Body Memory by Joel Peckham
Body Memory is comprised of five, intimately connected essays. All of the essays, together, weave a story, simultaneously sad and expectant, of a man bereft. “Flight” recounts, with aching beauty, a car accident that battered the author’s body and took the lives of his wife and oldest son. “Swimming” plunges us into the nebulous waters of fear, exploring its caprice and power in a series of segments that take us to the pool at the YMCA with its sleek lanes, the idyllic lake at Camp Manitou, which hides danger in its murky darkness, and the Dead Sea in Jordan, which lay alongside the road where it all ended, where it all began. “Phys-ed” tackles masculinity in the context of fistfights, football, fatherhood, sex, summer camp, and strip clubs. “The Shattering” racks us with an exposé on pain—physical and emotional—so compelling that we feel it and can hardly bear it. “Body Memory” paints a stark and shocking image of falling, rising, and falling again.
But Joel Peckham is tough. As an athlete, a coach’s son—a football player raised in locker rooms and boys’ camps—he is a template for masculinity. I weep as he describes his pain and sorrow; but he carries on. “I willed myself to silence,” he writes, expressing the fortitude he believed he had to display. “Clamping down my jaw when the burning turned to a sudden electric bolt. I’d go pale; I’d sweat a little, wait for things to subside. Learning each day how to better mask what I felt from those around me.”
Though he may be tough, Peckham is not invulnerable. Years after the accident, he endures chronic pain due to the shattering of his pelvic bone and the crushing of his sciatic nerve. His body holds on to the accident, year after year, unable to let go. I understand body memory. I was in an accident too. As a baby, I flew through the front window of the car, landed underneath it, unconscious, and was left with a myriad of broken bones and an arm and hand burnt to almost nothing. I can’t remember the accident, and I don’t have lingering pain; but, in time, the skin taken from my belly and grafted to my arm expanded, rounded, as the other curves on my body did—the grafted flesh remembering from whence it came. Also, my missing fingers sometimes tingle. Our bodies don’t forget. We retain memory in our physical aches and pains, on our skin, the way we walk or drive or play sports or practice art—sometimes to the point that we are debilitated by it again.
And so Peckham breaks his silent stoicism and explores his pain, his loss, his fears. He becomes one with his body. He examines each idea, each image, each revelation, each emotion with meticulous care, as if he is a surgeon mending a shattered frame. Gentle here, drilling there, resetting, protecting, pushing, cutting, strengthening.
And that, perhaps, is what makes Peckham truly tough, what shows his true grit. By looking directly at his circumstances, he does the opposite of what doctors helped him do with his physical pain. Most pain management techniques are about avoidance, looking away from the pain—which is why it’s difficult for people with pain to answer well-meaning questions about how they are doing. “To be precise about what one is feeling is to focus on it intently,” he writes. In this memoir, Peckham is precise about what he is feeling.
Perhaps this precision is most clear in “Flight,” which places him in an airplane, in a body cast, en route from Jordan to the Unites States, a week after the accident. He describes the scene with enough detail to make us shudder. But his mind is focused on another flight: the helicopter ride immediately following the accident that carries two women, his wife and mother-in-law, to the hospital. “One beautiful even as she dies, half her head leaking through a bandage. . . . And the mother rising with her and without her, the ground receding beneath her feet.” He presses deeper. “Did she want to fall as I do now? Did she want to crawl through the window and fly into a thousand shattered pieces, scattered into nothing?” Peckham perhapses his way into territory we would otherwise never go. He shows empathy for the mother’s loss while revealing his own brokenness.
This grafting of self-awareness and empathy captures the personality of the book. Peckham does it constantly. He reveals his fear of raising his surviving son alone and also of being a son who brings grief to his parents. When he remarries, he protects his new wife from sexism in his workplace, demonstrating surprising awareness of what she must endure; meanwhile, he also scrutinizes his own masculinity, embracing it but also “keep[ing] an eye on it lest it become destructive.”
One more element of his narrative style marks his toughness: truth-telling. Peckham seems guileless. He doesn’t hide anything. He acknowledges his moments of self-pity and guilt. He admits that he intended to leave his wife before she died. He brings us into the intimacy of the bedroom when he has to. He doesn’t shy away from exposing what goes on in the locker room—this hidden part of American culture that demands so much of men and thinks so little of women. Peckham’s commitment to truth, which contains compassion for himself and others, makes it possible to follow him through his pain. He no longer fits the stereotype of that tough jock. He is enlightened. He is untouched by his culture even as he is changed by his experiences. He feels like a safe guide through dangerous territory. And so we allow ourselves to look closely, to remember, too. We all have body memory, after all.
I can follow this self-aware, empathetic truth-teller into his story—and into my own—but it’s his prose artistry that inspires me. In one segment of “The Shattering,” for example, he describes the shark-bite-like wound and the black wiry stitches that result from the eight-hour surgery that saved his leg but nearly ended his life. The image is stark and jarring, and it haunts us as we follow him into the rest of the essay, which braids together various images of pain. When he leads us into the bedroom, describing both the attraction to his wife, Rachael, and the pain he feels during intercourse, we don’t hesitate. We want to be there, to understand. “I’m not a masochist,” he writes. And we believe him, despite his explanation of how much it hurts.
But it is not until he returns to the stitches, the image which haunts us, that we forget to breathe: “Sometimes when I look up or down at Rachael,” he writes, “as her muscles start to pulse around me, and she stares into and through me, her eyelids fluttering down over the green of her irises, her lips parting, curling up at the corners of her mouth. Sometimes I feel as if I could unravel in her arms, as if the thread has been pulled and all the wires and bolts have come undone. I ache exquisitely with so many kinds of longing.”