Love Letter to Virginia Woolf; or How Orlando Taught Me to Embrace My Femininity | The New Engagement
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Love Letter to Virginia Woolf; or How Orlando Taught Me to Embrace My Femininity

By Rachel Veroff

The one-­year anniversary of my rape I spent alone and staring into the bottom of a whiskey glass. I guess I wanted to commemorate the night by giving into sadness. So I sat in the shadows of my empty kitchen, and I let the grief seep in like a cold and deathly dampness—until it seized me and convulsed me. I was more broken than I knew inside. Me and all of my bad decisions.

Me and my million fractured faces: shuddering in the dark.

Once upon a time, I used to like myself. I used to delight in my own body: my face, hands, hair, knobby knees, wriggly toes, my breasts, laughing, crying, falling in love. Once upon a time, I used to enjoy attention from men. It is astonishing how fast that joy can plummet like a deadweight in your stomach, then curdle into fear—and sit there. For months, and then a year. After I was assaulted, my life became as if divided into two. There was Before and there was After. There was flashing hot and searing cold; innocence and shadows—muted words and screaming. The fissure was not immediately obvious. But it was there.

On the surface level, after that confusing night that ripped my life in two, I carried on like normal. I got out of bed each day and went to work. Every morning, I washed myself. I stood dutifully in the shower and let water cascade over my vacant head. I continued my makeup routine: darkening my eyes with kohl and patting concealer over flaws in my skin, appraising my reflection. I put on clothes—the same clothes I had collected carefully over years to present a desirable image of myself to the world. These clothes were what was in my wardrobe. So I continued wearing them.

I didn’t know it at the time, but in the months following my assault I was existing in a state of deadness. I was grieving, and squashing myself down. Eventually, one by one, the pretenses of self care fell by the wayside. I began wearing shapeless, unattractive sweaters that hid my body, and I let my hair grow tangled across my face. I was only distantly aware of it at the time, but I refused to think of myself as feminine. I wanted to be sexless.

You can tell yourself a hundred times that the events of one night past were inconsequential, but when that count rolls around to 365, the lie takes on a different hue. Whatever it was you were trying to forget, the year still comes full circle. Memories have a way of hurtling back at you with the gathered momentum of bricks flung round the sun. In any case, that was how it happened to me—how I learned that time does not move forward, but in a loop. The deeper your wounds, the more gravity distorts your progress. Some memories are so weighty, they become inevitable.

It was around this time that I discovered Orlando by Virginia Woolf. It is a book I have revisited many times since, and each time it spellbinds me. I have returned to its pages again and again, not only for the enchanting language and wit, but also for Woolf’s many insights into the experience of gender—of solitude and womanhood. She articulates notions that were not taught to me in adolescence. In my post­traumatic stupor, Orlando extended to me, like the gentle dipping of a palm frond, an avenue for understanding.

Orlando is a book about growing up. In the beginning, Orlando is a boy—effervescent with innocence and imagination. He likes to romp in the woods around the Queen’s court, where he lives (it’s 16th­century England), and to marvel at things like the color of moss and the nature of love. He admires poetry in a way that is both clumsy and endearing, and his own attempts at poetry are comically bad. As a 21st­century reader (and a clumsy poet, too), I fell in love with Orlando immediately. I recognized my younger self in his foolish enthusiasms—so much so it hurt.

Orlando is sentimental about girls. The young women at court enjoy his company, but he does not seem to understand them. This becomes evident when his infatuation with Sasha, a foreign princess, escalates into obsession. The girl offers a coy sort of friendship, but not enough to satisfy Orlando’s romantic visions. Behind Sasha’s provocative banter, Orlando suspects that she is keeping some part of herself hidden. There is a reticence in her that Orlando cannot tap, and this agitates him. He tortures himself. He writes sappy poems about a “flame hidden in the emerald,” and “the sun prisoned in a hill.” He longs to snatch the fire out of Sasha—so fascinated is he by her womanhood—which eludes him.

Finally, Orlando brings his heartsickness to a performance of Othello. In the fateful scene where Othello suffocates Desdemona in her bed, Orlando is on the edge of his seat. He imagines it is “Sasha he kills with his own hands.” He imagines strangling her. Just think about that for a minute: it is an extremely violent fantasy to appear in the mind of a young man who, so far, we have thought of as sweetness personified. However fleeting the fantasy might be, it marks a stopping point in my understanding of his love for Sasha. Up until this moment, I have identified with him in everything. But the impulse to strangle his lover in order to keep her strikes me as foreign and alarming.

I do not mean to suggest here that Orlando is capable of real violence (decidedly, he is not—we learn that later in the Turkish Wars), but the fantasy does betray a certain “masculine” impulse for possession and control. Unfortunately, it is not surprising. Nothing is more common in life and art than violence against women—especially women who resist containment. I know this violence well.

It was with a similar sense of proprietorship that my rapist pulled off my clothes, even as I tried to curl away. The more I shrank from him, the more arrogantly he pushed me down. Just hours before, I had allowed this man to pay for my drinks at the bar. In fact, I had even flirted with him and entertained the idea of something happening. But the way it did happen was all wrong. I wanted to step backwards, to deflect him with a joke and get my bearings—but he only wanted to plow right through me. He grabbed my breasts. With the conceit of a spoiled child. It was like he’d simply decided that it was time to help himself to something he felt that he deserved. His hair flopped with his exertions, and I turned my face away.

My rapist’s sense of entitlement unsettled me. I am ashamed to say: it overpowered me—the fact that, in the throes of what was supposed to be an intimate act, he so clearly did not see me as a person. He shoved his way inside of me with a selfishness I will never forget. And while I waited for it to be over, my only thoughts were of disgust—at myself for having lost control of the situation, yes—but more acutely: disgust at how pathetic and small and despicable a person has to be, to think, even for a second, that this was anything like love.

The reason I speak of love in the same breath as theft is that I believe this man was desperate to be loved. In the same way, perhaps, that the boy Orlando yearned for Sasha to return his love—the difference being that Orlando was only a teenager when he met Sasha, and not a full­grown man. Another difference being that Orlando never assaulted the girl. He only fixed her in the day­dreamy crosshairs of unfair expectation. The worst thing Orlando did to Sasha was ask her to elope with him. Ultimately, though, she abandons him—and goes back to her native Russia. The disappointment devastates Orlando.

This rupture marks the beginning of Orlando’s transformation, and the beginning of the rest of the story. First, there are three remarkable things that happen to him. One is that he falls into a deep depression, retreating from society and sleeping for unnaturally long stretches of time. The words Woolf uses to describe these long sleeps are intriguing:

If sleep it was, of what nature…? Are they remedial measures—trances in which the most galling memories, events that seem likely to cripple us forever, are brushed with a dark wing which rubs their harshness off and gilds them, even the ugliest, and basest, with a lustre, an incandescence? Has the finger of death to be laid on the tumult of life from time to time lest it rend us asunder? Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living? And then what strange powers are these that penetrate our most secret ways and change our most treasured possessions without our willing it? (68).

Woolf likens Orlando’s unnatural sleep to a temporary death, during which the pain of his first heartbreak gets cocooned deep inside him. His hibernation is the beginning of a metamorphosis: his very alchemy will change to incorporate the loss of Sasha. It is a highly poeticized—and yet, eerily accurate—description of what happens to trauma survivors in the wake of trauma. A void opens up, and then unspeakable things come out of the void. For Orlando, these things will alter the course of his life forever.

Of course, it is worth noting that a teenage boy’s first experience of heartbreak is not comparable as a trauma to real violence—or sexual assault, or war. At the same time, anyone familiar with Woolf’s biography knows that she herself survived years of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her two half­brothers. And if you have any inkling of what such experiences can do to the human psyche, the above passage from Orlando surely resonates on that level of spookiness.

There is an argument in literary theory that each reader’s interpretation is her own private labor and her own private truth. If you subscribe to such a way of reading, then I will say this: my interpretation of Orlando’s transformation, after losing Sasha, is that it is a metaphor for resilience in the face of overwhelming sadness.

The second change that manifests itself in Orlando is an odd sort of untethering in time. He wakes up after the shock of heartbreak to find that he has somehow slipped mysteriously out of sync with the normal ticking of the clock. Certain weeks seem to disappear from his mind faster than a flash, while others, like afternoons spent walking in the forest, and plucking blades of grass, dilate expansively into years. This happens to such a degree that it becomes like science fiction. Orlando stops ageing at the same rate as his peers, and he starts to move through time as a perpetual young man.

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