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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.


“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.”


“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

The Metaphor Is Closer Than You Think


I have a painting in my apartment. It looks like this:

I like this painting for several reasons: its simple lines and muted colors. How the only, even vaguely, bright shade in the entire work is the red of the woman’s small, down-turned mouth. It is a sardonic, sad red—not bold, not celebratory.

Mostly, though, it’s the woman’s eyes that get me—eyes not unlike those in other Modigliani paintings, but wider—as deep and dark as two caves, so black they look dead. Or they make the woman look like she herself is dead. This is what haunts me about this painting. I can’t decide if she is metaphorically dead (emotionally dead, dying, stricken, etc.) or actually dead. A ghost.

I feel this is the painting Ethel Rohan would paint if she could. This dark image of this woman. It’s not just that, like the lines in the painting, Rohan’s writing is clean—though it is most certainly that. There is nothing unneeded in her prose, no word that is not doing something, if not two or three somethings. Tight. But it is more that the metaphor in this painting—showing a woman as actually dead to indicate an emotional/metaphorical death—is one that Rohan herself would use.

In the short story “Makeover,” the protagonist, a wife and mother, has a wild woman inside of her chest who wants her to wear tight, racy clothing and sing and dance. The woman gets excited when the protagonist satisfies her “wild” desires: “While she sang, the woman in her chest danced, spun and spun.” The metaphor is clearly wrought: Sometimes women (and men) feel as though they have a different version of themselves inside themselves that is trying to get out. It is a version that one’s family and friends might not, and probably do not, appreciate, as this is not the mother, wife, friend, etc., with whom they’re familiar. In “Makeover,” the woman’s family protests until she acquiesces, returning to her normal behavior, leaving the woman inside of her chest clawing and shrieking, unhappy.

Another character, the protagonist of “Shatter,” lives a broken life. She has a shitty job, a mediocre marriage, probably a drinking problem, and a sister with whom she doesn’t have a close relationship. Throughout this two-page story, nearly everything around this woman literally breaks—glass jars and the grocery bags she packs full at work. These objects break and others constantly threaten to break. What in a longer, more diffuse story might serve as a motif becomes the story’s central action and metaphor. In this way, Rohan makes the elements of her fiction work harder, accomplish more, than they might in another author’s hands. Her images nearly always work double—serving literal and symbolic purposes, pointing towards the tangible and intangible.

In the titular and final story of the collection, a masseuse gives a massage to a man whose leg was amputated after a motorcycle accident. This physical loss can be seen as visually representing the absence of the masseuse’s son. The last time she touched her son, “held him for any length,” was in some distant past. Throughout Cut Through the Bone, Rohan identifies the many ways in which her characters’ loss and struggle might manifest physically in their worlds. In fact, this last story feels like a metaphor of the collection itself. Like the woman who massages the air where the man’s lower leg used to be, throughout the book Rohan works in spaces defined by their emptiness, what was once there but is no longer. All those people and things that leave indelible, palpable marks in their absence.

Like that painting on the wall? In a month, a man will come and take it, because it is his. He’ll take some other things that belong to him too: a sleeping bag and tent, a 1977 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and a small wooden rack that holds magazines. I want to keep the painting, all this stuff, but none of it is mine. I feel that if this were a Rohan story, these objects would take on a life of their own—the woman in the painting would sprout legs, the books would flap their pages like wings. If this were a Rohan story, these objects would slowly disappear, piece by piece, long before anyone comes to take them.

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  1. Ethel Rohan said on 06/10/11 at 9:41 am Reply

    Goodness, Laura, this is beautifully done. Thank you for sharing this painting, your insights to my stories, and the personal meaning this collection holds for you. I’m deeply grateful and moved.

    What I also see in the painting in how the woman’s shoulders have collapsed and how stretched her neck. I imagine the unsaid inside her neck, piled like stones. Yes, those dark, dark eyes, nothing getting in or out anymore, and the tiny, red mouth, nothing getting in or out anymore.

    Everywhere in my work the sense of the unsaid, of not feeling valued, of not being enough.

    Next month, Laura, when those things are taken, don’t let the absences haunt or become bigger than what was there. Fill the absences with beautiful things you love and with your own bright energy.

    Thanks again.


  2. Ethel Rohan said on 06/10/11 at 9:41 am Reply

    And Christopher, Paaaaaaaaaarty!


  3. MM Wittle said on 06/10/11 at 10:38 am Reply

    I wanted to lend my humble, two-cent opinion about the woman’s eyes in the above painting. As I see it, the woman’s skin color is too rich to be dead. Her hair is however very gray and that can lead a person down the path that the woman is dead. It seems to me the answer lies in her lips. As I see them, they are slightly pursed. This, to me, makes it seem she is still alive and able to make her lips do this. Sure, the argument can also say she died annoyed. The bottom line…I want her alive.


    Erika said on 06/10/11 at 11:33 am

    I want her alive as well. The lips, the skin, the tense manner her shoulders are drawn in towards her body are not one of someone who has given up. Maybe resigned. Maybe unsure. Definitely not dead.

  4. Ethel Rohan said on 06/10/11 at 10:54 am Reply

    Thanks for visiting, MM Wittle. Yes, I want her alive too, fully alive.


  5. Ethel Rohan said on 06/10/11 at 11:02 am Reply

    We’re bringing her alive.


  6. Laura Adamczyk said on 06/10/11 at 11:25 am Reply

    Thanks, Ethel and MM. This painting is really interesting to me because of these multiple interpretations (how I myself can’t always decide what I think about it). When I see it I also think of el Greco and how he would often paint the bodies of his subjects as stretched/elongated to indicate that they were saints, that they were dead. (Though that may or may not be the case here.) I’m not sure what I want the painting to mean, if anything, but I know that I really like it. Thanks for your insights.


  7. bookspersonally said on 06/10/11 at 5:07 pm Reply

    Wow, these sound powerful and quite moving; Makeover especially would resonate with many women. Very glad to learn about Ethel and her work.


  8. Jordan Blum said on 06/10/11 at 8:34 pm Reply

    I think perhaps the painting implies that to be emotionally dead is to be dead. I mean, sure you’re “alive” in terms of breathing, blood flow, thoughts, etc, but if you have apathy about everything and have nothing to look forward to or live for, are you really living? I equate it to an inanimate object, like a computer or a car; all parts are there to physically make up the object, but if the electricity isn’t flowing, the HDD crashed, the transmission and engine is gone, or the gas tank is empty, it might as well not even exist.

    She, like the objects, is just a paperweight.


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/13/11 at 10:50 am

    I agree, Jordan. For me, the death represented by this painting is to the spirit. There’s a soulessness that’s unnerving and heartbreaking.

  9. Doug Paul Case said on 06/11/11 at 2:20 pm Reply

    I’m so glad you brought up “Make Over,” one of my favorites from the book. I remember reading it back when Roxane Gay was posting at Necessary Fiction and thinking, “Wow, did Ethel just write a coming out story?” because while the character certainly isn’t a lesbian, I’ve heard people describe the closeted experience as having a tiny version of their true selves locked in their chests. And this story captured that feeling perfectly—though the character is more or less coming out as a rock star, expressed in my favorite line: “She had never felt more honest.”

    I think that also reflects back on the painting. Her lips could be pursed because she’s got something to say (something dark, most likely), but has some reason not to.


    Laura Adamczyk said on 06/11/11 at 5:42 pm

    That’s a really interesting interpretation–one that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, but I think the metaphor could certainly include it. Any time there is a great disparity between the person one feels they are/wants to be and how they portray themselves to others.

    Jordan Blum said on 06/12/11 at 5:15 pm

    Interesting idea. I wonder what the black eyes have to do with this imposed silence…maybe that because she cannot speak, she has no reason to observe?

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/13/11 at 11:00 am

    Interesting, Doug, I’ve written many stories that have felt like
    ‘coming out’ to me, not as a lesbian (although I have explored that in fiction) but as my ‘true’ self.

    I’m fascinated and delighted by you sharing that some have described the closeted experience as having a tiny version of themselves in their chest. My chest is where I most feel my grief and my panic and that terrible sense of being restricted.

    For me, one of the most damaging results of childhood abuse is that I became obsessed with the child (and later the woman) I might have been if I had not been abused. I imagined almost a dual life, if you will, me the broken girl who was abused and the other me who wasn’t abused and who was whole and wonderful, my best version.

    in that sense, I think I’ll always be writing coming out stories.

  10. Ethel Rohan said on 06/13/11 at 11:07 am Reply

    Laura, for far too long the disparity between who I was and who I allowed others to see of me was the brokenness inside and the togetherness outside. I’m quite the actress and hid the chaos inside myself and inside my childhood home and family because it seemed critical to pretend. Pretense was a survival skill I excelled in, but it’s very damaging.


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