Jan. 19, 2021 – This was the place where it happened, and the person on whom everything hinged was her mother — beautiful, capricious, cruel. Ditlevsen was a bright girl and a good student, and her mother’s moods were her earliest training; she had to learn to decipher them, learn to read her mother’s face. Poetry was an early consolation. “Long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane,” she writes. “When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.”

Few writers have written so rapturously of the joy, the necessity, of writing. It became a compulsion for Ditlevsen. Language dulled her pain and papered over the past. “My poems covered the bare places in my childhood like the fine, new skin under a scab,” she writes.

There is a quality of trance, of autohypnosis, in her style. It’s as if the writing replaced the mother and became the place to analyze and obsess. It was a clandestine joy, “something secret and prohibited” — the very vocabulary of concealment and private ecstasy that we encounter when she discovers Demerol.

She married the first available man — the publisher of her first poems. The attraction, in no small part, was his working shower. But from the start she was restless. She left him, married again.

At a party, she met Carl, a doctor. They slept together, and when she discovered herself pregnant, she went to him for an abortion (how’s that for a second date). He injected her with Demerol — “a bliss I have never before felt spreads through my entire body,” she writes. Carl confessed to her that he had suffered bouts of mental illness in the past, but she couldn’t hear him. She was already in love, with the colorless liquid inside the syringe.

The world contracted and became very simple. She needed more Demerol. It wasn’t enough to leave her husband and marry Carl — as she did, swiftly — she must have his child immediately; a child would fasten him to her. She must adopt one of the children Carl already had, binding him even closer. She feigned ear pain for extra doses. Carl introduced her to methadone.



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