‘What Happened to You While You Were Gone?’

Arequipa, Peru. Getty Images

As she recalls a trip to Peru, the body of a mummified girl sacrificed for the safety of the Incans over 500 years ago, and the frustrating neurological condition that steals her memory and strength, Jacqueline Alnes mines the topography of female identity and the stereotypes that erode our self image. Read her essay at Guernica.

Jacquline Alnes regularly contributes reading lists to Longreads. They’re worth your time.

Here is what is known: In the beginning, there is a runner, capable and strong. In photographs, her thighs striate with muscle on the down step. Brown-blonde hair in French braids, she waves and smiles in each image. But on a mountainside in Peru, her legs give way beneath her. Rushed to North Carolina, where she attends university, her body crumples again and again, surrendering to a neurological abnormality.

I like to dream that my body first failed me while I was abroad, but really, my body started to become enigmatic during my freshman year of college, two years before landing in Lima. At eighteen, after living a remarkably healthy life, I fainted one day in my dormitory. When I woke, the world around me turned into a surrealist painter’s vision: dressers spinning toward the white tiled ceiling, bed wobbling in my sight. That day marked the separation between the old me and a new girl. When I entered the doctor’s office, I became a body. A set of symptoms. A story someone else told.

To take up residence in my body again, I write. I struggle, over and over again, to compose a whole narrative from the loose threads of my own history. If only I could pin down the meaning of my body’s hidden illness, maybe I could make a shape of my body, carve a smooth statuette to hold in my palm. Young woman experiences disorienting neurological illness but emerges as a writer; Division I runner collapses, loses running for years, but returns and reconnects with her body; university student once bullied by teammates learns to be vulnerable once again. But none of these stories are completely true.

Within studies of history, there is room for shape-shifting. This gives me comfort. Perhaps instead of considering my body as broken artifact, I can think of myself as palimpsest, something influenced, though not overtaken, by those who have studied my internal waves, revealed my fragilities, given the gift of care to my body, lent their voices when mine could not be coaxed into coherence. I imagine rewritten lines, whole memories, and erasure. The doctor’s notes scrawled across my thighs, my mother’s voice loping across my forehead, song of my lost memories erased from my mouth. Autobiographies written neatly on my palms.

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