On The Skin

People say 'Robbie? Is that your name?' and I say, "No, that's my son.  That's the date he was born and that's the date he died," and invariably they go 'Ack!' and then I'll say "And this is my daughter Rosie, and that is the date she was born and that is the date she died,' and then they will say 'Sorry! I wish never asked!" and at that point, I'll say 'No, it's fine because they're my kids and that, and I love talking about them and I always will.'

Mark and Ann lost two children to Infantile Batten’s Disease, one at age six and the other at age eight.  Instead of hiding that truth, Mark has their names written on his arms, along with other body art remembering them.

Somehow, I assume that even if their names weren’t spelled out in ink they would be written on Mark’s skin forever.

Our life experience always is written all over us, though most of us believe that the best and most appropriate thing is to hide our truths, just because they might make other people uncomfortable.

Mark understands that people don’t like talking about the death of children, seeing it as tragic and as something to be erased, made invisible, but he isn’t remembering their deaths, he is remembering their lives and how the experience of loving them affected him forever.

So much gets written on our skin and so much of it we try and hide so as not to make other people uncomfortable.  Making it invisible, though, doesn’t make it go away.

When parents use words to rip at a child, they are writing those words of anger onto skin.

What words would they use if they had to write them directly onto their child’s body with a permanent marker?   How would they change their approach if they saw those words scrawled across their child’s face for weeks?

It’s not uncommon in humiliation pornography to see a body marked by degrading words, usually written in lipstick.   Words that diminish and degrade are written directly onto the skin, reducing someone to a labelled object, removing their dignity and much of their humanity with it.   It is an unsettling sight, one that plays into our own sense of power and abuse, confirming powerlessness.

We have some choice what we carry on our own skin, but first we have to be willing to expose it.  We have to strip down and look at our own scars, the labels imposed on us so we can make a deliberate choice what to hold and what to scrub off.

Trying to conceal how we were branded so that other people don’t get uncomfortable, don’t think the worse of us, well, that doesn’t let us get down to it and own what has been written on our skin, deciding what we keep and what we mark as abuse.

Is it rude and offensive for Mark to shove the names of his dead children in our face?   Don’t other people who don’t want to think about how vulnerable their own children are entitled to the comfort of not having mortality made visible every time they see him?   Not everyone wants or needs to live with the spectre of death; some want to have a nice life!

The Victorians had a whole range of funereal jewelry, often with the hair of a deceased loved one in plain view.  Queen Victoria herself was in mourning for much of her reign, an awareness of the presence of death written on all state occasions.

This isn’t something we copy in a pop culture where shiny, shallow and fast have replaced textured, deep and enduring.    Maybe that’s why we think we can write crap onto other people’s skin and it will have no lasting effect, no long-term repercussions; by tomorrow, it will be invisible and a new layer can be created.

We just don’t have the iconography and consideration to convey much subtlety, which is why lots of people end up with random Chinese characters written on their body.

As a transwoman, though, I know that my history is written on my body.  That doesn’t mean that observers can see all of it, as most don’t have the knowledge to decode it, but it does mean that many can see enough to disquiet them.

Presidential candidates have called for isolating transpeople in sanitary facilities on the notion that people have a right not to be uncomfortable.

I’ve never seen that right in the constitution and wonder how it would apply more broadly.   Are those with malformed limbs or other body challenges to also be excluded?  How about people who have a memorial to their lost children inked onto their body in plain sight?

So many people write shit onto the bodies of others and then rationalize their actions by saying that they were just trying to help, trying to leave a mark that would help remind others of their own corruption, like the A brand that once marked adulterers.

Mark, though, isn’t ashamed of what he has written on his skin.   He shows it with pride and grace, marks of a time he could only get through by counting on love.

Wouldn’t it be great if we were all able to show what is on our skin with dignity, not feeling that they are something we need to hide just to keep others “comfortable?”

Maybe that would make people more aware of how they write on the skin of others without thought, just lashing out to hurt others or to express our own pain.  Maybe we wouldn’t end up tossing words that we would never use a Sharpie to write on someone else’s skin.

We all have skin in the challenge of building a good life.  Being able to show it, not just to hide it, seems important to me.

I very much recommend you watch the entire film about Robbie and Rosie.  It is a very well done reminder that death is not the enemy of love, but rather another powerful reason for it.