We at Yuriatin Press […] have dedicated ourselves to finding and publishing those documents the Society has seen fit to hide. If you’re seeing this, it is because you are familiar with our work and our ethos and have passed through our vetting process. You can be trusted to approach this material responsibly. (2)
Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson’s You Feel it Just Below the Ribs (2021) tells two stories at once – there’s the actual narrative of the manuscript by Dr. Miriam Gregory, and then there are the annotations / footnotes added by the (fictional) editors at Yuriatin Press. At first, these footnotes are fairly commonplace – geographic clarifications, for example, when the manuscript is unclear or Dr. Gregory herself is uncertain where she was. As the text continues, footnotes change. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As usual, I would much rather like to discuss the book than give a spoiler-free review, so be warned that if you read further, you will come across SPOILERS.
The whole story is set in an alternate reality, in which the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s is followed by the Reckoning, i.e. global war and continued continual fighting and unrest that does not ease until about 1945. The focus of this book is the life story of Dr. Miriam (Miri) Gregory, who we learn from the preface has played a major role in the shaping of the Society.
Her account starts with her as a young girl during the Reckoning, somewhere in Eastern Europe. Like many children, she loses her family during the war and has to find ways to survive. Finding food, water, and a safe place to sleep becomes the center of Miriam’s world. She loses track of time, of location, of her own age. In a way, she dissociates to survive. She avoids other people as much as she can. Still, she ends up joining a group of girls who have banded together for safety. They share skills and resources. Briefly, there is something like belonging, but it does not last. The group is broken up by soldiers and accused of trading in military intelligence. The girls frame Miriam and she is sent to prison.
It is in this prison – which doesn’t seem so bad to her, since it means food, running water, and a safe place to sleep every night – that she meets Elsa, who teaches her a meditative technique she calls the Watercolor Quiet. Elsa uses it to escape the misery and abuse of the prison into a mindscape of calm.
How many times can you filter a memory before it’s really just a fiction? How can you tell how many times your memories have been filtered? A strange thing to consider when you’ve sat down to write out your own memories. What is the point of doing this if memory is so unreliable? But there is a point. I have to tell someone. I have to — not confess, exactly, because confession does not require action. And I need someone to take action. (10)
It’s no wonder Dr. Gregory has mixed feelings about memories, and doubts regarding their reliability. After all, she spends the rest of her life using her own adaptations of Elsa’s Watercolor Quiet to rework (and in some cases overwrite) memories and trauma, first her own, then that of other children and even adults. Again, I’m getting ahead of myself. When there is riot at the prison, Miriam is given the choice of dying with Elsa or fighting alongside the rioters. She chooses to run for it instead, and manages to escape in the chaos. Again, she is on her own, having to fend for herself. Again, she avoids other people as much as she can. Again, she loses track of time, location, and herself.
One day, while stealing food, she is discovered by a group that could hardly be any different than the group of girls she met earlier. This group is comprised of families, and many of the adults are academics or other types of specialists. She is taken in, offered food and a place to sleep, and told she’s free to stay or go. Miriam is so exhausted and hungry that she stays, even though she still does not believe being around other people is safe. This new group appeals to her: she has always been curious and eager to learn, and the group has lectures and discussions regularly. Miriam might not realize it at first, but group leader Nora, an African American woman who has studied psychology who has fled from the US, becomes a sort of mentor and mother figure to her. Miriam finds that she has something to offer this group: first, she only watches the children, but by and by she starts working with them, teaching them the Watercolor Quiet. It helps some of the children with their night terrors, others with their behavior. She is deeply interested in the ways parents and children interact, and here, many of the children still have one parent left. She starts her own kind of research.
Again, the time of relative safety and some sense of belonging does not last: a new family arrives and sows discord among the group. Nora leaves, knowing she can no longer lead the community. Miriam flees when the newcomers take over.
Her time with this group is just as seminal a moment for Miriam as meeting Elsa, because here, she learns Nora’s theories that it is tribalism that causes conflict, violence and war. The group pool their knowledge, skills, and resources, and everyone benefits. They learn from each other and work together to feed, clothe, and house the group. Miriam does see the irony that, because they are doing well as a cooperative community, they need to defend themselves from those who want to take everything away. While they offer food and a place to sleep to virtually anyone who comes asking for help, they do realize the need to defend themselves. It is this inconsistency that the newcomers exploit.
The New Society, which starts forming after 1945 and in which this fictional book is printed, with its annotations by the editors, is founded on ideas similar to Nora’s, but taken to the extreme: the basic element of any tribe or nation is the family unit. Hence, the family unit must be interrupted if there is to be no tribalism. Another central idea is that it is through our families that we become unequal: the wealth or poverty of our parents, their level of education, their ability to care for us, all their circumstances shape our lives before they have even begun. In this Society, children are separated from parents at birth and raised by an institution to then receive schooling and training according to their potential. While obviously, same sex marriage is no problem in this Society (Miriam marries a woman, Nora’s partner is also a woman), family ties are. After a period where giving up one’s child is voluntary (and monetarily rewarded), it becomes mandatory, and contacting family members in any way becomes a crime.
There were those who protested, of course, but plenty supported the law. Gave themselves and their children to it with regret but willingly. It was the civic-minded thing to do: to support the New Society because it was repairing and rebuilding our shattered world, and no one expects the cost of such a thing to be cheap. The Global Council and its laws were raising our quality of life, keeping streets safe, and providing work and food for those in need. Most important of all, the New Society promised to prevent another war. (162)
This is where Miriam’s research on the Watercolor Quiet comes in: it offers a way to manage the trauma of separation. Miriam flees to the former United States and, having given herself the title of Doctor, starts working with children at an orphanage, Gateway. She becomes a sort of mentor to Rosemary, who serves as her assistant and takes care of all the organizational stuff Miriam has no mind for. Rosemary doesn’t appear interested in the psychological side of things, oddly enough. Miriam’s work is a success – like in the commune, here, too, she is able to help the children deal better with their trauma. Word gets around, and even officials of the budding new government take notice. All goes well, until there is one boy, Edgar, who will not make progress. He just will not forget his family – he keeps regressing.
Miriam is frustrated and puzzled. Her method has never failed before. She spends more and more time with him, but by the time she figures out what is happening, it is too late, in more than one respect: 1) the higher-ups have taken notice, he is to be taken away from her and 2) she has become too emotionally involved. Then, the boy is found dead, violently murdered. A secret service agent appears and Miriam’s assistant Rosemary suggests that she vanish, so Miriam runs.
There’s a break in the narrative here, as much as there’s a break in Miriam’s life. Assumably, she spends her time on her own, writing psychology textbooks while sitting in a cafe or at home. Then, Teresa enters her life. She falls head over heels in love. The two women marry and have a harmonious life together, until Teresa decides to volunteer for surrogacy. The pregnancy is hard on her, Miriam becomes her caretaker for a while until the baby is born. What follows is a spurt of creativity and activity for Teresa, so when she reaches a low point a few years later, she volunteers again. The second time, the pregnancy is fairly easy, and the hoped-for positive energy does not come. Instead, Teresa seems absent, and Miriam worries. She suggests she take advantage of a treatment program especially for surrogate mothers. Another variation of, you guessed it, the Watercolor Quiet. At first, that seems to do the trick, but then there are signs it didn’t really work: the name Moses reappears. Originally, Teresa wants to name the child from her second pregnancy Moses. Later, when the two talk about adopting a dog, Moses is the name Teresa chooses for the dog (260). Her interpretation of the story of Moses is interesting:
“It just always felt like safety to me.” “Safety? The baby in the river?” “Yes. He’s so small, and he’s in this basket on the wide, wide river, and the world around him is so full of violence and anger. And the river holds him and takes him to exactly the right place, exactly the right person. And he’s saved, and he’s loved, and everything’s okay. The river makes everything okay.” (261)
Cases of people being sent to prison for contacting family keep catching Miriam’s eye. What if Teresa should try to find her children? She doesn’t want to lose her wife. Also, she does not believe it is right to punish people rather than help them. Miriam is, again, frustrated and puzzled, as she was with Edgar. Why is her method not working? Miriam requests funding for “a unique facility […] custom designed to treat adults who had either resisted the treatment they’d received as children or who had gone through experiences as adults that required new treatment” (255). Her request is denied, she’s told to wait.
This is where Rosemary suddenly shows up again. She promises funding and the chance to work with actual people again. It sounds too good to be true, and it is, but Miriam does not want to see this. A facility is built, with Rosemary and Miriam as co-owners, and with some features Miriam is not enthusiastic about, such as high security cells, which Rosemary says they need. Miriam jumps back into her research, and that in itself is enough to distract her for a while from the fact that she does not know where the funding for this luxurious facility comes from, or what on earth Rosemary’s own research is about. However, these two questions keep gnawing at Miriam. Rosemary is secretive about her work, brushes Miriam off, becomes constantly unavailable. When Miriam starts snooping around, she finds there is an underground part of the facility that she didn’t even know about, and that security won’t let her enter. And then there’s the other thing – the thing Miriam found out when Rosemary first reappeared: Rosemary killed Edgar. And kept notes on what she did.
Rosemary realizes Miriam is not minding her own business and threatens her. Miriam decides to keep a low profile, but gathers evidence against Rosemary best she can. In her work, Miriam comes across Hilda Brownstead, a woman who has learned how to evade the effects of the Watercolor Quiet (323). She is yet another person who has been sent to prison for contacting family, in this case her brother (who doesn’t even remember her). Miriam hears rumors that those who cannot be managed in the facility get sent ‘below’. She sees her chance and makes a deal with Hilda: if she will record on tape what she sees in the underground facility, Miriam will let her pass her exam and go free. Hilda agrees.
This is where we learn what Rosemary’s research is. Like she has said, it is about the body, not the mind. It is about controlling the mind via body. Hilda’s reports are heartbreaking. When she finally gets a hold of the tapes, Miriam listens to them and realizes she has become complicit in terrible human experimentation. Realizing that Rosemary is about to do something drastic (to Miriam), Miri sends the last of her evidence off to a secure location and makes a run for it, leaving her patients, her research, her wife and home, everything behind once again. She shares all her information with a reporter, then waits, in hiding, for the story to break.
The end of the manuscript finds Miriam still waiting, decades later. The story never went public. She is at the end of her life, and “starting to wonder what I was hoping to gain by writing all this out. If [the journalist] wouldn’t tell my story, I guess I wanted to do it myself. But I could have done it in an easier way. Found another journalist. I could have just sent the files and tapes to someone else” (366).
Miriam is a woman who has had to fend for herself again and again, from an early age. Even in this manuscript, which she can’t be sure will be found and read after her death, she keeps secrets. There are several multi-year gaps in her story. There are things she doesn’t want us to know. And there are things she is adamant about:
Memory is malleable. History is mutable. […] I have saved what I can, so you will understand what we have become. The institute — I believe it still exists. It is still functioning, and no one knows. But you know now. […] you are responsible now. You must do something. You must see it destroyed. (368)
The editors have already made clear how they feel about the account: Dr. Gregory might have had some good ideas regarding the Watercolor Quiet, but the later part of the manuscript cannot be taken seriously. It must be seen as “a complete and utter fabrication. An attempt to give herself a greater and more heroic role in the history of the Society, perhaps. This seems the most likely explanation, by virtue of the fact that the institute she describes does not exist” (274).
At worst, this part of the manuscript is a deliberate attempt to smear Dr. Haverstock’s real medical clinics, which have provided crucial aid and succor to those who need it, for decades now. This suggests a spiteful pettiness that beggars belief. We can see no reason for trying to discredit such a prominent pillar of the community other than jealousy. (275)
… right. Sure. So it seems that by the time the manuscript finally sees publication, Rosemary (Dr. Haverstock) has firmly established herself in the New Society. She is not just known but revered, as the editors’ comment illustrates. Miriam’s notes suggest that what Rosemary has done is take Miriam’s methods one step further: when the mind cannot be regulated, the body will be. If the Watercolor Quiet cannot restructure the memories, something else will hold them in, hold them back, and that something is implanted, felt just below the ribs.
I read this book in less than two days. I was drawn in by it – interested in Miriam’s journey, both in her interpersonal journey and in her journey as a self-taught researcher / therapist. The opening of the book, with the other reality’s version of the Spanish Flu, felt… timely. What with the pandemic and all. Though I dearly hope we’re not in for a Reckoning. Miriam’s distrust towards other people, towards relationships, interested me.
The idea of disrupting the most basic unit of human community, the family, seems such an extreme measure to take. I’m not sure that even decades of war could get people to the point where they would readily give up their children, their brothers and sisters, their families. But I’ve never been in a war. I don’t know what it does to people. I also wonder how one would coordinate a global rebuilding like that, to result in a New Society that has the same protocols the world over. I could see this happening on a national or continental scale, maybe, but global?
In any case, I wolfed down this book and I enjoyed every strange, eerie minute of it. I knew Jeffrey Cranor from a podcast I’ve been enjoying for years now, Welcome to Night Vale, so I knew to expect something unusual from this book. While the book is nothing like WTNV, I was not disappointed. I am impressed with the breadth of style Jeffrey is capable of, though of course this is collaboration, and half the credit for this book goes to Janina Matthewson, an award-winning writer in her own right. You can learn more about Janina here: http://www.myrednotebook.com