I’ve published articles on examining the archive’s margins and gaps to recover women’s stories, but that won’t help me understand that girl who left her family when she could no longer live in shame.
I broke into my own home on a Sunday afternoon when I was twenty years old, while my family was at church. Technically, it wasn’t my home anymore; my mom had kicked me out two weeks earlier.
When I refused to repent for listening to my body, the male elders of the church excommunicated me, declaring me dead to the congregation. My mother followed suit.
I sat alone looking at one document at a time, under constant observation. The room was odorless, white, and sterile, with a hard wooden chair that I would sit in for hours, searching for signs of women’s work. I wanted to be their archival hero. At one time, a computer was a woman—typically a white, young, middle class professional woman. I imagined her with a bob haircut and red lipstick. All of those descriptors could have applied as easily to me as to Cicely Popplewell, one of the women I searched for.
In my Master’s program, only one of my professors was a woman. In my PhD program, there were three. I was the only woman who graduated from my PhD cohort. I took classes that assigned thousands of pages of reading, not a single page by a woman. I felt deeply how women were marginalized from intellectual work, not altogether different from the community I had worked so hard to escape. After graduation, I learned to build and trust a community of feminist scholars. These women listened to my stories and made space for my voice. In turn, I invested in making space for women’s stories in my own writing. I searched for them in the archives so that I could then remind readers: Look, these women have been here the whole time, working, writing, building. Their work mattered. Their lives did, too.
In that cold room in the history of computing archives, Cicely Popplewell’s name was easy to find. She managed the lab, advised users, and programmed the computer. She rewrote the manual because the version that Alan Turing wrote was unintelligible. Her body must have retained the muscle memory from innumerable hours spent manually operating one of the first digital computers, the Mark I, and its intricate set of wires and switches. Soon, I learned to recognize her handwriting on margin notes across documents that had been attributed to men. The material artifact is evidence. I can lift it up as if to say “here was a life, she must have mattered because traces of her have been preserved.”
Without an archive, where is my evidence? What can I point to and declare: Those first twenty years of my life mattered?
The objects that I recovered from my mom’s home do not explain how I learned to trust my body more than the men who demanded my unquestioned loyalty. Jehovah’s Witnesses coerce loyalty with detailed rules, strict hierarchies, and through the threat of excommunication. I long for a story or artifact that explains where I got the courage to question their doctrine and embrace a world I knew little about. I want someone to tell a story of an outspoken little girl, willing to take risks. But I’ve lost those memories and I have no family to tell me those stories.
I am left with a body as an archive. My body lives, carrying my history. I can point to the scar on my right elbow where the doctors pulled out the pin holding together bones that were crushed when I fell from my banana seat bicycle. I can complain about my creaky knees, just like my mother’s, which needed to be replaced after twenty years of waiting tables. I look into my own dark eyes and see my grandmother’s looking back.
I can’t point to the ache from that day I discovered my own mother erased me from her home. I can feel the wound, but I can’t hold it up as evidence of who I am and where I’ve been.
My husband and I live in a small, bright California condo that we’ve filled with artifacts of our life together. Bookshelves cover most of the wall in the living room. We grow succulents in broken teacups and old tins. Photos of our wedding, my PhD graduation, and our cats ascend the wall along the stairs.
There are also small traces of that life I lost. Like my mom, I have a chicken painting hanging in my kitchen. My favorite stool is entirely worn out from my feet always propped up on the seat. I don’t eat bacon, but my home smells of biscuits each weekend. My dusty piano displays my old sheet music alongside photos of my best friend’s baby. That old bible with my name on it has traveled with me from South Carolina, to Washington DC, through graduate school, and into ten different moving trucks. Through all these years, it still maintains that delicate smell of ink and leather reminding me of so many days spent studying in church.
When the pain of erasure creeps up, reminding me of what was lost, I look around, hold, dust, and rearrange my new collections that testify to my life well-lived. I remind myself that this body of mine carries an archive of wounds, and much more than that. I trusted my body when I felt I could no longer live in shame. I trusted my body when I refused to repent for pursuing pleasure. I can pull from these past experiences and trust my body as I age, grow into whatever direction my own story will bring me next.
Patricia Fancher (she/her) is a writer, researcher, and lecturer at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her research uncovers the writing of women and queer communities. She is writing a book on queer history of computers. Frequently tweeting about books and gardens at @trish_fancher