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Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma

To those who think, ‘Who cares?’ I say Emily’s truth matters.

flickr/Gresham College

I picture her writing by oil lamp in the dead of night, dressed in white, seated at a tiny desk. A wisp of red hair falls across her face, but she is lost in a world of words while the rest of the household, in fact all of Amherst, sleeps. Over 150 years later I am burning my own midnight oil with these words — her words — and the secret messages I think they encode won’t let me sleep.

“The Myth,” she was called; a “partially cracked poetess;” “Queen Recluse.” Even today, the adjectives “reclusive” and “eccentric” are frequently found near her name, along with admissions of bafflement. “No one knows why Emily Dickinson…lived reclusively at her family’s Homestead,” states the website for the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. “No one knows just when or why Dickinson began to wear white,” Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director, writes on the New York Botanical Garden blog. “Emily’s refusal to publish work under her own name is a decision that has never been fully explained,” writes Helen Tope for Artsculture.

Agoraphobia, social phobia, lupus, epilepsy, and a vaguely defined eye ailment are several of the explanations offered today for Emily’s withdrawal from society. Many point to the numerous losses of loved ones she suffered as a possible cause of pain. As a physician, I submit that something besides grief also afflicted her, and that poetry was her way to “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.” I believe an explanation accounts for the myriad questions her life and work have generated: trauma.

As a physician I submit that something besides grief afflicted Emily Dickinson.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.” The Emily Dickinson Museum website avers, “The cause of that terror is unknown”; one biographer suggests it was fear of blindness from her eye ailment.

But the beginning of this poem, written in the same year as this letter and invoking a similar image of singing to ward off fear, makes me doubt this explanation:

The first Day’s Night had come —

And grateful that a thing

So terrible — had been endured —

I told my Soul to sing —

She said her Strings were snapt —

Her Bow — to Atoms blown…

I read this poem with a sense of worry. A secret terror traumatic enough to destroy her “Soul?” I searched for signs of trauma in her writings, reading through a collection of her almost 1,800 poems, examining letters and biographies. I found dozens of trauma poems that appear to encode experiences of being violated, and I felt compelled to consider that she might have endured sexual assault and been silenced not only in her own time but also by generations of scholars afterward who could not or would not recognize such a possibility. I Googled “Emily Dickinson and trauma / sexual assault / PTSD.” I found scholarly works by other doctors with similar suspicions and by authors who saw what many readers seem unwilling to see.

I felt compelled to consider that Dickinson might have endured sexual assault and been silenced.

Emily explicitly describes a menacing situation in “In Winter in my Room,” a poem containing tell-tale phallic worm and snake imagery. She appears to have eluded the leering intruder at first, but in one of her “goblin poems” she relates:

– suddenly — my Riches shrank –

A Goblin — drank my Dew –

My Palaces — dropped tenantless –

Myself — was beggared — too –

Maybe it’s this incident that inspired the lines, “‘Twas here my summer paused… my sentence had begun…Go manacle your icicle / Against your Tropic Bride.”

More than once she refers to her trauma as a kind of “sentence,” and the perpetrator’s possession of her as a “claim.” She repeatedly explores images of entrapment and escape. She compares her home to a prison and an unnamed “kinsman” to a “dungeon.” Emily once welcomed her niece into her bedroom, gestured with an imaginary key to lock the door behind them, and said, paradoxically, “Mattie — Here’s freedom!” Was she thinking of this dreaded kinsman with that gesture?

What fortitude the Soul contains

That it can so endure

The accent of a coming Foot –

The opening of a Door –

Her brother’s paramour, Mabel Loomis Todd, was convinced the poem containing the above verse was meant for her, but might it refer instead to the approach of some menacing presence in Emily’s family? Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth:

Burden — borne so far triumphant –

None suspect me of the crown,

For I wear the “Thorns” till Sunset –

Then — my Diadem put on.

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks, and exclaims in outrage,

The Wife — without the Sign!

Acute Degree — conferred on me –

Empress of Calvary!

Royal — all but the Crown!

Betrothed — without the swoon..

Born — Bridalled — Shrouded –

In a Day –

The motif of the bridal dress as shroud is a clue to her choice to wear white. “A solemn thing — it was — I said — / A woman — white — to be –.” More than a practical convenience for a life spent at home, the legendary white dress was, I believe, Emily’s silent protest. If she was going to be forced to play the role of bride, she would dress as one, and reclaim symbolically the purity represented in the dress’s whiteness while expressing the sorrow of a death shroud worn forever.

That she had frequent fantasies of death, no reader could deny. Survivors of sexual assault often experience suicidal ideation, unspeakable pain, guilt, shame, self-loathing, grief, depression, feelings of impurity, and ongoing fear. All these permeate Emily’s oeuvre. So many of her poems are imbued with shame, guilt, secrecy, dread, and unbearable memory that one could almost open her complete works to any page to find mention of them. “I’m ashamed — I hide — / What right have I to be a bride.” “I am afraid to own a Body — / I am afraid to own a Soul.” “Savior! I’ve no one else to tell — / And so I trouble thee.” “There is a pain — so utter — / It swallows substance up — / Then covers the Abyss with Trance — / So Memory can step Around — across — upon it.”

The Stories We Tell About Sexual Assault — And The Stories We Don’t

In “Remembrance has a rear and front,” Emily depicts memory as a house with many rooms, including a deep Cellar, then cries out in the chilling last lines, “Leave me not ever there alone / Oh thou Almighty God!” In a manuscript at Harvard’s Houghton Library, she appears to have crossed out these lines and replaced them with ones more vague, changing the character of the verse entirely. I believe the original outcry reflects her state of mind more faithfully.

Is it just coincidence that in 1862 she wrote 366 poems compared to only 52 in 1858, or that in the 1860s her seclusion became permanent? It seems quite likely that something terrible happened to Emily Dickinson. In a world where she would have had no recourse to therapy, medication, or even to validation, she wrote incessantly, I believe, in an effort to save her own soul, like a drowning person treading water desperately trying to stay afloat.

It seems quite likely that something terrible happened to Emily Dickinson.

I recently went on a literary pilgrimage to the Dickinson Homestead. I saw Emily’s room and a replica of her white dress, held facsimiles of her poems, visited her grave. Emily was presented by the museum as a romantic figure, the reclusive genius with a strong will and intense passions, writing transcendent, groundbreaking poetry about beautiful things while living an anonymous life, tending plants in her conservatory and baking in the kitchen. I had the sense that visitors and staff alike were content with this summation of her life and disinclined to disturb its surface.

Many readers don’t want the idealized Emily of their imaginations marred by ugly possibilities. They accept the poet who wrote that “hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul” but aren’t comfortable with the woman who feared that hope “might intrude upon… blaspheme the place / Ordained to Suffering.” I agree she was a deep-feeling poet writing in seclusion about flowers and birds, but some of those nature poems, like “A Bee his burnished Carriage,” are less idyllic than they seem.

The Many Faces Of Trauma

I asked one staff member what she thought of Terence Davies’ recent biopic on Dickinson, A Quiet Passion. “It was too dark,” she said. “Our Emily was happy.” I guess the party line at the museum is to focus on the Emily who baked cakes for the neighborhood kids and wrote about sunsets and daisies, but I strongly feel this denial continues the miscarriage of justice her self-imposed reclusiveness forced her to endure during her lifetime.

I shall not murmur if at last

The ones I loved below

Permission have to understand

For what I shunned them so –

Divulging it would rest my Heart

But it would ravage theirs…

She wanted death to bring redemption, justice, and answers. She looked for the crown of forced wifely duty to be transformed into “such a crown / As Gabriel — never capered at — / …Sufficient Royalty!” For all her refusal to partake of any earthly institutions of faith, she had a relationship with Christ that allowed her to believe:

I shall know why — when Time is over –

And I have ceased to wonder why –

Christ will explain each separate anguish

In the fair schoolroom of the sky –

We do have some answers, because she gave them to us, hiding the truth in plain sight. Unlike scholar Robert Weisbuch, who warns against the so-called “biographical fallacy,” I believe what poet Adrienne Rich articulated in her classic essay on Dickinson: “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment, that explodes in poetry.” Emily herself wrote, “Split the Lark, and you’ll find the Music.” As I read Emily’s poetry I see circumstantial evidence that explains to my mind why she withdrew, why her white dress was important, why she wrote so much, why she would not publish in her own name during her lifetime, and perhaps even who hurt her so deeply. Unspeakable trauma could explain it all — possibly even her mysterious eye ailment, for which her Harvard specialist documented no physical findings.

Absent the discovery of a secret drawer or floor board stuffed with confessional prose by Emily Dickinson, we will likely never know the exact source of possible trauma. Viewed through the lens of medicine, however, her known writings provide compelling evidence that this trauma arose from sexual assault, and I believe it’s important to consider this possibility not only as a matter of medical and historical honesty, but also for the sake of justice and human connection. Openness to such a tragic consideration potentially allows her poems to function as a salve and source of hope for survivors of such abuse.

We do have some answers, because Dickinson gave them to us, hiding the truth in plain sight.

To those who think, “Who cares?” I say Emily’s truth matters. Today, over 130 years after her death, women and the atrocities they suffer are still dismissed, diminished, disbelieved, denied, silenced, or scoffed at. The lasting power of Emily’s writing is power taken back, albeit in cipher and secrecy, transforming the poet into a prophet — a mouthpiece — for women across time, even if she felt silenced in her own time.

“If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain,” she wrote. That her foreshortened, pained life was not lived in vain, we can be absolutely sure.

Read the first lines of the selected trauma poems of Emily Dickinson here.

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