Matter Over Mind

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The book Dune by Frank Herbert is one year older than I am. Growing up, I was a big fan of psychological-philosophical-science fiction of the 60s and 70s and had a well-loved, battered copy. In Dune, there’s a thing called a gom jabbar, a test that consists of a box full of imaginary mutilation. The person who puts their hand in the box experiences intense pain but without any physical damage. The idea is that only a person who can maintain mind over matter has the the discipline to withstand the pain and can resist the urge to yank out their hand. A person who lacks control and lets matter control their mind and tries to remove their hand is stung by the gom jabbar and dies instantly.

“Mind over matter” is such an appealing and pithy little statement. I love its deceptive simplicity, its negation of sensuality via sensuous alliteration, and the way it lends itself to repetition, like a mantra, only if you’re not careful you’ll end up saying something like “mind over matter over mind over matter,” a statement that is simultaneously more and less meaningful, if you think about it. But don’t confuse things, I tell myself. Mind over matter: You can think outside the gom jabbar box. You don’t have to swallow the story your body tells you; you can tell your own.

When I was four, I saw myself from the outside for the first time, or at least that’s the first time I remember. Years before video cameras became ubiquitous my grandfather, an amateur photographer, purchased a Super 8mm movie camera and put my brother and me in his first home movie. Draped in silk, loaded with necklaces, and crowned with roses from the garden, I played Beauty and my two-year-old brother was the Beast wearing a diaper and a painted paper bag on his head. For most of the scenes, it was my job to walk around being beautiful, which I did carefully and deliberately, with a tentative solemnity, a blank face, and my hands steepled in front of me, as if being beautiful were an onerous chore, while Beast ran around as fast as his naked legs could carry him, jumping and gamboling like a frisky little animal.

In my favorite scene, Beast is lying on the floor when Beauty finds him. He has fallen sick in her absence and only true love’s kiss can revive him. I kneel down but instead of kissing, I look up at the camera with my mouth pressed flat. Someone off camera, my father perhaps, says something (it’s a silent film) and I shake my head no. No, hell no, my shaking head insists, I’m not going to kiss the Beast. I imagine my father’s voice rising into a command but I just stare at the camera with a look of raw defiance until the shot ends. The screen is filled with the words, “And then Beauty gives The Beast a Magic Pat.” In the next shot, I poke Beast. He springs up, busts out of his paper bag, and we hold hands and skip out the door into the garden.

When I remember this scene I feel a little sorry for my brother, who was as lovable as any darling cherubic attention-hogging little brother could be. But still, I’m glad I wasn’t forced to kiss him. It meant that tales could be rewritten and rules could be bent and girls didn’t have to kiss on cue if they’re not in the mood. Beauty grew a spine and in that moment, the story became mine.

This was long before I saw myself in terms of “pretty” or “not pretty.” Playing Beauty is much more fun than trying to live the part. My mother dressed me in shabby overalls with a “Wimmin’s Lib” decal on the bib. I climbed trees, rarely bathed, and refused to wear shoes. In a bathroom in the big house on Roosevelt Avenue where we lived, there were medicine cabinets on abutting walls and when I climbed up on the sink and opened each one, I could see my profile from both angles. I could see the dirt in my own ears. There’s something sneaky about seeing your own face from a different perspective: like spying on yourself or hearing your recorded voice, you ambush someone else’s point of view, you’re a bodiless observer for a moment, you get to play god. Anyway, I taught myself how to raise one eyebrow in that mirror. At first, my eyebrows would only move in tandem and my mouth had to open when they did and I invariably looked stupefied, but I perched at the edge of that sink and practiced until I could freeze my face and send the right brow slowly arching, until I could cock it up and down like the trigger of a gun and whenever I shot that eyebrow at someone it felt like a little macho flex of willpower: Mind over matter.

The first time I felt an external awareness of my body was when I started developing breasts. My father arranged for his mother to take me shopping for a bra. My grandmother was already out the front door when he took me aside, pulled the fold of bills out of his pocket, and peeled off a couple. If my father was handing me money, it was a big deal and when we returned, he wanted to inspect the purchase so I pulled the two bras from the paper bag, one white and one beige, complicated scraps of triangular polyester, as sexy as tourniquets. He didn’t touch them but he wanted to see what his money had bought and he told me that from then on, I couldn’t run unless I was wearing a bra.

Puberty was loaded with heavy implications I could not even begin to guess at the time. I was mutating into a new kind of creature, a Mammarian. Having breasts felt freakish and unwieldy: I was little girl with woman parts stuck to her chest and I walked around with my arms crossed, in a constant state of acute self-consciousness, as if my brain had been taken over by my breasts. In Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), there’s a character called Master Blaster who runs the show. Master Blaster is actually two people put together: Master, the mastermind with a tiny body who lives on the shoulders of Blaster, the huge hulking hunk of muscle whose superfluous head is covered by a cage. That’s how I felt, only in reverse: A little girl controlled by a giant, brainless boob.

Big breasts are the targets for all kinds of weird attention, and I had to learn how to interpret reactions from the world that made no sense, that did not correspond to anything inside me, only my surface. The boys at school started to stare. My friends’ fathers looked at me differently. Strangers made all kinds of assumptions. Life became confusing– my body was saying things that hadn’t entered my mind, my breasts screamed “hello!” and “look at me when I’m talking to you!” and announced a sexuality and a level of maturity I didn’t feel, but what I thought and who I imagined myself to be no longer mattered: Matter trumped mind.

Adolescence is the rude awakening to the fact that your body has a mind of its own and it doesn’t give a fuck what you think. You become a stranger to yourself and see yourself from the outside for the first time. It’s happening to my daughter now. She’s growing faster than a rising loaf of bread and I can’t do a thing to help except repeat, “I love you, you’re wonderful,” over and over and try not to blink. Every day I remind her how funny and smart she is, hoping she doesn’t get lost inside that mushrooming expansion.

At 18, going where the shape of my body seemed to be leading me, I sent photos of myself to Playboy magazine, hoping that they would hire me as a model. They did, and so I went to Los Angeles and posed, and when the magazine finally came out, I was in Athens, Greece at the tail end of a year-long trip around the world: Australia, Thailand, India, Africa, Egypt, and Europe. Anyone who has traveled for a length of time knows that after awhile, without home and loved ones and familiar objects to remind you who you are, a person can lose themselves a bit, and by that time I had been reduced to the contents of my backpack and a name on a passport. Temperatures in Athens had sunk to 26 degrees, their lowest in 30 years. I was staying in a hostel with nothing but sheets on the beds and lukewarm showers. I was wearing every piece of clothing I had with me, sweater over t shirts over tank top, shorts under sweat pants under jeans, two pairs of socks on feet stuffed like frozen sausages into boots, shuffling from cafe to cafe trying to keep the stomach full of hot stuff and the blood flowing, when I walked past a newsstand and saw it: a familiar face, the glossy cover of a Playboy magazine.

I bought it and took it to a cafe where I held my breath and flipped it open. I remember flipping quickly through the pages, searching for my own face. If felt like an important moment, a rite of passage, a moment of reckoning, an awakening, a possible reunion, perhaps even a test. I was lost, alone, homeless, faceless, and yearning for something more. I had waited so long for this moment for so long that I wanted it to add up to something substantial, I wanted it to matter, and so I turned the pages hungrily until I found it, there in the middle, my own face looking back at me.

But it wasn’t really me. Even under all that makeup, I could see that she was just a little girl standing there, idly waiting for instructions, looking mildly surprised. She was me but not me, me minus the arched eyebrow and the spine, more innocent than I ever was, the girl I could have been if I let someone else tell the story, if I had chosen that end for the story.

Maybe that’s why I write.  Letting someone else  tell my story can really mess with my head.

Tell me a story! 

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

22 comments

  1. Some really lovely, thoughtful and funny writing here, very nice stuff, lithe and liquid. “as sexy as tourniquets” – that’s a killer phrase.

  2. Hello Anna,
    Been a long time since we visited. I was/still am a Dune fan. Right now reading “Dune: The Machine Crusade”. His son is continuing the series but he’s nowhere as good as his father – too techy…, too tame. Your recollections of puberty make me remember my experiences with it as a boy. Somehow, farm parents seem to think that kids on the farm just somehow automatically know all about these things because they see animals breeding. I don’t think they understand that animals is animals and humans is humans and there’s a difference. Kids is kids and they need to have some to these things explained to them.
    Anyway, it was good to see your new post and it was a good read. Take care,
    Paul

    • I think puberty is a shocking as a pool of ice water, no matter who or where you are. Maybe I should pass on The Machine Crusade, huh? Too bad!

      • I’m only about 1/3 the way through it – the book, not puberty, and it isn’t really grabbing me the way others have. You might like it though. Happy weekend, Anna !
        Paul

  3. Wonderful. Thoughtful and compelling, without the moping that can so easily accompany a piece like this.

  4. Head over heels for this piece. Does it have to end? I can’t help but wonder what happened next.

  5. Your inner voice’s abstentions of the ‘expected’, the ‘norm’, the rote spoon feedings, is precisely what maintains balance in the Universe for the rest of us. You didn’t choose resistance; you were comprised of it. And thank God. The world is less pointless because of you.

    “You can think outside of the gob jammar box,” I read this and immediately thought Hey… No shit, she’s onto something! I bet it’s actually an experiment, like placebo pills in blind studies… I bet the only reason it “kills” people or even causes the sensation of pain is because that’s what they’re told… The reverse power of mind over matter! (Which is, in reality, a very common scientifically documented phenomenon…)

    Consciously acknowledging that possibility creates a world in which our lives are our own… The gob jammar box sounds a hell of a lot like societal indoctrination, like capitalism’s secret power for example… And deciding to think outside that box is realizing Pandora is realistically opened..

    An infinity of possibilities. Now that is mind over motherlovin matter.

    Good stuff! You never disappoint my dear.

    • Oooo. I like what you say about the mind killing the matter and Pandora’s box. Sometimes we fall in love with stories, we get married to them even, and by remaining faithful, we turn ourselves into wood. xoox!

  6. “Anyone who has traveled for a length of time knows that after awhile, without home and loved ones and familiar objects to remind you who you are, a person can lose themselves a bit…”
    Earlier on in my life (and travel experiences) I craved the way my perception tangibly shifted upon return from unfamiliar places… My house, my routine, my conversations, suddenly became infused with such refreshing depth… As if the distances I’d crossed had given an implicit credence to my sensory awarenesses… The air always seemed different. For a few days, I became a new me… I saw the same familiar life in such enlightened terms, like a euphoric high that somehow channels a profoundness of being… I was a travel junkie, for this reason almost above any other. I needed to feel the expansion with me, the wakeful wisdom of knowing nothing rescusitating my boring existence back to life. It made me feel like life actually meant something, despite the robotic compliance of society to the machine that was all around me…
    If I could meet you in person it could kill me… You’re the mystery amidst add logical odds.

  7. This is a fascinating post. Your writing is so honest, brazenly honest. I admire that. And you explained some things to me that I never understood. You see, I was a late bloomer in a household of big-boobed women. I was flat as a board till the summer between 6th & 7th grade. By then everyone else had been wearing bras forever, it seemed to me. And when mine did finally bud, they came one at a time, 6 months apart, leaving me terrified that I had breast cancer before I even had a chance to have breasts. In my case, my mine was way ahead of my body.

    • Linda– Why are breast so scary-freaky? I mean, they’re meant to feed babies, right? Baby feeders don’t have to be so upsetting, do they? (I hope our daughters move in a different direction.)

  8. Reading your wonderful post reminds me just how much we all have in common but the agony and loneliness of puberty/adolescence is so isolating. Like @rangewriter I was a late developer, in awe and longing to have breasts and the confidence which seemed to go with them, our minds a swirling abyss of discussions over the matter with ourselves.

    • Funny, I have never heard a story about an adolescent who felt whole and sure and confident, regardless of the size of her breasts. I understand why misery loves company. Thank you, Patti.

  9. I have a lot of unfinished business with that phrase, Mind over Matter. It’s not about control, to me, but denial of the body. My father was so fanatical about it, that I think it had the opposite effect…I remember him pulling my sister aside one day in the middle of the street, asking if she was wearing a bra, because her nipples were showing and she apparently looked like a slut. There was always something so detestable about his denial of the body, on one hand, and obsession with it, on the other. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why I never grew into my breasts. It’s like I willed myself to be invisible. And yet, I’ve always envied other women’s “external awareness” of their body…

    • Alarna! Your story about your father and sister broke my heart a little. I just want to press “stop” and step into the picture and say something. You have a lot to say about this “mind over matter.” I hope you write it out. xoox

  10. I always thought puberty was the physical and adolescence was the mental call of the wild. Both hit me when I was 10. It was not a beautiful thing, and nor was I, apparently. I remember thinking that I was an ‘alien’ – completely apart from my school-mates. I was developing early, and it was Embarrassing.

    But I respect that little girl/young lady – and I wish I could speak with her again.

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