How to Look at the Sun

[From A LEXICON FOR MOTHERS: A Phenomenological Memoir, in progress]

Colander (n.) a perforated bowl, from Latin ‘colare,’ to strain.

If you root around in your kitchen, you’re likely to find a colander, a plastic or metal bowl with holes of uniform size drilled in the bottom so you can rinse pasta or blueberries, or shake out wet lettuce. It is a basic tool for any cook. But this ordinary kitchen implement is like the magic ruby slippers: it has a power that you did not know existed. And that is that if you turn it upside-down on the ground during a solar eclipse, it will enable you to see this celestial phenomenon without ruining your eyes.

Carrie Buck in 1924

I thought about a colander when I was trying to find a way to tell the story of how I came to heal myself from the loss of a child through teaching about Carrie Buck, a teenaged nobody who for a short time was society’s most important somebody. In fact, separate and apart from my teaching and writing, there was a solar eclipse at some point in the years covered in this book, and I searched online for a way to safely view it. I knew that even one glance at the sun could permanently damage my vision. Lacking the patience to make a rudimentary viewer out of cereal box, I discovered that a colander would work as well or better.  You set it on the ground, and as the moon passes through the orbit of the sun, the eclipse is visible in the cast shadow, a circle of light slowly obscured by a darker one.

This phenomenon, called pinpoint projection, works because the holes are small. If the holes are too large, the image will be blurred. You have to settle for the tradeoff: tiny but accurate rather than large and diffuse.

But with a colander there are many holes rather than one. The day of the solar eclipse, I went outside and overturned mine—white plastic, cheap—on the ground. Within minutes I was looking at a kind of fractal cosmology, six-dozen mini-eclipses identical to each other and to the larger phenomenon above me, as well. The metaphor on a cosmological scale is expanding or unfolding symmetry, each part a microcosm of a larger whole. But for me, the lay observer with a simple colander, I understood the cast pattern as merely the by-product of wanting to look at the truth of a thing without being harmed by it.

Observing the tiny eclipses, I had a Copernicus-like flash of clarity. Each telling of the story of Carrie Buck was a mini-eclipse; collectively they told a larger truth. But that unholy truth was one I could grasp only by observing its shadow, the ordinary displacement of light by dark.

Why look away to begin with? Why not dive straight into it? The 1927 Supreme Court case in which Carrie was the plaintiff is routinely taught to students of medicine, public health, law, and ethics as a precedent-setter upholding the reach of state powers conferred under the Tenth Amendment. That dry-as-dust-sounding synopsis is why you haven’t heard of the case but have perhaps heard about Carrie Buck herself, a figure of curiosity and pity. A sepia photograph of her face has appeared on book covers, in documentaries, and history websites, often divorced of context: she is the object of fascination and pathos.

A teenaged girl—raised in foster-care, uneducated, poor, and unwanted—becomes pregnant via rape. In a sequence of serendipitous concurrences—her residing in the virulently white-supremacist state of Virginia, her having been taken from an unfit childhood home, her rapist being her foster-family’s nephew, and on and on—she lands in the middle of a national debate about who is fit for parenthood and which kinds of people constitute an unwanted burden on the state. She loses her case, her baby daughter, and her capacity for motherhood. It is surgically excised from her via salpingectomy, a needle-in-haystack operation to root out the fallopian tubes.

I choose the words root out deliberately and think about a recent discovery that tells me more about this case than the many books I have read. The words for grief, gravity, and pregnancy have the same Latin root: gravitas, for weighty, heavy, burdensome. Grief binds us; gravity grounds us. And pregnancy is a bundle carried for months. Gravigrade is the word for heavy steps, and it is a good word. A mother’s steps are heavy, from the German word heben, to lift up.

I would rather write about the words that tell the story, the way they can unlock its deeper meaning. Because as told by scholars—lawyers and historians—the story is bleached of its soul, as dim as the white pages on which black letters form the words to tell it. Its center is not a law or a theory or a pseudoscience, which is what eugenics (birthing only “good” people) constituted. It is not even a hardened war-hero judge, though he had the final say in a decision for which I will not provide real estate here. No, the story’s beating heart is Carrie, the long-ago, brown-haired, round-faced girl whose voice we cannot hear but for the six deferential words she spoke during her trial and a few preserved fragments of letters, written later in her early adulthood. All we have of her pre-fame life is the snapshot of a girl, her face still soft from recent pregnancy, who stares straight out us from history. She is speechless, but her eyes hide nothing. Even without the story behind the photograph, we see: she is horrified.

But Carrie spoke to me from the first time I saw her name in print, when my young adult son was still a baby, and she haunted me for years before I taught her case, which I did, I told myself, to give a voice to the voiceless. And to the forgotten. I would tell what she could not. I would right the wrong, and I would do it for her.

Midway through each semester of my writing course on ethics, I waded in. First, I lectured about eugenics. I talked about the previous century’s rudimentary science of heredity, and I read out loud the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whom I would come mentally to refer to as “Ollie,” the only way I could wring the rancor out of my lectures. I knew that if my students merely dragged their eyes over the archaically-long sentences of his decision, they would dull themselves to its thunderous cruelty.  I wanted them to hear and feel the words that Carrie heard and no doubt, felt. Words so horrid I could barely get through without choking up: I raised my voice to push them out of my throat, like plunging a clogged pipe.

“We might see in Carrie,” I said, “the proverbial everywoman. Young, poor, shy, and trusting. Unschooled, abused, and traumatized. Through no fault of her own, she was thrust onto the world stage when she was not yet twenty years old—the same age as many of you.”

Then I projected a photograph of the cinderblock shack in which Carrie lived at the time of her death in 1982, and finally, the last photograph of Carrie herself. The round-faced girl was now frail and white-haired and erect in a rocking chair. Her eyes no longer met those of the viewer, and the shock was gone, as was the frown. Instead, the eyes looked away and the facial expression—the downturned mouth, the hollow cheeks—told of the resignation born of lifelong hardship. But there was in her face another quality that gave me hope, somehow. Carrie Buck utterly lacked bitterness or guile. Like the girl in the earlier photograph, she gave her face almost fully to the camera, as if she were announcing simply, “Here I am. See the one you have made.”

She was facing the world, and in so doing, she was asking that we face ourselves.

We would sit with her for a few quiet minutes before I turned up the lights.

The word eclipse doesn’t mean to cover, as one might expect. It comes not from Latin but from Greek, the word ekleipen, ‘to fail to appear,’ to be left out. I didn’t know the etiology when I chose it, but now that I do, I understand. Being eclipsed is to be unseen. It is confinement not to darkness but to invisibility. Young, unwanted, traumatized: this too I understand. In time I would realize I was teaching the case not for Carrie but for myself and myself alone. I would like to say I did so because there is power in speaking the unspeakable and in appointing myself chronicler of the aggrieved. But my reasons weren’t as clear as that realization I had, staring down at the mini-eclipses under my colander. The story simply insisted on being told the same way breathing is not a choice, or December thrusts us into winter. The story came out of me again and again, and again.

As I told it, I cried, each telling like an increment of the moon’s progress across the sun.

The cost of the telling was high. It was a life—it was my life. But the reward was higher.

I looked at the sun without getting burned.

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