Borderline: Kiki’s Story

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Her Suffering and Her Bliss

Splayed across an unmade bed is how we first meet the film’s protagonist, looking bored in the arms of her lover. Speaking in the past tense, she confesses to having been insanely in love with him, which we can take as the very definition of passion: out of one’s mind and rendered senseless by the mysterious, even mystical, pull of another. But her posture as well as her boredom bespeaks of another side of this story, one that serves as the engine of transformation. For while she has spent the better part of the past five years waiting for precisely this moment, the opportunity to lay in his arms and feel the touch of his skin, their relationship is nothing other than her crucifixion. If there’s any resurrection to follow, it must be preceded by a death, which is exactly the story laid out in this film: the process of submitting to one’s own annihilation, at least the thing responsible for binding them together.

However simple the task may sound, it’s the most difficult in the world, not least of all because their love came to be her all. And yet, as is plain to see, his body has left her trapped, deadweight from which she’s been unable to escape. It’s as if she’s been bequeathed an incomplete puzzle, bewildered as to how she should proceed. Her bliss the very condition of her suffering. How does anyone escape from that?

And yet, it’s only when she reaches this unbearable limit, unable to see how she arrived at this moment or where she should go, only then does another future make itself known. This is the crossroads at which this story begins and the perspective from which it’s told. For it’s a story told in reverse, from the moment she’s decided to say goodbye, from the moment she came to recognize how colors bleed through the intimacy of skin. It’s only in the process of revisiting the past that she’s able to make the connections, the culmination of events creating this present, how without even realizing it, she was fated to be nothing other than what she came to be.

Karl Marx is frequently quoted for his observation about history repeating itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Had he turned his attention away from events upon the world stage, he might have come to recognize a truth different from the one he intended, for this is precisely the kind of revision at the heart of Kiki’s story: by virtue of her newfound perspective, the tragedy of her life can finally be seen and told as nothing other than a story that culminates in the face of a clown. This newfound realization certainly doesn’t make things easier – coming to recognize oneself as the Fool – but it does provide an exit, a passage from one cycle of existence to another. A road less traveled, and her path of liberation.

The question is: how is it that she couldn’t recognize the transfer of another’s face onto her own?

Turned Inside Out

According to the conventional wisdom of the psy professions, borderline patients are the most difficult and the most resistant to treatment, located as they are on the "border" between neurosis and psychosis. Not surprisingly, those seeking relief would be met with therapists who knew no better than to conceive of their patients as a bundle of deficits – an inability to regulate emotion, forever living in fear of abandonment, haphazardly bouncing between intense and unstable relationships, a virtually absent sense of self, a chronic sense of emptiness staved off by recurrent self-mutilations and attempts to end it all by embracing the eternal darkness of death – deficits that they solemnly pronounce amount to a disorder of personality.

Missing from such learned assessments, however, is the very question Kiki poses at the beginning of this story, the question any therapist should be compelled to ask when asked to help someone in her state: how did my skin get turned inside out?
For in tracing the genealogy of skin, a different story comes to the fore, one less about personal deficiencies than the myriad burdens she’s been forced to bear. For skin that’s been inverted gives voice to a strategy of survival, the only method available to a child who’s been left in the dark and unable to see.

Alice Miller tells us that the most "damaged" among us are those subjected to the narcissism of the adults in their lives, particularly (but not only) of their parents. For it’s in such perverse relations that the child is reduced to an object whose sole purpose is meeting the needs of an other: a mother who treats her daughter as therapist and friend, a father who vents his rage upon a child, an "uncle" who uses his niece for the gratification of sexual needs even he doesn’t understand.

In each of these scenarios – though with different intensities and different effects – the child is denied the most fundamental right of existence, which is the right to be seen and heard. Instead, in being reduced to a function, an object to be lived-through, raged-at, or desired, the child comes to inhabit a black hole, precisely because she was never seen. No mirror held up to her face so she could see herself, learning to recognize the Self that is her own. Instead, she’s transformed into the site of another’s fascination, a mere stimulus in another’s world, her antennas forever turned outward, seeking light wherever it might be found.

In the absence of her confirmation is when she’s most overwhelmed and unformed, as if dispersed into a vast and empty space.

Conquering the Splits

Which is how Kiki comes to arm herself with a tape recorder, capturing the fleeting elements that define her life. Freezing moments in time so they can be examined and relived, especially the ones most difficult to face. Not the highs she’s needed so desperately, but the lows that speak to the terror so yearns to escape. And in this task she’s fearless, recording the most painful parts of her history: her (catatonic) mother unable to return her gaze and the (married) lover who uses her like a doll.

With the aid of this mechanical device, she replays the most awful of moments, her confrontations and her regrets. The times she’s most exasperated and those upon which she reflects, each a window into a life that’s spiraled out of control. Each piece a crucible of her existence, each a sign of her perpetual torment.

I don’t know if I should cry or puke.
I float in the unreal.

It’s only by virtue of these visitations, willing to withstand their pain, that she’s able to wrench a semblance of order, giving sense to what threatens to overwhelm. So, rather than submitting to the vortex of words, each will be put in its place. Packed into boxes that surround her, as if preparing to leave her childhood home. In the place of of floating worlds she’ll construct a different constellation stitched together by her own hand. Rearranging words on a computer seeking to tell a different story, one that’s wrought by her own hand.

Once introduced to this netherworld – the shadows of her life – Kiki begins the task of reconstruction, painting a picture different from the ones she been told. Seeking the elusive connections that have remained so maddeningly beyond her grasp but which, if truth be told, have merely been waiting silently, hoping to be found.

The Birth of Reverie

Ironically, it’s the very quality that gave rise to her fragmentation – but also her ability to blend into her surroundings – that plays a crucial role in her reclamation. Her reveries will save her twice. At first, it was but an adaptation, a protection against the chaos without, against the smothering mother: her despair and the high drama, including the time she decided to kill herself. By that time, entrancement had become her preferred mode of existence, the only way to survive amid the turmoil that was her world. Which is how her mother came to be an interruption, and why any other mode of existence could only feel unreal. (When I stop watching TV, everything shifts like a kaleidoscope.) As if by virtue of a switch, she’d been turned into an undercover agent, forever disguised in a foreign land.

But the reveries weren’t only meant to escape her mother, they were the product of mother’s hand, as well. The two of them perched in front of the moving pictures, both dreaming of a future different from the one they had. Whether this maternal inheritance is a blessing or a curse, she can’t be sure. But it opened new worlds to the mind of a child, an ability to see the face of the miraculous, the product of a beautiful mind. This other side of her escape, the one that emerged from nothing, growing from an absence so ancient it could never be filled.

But as Kiki sits in the attic, back in her childhood home, she’ll find a second use for reverie, marshaling her powers of imagination for a different goal. For now she is armed with a recording machine able to freeze memories and capture her thoughts, her ammunition in her fight. But rather than see them as bullets – He used me like a Kleenex – she’ll treat them like pearls, plumbing the depths to trace their origins, the sea of emotion from which they’ve emerged.

It’s in this way that we’re introduced to the timeless of the netherworld, the place of the in-between of collapsed time, where past bleeds into present, and the other way around. Where reveries come to be used for a different purpose, divining the lost secrets of her world. For the ability to split – and her fragmented existence – can be put to new uses, becoming both observer and observed, providing her own compensation for never having been seen.

The Womb of the Mother

Which is exactly how we come to be transported to other times and places, to other versions of the battle she has waged for years. Each a different incarnation of a timeless moment: yearning for completion, screaming to be heard. Fighting against transparency, wanting nothing other than to be touched and held.

Different things will serve as reminders, echoes from her past. An old boyfriend or a lover, now married with children of his own. A birthday or an anniversary, another passage to yesteryear. A smell or gesture that harkens back to another. Or perhaps a return to one’s childhood home. Each captured in a bottle. Each treasured for their haunting power. Each the end of a thread beckoning to be followed back in time.

One thing she will notice is the ubiquity of skin: the story of her heart and the faces of her passion. The lovers she has taken and the ones she sent packing. And in the midst of her adventures, never quite out of frame, is the figure of her mother, the one who closed in on herself, trapped in her own little world. For it’s only while remembering an earlier birthday fraught with boredom and anguish, that Kiki’s able to decipher a lover’s quarrel and how it came to be. For despite what either of them might have said, it was less about fault than about her constitution, the way she was made to be. The scene she "sees" as much be the result of reverie as anything else, a conglomeration of different moments and the sequestered feelings that lay hidden underneath.

Hands began to touch me.
Thousands of hands caressed my body.
Finally, someone was caring for me: I was queen of the party.
A crowd cradled me, like Mom used to do long ago in a former life.
I floated on the mother sea, and sank into her womb.

One kind of touch comes to take the place of another, a substitution of skin. And yet, beneath the caresses for which she’s been yearning lies a desire more ancient, one that’s come to be satisfied through her pounding. Taking meager satisfaction through the mechanics of movement that possesses the power to numb. And while caught in the sweat of exertion, she’ll nourish a secret that’s hers alone. How being open to the universe – spread to infinity – she’s finally able to forget. And for the briefest of moments, she’ll shine. For the blackened sky holds a lone star, quivering brightly. Alone in the dark, it dazzles, no witness to its brilliance other than herself.

Her (First) Crucifixion

Her outstretched arms will make more than a single appearance, evidence of a long forgotten death, a remembrance of another time, this too involving her mother. Except now, she’s repelled rather than beckoned. Finally, the face behind the sea of blackness comes to be unmasked.

In the course of this recollection, she’ll discover how her attempts at self-expression come to be censored, wounding the one who gave birth to the child. Her art is too dangerous to behold. Her backward movement less about protecting the distraught mother than being slayed herself, cut to the bone. As speaker-of-truth, her portrait is too dangerous, a mirror too terrible for the mother to behold: crucified for the honesty of a child.

Until now, the origin of this posture will have been lost on her, unaware of the "spontaneous gestures" that give voice to the fate of the dead. For banished from memory is the crux of this moment, much less the terror on her face. Instead, her attention is turned elsewhere, antennas turned outward, a portrait of tears forever locked away behind her back.

And another memory: years later, when she finds herself with no place to go, Kiki takes refuge on her grandmother’s couch. Surprised by her lack of tears, she’ll ask why she’s unable to cry. Is it because of the family tragedy, the other babies that drowned? Did mother and grandmother use up all the family’s tears? But rather than provide an answer, grandmother withdraws into herself, turning into stone. A replica of Kiki’s mother, fighting to hold back the tears that Kiki’s unable to shed.
A grief that forever lies beneath the surface, reserved for the unborn and unsaid.

The Knot of the Story

Which might be why it takes an effeminate chef to provide the impetus for change, an unexpected – even unwanted – encounter that allows Kiki a glimpse into a world not dominated by unspoken pain and the absence of tears. Which is not to say her meeting with this other was easy. Even the mechanics of their love-making gives evidence of the battle for dominance: a struggle between a burning need for release and one seeking a different kind of pleasure. Unbeknownst to him, his breakfast offer will be the last straw, a sign of what’s been available with her lover. Perhaps even feeling smothered by something as simple as the provision of food to eat.

As she sits at her computer, we’ll see where Kiki has been stuck for the last decade, unable to get her head around the puzzle that’s become her life –

Love makes me stupid …

– a statement as much about her lover as the others that came before. It’s both a puzzle and a condemnation, the fate she feels unable to escape. The sentence that stares her in the face, as if coming down from on high, declared in a booming voice for all to hear, unwanted witnesses of her terrible fate. And yet, written in her own hand just above this declaration is another statement, one that comes across more like a question:

The Invention of Death

Hidden in the sequence of words is a question neither theological nor scientific, for it’s not the fate of corpses she has in mind. Rather, it’s the chronic absence with which she’s struggled that’s at the heart of her query, both an assertion (This is where I find myself) and a wondering about how it came to be (From whence does this death come?). A question that’s paired with the persecuting sentence that’s come to dominate her consciousness (Love makes me stupid). As if the question had already been answered, followed by its coded solution, as if love itself was the answer to her question about the invention of death.

Deathly Embrace 1Immediately after her hasty retreat from the chef’s home, Kiki will find her grandmother on the floor in the throes of death, as if her night with the effeminate one birthed the demise of the other. As if that casual encounter would rob Kiki of her surrogate mother. Her protests slowly give way to a confession hinting at the power of anger, something strong enough to stave off the unbearable weight of grief. As if this grumpy old woman were nothing other than the wall Kiki had built for herself, and how she came to prefer pain over a love that might have actually felt good.

Gran, don’t go! Don’t leave me with crazy Mom.
I need to hear your grumbling. I need you to bawl me out.
I always wanted to make you forget your dead babies.

Deathly Embrace 2And as if her body contains a memory her mind had forgotten, Kiki dreams of another moment in which she held a woman in her arms: recruited to carry the weight of her mother’s tears, for a man who left her, perhaps, or who found grace in the arms of another. Yet another instance of being rendered absent, parentified by one whose job it was to care for the child. Making Kiki more attuned to the grief of others than the pain that was more rightfully her own. Another version of her crucifixion.

It’s okay, Mom … It’ll be alright.

Deathly Embrace 3

The tears Kiki was unable to cry for herself only arrive at a different moment defined by the very same posture. Except this time, their bodies are replaced by an absence. What remains the same is her cradling of one who remains unavailable, unable to give her what she deserves. And so, while she might dream of her lover providing the reassurance for which she’d already been recruited, those words will never come. Turned into a hotel clown, weeping over one who has left her unheeded and unseen.

History repeating itself, indeed.

Rebirth (Saying Goodbye)

As if on cue, immediately after Kiki has made these connections, her lover makes his final appearance, frantic over her extended and unexplained absence. Because she’s come to recognize the power of reversal – the cruel trick of skin – she’ll say her goodbyes with the colors of childhood, painting the face of a clown where it properly belongs. No longer yearning for what he’s unable to give. No longer held captive by the absence she’d been taught to accept as her home.

It’s also this stance that informed the careful interrogation of her prospective lover, no longer sure of the knowledge that comes through skin. The kind of distance upon which she insists, a sign of this newfound discovery and a reluctance to rush, seeks a space that she’ll defend like a new mother protecting her young, a space allowing for a different kind of relationship with a man. So she asks the type of question most associated with the courting of yesteryear, quite simply, "Who are you?"

No longer seeking to plug a hole that screams to be filled, no longer haunted by the gaze that remains unreturned, Kiki finds herself on the brink of an unexpected journey. It is, in fact, the second chapter of her life. And so, in the privacy of her attic, Kiki lights a lone candle. A rite of passage, not only for all the birthdays that were missed, but to commemorate the life that came before. For the first chapter of her existence, soon to be extinguished, now gives birth to something new: three Kikis and three times, now fused into one, no longer scattered to the wind.

The single candle that’s been her life, now extinguished, gives way for a different story. Perhaps the one will be replaced by two, each a witness for the other.

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~ by mistified on February 22, 2011.

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