“Without the emotional connection to pain, pain is still experienced, but not as pain.”
— Joel Peckham, Body Memory
How do I explain what Body Memory, Joel Peckham’s most recent collection of essays, is doing? Do I say that this book is an exploration of the ramifications of physical pain? Do I say that this is not a book about conquering pain, but about learning to live with it? Do I say that this book is about physical pain’s connection to emotional pain? Do I say that this book is about summer camp? Swimming? Football? Locker room talk? Parenting? Marriage? Grief? Toxic masculinity?
Body Memory is one of the more complicated books that I have read in recent memory—both in structure and in content—but the complication pays off in nuanced examinations of pain, grief, and masculinity. Peckham is a widely published essayist and poet with publications in esteemed magazines such as The Southern Review and The Sun, in addition to another collection of essays, along with multiple books of poetry, so at the line level, this book is crafted with a poet’s precision, but what strikes me most is the ambition behind the thematic elements.
This book is not a typical collection of essays. In fact, it can be difficult to distinguish where one essay ends and the next begins. I could almost call this a memoir-in-essays, but that wouldn’t be a correct description either. Perhaps the best description of what’s happening on the pages here is meditations. Indeed, I am tempted to make connections to Marcus Aurelius. This collection is even divided into five sections: Flight / Swimming / Phys-Ed / The Shattering / Body Memory, and each section is a meditation on a different aspect of Peckham’s lived experience.
Understanding this book does not require a familiarity with Peckham’s story—particularly because that story is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the book—but in 2004, Peckham was involved in an accident in Jordan (where he and his wife, Susan Atefat-Peckham were living on Fulbright Fellowships). The accident took the lives of Susan and their son Cyrus, and Peckham sustained traumatic injuries that left him with chronic physical pain.
Peckham’s description of physical pain is mixed with grief, and the narrative voice is tinged with regret, but he skillfully avoids simplifying these difficult subjects. He admits that his marriage was troubled at the time of his wife’s death. He also admits that, in some ways, the physical pain was a relief because it distracted him from his grief at the loss of his wife and son, such as when he writes, “My family was in another world, but pain, pain was a near thing. Real. Mine. I was half in love with it. It framed me, gave me purpose.” Indeed, there is an element of this book that feels like a love letter to pain, and maybe that element stems directly from physical pain’s connection to Peckham’s own grief.
I am not a survivor of chronic pain; I have been fortunate to have spent most of my life in good health. Still, as a trauma survivor, I was startled by how familiar so much of this prose feels. He writes, “Normalcy, when understood as some sort of cultural norm, is almost always destructive. Not only does it delegitimize experiences and people who exist outside the norm and label much of what we don’t understand as deviant, it also sets up a standard profile that no one quite fits. The only useful concept of normal is an individual one. If you can find your normal and can live within it, that’s recovery.” This sentiment about normalcy is echoed later in his section, Phys-Ed, where he ruminates on masculinity.
The son of a coach and a former football player, Peckham grew up surrounded by masculine norms, and he struggled to both fit within those norms and resist them at the same time. It’s the complicated trap of gender roles, and as he finally summarizes:
“We talk about these things too, trying to find a balance between being honest with ourselves about want and need and desire while trying at the same time to avoid perpetuating damaging stereotypes. Articulating masculinity and femininity is hard, though, without falling into the most banal generalities about essential characteristics of men and women—characteristics that often don’t hold up under scrutiny.”
As a feminist writer and reader, I am relieved by Peckham’s interrogation of masculinity, but, at first, that section felt a bit off from the rest of the text—less descriptive than the other sections and more ruminative.
Still, Peckham manages to tie all of his themes together in the final section where the reader finally understands that Peckham’s experience of bodily pain is tied to his experience of performative masculinity. “We want [pain sufferers] to get better or at least to stop complaining about it,” he writes. “Sometimes we want both. We value toughness and become quickly disgusted by the weak.”
Perhaps, ultimately, that is what this book is about—performing toughness in the face of suffering. It’s the kind of performance that resonates with a broad audience. Readers of Body Memory need not be living with chronic pain, need not have lost a loved one, and need not even be all that interested in masculinity. The ideal reader of this book will be someone who has suffered, and who understands the words, “There is no exemption from trouble for any of us. But that’s not the greatest fear. Death is not the greatest fear. Neither is loss. Living is.”
Kelly Sundberg‘s essays have been published in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and other literary magazines. Her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the Best American series. Her memoir is forthcoming from HarperCollins Publishers in 2018.