Some Reflections on Control

I am a migraineur. I didn’t know that’s what it was called, but now I do thanks to the novelist Siri Hustvedt and her book, The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves. I also didn’t know that when I lived in Brooklyn for 4 years on 4th Street in Park Slope, I resided 2 blocks away from Siri and her husband the well known writer Paul Auster.  I also found out through her book, that she grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, about an hour from where I grew up in Minnesota, she is Norwegian American, also like me, and that her father was a professor at St. Olaf College where she graduated. I also graduated from a College in the Midwest that has deep Norwegian roots.

The most significant of this chain of events was discovering her (even though I’ve read Paul Auster’s works for years) after a three day long migraine I was suffering with last month.  When my migraine finally left me, and left me in quite a euphoric state, I googled Paul Auster and his wife, “Siri Hustvedt” as an aside while trying to find one of his books.

Euphoria is a common symptom for migraine sufferers. As soon as the pain starts to leave, a state of euphoria often follows. Now, I have a bizarrely, serendipitous association between the absence of pain and Siri Hustvedt (pronounced, hoost-vet). To paraphrase the poet Robert Graves, I’ve had so many of these super-natural occurrences’ that they seem natural enough to me. In addition, it was also funny to see her written response to neurologists requesting that she give “1-10 scales” to describe her migraine pain. She says,

“My roots are in Scandinavia, where stoicism is highly valued. Swimming in ice water is viewed as admirable, but in other cultures, it might be regarded as foolish or downright insane.” [1]

I have often associated a plunge in frigid water, or a blast of arctic air while snow skiing as the beginning of the end of migraine pain. After a certain length of time of suffering from a migraine, I would get a sensation of joy that the pain might leave me if I went skiing (we had ski hills with lifts in the city where I grew up). Thus began my love affair with the sport. Skiing was also a time to reflect on my Scandinavian heritage and how Norway dates the oldest ski ever found. However, skiing also means something even more significant to me, a place where I became an equal to my older brothers. As a very young girl, on trips to Minneapolis, my parents would drop me and my 2 older brothers off at various ski places near the twin cities and then continue on to Minneapolis or St. Paul to go shopping. There, I would be in a new, very cold environment, without my parents, and the only way to remain safe in my mind was to stay close to my brothers. The only way to accomplish staying close to my brothers was to ski with them. They are both exceptionally good skiers, the brother closest in age to me is 4 ½ years older and he raced on the ski team throughout college and taught me fearlessness on the slopes. To this day, there is no other person I’d rather ski with on earth because of how important I felt keeping up with him and the affection I have for the time he took to teach me.

I never wondered about the origin of these migraines, my father had them, his mother had them and the family in Norway before them had severe headaches, they are in fact me. I knew that they inhabited my thoughts whether or not I was experiencing pain and that by fully inhabiting my body through the act of skiing was a way to actively stop them. It was also a way to connect with nature and embrace the frigid temperatures of a long, dark Minnesota winter. In this way, we store memories as feelings within our bodies and often times we want a way to control our bodies and those feelings.

In an online lecture series at Yale University called, the Novel from 1945 to present, Professor Amy Hungerford gives a lecture on Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black BoyBlack Boy is a story about Wright’s experience growing up as a black boy in the 1930s in the American south. Professor Hungerford describes Wright’s oscillation between his radical physical jeopardy (mostly the fear of beatings from either his mother or father) and between great, imagined sensuality. Rutherford attributes this palpable imagination and creation of sensuality to his severe maternal deprivation. He used sensuality as a way to gain control of his feelings in a different way and it continued to be a theme in most of his novels.

In stark contrast, the clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe in her book, Maternal Desire, On Children, Love and the Inner Life captured her feelings (as well as mine) when she was pregnant with her last child. She said,

“I was moving from a shaky endorsement of a model in which children were fitted into my previous life to a desire for a life centered on mothering, from which all other priorities flowed. Paradoxically, the outward complication of our lives was introducing a radical simplicity. “[2]

De Marneffe describes how certain women sought to control their feelings within their maternal framework, she says,

“We all wish we could sometimes be a little less involved, a little less pulled by our children, but that is also where the real human work gets done, where emotional action is. These mothers, it seemed shied away from letting themselves get changed, letting their kids get under their skin. They seemed to have sacrificed intimacy for the sake of predictability and emotional control.” [3]

She later continues,

“Some reduce a sense of conflict by minimizing our own children’s emotional needs, thereby turning pragmatic necessity of “staying on track” into a psychological goal.” [4]

[2,3,4] De Marneffe, Daphne. 2004. Maternal Desire, On Children, Love and the Inner Life. New York, New York: Little Brown and Company.

[1] Hustvedt, Siri. 2009. The Shaking Woman or A History of my Nerves. 2009. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company.