Swallowing a Stone

Posted on Apr 02nd 2021

I dreamed again last night of murder. I was the murderer and I was among the people trying to escape his killing intentions. I woke terrified, my heart thumping wildly to drive my escape.

There is no escape from where I am now. The pandemic has finally locked me in with myself and I think of a quote from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (left out of the Bible), that I felt the truth of years ago: If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. 

When I worked as an actor, in my 20s, I was often cast in strong dramatic roles, and when the roles weren’t strong and dramatic I made them so. At last there was somewhere I could shout at people, and be applauded for it. Some directors loved the heft of what I brought. Some actors, writers, and others – always men – did not.

I was cast as Bubba in the classic Australian play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which I toured with the Sydney Theatre Company to a festival in upstate New York. Bubba isn’t very fleshed out in the play, representing a stuckness on the part of the older characters who do not see that as they have aged she has become a young woman and is no longer a child. When she meets a young man who wants to know her real name, she understands that someone sees her as she is.

'He asked me. ... And he didn't call me Bub, or kid. He wanted to know my real name, and that is what he called me. Kathy.'

One night during director’s notes after the performance an older actor voiced his concern, in front of the whole company, that I was delivering the lines with anger. He felt it was too much, and he wasn’t comfortable with it. Richard, the director, didn’t agree. But it stuck for me. I toned it down after that. It wasn’t warranted, that a young woman could be angry at not being seen.

The same thing happened a year or two later, in a play about Ezra Pound, in which I was cast as a psychiatrist, challenging Pound on his support for fascism. I had a pivotal speech in the piece that included the lines, ‘Mussolini was a tyrant. Hitler was a butcher.’ In one rehearsal, I made the designer cry with those lines, with an angry, impassioned delivery, as I felt the truth of it shaking through me. He spoke to me afterwards about how moved he had been. The writer, though, wasn’t happy. He came backstage during a performance to tell me my delivery was too much. The director didn’t agree and was furious with him for planting the idea in my head, but the scene never really recovered.

I wanted to be angry and applauded. I wanted to be angry and loved. I wanted to find that was possible, but it seemed that it was not.

I gave up acting years ago. I came to understand that the catharsis I sometimes experienced on stage didn’t help me address the issues of trauma and unhappiness in my real life. So I stopped. I needed to.

Years later I wrote a novel about the Suffragettes, an imagistic, poetic piece of work that remains unpublished. I was invited to read from it at an event for new work, in a room above a pub, with various other graduates and tutors from the Creative Writing Masters I had just completed.

As I read, I felt the anger in the words, in my tongue. It was loud and forceful and I felt it too much for the setting. I felt the waves of discomfort rolling over me silently from the audience. As I neared the end of my reading, the organiser, sitting off to the side, said clearly, ‘Time.’

I felt the shame land. He had silenced none of the other readers, not even those whose readings ran over the allotted time.

Maybe it was just bad reading. Bad writing. Bad acting. But where do we allow women’s anger? Where do we allow young women’s anger? Where do we meet it with the seriousness it deserves?

All that I have loved to do, I have stopped doing. Acting. Singing. Song-writing. Poetry. Novels. There are, of course, many reasons for that. Maybe my voice is too much. Maybe it is not appropriate. But where does anger go, if not into art? The anger of not being seen. 

I have swallowed a great silencing boulder. It is stuck in my gullet and it feels that there is no vomiting up a stone.

But perhaps it is becoming dislodged. Perhaps I begin to understand that there is no stone. There is only the story of a stone that I tell myself, tell my body. There is no stone, and so perhaps there is a way to voice this story.

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