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Dreamweaving: On the Body and Experience

pfischer's picture

                Every night is a new story. Most people actively try to think of nothing when they lie down to sleep, painting a deliberately blank canvas of non-thoughts, but not me.  Those 45 minutes between lights off and actual sleep is my mind’s fantasy playland, its chance to run free. These stories vary in setting, characters, tone and narrative structure, but they are constant in their presence. I have never fallen asleep not creating these stories, and I just recently realized that this was not normal behavior. In this paper, I will examine the influence of my created dream-world on my ‘real’ life, and in doing so examine concepts of truth and reality raised by Henrietta Lacks, the 9/11 Graphic Report, and class discussions. I hope to additionally define ‘realness’ in terms of physical bodily involvement, using my own experiences and issues within the genre of nonfiction.

                I first remember the storytelling affecting my ‘real’ life when I was about 6. In one particularly upsetting pre-sleep narrative, Jessie, the oldest of Gertrude Chandler’s Boxcar Children, was playing soccer in a park with blonde Michael from Barney. Jessie kicked the ball out of the park, and Michael ran into the street to retrieve it. He was promptly struck by a car, and died instantly. In line with my narrative-dictated sleeping schedule, that event was the climax of the narrative, and I fell asleep shortly after – apparently I’ve never been one for falling action or conclusions.  The next day I mourned Michael, crying during snacktime and refusing to do my Phonics exercises and math problems. I never explained the cause of my uncharacteristic behavior to my mother or teachers; Michael was my creation and I had to accept responsibility for killing him off in such a brutal manner.

Jessie was usually the main protagonist of my younger stories, as she was definitely more likeable than any of Ann M. Martin’s Babysitters and displayed a certain industrious streak. She was also the oldest of four, as I was. Until then, Michael had been a dependable presence in these stories, adventurous enough for risky trips through the woods and handsome enough to occasionally serve as a r. Following his unfortunate run-in with the car, he never returned.

I didn’t tell this story to amuse you with creations and fantasies of my young and potentially unstable mind, but rather to demonstrate the complicated relationship between reality and fantasy, and how the experience and creation of one’s mind can affect, and be affected, by ‘reality.’ By creating characters loosely based off of other’s fictitious characters, I created an idealized world in which I had ultimate authorial control. The lessons learned in those stories are no less real than those I consciously experience, as unfortunately evidenced by my tendency towards semi-hysterical, physical reactions to children playing near streets.  Here, you could argue that it is simply a logical reaction: children chasing objects near moving cars is alarming to everyone, however my first thought is always ‘I can’t let what happened to Michael happen to them.’ 

The experiences I have in my own constructed narratives influence my ‘lived’ experiences in ways that continue to surprise me. The distinction I wish to make between my pre-sleep narratives and my ‘real’ life is the role that my body plays in it. I do not inhabit the body of any of my ‘characters,’ though I do sometimes cast myself in a role. Thus, the dreams are unembodied, unrealized stories occupying a fantasy space, unlike experiences in which my corporeal body feels, hurts, and experiences. I argue that ‘reality’ in this case can be defined by bodily presence.

 This unlived/lived reality is a useful lens through which to examine the Lacks’s family and their claim that Henrietta was indeed alive, or their fears of further exploitation. Her family was more than aware of previous medical experimentation on blacks, such as the syphilis testing at the Tuskegee Institute. I posit that the relationship between the medical community and families such as the Lacks’ was complicated and transformed not only by the actual existence of medical experimentation programs, but also by the quasi-mythological status they attained. The structural and explicit racism within the medical community was experienced by families such as the Lacks’s through their corporeal experiences with medical professionals, and also on a spiritual level.

There are many levels of experience: one is the actual act of experiencing, and the other is the memory or interpretation. This encoding of experience can take spiritual, emotional or intellectual forms, but it is not ‘real’ in the sense that it is not a physically embodied experience. The ‘realness’ of experience is contingent on the body’s presence within that setting: if the conscious body is not a present actor in the scene, the experience is judged to be less ‘real’.  The case of Henrietta Lacks involves the body in a truly fascinating way: the physical cells of Henrietta Lacks were used without her consent, and the surrounding controversy regarding Lacks’ family’s claim that Henrietta the woman lived on in the cells is infused with a morbid corporeality encompassing and entangling spiritual and scientific notions of body, selfhood and experience. Therefore, the Lacks’s anxieties were corporeally bounded, and they were unable to separate their own imagined scenarios and what actually happened with them and Henrietta’s cells. This functioned on two levels: the imagined experience of parts of Henreitta living on without Henreitta’s consent was interpreted by their existing framework skeptical of the medical establishment, and imagined as something colossally and inherently wrong.

I go back to my own experiences again to prove another point about truths and nonfictions. I have only recently begun to ask the question ‘how do you fall asleep?’ to friends, acquaintances and the occasional stranger. Prior to a few weeks ago, I thought that everyone fell asleep to the machinations of their own stories petering out into darkness, and that it was probably just a natural continuation of childhood ‘storytime’ – except this time, your parents aren’t telling the story. I wonder also to what extent the lessons and experiences learned through the stories influence my own perceptions of people and situations. Many of the stories involve intricate social webs and situations; have I learned how to socialize mostly through these fictional interactions?

I noticed it most recently in a romantic context. There’s the old joke (and new facebook groups) that “Disney gave me unrealistic expectations about love,” but for me a more accurate saying would be “My imaginary experiences gave me unrealistic expectations about ‘real’ love.” The romantic interactions between my characters are undoubtedly scripted by me, and my own personal conscious and unconscious perceptions of what an ideal (or less than ideal, if its more of a tragic story) love would be like. I’ve begun to think more and more that my own romantic expectations are modeled on lessons learned or experiences had by these characters, and that it is absurd to expect that from ‘real’ embodied life. This lack of distinction between states of consciousness is honestly fascinating to me on a personal level, but I think it can be extrapolated to deal with key problems in nonfiction this class has been facing.

The problem of what is ‘real’ and what is ‘reality’ has plagued our discussions for months, and now serves as sort of a no-go zone. However, I’m going to go there again and offer that perhaps one characteristic of a ‘real’ experience could be the presence of the lived-in body. When you read a book, the ‘action’ occurs in your mind, and is therefore not a ‘real’ experience. However, books often affect me more than movies do, and under the bodily model of experience I suppose a movie qualifies as more ‘real:’ you see and hear the story develop, as opposed to reading words on a page and creating a visual in your mind.  Especially with the advent of 3-D, movies have become a more realistic experience that can closely mimic real life and elicit physical action. But what does that have to do with non-fiction?

To go back to the graphic adaptation of the 9/11 report, I believe that so many of us were uncomfortable with the work because of the graphics themselves. 9/11 has been mythologized, and we experience that myth in a similar fashion as the Lacks’ mythologized experience with the medical community. My issue with the report lay in the sheer levels of personal interpretation required to create it. The first level lay in the creation of the official, textual 9/11 report: the committee of authors of that report had to first find sources, then interpret them, and then integrate them into a large, cohesive public document. Then, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon had to then interpret the original report and transform it into images and pictures. Only then, after two thick levels of subjective interpretation, do we then take those images and interpret them through our own analytical frameworks.

Several of the images were directly contradictory to what I imagined happening, and the fact that those images were presented along with other images that I had imagined was very startling. It was comparable to seeing a movie and being upset with the portrayal of one character, or a certain scene, but in a much more powerful way due to its traumatic content. An issue that was raised briefly in class was, what would you think if you lived through 9/11? We all had our different experiences of learning about 9/11 from a distance, but even those of us who had friends or family who were in New York that day had very different takes on the book, and seemed generally upset. This led me to believe that the real, experiential ‘living’ can color one’s perception of events to the point of blindness: your own lived and physically experienced sense of being cannot be transmitted or communicated through words. Pain, sadness, fear and elation are all words bestowing meaning, but the meaning for each person is so different.

Hopefully this paper injected the concept of the lived and experienced body into our discussion of ‘realness’ and ‘reality.’ I find that often the social sciences and the humanities ignore the body as a conceptual tool, so in that sense I am grateful that one of the classes I’m currently taking is called “Political Technologies of the Race and Body.” That class has led me to produce a variety of unconventional works focused around the lived experience of the body (and excessively quote Foucault), but I hope that perhaps our ‘landing plane’ of a class can be grounded through this bodily distinction. The implications of this distinction are far-reaching and might actually prove to poke a large hole in my argument, but hopefully I can respond to those in the comments and further refine this idea.



Anne Dalke's picture

knowing the body

So I'm puzzled and a little lost.

You begin this paper w/ a very dramatic tale about how "real" your created dream life is, how it often has a profound emotional effect on your waking life--"The next day I mourned Michael, crying during snacktime." But then you go on to postulate that "reality" is defined, not by such internal experience, but rather by bodily presence.

I don't follow. I don't follow, either the connection between that claim and your description of "the quasi-mythological status" of medical experimentation programs for families like the Lacks, or the similar mythological status of 9/11 for many of us in the classroom. I don't follow, either, how all that relates to your later move to analyze the multiple levels of subjective interpretation needed to understand the graphic adaptation.

Perhaps the biggest puzzle, though, is your concluding claim that "the social sciences and the humanities ignore the body as a conceptual tool." Why do you say that? I would say, rather, that we have been talking about little else for the past several decades. For a recent local example, see the syllabus for Knowing the Body....