From the opening pages of Emerson Whitney’s debut memoir, “Heaven,” the author occupies a body. It is their mother’s body, but it is also their own.
“I am like Mom. Symmetrical and tan. I write about her body because of my own discomfort, the oil drum fire that is myself,” Whitney writes. “The truth was in her mouth. The etymology of woman is wife … we were meant to be women, her eyes drawing me down.”
“Heaven” is perhaps best described as a meditation — and it’s a perfect read for Pride.
It’s a slim book, compressed; it is at once a memoir and a work of philosophy, a physical experience and a cerebral one.
“The way we speak about the body disconnects it from the mind,” Whitney writes, referencing Stephen J. Smith’s “Physically Remembering Childhood.” Throughout “Heaven,” Whitney is in a constant reckoning with the paradox of this disconnect. Their mind and body are the same entity, but separate. The mind and body are at once connected and separated by language.
At the heart of “Heaven” is a tight weave of family — Whitney’s grandmother, their mother and them. Three generations live within the constraints of femininity in their own ways, and their deepest wealth is the complicated love they have for each other.
Whitney moves deftly between heady philosophical analysis and the embodiment of a child’s voice, braiding together personal memories with a vast array of references from academia and pop culture alike. They expertly render the experience of witnessing, and feeling in their own body, the consequences of their mother’s addiction, confusing and abusive relationships with men, and abandonment; of the author’s disjointed relationship with their brothers; of neighbors and friends who cared for them in ways they did not, as a child, understand.
And then there’s the relationship Whitney has with their grandmother, a beacon of unconditional love, the physical and emotional anchor of their childhood.
“Memories unhooked from language show up as sense,” Whitney writes, and the sensual does saturate this narrative. But the story is also defined by the limits of language, limits that restrain even this review, limits that bind all of us.
To explore what it means to live in a body, Whitney draws from across popular media — everything from the movie “Moonlight” to medical texts and Western psychology and philosophy; from the Amazon “best in transgender” list to elite middle-distance runner Caster Semenya’s ongoing battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations to Justin Torres’s novel “We the Animals.”
In looking outward, they are drawing a map. It’s a map of their own body, their family, of gender, culture and art; a representation of something that perhaps doesn’t even exist. Language is Whitney’s compass, their medium for charting experience. And to be sure, the map they draw is beautiful. But it can only ever be incomplete.
“Because of this gap in language,” they write, “there’s a gap in me.”
Whitney connects the lyrical dots of their fragmented story with existential nuance, making “Heaven” both a challenging and deeply satisfying read. It is a book of questions and gaps. “This is the question of my body and my story about it: is it just mine?” Whitney writes. “What if there is no such thing as a place of pure ‘me’?”
Ultimately, it is this unanswerable question that gives the reader permission to sink into their own senses, and to embrace their own confusion.
In a time when many feel more unmoored than usual, this is a relief. The unknown can be as much an opportunity as a source of fear. Whitney asks us to think about what we are underneath false binaries and the performance of self.
“There was nothing I wanted more than for my nakedness underneath clothes to match the movement of the sea,” they write. “A kind of joy that hadn’t cracked for me ever. I curled toward the sun.”
“Heaven” by Emerson Whitney, McSweeney’s 200 pp., $24