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  • Martha Graham’s Haunting Body: Autobiography at the Intersection of Writing and Dancing
  • Victoria Thoms (bio)

A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you wish it would. After all, I choreographed for myself. I never choreographed what I could not do. I changed steps in Medea and other ballets to accommodate change. But I knew. And it haunted me. I only wanted to dance. Without dancing, I wished to die.

—Martha Graham, Blood Memory, 238

In this article I employ modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s memoir Blood Memory (1991) to complicate understandings of autobiography. Following a deconstructive perspective (Buse and Stott 1999; Derrida 1994) and taking up feminist critiques of both autobiography (Benstock 1988; Chanfrault-Duchet 2000) and the effects of embodiment (Phelan 1997; Albright 1997), I theorize autobiography as a haunting interstice between writing and the body. I suggest that while the written account is an important means to chart a life, there are forms of autobiography that remain unrepresentable in the frame of writing. This impossibility is most poignant in Blood Memory as Graham struggles to represent the autobiographical significance of the embodied performance yet is haunted by the inability to fully articulate in writing its significance for her. I argue that in encountering the written autobiography we should not disavow this haunting but rather acknowledge its importance as a means of encountering that life.

To trouble tacit assumptions about written autobiography, I ask, How might written autobiography be understood as haunted? And how might dance serve to illustrate its haunted state? Lastly, what are the possible effects of understanding written autobiography [End Page 3] as haunted? To address these questions I first consider the unsettled encounter with Graham’s Blood Memory. I theorize the effects of this encounter as stemming from the shadowy but persistent presence of Graham’s danced oeuvre as an alternative form of autobiography and argue that this oeuvre could also be considered an autobiographical text. Then placing the “proper” written autobiography in dialogue with the danced autobiography, I posit the haunted status of autobiography itself—as always already troubled by multiple and alternative textual productions of self that can be both bodily and written in form. Finally, I suggest the possible effects of considering autobiography in this way.

Blood Memory as Haunted Text

For me, part of Martha Graham’s mythic stature has to do with the strength and longevity of her performances. Graham seemed to defy the processes of aging, continuing to perform on stage well past the standard age of retirement for a dancer. In fact, she gave her last performance well into her seventies—a truly unrivalled achievement for a female dance performer. What seems less a part of my memory of the heroic, mythical Graham is the extent of her physical incapacity on stage at the time of her eventual retirement. Agnes de Mille notes of a performance she witnessed during Graham’s last season that while Graham was still deeply expressive, she could “barely walk” (1991, 379). Indeed, Graham had been increasingly urged to consider retirement. She was notoriously reticent to leave the stage, shrewdly avoiding through sometimes extreme measures the question of her departure.1

What I find significant (and somewhat amazing) about the circumstances surrounding the years prior to Graham leaving the stage was the effort she must have made mentally, emotionally, intellectually, and physically in order to continue performing. Graham suffered from excruciating arthritis and was progressively more dependent on alcohol, which added to her debilitation. It is astonishing that Graham continued to perform as long as she did. Bertram Ross’s reminiscences of Graham are explicit concerning her deteriorating condition; he writes, “I can’t believe Martha was still functioning [in the end] because I know how she was functioning when I was around” (qtd. in Tracy 1997, 169). It is the level and intensity of these circumstances, witnessed in the extremes she was willing to experience, that suggest her excessive investment in performance. Enforced retirement would mean a quite potent form of death for her: “Without dancing, I wished to die.” It cannot be...