We Heal From Memory: Sexton, Lorde, Anzaldúa and The Poetry of Witness
  • Cassie Premo Steele


Halfway through the fall semester, sitting in my basement office at a Southern college, there is a presence at my door. It is Alicia, one of my students. She has missed the last two weeks of class and she has come, I assume, to give me an excuse. I put my papers to the side of the desk and ask her to come in. She sits and starts talking. She wants me to know she has something to tell me. She warns me that I will think she is making it up. She sometimes thinks it didn’t happen. She has told no one. No one.


Black Woman Child Sexual Abuse Traumatic History Sexual Trauma Traumatic Memory 
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  1. 1.
    Psychoanalytic writers include, of course, Freud, and also, more recently, Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992); Lenore Terr, Unchained Memories (New York: Basic Books, 1994); and Laura S. Brown, “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Trauma,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1995): 100–112. I include in the category of the historical writers who study theoretically or narratively the Holocaust, writers such as Dori Laub, “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle,” American Imago 48:1 (1991): 75–91, among others. For the connections between philosophy and psychoanalysis with regard to trauma, see Michèle Bertrand, La pensée et le trauma (Paris: Harmattan, 1990).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The significance of the impossibility of direct referentiality and its connection to the ethical nature of address are discussed in Cathy Caruth’s “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Impossibility of History” Yale French Studies: Literature and the Ethical Question 79 (1991): 181–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    One example of such an unnecessarily deadlocked debate is found between Joan Wallach Scott and Linda Gordon. See Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); and Gordon, Review of Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, Signs 15 (1990): 853–858.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    See Dawn Skorczewski, “What Prison Is This? Literary Critics Cover Incest in Anne Sexton’s ‘Briar Rose,’” Signs 21:2 (Winter 1996): 326–329. In this essay, Skorczewski cites only male critics who ignore the signs of incest in Sexton’s “Briar Rose,” while many female critics have ignored the signs in all of Sexton’s poetry, as well. For example, two women critics deny the incest in essays from 1992 and 1994; see Karen Alkalay-Gut, “‘For We Swallow Magic and We Deliver Anne’: Anne Sexton’s Use of Her Name,” The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History, ed. Mickey Pearlman (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992): 139–49, p. 142; and Jacqueline Banerjee, “Grief and the Modern Writer,” English: The Journal of the English Association 43:175 (Spring 1994): 17–36, p. 21. Two other women critics resist confirming it; see Ellen Cronan Rose, “Through the Looking Glass: When Women Tell Fairy Tales,” in The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Dartmouth Coll., 1983): 209–227, p. 216; and Alicia Ostriker, “Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience,” in Sexton: Selected Criticism, ed. Diana Hume George (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 3–18, p. 13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 9.
    Anna Wilson writes of the tokenization of Lorde by white critics in her essay, “Rites/Rights of Canonization: Audre Lourde as Icon,” in Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, eds. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Candelaria Cordelia Chavez (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999): 17–33.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    To date the criticism on Audre Lorde has not usually been done with sufficient attention to the multiple aspects of Lorde’s existence. For the most part certain aspects of Lorde’s writing are highlighted, and others are left in shadows while the critic focuses on a singular aspect of Lorde’s identity, as a woman who is lesbian, feminist, black, or a cancer survivor. Critics who place Lorde in a lesbian tradition include Mary J. Carruthers, “The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas,” The Hudson Review 36:2 (Summer 1983): 293–322; Judy Grahn, The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition (San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1985); Bonnie Zimmerman, The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969–1989 (Boston: Beacon, 1990); and Ruth Ginzberg, “Audre Lorde’s (Nonessentialist) Lesbian Eros,” Hypatia 7:4 (Fall 1992): 73–90. Those who place her in a feminist tradition include: Pamela Annas, “A Poetry of Survival: Unnaming and naming in the Poetry of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich,” Colby Library Quarterly 18 (March 1982): 9–25; Mary K. DeShazer, Inspiring Women: Reimagining the Muse (New York: Pergamon Press, 1986); and Thomas Foster, “The Very House of Difference’: Gender as ‘Embatded’ Standpoint,” Genders 8 (Summer 1990): 17–37. Lorde’s race is highlighted to the exclusion of other categories in Stephen Henderson, ed., Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (New York: William Morrow, 1973). Lorde’s identity as a cancer survivor is the focus in Jeanne Perreault, “‘that the pain not be wasted’: Audre Lorde and the Written Self,” A/B: Autobiography Studies 4:1 (Fall 1988): 1–16; and G. Thomas Couser, “Autopathography: Women, Illness, and Lifewriting” A/B: Autobiography 6:1 (Spring 1991): 65–75. There are some critics who do engage with the multiple aspects of Lorde’s self; however, they do not explicidy connect these elements with their historical contexts; see Amittai F. Avi-ram, “Apo Koinou in Audre Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences,” Callaloo 9:1 (Winter 1986): 193–208; Gloria T. Hull, “Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us,” in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1989): 150–173; Barbara DiBernard, “Zami: A Portrait of an Artist as a Black Lesbian,” The Kenyon Review 13:4 (Fall 1991): 195–213; and Erin G. Carlston, “Zami and the Politics of Plural Identity,” in Sexual Practice, Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism, ed. Susan J. Wolfe and Julian Penelope (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993): 226–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 12.
    The closest any critic of Zami comes to treating Lorde’s narrative of sexual abuse is Anna Wilson, who writes, “The adult that Audre has become has the power to hear and speak both the good news of family as tradition and the bad news of family as site of abuse” (85). However, this is said in reference to Audre’s friend, Gennie’s abuse, not Audre’s. It is interesting to think about the depth of silence and denial surrounding sexual abuse in the criticism given that Zami is read and written about so widely. See “Audre Lorde and the African-American Tradition: When the Family is Not Enough,” in New Lesbian Criticism, ed. Sally Munt (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992): 75–93.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Examples of the critical focus on the border as positive can be found in Sonia Saldívar-Hull, “Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics,” Criticism in the Borderlands, ed. Hector Calderon and José David Saldívar (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991): 203–220, p. 211; Ramón Saldívar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), p. 218; Paula Gunn Allen, “‘Border Studies’: The Intersection of Gender and Color,” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, ed. David Palumbo-Liu (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995): 31–47, p. 45.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Such a sociological approach to Anzaldúa’s work can be found in Carl Gutiérrez-Jones, Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano Culture and Legal Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 118–119; Oscar J. Martínez, Border People: Life and Society in the U. S-Mexico Borderlands (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994), p. 309–310; Ruth Behar, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p. 10–11; Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), p. 426. Anzaldúa is also cited by three contributors to The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier, ed. Maria P. P. Root (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage, 1996). All three treat her work as sociology, not literature. See Cynthia Nakashima, “Voices from the Movement: Approaches to Multiraciality,” 79–97, p. 90; G. Reginald Daniel, “Black and White Identity in the New Millenium: Unsevering the Ties That Bind,” 121–139, p. 134; Carolina A. Streeter, “Ambiguous Bodies: Locating Black/White Women in Cultural Representations,” 305–320, pp. 308, 310.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    For discussions of the benefits of an “American literature as comparative” approach, see Owen Aldgridge, American Literature: A Comparative Approach (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “The Claims of Common Culture: Gender, Race, Class and the Canon,” Salmagundi 72 (1986): 131–143; Hector Calderon and Jose David Saldivar, “Editors’ Introduction,” Criticism in the Borderlands (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991): 1–7; Ramon Saldivar, “Narrative, Ideology, and the Reconstruction of American Literary History,” Criticism in the Borderlands (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991): 11–27; Luis Leal, “The Rewriting of American Literary History,” Criticism in the Borderlands (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991): 21–27; and finally, Paul Lauter, “The Literatures of America: A Comparative Discipline,” Redefining American Literary History (New York: MLA, 1990): 9–34.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    Bessel A. van der Kolk and Jose Saporta, “Biological Response to Psychic Trauma,” International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, eds. John P. Wilson and Beverley Raphael (New York: Plenum Press, 1993): 25–33, p. 26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 17.
    Indeed, recent neurobiological research on memory also suggests that “personal” memories depend on the collective context in which our identity is formed. See Daniel L. Schacter, Searching for Memory (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p. 52.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Bessel A. van der Kolk and José Saporta, “Biological Response to Psychic Trauma,” International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, eds. John P. Wilson and Beverley Raphael (New York: Plenum Press, 1993): 25–33, p. 30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 20.
    This can be traced in Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” and “Negation,” both from General Psychological Theory (New York: Collier, 1963): 164–179 and 213–217; and in Melanie Klein, “A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States” and “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States” both from Contributions to Psycho-analysis 1921–1945 (London: Hogarth Press, 1948): 282–310 and 311–338. Jessica Benjamin, as well, contributes to the understanding of intersubjectivity in the light of loss and destruction in “The Shadow of the Other (Subject): Intersubjectivity and Feminist Theory,” Constellations vol. 1, no. 2 (1994): 231–254.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    The use of this term, recognition, follows Jessica Benjamin’s study, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988).Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. xiii.Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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