By Laura Madeline Wiseman
Meg Tuite’s newest chapbook Her Skin Is a Costume offers a linked sequence of short stories written in the flash fiction mode that capture the effects and aftereffects of alcoholism and family violence as it reverberates through the lives of children who lived it and become adults living it still. Sometimes there is a hopeful naiveté that removing children from the parents that emotional and physically abuse them will be the balm that soothes the wounds of neglect and trauma, rather than understanding the complex ways post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can scar all. Tuite’s collection demonstrates the vast and varying effects of PTSD.
The first story “May I Please Be Excused from Reality” opens with children hiding upon the return of their father from work. She writes, “Whatever life was lived in the apartment before he arrives vacates itself. All six siblings scurry into silence, shadows. Mom busies herself in the kitchen”. As dinner begins, the children keep to silence. The father speaks, “‘So you must have done something productive today,’ he says as he carefully cuts his chicken, slicing each piece into thin wafers before spearing it with his fork. ‘There’s got to be some goddamn reason I’m paying for your Catholic education,’”. On invitation, the children of this family verbally posture, acting out their father’s family violence on classmates and peers, on each other and on themselves. This is a family where they have learned and are practicing that to engage with others means violence and it’s better to enact it, rather than be the recipient of it. Tuite writes, “We are such opaque children. We are subterfuge”.
Certainly there are girls and women in Her Skin Is a Costume who are violent, who drink and do drugs, who steal and lie, but Tuite also shows how family violence can have a lasting impact on those gendered female whose lasting effects of PTSD are to be repeated victimized by boys and men. In “Body of Bread” the protagonist Tracey has turned her body into a bread that fills the sexual needs of groups of men, solitary men, and couples. As sex worker, her body’s work is sometimes paid in cash and sometimes in alcohol. Tuite writes, “Trace spends nights forging through this monotony of reality in the same way her mother plunged her fists into the dough. They both feel out those areas of resistance, force the lumps into the center to merge. They pound down coarse little fistfuls of tireless egos, pummeling to work out life’s inbred inertia and resistance with the looser, runnier matter of risk,”. Tuite suggests that the character realizes she seeks the necessary self-work of redemptive violence against the self. However, when men seek to do this same necessary self-work, rather than use redemptive violence on the self it becomes redemptive violence against others.
The character of Tracey in “Body of Bread” is tragic, for through her character and her character’s work lingers the fear that despite the pummeling her body and life takes by her own hands will not be enough. She will not be transformed. She will not rise. This lingering tension is what makes Her Skin Is a Costume transformative and urgent. Tuite’s chapbook invites sadness and anger, to mourn what is lost by the tragedy of family violence as it manifests, but neither pity nor guilt’s urge are the force of this work. Tuite’s chapbook suggests questions—if organized religion offer scripts of power of men over wife and children, then how do such scripts linger decades after the children have grown and gone? Why do we perpetuate such traditional stories still, if even one family or one child is damaged by them? If we know PTSD is long lasting for those who’ve experienced gender violence as children, then why do we fail to offer support to such individuals later in life when they need it most? Tuite writes, “Pain will always be another sibling” and by doing so, her statement invites us to question if it does.
Beyond the absolute necessity of chapbooks such as the one Tuite has written, is the power and force of language and art here. Tuite’s characters are exquisite and real, they are complexly drawn and cast in such a way that the reader is made aware of their tragic flaws even as the characters themselves linger in oblivion. These are characters who are “trying to locate an existence that remains as defiled as his memory of his dad’s beatings”, whose eyes “are swollen and red. They speak of days, months of silent sobbing,” whose laughter is the thick skin against sexual assault. Her Skin Is a Costume is a complete story in edgy, raw language that is visceral and crucial because it suggests that by calling attention to family violence, we don’t have to perpetuate the cycle. We can offer our boys and girls, our women and men new narratives of interactions, if we’re brave enough to take off the costume, the guise of toughness, the act of violence, and begin looking and really seeing what’s underneath.
Red Bird Chapbooks (2013): $12
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her most recent book is Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015). She teaches in Nebraska. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com