The Tattooed Lady
“What is the self but the sum of everything we remember.”
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Last night I dreamt of visiting my old house, the one I lived in when I was married years ago. It looked like so many unoccupied houses do when revisited after time has elapsed: gloomy, dusty and neglected. The first floor was completely empty, but when I came to the second story, there, inexplicably, were my ex-husband’s surgical instruments next to some of my things. The abandoned implements lay dusty and moldering on the floor. They might have been used in the 19th century. If ever there was a dream inviting Jungian or Freudian analysis this was it.
Phallic symbols aside, however, the strangest things about the dream were my possessions. They were the instruments of a tattoo artist. It seemed I had been rating myself surgically right along with my ex, and found us both wanting. If all I had done was of no more value than indelible drawings under the skin what worth was that? Here apparently was a part of me that sat in judgement of my efforts as a writer.
I have always known moments of despair about my writing, but the dream triggered feelings I had not examined recently. I did not wake feeling anxious or depressed. Rather I accepted all that I saw in the dream as part of me. Not only did my dream reveal me as an tattoo artist, but that I tattooed myself. I was the tattooed lady. A tattooed lady is an exhibitionist, a freak by her own choosing. She puts her stuff, her confessions, emotional baggage, right out there in the open where everyone can see. Furthermore the stuff does not disappear with time. No matter how she might feel about it at some future point, the work remains forever.
Nature has not imposed this role upon the tattooed lady. Instead she consigns herself to the side show of the carnival of life. Still she is more than she was before the designs became a part of her exterior self. The stories the designs offer enrich her life and are offered as a spectacle. What a heady interpretation, and what a paradox that spectacle is.
My mother used to say, “Don’t make a spectacle of yourself.” So reclusive was my mother, this was the worst thing anyone could possibly do in her eyes. Well, here was I, in the estimation of my unconscious self, the ultimate spectacle. Thank heaven my mother was not there to see the end results of her parenting. It was she, after all, who helped tattoo my unconscious.
But the spectacle demands further examination. I see that it is not only my writing that is denounced in the dream, but also my life style. I, who stayed in the closet for years making only small forays, little announcements to select groups every so often, and who suffered regularly from homophobia, was and am most vulnerable as a spectacle, especially on those occasions when I get to bashing myself. This is clearly self-designed judgement after all. Not to carry a pun too far, but being ashamed, embarrassed, and guilty are components of homophobia, and they do tend to get under the skin. To add to that, as I have learned, most lesbians and gay men continue to be ambivalent when, as I have, they do finally come all the way out. Then too, whether we are out or not, some people who know us are bound, given society’s uncomfortable feelings about gays, to see us as freaks of nature-forgivable perhaps, but none the less queer. Thus the tattooed lady creates cognitive dissonance and chaotic clashes within the straight world as well as her own. A sideshow needs its audience after all.
In Greek tragedy the spectacle is all important and should inform as well as entertain. Perhaps an audience leaves the circus thinking themselves better off than the tattooed lady. Does she offer them catharsis as a tragi-comic figure? Perhaps by seeing her, people’s lives are somehow changed for the better. Or could it be they recognize that they too have a freak inside themselves, one which they have yet to reveal to the public and even, until seeing the tattooed lady, unable to acknowledge this secretly to themselves?
I am tentative and full of questions. Somewhere I read that women ask more questions than men, that they qualify with reservations any opinion they offer. If I were a man I might pronounce that all I have written here is so. As the tattooed lady I can only tell you to study your own tattoos, for you most assuredly have them. Then,you may deal with them as best you can.