The Girl in the Picture, by Madeleine Watts

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
June 2022 Issue [Memoir]

The Girl in the Picture

Precocious puberty and its reflection

Photograph by Lisa Sorgini © The artist

[Memoir]

The Girl in the Picture

Precocious puberty and its reflection
Adjust

A photograph of me as a child. I am in the bath at my grandparents’ house in Sydney. Patches of bubbles cling to my skin like the strategic gauze brushed over nude figures in classical paintings. I’m kneeling, but the bubbles are thick and my body is visible only from the navel up. My shoulder-length hair is still blond—it would darken in later years to a reddish-brown—and it is flipped over my head to one side. I have recently lost one of my two front teeth. You can see because I’m holding out bath toys to the camera, one in each hand, and I’m grinning. I also have small breasts. Buds puffing out from my ribs, present enough to pinch but not to hold.

The photograph was taken in 1996, when I was six years old. I was my mother’s only child and the first grandchild of my generation, and as a result my early years were profoundly photographed. The pictures were arranged in albums and stacked inside my mother’s wardrobe, where I spent many afternoons paging through them. I remember most of the photographs with the vividness of a song listened to over and over.

In the Australian autumn of 2020, I was at my mother’s house, turning through the albums for the first time in many years. When I came to the bath photograph, I stopped. A shot of panic went through me. I had never seen it with adult eyes: I had not seen the breasts on the body of a child. I had been a little girl like so many others, one who picked flowers and jumped rope and read books in trees. I spent a long time trying to forget that I was also something else.

A great essay, like the one you’re reading now, showcases an author’s singular voice even as it strives to reveal universal truths. Harper’s Magazine needs your support to continue publishing work that respects and stimulates readers and writers alike.

Please subscribe today

In the year this photograph was taken, my mother was growing increasingly alarmed. I complained of tenderness in my breasts, and I had developed pubic hair. Our family doctor referred me to the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick, and I agreed to go on the proviso that there would be no needles.

The doctors knocked at my elbows and knees, and watched my gait as I walked. They tested my body mass and fat composition, and measured the circumference of my head. I was given an X-ray to determine my bone age—the maturity of my skeleton, based on the appearance of growth plates at either end of expanding joints. My chronological age was six years and nine months; my bone age was found to be eight years and ten months, roughly consistent with my height age. I was taller than average, but not freakishly so—about four foot three; ever so slightly overweight, about seventy-one pounds.

My chest was examined and palpated. My areolae were noted as “small.” I lay on a table in frog-leg position—knees apart, feet touching—and they examined my vulva. My labia minora were growing ahead of schedule. My perineum was normal. I was assessed as being at stage two on the Tanner scale, the first phase of puberty. It was not until the doctors said they wanted to do a CT scan of my brain, after asking repeatedly whether I ever had headaches, that my mother began to panic. She asked if they were testing for a pituitary tumor.

My clearest memory of the day is this: standing in a phone box outside the hospital, the sticky receiver held to my ear, complaining to my father that I had been lied to, and that a needle was coming my way. The doctors wanted to take a blood sample. I hoped that he might rectify the injustice. My parents had separated two years before, and my father had moved over five hundred miles away, to Melbourne. I spoke with him on most days. At the time, he was living with an English woman who was a decade younger than he was.

My mother told me that she wanted to talk to him alone and made me stand outside, closing the door and ordering me not to leave her sight. I watched her through the scratched and murky glass. She turned away from me while she spoke, but I could see that she was crying. She was wearing a shoulder-padded suit—she had come from work—and her entire body shook. I understood that she was terrified. She thought I was going to die.

Sometimes early puberty has a distinct, identifiable cause. Tumors near the pituitary gland can interfere with hormonal messaging; growths on ovaries or testes can inhibit standard function. These require surgery or chemotherapy. A noncancerous brain defect called a hypothalamic hamartoma can cause a similar disruption; in infrequent cases, the source is an infection or brain injury. The origin can also be genetic, including a few rare conditions, such as McCune-Albright syndrome, in which bone and marrow are replaced by fibrous tissue. A café au lait spot discovered on my scalp was taken as a possible symptom of McCune-Albright, but further investigation rendered it benign.

After hours of testing, the doctors told my mother they had ruled out all dangerous possibilities. I was developing early without a clear cause. My condition was known as precocious puberty.

In 1997, a year after my visit to the hospital, a study of more than seventeen thousand girls in the United States seemed to establish that early sexual development was a widespread and significant phenomenon. I was part of a trend. For decades, accepted medical wisdom had held that only 1 percent of girls began puberty before the age of eight—the threshold for diagnosis as precocious. This figure was based on a study from the early Sixties, which had in fact been quite limited: its subjects were the white residents of an orphanage in the United Kingdom. The new study, led by Marcia E. Herman-Giddens, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina, found the percentage for white American girls to be nearly fifteen times the old figure; for black American girls, it was nearly fifty times higher. The overall average age of puberty was also shown to have fallen: from eleven to ten for white girls, and to just under nine for black girls. The average age of menarche, a girl’s first period, which had dropped every decade from the 1850s to the 1950s—a descent largely attributable to improvements in health—did not seem to have changed, remaining, as it had thirty years before, around twelve years old for all groups, including girls who showed the other signs of early development.

Though the Herman-Giddens paper was received with skepticism by endocrinologists, a highly regarded study, sixteen years later, of 1,200 American girls, confirmed the broad changes. Breast development, the first sign of puberty, was beginning on average in white children at nine, and in black children at eight. Twenty-three percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and 10 percent of white girls were experiencing precocious puberty.

In the years since, both American and international investigation has seemed to corroborate the findings. A 2020 survey of all relevant worldwide studies published in English found that the average age of breast development has dropped by roughly three months each decade since the late 1970s. (For male children, the trend lines are less clear, and boys are generally thought to experience precocious puberty far less often than girls.)

Since the late Nineties, many researchers have believed the downward trend to be in part attributable to the obesity epidemic, and this idea has remained sticky though the causality is uncertain. Another popular culprit, endocrine disruptors—chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormonal processes—can be found in pesticides and widespread pollutants, as well as countless household goods, including deodorants, shampoos, perfumes, and essential oils, the last of which have spiked in popularity. A 2007 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that boys who used products containing lavender and tea tree oil had started to develop breasts. But the effects of these compounds are so far inconclusive.

Because of extreme cultural interest and investment in the sexual development of girls, a psychosocial fog has sometimes clouded early-puberty research. Many scholars consider non-chemical environmental factors to be as important as chemical exposure and inborn biology, seeing sexual development as a process that can be influenced by one’s life experiences. Resulting theories have suggested the culpability of early childhood stress and absent fathers. Some epidemiologists have claimed, for instance, that girls who are adopted into a foreign country are more likely to experience early puberty. A 2004 study by Bruce Ellis, a psychologist, tested ideas of “paternal investment,” borrowed from evolutionary biology, and argued that “in well-nourished populations,” girls from “father-absent homes” tend to exhibit early development. “The earlier the father absence occurs,” Ellis wrote, “the greater the effect.” His paper offered possible causal mechanisms based on zoology, including the role of pheromones and tactile, olfactory, and auditory cues. Other psychologists have claimed that early puberty disproportionately affects children who experience poverty, “maltreatment,” and “unsupportive” parenting. According to medical researchers, there is indeed evidence that traumatic events in early life correlate with earlier puberty. Trauma of this type might influence neural development, though the mechanism is unclear. But the extension of these findings to subtler experiential influences is tenuous at best, and related studies tend to be freighted with morality.

The sociologist Celia Roberts, in her 2015 book Puberty in Crisis, accepts the premise that “biological, social, and psychological forces” all affect the age of sexual development, but notes that this interplay has meant that legitimate scientific inquiry often leads to the reproduction of common cultural anxieties. In a 2000 article for The New York Times Magazine, the journalist Lisa Belkin spoke to Herman-Giddens in her home outside of Chapel Hill. Herman-Giddens clicked through a slide presentation of the possible causes of early-onset puberty that she believed were worthy of consideration: “Obesity. Pollution. Food additives. Divorce. Soft porn.” In Time magazine, two months prior, the journalist Michael Lemonick profiled a number of girls experiencing early puberty and considered the “soft porn” angle. In his own interview with Herman-Giddens, the professor said that exposure to sexual images in childhood couldn’t be ruled out as a possible trigger. “If someone cuts a nice juicy grapefruit in front of you,” she told him, “you salivate.” (Lemonick also interviewed Drew Pinsky, commonly known as Doctor Drew, the media personality and addiction doctor, who at the time had just had his program Loveline canceled by MTV. “MTV,” Pinsky said, “is absolutely one of the factors in early puberty.”)

After my diagnosis, my mother embraced the theories that made the most sense to her. I was already being mistaken for much older than I was, and in her efforts to stave off early menstruation, she began feeding me hormone-free chicken, purchased at an organic butcher a few suburbs over. Looking back at my earliest years, she wondered about soy milk. When I was weaned off breast milk, I didn’t stomach regular formula well, and I was given soy formula when still very young. Soy contains isoflavones, endocrine disruptors that mimic and interfere with human estrogen. When I was in my early twenties and research on the importance of the microbiome and gut bacteria began to pop up in newspapers, I developed my own theories. Perhaps it had happened because I’d been born by emergency caesarean section, placed in a humidicrib in neonatal intensive care, and given antibiotics for the first forty-eight hours of my life. Experts have floated antibiotic exposure as a potential cause of various irregularities, and babies born by caesarean section absorb microbes from their mother’s skin rather than the vaginal canal, where the microbes are thought to be more beneficial to postnatal immune development. As an adult, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, a condition in which my immune system attacks my thyroid, and I wondered about the possible connections. But each of these guesses was a stab in the dark.

Another photograph: me, in a bathing suit, age seven. My grandmother has picked it out of a stack of pictures from our recent North Queensland vacation. My body faces the ocean, but my head is turned back toward the hotel swimming pool behind me. My mother took the photo as I was sulking, looking out at the sea she had told me I couldn’t swim in. Swimmers are not advised to patronize North Queensland waters, because of the presence of tiny but venemous Irukandji jellyfish. “Look at that,” my grandmother says. “Look at that sultry look on your face. You look like a little madam.”

In the landmark study Centuries of Childhood, published in 1960, the French medievalist Philippe Ariès argued that the notion of childhood as a distinct phase of life was not solidified in Western culture until the fifteenth century, and that its advent corresponded to reduced infant mortality and increased education. It was at this time that a child’s age took on its modern importance, and children, formerly viewed as miniature adults, became a special category of person, one whose purity was in danger of corruption.

It was in this period, according to the historian Diederik F. Janssen, that interest in the timing of sexual development transformed from a mostly legal concern—regarding lawful maturity as it related to marriage—to an explicitly nosological consideration. Reports of precocious menstruation and conception date back to at least the mid-sixteenth century: the most famous case was that of a Swiss child named Anne Mummethaler (or Mummenthaler), born in 1751, who began menstruating at the age of two and gave birth to a stillborn at the age of eight. Though one author wrote in 1588 that menstruation before the age of twelve was “virtually unprecedented, & monstri loco,” precocious children were not often considered among the “monsters” of medieval and early modern medical literature. Thomas Aquinas had written three hundred years before that “what is called the age of puberty” differed “according to the varied disposition[s] of nature,” and this view was shared by many sixteenth-century physicians. The timing of sexual development, one wrote, depended on whether “the nature and complexion of the bodie” was “full of bloud, strong, suffereth much labour,” or was “quiet, and foeble.” Ancient Western texts had long described early maturation as linked to an excess of blood—what was later called “plethora”—as well as to heat and moisture. According to Janssen, early modern physicians maintained this “humoral and caloric determination,” which they believed to be “responsive to diet, climate, venery, and customs . . . temperament, constitution . . . and race.”

This list comprises both inborn qualities and environmental influences, and in the eighteenth century an idea of “two puberties” took hold: one naturally occurring and one unnaturally provoked. The latter, in the words of a French surgeon-obstetrician, owed “its birth to dangerous company, to obscene books, to succulent aliments, and all that is calculated to inflame the imagination.” In the late eighteenth century, significant medical commentary was dedicated to the effect of such social factors, from the reading of novels to the wearing of trousers. Parents were instructed, in the words of a Geneva doctor in 1762, “to divert all that could accelerate the puberty of their children,” guidance echoed in Rousseau’s Émile, published the same year.

“On the whole,” Janssen writes, male cases were discussed in terms of “prodigious capacity”—extraordinary “talents” and “wondrous strength”—while female cases were depicted in more “ambiguous variety,” and thought to be more responsive to lifestyle. “Unchast touching,” to quote a mid-eighteenth-century gynecologist, socializing with men, and explicitly sexual encounters could all influence the girl’s body: “Hereby the Subject becomes as it were a Woman before her due Time.” The early arrival of menstruation was discussed in many tracts as a type of reciprocal phenomenon: the change was believed to produce a desire for sex, just as a desire for sex was purported to induce the change. A girl developing prematurely was therefore frequently considered a debauched child, and her degeneracy could be traced to her own being.

This idea has survived, if only in implication. A “precocious” child is ready for something beyond her years—something she may have wanted and willed.

When I was ten, my family traveled to the Australian snowfields in Falls Creek, one of the only places in the country where people can ski. A photograph from the trip went up on our fridge when we returned home—a picture of me in my parka and snow pants. During a dinner party one night while I was away at my father’s house, a friend of my stepfather’s saw the picture and commented that I was “hot.” My mother told him my age. A few months later, as I sat in the living room during another dinner party, watching television while the adults milled about in the garden, smoking and drinking wine, the same man came in and sat down beside me on the sofa. We began to talk. I felt very clever and charming all of a sudden. He asked if I was drinking, red or white? My mother soon found him where she had feared, troublingly close to me.

I remember the way he looked at me, the attention he paid to my movements, to the space I filled in the room. It’s an attention familiar to all adult women. Men who did not know my age were looking at me that way all the time. It had been happening since the first grade. I knew it, and I felt responsible. I felt pity for them, and embarrassment for myself and my body, which had lied to them.

I envied other children their ability to exist obliviously, and to express to most adults only childishness. That feeling crystallized a few years after my stepmother gave birth to my half-sister, when I was eleven. As she grew, I sometimes looked after her, and at playgrounds it was often assumed that I was her mother. I knew that I was physiologically capable of having a child—though I still was not completely clear on what sex was—and I understood that my sister could have been my daughter. I watched her freedom as she played in our father’s garden with no top on in the summer heat, not yet having anything to hide, and I was occasionally overcome with self-pity and jealousy. I was taught, as all girls are, to cover my breasts, for propriety and protection. But I don’t remember life before that. I don’t know what it’s like to live any other way.

My period had arrived when I was ten. Though not outside the normal age limits, I considered it an enormous secret. I concealed it even from my father, at whose house I would hide bloodied clumps of toilet paper in a plastic bag stored in my suitcase. I saw him irregularly, and when I was with him, I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to be a daughter like those I’d seen in movies and read about in books—daughters who were good and pretty and responsible, whose fathers loved them so much they’d always come back after a time of peril: Sara in the film A Little Princess, Bobbie in The Railway Children. My father would occasionally take me to dinner, where I was often asked what I was studying at university, and I learned to tell when the waitstaff had assumed that I was his much younger girlfriend. I tried my best to look my age, wearing lace-edged socks and childish black headbands—what the British call Alice bands, after young Alice of the looking glass.

When I had just turned twelve, my father and I drove to a seaside town on the Mornington Peninsula to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, which had recently been released. We arrived too late for one screening, too early for the next, and we took a walk to the beach, down a long path that connected the shore below to the town above. As we were headed back up, my father was sullen, and walked far ahead of me. He was often sullen in those years. A group of young men, about eighteen years old, approached down the path, carrying a cooler and surfboards. I could feel that I was being looked at, talked about, so I kept my eyes down and prayed they wouldn’t speak to me. It didn’t work. Would I come have a drink with them? they asked. They had a lot of beer, they had weed if I wanted it; I was really pretty, one said, he would love to get to know me. I knew that if I were eighteen I would have known what to say. But I was terrified. I looked to my father up ahead on the path. He had stopped and was watching, but did nothing. I told the young man my age, and as the group laughed, I sprinted away up the hill, catching up with my father.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m so sorry.” He didn’t say anything.

By the time I was seventeen, I had learned not to look at myself in the mirror. I wore sweaters over my school uniform in the middle of summer, perspiration rolling down my back. It wasn’t so much that I hated my body: I did my best to function as though I didn’t have one. My female friends were learning how to sneak in and out of their bedrooms without detection, going to parties, having sex. I was spending a lot of time in the art classrooms. This was due in part to the head of the department, Mr. M., on whom I had a prodigious crush. He was in his mid-forties, with voluminous white hair that had been blond when he was young.

It was for Mr. M.’s class that we traveled to see, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a career retrospective of the work of the photographer Bill Henson, whose best known subjects were nude adolescents and dramatic landscapes, sometimes the two together: classical ruins, railway tracks and power lines, stretches of Australian working-class homes, usually shot at twilight or night.

In the weeks before the trip, Mr. M. introduced us to Romanticism—Goethe, Byron—and presented what he said were corollaries for Henson’s work: Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, through which I first learned the concept of the sublime; paintings by Caravaggio, which demonstrated chiaroscuro. We viewed renaissance nudes—Rubens, Titian—and Mr. M. explained the “male gaze.” He told us that the majority of nudes hanging in the most famous art museums in the world were painted for wealthy men to look at and possess. It was a habit of Mr. M.’s to quote famous writers and let us believe the words were his own, and I believed this to be an original observation until I came upon it in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing almost a decade later, when I was twenty-four, living in New York, and working at McNally Jackson. (The critic Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze” in 1975.)

At the retrospective, many of the photos were immense, around fifteen square feet; shots of faces and limbs, storms and forests. The pictures of adolescents were dark and melancholy, and I believed the subjects’ nakedness was metaphorical, not erotic. I was fifteen, and the scale and melodrama seemed designed for me. I wanted to live in a world that looked like the photographs: they seemed to match my own emotional weather. I took notes on several pictures of the faces of young girls—all about my age. I thought they were the most beautiful photographs I had ever seen.

When we left the gallery, I walked exultant under rain-dripping Moreton Bay fig trees in the Domain, a parkland the city, and down the carved sandstone grandeur of Macquarie Street, to an overcast Sydney Harbor, filled with the substance of a profound teenage experience. It seems too much of a cliché to be true, but that afternoon I went to a bookshop in the tourist district—the Rocks—and bought my first collection of poetry by Sylvia Plath.

We spent most of the following term studying Henson. His nude photographs had caused minor scandals in the past, and so Mr. M. presented other controversial pieces from the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties—the leather fetish photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe; Sally Mann’s pictures of her children, which, in 1992, were investigated by the Milwaukee police because of claims made by a local radio show. Among other incidents, Henson’s photos had been deemed disturbing by gallery volunteers at the Denver Art Museum in 1989. At the time, Henson told the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph that it was an artist’s right to discomfit their audience: “I’m looking at something that my brain finds appalling but I’m finding very beautiful. That is disquieting.” Mr. M. distilled this to us as the idea that great art was complex.

Among his aphoristic acquisitions, our teacher cribbed from T. S. Eliot by way of Picasso: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Thus instructed, I stole from Henson, and during my final year of high school made more than twenty artworks inspired by the photographer. The most substantial undertaking was a film. I worked on it over the course of the entire year, often staying late after school. Those afternoons were the happiest I remember being as a teenager, wandering the campus well after everyone else had gone home, in the dimming light, mynah cries from among the rustling palm trees.

The film was a close study of my friend Caroline (a pseudonym, to protect her privacy), whom I had met in the first week of high school. Her pale skin didn’t burn but tanned to a deep brown. She had long blond hair that she washed with Herbal Essences. She made a big deal about the fact that she didn’t shave her legs, and showed off the light blond hairs on her thighs above her navy knee socks.

The film, I told her, was “going to be very gazey.” I don’t remember whether she asked me what I meant. It was recorded in the poorly lit sanctum of the underground drama theater, where, in the sweep of the school, I felt most secure. Nearly every shot was a close-up, capturing a part of Caroline’s body emerging from the darkness of the auditorium. In one, her bare legs were stretched out in front of her, her dress had risen up to high thigh, and one of her hands rested between her legs, which were slightly open. She moved her fingers awkwardly there, brushing along her skin. The audio of me telling her to do so was excised. In the corridor, lit by fluorescent overheads, I told her to crouch down on her hands and knees. I asked her to look over her shoulder at the camera behind her, and I told her to crawl.

The footage was set to “Playground Love” by the French band Air, a song made for the 1999 film The Virgin Suicides, which begins with the line “I’m a high school lover.” I chose it for its provocation, and in retrospect, because it captured the kind of atmospheric languidness that teenagers often mistake for knowingness. I thought I knew what I was doing. I was fucking with the gaze.

Just a few months after my film was screened in the school chapel, a photograph by Bill Henson was splashed all over the television screens and newspapers of Australia. I was now eighteen, out of high school, and working behind the counter in a gourmet chocolate shop. The photo was of a girl whom the newspapers called N. She was naked, pictured from the thigh up, standing in darkness, filling most of the vertical frame. Her hair was cropped just above the shoulder, and her eyes were downcast. Her position was unnatural: her chin held slightly forward, the small of her back arched slightly behind her. She was illuminated from behind, light along her arms and around her hair giving her an otherworldly appearance. She had small, swollen breast buds, and her hands obscured her pelvis. The newspapers reported that she was twelve.

The photograph, Untitled (#30), was printed on invitations for the opening of Henson’s new exhibition, at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, in Sydney. At the time, the New South Wales Labor government was reeling from the recent conviction of a former minister on charges of sexual assault against children, and a flurry of press was decrying the use of underage models on the catwalks of Australian Fashion Week. An Australian Senate committee had just been tasked, a few months earlier, with investigating child sexualization in the media, spurred by reports from an influential think tank, the Australia Institute.

With an assist from a well-known conservative columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, Miranda Devine, the photograph of N. became a lightning rod, and the public response was so intense that the police canceled the show’s opening. Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, called Henson’s pictures “revolting” on Australia’s Today program. The police seized thirty-two photographs from Roslyn Oxley9 under provisions regarding child pornography, and federal officers were sent to galleries in Canberra and Melbourne to assess the criminality of Henson’s other exhibited work.

I felt a tremendous sense of connection to the whole thing—to the photograph of N., the panic, the feverish public discussion. I was indignant and confused by the uproar. The retrospective I’d seen only three years before had been one of the most highly attended exhibits in Australia’s history; at least one of the politicians who now expressed disgust had passed through those halls. I had also created images not identical but plagiaristically close to Henson’s. If the photograph of the girl at the center of the controversy was unacceptable, abhorrent, then my own photographs, and the film of Caroline, were the same. Prominent Australian artists such as Cate Blanchett and J. M. Coetzee came to Henson’s defense, and I latched on to common retorts: the outrage was puritanical, reactionary, anti-art.

In the end, Henson wasn’t charged with any crime. The case was dropped after his pictures were reviewed by the Australian Classification Board and deemed “mild and justified.” The public never saw the exhibition, though hundreds of thousands of Australians found themselves examining the picture of N., and other Henson photographs of nude adolescents, searching for their true content.

For his book on the Henson controversy, the journalist David Marr spoke to the photographer, who described discussions of “the male gaze” as “very fashionable as part of art speak,” which, he said, “moves people away from the primary experience they’ve had with their own body in their own space, towards a kind of mediated experience courtesy of a whole lot of ideologues.”

It took quite a long time for me to realize how my own experience had been mediated. It was only very recently that I understood why it had all felt so close. It was not until I saw the photographs of my childhood again, pulled from the wardrobe at my mother’s house. All that time, I had comprehended only quietly that I had been the girl in Henson’s pictures. His photographs were inflamed with the threat I felt all the time. They were my anxiety aestheticized.

Last year I watched the film of Caroline with my partner after several glasses of wine, projected against a white wall in our living room. When it finished, I broke down in tears, the final frame of Caroline’s face still suspended in front of us. I had loved her, as I loved my friends then, with an enormity and ease that I have felt with few people since. The boundaries of our bodies were not altogether distinct. It was natural to turn a camera on her, and easier than it would have been to turn it on myself.

I have not shown my partner the photograph of myself in the bath at six, or the picture in the bathing suit by the sea. I don’t want him to see them. They are a betrayal. In my physical form, there is no trace of the strange little girl, the little madam. But she is there in the frame, trying to dodge my gaze. I see her now the way all adults saw me then, and I’m as much an enemy to my childhood as they were.

 is the author of the novel The Inland Sea.


More from