‘You are feeling cold, but soon I’ll warm you through’
As a kid I had such hairy arms – wolfishly hairy, house-of-rugs hairy – that they looked like they belonged to a very small man. I was very self-conscious about these arms and wished that I had different ones. On long car trips, my brother and I would stretch our arms towards our mother so that she could stroke their undersides. With the hairiest side of my arm facing down, partially concealed, I immediately felt calmer. But the main pleasure here was having the underside of my arm stroked. My arm was like one of those trout you can send into a trancelike state by tickling its belly, then when it’s at your mercy you can flip it out onto land. Was it because the underside of the forearm has less hair on it, and thinner, more sensitive skin? I’ve since learned that this length of skin passes directly over the median nerve, which begins in the cervical spine and runs all the way into the hand; along the way it branches into two as it courses through the forearm, and down into the hand it branches off again, supplying the palm with nerves. I’d worry that the stroking might suddenly stop, which it sometimes did when my mother got distracted by something, so to ensure that the arm-tickling with continue indefinitely I would say, ‘Can I have an arm tickle?’ She’d say, irritably, ‘I’m already tickling your arm.’ I’d say, ‘Can you keep tickling my arm?’ She’d keep tickling the arm. The tickled arm felt, finally, like mine, because, feeling pleasure, I was more aware of how it felt, rather than trying to ignore its presence or wish it away.
‘It is like an arm dug out of a coffin and cemented to her shoulder’ – this is how a physician described the arm of an eighteen-year-old girl named Jane Jenkins in a case study in Walter Johnson’s Anatriptic Art (1866) – a history of massage therapy. Jane Jenkins lost the use of her arm after suffering from typhus fever. Her arm had become numb and atrophied, small and trembling. Her physician treated her by regularly rubbing her arm over the course of a few months, and this was ‘a perfect cure; and Jane Jenkins was able to carry into execution what had been her dearest wish – she went into the business of a dress-maker.’ The case study, as with all of the case studies in the book, is so strangely simple and triumphant, the solution so elegant – touch gives Jane Jenkins her arm back, makes her whole again – that it seems fable-like. I’d love everything in The Anatriptic Art to be true.
If my mother stroked the hairy side of my arm, it was almost like being stroked with a brush. The hairs would move around on my arms, making little peaks and troughs. And, again, I’ve since learned that a light, slow, hairy touch is not only thought to be the most pleasant to human beings, but also the touch most likely to contribute to a sense of embodiment, or bodily ownership. That is, localised within yourself, you are aware that there is a you, and a not-you; you have a beginning and an end. Embodiment arises through a complex range of psychological and neurological mechanisms; it is not always as simple as understanding that your actual arms or legs belong to you. Someone who uses a walking stick all the time can feel as though the stick is a part of their arm. An amputee who wears a prothsesis for many years may feel whole again. Scratching a prothsesis can make a phantom itch go away. And so, then, a part of your body that you have heretofore felt disconnected from, can begin to feel like a part of you again.
The now well-known experiment that has led to these conclusions about embodiment is called the rubber hand illusion. A person watches a fake rubber hand being stroked, while, out of sight, that person’s actual hand is stroked in exactly the same way. The idea is that, through this combination of touch and seeing an object being touched, the person will come to believe that the rubber hand is her own. (I like how neatly this experiment puts paid to that old saying ‘I know it like the back of my hand.’) The object that most successfully achieved this illusion was a ‘hairy’ one – a make-up brush (Boots natural hair Blush Brush No. 7, specifically), stroked lightly and softly over the forearm and hand. As well, the areas of skin rated ‘most pleasant’ to be stroked were the hairy ones.
For me, though, the hairy side of my arm was the less interesting side to be stroked on than the underside. I was all about the median nerve: it was that side of the arm that made me float up above myself. But for my mother, was the hairy side the more soothing side to stroke – the hairs against her skin also, in some way, calming her and locating her, as if stroking a cat, or one of those robotic seals called Paro, that from time to time wails its demands and has to be settled?
2. My cat Jerry, who was a flea-ridden stray wandering around in Waikanae before he was delivered to the SPCA and I saw his picture on the Internet, goes into raptures when patted and stroked, especially on his belly, where the hair is softer and finer. The tiny looping track of his purring seems like an extension of his fur: something that rises softly into the air around him, warming it.
The difference between blissful touch and annoying touch, for Jerry, is imperceptible to me. He is as unpredictable as a horse (but sometimes as unpredictable as a hedgehog, a possum, an owl, a shark – the point is, you just don’t know). When he decides that the touch is irritating, he transforms very briefly into something like a woodchipper made of claws and teeth. The study above suggests that it’s gentle, caring touch that helps humans to establish boundaries between themselves and the external world, and this kind of touch in particular gives rise to embodiment: but it’s the annoying touch that seems to heighten Jerry’s sense of the boundary between him and me, him and the rest of the world. This makes me wonder how touch that is annoying or traumatic affects a developing sense of self, and an understanding of where your body begins and ends.
Recently Jerry got hit by a car, and all I wanted to do was cradle him. It seemed very important that I hold him and stroke him. The infuriating thing about having an animal as a pet is that you can’t communicate directly to him. Touch is most often the very first sense you use to connect with him, but this is the sense that’s taken away when the animal is sick or injured – he’s being shuttled round in a cage, sometimes with tubes in him, things that prevent you holding him. On the way out to the vet, with Jerry in a cage on my lap in the car, I kept reflexively threading my fingers through the wires. All I could reach was his whiskers, and they tickled my skin. Later on I thought about the make-up brush on the rubber hand. But this soft hairy touch felt disembodied: it was nothing approaching a connection. It would have been different had that touch held the promise of a more enfolding, meaningful touch, but I didn’t know when I’d see Jerry again and if I’d ever be able to hug him again. So it was a frustrating almost-touch. Fingers through wire, palms against glass.
At the vet, I watched a daughter and her mother enter the building with a little grey cat in a cage. When the vet came out and said, ‘Lola?’ they went into the examination room. A few moments later they came out again, no cage this time, just a cardboard box in the mother’s two hands, the girl crying. I imagined the bare feeling of the box, all that warmth and softness reduced to the featherweight inside it. I think that we want to rub the places that hurt to make them hurt less – for ourselves and others – and being unable to do that any longer feels like love being stymied.
3. It’s common to unconsciously hug and stroke yourself when you’re slightly anxious or pent-up. Some people do it more than others. All day after Jerry got hit I was rubbing my eyes, pulling my lip, toying with that wattle of skin under my throat: all of these forms of ‘self-massage’ lower your heart rate and the level of cortisol, a stress hormone. It’s a kind of self-caressing that works as a calming mechanism and can also tip over into a tic, an endless cycle of half-reassurances, hands tugged ever-upwards as if on marionette strings. There is often a moment when I am speaking when I feel a hand beginning its rise to cover my mouth. In a split second I’m conscious of it and have to make the hand change direction: to, say, my eyebrow, or the top of my head, where it lingers for a bit, unsure. ‘Self-massage’ is often seen as kind of a negative behaviour, springing from low self-esteem, social discomfort, dishonesty and even latent aggression – for example, you’ve probably heard that teenagers who touch their faces a lot are more likely to be aggressive; that a person who touches their face while speaking to you is probably lying; you’ve read that Bill Clinton touched his nose 88 times during his testimony about Monica Lewinsky. In my case, touching my face is more an unconscious attempt at containment: I’m trying to contain anxiety, not let it tip me sideways. Usually my finger goes straight for one of my front teeth. 88 times is nothing. I wedge it in there, the tooth under my fingernail, a little foothold. I’ll also place the back of my hand against my face, so that my nose peeks between two fingers like a gherkin. Supposedly a major sign of trying to calm yourself down is puffing out your cheeks and exhaling. I had a boss who used to do this frequently, and yes, it did make me very nervous. His face momentarily became almost twice the size, like a cat puffing itself up when it sees a threat. But it’s difficult to stop all of these behaviours at once. We have all these nerve endings in our faces, so it’s an easy-access way to soothe ourselves.
I went out to visit Jerry after he had surgery, and spent a good twenty minutes just patting him in his wire cage at the vet. Going home afterwards I felt so happy and grounded. It was like I’d had all these Jerry-strokes pent-up in my hands and they had needed somewhere to go. I noticed that I stopped touching my face so much.
My relief that Jerry had lived soon gave way to abrupt middle-of-the-night dread: one day, he would indeed die. I would have known him for longer, grown even more attached, and the loss would be profound. I began to worry that Jerry would, in some way, become absorbed into my sense of self, like the person who carries a cane for so long that she begins to see it as one of her limbs. Jerry would become my glasses, my hands, my feet, my little home. It would’ve been easier if instead I’d kept patting cats on the street from time to time, growing no attachments. It helps, though, that Jerry has an almost entirely shaved bottom, from where he had surgery. He stalks around like a delicate baboon. He seems unaware of his nakedness. That temporary bare patch, where there should be soft fur, helps me to look at Jerry with a slightly (slightly) steelier eye, as if the only thing holding us together were hair.