Becoming a Rorschach Inkblot Woman

My father, a gentle man who was rarely angry, had a face that, when lost in thought, relaxed into a kind of neutrality that made him look stern. My sisters and I were sure he was mad. In a household not given to expressions of anger, it scared us. Are you mad, Daddy? we’d ask and he would smile. No, I’m not mad.

Years later, I reflected on this when I was in psychoanalysis, and I tried to make sense of my analyst’s face in the fleeting moments I had to glance at him on my way to and from his couch. He, too, had a stern, impassive face — was that taught in training? I wondered — and it was complicated by a wandering eye. It was weeks, maybe months, into the process — me yammering on about my life, nervous I wasn’t doing it right — before he said anything, a mere five words, his first “interpretation.” Then he lapsed into more months of silence. It drove me crazy, that silence, and finally I quit. I couldn’t accept existing for so many hours in the presence of another human who was so unresponsive. Apologies, Sigmund.

It seems so obvious to me now that the resting faces of these men were a perfect screen on which for me to project my own anxiety. Don’t be mad. Am I doing something wrong? Those undisclosing faces were like Rorschach inkblots around which I fabricated stories that pertained to me, not them.

For most of my life I have been, like many women, a highly responsive person, quick to talk, quick to laugh, my face popping with reactions even when I’m listening. I think most people would say I am lively. And, while I still feel lively, my mind still brimming with responses to everything around me, I know I don’t appear as lively as I used to be. My responses are slower and more muted these days. Sometimes it’s hard to nod as emphatically as I’d like to, or to organize my face into a smile, or to summon enough breath to grunt my acquiescence. I can’t speak, and to type on my text-to-voice devices takes time, so the spontaneity associated with liveliness has departed. Many of my thoughts vanish into the ether, unexpressed.

In short, I’ve become far more of a blank screen than my father or my analyst ever were and, as a result, I’ve had the interesting experience of watching people project their fears, anxieties, and hopes onto me. What a surprise this has been. Sometimes they will pose a question to me and, before I’ve had time to respond, they will answer it themselves. No, of course you don’t want coffee. If I frown people often assume I’m in some trouble, when I’m only thinking about my to-do list. Gestures are often misinterpreted. Yeah, I think he’s an asshole too, they might say, when I was trying to indicate my interest in takin a hot tub. Unless the consequences are serious, I usually let these things go. It’s often too much work to correct them. And I understand the impulse to fill in the blanks, as it’s something I often used to do myself. I see the anxiety that collects around someone who is compromised as I am. I don’t mind — it’s simply human nature.

But it has made me realize that we’re all prone to projecting (usually inappropriately) onto the people around us: spouses, kids, store clerks, homeless people, our employers or employees, our teachers or students. We misread behavior on the basis of single cues. I know I’m guilty of this. I can receive a grain of information about a person, and I’m off on the runaway train of my own pet theories about how the world works, the ways people behave and think. The world according to Cai. When I have no business making these assumptions.

I notice this in particular in response to the insurrectionists and the young white men who do most of the mass shootings in this country. Furious at the death and damage these people have wrought, I have little empathy for them, even as I have a whole cache of assumptions about how their anger must stem from being unloved and never having been seen or listened to. I might be right in general terms, but these people all have individual stories, thoughts that need to be listened to — or should have been listened to long ago. I have to remind myself that people don’t all work the same way. I generalize so quickly, much too quickly, on the basis of what life has taught me — like how destructive guns are, and how we should always seek to do unto others what we would like to have done unto us. I know better now to than to think that everyone thinks as I do. Still, what else do we have to go on but the assumption that human beings work in mostly similar ways?

That assumption has been challenged recently in minor, but memorable, ways. The subject of my feeding tube has come up in conversation. Before I had the tube — a hole in my belly the size of a bullet hole — I was very curious about what such a thing looked like and how it operated. (The cases, years ago, of Karen Ann Quinlan and Terry Schiavo left deep impressions on me, and were the only thing I knew about feeding tubes until recently.) So, when the subject comes up now, I’m happy to lift my shirt for show-and-tell. It isn’t disgusting or indecent — not to my mind, at least — but I’ve been struck by how many people would rather not see such a thing. My curiosity about the human body is not shared by everyone, and I shouldn’t be foisting my medical curiosities on others without asking if they care to look. We’re all different, at least in certain regards.

As the months — or if I’m lucky, years — go on, I will become more and more of a blank slate, a Rorschach inkblot. I have a comical fantasy of becoming the perfect psychoanalyst, sitting in my wheelchair, completely relaxed (inert), listening to patients divulging their darkest secrets. An analyst who never says a word, scarcely makes a facial expression, but nevertheless serves the important function of listening. Sometimes it’s healing to speak to a rock or a tree, or to a person who can’t talk back. And a person who is dying is ultra-safe; she will take your secrets to the grave.

Meanwhile, analyst fantasy aside, I’ve learned some things on my journey to becoming a blank slate. Not to leap too quickly to conclusions about what other people are thinking — they may surprise me. Not to assume other people are reacting to things the same way I am. To ask another question that will penetrate the person more deeply. And, as a corollary to this, I’m vowing not to show my feeding tube to anyone if they haven’t asked to see it.

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Here is a link to my upcoming Zoom book launch for Unleashed on Sept. 6:

And here is an essay that appeared recently in Publishers Weekly:

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.