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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

The Anvil and the Vise

November 2021

One of my early childhood memories is the workshop in the basement of our home. The walls were a rough, silver-grey concrete, the same color as the furnace room and basement hallways. My father or brother was often in there fixing or getting something. Of all the objects in the shop what impressed me most were the anvil and the vise. These iron forms, massive at the eye level of a three-year-old, stood like sentinels, permanent guardians of the room. Two memoirs, Soft Spots and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly remind me of the strength of these objects. I’m quite sure neither author thought of himself as strong.

These two books, which on the surface bear little relationship to one another—Soft Spots, by Clint Van Winkle, is about a young man returning from Iraq with a decidedly unhealthy amount of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The other is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man in his early forties with locked-in syndrome, locked in by a brain stem stroke that left him with the ability to blink one eye and seldom utter a sound. What captivated me about these two memoirs, and these two men, was the ability each author had to forge ahead, anvil and hammer, vise and clamp in hand, to capture living in their very different but equally trapped lives, each in a world that defied escape. Van Winkle, the Marine, left me wondering whether he was on a battlefield in Iraq or in his living room. I like that because the truth is that at times a person with PTSD does not know where he is. Is he in his living room or in a situation where he and his buddies might be killed in the next three minutes? Bauby slides and plunges the reader into the unknown world of lack of speech and movement. How can this be, what must this be like? Both stories break my heart.

Van Winkle’s Soft Spots remains one of the most impressive books I’ve read about war and PTSD. What makes this book so astounding is that sometimes I, the reader, felt as lost as he was. That meant I did not know whether I was reading wartime reality with its sights, sounds, and smells, or his distorted fantasy. I loved that not knowing. How did he do this? Somehow his language took me into the place where he was, or where he thought he was. I liked reading that confusion and juxtaposition. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly also landed me somewhere I did not intend to go—in the midst of Bauby’s locked-in syndrome. Like Bauby, I write. Unlike Bauby, I am not permanently trapped in my active brain.

Van Winkle was a kid in and returning from the Iraq warzone. Bauby was a middle-aged man, highly successful as the editor-in-chief of the renowned French fashion magazine, Elle. He had two children, a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. He and his son were off on a weekend together when Bauby suffered a severe stroke. The language of his book was different from Van Winkle’s, for one he was older, more mature, and probably better educated, his metaphors superlative.

Van Winkle: “I felt as if the living room was squeezing against my body, like a boa constrictor wrapped around prey, increasing its grasp with each exhale.

“Gas, gas, gas.

“I pulled the gas mask from its case, slammed it against my face, and then stretched its thick rubber straps…. The seal of the mask tightened. I grabbed a camouflage Saratoga Suit from the living room floor:….”

Perhaps this is one of his minor examples, but he keeps moving me from his living room to Iraq. That is what PTSD can be like. Where are you, the person in the midst of an episode? Where was my friend, Ed, 100% PTSD disabled, when the US went into Iraq and he began to haul out his uniform and get ready to deploy? Where was my husband when he began to talk about a Vietnam surgical theater episode and no one could interrupt him because he did not hear anyone talking? These men, Ed, Clint, and Robert, were fortunate for they could return to reality. They could move, walk, talk, and had the hope of a normal life.

Bauby was not so fortunate. While I had heard of “locked-in syndrome”, I knew little about it. Bauby had control of one eyelid. A person recited the alphabet arranged by the commonness of the letters in French. He blinked when the person reaches the correct letter. He wrote a book this way, the speech therapist recorded the letters into words. I write books with the ability to enter the words, the letters, to read and change them in solitude. I do not need to memorize my thoughts till she, Claude, comes in to scribe them. Bauby can think but not talk, smile, respond, or move. He can think, think endlessly, drool, blink one eyelid. He said, “I am fond of my alphabet letters…. Hand in hand letters cross the room, whirl around the bed, sweep past the window, wriggle across the wall, swoop to the door, and return to begin again.” ESA and not ABC begin his alphabet, what he calls “the jumbled appearance of my chorus line…stems not from chance but from cunning calculation…a hit parade in which each letter is placed according to the frequency of its use in the French language.”

Since I did not know about “locked-in syndrome”, as I turned the pages of his imagination, it was easy for me to fantasize that he recovered. He did not. No one recovers from locked-in syndrome. Two days after the book’s publication, Bauby, in his mid-forties, died. It doesn’t matter than I never met him. I miss him because of the beauty of his language. I want to read more of his books that he never wrote.

I try to imagine calculating, organizing thoughts, writing in the darkness of my unmoving, non-spoken life. I cannot. I find myself suddenly slammed on the anvil or gripped in the vise unable to escape either. Van Winkle was more fortunate. REM, rapid eye movement, worked as a therapy for him. Some traumas have a therapy that works.

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