Essays - Autumn 2011

Scar Tissue

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When I was stabbed 17 years ago in a New Haven coffee shop, the wounds did not only come from the knife

Photo by Duncan Goodall

By Emily Bernard

August 25, 2011


 

I have been telling this story for years, but telling is a different animal from writing. In the telling and retelling, I have shaped a version of it, one that fits neatly in my hand, something to pull out of my pocket at will, to display, and to tuck away when I’m ready, like a shell or a stone or a molded piece of clay. The story that I have honed over the years is as neat as my scar; it is smooth, and tender, and conceals more than it reveals.

Here is how the newspaper tells the story:

Stabbing spree sends 7 to hospitals

Seven people were wounded, two with life-threatening injuries, when a man pulled a knife at an Audubon Street coffeehouse late Sunday and began stabbing people.

The attack, occurring about 10 p.m., caused pandemonium and a virtual blood bath at Koffee? at 104 Audubon St. …

There was no apparent provocation, police said.

The two victims most seriously hurt were covered with blood, and it was difficult to tell how many times they were stabbed, police said.

“There was a lot of blood,” said Detective Sgt. Robert Lawlor. “There were some very serious injuries.” …

Bloody handprints were visible on a window, where one of the victims apparently climbed out. Numerous trails of blood led from the coffeehouse, which is in the city’s arts district, near the Creative Arts Workshop and Neighborhood Music School.

“We have no idea what provoked him,” Lawlor said. There were about 10 people in the coffeehouse at the time, he said. —New Haven Register, Monday, August 8, 1994

The first time I read this article I laughed when I got to “blood bath.” Blood bath? It sounded like a trailer for a slasher movie. But it wasn’t a movie, and there was a lot of blood, evidently, although I don’t remember that part. I remember it differently.

On the night of August 7, 1994, I walked into a coffee shop called Koffee? on Audubon Street in New Haven, Connecticut. I was a graduate student in the American Studies Program at Yale University, and I was there to work. I had James Weldon Johnson with me, specifically his 1912 novel, The Autobiography of  an Ex-Colored Man, about which I was writing a paper. I was having a hard time concentrating that night so I went out to the shop, which was not far from where I lived, and was one of the many places in New Haven where students went to read and write and talk. It was a typical coffee shop in a typical college town.

I was frustrated with my work, so frustrated with my inability to concentrate that I was giving the evening only one last chance. It was late, nearly nine o’clock. Maybe too late, maybe just call it a night. I debated with myself, walking slowly the three yards from my car to the door of the shop. I was probably talking to myself, as I do all the time, muttering about everything I had to do. A man on a bicycle arrived at the door at the same time I did. Beside him stood an average-size, average-looking brown dog on a leash. The man was listing on the bike, rocking back and forth, as if he himself had not made the commitment to go inside (maybe, maybe not). Our eyes met. He looked like Gallagher, the 1970s comedian—the same long hair and bald pate, the same thick mustache. Or at least that’s what I remember. To this day, when I think of Daniel Silva, I think of Gallagher, whom I rarely—if ever—thought about before that night.

I don’t remember who went in first, but I remember making the decision not to let the oddness of this stranger bother me. Because he was odd. It was the way he was listing on his bicycle; it was the strange way he looked at me. His look was familiar, or too aware—not the passing glance of a stranger. Even now, I have a hard time describing it. He was odd; it was instinct. I knew something was wrong with him. Or maybe this is just the cliché of hindsight speaking. After all, we’re talking about a university town, and a coffee shop full of nerds off in their own odd little worlds, people who routinely talk to themselves out loud, as I had been doing.

Here I have lingered longer than I lingered in the moment, which passed as quickly as the proverbial blink of an eye. I looked at the man, made the unconscious association with the comic, went in to get my coffee, and planted myself at a table. I put my keys on the table. I pulled out my book and notepad. I took off my glasses and my watch. No distractions, just me and the page, as naked as I allow myself to get in public.

At some point, I looked up and noticed that the strange man had settled into a chair not far from me. I was aware of him as he watched a table full of young girls next to me, presumably undergraduates. They were talking about sex, a sexual encounter one of them had had recently. The girls were loud, sexy, and full of swagger. I had been feeling annoyed by them and their devil-may-care bluster, but now I looked up and saw that the man was staring at them, obviously and (I assumed) salaciously. I felt intimidated by his frank stare, but the girls didn’t seem to care, which made me proud of them, and emboldened for myself. Go ahead, talk about sex, I thought. Don’t let this freak scare you. Eventually the girls left.

When they did, the man seemed to turn his attention to a young woman I assumed to be a medical student or a law student, judging by the size of her very official-looking textbooks. She tried to engage him in conversation, said something like, Hi. I didn’t hear his response, but I do know that not long after this exchange, the woman gathered up her books and left.

What happened next? Here’s what I told Detective C. Willougby at 1:30 a.m. on August 8, 1994 (for whatever reason, Detective Willougby recorded this in all-caps):

THIS DETECTIVE THEN SPOKE WITH ______ WHO STATED THAT SHE WAS SITTING INSIDE THE RESTAURANT WHEN A WHITE MALE CAME IN WHO HAD A DOG. SHE THEN STATED THAT HE WALKED THE DOG OUTSIDE AND HE THEN RETURNED, HE THEN PULLED OUT A KNIFE AND STARTED STABBING PEOPLE IN THE RESTAURANT. SHE STATED THAT HE STAB HER ONCE IN THE STOMACH AND SHE THEN FLED THE RESTAURANT. SHE THEN STATED THAT SHE HAD NEVER SEEN THE WHITE MALE SUBJECT BEFORE AND SHE DOES NOT KNOW HIM.

What I remember about the moments before it happened is stillness, the hum of low voices and the lights, bright yet soothing, like the talk surrounding me. People talking and laughing quietly. Students, professors, writers; I was the only black person present at that time, but these were people just like me, people who looked like me. So many moments like these over the years in coffee shops in so many cities; all forgettable, ordinary, uneventful. But these particular moments on this particular evening stay with me more palpably than any other moments from that long night. The stillness, the quiet, the hum of low pleasant talk. The sensation of being inside those moments—it is the only real memory I retain from that night. Yet, just beyond the border of that quiet, pleasant memory, I can still hear the rhythmic, continuous sound of a dog barking outside, like a warning.

Suddenly, chaos. Pandemonium. Bedlam. Topsy-turvy. Madhouse. A holy mess. All hell broke loose. The room turned upside down, on its back, inside out, went crazy, flipped out. Other words, other clichés. Fear erupted like a seismic shift in the earth’s surface, and then charged and pierced and saturated the room like smoke. Fear—a good friend to me that night—chased me toward the back door. But even in the midst of this utter confusion, I paused and listened for gunshots—this was America, after all. I paused not only to listen for the gunshots but to brace myself—literally to tense my shoulders and grit my teeth, searching inside somewhere for the pain, for the tearing impact of a bullet. When I completed that brief inventory, and discovered no bullet, I was overcome with a feeling of relief. Hope, luck. A chance. And a door right behind me—and I ran.

And then I was outside in back of the coffeehouse. There were no lights; it was as dark as the bottom of a pocket. Others rushed by me—I don’t remember if they were speaking, shouting, screaming, or crying. What I remember was silence, which seemed inexplicable to me even then. I would find out later that what felt like silence was the adrenaline pounding in my ears and deafening me.

I don’t know how long I watched the others rush past me before I walked back toward the coffee shop. I don’t remember how long I stood there, trying to understand, before everything in me rejected what I saw and I charged back into the shop, to retrieve my watch, my keys and glasses, so that I could drive home. Why would I have done this? Nothing about it makes any sense. But however I try to explain it to myself—my stubborn West Indian heritage, a Freudian state of denial—the same thing happened next.

I found myself face to face with the odd man, and he had a knife in his hand. At this point the knife would have had a substantial amount of blood on it. I don’t remember the blood. I do remember asking him not to kill me. I meant it, of course, but it also just seemed like the thing to say. I felt that I was playing a role; I felt that the die was cast. I had turned and met my fate. But I was watching as much as I was experiencing. My witnessing was involuntary. In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator recalls being “fixed to the spot” when he watches a white mob lynch a black man. Like that narrator, I was fixed to the spot.

Why? I did not move because I did not want to excite this man. I did not move because I had to see what was going to happen next. I did not move because I was afraid. I did not move because I was free from fear, as many report feeling in the moments before death. I did not move because I knew that he would hurt me if I did. I did not move because I knew he would not kill me. I did not move because I didn’t believe he had the knife I saw in front of me. I did not move because I did not know what to do.

I saw the knife before it entered me. But I have no specific memory of it, the instrument that has determined much of the course of the past 17 years of my life. It went in and out swiftly. What was the sensation upon impact? I don’t remember. But I do remember that when he pulled it out of my gut, I fell to the ground. What did it feel like? Strange. Weird. Unusual. Lying on the ground, I beseeched God for help. When I neither felt nor heard a thundering reply, I started to laugh. I knew that I needed a hospital, not God. But I call this my “God moment” anyway, because when I laughed, my wound gaped open, and I looked down and saw and then felt the thick, warm blood rush over my fingers. It is time to get to a hospital, God was saying. I got up, and ran again.

I was more afraid of being in the dark without my glasses than I was of running into the man with the knife a second time. I had never been out on a city street alone without my glasses. I have been wearing eyeglasses since I was eight years old. The last time I had gone without glasses in public, I was not allowed to walk down a street without holding on to the hand of an adult. I was on the eve of my 27th birthday when I was stabbed. The last time I had been out in public without my glasses, I was not permitted to be awake at just before 10:24, which is the time it has become at this point in the story.

A figure ran toward me, a man; I was afraid. I stopped, and he must have seen my fear, this man, because he waved his hands in the air and shouted, “I’m a good Samaritan! A good Samaritan!” I trusted his words, his biblical reference. I let him lead me to some steps across the street.

From Officer Pitoniak’s Incident Report, 10:44, on August 7, 1994:

This investigating officer did find one white male subject and one Black female subject on the stairs of a apartment complex located across the street from 24 Whitney Avenue. Both subjects had stab wounds to the stomach areas and Bleeding Profusely. Due to extent of injuries and calling for medical assistance this officer was not able to obtain any identification of victims.

What’s your name? What’s your social security number? I fired these questions at the white male subject shortly before Officer Pitoniak arrived. The young white man, whom I had never seen before, was sitting on the steps a few feet away from me. He was going into shock, and I was trying to keep him from doing so. I kept up my round of questioning, and he mumbled some answers. “I’m going out, I’m going out,” he said, and fainted. It was only then that I really looked at him. He’s white as a sheet, I thought. Literally, white as a sheet. This is what it looks like, I thought. He had pale skin, light blond hair, and wore a white oxford shirt. The contrast between the blood and his skin, hair, and shirt must have been dramatic, but I don’t remember the blood. I watched him. The more he faded away, the less I was able to ignore what was happening just under my hand. An EMT came close to me and asked about the young man, and I answered him. I talked and talked, told my story, posed as a witness, even as I was seeing sparks and hearing static and the man’s badge started to blur. The EMT, trained to recognize the signs of shock, cradled my head and took my hand away from my side. His gloved hand, like my bare hand, became wet with my blood. He said something to his partner—who was tending to the white male subject—and suddenly there was a commotion around me. He laid me down carefully on the steps. He held my bloody hand as his team moved me onto the gurney. At some point, we met eyes and we laughed. The more I laughed, the more I came to. The more I laughed, the more my wound gaped open, which made us laugh even harder. It was all so absurd.

Emily Bernard, 26, is listed in serious condition at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Her birthday is Thursday.   —from “The Victims,” New Haven Register, Tuesday, August 9, 1994

On my birthday, a middle-aged white couple brought chocolates to my hospital room. “It just seemed so sad that you had to spend your birthday in the hospital,” said the woman, while her husband looked on sympathetically. I began to cry, not only because of the purity of their kindness, but also because of the morphine. The morphine was there to shield me from the pain, a consequence of healing, my body reassembling itself. A word about the pain: it didn’t hurt, the knife. That and the surprising fact that no one died are the two things I always make sure to say in my version of the story.

I did experience terrible pain on the night of August 7. The person responsible for it was the surgeon on call that night. I lay on a gurney, feeling helpless and afraid. A surgeon walked over and without saying a word to me, or even looking in my direction, plunged his fingers into my gaping wound. I gasped and instinctively grabbed his hand. It was only then that the man looked at me, and said icily, “Don’t. Touch. My. Hand.” His eyes were Aryan blue and as cold as his voice. I asked questions about what was happening, and he refused to respond. Only the attending nurses treated me with any kindness or respect. Whenever I tell the story of the night I got stabbed, I always say that the person who did the most injury to me, who left the deepest wounds, was not Daniel Silva, but the surgeon.

If my story is about pain, it’s also about rage. Rage is a physical condition, I’ve learned from this experience. I feel it now, when I recount the story of the surgeon and recall his face, his voice, his hands.

It also happens unconsciously when I am out in the world. A few months ago, I was walking in downtown New Haven when a young man—presumably a Yale student—suddenly broke into a run. This happens all the time. People run because they’re in a hurry to get somewhere; they run to cross the street before the light changes; they run to greet someone they are happy to see. Which was the case on this day.

This happens every day. But every time it happens to me, alarms go off, blood rushes to my ears. Adrenaline spills through my bloodstream like lighter fluid. My heart pounds, my pulse races, my temple throbs. Fight or flight—I’m ready to fight; the machine inside switches into gear. It doesn’t make any sense: I’m watching a young brown-skinned man in an argyle sweater and clunky glasses hug a young white woman in a flouncy white skirt. Such a sight would normally fill me with happiness, but my body is bursting with rage. He hugs her tightly and lifts her off the ground. She wiggles her feet, and they laugh. I smile and come down.

But it takes a while for the machine to grind down and my body to feel normal again. This reaction always throws me. More than my scar, it reminds me of how much of this story I carry inside me.

“You never get angry about it,” a therapist once said to me during a conversation about the stabbing. “In all these years, you’ve never expressed any anger over it.” I explained to her, as I have explained to many people over the years, that I did not look into the eyes of someone who was really there, that—and I know this sounds odd—it wasn’t personal.


John, my husband, knew the story of the stabbing before he knew me, having read an essay about the incident by Bruce Shapiro, who was also stabbed that night. “One Violent Crime” was first published in The Nation and then reprinted in Best American Essays. I don’t know when this came up in the course of our dating, but I remember feeling both a little weirded-out and also reassured: weirded-out because it always feels strange to have people know something intimate about you before they know you, reassured because it’s one less thing about yourself, about your past, that you will have to explain.

Even though John was already acquainted with this chapter of my history by the time we met, he has had to sit through numerous renditions of it over the years. Once, not long after we got engaged, we were in New York. I had just given a talk to promote my first book, and after the talk, we met up with a couple of people from my publishing house in the bar of the hotel where we were staying. I had recently begged out of another event because of abdominal pain due to adhesions. Twice before, in the years since the stabbing, adhesions had sent me back to the hospital. Each time this happens, simply, my intestines get locked in a complex dance with my scar tissue. Most likely, the dance gains in intensity for years without my knowing it. Then the dancing stops but the dancers are still intertwined. I can no longer process food. I find myself vomiting, stream upon stream of thick yellow bile. And the pain—it is like being ripped in two, tissue by tissue; I am being ripped in two, no similes necessary. Then, as mysteriously as these episodes begin, they simply end.

That night at the bar, Brian, my editor’s assistant, asked me how I was feeling. I explained to Susan, the publicist who was there with him, that I suspected the pains had something to do with the stabbing, although no doctor had yet confirmed that. Susan said she didn’t know I’d been stabbed, and Brian said I’d never told the whole story. So off I went.

Having had a couple of cocktails, I had become tone deaf. So I told the story in all its glory, lingering on the gruesome details. At some point, John got up abruptly and walked away from the table. Brian looked concerned, but I was sure that my fiancé was only going to the bathroom. I turned back to the table, and to my story, but Brian kept his eye on John, who suddenly fell backward on the floor of the bar, flat as a domino.

It was remarkable. John, my John—so solid, strong and steady—falling backward like a tree having met an ax. His head went thunk as it hit the marble floor. The lights in the bar came up so swiftly that it was as if God himself had flipped the switch. Brian was suddenly at his side, cradling his head, pelting questions like “What’s your name? What’s your social security number? Who’s the president?” Brian and I must have watched the same TV shows. John lay on his back on the floor in his suit jacket. His eyes were dazed, straining to register Brian’s face, the words coming out of his mouth. It was all that talk of blood, he would tell me later, the blood that I don’t remember, the blood that was, according to police reports, all over the walls. Brian said it was the most romantic thing he’d ever witnessed, but I think the fainting had to do with being a man—women, after all, become well acquainted with blood over the course of our lives. At any rate, the story of my stabbing belongs to John, too.

This story also belongs to my twin daughters, Giulia and Isabella, now five and full actors in the world, careful observers of and frequent travelers across the terrain of their mother’s body. They have questions. Their questions about the scar, lead, inevitably, to a knife. What happened, Mommy? A man hurt me, he was sick. Why, Mommy? He was really sick. Like he had a stomachache, Mommy? Yes, a really bad stomachache, but it was in his mind, and he didn’t have any medicine. The girls fall silent, worry tightening their foreheads. It will never happen to you, I say, and it will never happen to me again.

Being a parent brings up the question of what to call this story. Over the years: The incident. The accident. The stabbing. My stabbing. What do my daughters call it? Your face, Mommy. Your face.

The girls were two and a half years old when I was taken to Yale-New Haven in the fall of 2008 with one of my bouts with adhesions. It was late at night when John and I finally realized that I would have to go to the hospital. We had to ask a friend to come over and stay with the girls while John took me to the emergency room. I can’t know what it was like for my daughters to wake up in the morning and find me gone. Gone I remained for seven full days. What sense could this make to a two-year-old? Once I was stable, John brought them to see me in the hospital. What did I look like? Hair wild; eyes glassy from morphine; an IV in my arm; an NG tube in my nose. The nasogastric tube goes through the nose, down the throat, and into the stomach. It is as unpleasant as it sounds, and it has saved my life three times now. It was there to decompress my bowel, which was in distress, and it was held in place by several rudimentary pieces of masking tape. It hurt, and it looked terrible.

I could tell how bad it looked from the expression on Isabella’s face. True to form, Giulia, who never takes anything very seriously, who has a “well, that’s life” way of approaching the world, hopped right up on my hospital bed and began fooling around with the call button. Isabella, however, clung to her father, her impossibly big brown eyes even impossibly bigger. She said nothing and stared at the wild-haired creature, and shook her head when I held my arms out. She was “fixed to the spot.” Even now, when she remembers the hospital, remembers what it was like for her to see me there, what her five-year-old mind seizes upon, what she may continue to seize upon for the rest of her life, regardless of her own wishes or mine, what she remembers is captured in a single phrase she repeats over and over again, which she first uttered as she sat in her car seat a couple of weeks after I was home, back from gone, taking her home from school. She repeated it recently when studying my scar and asking me to explain the how of it once again: “Your face, Mommy. Your face.”


Seventeen years ago, I was stabbed in the gut by a stranger in a coffee shop. I have proof: a scar (puffy and wormlike, over the points of entry and exit); another scar, similar in texture but much longer, that covers the work of two surgeons (so far); it covers the points of entry and exit of their knives. A midline incision, it’s called, and it begins just under my breastbone and ends at my pubic bone, stem to stern, fore to aft. Reminders. Every morning and every night. Evidence. I have police and hospital records, newspaper articles, and Bruce’s prize-winning essay, my memories and the memories of others close to me. This happened to me.

I’ve been telling this story since the night of August 7, 1994. That night, I told the story to doctors, nurses, police officers, family, and friends. Since then, I have told it to gynecologists, a dermatologist, dentists, ophthalmologists, general practitioners, even a podiatrist, and of course, emergency room physicians—all of these men and women in white coats, and their assistants, too. “Have you ever been hospitalized?” reads every single form in every single doctor’s waiting room. It’s either “yes” or “no.” There’s no box for “I’d rather not get into it today, thank you very much.” So, I tell what happened: in 1994, I was stabbed in the gut by a stranger in a coffee shop. I raise my shirt and reveal my wound. I reassure my listener: it didn’t hurt; no one died.

It’s the same story, and it isn’t true. In the story I tell, there is little blood; the police reports say otherwise. In the story I tell, I wasn’t badly hurt; newspaper accounts and hospital records have me in serious condition. In the story I tell, there is no anger; my body begs to differ. Memory lies. To this day, when I speak of the knife, my mind conjures up a butter knife, a small thin blade, flat and tidy. It is a quick, involuntary association, like Daniel Silva and the ’70s comic. By chance, several years ago, I saw a hunting knife in a glass cabinet. I got close to the six-inch blade, and shook my head. No, that has nothing to do with me.

But surely the knife, as well as this story, has everything to do with Daniel Silva, to whom this story also belongs.

Not long ago, I received an email that included a link to an article from Renee, a friend in New Haven. “Is this you, Emily?” read the subject field. I opened the link:

Daniel Silva, who burned down his house, then stabbed seven people with a knife at a New Haven coffee shop, pleaded guilty to second-degree arson Tuesday and received a suspended 10-year sentence that will allow him to eventually be placed in a halfway house.

During a hearing at Superior Court in Waterbury, Silva, now 53, apologized to the stabbing victims and said he was not in a rational “state of mind” on that day in August 1994. Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Gary Nicholson told Judge Richard Damiani that the state recommended the plea arrangement, which includes five years of probation and a list of conditions, because Silva has been confined at Connecticut Valley Hospital since the assaults and arson.

Nicholson noted Silva had been repeatedly ruled incompetent to stand trial for the assaults. Those first-degree assault charges were dismissed in 2000 because, under state law, a defendant facing such charges must be restored to competency within five years. No such limitation applies to first-degree arson. Last month, Silva was ruled competent to stand trial on the arson charges, based on testimony from an assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine who interviewed him. …

Silva, dressed in a coat and tie, is bearded and balding. He rose and told Damiani, “I apologize to the court and to the people that were hurt. I never meant to do what I did. If I hadn’t been in that state of mind, it never would have occurred.”

New Haven Register,  September 9, 2009

Yes, Renee. It’s me.


Emily Bernard is a professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is working on a collection of essays called Black Is the Body.


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