In her column, Body Language, Tracy O’Neill considers how our physical selves relate to one another and the world.
I have a scar on my forearm, horizontal and shiny, shaped like a half-closed eye. Once a stranger in a bar pointed to it. I had just met him. I didn’t know his name. He threw a dollar down.
“Why did you want to kill yourself?” he asked.
I suppose he considered the mark a curio worth remark. Perhaps its visibility could be taken as an invitation to infer biography, play forensic scientist. His estimation of my history was incorrect, however, and it was difficult for him to reconcile his reading of the scar with what I told him.
“You’re a cutter,” he insisted. “You want to control your pain. I can see it.”
But scars do not exactly tell stories, as much as they might operate as entry points to narrative. To see them is not to know how a series of phenomena unfolded. In James Alan McPherson’s “The Story of a Scar,” two strangers meet in a doctor’s waiting room. The man asks the woman to explain how a prominent scar on her face has arrived. He speculates that the object of the woman’s affection, whom she’s described as a stylish good-time guy, has disfigured her, that she’s been punished for loving a man of little substance. Instead, the scar has been administered by a somber reader called “the professor” by his coworkers with little patience for cards and drink, and it declares no one’s guilt. The woman implores her interlocutor to believe that it is “what a weddin’ ring is to another man,” an interpretation that proposes the scar binds rather than separates like the slashed flesh. In the end, however, it only publicizes that an event occurred, not what or how the event was.
I got the scar on my arm breaking up a dogfight. It was nighttime, the place was the kitchen, and I wasn’t wearing proper shoes. Someone had told me that serving dogs after people would convey in the language of the stomach who belonged to whom, so human dinner wafts were still in the air when I filled the tin bowls. The fight over kibble began as quick as a plate breaks, and I was electric with fear because there was already blood on the floor and there was a woman nearby screaming and throwing water. They were strong and beautiful dogs. To see them run in a field, their long, lean legs eliding with the wind and wild grass, to see them return with burrs clinging to their flanks and the sky pitched bright off their eyes—it could in instants forgive bleakness or disappointment. But I’d also seen the one with the short, bristly coat go red-eyed and kill, tear apart a possum and rub her cheek into the corpse. The other—younger with long, soft fur—I had heard make other animals shriek. I thought the two could kill each other.
The woman hurled a kitchen chair at the dogs, and still they seemed to want to tear each other apart. I could hear them snarl in my own body, aggravating my organs, a guttural anger that charged the air. The woman called for a man, who didn’t come. I put my shoes on. I took a breath. I told myself to decide the tie. Then I reached into a hundred and fifty pounds of roiling, angry canine.
There were a few seconds where I had both the dogs by their scruffs. They were under control, mine, and then they weren’t. Teeth sank, and this seemed to shock them. They stopped, very quiet, maybe contrite, sitting in their contained way with neatly folded legs. They knew before I did. There must have been the taste of iron on one of their tongues, the smell of new blood on the floor. I pulled my arm back, and my white sweater was no longer white, and I couldn’t close my fist. I think I said, “Guys,” and I didn’t learn anything from any of these experiences except that the inside of the body is constituted by plenty of viscous meat.
Nevertheless, the sentiment persists that scars construct character. In this logic, certain grand events improve you, and scars evidence a lesson integrated into the corpus. The experience is ipso facto wisdom, and whatever way the body is broken is worthwhile for its automatic conferral of virtue. It redeems pain from senselessness.
I don’t know who the believers of that cliché have met, but I happen to have known some prolifically scarred jerks. Nor do I know if other animals harbor paradigms of character or ethics, though I know they scar. The markings on my own body have not made me do right by people when I have. I wish it were that easy to live a moral life.
This is not to say scars don’t change us. The collagen fibers in scars are shaped differently than in normal skin. They are unidirectional rather than woven. This causes a distinct appearance, a sort of mnemonic that archives experience, perhaps raising in keloids or drawing up pigment. Most experiences slide off our bodies, but then there are those that hunker down into the skin.
The memories formed then are brasher. They ask us to attend to instants rather than mere summary. Those attracted to pseudo-evolutionary theorizing might be prone to believing that the value of these impressions is the provision of warning. Do not touch the stove. Be careful. In everyday idiom, certainly, to be scarred is to be traumatized.
But scars inscribe more than trauma, and if there is any romance to them at all it is because scars remember openness in the flesh, the places where the boundary of selves are punctured momentarily, when the skin is interrupted and we are porous. In the moment before the scar, we are not sure if we will close up the border, be able to preserve the line where the self meets its environment. We are precarious, wondering whether the line where the body lops off will reconstitute, or how. We are apt to align scars with permanence when, in fact, they are premised on the lack of fixity in the surface. It’s easy to view ourselves as immutable architecture, defined by our edges. McPherson’s narrator believes that people are simple, following rote arcs, and he’s wrong. “You still look at us through paper and movie plots,” the woman with the scar tells him. She is not the prodigal lover. She’s a woman in medias res with, too, a thingness, a body, and what we normally view as things are mysterious; their stories are inscrutable. What, after all, is the plot of the planet in the path of a comet, or the flower in winter? Who are we becoming?
Perhaps what scars ask of us, then, is to remember the uncertainty of selves in communion with a world, of our provisional, bending, shifting borders. We reach into the dogfight or open the heart. We do not wait for era to enact surprise. We compromise the skin, and the world might enter us, or we might spill out into the world.