Hanif Kureishi & the Touch of Forced Intimacy
Stefano Goodman explains how impairment can lead to sudden physical reliance on strangers – and how this shapes our personalities
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I read about author and playwright Hanif Kureishi’s accident when it was first reported, but didn’t take much notice beyond the fact. But as it was made clearer just how serious his fall had been, and how devastating Kureishi’s injuries were, and how monumentally his life was being changed, I began to deliberately avoid reading about it.
I actively skipped the headlines as soon as I realised they were about him; quickly moving on if I saw his picture at the top of an article. It was too raw. Too close to the bone.
I am as disabled (impaired? I have no idea) as he is now – but I have always been this way. And so it became uncomfortable for me to think about this very vital man, bursting with creative energy, having to deal with a newly, severely limited body.
I’m fond of a line Jack Nicholson says in The Departed, supposedly quoting John Lennon. “I’m an artist. You give me a f**king tuba and I’ll get you something out of it”.
Hanif Kureishi is a writer, so he will always write. And written he has. He has just found different ways of doing it. With practical help from the people around him.
When I realised that he is staying sane by creating, just like I do, I started reading his account of his new physical state and started thinking about a concept which has been somewhere at the back of my mind for a very long time but has only recently started to form into something more than a vague abstract.
It is a concept that probably hasn’t quite crystallised with Kureishi yet, but I am certain it will.
We’re all familiar with the idea of ‘personal space’ – an invisible boundary around our physical bodies, outlining an area that belongs only to us. Undefined, but clear.
It is different for everyone, but everyone has one. Anything, or anyone, straying into it is immediately noticed.
Imagine then, not just an incursion into your personal no-fly zone, but actual contact. Someone standing too close to you on public transport perhaps or the server that touches your arm as they put the food down on your table. Maybe you’re having a bad moment and a friend puts their hand on your shoulder for comfort.
Different people will feel differently about all of these scenarios. Nonchalant, disturbed, welcoming.
Now imagine that the only way to have a functioning life is to have strangers – literally strangers – touching you intimately, all day, every day, for your entire life.
This is forced intimacy: intimate contact that is not chosen but forced onto a person because of their dependent physical situation.
This has nothing to do with any kind of inappropriate or abusive behaviour – the touching and handling are entirely practical: getting dressed, staying comfortable, perhaps eating and drinking. But it is forced because, well, what’s the alternative? Don’t get dressed? Be uncomfortable? Don’t get out of bed? Don’t eat or drink? Don’t be clean?
This is the deal we make with life, with ourselves. You may be thinking ‘there is no choice in the matter so what’s the problem? It’s pragmatic, get on with it’. And we do. But with it comes a subtle warping of the emotional landscape; a shifting of the terrain. A lifetime of having to suppress the notion that my body is my thing; that the immediate space around my body is also my thing.
Yes, within very limited parameters, I do get to choose who touches, handles, moves, lifts and rolls me. But it’s not something that I want. It’s something I am forced to accept.
And what this means, I have found, is that I am highly sensitive, electrically sensitive, craving even, of touch from people that mean something emotional to me.
As Susan Sontag observed in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, “the longing to touch / be touched. I feel gratitude when I touch someone – as well as affection, etc. The person has allowed me proof that I have a body…”
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In romantic and intimate relationships, the moments where my partner spontaneously reached out her hand to touch me, or put her head on my shoulder, became so precious that when it lessened (naturally, as all relationships ebb and flow), my disappointment and sadness was disproportionate, completely distorted by the rest of my experience. My reactions subtly, but certainly I think, contributed to the ending.
Most people, at some point in their lives, will have had to put up with some element of forced intimacy – usually when dealing with the medical profession, but here the boundaries are clear. The visit to the GP, the stay in hospital, the dentist…
Prisons have evolved to use forced intimacy as a punishment. Cramped cells, highly intimate situations with very little prospect of privacy, I believe would also permanently change a person’s view of their own ‘personal space’. Boarding schools may even come under the same consideration.
Obviously, not all forced intimacy is negative. This is the joy of our bodies. Being part of a crowd at a concert, or playing sport, or dancing, can be exhilarating in ways that nothing else can. However, in all of these situations, there is a beginning and an end, an entrance and an exit.
If it is constant, and the only way that one is able to get through day-to-day life, then I believe it absolutely changes and shapes one’s personality.
I am sure Hanif Kureishi is in the process of understanding these things, and I wish him all the strength in the world.