Re-Writing Caged Eyes

Caged Eyes may have taken me a decade to write, but I can summarize the process easily: expand and contract. My first draft was a factual recount, a straight linear narrative one might read in some kind of textbook. It made for a terrible memoir, I assure you. Over several additional drafts, I went to the opposite extreme. I added details, dialogue, and reflection, and suddenly my memoir doubled in size and was far too long. By the time my editor extraordinaire was finished with the manuscript, it had shrunk from 127,000, to 90,000 words. Finally, it was a story that did more showing than telling but yet was concise enough not to drag. (At least *I* think so!)

I thought it would be interesting for this post to pull up different versions of the same scene to see the evolution. The original versions of these scenes date back to 2010. Warning: horrible writing ahead! Oh, and I’m labeling the chapters for each version, because I think that progression is interesting in its own way, too.

 

SCENE ONE: THE NARRATOR IS IN THE EMERGENCY ROOM AFTER FIRST CONTRACTING MENINGITIS

 

Version 1: From Chapter 6 (51 words)

A nurse offered to hold my hand during the spinal tap. The doctor had rolled me on my side before I even realized what was happening.  I barely noticed the stinging pinch in my back.  The drugs the nurse pushed through my IV line afterward made me that much more detached.

Version 2: From Chapter 12 (275 words)

I only regained enough consciousness to register pieces of what happened next: a horde of hands under my back and on my right shoulder rolling me to my side; “I hate needles,” coming from Jo as she fled from my curtained sick bay; the doctor tugging my shirt up to my sports bra; someone’s hand holding mine tightly.

“You can squeeze as hard as you want,” a nurse said, but I didn’t know why I would. I didn’t understand that the doctor was prepping me for a spinal tap, a lumbar puncture as they called it, to test for white blood cells in my spinal fluid indicating whether I had an infection – meningitis.

One of the doctors that hovered over me squished my knees into my chest until I lay in a tight fetal position. Burning spread across my lower back. The nurse’s hand squeezed mine, as if she was experiencing the discomfort I was too disoriented to fully register. She saw what I couldn’t: the long, thick needle that penetrated my spinal canal and the murky, yellow fluid, pouring into vials.

The nurse’s touch anchored me in the moment, just as my upperclassman’s hand on my shoulder had earlier that morning. Without either, my mind might have drifted away from my body and never returned.

“I would admit her no matter how the LP comes back,” one of the men said. By the time I processed the words into its full sentence and began to wonder what he meant by “LP,” the team had all gone, and I was alone with the curtain fully closed around my gurney that still locked me in place.

Version 3: From Chapter 11 (244 words)

I only regained enough consciousness to register pieces of what happened next: a horde of hands rolling me to my side; Jo declaring she hated needles as she fled the curtained sick bay; the doctor tugging my shirt up to my sports bra; someone’s hand gripping mine tightly. “You can squeeze as hard as you want,” a nurse said. I didn’t understand that the doctor was prepping me for a spinal tap, a lumbar puncture, to test for white blood cells in my spinal fluid indicating whether I had an infection—meningitis. One of the doctors that hovered over me squished my knees into my chest until I lay in a tight fetal position. Burning spread across my lower back. The nurse’s hand squeezed mine, as if she was experiencing the discomfort I was too disoriented to fully register. She saw what I couldn’t: the long, thick needle that penetrated my spinal canal and the murky, yellow fluid pouring into vials. The nurse’s touch anchored me, just as my upperclassman’s hand on my shoulder had earlier that morning. Without either, my mind might have drifted away from my body and never returned.

“I would admit her no matter how the LP comes back,” one of the men advised. By the time I processed the words, wondering what he meant by “LP,” the team had all gone, and I was alone with the curtain fully closed around my gurney that still locked me in place.

 

See? Expand and contract.

 

SCENE TWO: THE NARRATOR IS LEAVING HER MOTHER’S HOUSE AFTER A WEEKEND VISIT. SHE HAS JUST DISCOVERED INFORMATION ABOUT HER MOM THAT LED HER TO DECIDE SHE WILL HAVE TO SEVER CONTACT WITH HER, SO SHE KNOWS SHE IS LEAVING FOR THE LAST TIME.

 

Version 1: From Chapter 13 (139 words)

I found Neptune in his cage in the living room. My mother had bought the love bird for me when I was in the seventh grade and my stepdad moved us to the country, away from my friends.  I stuck my fingers between the bars of the cage and reached to pat the soft, green feathers on his forehead, wishing he could come with me.  He chirped back at me.  I withdrew my touch slowly. It felt cruel to abandon him.

My mother’s eyes had dried by the time we gathered outside to say goodbye. Despite the yelling a few minutes earlier, we each put a smile on our face.

“Love you mom,” I said when I hugged her, pretending it wouldn’t be the last time.

“Love you, too. Drive safely.”

Version 2: From Chapter 15 (559 words)

I found my pet love bird in his cage in the living room. Mom had bought the love bird for me when I was in the seventh grade and my stepdad moved us to the country, away from my friends. I had named him Neptune after my favorite planet. I stuck my fingers between the bars of the cage and reached to pat the soft, green feathers on his forehead, wishing he could come back to Colorado with me. He chirped happily, oblivious. For years Neptune lived in my bedroom with me. I had cleaned his cage, fed him, covered him with a cream towel at night to remind him to sleep, and talked with him when I was lonely. I hadn’t brought him into the world like a mother, but I had chosen a home for him and assumed responsibility for his life. And now I was leaving him behind, and who would take care of him?

I withdrew my touch slowly. Abandoning him felt cruel.

Abandoning her felt cruel too, leaving   the person who had sacrificed money and energy she didn’t have to provide me every possible advantage in school, who taught me to read and multiply, who taught me I could do anything in my career. It felt cruel to abandon the woman who had once been a nearly deaf little girl, relegated to the back row of Catholic schoolhouse as if she was a stupid mute.

Even if she loved the man who molested me more than she loved me, it was merciless to forsake the woman who had given birth to me. But that’s exactly what I decided to do.

 

My mother’s eyes had dried by the time we gathered outside to say goodbye. Despite the yelling a few minutes earlier, despite my leaving a day early and the chasm that had opened between us, Megan, Mom, and I each put on a smile. I learned how to play pretend from my mother, and that afternoon we said goodbye on the lawn, we gave our best performances.

Megan, who also prepared to leave, said bye first. I wasn’t sure if Megan had made up her mind to never see Mom again as I had. Megan had already been in a back and forth relationship with our mom for years.

As I watched them hug, I tried to keep from sneezing due to the freshly cut grass under our feet. I was allergic to the grass which was yet another reminder of a man’s recent presence. I had read once that the smell emitted from newly cut grass was a defense mechanism, a signal of the plant’s anguish at being severed. I held my fist to my nose in a vain attempt at preventing myself from inhaling the pollen.

When I hugged Mom, I pretended it wouldn’t be the last time. “Love you,” I said. I did love her, and maybe I thought bringing peace into our final moment together was the only gift I could give her. Or maybe I avoided direct confrontation with her because that’s the only thing I knew how to do well. It’s what I had always done when I felt violated. I wasn’t brave like my sister who so easily confronted Mom.

“Love you, too,” Mom said. “Drive safely.”

Drive safely, the last motherly advice I would ever receive.

Version 3: From Chapter 15 (460 words)

I found my pet love bird in his cage in the living room. Mom had bought him for me when I was in the seventh grade and my stepdad moved us to the country, away from my friends. I had named him Neptune after my favorite planet. I stuck my fingers between the bars of the cage and reached to pat the soft green feathers on his forehead, wishing he could come back to Colorado with me. He chirped happily, oblivious. For years Neptune lived in my bedroom with me. I had cleaned his cage, fed him, covered him with a cream towel at night to remind him to sleep, and talked with him when I was lonely. And now I was leaving him behind. I withdrew my touch slowly. Abandoning him felt cruel. Abandoning her felt cruel, too, leaving the person who had sacrificed money and energy she didn’t have to provide every possible advantage to me, who taught me to read and multiply, who convinced me I could do anything in my career. But that’s exactly what I decided to do.

My mother’s eyes had dried by the time we gathered outside to say good-bye. Despite the yelling a few minutes earlier, despite my leaving a day early and the chasm that had opened between us, Megan, Mom, and I smiled at each other. I learned how to play pretend from my mother, and that afternoon we said good-bye on the lawn, we gave our best performances. Megan, who also prepared to leave, said bye first. I wasn’t sure if Megan had made up her mind to never see Mom again as I had. Megan had already been in a back and forth relationship with our mom for years. As I watched them hug, I tried to keep from sneezing because of the freshly cut grass under our feet. I was allergic to it, and besides, it was yet another reminder of a man’s recent presence. I had read once that the smell emitted from newly cut grass was a defense mechanism, a signal of the plant’s anguish at being severed. I held my fist to my nose in a vain attempt at preventing myself from inhaling the pollen.

When I hugged Mom I pretended it wouldn’t be the last time. “Love you,” I said. I did love her, and maybe I thought bringing peace into our final minute together was the only gift I could give her. Or maybe I avoided direct confrontation with her because that’s the only thing I knew how to do well. I wasn’t like Megan.

“Love you, too,” Mom said. “Drive safely.” Drive safely, the last motherly advice I would ever receive.

 

**The above cover image has absolutely nothing to do with this post – obviously. But I just really really like it and have no cat filter! 🙂

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Lynn Hall is a memoirist, activist in the movement to end sexual violence, ultra-runner, and crazy cat lady. Her memoir, CAGED EYES: AN AIR FORCE CADET’S STORY OF RAPE AND RESILIENCE, was published by Beacon Press in February 2017. Her writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, The LA Times, Hippocampus Magazine, The Sexual Assault Report, The Manifest-Station, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and elsewhere. In the summers, Lynn copes with publication anxiety by spending too many days in the Colorado mountains, and in the winters, with pans of brownies. She lives in Boulder with her partner and their 23 cats. Just kidding…she only has five.

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