very likely not. But I was anorexic at that time and so I refused to listen to what they and you were saying. No anorectic can bear advice, and particularly no advice that touches on or even seems to touch on our inviolate selves. I know I have probably said much of this before, but I know that many people don’t understand this, can never understand this, which is why the problem of anorexia is only getting worse and worse. Anorectics are hypersensitive to any remark that seems to relate to their bodies as selves – not so much their bodies as such, but their bodies as the visible part of the self they are doing their utmost to protect from the inquisition of everyone else. There are a lot of theories in the world about anorexia, and most of them are useless. Every doctor, every parent, every sister, every friend, every busybody neighbour has an opinion on anorexia; every psychiatrist, every counsellor, every cook, every friend of a friend. All those who haven’t been anorexic themselves have no idea about anorexia because they have never led an anorexic existence, and it is the anorexic existence – the nature of this existence – the primacy of this existence – which matters more than anything else in the world to an anorectic. An anorectic needs to exist in this way because there is nothing else in their existence but existence itself; everything else in the world they have given up for this existence; the anorectic is an addict of the anorexic existence. The fact that many such existences come to grief in a premature death is neither here nor there for the anorectic. I know that in the past you have accused me of exaggerating the situation, both exaggerating the situation and the logic of the anorectic, but the anorectic is already in an exaggerated state; the anorectic is already an exaggeration. The existence that anorectics have chosen and continue to maintain for themselves at great cost to themselves is the one and only thing that they can be sure of in the world and so the fact that this existence will soon, in the course of things – and directly as a result of this existence – extinguish itself – a fact that no one ever hides from anorectics but instead uses as a weapon against them as often as they can – the supposed fact that an anorexic existence will soon, very directly, lead to a ceasing of that existence, even this anorexic existence, is hardly a matter of importance to them. The existence of anorectics is whole, entire, and they know that this wholeness and entirety will persist until the moment of death – that is, until the end of existence, their existence – which is all that they are asking for. Anorectics don’t ask much of this world; all they ask is to be left to themselves in their anorexic existence, which they have chosen themselves for themselves and for nobody else. Anorectics require little more of life than that they might be free to maintain the anorexia they have chosen in their highly magnified – or if you like, exaggerated – way, but nobody ever leaves them alone in this state. You will find, instead, that no one can resist attempting to interfere with the life of an anorectic. Look around you – although now, I admit, you would have to go quite a distance to see an anorectic – you would have to go out to schools, to beaches, to gyms, to libraries in the suburbs, to solitary paths behind car parks – you couldn’t just stay in our own little circle here in the city to see an anorectic – but if you were able to find one you would see, just as quickly, that this girl – and they are usually girls, although not always – this girl is always surrounded by busybodies and interferers. Many of the busybodies and interferers are her own parents or the friends and colleagues of her parents, but just as many of them are her own age and purport to be her friends. The busybodies and interferers are always passing judgement on an anorectic and they are unable to keep to themselves the judgement they make, for one reason: that they assume it is always the anorectic who is wrong and they who are right; that the perspective of the anorectic is, by definition, distorted, and that their own perspective, again by their own definition, clear and true. Although it is correct – I had reminded Raf, I thought as I hurried towards the Wattle Street intersection which I dreaded – that the anorectic is already, on her own, in an exaggerated state, this is not the same as saying that her perspective is distorted. Everything about the existence of an anorectic is exaggerated, from the wholeness of her existence to the threat to her self in a single thawed pea, and yet this is far from saying that she has a distorted perspective. When I was an anorectic, myself, my existence was perfect. Seen now, from the perspective of now, this is only an exaggeration, not at all a distortion. Looking back, I know that I exaggerated the perfection of the existence I had made for myself as an anorectic, but I also remember that my existence, during those months and years, was as perfect as it has ever been in all the years since I stopped being an anorectic; that during those years when I was anorexic, my existence was as complete and inviolable – in fact more complete and inviolable – than it has ever been since. I had to wrench my self from my anorexic existence to be free of it. In fact, I had to kill the self that was anorexic. I could have no pity. I had to decide for myself to force my self to understand my self, and it was only in this way that I could throttle the anorectic. I was surrounded, as is every anorectic, by the scourge of busybodies and interferers – and particularly since my neighbour, who was four years younger, and so impressionable, as my mother had told me – particularly since this neighbour had seemed to contract anorexia not long after I did, my influence becoming a baleful, malicious, conniving influence, or so I’d heard the mother accusing my mother one evening as she stood on the doorstep with a pair of pruning shears in one hand, some ropes of purple flowering lantana in the other – and so it was only when I was able to be free of this scourge in any way possible – as luck would have it the family next door soon moved away, but the girl never recovered, as I heard, and died in care only a few months later – it was only by keeping my self to the house, refusing to go out, that I had any chance whatsoever in throttling the anorectic. Had the busybodies and interferers succeeded in swaying me in any way at all I would still be an anorectic today. I might have emerged for a time and then submerged a year later – I might have emerged and submerged any number of times; I might have become that impossible long-lived anorectic, that too sweet, too vapid, too devious mind. As it was, I decided myself to kill the anorectic; none of this you would have understood from knowing me then, I had said very directly to Raf; none of this could you have possibly found out from anybody else. According to my parents, the local general practitioner did wonders. The fact that she was a complete and utter idiot and insufferable in her self- congratulations over the supposedly clever plan she had devised – her clever plan that I should write a daily list of what I ate and so match it up to a recommended plan, which I only ever falsified to hertotal gullibility (the insult, I had thought, that she could think that it would work) – only adds to my irritation with this falsifying tale, and yet I have always allowed them to think that the local general practitioner saved me from anorexia. Over the years I have listened to the tale of how the local general practitioner was a saviour. I have heard my parents recommend her to friends of others, to the children of friends of friends – and yet I have never once told them how wrong they are. It is the last thing I would ever want to tell them. Let them take the credit – with the doctor – that they saved me from anorexia, and they will never learn the truth about my anorexia. They and the doctor can take the credit for saving me from anorexia if it means that they leave my thoughts and me alone to themselves. It is my thoughts and I that are paramount in this case. I cannot bear – and I have never been able to bear, at any time in my life – any interference with my self – particularly my thoughts. It was this anxiety on behalf of my self, and hence my thoughts, which in fact convinced me that I had to kill the anorectic. When it came to a choice between my body as experience and my thoughts as experience I had to choose my thoughts. There was nothing else to be done. Until I decided to be done with the anorectic, I was always being interfered with by supposed well-wishers, friends and friends of my parents – as well as people who are only out to accuse anorectics, like those neighbours of my parents, whose daughter, as I remember, was so cowed by their meddling, so anxious to live (and die) as she wanted, that I would catch her watching me from her room in the house next door through the bare stick branches in the trees between us, sitting so still, in such complete concentration, that if I moved, I knew, she would hardly notice, even as I knew she was watching me and had always done this. Anything anybody said, at that stage, was interpreted invariably – by my self, or more specifically, my anorexic self – as an intrusion into that self, an attempt to interfere; an invitation from my friends to go out I would always know to be an attempt by them – in conspiracy with my parents – to assault my body, to stuff my anorexic self with whatever food they could find, which would dull my self, making thoughts impossible; an invitation to the movies – as an attempt to brainwash or to distract me from my self; a book, ditto; a chat, ditto; as I’ve said before, the busybodies and interferers that surround an anorectic cannot control themselves when it comes to intruding and interfering. Have you ever heard of someone who leaves an anorectic alone? Of course, any advice to change my nameat that time I would have interpreted as an intrusion and interference – because how else were these others interpreting what was happening but through the state of my self made visible and vulnerable to them by the apparent consequences of my anorexia? The fact that my name happened to coincide, then, with a newly formed multi-national dieting company could not be a fact that was left to itself, a momentary irritation, but needed to be brought to my situation, as I saw it, and interpreted through the anorexic visible self that they were always watching. It is very likely that the coincidence was more disturbing to others – to my parents and the busybodies – than it ever was to me, because the fact that others began repeatedly urging me to change my name – and this repeated urging on the part of others, however much I might have wanted to change my name as a result of my own irritation with the coincidence, meant that I became more and more adamant in refusing to do anything about my name, and more and more determined to kill the anorectic that was bringing this scourge upon me, this constant interference. As far as these others are concerned, they and the doctor – and the irritation of my name – were the ones to cure me of anorexia, but I have to tell you now – and only you, because you’re my friend and have known me for years, that there was never any cure for my anorexic self; I killed the anorectic, as I’ve already told you, I swallowed it down so that it was no longer visible, no longer on show. No one ever tells you this, but anorexia cannot be cured, only killed and then swallowed – saying all this to Raf, even though I had no idea what I meant by these words ‘killed’ or ‘swallowed’, I couldn’t help thinking as I ran across the gap at Wattle Street with one or two others, thrilled to be dicing with death in this way.
Jen Craig is a fiction writer and a Doctoral candidate with the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. Her short stories have appeared in HEAT, Southerly, Redoubt and the Redress Press anthology Shrieks. In addition to short fiction, she has worked with composers Stephen Adams and Michael Schneider in the production of texts for music performances, including the chamber opera A Dictionary of Maladies. Her first novel, Since the Accident, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2009. She teaches English language skills and creative writing, and blogs about micro fiction and about writing issues.
You can buy a copy of Panthers & the Museum of Fire here.
Geoff Orton is the founder of Writers Bloc. He's also a teacher and a Boston Celtics tragic.