One day long ago, I looked at myself as I faced a full-length mirror and saw my image darken and soften and then seem to retreat, as though I was vanishing from the world rather than that my mind was shutting it out. I steadied myself on the door frame just across the hall from the mirror, and then my legs crumpled under me. My own image drifted away from me into darkness, as though I was only a ghost fading even from my own sight.
I blacked out occasionally and had dizzy spells often in those days, but this time was memorable because it appeared as though it wasn’t that the world was vanishing from my consciousness but that I was vanishing from the world. I was the person who was vanishing and the disembodied person watching her from a distance, both and neither. In those days, I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were often at odds with each other. And I was watching myself to see if I could read in the mirror what I could be and whether I was good enough and whether all the things I’d been told about myself were true.
To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in innumerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once. “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” said Edgar Allan Poe, who must not have imagined it from the perspective of women who prefer to live. I was trying not to be the subject of someone else’s poetry and not to get killed; I was trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on. They might have been out there, but I hadn’t located them yet.
The struggle to find a poetry in which your survival rather than your defeat is celebrated, perhaps to find your own voice to insist upon that, or to at least find a way to survive amidst an ethos that relishes your erasures and failures is work that many and perhaps most young women have to do.
Excerpted from Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir, by Rebecca Solnit, with permission of the publisher, Viking.