Kelly Bolding

Girl Problems: Towards a Theory of Conjunctive Empathy


In the final scene of Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, depicting the devastation of Belarusian villages by the German army during WWII, the child-solder protagonist (Flyora) fires several shots into a framed portrait of Hitler fallen into a puddle. His action sets off a startling reverse montage of stills and documentary footage, a regression showing gaunt bodies of the concentration camps, joyful young Nazis marching strangely backwards, speeches in the harsh well-known German, and finally an infant Hitler staring out from his mother’s lap, an image of childhood innocence young Flyora cannot bring himself to assault. A close-up of Flyora’s face, aged by layers of ash and a gesture of equal parts suffering and disbelief sustained, betrays at once a chilling mercy and a hopelessness about the efficacy of this sort of revenge. His ultimate refusal to inflict further suffering serves the dual purpose of recognizing his oppressor’s lost innocence and mourning his own.

The emotional intensity of the film is sustained primarily by its young actors’ manifold range of expressions. At one point, Flyora’s beautiful female counterpart, Glasha, in less than a minute, manages to express a reaction to her situation that arcs from a swollen contorted grimace to a heavy-lidded almost lurid sensuality to a girlish flirtation of hysterical laughter. I can only imagine the personal experiences from which these adolescent actors culled these intensities of feeling.1 A director’s cues can only extend so far. In addition to whatever previous suffering they bring with them to the set, these child-actors lose their own innocence alongside their characters, as they embody cruelties they otherwise might not have encountered directly. It causes me to wonder what sort of empathy or identification allows these children to so evocatively inhabit their characters; what is it that makes this acting possible?

Klimov wanted to name his film Kill Hitler, but Soviet censors forced him to adopt something more subtle.

During college I labored over a collection of poems under the mentorship of an astute and highly critical poet-professor. Sometime during this process, a poem of mine drew a connection between its speaker’s hampered sexuality and that of Anne Frank. My mentor swiftly advised me that I—a white girl living in a stable liberal democracy—had no business whatsoever comparing the situation of my speaker (read: myself) to the strategic persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime. Looking back, I do appreciate my teacher’s quick shut-down of my metaphor, although less because I agree with her that it was inappropriate than for what I now see as its tiredness. But as my editors are apt to remind me, these qualities are inextricably linked. The seeming triteness of the Holocaust-as-metaphor stems from its rampant overuse in our culture, so much so that there’s even a name for it. Godwin’s Law points to how this overuse has a neutralizing effect. Once you mention Hitler to make a point in general conversation, the eyes of everybody at the table begin to roll around in their heads; people stop listening and wander off. At the same time, the Holocaust is our culture’s ideal of unspeakable evil. It’s the most extreme thing we can think of, overshadowing contemporary evils which are often similarly unspeakable but far less obvious.

One irony of assigning Anne Frank’s diary to young adult readers is that students are supposed to learn about the cruelties of the Holocaust and to recognize their relative luck and privilege, yet the very reason the book is so effective with this population stems from adolescents’ easy identification with Anne’s sense of persecution. She is both a victim of a large, historical process and an everyday teenage girl, every bit as moody and sexually frustrated as many of her contemporary readers. When the lives of those situated within different positions of entitlement and oppression are so vastly different, I worry over the appropriateness of such identification, especially when it overlooks the potential pitfalls of ridiculous self-aggrandizement or belittlement that comes with equating instances of suffering across socio-economic, ethnic, and political lines.

Still, I think there might be something telling, and even very useful, about the desire to locate one’s small wars and trials next to suffering that is grand in both scale and political charge. Rather than exoticize or offer up some bland idiot compassion, perhaps we could empathize in a way that would attempt—at the risk of ridiculousness—to cross sanctioned boundaries of political correctness and reverence: to profane War and Suffering with my war and suffering, but also to negotiate new methods of participation in a world where violence is both spectacular and lurking.

Metaphor might be the wrong device for this sort of relation, since it implies that my suffering is the “same” as a genocide victim's in some essential and quantitative sense. Quantification, and comparison for that matter, seem to me utterly useless in articulating the subjective experience of suffering, as absurd as the nurse who asks you upon arriving at the emergency room with a broken collarbone, how would you describe your pain on a scale from one to ten? It could be that all we need is a conjunction, to place two instances of violence side by side, and then stand back and look. To stack them up until the ground falls through.

While Klimov based much of Come and See on his own horrific childhood war experiences, it was also the first full-length feature he made after his wife, the talented film director Larisa Shepitko, died suddenly in a car accident at 41. “A single moment of true sadness connects you instantly to all the suffering in the world,” Chris Kraus repeats at least twice in her 2000 novel Aliens & Anorexia. Loss is loss. Or rather, loss and loss.

To conflate poet/speaker, actor/character, director/film is a critical “error” I will continue to make, explicitly and intentionally. As a student of literature, I was schooled never to read a writer’s biography into her art. The popular interpretation of anorexia is an example of this type of reading within a larger context: detoured on her journey to sexual maturity and adult autonomy, the type-A anorexic girl2 is lured in by the media’s impossible standards of beauty and exercises a control otherwise denied to her over her own body. We don’t take her actions at face value because we think it couldn’t simply be about eating; it couldn’t possibly be that there’s something wrong with the food. Just as a female author’s themes must represent something from her life as wife or mother, we stop before even considering that anorexia could have to do with more traditionally masculine struggles such as anger, revenge, or warfare. We assume she must be responding to some individual psycho-social imperative rather than a larger cultural one.

Instead of using a biographical reading to reduce possibilities for signification, what would happen if we used it to expand them, allowing for further movement beyond the self and into the world? Similarly, what if we looked not just inside but also “nearby” a film for meaning, following its various trails and after-images back out into the world? It must be possible to look at both artist and artwork, the girl and her not-eating beside one another without drawing binding, unjustly reductive conclusions. A collage, maybe, or a stockpile.

In 2004 actor Aleksei Kravchenko, who played Flyora, told a Russian newspaper, “For nine months while the film was shot, I experienced the most debilitating fatigue and hunger. I followed the most severe diet, and at the end of filming went back to school not only thin, but grey-haired.” That same year, in the first week of September during my sophomore year of high school, my mother picked me up early from school for what she said was a routine doctor’s appointment. What no one told me until they securely locked me inside was that I would not be allowed to leave this hospital’s psychiatric unit until sometime the following January. I weighed a little below 80 pounds.

I’ve practiced various forms of dietary restriction for as long as I can remember, and my eating habits simply counted among the strange routines I’d developed during childhood in order to navigate a world whose illogical puzzles and prohibitions were progressively becoming apparent to me; there seemed to be no particular reason for specific behaviors, but they were singularly important, no less than the implacable conditions of existence. My mother calling me to come downstairs for dinner, I remember being 8 and caught in the lattice of light created by the sun streaming in through the blinds onto the white carpet, the complicated dance I had to complete around it as a sort of pass-code to leave the room, the tears that welled up at my repeated mistakes as my mother called a second time, louder.

One way to view these actions is as a response to entrapment which functions in a literary rather than literal way. As Deleuze and Guattari note, everything in a minor language is political: “its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story is vibrating in it.” From inside the cage of broader cultural directives, an individual’s compulsions and rituals create personal formulas for moving around various levels inside the system and appropriating its codes through mimicry, parody, involution, and other transformations. Even though these activities take place on a figurative plane, they signify in a very real political context. I understand my childhood actions as a type of makeshift ritual in deference to a complex system of power I couldn’t yet fully comprehend. I could, however, already begin to sense the dire consequences of deviance from it, the behaviors, like the system, at once pointless and loaded. Eventually, though, the assemblage of rituals and contexts mutated and the same behaviors which once appeared to appease this unseen system started to upset it.

Italian director and screenwriter Michelangelo Antonioni built an entire film style on the deliberate use of what might otherwise be considered an editing error. What later became known as temps mort refers to the wandering camera which lingers too long on the empty set once the actors have strayed off-screen. While some argue this technique drains significance from the prior narrative action, I believe that it draws attention to the oft-overlooked silent and objective aspects of any drama. While Antonioni’s space isn’t obviously political, its emptiness holds open room for another kind of figure, one that is similar to capital in its powerful vacuousness and lack of unifying subjectivity. There’s nothing spiritual about Antonioni’s space, yet it radiates. All the “I”s leave the set and still the camera’s gaze keeps staring. Reconsidering the backdrop, we’re irked to discover that the scenery was there running the show all along, while we were hypnotized by the song and dance.

In Zabriskie Point, Antonioni’s critically panned 1970 attempt at capturing the mood of Vietnam Era American counterculture, the effect gets even stranger when his film’s beautiful lead actors prove so expressionless (and frankly, so bad) that they blend into their surroundings, their actions attributable to some vague spirit of the times rather than their own volition3. The film takes its name from a scenic lookout upon the bleak badlands landscape just east of California’s Death Valley. A location seemingly made for Antonioni, the stark otherworldly eroded-rock formations manifest a vacancy which exceeds itself to become somehow more than those who inhabit it. While the resulting sense of emotional blankness that pervades the film contributes to its overall flatness, there’s a way in which this effect suits its subject aptly. Antonioni’s inability to make affluent American suffering feel real speaks to the difficulty of naming it as such without losing something crucial in the articulation, yet his technique points us in the direction of its nature.

By the time I was 15, most food just seemed disgusting. I’d seen documentaries about the meat and dairy industries, and even before that, the thought of all the blood and pus involved turned my stomach. I sought out an impossible purity4, only accepting plain foods whose constituent parts seemed plainly visible, food in which nothing dirty or putrid was surreptitiously hiding. But as I kept finding flaws in a food’s physical appearance or method of production, the list of things I could eat kept shrinking, and I shrunk along with it. My period stopped. This wasn’t the fearful attempt to deny femininity that some psychologists argue it is, but it was incredibly convenient. In the popular imagination and in the eating disorder clinics, an anorexic girl is either violently loathed or excessively pitied; she must be either a manipulative narcissist or an impressionable victim of low self-esteem. Both responses discredit her. Even the “professionals” assume that her rejection of food must stand in for something deeper inside her psyche, without considering the fact that food itself is intensely social and that her distaste for it often extends into a distaste for certain aspects of her culture.

Chris Kraus is right to observe that anorexia can be “an active stance: the rejection of the cynicism that this culture hands us through food.” From my experience of it, anorexia has the potential to embody a radical, if not fully articulate5, position of protest that is at once extremely personal and inextricably social. Under the type of blunted oppression specific to a certain suburban middle-class position, self-starvation serves as a means for shaking loose some of the limitations of subjective experience to make space for a type of empathy or solidarity between those facing types of violence that are both slyly and blatantly systematic. In one sense, anorexia challenges capitalism by proving that the concept of bourgeois individualism is a great lie. The economy relies on the participation of huge swaths of its population in the endless circulation of goods and currencies. As soon as someone quietly chooses not to participate (think of Bartleby), everybody freaks out. The anorexic’s stance, in this case, is paradoxical because she both attempts to de-create (to lose or shrink her “I”) and to function autonomously in isolation from her culture, which she rejects, shunning its food by synecdoche. The starving body literally eats itself, and in becoming a closed circuit, challenges flows of production by refusing to consume, as well as by forfeiting its reproductive capacity. Another paradox at play in this deployment of anorexia is its simultaneous combativeness and extreme compliance towards capitalist notions of beauty and efficiency. Dieting, exercise, and healthy eating are highly praised activities right up until the point where they become excessive; the anorexic figure is, after all, only a few steps beyond the current feminine ideal. Yet even in brutal compliance with them, the emaciated body challenges these demands by demonstrating their underlying morbidity. Ironically, in the same moment that the anorexic’s maniacal self-sufficiency poses a threat to capital, her airy weightlessness and lack of center make her more like capital. Her revealed bone structure forms the vulnerable, ugly geography that arises when this logic is followed militantly to its end, which is ultimately death.

That’s one version. Having met many anorexics during my hospitalization, several of whom had been in and out of in-patient treatment facilities since childhood, I feel confident in claiming that anorexia is primarily a trope rather than a condition, and one with many applications. The above formulation puts anorexia to use towards a certain personal-political goal. For others, what exactly is wrong with the food differs. Some girls do have control issues stemming from complicated parental relationships; some girls were abused and try to suppress the visual markers of their sexuality in order to prevent future harm; some girls are really just obsessed with becoming Mary-Kate Olsen; some girls just aren’t hungry; etc. Therapeutic language surrounding anorexia encourages girls to identify their “eating disorder” as a localized entity outside of themselves which possesses them, removes their agency, and acts in their place, i.e. the grating “Is that you or your eating disorder talking?” On the contrary, not-eating is the anorexic’s solution to some problem that lies elsewhere; the eating disorder is merely an avatar for her purposes. But like any action, it also has its effects.

Starvation changes you, a fact that Kravchenko experienced firsthand during the filming of Come and See. There are at least two types of empathy at work here. The child-actor’s own past suffering allows for his transformation into the child-soldier; but at the same time an actor becomes united with his character through their concurrent suffering on film, with the result that even when the film ends and the two figures of this equation again split apart, the actor is permanently changed by what is for all intents and purposes in the “real” world a mythical being, a fiction. If an actor-character's identity is forged by the mythic assemblage of film, wouldn't that deprive us of a criterion by which to distinguish good acting and bad, and hence undermine our notion of “acting” altogether? On the contrary, I think that this spillage is where art begins, at the point of an almost viral contamination among participants, leaving not even the passive viewer unscathed. In the case of the anorexic girl too, we must remember that one can still be an agent and be transformed in the acting. She’s chosen her starvation, yet she also loses some of herself to it, which is often (as it was in my case) intentional.

When the body begins to starve, many anorexics report an ecstatic feeling of lightness and mental clarity, which, much like a drug, makes it difficult to stop refusing food. Eventually though, as the metabolism starts to slow down in response to lack of nutrition, extreme fatigue, lethargy, and memory loss begin to overwhelm the enticing altered state of starvation’s earlier stages. Though for others things go differently, I eventually realized that my rituals in terms of food ceased to serve my other endeavors, and I gave those rituals up. I still admit, however, to a lingering feeling of defeat.

Minors, as well as adult anorexics committed by court order, can in principle be incarcerated indefinitely until their bodies are deemed socially acceptable. Though even here there’s room for play. I recall pulling my underwear down over the knobby protuberances of my lowest vertebrae to compare butts with one of my fellow psych patients, noting the hideous angularity of a figure defined only by pelvic bone structure. You look like a fucking Holocaust victim. This was a perverse and ongoing joke among several of the girls. We knew we weren’t beautiful, but there is something seductive about inhabiting a body that says come and see, at once ignorant of and similar to the sense in which Klimov meant it, quoting his screenwriter Ales Adamovich in defense of their film’s unrelenting harshness, “This is something we must leave behind us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”

Very recently, in both Guantánamo Bay detention camps and California’s state prisons, authorities have implemented tubal force-feeding as a highly invasive tactic against prisoners who participate in hunger strikes protesting indefinite detainment, inhumane prison conditions, and solitary confinement. I have witnessed nurses hold a thrashing, emaciated girl down in order to thread a plastic tube through her face; it is a common practice in the treatment of severe anorexia. When doctors recommended the procedure when I first arrived at the hospital, my mother refused to sign the consent form, having reached the limit of what she saw as an otherwise necessary cruelty. Performer Mos Def recently documented his own submission to the procedure in protest of force-feeding in the prisons, reminiscent of a stunt modernist writer Djuna Barnes pulled nearly a century before in 1914, when similar medical tactics were executed against suffragettes on hunger strike. These performances strike me as somewhat ludicrous, seeing as that the primary heinousness of being force-fed is the patient’s utter lack of agency towards what is perhaps the most basic bodily process. But then again, empathy is always a little ridiculous.

The same “there are starving children in Africa” logic that condemns identification with Anne Frank as inappropriate, despite its good intentions, often unwittingly condones the systematic oppression which underlies the more localizable, bloody types of violence we often conceive of as more serious. The dull-ache of this more muted, latent violence pervades American life. Without denying the obvious acts of aggression that frequently occur at this stratum, it’s the invisibility of blunted, middle-class suffering that often prevents serious action against either type of violence. Revolution is a word that seems laughable to even mention in the context of the contemporary United States, partly because it’s so hard to articulate exactly what’s wrong without sounding like whiners. Tolerable oppression is perhaps the most dangerous and difficult kind to escape in the sense that its victims cynically accept their own fettering as a condition of life. Our situation isn’t so bad that we’re willing to risk losing the comforts we have managed to cling onto. Though when our teenage daughters slouch out from their rooms in absurd, grey, ravaged-looking bodies, maybe we begin to reconsider.

It seems fitting then that while Klimov bombards his viewers with close-up shots of his child-actors’ palpable suffering, Antonioni shows us a desert. Zabriskie Point follows a woman (Daria Halprin) and a man (Mark Frechette) who meet in the desert, fuck, and go their separate ways. What happens when her naïve, fanciful pacifism meets his violent but inarticulate desire for revolution stands in as Antonioni’s simplified fable for the hippie generation. After attempting to shoot a police officer at a campus riot, Mark is gunned down by local authorities as he returns a stolen airplane covered in psychedelic graffiti. Daria winds up at business meeting in a sleek modernist mansion in the Arizona desert. Angry after learning of her companion’s death over the car radio, she gazes tearfully back at the house, initiating a long sequence of gratuitous and visually stunning explosions. The mansion detonates wildly into shards over and over, each new shot repeating the same explosion from various angles with such a degree of precision that you see the slight curve of a windowpane before it shatters into bits. What follows are glittering, watery shots of various consumer goods blowing up in slow motion and floating lazily across each frame. My favorite is the refrigerator with its splattering milk and mutilated whole turkey, food removed from the territory (and terror) of consumption, food as pure visual pleasure. Violence is definitely at stake here: his, active and literal, and hers, imaginative and figurative. While Antonioni depicts both forms as equally ineffective, I think the anorexic breaches the disparity between these poles when her body, like the actor’s, enters into suffering through a participation both figurative and literal; her very real suffering is also figurative of suffering in general. When a minor language erupts into a major one, the result is always “a blur, a mixed up history.”

But both good actors and bad ones get caught in the drift of their acting. Antonioni deliberately chose nonprofessionals to play his film’s lead roles, but in an interesting twist, he selected young Americans from the active counterculture who basically already were their characters. As if afraid his actors might not respond to another name, he used their own, further muddying the division. “Real” Daria and Mark, like their fictional counterparts, dated after meeting on set but quickly split up following a brief romance. Halprin wound up as an arts therapist, helping others to visualize their internal struggles, while Frechette went on to hold up a Boston bank along with several other members of his commune, and later died in prison after a weird weightlifting accident in which a 150-pound bar reportedly crushed his neck. Here too, I see a formal elegance as well as a sick joke.

For all its stuttering, anorexia remains somehow eloquent. After railing against Zabriskie Point’s abundant “lame metaphors and bad puns,” Rolling Stone film critic John Burks admitted that “even the flaws have a grandeur about them.” We should look at all the various instances and modes of violence, apparent or diffuse, as the anorexic girl manages to embody them in her multitudinous forms. She’s both the child trying to comprehend war and the actress terribly aged by her performance. She’s both the boy with the gun and the one who mourns him. She’s the girl who imagines the exploding food, and she’s the bursting house too. If you watch her closely, she’ll show you how everything’s just about to come apart.

1 The Criterion release of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 Ivan’s Childhood (a film akin in theme) includes an awkward but revelatory interview with star Nikolai Burlyayev. The man who as a child-actor gave a moving performance as Ivan now appears shockingly vacant. Alas, these emotions could come from somewhere else entirely outside of the actor.

2 In discussing anorexia, I will continue to refer to the “girl,” while recognizing fully that boys and men also practice various forms of not-eating. She occupies a marginalized position (i.e. her disordered eating is relegated to the cultural junk lot of “girl problems”) and stands in for those of other gender identifications, as well as for others in general.

3 In the film’s notorious seven-minute desert orgy scene, desire seems secondary. Hundreds of laughing, roiling couples and threesomes materialize out of the empty desert, as if that’s simply the way it is. The camera pans out, and these bodies become just another part of the scene, anonymized in the monochromatic grey-brown dust.

4 This was before the phenomenon of organic food became ubiquitous, at least in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I grew up. Capitalism quickly caught up with this concern about purity once the culture legitimized it. If actually clean food had been available then, I would have had big problems. Seeing how even spotless, ethically produced food falls victim to the “dirty” logic of capital, I’d have starved to death. Or maybe I’d have invented new rituals.

5 I cried when I threw my school lunches away, thinking of the girls somewhere else who didn’t have one. Even though my gesture of waste entirely contradicted any notion I had of fixing this inequality, I felt somehow closer to them.

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