A Fate Worse Than Gravity: A Conversation with Ellen O’Connell Whittet




IT IS ONLY IN the second half of Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s poignant and exquisite memoir about ballet (and other causes of female pain), What You Become in Flight, that it dawns on the reader — or on this reader, at least — that she’s invoking the word “flight” in two senses: the balletic sense of launching oneself through the air and the biological sense of a threat eliciting the human fight-or-flight response. This two-step meaning corresponds with the bifurcated structure of the book itself. The first half is about O’Connell Whittet’s obsession with ballet from an early age — an obsession passed down by the women in her family — and her subsequent career-ending injury in college, when a fellow dancer failed to catch her: “Then I was falling, a low moving kite of music and bones.” The second half is about a paralyzing fear of snakes she develops to unconsciously displace the trauma of a rape from which she is emotionally in flight, while also telling the story of her flight from dance into writing, and the role of love in her personal healing. What makes these two halves hold together as one narrative is their deep and stunningly poetic concern with the physical and psychological vulnerability involved in being a woman in the world.

As a dancer and writer, O’Connell Whittet filters experience through the lenses of stories and bodies. “When dance fails, we have words,” she writes. “When words fail, we have our bodies.” By way of finely crafted vignettes, she argues that words and dances, bodies and stories, are inseparable, and the patriarchal web they trap women in can only lead to pain. The plots of ballets, she recalls, gave her “a vocabulary for helplessness, for dependence on a man saving me, before I could write.” More generally, “[b]allet excuses and glorifies a culture of dancing through pain, and that it relies on women’s bodies to be the tools of its expression. […] It never occurred to me that ballet’s logic was flawed — instead, I believed my body was.”

Thanks to her delicate, associative touch in evoking the universal by probing the personal, even when ballet ceases to be the focus for O’Connell Whittet, its resonances still urgently apply to a host of other subjects she gathers into her narrative, from a family tragedy to the 2014 Santa Barbara massacre (she teaches at the UC campus there), from overcoming her fear of snakes to falling in love. What You Become in Flight doesn’t shy away from all the terrible things women must flee from, but ultimately it offers an uplifting message about how we can make sense of painful experiences through our words and our bodies. As O’Connell Whittet writes, “I may not remember the joy of learning to jump, but I’m determined to remember the safety of landing.”

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AARON SHULMAN: It’s intriguing that your two great passions — ballet and writing — are diametrically opposed in a way. The act of dancing is always literally embodied, while writing so often feels bodiless in the sense that you’re sitting still and so deep inside your mind that your physicality kind of drifts away. It’s clear that writing has helped you process ballet, but how has ballet influenced your writing?

ELLEN O’CONNELL WHITTET: I’ve always seen my dancing and writing as one continuous line of inquiry. For me, as a former dancer, writing feels very embodied, which might be because sitting for long stretches is when I feel my back injury most. I was often stiff and sore while writing this book; it’s been interesting to revisit the origins of that pain while doing something that has both nothing and everything to do with dancing.

Writing is also embodied for me in that I write about my body. This means my gendered experiences as a woman, as a dancer, as someone who has always made meaning through my body since I was a child. And, on the other end of this, ballet always felt like a series of intellectual exercises. Dancing, especially in structured classes and performance, is a constant state of memorization, problem-solving, connections between steps and people and space and music. Perhaps because both were such important parts of my childhood, I’ve never been able to untangle them completely. That tangling was the driving project of this book.

It feels like the cultural conversation around women’s bodies and the male gaze has shot light-years forward in the last decade, which I gather is more or less when you were working on this book. Did the public dialogue feed into your process at all?

Like all writers, I’m constantly shaped by the cultural lens through which I’m viewing my material, so the cycle of calling misogyny out — something that felt radical when I began this project and blessedly commonplace by the time I was done — certainly shaped the ways I understood my own past. For example, in 2018, when this dismantling of dangerous hierarchies became our global project, I thought about the hierarchy of ballet in ways I never had before. I remembered what it felt like to never be asked for consent in a ballet studio, and never realize I could revoke it. There were plenty of times I wished I could, not so much for reasons of sexual harassment, although I have certainly experienced that, but for reasons of worsening my own injuries. I wished I’d considered the ways I was being asked to fit an idealized norm, and how that injured my body every day. But at the time that was happening, I didn’t have that language to understand ballet’s predominant ideal. It was in the writing and rewriting, plus the news cycle, that I gained cultural language for what I put my own body through, and how that male gaze had become my goal. It makes me a little sad for the young self I created on the page, and proud of the adult self who had compassion for her.

Your book in large part is about pain, physical and emotional pain. It’s also about love — obsessive, self-destructive love and healthy, redemptive love. While both also involve pain, the latter can also help alleviate it. In the context of your story, what do you see as the interplay between pain and love?

The greater the love, the greater the pain, in my experience. The pain I felt from the loss of ballet only existed because of how much love I had for it at first. I think those of us who really throw ourselves headlong into what we love risk terrible pain all the time, usually without realizing it. I’m not sure how to alleviate that, even as an adult, when I still fall in love with something or someone every day. Perspective helps, which you can only gain from just keeping going, as does having lots of things you love, as opposed to one thing you’re staking your entire identity on, as I did. And it certainly helps to feel compassion and care for self when you experience the loss of something external. I grew up loving ballet more than anything — more than most of my friends or family — so losing it felt like losing myself. Being able to redirect that love into other things has spread it around a little (not that love is finite).

Being loved is also redemptive, and that was something ballet didn’t afford me. I once read somewhere that having a mother who loves you is the greatest privilege we can have in life, and I’m quite sure that the certainty of knowing someone loved me even when I was not dancing is what saved me. When the majority of the goal is perfectionism and achievement, as it is in ballet, it’s hard to recognize what else you’re offered by the experience. Now I feel fortunate to have a life that’s empty of ballet’s demands, but fuller in what it allows me to experience.

Who were the strongest literary influences on you while you were writing this book, both dance-related writers and non-dance writers? And did you have any non-literary influences?

I read so many dance biographies and memoirs while I was writing this, some of which made it in and some of which didn’t. Isadora Duncan’s memoir inspired me for how seriously she took her art, even when no one else did (it was probably too much, but still instructive!). Misty Copeland’s memoir was valuable for how she broke through to the highest levels of a deeply racist art form, while Gelsey Kirkland’s memoir showed her ability to see through all the men who told her what she could or should do. I also love so many other memoirs that helped me along the way that had nothing to do with ballet. Tara Westover taught me about structure, and my thesis advisor, Jo Ann Beard, taught me how to express how shocking violence always is, even when it’s commonplace. Eudora Welty and Jesmyn Ward taught me how to write a sentence.

I also watched so much dance in order to be able to describe it, or to jog my memory. So much of the music in my head came from the ballets I watched while writing this. The balcony scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and the playful and ominous music from Pina Bausch’s The Fall Dance. I was also inspired by all the women who came forward in October 2018 to begin a global movement of calling out sexual harassment, silencing, and disenfranchisement across industries. I was inspired by all the writers and activists who were able to tackle sexual assault head-on. I am influenced by everyone who has continued to make art in times of sadness or fear or uncertainty.

I’m curious what road this story took to becoming a book and how long it took. Was it a series of essays first? Or always a memoir? How did it find its finished form?

It was a series of essays first, many of which I published individually or wrote in grad school, but as I started to put it all together, I saw it was connected in more ways than just thematically. I saw through-lines and stories that referenced each other, and even as I felt living through more things, I saw how ballet was the origin of how I processed so much of my own life. So a memoir made more sense, but it’s also very hard to turn an essay collection into a memoir. I think, because I didn’t originally write it in its current form, so much of the time I spent was trying to find that through-line that makes the story continuous. It was frustrating at times, and I wish I had gotten the genre right the first time, but it probably took writing the wrong book to write the right book.

In the end, a lot of the essays I published individually that form the basis for the chapters of this book ended up cross-pollinating lots of sections. So I had to stop seeing it as finished things I’d written and start asking, where in the timeline does this paragraph fit in? Or even this sentence? And of course, editors are magic. My first editor at Melville House asked me to write my origin story rather than give it in backstory. As soon as I did that, the rest of the story fell into place much more easily. Setting the story up well in the beginning is some of the most important and hardest work of writing a memoir, I think, because it’s not how our brains work. Or at least not how mine works. I’m a scattered thinker, so I had to discipline myself not to be a scattered storyteller.

Briefly acknowledging the world we’re currently living in … Your book came out in mid-April. How has COVID-19 affected what you’re doing to get your book into the hands of readers, and how can people support you?

This is such a generous question, and one I wish I had a definitive answer to. Obviously, I hope people keep reading, and keep buying books from independent bookstores, many of which are shipping locally and doing curbside delivery. While we’re stuck inside, the journeys we can take through reading are endless. Reading book-length narratives allows us to develop and engage our empathy, which is vital right now. It allows us perspective, and escapism, and distraction during a time when we could use all these things.

Mourning a publication’s timing is a privilege, but also a reality for those of us who spent years making art that is being released in one of the most challenging times in our world history. COVID-19 has in many ways created lots of goodwill in the publishing and book-selling industry, but it has also hurt writers and booksellers in so many ways. I’m able to do more online promotion than I would have been able to do otherwise, but the immediacy of reading to, signing for, and interacting with an audience I’ve only imagined for years has vanished, and while I plan to celebrate the book’s release as lavishly as I can in isolation, I’m also trying to leave some room to mourn what I’m so lucky to be able to mourn. I hope that, as we practice our responsible distancing, people can revisit book clubs and communities built around reading. But the world looks so different, it’s hard to know how books about anything outside of our current crisis will be received. Making and sharing our art, though, also feels like a tiny act of hope in a world that has lost a lot of hope. Reading and promoting new books will similarly feel like an act of generosity in a world that could use as much of that as we can spare.

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Aaron Shulman is the author of the book The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2019).

 

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