Young, Adrift, Bereft: On Jessie Greengrass’s Sight by Angela Woodward

Scientists, motherhood, and other probings of the female body.

Sigmund Freuds Daughter Anna 1920 1

Sigmund and Anna Freud,VI International Psychoanalytical Congress, The Hague, 1920. Photographer unknown.

In a culture that downplays and refuses to listen to women’s pain, Sight (Hogarth) finds a way to extract our attention. The pain of the novel’s unnamed narrator stems from buried grief, expressed as headaches, anxiety, and a tremendous waffling, after the death of her mother, on whether she will become a mother herself. Though in many senses Greengrass’s novel joins a host of recent books on motherhood (Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, among others), its scope moves beyond what it means to have a child to what it means to be a female person observed, studied, probed. That such probing turns female bodies into inert curiosities makes the live, lithe complaints of Greengrass’s narrator into a kind of resistance.

We meet the “young, adrift, bereft” narrator at the end of her mother’s illness and the start of a wobbly adulthood. Moving back and forth in time, we follow her meditations as she makes the excruciating decision to conceive. The narrator’s memories of throwing out all her mother’s junk into a rented dumpster intermix with tales of the discovery of X-rays, the beginnings of psychoanalysis, and the work of early anatomists. The same somber voice recounts a conversation with the narrator’s husband as well as these historical anecdotes of science, as if it were all the same data for the narrator’s perusal.

Sight Final

Greengrass shows men of science leaping into experiments with a vigor that blots out all day-to-day concerns. Wilhelm Röntgen, the discoverer of X-rays, for example, buries himself in his lab for a period of seven weeks. At last he fetches his wife Bertha to show her what he’s been up to. “He moved about,” Greengrass writes, “making sure of his equipment; and then without flourish he turned out the light and laid his wife’s hand on a photographic plate. Bertha stayed still, doing as he asked of her, while he prepped the Crookes tube and shot the current across it, her hand an object set between them in the darkness.” The scientist acts with purpose, while his wife is static, and by the end of the scene literally an object. This dynamic plays out as well with Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. The founder of psychoanalysis is absent from his family during his periods of inspiration. Greengrass’s narrator explains that his youngest child felt neglected, until she eventually becomes an invalid. Anna at last becomes her father’s patient, a choice depicted as the end of her self-determination.  Anna “opened her father’s door and, stepping across the threshold, lay down upon the couch, and together they examined her until, piece by closely studied piece, they had taken her apart and built from what she had been something they could both be happy with.”

The images of women as near somnambulists in the grip of active, confident men is even more heightened when the lens turns on the young mother-to-be’s experience. Greengrass uses the passive voice for much of the narrator’s descriptions. “Things were explained to me…I was given a button to press….I had no choice but to surrender…” are phrases that stud a scene where she has a medical scan to diagnose her recurring headaches. She describes her life before meeting her husband as “shoreless fluidity” that seems to be made up of muffled crying. The husband, Johannes, is a miracle of kind forbearance, but he too is a resolute man, making decisions for her. At one point the family takes a trip to Italy, but the husband insists the narrator stay behind a day in Florence while he goes on to set up the country place where they’ll spend most of their vacation. Forced to lie around a hotel while this assertive planner gets things ready, she wastes her respite in tears.

The most disturbing material comes in scenes about a pair of 18th century anatomists, William and John Hunter, and their illustrator, Jan van Ramsdyk. John Hunter performs a Caesarean section, resulting in the death of both mother and infant, and then a few pages later dissects the corpse of a different woman with a full-term infant inside her. The narrator imagines the knife sinking in, and describes the drawings van Ramsdyk made, the woman “reduced to meaty torso, her upper body invisible or removed, the severed ends of her thigh bones visible where her legs have been sawn off, the baby [is] both whole and beautiful.” This is a horrific vision of motherhood, the adult body nothing but a grotesque container for the child. Greengrass makes us see this through the eyes of a woman who is deliberate as she can be about whether to conceive.

Greengrass’s sentences parade arresting interpolations amid ornate descriptions, the oddly inserted hesitancies and pauses giving each phrase a kind of metallic gleam as of interlocked tubes. Her visual detail often overwhelms in its dreadful particularity. She captures the precise bleakness of an apartment’s flooring, or the exact angle of the husband’s arm. These details radiate against the overall lack of specificity of the plot. The repetition of the narrator’s fatigue, her headaches, her sadness, her crying can be quite wearying. After all, these are everyday complaints of a comfortable, middle class woman. The reader may long for some relief, in the form of an awakened woman kicking ass. If the wife suddenly told her husband off and broke out of her plushy sadness, we might get a flashier narrative arc: from woundedness to victory. 

Despite the narrator’s crushed thoughtfulness, the redemption is all in the remarkable beauty and gravity of the prose. This is a quiet and authentic resistance, requiring us to bear with a woman’s pain all the way through. When placed against the nightmarish dissection or the crumbling spirit of Anna Freud, the narrator’s distress in the MRI machine becomes one note in a bigger scheme in which women will be handled, objectified, amputated, anything but heeded. Seeing her place in the world as, like the limp hand of Bertha Röntgen, a thing to be used, Greengrass’s narrator holds out for as long as she can against the flash of joy that motherhood briefly bestows on her.

Angela Woodward is the author of the novels Natural Wonders (FC2, 2016) and End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010) and the collections Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc, 2016) and The Human Mind (Ravenna, 2007).

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