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A History of Scars

A Memoir



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About The Book

From a writer whose work has been called “breathtaking and dazzling” by Roxane Gay, this moving, illuminating, and multifaceted memoir explores, in a series of essays, the emotional scars we carry when dealing with mental and physical illnesses—reminiscent of The Collected Schizophrenias and An Unquiet Mind.

In this stunning debut, Laura Lee weaves unforgettable and eye-opening essays on a variety of taboo topics.

In “History of Scars” and “Aluminum’s Erosions,” Laura dives head-first into heavier themes revolving around intimacy, sexuality, trauma, mental illness, and the passage of time. In “Poetry of the World,” Laura shifts and addresses the grief she feels by being geographically distant from her mother whom, after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, is relocated to a nursing home in Korea.

Through the vivid imagery of mountain climbing, cooking, studying writing, and growing up Korean American, Lee explores the legacy of trauma on a young queer child of immigrants as she reconciles the disparate pieces of existence that make her whole.

By tapping into her own personal, emotional, and psychological struggles in these powerful and relatable essays, Lee encourages all of us to not be afraid to face our own hardships and inner truths.


Chapter 1: A History of Scars 1 A HISTORY OF SCARS
As a rock climber, I’m used to accumulating scars. They’re gathered on climbing expeditions, in moments of carelessness or due to freak acts of nature. As someone who bruises easily, who isn’t overly precious with my body, I’ve often not regretted these tangible reminders of the past. They make for good stories, good memories.

One reminds me of the can of beans that exploded over a campfire in Joshua Tree, leaving me with a bean-shaped scar on my forearm from an errant legume that flew through the air and stuck to me like a pebble of hot glue. Luckily we’d bought one of those perforated cans, with a lid designed to be pulled off, so that the lid’s flight into the air was graceful rather than chaotic. I associate that bean mark with my oldest sister—I remember how panicked she was by the sound of metal exploding, and how fatigued we were, to not have anticipated the can’s explosion. I remember a bulky man with a wiry beard from the next campsite, calling over to ensure we were okay.

Another reminds me of my ex-girlfriend accidentally lowering me from a climb into a large tree, so that a sharp branch dragged across my waist and punctured the skin over my left oblique. The T-shirt I wore dulled the spear-like protrusion’s edge, protecting me from worse damage. Another reminds me of limestone crumbling beneath my right foot when I was tied in and climbing seventy or eighty feet in the air, my inner knee grazing a jagged ledge on my fall, an asteroid tail being torn on that soft flesh. The crumbling rock rained down yet spared my ex’s head, as she belayed me from below.

I have many small scars. I’m usually sad when they fade, because so, too, do the associated memories—of times when things could’ve been worse, of moments shared with loved ones, of times when I scraped by relatively whole and okay. Each climbing-related scar transports me to a particular setting, a particular day, a memory where I’d happily dwell.

Then, too, I have a series of interconnected scars that are different. These scars prompt questions that I don’t want to answer, and I can’t hide them. Not from those I love or hope to love, anyway. They’re set in such a way that they require increasing levels of intimacy to witness, so that only those closest to me will see them all.

The fourth of these, purplish red on the left side of my ass, is the worst. Nearly the size of my extended hand, it looks like a particularly vicious bruise, as though I’ve been whacked hard by something rectangular and large, though nearly six months have passed since my exposed fall onto I-65. I can still see imprints of gravel rubble from initial impact. The third looks like a large set of wings in the middle of my back, from where I skidded down the highway. The left side looks like Africa. The second is above my left hip, but passes as a lightly shaded bruise. The first is on my left elbow—darkly outlined, triangle-shaped, similar in size and shape to a guitar pick; I often forget it’s there.

Aside from nurses and doctors, until recently only one person has seen all four—a good friend who unflinchingly bore witness, who asked question after question and listened to my answers, whose brother coincidentally cycled through new, and then repeated, drug-induced psychotic episodes at the same time that I recovered from my hopefully solitary episode, during which these bruise-like scars were inflicted.

There are the official terms, the medical language I’m still learning to use, in the questions I ask myself in moving forward. How soon after involuntary hospitalization, for example, after a diagnosis of PTSD, after a psychotic episode, after a suicide attempt, is too soon to start seeking out human companionship again? How long after the doctors have signed off on your return to sanity can you vouch for your own ability to be a good partner to someone else?

These are the questions I found myself asking in confronting my body. It isn’t just in a romantic setting where stigma matters, of course, and where one’s own sense of shame polices—where doubts rear up, of whether and how people will treat you differently, once they know certain aspects of your recent past. But it’s only in a dating context that my scars are fully visible, would matter to another person—not for their appearance alone, but for the stories they tell. It’s in the romantic arena where it feels as though the other person involved has the most stakes, the most right to claim judgment.

As with my mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s, as with my oldest sister’s rare form of cancer (and its timing, accompanied by another cancer), a psychotic episode was something of which I knew little when it occurred, something of which later I had to educate myself. The episode was, as a psychotic episode is, a departure from reality—something that fit outside of the narrative I’d been building for myself, and of my conception of who I was. It meant consequences that surfaced long after the fact, each of which emerged as a shock, which still cloud my way forward. It meant costs great and small, in all forms.

I’d spent a year moving on from the first woman I ever loved. I’d started to put the pieces of myself together, felt hopeful about the future. And then this interruption—another one of the rare medical emergencies with which my family seemed to be cursed. My psychotic episode involved a suicide attempt. It meant my body was scarred, for the foreseeable future.

In reading Yiyun Li’s memoir about her suicide attempts, or Esmé Wang’s essays about her schizoaffective-disorder-caused psychotic episodes, I saw that both narratives existed in the framework of those settled into relationships—writers who’d already found their people, the partners who accepted their unique selves. In recovering from my own spell in a psychiatric ward, I turned to writers I already knew, for guidance and solace.

What, I wondered, do you do when you’re single, and you haven’t yet met that person or established that foundation, when your journey in medical realms has potentially only just begun? How long is an acceptable amount of time before you can trust yourself to be whole, before you can trust others to see the value you might have to offer? Before you can say, I can be good for you, we can be stronger and happier together, and believe it?

You don’t have to tell me, she said. It’s okay.

I can tell you don’t want to talk about it, she added.

But the weight of it still settled between us—the questions that hovered. I could already imagine the ways in which one question might lead to the next, and the next.

I figured you’d see them, eventually, I told her. I was surprised she hadn’t seen either of my large scars the first time we’d tumbled into bed together—had been both grateful for the cover of dark, and regretful that I couldn’t see the strong outlines of her face more clearly.

If you want, you can just see them both now. I didn’t want to hide from her, in the moonlight or at dawn—to think about twisting the back of my body and scooting away when standing up from her bed, which lay on the floor, or pulling on underwear quickly, not for modesty’s sake, but to hide.

Eventually she looked at the large scar on my back. It just looks so painful. I told her the one on my ass was far worse—which it is. But I also hoped she would simply look at it, so I could know whether the sight of it would break whatever we had between us. So I wouldn’t see her shock, in an unexpected moment of revelation. No. I don’t think I want to see that pain, she told me. Not if it’s worse.

From that accounting, the scars felt insignificant to me, not representative of physical pain so much as emotional scars. In the time I spent in the psychiatric ward, I routinely refused to let others near the wounds, because I was so fearful of letting strangers approach me. The abrasion on my ass seeped yellow liquid, sticking to the yoga pants my sister had brought me, weeping through the nylon, and yet physical pain registered barely at all. It hurt to sit on, of course, but in a dull way. It still hurts to press. The blooming stains on my blue hospital scrubs surprised me, in the first few days—I didn’t fully grasp where they came from, how bad my fall had been, because I was too preoccupied by the fears in my mind.

The physical pain began registering again gradually as I recovered, as adrenaline stopped pumping through my system. One nurse gave me the wrong sort of bandage to apply, despite my request for the nonstick variety, so I found myself peeling off the gridded gauze that had begun melding with my exposed skin. That hurt a little. Over time I began accepting help, and I remember one kind nurse using a pipette to first clean the wound, as I lay propped up on my stomach, commenting that gravel was still stuck in the abrasion a week after the fact, before carefully taping nonstick pads over it. You probably would’ve punched me if I’d tried to do this when you came in, she said with a smile. Okay, not really—but you wouldn’t have let me help.

The morning after the first time we slept together, she’d already asked me about the scar on my elbow. After a shared breakfast burrito and tall stack of dessert pancakes drizzled in white chocolate and salted caramel, we went to the gym, happy, yet too stuffed with food to climb well.

What’s that from? she asked, as we stood next to each other, her on belay, me ready to climb. I didn’t know, at first, what she meant, had forgotten the scar was even visible. She gestured to my elbow and repeated, How’d you get that?

An accident. A fall, I told her.



I left it at that, but I knew the question had already been raised—not from brevity, but from body language. Our communication style thrived on the unspoken, on sensed emotional undercurrents.

When later in bed, her fingers stroking my back, she felt something on my skin and asked what it was, she felt me tighten up, too. That tension louder than if I’d simply answered. At some point one’s unwillingness to share information becomes a bigger obstacle than the information itself. Yet evasion feels easier.

It’s from the same thing as the scar on my elbow, I told her.

How long ago?

Six months, I answered. I realized later the inaccuracy of my estimate. Six months hadn’t yet passed.

When dating, one doesn’t really like talking openly about trauma—it’s not sexy. I fell back on that as my excuse. She and I had talked of trauma before, of her unwillingness to read sad stories with unhappy endings or discuss trauma at length, versus my habit of dwelling in and writing trauma narratives. Her desire for silence allowed for reprieve.

Still, my friend saw the feelings I was developing, and she advised me to share specifics sooner rather than later. You don’t want to trap her as your girlfriend, she told me.

That verb choice, trap, did so much work in confirming my fears. My friend had already admitted that she did, in fact, view me differently after learning of my episode, that she worried about my perceived emotional fragility. I didn’t want those I entered into relationships with to feel that same burden of caution, in relating to me.

I knew she cared about the present tense of a relationship, not one’s previous mistakes. I don’t hold people’s pasts against them, she’d told me. Yet I’d long held the opposite philosophy—that the past and present are intertwined, that one can only truly know a person by understanding the environments they once occupied, and the influences that shaped them.

Perhaps I felt this way because I’d always been surrounded by illness, mental and neurodegenerative and physical ailments, in those I loved. Given my diagnosis of PTSD, I wondered if, without the damages absorbed in childhood, I would have had a breakdown in the first place. I knew all too well the unintended harm caused to bystanders, and the unintended damage caused by silence on such topics.

Even as I, too, wanted my life to return to what it once was, I’d been surprised at how quickly the world expects one to move on. I was familiar with this phenomenon as a bystander to my oldest sister’s recovery from multiple cancers. I was familiar with the idea that just as emotional recovery was becoming possible—once finished with treatment, once entering remission—was when one’s support network typically fell away.

Yet it still surprised me, to be back in charge, teaching a new class, steering the metaphorical ship, when only eight weeks earlier, I hadn’t been trusted to wear pants where the elastic hadn’t been snipped out, or use full-length pens to write, or step outdoors, or have the yellow “fall risk” bracelet removed from my wrist, or skip the fifth group therapy session of the day, or possess a watch, even a strapless one, or, or.

One day I received an email from a student, thanking me for making class so much fun that he looked forward to attending each day. On the same day I received a statement of review from my car insurance stating “Diagnostic code: T14.91, Description: suicide attempt” alongside the breakdown of drug tests, brain scans, panels, and assays completed. These documents serve as an interruption, a reminder of severity. You’d like to move on, but six months later, you’re still getting those documents in the mail, just when you think you’ve finally finished with the paperwork and closed that chapter of your life.

These things all coexist. And yet. When you’ve reached the point of no longer caring if you live, of willfully throwing yourself in harm’s way, it takes a minute to recalibrate to the idea of forward motion. To remember that life doesn’t stop on a highway, but instead rolls on. Time’s passage feels both short and long. How, within six months, does life change from one thing—utterly desperate and out of control—to calm?

The idea of having yet another aspect of my identity which I will continually have to “out” myself on and explain, as with my queerness, or when discussing family with those who assume that everyone springs from a happy, healthy, nuclear family, exhausts me. It exhausts me to realize that I will have to disclose and await reactions from every serious lover in my future, rather against my will, teetering in doubt and uncertainty as to whether the truth behind my scars is enough to make others walk away.

Certainly it will become easier over time. Still, questions of how to handle such disclosures arise. Do you treat future lovers like the infamous frog, where you slowly turn up the heat until they’re too relaxed to jump out of the pot? Or, as with an ice bath, do you just shock the system and dump all the details at once? And if so, when? On the second date, by the fourth? Before sleeping together? After being exclusive, but before having official partner status? When is fair to both people involved?

The first time I saw her cooking, breakfast omelets and potatoes outdoors, we were camping in Jackson Falls. She joked about the photos I took of her, as unfortunate proof that she did indeed know how to cook, despite her preference for eating the cooking of others and then, in turn, taking them out to restaurants. What I noticed was not the act of cooking, but the way she held her paring knife: the way she bunched up herbs and pinched vegetables in her palm, then exposed the sharp end of the knife and used her forefinger and thumb to guide the blade’s path. It’s a practiced motion—if one slips, the knife enters directly into the fleshy part of one’s thumb. It’s the Asian way of cutting vegetables. Seeing her cutting that way, and hearing her say, it’s faster this way, reminded me of my mother. My mother had that skill, too—of peeling an apple more smoothly and quickly with a paring knife than with a vegetable peeler. It’s a skill I don’t possess.

You’re so polite, she told me, as we got into bed together for the first time. It’s positively un-American. In case I couldn’t read her tone, she added on, That’s a compliment. It’s a good thing.

When I first saw her, I hadn’t realized that she was Pakistani, two years removed from Pakistan, not Pakistani-American. As someone who grew up being mistaken for a non-American, I would rarely make such an assumption about another person. Yet I could feel how much we had in common, in terms of cultural upbringing, by virtue of both being Asian, whether South Asian or Korean-American. I had the odd certainty, upon first meeting her, that we would remain in each other’s life in some capacity, regardless of whether in a romantic context, and part of that instantaneous connection involved shared cultural inheritance.

In dating a bisexual brown girl, I shared more demographically than I had with any previous partner. I’d gotten used to the rhythm of being the sole person of color in a relationship—of going along with mainstream white assumptions, of whiteness being held up as the goal, of being the more culturally conservative one, of having to adapt my ways of communicating and moving through the world to fit in with whiteness, of absorbing fault, of translating my upbringing for a white American audience. After more than a decade of dating white men and women, it was a relief.

In being with a South Asian, we had certain instantaneous understandings about family, or privacy, or even how to share food or fight over restaurant bills. Still, a new set of differences arose. I hadn’t been the more liberal party in a relationship in over a decade, since the last time I dated an Asian—grappling with religion’s effects on the other party then, or in this case, an upbringing rooted in another culture entirely. I tried to grasp a different cultural terrain than that to which I was accustomed: what complications might arise in dating as a bisexual Muslim from Pakistan, where Islam is state-mandated, where queerness is illegal, where no couples, straight or queer, hold hands or kiss in public.

It just isn’t done, she told me, about holding hands or kissing, when we unofficially ironed out our codes of conduct for public affection. These discussions are perhaps the usual dance of any couple, and especially any queer couple, in navigating public versus private identities. Beyond just queerness, though, I wondered how growing up in a more culturally conservative country might affect one’s definition of legitimate trauma, and one’s outlook and attitude toward mental illness.

When I confronted my father about his physical violence, he responded defiantly, It wasn’t that bad. Which seems, to me, a consistent theme of how one defines trauma. Who gets to say what bad is, what constitutes true trauma? My father hinted often at the turmoil of South Korea during his childhood, during the Korean War, but he never rooted me in the sorts of specifics that would have re-enacted these ideas. He stayed silent.

He stayed silent to protect me, I believe now, from the damaged parts of himself that he recognized. Yet the unintended consequence was that he remained a stranger to me. I knew he had been marked by trauma and neglect, and yet he never provided enough insight for his personhood to be known and understood, despite the obvious ways in which he lived with its effects. Had he given himself permission to recognize the harm caused by traumas inflicted upon him, I doubt he would have been as likely to inflict traumas on his wife and children, in turn.

When I think of traditional Asian culture, I think of my father’s values—his refusal to name mental illness, for example, when my middle sister struggled with depressive episodes and dropped out of college, time after time, or routinely dropped jobs. He preferred to avoid grappling with concepts that he failed to believe in or understand. His sense of shame seemed too strong. My middle sister, who confessed to being relieved when she finally accepted her disability, suffered because of that silence, that refusal to acknowledge, to name.

I’m wary of reducing someone to the cultural context from which they come, of their country of origin. Such reductions rely on generalizations and hypotheses, rather than recognizing individuals in all their uniqueness. Yet context matters, in terms of our starting points, in relating to trauma and mental illness and silence.

As I’ve never traveled to Pakistan, so much of what she says seems steeped to me in being raised in a different country, a South Asian one, with a different values system. I recognize the overlap from my parents.

I understand her desire not to burden her parents with her bisexuality, in the same way that I fear burdening her with my encounter with mental illness. Not only because I fear how I might be seen but also because it’s knowledge that she would have to absorb and manage, because it falls outside of our assumptions of the norm.

In the United States, discussion of coming out seems to center on the individual—being one’s authentic self, living more happily without secrets. We blame parents and family members who can’t accept truth, faulting them as less evolved. In other places, like Pakistan, bisexuality is not something that can openly exist. Why, then, burden one’s parents with knowledge they will never be able to accept, that can’t exist within the fabric of society as it stands? I understand this argument intellectually, even as I also disagree with it.

Yet I, too, am not out to my parents. Not out of shame, but because I can’t see the point of making the effort with my father, when I’ve shielded every aspect of myself from his view, when we have no real relationship. I can’t imagine how my mother would have responded, were she not in end-stage Alzheimer’s. My instinct is to assume she would’ve lacked the language to understand.

She told me, when we first met, that she had no real trauma—an absolute which immediately drew my attention, because who, really, hasn’t suffered trauma, in some form?

Weeks later, as we sat with her roommate sipping green tea and mocha and a chai latte, she calmly mentioned being set up from the moment she flagged transport, being trapped in a rickshaw by motorcycles, being held at gunpoint and robbed, being touched against her will. It’s common, she said. It happens. Of course I didn’t tell anyone what happened, she said, not even her family, even as she herself suffered from PTSD afterward.

This silence, I understood, was her act of protection toward those whom she loved, who wouldn’t have been able to do anything with the knowledge after the fact, anyway. I understand this attitude—why share information, when it will make the recipient of such news feel helpless? Even as I also believe the stifling of such information causes its own damage, not just to the individual but to loved ones, as well.

This way of handling things isn’t far afield from my parents and their ways—not discussing or validating trauma, but burying it, instead. But aren’t we, as humans, informed by the process of feeling pain and healing, time and again? Isn’t that scar tissue where our true stories lie, where our characters are built? Don’t we block opportunities for connection, by denying that most human experience, of being vulnerable, of feeling pain?

I rebel against the stifling of trauma—the desire to silence it—yet I also contain that instinct within me. There are so few people with whom I feel safe in discussing trauma. As with queerness, that feeling of safety only generally comes after the other party admits to their own encounters with such things, only after they make it clear that I am safe from judgment. Or after I’ve done the same.

When I mentioned to her casually, in our first conversations, that I didn’t really subscribe to labels, but that I used queer, bi, pan, I remember she agreed on labels’ limitations, but also mentioned that in Pakistan, no one talks openly of such things, and so she liked claiming bisexual as a result. Because the question arises of why silence and shame are needed. Ideally, queerness wouldn’t need to be hid. Ideally, trauma and mental illness wouldn’t need to be silenced.

Yet how do you explain to a Pakistani who views honor killings as a legitimate source of concern, who, understandably, characterizes American feminist concerns as trifling in comparison, that emotional fears can sometimes feel more damning than physical pain?

The emotional pain of having my mind split open was the worst pain I’ve ever known, even if it was invisible. Don’t those who self-harm already know this, that sometimes physical scarring is simply an emblem of what already exists internally, without expression?

Sometimes it takes something as drastic as a suicide attempt for those close to you to recognize the real aftereffects of cumulative emotional trauma.

Still, how do I explain that the scars on my body resulted from my mind turning on itself? I’m used to the disdain that people from developing countries have for our American language of trauma. I inherited it from my parents. As my friend said, recognition of psychological trauma and mental illness is one of the only areas where we, as a country, are ahead. Still, here, too, as a culture we seem to only honor pain if it’s physical, if it’s visible.

When I think of the pains that have truly wounded me, I remember sitting alone as a child in a hospital, waiting for the results of my mother’s brain scans, knowing that I was functioning as a surrogate adult, knowing I had no adults I could reach out to for help. I think of my childlike, ill mother, and I remember feeling afraid and isolated.

I often think, with a solid, loving family, with solid footing and tethering to this earth, we can bear anything. But perhaps I only think that because of my sense of its lack.

We rarely intend to inflict the traumas we do. That’s what makes them, in some form, forgivable—their accidental, somehow inevitable nature.

In the psychiatric ward, I talked to another patient covered in scars, all over his arms, neck, and face. In my paranoid state, where everyone in the ward was an actor, I didn’t believe the cuts were real, that he had caused them. They looked drawn on, like a gaudy Halloween costume. I stared at them inappropriately, surely causing him discomfort.

Another patient kept asking me, in circular fashion, “You’re so pretty. Will you be my girlfriend? On the outside? Why not? But will you be my girlfriend? On the outside? You’re so pretty.” She didn’t stop following me, asking the same questions on a loop. An unfortunate coincidence, given my initial fears that angry queers were after me. She was released many days before I was.

I often ponder what one can hide—for some of us, one’s sexuality, for example—and what one can’t. Emotional damage, you can hide. Still, I have a theory that those who’ve been abused can nearly always recognize others who’ve been abused, because somehow it does manifest itself in visible ways. It’s similar to queerness—if you so desire, you can try to hide your own queerness; straight people will likely fail to detect it. Other queers on the lookout will probably guess, regardless.

The scars, you can’t hide. The scars raise questions. Worse when you can’t even see them yourself, because of where they’re placed on your body, but others can.

When I sit laughing with her, joking about silly and insignificant things, I can’t imagine sharing details of my hospitalization. The beginnings of a relationship feel so innocent and fresh—one hopes to protect that innocence from harsh realities, like confrontations with death, without misleading a person. Those memories feel a world away.

Yet intellectually, I wonder what is accomplished by hiding. I wonder if, and why, these particular details matter. We all have our own traumas, but certain ones, society seems to fear discussing. We joke about suicide, but we don’t discuss its realities.

The more important questions seem to be, can I guarantee that I can be a stable partner, or a stable person? Can any of us guarantee this? That we will remain healthy, in body and mind? Can we tell others that it’s safe for them to care for us? Can we guarantee that we won’t harm them? Or is the universal truth that we will, in fact, hurt those we care about, and be hurt by them, regardless of the specific circumstances?

At what point do you disclose and say, It’s out of my hands, think of me what you will, scars and all? At what point do you say, See me nakedly, and decide what you will?

About The Author

Photograph © Laura Lee

Laura Lee is a writer based in Chicago. She holds a BA in comparative literature from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from Purdue University. A History of Scars is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (March 2, 2021)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982127282

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Raves and Reviews

“Lee entrusts readers with much of her self . . . Readers will be moved by Lee’s honest writing, particularly regarding mental illness.”

– Booklist

“Ultimately, what Laura Lee created is a display of raw humanity that is both powerful and vulnerable.”

– Library Journal

Awards and Honors

  • ALA Rainbow List Selection
  • ALA Stonewall Honor Book

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