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Prologue: das Nichtzuhause-sein
“In anxiety one feels uncanny. Here the peculiar indefiniteness of that which Dasein finds itself alongside in anxiety, comes proximally to expression: the nothing and nowhere. But here uncanniness also means not-being-at-home (das Nichtzuhause-sein)…” – Martin Heidegger, Being in Time (1927)
“…and if you’ll return your tray tables to their original upright position, we can begin our descent…”
I briefly look up from my frantic journaling, glancing at the cloud cover out the window. Water apparently condenses in exactly the same manner regardless of hemisphere, however, because the clouds look no different than the ones I last saw in Philadelphia, over 20 hours ago.
“…it looks like we’ll be pulling into Brisbane right on time. Local weather is…”
I am 20. I am en route to the University of Queensland – via Philadelphia International Airport, via LAX, via the Auckland International Airport – for a semester abroad during my junior year of college. I am sheltered and naïve and far from home. My childhood in suburban Philadelphia has done nothing to prepare me for this experience, and I wonder – not for the first time – if I have made an irreversible mistake.
My journal is filled with musings from the flight, punctuated by three and four exclamation points or question marks in a row, my handwriting shaky from turbulence and nerves. Typically wracked with social anxiety, I can barely comprehend I am on a strange side of the world, in a country where I know not a single soul. The entire situation is the antithesis of my tiny homogenous hometown and my small private college; I have never felt more unprepared.
I have never felt more alone.
“…and thank you for flying Qantas Airways!”
My mind buzzing with a thousand quantum possibilities, I grab my carry-on and meekly follow the line of passengers disembarking from the airplane like a duckling. I have no idea how to maneuver the airport or get through customs or track down my luggage – a limit of two suitcases and only two suitcases, thank you very much, which would typically house only my shoes and reading material on a normal trip.
As such, I have packed mostly jeans and toiletries, limiting my typically-abundant book haul to a precious few tomes: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Richard Bachman’s The Regulators, and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I am a Philosophy major and an avid Stephen King fan, so the first two books are firmly lodged within my comfort zone; the third – recommended by a friend over Christmas break – is something new.
“Oh, thank GOD,” I mutter to myself as I glimpse a cheery-looking blonde holding a large sign with the name of my dorm and a list of students, my own moniker included. It’s as if the University has anticipated my sheer ineptitude with finding my way through life, and has therefore made this process as idiot-proof as possible.
“Hi, I’m Kim!” she bubbles, and I take a moment to marvel at Australian accents. “The van is this way!”
The van is huge and contains several of the other students from the list, a motley crew from all corners of the globe, young men and women buzzing with excitement for the semester ahead. I climb inside – momentarily disoriented to spot a steering wheel in the spot where I am accustomed to sitting shotgun – and sit on the edge of a bench seat to wait.
I can sense my adrenaline waning, exhaustion seeping through my cells like lactic acid after a run. I have never felt comfortable around new people; I have never felt comfortable in a crowd. My anxiety disorder won’t be diagnosed for another decade, so all I know is I can never make friends. All I know is I must be broken.
What I do not know is that I’m also actively suffering from PTSD.
The van will eventually transport us all to our respective homes for the next five months, as my jet lag creeps in and the homesickness sprouts and I begin to feel an intense sense of regret that I have come here. These feelings intensify until I am sobbing with loneliness on the floor of my new dorm room that night. Because I have already accepted I am defective, it does not occur to me that this pain is abnormal. It does not occur to me that pain is usually indicative of something being wrong somewhere within one’s self.
I certainly don’t think to attribute it to that night at the frat house.
Part 1: The Autumn Before
“Gently parting the teeth, one at a time, down under and beneath, the longest unzipping of my life…” – Poe, Haunted (2000)
“…and with an engineering degree from Lehigh, I’ll get into grad school easy.”
“I’m super tipsy,” I giggled in response. It was cold out, but I was wearing a tank top; I didn’t know him, but my roommate’s boyfriend did.
“Do you want to go up to my room?” he said, and I – socially anxious, terrible at parties, never having had a real boyfriend – agreed at once. I couldn’t tell you now which fraternity we were visiting, but it was formulaic enough to be a cliché: straight white cis men with baseball caps and flip flops, prematurely-sticky red cups next to a dripping keg, booming bass, a prominent beer pong table, flip-cup, kissing in the stairwell, shots and weed and mating rituals disguised as gyrating disguised as dancing.
He wore a t-shirt with Greek letters; I think his hair was brown.
“Do you want a beer?” he asked, and I declined. I had funneled beer for the very first time that evening, standing in the shower of the communal bathroom with a crowd of partygoers around me, their cheers of encouragement echoing off the tile walls. I was already drunk; I was feeling no pain.
“Are you sure?” he pressed.
“No, thanks,” I responded. I was already sitting on his bed when he came over to kiss me, the alcohol on his breath striking my nose and filling my lungs when I breathed. I’m not sure how long we kissed – I had had a lot to drink – but I was hyperaware once his hands were down the front of my pants.
“Do you want…,” he began, and I intercepted the inquiry before he could go any further.
“Just so you know, I don’t have sex,” I told him nervously. While awkward to broach, my abstinence from intercourse was something about which I felt strongly. I didn’t abstain from all sexual contact, and I was desperate for intimacy, for a relationship; but I was not willing to compromise waiting for sex.
“Ok,” he assured me. “That’s ok.”
We laid in his bed and kissed and fondled and spoke of classes and movies and life. I felt so normal lying there with a boy, like regular existence was no more difficult for me than for anyone else. I started to grow drowsy. He disappeared for a spell, then returned and spooned me on his mattress.
I fell asleep.
I woke up to weight on my legs, to my chest being crushed, to a sense of nakedness, to my body being sexually assaulted. My reaction time dulled by Natty Ice and THC, it took a moment to comprehend what was happening; my brain stuck between fight and flight and freeze and fold and fawn, it took even more time to react at all.
At the time, I didn’t know how to feel, so I compartmentalized until I felt nothing. I spent the rest of the night in his bed. I went out to breakfast with my roommate. Numb and distant, it didn’t occur to me to bring up what had happened; I did not even accept I had been raped until much later.
That night at the frat house was the start of not-feeling-at-home.
Part 2: “This Is Not for You”
“And I’m haunted by the lives that wove the web inside my haunted head.” Poe, Haunted (2000)
“Are you coming bowling tonight?”
Kim pokes her head into my room, and I shake my head.
“No, I’m feeling pretty tired,” I dodge. It is a week later, and I am growing reluctantly accustomed to this new normal. The people seem friendly and the environment is beautiful and the University is stellar – there is literally nothing to dislike – but I am still exquisitely miserable. I have bailed on the welcome activities and icebreakers. I have skipped several communal mealtimes to instead eat crackers in my room that I’ve squirreled from the vending machine. I have declined every opportunity to go bar hopping with the trendy dormmates who apparently have not one single problem speaking to strangers at events and parties.
“Ok,” she responds, and leaves me to my apathy.
Feeling restless, pacing about the room, I eat leftover Christmas candy from the flight and absentmindedly page through House of Leaves on the wooden desk. I finished The Regulators on the plane and have no intellectual curiosity right now to begin a new volume of feminist existentialism; House of Leaves is the logical choice to pick up and read.
I sit on my bed and open the cover yet again, reading the dedication, reading the prologue, turning page after page. I meet Johnny Truant; I delve into Zampano’s manuscript; I get lost in The Navidson Record.
This time, the book takes hold; this time, it clicks.
I am enthralled with the story, the writing style, the footnotes; I am literally unable to put it down. I read for hours, barely blinking, oblivious to my surroundings or the passage of time. I have been transported to a place where the volume of the nagging pain in my psyche is turned way down low, and I am reluctant to leave it for the discomfort of reality.
Page after page, I read late into the night, past when the others return from bowling, past when my eyelids grow heavy and start to drift closed. I recognize the quote from Being and Time and grin, a nascent Philosopher spotting Phenomenology in the wild for the very first time. I finally force myself to put the book aside, but not to sleep. Instead, I will lay in the dark, thinking about Heidegger, thinking about anxiety and uncanniness, thinking about “not-being-at-home.”
I have not felt at home, I’m realizing, since that night at the frat house.
It is the next day. I am over halfway through House of Leaves.
I have skipped coffee, skipped my classes, skipped meeting the other exchange students at a mixer. Every time I am forced to venture from my room, I feel a compulsion – a literal pull, a magnetic draw – back to the book.
I continue to read, only vaguely aware of the sounds of University swirling around me, engrossed in the text. I read until I come to a passage about our unreliable narrator taking a late-night drive with a lover; I read until the whole thing starts to feel familiar.
“Whaa…?” I say softly and rather inarticulately into the ether. “Why…do I know this?”
I keep reading, the prose as comfortable as an old friend. The certainty I have experienced this passage before is like a burrowing itch deep in my subconscious. “Too bad dark languages rarely survive,” I read next, and that’s the moment I remember, in a flash of insight, why I know what I know.
I recognize these words from high school, you see, from driving around with a new license and the radio blaring and my future indelibly bright. They are from an album from an artist I did not expect to have any business within the pages of House of Leaves, and I am completely befuddled as to why these song lyrics have shown up in my newest literary obsession.
I stare at the page with wide eyes, a dizzying sense of displacement welling up in my frontal lobe, like I’ve just spied my Priest at the grocery store in jeans. It feels like the multiverse is collapsing in on itself; it feels like the Fourth Wall is being breached.
“Poe”, it turns out, is Anne Danielewski; Haunted is her companion piece to House of Leaves, written by her brother Mark. It was inspired in part by audio recordings the pair discovered after the death of their father, film director Tad Danielewski, which Tad recorded for his children throughout his life. Samples of these recordings appear throughout Haunted; the album is a depiction of the grieving process in real-time.
I will listen to the entirety of this album on repeat, delighting over song titles like “The Five-and-a-half Minute Hallway.” Haunted and House of Leaves are intertwined, I will come to see, as any two siblings’ lived experiences are intertwined. What links them is an underlying current of anxiety, a feeling of dislocation, the suspicion of chaos directly beneath the most serene of surfaces. They both embody a sense of “not being at home.”
Ultimately, I will not learn about this connection between the two until after I have broken down; after I have withdrawn from the semester; after I have come home steeped in dishonor, plagued by symptoms of unbridled mental illness. Nature and nurture conspiring against me, I will be lost in a maelstrom of darkness and faulty neurotransmitters for years to come. I will not understand trauma, so I will not be processing trauma, and things will unfortunately get a lot worse before they get better.
I used to think nothing would be worse than that night at the frat house. But it turns out the really hard part is every single day after.
Part 3: Juxtaposition
“It may be the wrong decision, but fuck it, it’s mine.” – Will Navidson, The Navidson Record (Date unknown)
My failed semester in Australia was a study in juxtaposition, linked by a Heideggerian sense of das Nichtzuhause-sein.
Plagued by homesickness, I existed in a constant state of anxiety; quite literally “not at home,” I could do nothing but watch my mental health slowly unravel. Juxtaposed against this yearning for home was my desire to avoid it, to avoid the feelings and the environment and the memories in which I felt unsafe. Haunted by my sexual assault, I was “not at home” in my own body; nowhere felt like it did prior to that night at the frat house.
I read House of Leaves and found Haunted right in the midst of this mental tug-of-war. In a sudden moment of syzygy, the juxtaposition of their words against my current sense of dislocation seemed eerily significant. It felt disorienting; it felt uncanny. And juxtaposed against all that was the dichotomy into which my very existence was currently devolving: life before sexual assault and life after sexual assault.
I sang the lyrics to “Hey Pretty” in the carefree days before my autonomy was snatched away; I spotted those same lyrics in an Avant Garde novel years later, after my world view was irrevocably changed. It was like getting a flash of a former life after a cycle of reincarnation, and in that moment, I saw how different I had been prior to my trauma. In that moment, I remembered what it felt like to be unashamed.
The fictitious Will Navidson remarks in House of Leaves, “It may be the wrong decision, but fuck it, it’s mine.”
And that line was life-changing for me.
After my experience with sexual assault, I understood what Heidegger referred to as “the uncanny;” I felt like my body was no longer my own. To have something be mine again was a breath of fresh air, and thus my decisions became something I owned – even the bad ones.
“Dishonorably self-discharge from the University to come home?” It might have been the wrong decision, but fuck it, it was mine. “Drop out of a prestigious graduate program to move in with your boyfriend?” It might have been the wrong decision, but fuck it, it was mine. “Work at Starbucks because you can no longer stomach Academia?” It might have been the wrong decision, but fuck it, it was mine. “Have children even though you still struggle with mental health every single day?” It might be the wrong decision; but fuck it…it’s mine.
Ultimately, Haunted and House of Leaves met a fundamental need I didn’t even realize I had. They filled a hole beyond my periphery that had been gaping for months. What’s more, they empowered me at a time when I was most lacking a voice. On another layer of the multiverse, I could have succumbed to mental illness; in another world, the PTSD could have won. But at a pivotal point, I found something auspicious, and it was the catalyst for my whole future to shift in a different direction.
The point is, I discovered the Danielewski siblings during a formative period in my life. For me, their collective work served as art as inspiration as motivation as strength, and – these days, nearly two decades later – I have family and peace and purpose and joy precisely because of it. Of course, it took nearly a decade of work to get on top of my mental illness, and even longer to shake the shame; but I never would have started the process if not for the book that changed my life.
And change it, it did, because somewhere along the way, House of Leaves also made me want to be a writer. It may be the wrong decision, but fuck it…it’s mine.