Amy Berkowitz is a Bay Area writer living in San Francisco. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment, which serves as the headquarters for her chapbook press, Mondo Bummer Books, as well as the venue for her reading series, Amy’s Kitchen Organics.
Her writing has appeared in Dusie, Textsound, VIDA, and Where Eagles Dare, among other places. She’s the author of two chapbooks: Lonely Toast (what to us press, 2010) and Listen to Her Heart (Spooky Girlfriend, 2012).
Her first book, Tender Points (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), was published earlier this year, in June. It is a poetic and fractured narrative that focuses on chronic pain, sexual violence, the patriarchy, and the many intersections of these topics. You can find her book here, and her website here.
I found Tender Points by chance in a local bookstore in Oakland. The purple cover intrigued me(it’s purple, and I love purple). As I flipped through it, I realized that I was holding something very special, and decided to purchase it. It changed my life. Eventually, I got the courage to ask Amy Berkowitz for an interview, and she agreed! Special thanks to Amy for emailing me her answers to my questions after I lost the audio of our interview!
How would you describe Tender Points to someone who’s never read it?
Tender Points is a lyric essay, which is a form that’s getting sort of popular now. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and some of Sarah Manguso’s books are good examples. It weaves personal narrative with other texts (quotes from online message boards, passages from other books, descriptions of TV episodes, etc.) to try to make sense of this question: “Why, exactly, am I constantly in pain?” So it winds up being about chronic pain, what it’s like to be a woman in pain specifically, patriarchal culture, as well as rape culture and trauma.
When and why did you start writing?
Boring answer: I’ve always liked writing, ever since I can remember.
Is writing therapeutic for you? In what ways?
Sort of. In the sense that, if I hadn’t written Tender Points, I would have been obsessed with figuring out the connection between my pain and the trauma that seems to have caused it anyway. So it was good to get it out, give myself space to explore the ideas.
How long were you thinking about writing Tender Points before you started to write it?
That’s a good question. Biographical note, for background: I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, when I was 23, and the fibromyalgia pain started the day after I first recalled a repressed memory of being raped as a child. So ever since I was 23, I knew I had this weird and important story to tell. Sort of unique, but at the same time, sadly, sort of universal, because I think a lot of women could relate to some parts of it. For a long time, I didn’t feel ready to write about it, but then on a road trip 2013, I got into a really scary car accident, and when I got home from the trip, I just felt like all my priorities had been reordered, and I was like, okay, let’s tell this story now. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I almost died, I didn’t die, I’m brave enough to tell this story now, and it’s what I want to do.
With Tender Points, did you feel like you were releasing tension within yourself while writing about your pain and trauma?
It was good to write about it. Having chronic pain, and especially having chronic pain that developed as a psychosomatic response to sexual assault, is incredibly frustrating—it can make you feel angry and powerless. But having the outlet of writing this book gave me a feeling of having power. I’m doing the thing I can do: I’m telling my story to other people so I can be heard and also make other people in similar situations feel less alone.
Did you expect the response that Tender Points got once it came out in June?
No. I didn’t necessarily expect people to respond to it as strongly as they did, and it’s been such a wonderful experience. Until I started doing readings from the book, I didn’t know anyone personally who had fibromyalgia! So personally, it’s been really helpful, and beyond that, it’s great to meet people at readings or get emails from people saying that they read my book and it resonated with them. It’s such an honor and I’m so glad to be part of a growing conversation about this. Invisible illness is something that isn’t talked about enough, and neither is the trauma caused by sexual violence.
In Tender Points, you mention simply that “Trauma is nonlinear”(45). As someone who deals with trauma, this hit home for me, but I’ve never heard it stated in this way. Did it take you awhile to come to this conclusion, that trauma is nonlinear?
For me, this was actually a simple idea, because I didn’t remember my trauma until about 13 years after it happened. But even in less literal cases, cases where we’re not actually talking about repressed memories, I think trauma is nonlinear because it’s something we carry with us, even when it’s over, so we can be triggered or have a flashback and be right there with a moment from the past, even in the present.
There’s a couple of lines that really stuck with me: “One of the most persistent lies is that boys are angry / And the shadow lie: that girls aren’t angry”(86). How did you come to this conclusion? Now that you’re aware of the lie, do you find yourself expressing your anger more often? What would you say to girls that are hesitant in expressing their anger?
There is a really great book by bell hooks called The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, that focuses on the ways patriarchal culture winds up harming men, partially by depriving them of the tools they need to experience intimacy. And one of the things she points out is that the only emotion that our culture permits young boys to safely express is anger; any other emotion (crying, etc.) would be inappropriate, too feminine. So I think men grow up and grow into that anger, the expectation of it. While at the same time, women are expected to be friendly, to always smile (like when random men on the street tell you to smile), and not to express their anger.
I think I’ve always been aware that these lies were lies: My mom is a very passionate feminist so I was raised with a dominant and assertive female role model and wasn’t hesitant about taking up space by expressing my feelings, whether they were anger or something else. But I will try to give some advice here. I would say to start by asking yourself why you’re hesitant to express your anger. And then I’d say there are a lot of ways you can express it. If you’re scared to confront someone in person, you could write them a letter. Or you could bring a friend with you to support you. And sometimes expressing your anger doesn’t need such a specific audience. You could write a story or poem about it and read it at an open mic, or write a song about it. Angry songs are the best! Your feelings are real and your feelings matter, and our society does not tend to favor girls or women, so there are a lot of things and people you may feel righteous anger towards. And righteous anger can be super productive, if you channel it in a productive way (op-ed pieces, meetings/discussions, angry songs!).
Towards the end of the book, you make it clear that you find it very important to talk about rape and sharing stories with survivors. You then go on to say that you find it frustrating when you realize that you’ve been sitting with a friend for quite a long time, just talking about rape. Do you find yourself pushing through your frustration to continue talking about rape?
That’s a really good question, and it’s something I’m thinking a lot about now, because I’ve started working on a novel, and one of the important things that happens in the novel is that a character is raped by her friend. And one thing that’s always on my mind as I’m planning this is this concern of, am I just bringing more rape into the world by writing a book that’s partially about rape? There is this really beautiful graphic novel called Today Is The Last Day of The Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust, and it’s about two young women who go hitchhiking all over Europe, and I was expecting them to have interesting adventures, but pretty much all that happens is they keep getting into these awful situations where they’re raped or nearly raped or just escape before they’re raped. And I still really liked the book—visually, it portrays rape really well, it shows how you sort of leave your body when you dissociate in a way that feels really true, and I also like how the main character doesn’t really call what’s been happening to her rape until later in the book, and how that naming of it changes things for her. But I just felt like, couldn’t they also learn to make some kind of jam, or adopt a dog for a few weeks, or steal a car, or do anything but get raped again and again. So I want to avoid that in my writing.
But I don’t mind talking about it. Given the state of things, I find it really helpful to talk about my rape with other survivors and listen to them talk about theirs. Still, I’d rather live in a society where fewer people had these stories to share.
Many people would like to write about their traumatic experiences, but are hesitant to do so. What would you say to these people as advice to overcome their fear, if at all?
I would say to take it slow. I actually was just giving a friend advice about this the other day. Writing in a place that feels safe is important. Maybe you want to be in a sunny café or library away from your apartment. Or maybe you feel best if you write at home. Maybe having a friend with you would be helpful. Start writing, and if you get to a part where you feel triggered, stop and take a little break, and then when you’re in the mood to, go back to writing but focus on part of the story that’s less likely to trigger you. Is there a way to write your story that removes you from the part that’s hardest to write about? What if you made it fictional? What if you started by writing the before, the after, anything but the parts that are scariest? If any of this works for you, great! If you find your attempts to be too triggering, or you find that fear of writing about your trauma has kept you away from your pen/computer entirely, I don’t think you should feel bad about it at all. You are making such a good self-care decision not to force it. It took me 7 years to feel ready to write my story. There are plenty of other things to write about while you get ready.