Whenever I read a novel, memoir, or blog post by a ballerina, I am always struck (though not surprised) by the eloquence of the writing. Dancers—especially female ballet dancers—are taught to be seen and not heard, to execute exactly what is asked of them, and to do it all with a smile. Yet, so often the most repressed voices have the most to share while those who are loud really have nothing to say at all.
Ellen O’Connell Whittet shares a lot in the recently released What You Become in Flight, “a lyrical and meditative memoir on the damage we inflict in the pursuit of perfection, the pain of losing our dreams, and the power of letting go of both.” As a dancer and writer myself, I connected with the author almost immediately. Yet at the same time, I was inadvertently lost along the way. Each chapter describes a different significant life event and walks us through the journey of processing those experiences. From suffering a debilitating back injury after being dropped by her male dance partner, to pursuing a master’s in creative writing, to marrying her best friend, to learning she is predisposed to be diagnosed with breast cancer like her mother, to teaching at the University of California Santa Barbara during the 2014 Isla Vista massacre, to developing extreme ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), each chapter is in some way relatable to the reader but also seemingly isolated from each other.
That is, until the end of the book (cue the “Oh, $h!t” moment). The author describes how throughout her life, she dealt with violence, detachment, betrayal, and fear as if they were perfectly normal and natural. But in fact, this way of life is instilled in women from the day we are born…Don’t accept your body the way that it is, don’t walk alone at night, don’t speak your mind, and don’t cause a scene. All of Ellen’s stories suddenly made such sense. They also made me angry as I began to reflect on experiences in my own life where, even though I had that icky feeling in my gut, I had just gone along with the norm…My entire first-year class of women being given school-sponsored rape whistles on the first day of college, holding my tongue in a business meeting so I didn’t come across as emotional or confrontational (aka “bitchy), being told by a musical director that I needed to sing my song “more cunty,” and ignoring physical pain to the point of serious injury. Because that’s what women do. Or, that’s what we’re trained that we have to do.
I love reading memoirs. In diving into the life of another, you come out with more inquiry and understanding about your own. What You Become in Flight inspires exactly that—letting go of the reins you didn’t even realize you were gripping and making space for yourself to be a bit more seen and heard.
“I’m learning to shift from reaction to response, to run away and scream or to remain and face things. I am relearning what it means to feel safe in the world, and in my own skin, letting fear and grief go back to sleep until next time they are awakened. But then I will recall all the times I’ve put them to bed so far, and let those guide the times I will do it all over again.”