Poor Gwen: A Word on Pain, Self-Narration and Identity

It is Friday evening. It is a surprisingly warm night. Surprisingly, because it is mid-May in the Southern hemisphere, which means that the hemispheres is in the gradual process of exchanging seasons. Our nights are progressively growing cold, but, for reasons only known to climatologists and god, the Southern hemisphere’s inheritance of the Winter season has been halted, allowing for one more night of Summer.

We are sitting- cross-legged, like children- on the Egyptian rug in Anita’s minimalistic apartment. Everything about Anita’s living space is lavishly plain and intimidatingly simple. From the asymmetrical stools I am always too afraid to sit on, to the thin kitchen drawers that have a suspension mechanism which prevents them giving loud bangs when being closed. The rug on which we are sitting is the only item of furniture in Anita’s apartment which makes her living space somewhat, inhabitable and, less pretentious and intimidating.

A beautiful evening it is. The wine is flowing to the pace of the conversation we are having with each other. It is me and my girls tonight. Anita, Gwen and Anelisa. We are at that stage of the evening- and that level of slight intoxication- where our inhibitions are loosened. It seems we are all for reminiscing. Everyone is giving an account of the past, whether we could all relate to them- past events which we all played some sort of role- or, bringing about new information we were either scared to bring to each other’s attention or just merely forgot to tell. We all have permanent smiles on our faces, the kind that only alcohol can plaster. Tipsy on wine, inherited by the surprising warmth of the night, and, intoxicated with nostalgia.

Gwen makes an unexpected, yet, unsurprising interjection.

Gwen has been silent for most of the night. She has been making feeble contributions to our nostalgic bonfire, such as nods of agreement and the occasional belts of laughter when someone remembered and reminded everyone of a hilarious event in their lives. For the most part, Gwen merely sat with us, an unassuming presence rocking backwards and forwards as though she was pressed and preoccupied with containing whatever it was she felt needed inhibiting. But, she gave in. She wanted to be relevant. She also wanted to have her own story told.

The stories Gwen told were not new to us.

In fact, Gwen tells these stories whenever she can. Gwen would even steer a conversation in a direction which would grant her the opportunity to have these stories told. There were three stories which she constantly told. Tonight, we would hear these stories again, with only a change in pace or the addition of a few extra details to differentiate this experience of story-telling from the previous ones.

The first story was about her first boyfriend, Christopher. Gwen- with an uncomfortable tone of excitement to her voice- relays to us how she never quite understood what it meant to love somebody until that person was no longer an active part of her life. She speaks with a profound yearn in her voice, of how she did not know how to reciprocate the love Christopher showed to her. Gwen states, just how lucky she was to have had a person such as Christopher be a part of her life, and how unfortunate of a reality it is that he is no longer with her. “He loved me, regardless of my vanity and my selfish ways” Gwen said with an eerie tone of pride in her voice. “But, I guess that is why he could not love me any longer. I was not good for him and I am glad that he took his love elsewhere” she resigned. I have heard this story many a times before, only this time, Gwen added the new detail that Christopher was now engaged and had been so for a year. This new detail will now become a permanent feature every time Gwen speaks of him.

The second story Gwen likes to tell, with the same eerie sense of pride and excitement, is about her dysfunctional relationship she has with her parents. Gwen’s upbringing was quite far from a financial fairy-tale, and so Gwen has always been primary reciever of the perils inequality brings. Gwen has, however, managed to overcome that legacy, and is now afford herself a greater life than that her parents could afford her as she grew up. But, now her parents are at the stage of their lives where illness is becoming a permanent reality, thus Gwen’s parent rely on Gwen to assist them. She tells us just how much her parents “stress” her out. She tells us how much she despises being the single child to come from her mother’s womb. She tells us of how “can’t deal” with the pressure of balancing the life of her parents as well as her own. “I cannot play god. How am I going to handle people’s lives in my hands without compromising mine?” She would ask accusingly, but, still maintaining the odd tone of pride and excitement in her voice.

The third story is Gwen’s favourite. It is a story about a man who has a tendency of appearing and disappearing in Gwen’s life at his will- a man she loved too passionately. He is the man who stabbed Gwen’s hand with a fork during an argument at a dinner-party. This is the same man whom Gwen threw down a flight of stairs out of passionate and spontaneous rage. This is the same man whose current wife is always phone-calling Gwen in search of advice on how to tame a badly behaved man. “She just never stops!” Gwen would remark, almost foaming at the mouth. Not only does this man appears and disappears from Gwen’s life, he also appears and disappears in the lives of everyone she tells this story to.

Although I had heard these three oral narratives from Gwen before, there was something peculiar about the way she told these stories. These stories are painful. These stories are stuffed with heartache and strife. These are the kinds of stories one would tell their therapist or church-leader or whoever one invests trust in to handle the kind of baggage Gwen carries. Yet, Gwen told these stories with such child-like wonder. Her tone of voice was coated with a thick layer of abnormal pride and excitement which accumulates every time she tells these stories. Gwen had a strain in her eyes, as she relayed these tender stories to us. It was as though she was trying draw water from a wall only made from stones. I found myself developing a sense of sorrow for her. I found myself mourning silently on her behalf, because, she was just not mourning the things she yearned to mourn for.

As I lie in my Aranda blanket, typing furiously on my lap top, I begin to recognise what is going on with Gwen.

Gwen is in pain.

She is experiencing a pain of the most excruciating sensation and vibration. Gwen is experiencing the kind of pain that is capable of taking her life in her own sleep, yet, is the kind of pain that makes the most revolutionary poetry.

The Initial Inequity

Gwen is not in harmony with her past.

Gwen is not able to truly reconcile with all the hurt and the shame that imbues her past. Gwen is not able to make sense of the humiliation which she experienced. Gwen is not able to unlearn the meanings of the unpleasant disturbances which have occurred in her life. She is not able to have a peaceful interaction with her past, because, she feels as though she does not have a right to own her past. Gwen allows her past to be suspended by way of puppet-strings, by these events that she constantly brings to the surface of her reality. Gwen allows these events to monopolise the way she remembers her past, and, she subsequently allows the events to monopolise the way she lives her life in the present. She is constantly available to reference the way she lives in the present moment to her unhealthy relationships which characterise her past. This act is unconscious for Gwen, which is why she is able to effortlessly liken her verbally abusive employer to the man mentioned in her third favourite story to tell. Every moment which forms in the present is immediately and unconsciously plugged into the past. Because of this, Gwen has developed and continues to develop an unhealthy relationship with both her past and present.


When one has an unhealthy, unchecked and untamed relationship with their past, pain becomes pathological. At this stage, pain becomes so profound that speaking of it or not speaking of it becomes deeply unsatisfying. Gwen chose to relay to us the very stories which threaten her quality of life, yet, the delivery of these stories is sugar-coated and sweetened with perceivably acceptable tones of voice, paces of speech and a careful selection of details. Gwen does this, so that, what comes out of her mouth is easier to handle than the very source from which these stories come. Gwen only tells these stories, because, she is in search of a reaction that could possible verify the pain which she is experiencing. But this is a gamble. If the reaction which she pursues from others is not able to adequately justify the way she knows she should be feeling about her own pain, she will continue to ignore her heartache. Thus, she will continue to victimise herself, by continuing to tell these stories.


Gwen does not know who she is without these stories which she tells constantly. Gwen is not comfortable with the idea of being separated from these stories. She refuses to cut the umbilical cord between her and her pain, every time she tells these stories. Perhaps these stories do not monopolise her life, and Gwen is able to make certain decisions without the aid of referring to Christopher; her broken fractured relationship with her parents; or, the man she passionately made love to and fought with. However, Gwen is not able to look entirely at herself as being independent of these stories. These painful stories synchronise themselves into Gwen’s moral foundation with every repeated account, thus, Gwen is not able to know whether or not she is capable of telling a different- perhaps, brighter- story than the painful ones she allows herself to be defined by.


Gwen needs to realise that she is in pain.

It is important for Gwen to realise this in order to understand the severity of her own condition. Gwen needs to be able to recognise the kind of pain which she is experiencing and how this pain manifests itself into her everyday life. Gwen could easily pick up a smoking habit, develop a dependence on food or repetitively account all the rot which follows her from her past. Gwen needs to understand what her pain is, what causes her pain and why her pain continues to thrive as it does.

Gwen must realise that external validation could never reduce or heal the upheavals she experiences. My reaction to the stories Gwen tells could never satisfy or justify the way she know she should be feeling about these stories. The stories which Gwen tells are the kind of stories which require self-evaluation and emotional work-ethic which is independent of an oblivious external opinion or object.

Gwen needs to know, that she does have the right to know and get exactly what she wants. If it is in Gwen’s desire to reconnect with Christopher and let him know how much she regrets being selfish, but also, letting him know that she is joyed by the fact that he has found someone who will appreciate him more than she could, then Gwen can have that. If it is in Gwen’s desire to want answers about her father’s violence and infidelity and her mother’s drinking habit due to their poor financial condition during her upbringing, Gwen can have that. If it is in Gwen’s desire to want closure from her abusive former lover, Gwen can have that. Gwen must realise that she has the right to narrate her own defining stories. Gwen must realise that she has the right to have a different story to tell, than the ones she is already telling.

Most importantly, however, Gwen needs to be brave, courageous and willing enough to be do the work of changing the story she tells herself and others, as well as changing the stories which she allows to define her. She must be fully prepared to commit to the process of changing the quality of light which she stands under. Self-amendment is a mammoth task, but, never an impossible one. Gwen must understand that she experiences pain, because, there are certain aspects of her life which require her attention and intervention.

Perhaps the most pertinent message I convey in this narrative is that Gwen is not alone. We all have pieces of Gwen with in us. We all have stories which do not complement our progression; stories which do not grow us; yet, these are the stories we choose to tell all the time. These are the stories that we cannot imagine ourselves existing without. These are the stories are which we allow to define our lives, because, they impacted us the most or possessed the most passion. We need to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves as well as others. We need to be aware of how we contribute to our own rot. But, most of all, we need to understand that we have the ability to change what define us. We cannot stop the inevitabilities of life’s unpleasant events, however, we do have control over how these events shape our lives and the way we see ourselves.

If we are willing to come out fine, we must be willing to invest the time.

Re-narrate ourselves.

It is possible.


  1. I just discovered your blog and this peace is too beautiful for words. It hits home in so many ways,I type with tears in my eyes. There was a time in my life that I could not share my story without having tears in my eyes,to a point where I could not continue with the story. It used to hurt that much. Now that I’m older (only 20 years old) I can share it without any tears,but I laugh,smile and basically sugar coat it. I don’t want people to view me differently because of my life,I guess I’m ashamed of who I am. It’s a long healing process,but I hope one day I will be able to own it and be proud of my life and who I am.

  2. I think what you are saying in this article is so important to the youth of Johannesburg especially today. Where we hold onto our sadness like trifles and compare them like we did our sticker collections when we were younger. It is so interesting and effective that it was said in this way, almost as though you were talking to children but obviously with such deep and meaningful content. So encouraging and reassuring that we can achieve any image of ourselves we want. I really admire your writing!

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