The Pain Club
by Natalie PearsonThe summer I turned 40, I traveled to Italy, alone, for a writing workshop. It was a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence, a chance to escape from the rush of life with small children, to -- as my sweet husband put it "listen to the music in my own head." Set in a shabbily chic hotel perched in an Umbrian hill-town turned tourist magnet, the program had promised artistic inspiration, stimulating company, and wonderful food. The list of famous writers from past staffs, including a few Pulitzer Prize winners, had easily gotten my attention. My agenda was set after I received glowing recommendations from several alumni.
The program offered two courses: one for writers, another for painters. And though we kept apart during the days, everyone met on the hotel veranda each evening to eat dinner as the sun set over the Apennine foothills. And it was there, on that beautiful tiled terrace, sipping Orvieto from across the valley and dining on tagliatelle ai tartufi that I met up with the Pain Club. Not an actual club--members would likely be surprised (also Crushed! Outraged! Traumatized! they loved words like that) to be so grouped. But for me they seemed bound by love of pain. At dinner, if fate or lack of foresight landed you at a club table, emotional pain -- but also sickness, decay, malaise -- was never off the agenda for long. Discussion could go from the burden of thyroid trouble, to damage from a distant mother, to the horror of chronic fatigue syndrome, but everyone kept contributions close to the intersection of misery and misfortune.
Most club members were artists. Not exactly artists, it turned out. Truth be told, they were mental health professionals who could afford to fly off to Italy for most of each summer and indulge their inner DaVincis. The most stalwart members were Californians.
In an omen I chose not to acknowledge at the time, I was assigned room 13. It sat below the room of a charter clubwoman, someone I came to call the "Mistress of Malady." Though she claimed to be seriously ill most of my stay, each night her television blared CNN news programs late into the Umbrian night. At breakfast the next morning, eyes glowing, she corralled the conversation to variations on a single topic: how sick she had been, how many meds she relied upon, how insensitive doctors could be. One of the quietest writers, a gentle teacher from Maine, was nearly banished from the table one morning when she confessed pride that at age 55, she took no medication.
"I don't see why you'd brag about that," the Mistress scoffed, clearly appalled. "It's not like my challenged health is my fault or anything. And really, all the pain just makes me stronger."
The most challenged clubwoman, though, was an art therapist from L.A. When she was well enough, she spent days in the studio painting angry but colorful chickens. She wasn't often well enough, however, thanks to a combination of an eating disorder, addiction to pills that made her incoherent, and depression over an impending divorce. Deceptively lovely, she was a blonde wisp, a Breck girl. But if you looked closely, you couldn't help noticing the frozen forehead and pouting mouth, breasts and nose straight from a plastic surgeon's view book. She only kept going, she explained in a lucid moment just before passing out for the second time at the dinner table, for the sake of her college-aged daughter and several younger "snuggle bunnies" at home. As soon as she collapsed, the Mistress of Malady was by her side, face lit by one of the only smiles I saw from her in two weeks, as she helped carry her compatriot from the table.
Members of the Pain Club were all wealthy women of a certain age. Their incomes allowed them to take up hardship as hobby, to apprentice first and then devote themselves whole-heartedly to life as members of the walking wounded. Gazing into their unwrinkled, but not untroubled faces, I wasn't sure what to think. My daily life in Iowa had never exposed me regularly to people like this, people who looked so well, yet claimed to be so miserable. I had to be instructed by a savvy writer from Brussels to identify the blank stare of a Botoxed brow -- it doesn't move at all -- and the telltale tuck -- a slash right at the ears -- of a facelift. And though I thought the painters of the Pain Club pathetic, I couldn't keep my eyes off them. Obsession is mesmerizing that way.
Perhaps because we lived mostly happy lives at home, my fellow writers were not anywhere near as single-mindedly troubled or fun to watch. Sure, our teacher -- NOT a Pulitzer-Prize winner -- sought to make us suffer. Each day she issued appallingly brutal assessments of our inadequate work, our small lives, our oh-so-tedious selves. She attacked people at dinner until they cried, ran participants down behind their backs ("These people aren't writers. They haven't had an interesting idea in their lives, just listen to them talk. 'My husband this, my children that.' Who the fuck really cares?") She unapologetically skipped appointments, threatened to sue one of the participants (he made the mistake of quoting her in an essay) and used her impressive verbal skills to spell out all the things about Italy, and us, she detested. The ancient hill-town: too steep. The regional cuisine: too much pasta, too much olive oil. The company: stupid, boring, bourgeois, pedestrian.
Why had she agreed to come, we asked?
"For the money, what the hell else?"
By the course's end, I had just enough energy to drag myself down to the closing festivities held on the open-air terrazzo below the hotel. It was time to share our work, we were instructed by the two flamboyantly forgetful women who tended the program. Studios would be open, and we writers were to read from our work. With all the pain-watching and meanness of my two week getaway, I hadn't written much besides postcards and a few despair-filled journal entries. So I pulled out a short piece that I had been working on back in Iowa. It was a story about my childhood, how I went searching for my absent father one Halloween night dressed in a daisy costume. I liked the story, I liked the scene, I liked the costume. I had been encouraged by my teachers in Iowa who thought it was well-done. Read aloud, the piece lasted ten minutes, I knew, which was the time allotted each of us. When my turn came, I read the story.
The readings ended and we were invited to share wine and hors d'oeuvres with the small audience of painters, writers, and a few invited visitors. As I stood there feeling the flush of exposure, the Mistress approached me, positively incandescent.
"Your story," she said breathlessly. "It was just wonderful. So true, so painful. If I were ever to write about my childhood, it would sound exactly like yours." "Know," (now her eyes met and held mine) "Know that you are not alone." The rare smile I had seen at her friend's collapse that night at dinner again inhabited her face.
"Thank you," I said, choking on a crostini. "It is so kind of you." In my head, though, the conversation went differently. "No! No!" I wanted to scream, "I'm nothing like you." But was it true? In that moment, I couldn't help questioning my own avocation, my desire to write stories from a life not pain-filled but at times painful. That's the problem with writing, with painting, with trying to spin art out of real life. Hardship is heavy. Suffering sells. It is the pull of pain that explains, I think, the success of so many tale of woe memoirs. (Think Angela's Ashes.) How do you acknowledge hardship without becoming its nurse, its handmaiden, its devotee?
How do you draw art from life while opting out of the Pain Club?
I didn't find my answer that night in Italy, even though I went straight to room 13, wadded the piece up, then pulled it from the trash so I could tear it into phrase-sized shreds. One rash act couldn't change anything, though. Over the next few days, as I wandered Rome before returning home, I couldn't stop puzzling over my Italian indulgence and all that it seemed to have taken out of me. Nothing could erase the Mistress of Malady's smug face from my mind, where it floated like a darkly smiling moon. "I felt your pain," she said to me. "You truly are one of us." Flying home, I felt sadder, achy, oddly older. I felt like the newest initiate of the Pain Club.
**Natalie Pearson is a writer and graduate student in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa. Her essays and features have been published on Salon, and in The Des Moines Register, The Progressive, The Iowan, and other publications. She is also a regular essayist on public radio and teaches creative nonfiction to undergraduates.