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The Ghosts of Our Mothers in “Drawing Breath”

The Ghosts of Our Mothers in “Drawing Breath”

  • Our review of Gayle Brandeis' new book, "Drawing Breath"

While Gayle Brandeis was writing her best-known book, The Art of Misdiagnosis, she attended a retreat at St. Mary’s Art Center in Virginia City, Nevada. Settling into her Victoriana room for the weekend, she prepared to transcribe her mother’s documentary, the last artwork her mother produced before hanging herself. Brandeis didn’t believe in the afterlife. But years ago, in the days following her mother’s suicide, she had felt a strong hand grip her shoulder, asking for forgiveness. Brandeis had brushed it off, not yet ready to face her mother’s ghost. In St. Mary’s, though, she found herself searching for the dead. St. Mary’s is, after all, said to be one of the most haunted sites in America. Built in 1875, the former hospital and asylum now hosts artists, tourists, and even monthly paranormal investigations. Professional ghost hunters and casual guests alike report hearing gurneys rumbling down the hall, smelling rubbing alcohol, seeing bright orbs, and even “The White Nun” who, so the story goes, burned to death when a psychiatric patient knocked over a kerosene lamp. But no “White Nun” inspected Brandeis’ room while making the rounds. No agitated spirit crumpled the sheets of her creaky brass bed or sent wafts of antiseptic swirling underneath her door. As Brandeis’ laptop flickered in the dark and her mother’s eyes streamed waterless tears, St. Mary’s spirits knew to stay away. This room was already haunted.

Brandeis’ latest book, Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss, is haunted by the same specter as The Art of Misdiagnosis. In both memoirs, the reader hears the click of heels as her mother paces back and forth, growing increasingly agitated by the narrative her mind weaves: her husband is hiding millions of dollars; white vans are following her; everyone is against her, including the healthcare system. And then: the sound of screaming, a door slamming open, a batik scarf rustling—breath drawn no longer. Brandeis listens intently to her mother’s stilled breath, “giving her a voice long after she’d wrenched her own airway shut,” as she puts it in Drawing Breath. With her pen, she resuscitates her mother, a Joy-perfumed striver, disciplined by finishing school and wrung out by postwar American beauty culture. “[T]hat is what writing is,” notes Brandeis in Drawing Breathing’s moving titular essay, “finding a way to let our breath live on the page.” Fittingly, Brandeis’ writing is joltingly alive. It rattles and swirls as she meditates on her “own misdiagnosis of [her mother’s] life.” Like Brandeis in Drawing Breath, her writing dances, desires, births, nurses, creates. It weeps, screams, laughs. Yes, it breathes. And whereas The Art of Misdiagnosis is a confessional exhale, Drawing Breath is a restorative inhale.

When read together (as they should be), The Art of Misdiagnosis and Drawing Breath explore the narrative possibilities opened by delusion, illness, and death. Brandeis cements this intention in Drawing Breath, a collection of 28 memoiristic essays. Spiraling out from the “nonlinear, unpredictable narrative” of her mother’s paranoia, her father’s dementia, and her own embodied experience, Brandeis makes art from the messy parts of aging. For her, turning aging into art does not necessarily entail chronicling the splintering of body, mind, and social reality. In “My Parents’ Delusions,” for instance, Brandeis describes her father and mother’s gradually fading lucidity by flipping between memories of her father’s “absurd, even sweet” stories and her mother’s “traumatizing” ones. Moments of humor (“My dad thought my nose was a baby”) slip into moments of shock (“She thought people were spraying her with poison from their cell phones”): a combination any caregiver might recognize, regardless of their charge’s mental state. In Brandeis’ hands, though, the painful process of witnessing one’s parents lose their personal stories—their identities—becomes an opportunity to think of aging as an artform in its own right. Don’t the stories we tell ourselves transform in tandem with our body’s transformations? And embodied experience: how does it shape our creative voice? Where does “inspiration,” in both senses, come from? 

Breath is the great bridge between body and mind, consciousness and unconsciousness, self and other, individual and community. Throughout Drawing Breath, Brandeis elevates breath as her central metaphor for creativity, because it enables her to meld craft with socio-political concerns. Breath, she reminds us, connects us with all beings, “but not everyone has the same access to clean air.” Letting body and “breath back into language,” she goes on to posit, may allow us to tell stories from “places of connection, of transfiguration, [of] complicated harmony.” Complication is vital. Brandeis spurns tidy stories told from a hegemonic, one-dimensional perspective. She wants a chorus of voices to “expand the idea of what a story can be and who can tell it.” She wants bodies to dance as life sings, “Inhale: I am. Exhale: Alive. It is the only song we really know, the only song we really write.” She wants inhalations and exhalations, shared by the entire living world. And she wants shit. As she writes in the delightful essay “Arse Poetica (Or, a Shitty Metaphor),” not writing about the uncomfortable, impolite parts of embodiment keeps us from truth, with the stakes being the stories we construct about our own—and other—bodies. Thankfully, Brandeis has another natural metaphor handy: shit is fertilizer for growth. Drawing Breath is at its most beautiful when Brandeis revels in the shit, using the nourishment of her own embodied experience to plant calls for an art that honors the exquisite insistence of our breath. 

Always playing with form, Brandeis structures Drawing Breath according to her central metaphor. Each of the seven sections’ titles references a modality of breath: eupnea (quiet breathing), hyperaeration (increased lung volume), ponopnea (painful breathing), tachypnea (increased breathing rate), orthopnea (breathlessness in lying down position relieved by sitting up or standing), bradypnea (decreased breathing rate), and apnea (absence of breath). In effect, the collection evokes a body inhaling and exhaling, shrinking in grief and expanding in joy. And it suggests that the dead, too, draw breath, their expired breath miraculously sustaining our own. 

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We return, then, to ghosts. In Drawing Breath’s final section, “Apnea: Absence of Breath,” Brandeis begins to tell her breath’s last story. She faces her mortality—the future absence of her breath—by turning to the women whose breath and body made her own. “Os Sacrum” follows Brandeis as she researches the cause of her bone-thinning, and discovers the medical files of her great-grandmother Dora, who died of tuberculosis in early 20th-century Denver. When Brandeis’ rheumatologist conducts a tuberculosis test, in the early 2020s, the results are “inconclusive.” Much as she wonders in “My Parents’ Delusions” if she, too, is fated to memory loss, she “wonder[s] if whispers of Dora’s consumption still echo inside my genes.” They do, somehow: she hears Dora’s consumption whisper through her struggle with long COVID, which she describes in the collection’s concluding essay, “Going to Seed.” Yes, we return to ghosts. Brandeis’ ghost speaks to us, as “some deep part of me seems to think I did die [from COVID], as if I’m living in some […] second coming of my own life now, or perhaps I’m still a ghost hanging around.” And what if a part of her did die, a part that could not face her mother’s death, or her own? What if each breath contained within it the anticipation of what comes after it, the “places where stories that haunt us wait for us to set them free”?

Drawing Breath
by Gayle Brandeis
Overcup Press
Published February 7th, 2023

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