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Breaking: A Life Story in 10 Fragments

Anne Dalke


1. Daybreak

On the night before Easter, 1981--late, too late--I got a phone call. My younger brother Chip had been in a car accident. He was not conscious. The next call came early Easter morning. He was not responsive. I called again. The nurse, who knew me from home, said, "Anne, I don't think he's going to make it."


I went to my husband, who was caring for our daughter. Standing beside her changing table, looking out the window--this was a West Philadelphia row house, we could not look far out--looking at her, not looking at him, I whispered, "I'm afraid he's going to die." Jeff said, "He can't die. He won't die." He said this with certainty, and I took comfort from his assurance. So when I got the next call, I couldn't understand what I was hearing. I asked, dumbly, "Is he DEAD?" My mother, dully: "Oh, yes. He is dead."


This is (certainly one reason) why I teach the way I do—because once I was comforted by that which was not true, by a comfort that turned out to be no comfort at all. "He can't die." Oh, yes he could. I think that, in my teaching, I refuse such false comfort, am impelled by the hope that I will not be surprised again, by facts I do not have. (Or: facts I have, but am not willing to face. Facts others have, but will not speak. Chip was dead when I spoke with the nurse. But she did not think she should be the one to tell me.)


A colleague figured this one out for me. At the end of a semester when we’d taught together, she suggested that we go 'round, ask our students to say something about what they had gotten out of the course, what they had learned, what they had found useful. I said, "No. Maybe they did not find it useful. Maybe they did not like it. We will not be hearing the truth."


She was just looking to end the course on an affirmative note. But I was after the truth, which impels the searches I conduct both in my classes and in student conferences. That is the cause of my questioning, unremitting, my refusal of complacency, my insistence that, hard and deep as we may dig, we will never, ever get to the bottom.


2. On Getting to the Bottom

A core activity for English majors at Bryn Mawr College is the “keyword exercise”—which actually aims at getting to the bottom. Taken from Raymond Williams’ project of the same name, the assignment requires students to research the historical development of a word through a range of dictionaries. When was it first used? What form did it take then? How have its form, function and meaning changed over time?


I try this with “break,” which first appeared (as the Old English “brecan” ) in the year 1000, and has since come to mean

a.     To sever into distinct parts by sudden application of force, to part by violence.

b. To disable, destroy cohesion, solidity, or firmness, crush, shatter.

c.     To violate.

d.     To make a way through, or lay open; to penetrate; to open up.

e.  To make a rupture of union or continuity

f.   To sever or remove

g.  To burst.

What is remarkable in this etymology is, of course, its unbroken, invariant evocation of destruction.


3. A Break in the Story

In narrative terms, a break interrupts a story, destroys the continuity. A great-enough trauma can prevent a story from being told. We might hazard that trauma is what cannot be told, cannot be contained. What exceeds the story.


Paradoxically: what compels it, repeatedly, to be told.


4. Breakdown

Alternatively: breaking may be a means to telling the story. In Once Upon a Number, mathematician John Paulos suggests that the world is a contest between complicators (humanists, storytellers) and simplifiers (scientists, statisticians) --a.k.a. “lumpers” and “splitters.” Both assume that meaning-making derives from the presumed correspondence between parts and wholes. The splitters are the ones who break it down. They make the story simple.


4. Symmetry Breaking

One of science’s most puzzling—most beautifully simple--stories is about the breaking of symmetries.


Symmetry implies complete equivalence between existing alternatives, with no sufficient reason for choosing between them (as, most outrageously, in the case of Buridan’s ass, who had no means for adjudicating between two equivalent bundles of hay, and so starved to death). It was long thought, in physical systems as in philosophy, that symmetry could not “break” without a reason. Asymmetry could not originate spontaneously. Without some explicit input, the initial situation would remain unchanged.


However, in the move from classical to quantum physics, it became possible to observe the phenomenon of spontaneous symmetry breaking, now thought to be applicable to infinite, many-body systems (such as ferromagnets, superfluids and superconductors). Wherefrom the asymmetrical? Why do we assume that symmetric laws are the norm, and that an observed asymmetry requires a cause?


5. Break dancing

Breaking has been the source of creativity. Think of street corner disc jockeys, stringing together the rhythmic breakdown sections of dance records without any elements of the melody. These “breaks” provided a raw rhythmic base for improvising and further mixing, and allowed dancers to display their skills. Break dancing became one method for rival ghetto gangs to settle territorial disputes. In a showcase of dance routines, the winners were the dancers who could outperform others, displaying a set of more complicated and innovative moves.


6. Braking

Spelled differently, this might slow things down a bit.


7. “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”

I have been married for 36 years to a man I met in kindergarten. Our grandparents played bridge together. His parents were been married for 50 years; mine have been together for almost 60. I do not come, in other words, from a broken home.


Or do I?


8. Broken Glass

Whether you’re Jewish or not, you know the part of the ceremony where the groom smashes the glass with his foot.  And you know some of the interpretations. That it represents the end of the couple's lives alone, the beginning of their new lives as one. Or the destruction of the Holy Temple: a reminder that pure joy will not exist until the temple is rebuilt. Or the idea that the world began with breaking of glass vessels, and—importantly--that humans were put here to put the pieces back together.


Tikkun olam, repair of the world. 


9. Broken Valve

The repair man comes to clean our furnace. He breaks a valve. Ten days later, we discover a slow leak—the oil is dripping from the tank into the French drain, from the drain into the sump pump, from the pump into our driveway, from the driveway into our yard. This initiates an unbroken chain of legal entanglements. Arguments about broken promises, broken contracts.


10. Breakout

I must depart from this volume. I do not belong here, amid all these breaks. I’m a belonger. I cling.


This is my broken record: Breaking out of the repetition. A pattern of no-pattern. Breaking the pattern.


View accompanying Workbook page

On to the next project

Back to the Breaking Project home page

Breaking Project Author/Creator: 
Anne Dalke


Serendip Visitor's picture

Great post

This is really great. You are right . We should not be comforted by that which was not true, by a comfort that turned out to be no comfort at all. That was a wonderful thought .We should assure ourselves and be okay with false comfort, that later hurt us even more.Thanks for sharing the post.

sterrab's picture

Sharing a Perspective

As I glance back at my notes from Anne Dalke’s  Literary Kinds course  discussion on Thursday,  Feb. 7, on my attempt to answer “What makes this text a “story in fragments” rather than an essay in fragments, or a life in fragments? “, the page reads:

 -->Pieces of a puzzle that come together to form a story.

--> The “breaks” in those fragments allow for an imaginative flow of pieces. See how it all comes together. The breaks as a space to find the connections to examine how it all comes together. 

--> By having these breaks, it allows for it not be an essay or memoir but a way to recount a collection of periods of a story.

My thoughts and reflections are broken, I admit. But I can relink my fragmented notes as I rewind back to the moment when all the ideas crossed my mind.

A similar process occurs when writing stories. A story is not about a repetition of circumstances but a description of a writer’s perception of events,  a written account of the connections that are randomly made across time and space in one’s mind. Anne Dalke’s essay above narrates clips of her personal and professional life, intertwined by her reflections and view on the day-to-day encounter of “breaking”. It starts out as a remembrance of the past and its connection to fragments of her present: her marriage, students, work, home. A story is distinguished from an essay or a life as it shares an angle of the circumstances, a twist to the events that makes sense to the writer or storyteller,  that it not available within the bounds of an (academic) essays or the reality in the life experience.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Essay--> "Essai"

Today, in my course on "Literary Kinds" we used the workbook prompt that asked us to think about what "genre" this piece is--> "What makes this text a 'story in fragments' rather than an essay in fragments, or a life in fragments?"

...and I wrote this:

What's the difference between a story and an essay and a life? The earliest version of this text appeared in my book:  that was for me, clearly, a story about my life and how it was broken by my brother's death. This second version has several other more academic layers in it, several other analytic dimensions; I was quite (self) consciously making it more analytic and professional, and writing for a larger audience. I was working with the idea of breaking (not immediately resonant or positive for me), working through the idea, and also working very hard @ the form --writing in fragments to talk about fragmentation. Very heartening for me, this week, was to read Clare Mullaney's story-essay, which seemed to copy that form for her own purposes.

So: its not a life--it's a life, shaped and represented. It was a story on its first form--less mediated, less self-conscious about shape and concept, than the second, essay form, which really thinks about breaking, and my relation to it, and my need for continuity--"I must depart from this volume." There's another layer of reflection, of analytic distance than there was the first time around.

But then I think (endlessly!) of Cassie Kosarek's telling us, in another class visit, earlier this week,  of the roots of "essay" in "essai," to try out, attempt, experiment...

Serendip Visitor's picture

Another break

Thanks, Anne. This is beautiful and helpful.

I am thinking that a break is also a rest, an interlude. For those of us who toil in ivory towers, our breaks are our human times, our opportunities to recover ourselves, to catch up, to mend ourselves from the brokenness of the routine. When we break, we have time to become whole again.