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Ethel Rohan

Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Potomac Review, and Los Angeles Review among many others. Cut Through the Bone was Long Listed as a notable collection by the 2010 Story Prize.

Blurbs

“Rohan’s stories are, more than anything else, about loss . . . and about the odd, endearing, and desperate ways that people fill the void or ignore it.”

– LORI OSTLUND, AUTHOR OF THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD

“These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others."

– Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

“In this unforgettable collection, Rohan reveals her mastery in finding the danger of ordinary objects, the way they come alive when her characters hold them in their hands.”

– Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

"This is a marvelous collection, filled with moments that startle and shatter."

– Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

" . . . beautiful and inventive, tender and absurd, quirky and heartbreaking, dark and strange and devastating."

– Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody,

"Ethel Rohan’s women, despite their wounds, are strong of spirit."

– William Walsh, author of Pathologies

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Cut Through the Bone

Story Focus: "Gone"

06/20/11

Yesterday, I did Father’s Day. Babies are everywhere in my family right now. My sister-in-law is in town this month with her 1 year old. My other sister-in-law is 6 months pregnant with their first. My cousins just welcomed their 3rd into the world last month. Babies. Everywhere.

I will never understand a woman’s body. You ladies. You can build another person inside of you. You realize that, right?

I mean, I get it. Sperm. Egg. 46 chromosomes. Embryogenesis. Trimesters. All that.

But, I mean, that’s a tiny human splitting and piecing and splitting and piecing itself together inside your bellies. And your bones turn soft. The baby moves around inside of you, through your skin, you can make out feet, elbows, heads. You talk about your bodies unabashedly; you discuss what they crave, where they hurt, what is swelling and stretching.

I think about all this, and my mind reels. I am at once amazed and terrified. I think about all this, and I think about what I wrote earlier in the month about the artist in the story “Gone” in Cut Through the Bone:

“Gone” reads like a retelling of Robert Hass’s classic “A Story About the Body,” in which a woman reflects on the loss of her breasts to cancer, and bares herself to an artist attracted to a body she knows he does not understand.

Have you ever read “A Story About the Body?” If not, you should. It’s a quick read, only a few hundred words. Go ahead and read it. We can wait.

Read it? Okay. I just wanted to make sure. There’s no quiz, nor am I really going to make any comparisons beyond what I already have. I just wanted to make sure you’d read it.

Onward.

In “Gone,” which I unfortunately couldn’t find published online for those who don’t yet have the book, a lady stares at herself in a mirror, traces scars along “the memory of [her] breasts” and another scar vertical down her belly, which I’m guessing is from a hysterectomy. She gets a phone call from an artist, Jason, who frequents the diner where she works, telling her that he has drawn her portrait, that he wants to show her. Her insides churn, feeling invaded, “he’d no right to draw me without my permission, to take from me like that.” This lady, who has already had so much taken from her.

He insists on coming over, and she flees to her neighbor’s, where their colicky baby is hurling fits. She encourages the bedraggled mother to take a break, have a shower while the narrator does what she can to soothe the baby. She coos and hums into its soft smell, its harsh shrills, and this line–holy damn this line breaks me–“His large, bald head pushed and rooted at my prosthetic bra and his greedy grunts turned frantic. I had only my baby finger to offer. The force of his suck hurt and frightened me, could rip my finger right off.”

The baby quiets, the mother returns refreshed, and she reluctantly goes back to her home, where Jason is waiting on the doorstep. She invites him inside where he shows her his drawing, and she says, “It’s not me.” In the final lines, which I don’t want to reveal verbatim here and lessen the sparse, cool wonder of them for those who’ve yet to read them, she bares herself to him, and he marvels and marvels with his pencil.

It’s this same marveling I feel when I consider the female body. And it’s not in a sexual way that I marvel, but simply wondering at the whole human mystery of us. Sometimes when I’m around babies, I make the joke, “Babies are weird, man. They’re like little humans.” It gets a laugh. But really, there’s a lot of truth under the humor. Babies amaze me. Humans amaze me. Bodies amazes me, the way they bend and fold and wrinkle, the way they tear and mend and heal.

It’s this amazement I see throughout “Gone,” how the narrator marvels at herself in the mirror, at the force of the baby’s hunger, the mother marveling at the narrator’s ability to quiet the baby, at Jason’s initial artistic rendering of the narrator, and the final wonder in the pencil, dancing and dancing.

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43 Comments

  1. Jeffrey H. MacLachlan said on 06/20/11 at 2:48 pm Reply

    I love “A Story About the Body.” It’s what got me interested in prose poems.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/20/11 at 4:35 pm

    I love prose poems. There is a great anthology of them that I enjoyed, called “Models of the Universe.” I also love Carol Guess’s collection of prose poems from Rose Metal Press.

  2. Brett Elizabeth said on 06/20/11 at 2:52 pm Reply

    wonderful post. i too think about the person-inside-the-person thing with wonder and awe. i’m checking out the story straight away.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/20/11 at 5:11 pm

    Drop back here and let us know what you think of it, B. Elizabeth!

  3. Kenny said on 06/20/11 at 3:20 pm Reply

    Great article. Pregnancy pretty much freaks me out, but my ex-girlfriend was kind of freaked out by it as well, saw it as a parasitical condition, and so I guess some of that rubbed off on me. I do share your mixture of terror and fascination – my extended family is quite large and growing up there were always babies around at any time, and it is amazing how my younger cousins have grown up, one in particular who was born when I was a teenager, I’ve seen go from a squealing baby to an intelligent young man – THAT is weird. But that is all the passing of years I suppose.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/20/11 at 4:40 pm

    Kenny, it’s so weird . . . I shared these thoughts, too. I think in my case, what especially estranged me from the idea of pregnancy is that I was adopted and my mother has never given birth. And I never knew any pregnant women growing up, like aunts or cousins. When a friend of mine got pregnant a few years ago, I was like, Whoa, this is the first pregnant woman ever in my life.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/20/11 at 5:10 pm

    Yeah. I have a cousin who was born when I was 9 or 10, but I don’t think that’s quite the same. My nephew is almost 5 now, and seeing how smart that little dude is amazes me. It’ll be strange to grow up into middle age, and see him as a teenager. I think what’s particularly crazy, too, is now that I’m older, very little changes about me. Sure, I’m balding a bit now, and have to watch what I eat a bit more, but overall, I stay pretty much the way I am. But babies are so dynamic, they change so much from month to month.

    ydde said on 06/21/11 at 9:40 am

    Pregnancy absolutely terrifies me and I didn’t even realise it until my friend was pregnant, and, even then, not till she had been pregnant for maybe six months. It kind of hit me all at once, this wave of–I don’t know–revulsion. But that’s likely too strong. Just complete discomfort. I have a lot of strange notions about my body and most of them are weird irrational beliefs about my blood and organs and so on. I recently had my appendix out, which is kind of a funny story, but the only thing that keeps me from going absolutely crazy about it is just ignoring it as much and as hard as possible. I’m not equipped to deal with the loss of an organ.

    But, like, there’s literally something [a person] growing inside of a pregnant woman. I can’t possibly express here how just bizarre that is to me and how disconcerting it is. It’s just in there, growing, becoming more and more, pressing against your organs, eating the food you eat, creating its own blood, its own body, its own everything all while being inside of you. It’s just. It scares me. A lot. Unreasonably so. I don’t think I’ll ever have children, partly because I’ll never be able to forgive myself for doing that to someone. It seems mean.

    Though, at the same time, my sister’s pregnant now and I’m super excited to be an uncle. Also kind of glad I’m missing almost her entire pregnancy.

    Babies are all right, I think, once they can speak. Then they’re great, especially once they’re two and older. But, I mean, I’ve more in common with most five year olds than I do with people my age.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/21/11 at 9:57 am

    I return to Ireland every summer, Kenny, and am always stunned by how much my nieces and nephews grow and mature. It makes me realize how quickly I’m aging also! I’ve never thought of pregnancy as parasitic, but can see how others might. Pregnancy is miraculous and like so much in life it’s also contradictory–a mix of the beautiful and the brutal. I had difficult pregnancies and deliveries on both my babies and I didn’t relish the experience. I do, however, delight in my daughters.

    Kenny said on 06/21/11 at 12:24 pm

    Yes, my rapidly maturing cousins make me feel old as well. I’m only 33, yet this scamps just leaving their teens or in their early 20s at university, mock my oldness and greying hair. Bah. But it is amazing to see how they develop into well rounded people and how their personalities develop, I’m glad to say most of my cousins have turned out to be great people.

    Kenny said on 06/21/11 at 12:26 pm

    Oh, and I certainly don’t view pregnancy as parasitic, although it was an area we explored when we got into ethical discussions when I was studying philosophy. Totally different thing though. I’m more amazed and yes, scared, by the whole process.

  4. Emily Lackey said on 06/20/11 at 3:59 pm Reply

    Did you know that, during labor, the bones in a woman’s body actually move? The pelvis shifts apart and the hips spread wide to fit the head and shoulders of a life inside a life. Your awe of the human body is spot on. It’s incredible.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/20/11 at 4:42 pm

    Emily, that is incredible. Women are incredible!

    Kenny said on 06/20/11 at 4:49 pm

    Wow, I didn’t know that. That is pretty amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever underestimated what a women’s body goes through during pregnancy and childbirth, I’m just pretty ignorant about it all.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/20/11 at 4:59 pm

    I love this documentary, “The Business of Being Born.” It’s about homebirth. Check it out if you can.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/20/11 at 5:08 pm

    Yeah. I knew about that. It’s part of the softening of the bones, and the shift they go through to prepare for childbirth. I remember learning about that in health class in college and being completely dumbfounded.

    Kristina said on 06/20/11 at 8:58 pm

    Molly, I just watched The Business of Being Born last week. I’ve always been really scared of childbirth but it completely convinced me that I could do it because my body knows how. A home birth seems so much better to me. Such a good movie.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/20/11 at 9:03 pm

    Yes! I was scared of it, too, just like they say in the documentary — television and movies had trained me to think that giving birth = insane pain and screaming and scary hospital drama, etc. In my head, before, I was like, “Epidural! Me! Right here!” But after “The Business of Being Born,” I’m like, Oh no. Homebirth. All the way. I can do it.

    Emily Lackey said on 06/20/11 at 10:44 pm

    Molly, I LOVE that movie. Even though it’s obviously bias, it provides a shocking history of child birth and the ways in which humans have tried to interfere with the natural process of it.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/21/11 at 10:04 am

    What a didn’t know either, Emily, until my first pregnancy is that the insides of the woman’s entire body soften and shift slightly in preparation for the labor and delivery. Shortly after my first daughter was born, I arrived to the ER in excruciating pain with my right shoulder. Because I hadn’t suffered an injury, I’d just lifted my daughter to feed her when the pain presented, the doctors at first dismissed the pain as something minor. However, they quickly realized I was in agony. An x-ray later, they discovered I’d an extra bone growing out of my collarbone, a phenomenon. They decided I was likely born with the extra bone, but that it didn’t become an issue until the softening that occurs in pregnancy shifted the bone, putting pressure on my shoulder socket until it popped out. Agony!

    Emily Lackey said on 06/21/11 at 12:08 pm

    Oh my goodness, Ethel, that’s amazing/terrifying. I am so in awe of the human body after this conversation.

  5. Megan Fink said on 06/20/11 at 6:51 pm Reply

    The images of childbirth that swim in my mind both terrify and amaze me. Newborns force us to remember we are animals, growing, stretching, producing milk for sustenance. It’s strange to think of ourselves in that light, when we are so conditioned to overlook our fluids, our mucus, our insides, and stay superficial. Stay refined. Stay comfortable. What will at once change our very bodies (Do those bones grow back into place?! Do our stomachs tighten––and, dare I say it, our vaginas?), will also challenge us to deal with a new life. What responsibility! Will I ever have the courage?

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/20/11 at 9:11 pm

    Megan, I’m soooo with you. I think you took the words right from me.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/21/11 at 10:08 am

    For most of us, Megan, I think the desire to have a baby becomes so strong, it allows us overcome our fears. I too felt afraid, not so much of the pregnancy and delivery, although I was afraid of that too, but my real fears came from self-doubt: Would I be a good mother?

    My daughters are the two greatest gifts of my life. Motherhood is the greatest challenge of my life. As for tightening, for me the answer alas is NO 🙂

    Kenny said on 06/21/11 at 12:29 pm

    I ask myself the same question, only as a man – what kind of father would I be? I vacillate wildly from not wanting to have children to wanting them, sometimes day to day. I worry about the world and if I want to bring a life into it, and I doubt my ability to be father. But I’m sure it’s something everyone feels and I know from my friends who have had children, that those doubts and fears vanish when it happens.

  6. Dawn. said on 06/20/11 at 8:32 pm Reply

    A Story About the Body was my favorite poem in high school. It still captivates me. Thank you for reminding me, Chris. I can definitely see the connection between Robert’s prose-poem and Ethel’s story, besides the obvious. They’re both haunting. They both stain you.

    Bodies are utterly fascinating. Particularly women bodies. I’m forever in awe as well.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/21/11 at 2:31 pm

    Kenny, I was pregnant on our second daughter during 9/11 and I had those exact same terrible thoughts and that terror: what were we doing bringing children into this world. And then I realized the importance of bringing children into this sometimes terrible world and raising them well and letting them shine their light on the darkness.

    Emily Lackey said on 06/21/11 at 2:44 pm

    Ethel, that’s beautiful. I know so many people who have children because they love babies or think kids are cute (and don’t get me wrong: I love babies and I think kids are the cutest), but I think one of the most amazing things we can do with our lives is raise children who become good people. Virignia Woolf (you’re going to have to excuse the Woolf and Faulkner references, I’m enmeshed in summer courses currently) often, in her diary, weighs her desire to have children against her desire to write. They seem at odds sometimes, and at others they seem so similar to her. In both instances, when we write and when we raise children, we are creating. We are contributing to the world and humanity. I love the comparison.

  7. Jordan Blum said on 06/20/11 at 9:43 pm Reply

    I also extremely fascinated with babies and creating life in general. I think to myself “here I am, self-aware and full of ideas. 24 years ago, I was the size of a grain of rice in my mother’s uterus. 25 years ago, I was absolutely nothing.” It’s fascinating. Now I hold my 9 month old niece and can’t imagine her 16 year old self. I also can’t fathom how she was nothing once upon a time. I think about sex and I’m baffled at how a few seconds of relief (let’s call it) can lead to our little Adina. I’m baffled at the idea that if my sister and brother-in-law didn’t do what they did exactly when they did, Adina might not exist or she might be different. It’s crazy.

    Somewhat going off topic, I want to discuss a general idea about “Gone.” Just the idea of someone hating their body while another person is fascinated by it. What do you guys make of that? I’m intrigued by the idea that one person’s hatred can be another person’s love; that that flaws that disgust you may attract someone else? I think that’s what love is all about. Our flaws are what make people fall in love with us. Perfection is boring; imperfection is unique. The woman could say, “but I’m not exquisite. This actress has perfect breasts, and this model has perfect lips,” and Jason could say, “yes, but they aren’t you.” What matters most to us in our spouses is just that– what matters to US. A million men might find that scar along the belly revolting, but Jason may adore it. Is it logical? Maybe not. But that’s love for you.

    Of course I’m speaking hypothetically.

    Reply

    Emily Lackey said on 06/20/11 at 11:09 pm

    I had a conversation recently with a friend, lamenting my tendency to seek perfection in myself (physical, emotional, intellectual, etc.), and she listened politely until I was finished. Then she wisely asked, “You chastise yourself so readily for not being perfect, but what kind of people are you naturally drawn to?”

    It took me a few seconds to think – really think – about what drew me to my friends and lovers, but what I realized was that I prefer people a little flawed, a little tragic. It makes them human. It makes them compassionate. It makes them sincere and endearingly self-conscious and comfortingly relatable. Flaws, scars, and idiosyncrasies are what make us human.

    Great point, Jordan.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/21/11 at 2:43 pm

    Jordan, what I love about the ending in “Gone,” is that this woman takes the huge leap in her recovery and begins to reclaim and take ownership of her ‘new’ body. Over the course of the story, she felt bereft, full of grief and denied her butchered body, but there’s an important shift at the story’s close.

    And what’s also so heartening here is that once Jason sees the truth of her body, he also begins the journey to acceptance. It’s an ending that empowers both characters and I have high hopes for them together.

    Another layer for me to “Gone” is the figurative loss of sexuality, a body robbed of its sexual parts not because of disease and surgery, but because of violence and abuse. I’ve spoken before about my revision process and how I get to the point in a story where I ask myself “Why would I write this story?” I’ve never had cancer or a mastectomy or hysterectomy — so why would I tell this story? Once I realized I was telling this story because I “knew” the body butchered of its sexuality, I became convinced this was a story personally worth telling.

  8. Emily Lackey said on 06/20/11 at 10:59 pm Reply

    I’ve been trying to remember what this story reminds me of (the scars, the naked confrontation, the physical remainder of life’s arbitrary harshness), and it finally came to me: Tim O’Brien’s July, July. The book follows the lives of twenty or so fellow classmates who come together for their thirtieth high school reunion. It’s interspersed with scenes from the actual reunion, but every other chapter focuses on a different classmate and how their life has progressed since graduation. The most memorable chapter, in my opinion, was one that followed a woman who had survived breast cancer and a double mastectomy. Disheartened by her husband’s refusal to touch her (now that she was “disfigured”), she gets incredibly drunk one afternoon and walks over topless to flirt with her neighbor while he mows his lawn. Her inebriation was superficially hysterical (her slurry words, her insistence that her neighbor look, really look, at her missing breasts and remaining scars), but beneath the clownish nature of a drunk, naked protagonist was a woman demanding attention, respect, and the acknowledgement of not only her pain but her survival. Scars in literature serve as such beautiful metaphors for pain, shame, health, and healing, and Rohan attends to them magnificently.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/21/11 at 2:46 pm

    Emily, you make me want to read July, July NOW. Thank you for this comparison and recommendation. Thank you especially for your generous words about my work.

    “Scars in literature serve as such beautiful metaphors for pain, shame, health, and healing, and Rohan attends to them magnificently.” I may just print this out, Emily, and tape it to my desk for inspiration and encouragement. I’m honored and touched, thank you.

    Emily Lackey said on 06/21/11 at 4:12 pm

    My pleasure, Ethel! Your story inspired me, so I’m honored to have something I wrote potentially inspire you.

  9. Christopher said on 06/21/11 at 2:10 am Reply

    I’ve often felt the same wonder. Well-described.

    Reply

  10. Richard Thomas said on 06/21/11 at 5:09 pm Reply

    I think it has to be an acid trip mix of euphoric beauty at having a life inside of you paired with moments of sheer horrr at this alien twisting inside you. But Ethel’s story really touches on the way that life destroys us, through subtraction and addition. I love how she is able to weave the dark with the light, the fear into the hope. Part of why I dug this collection so much.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/22/11 at 11:49 am

    Thanks, Richard. I’m intrigued by how much emphasis others have placed on the “darkness’ in Cut Through the Bone. I prefer to think of the stories as intense over “dark.” My highest hope is that they’re powerful and meaningful. I’m committed to finding ways to get readers to look at suffering through stories so that we can heal from, and in some cases prevent, pain.

    Richard Thomas said on 06/22/11 at 5:40 pm

    I think it was Nietzsche that said something like “Have you ever had a pleasure? Then you’ve also had all pain.” They’re connected. Without love, there cannot be loss. So in order for us to care, we have to feel first, love first, sympathize, before we can feel sadness, loss, and pain. So you always get us there first, to the light. If a shadow passes over soon after, well, isn’t shadow made from sun? Won’t it pass?

    I love your work because you speak a similar language to me, or to what I try to do in my own work. It’s like being a fan of The Smiths. You’ll probably dig The Cure. Your darkness is poetic, but never completely black.

  11. yrfriendliz said on 06/21/11 at 7:00 pm Reply

    I love the human body so much. Female bodies, especially, have always been super fascinating to me. I think that’s why I get so bummed out when women don’t want to own and love their bodies, or when they feel ok with giving up control over their own bodies, or when they feel ashamed of what they get pleasure from or what they want to do with their bodies. I’m contemplating a big (BIG) career switch that would help (or at least I hope help) women love their bodies, understand their bodies, and even help bring more babies safely into the world. This post reminded me why! Thanks, Chris.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/22/11 at 11:54 am

    Funny, Liz, at the dentist’s office yesterday evening I read a fascinating and inspiring magazine article titled “Second Acts.” The article was devoted to women who had changed their careers and were enjoying enormous success e.g. a podiatrist-turned-shoe designer and ex-supermodel Christy Turlington’s devotion to safe childbirths. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to finish the read.

    Your career switch sounds incredibly exciting and worthy and I wish you every success. I’m all too familiar with shame, issues and self-hate regarding the body.

  12. DJ Berndt said on 06/23/11 at 10:56 am Reply

    “Babies are weird, man. They’re like little humans.”

    I actually have been thinking about children and babies a lot recently. I was at a friend’s house last week and his young daughter was asking me just ordinary questions you’d expect from a small child, and I didn’t think much of it. After I got home, it struck how that small child I was talking to isn’t very different from me at all, just more inexperienced because her world is still so very new. I had never thought about babies and small children like that before. Minor epiphanies like that are fun, actively thinking about something I’ve always “known”, but never really pondered.

    Reply

  13. Jen Gann said on 06/29/11 at 9:19 pm Reply

    I love when bodies are described in strange, unexpected ways. I wish I could remember where, but I remember reading a description of a man that compared him to a trapezoid. i just thought: “yes.”

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/29/11 at 9:20 pm

    Jen, I love these kinds of descriptions, too. In Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, old Mrs. Peoples is described as a woman whose back is shaped like a bent elbow.

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