Affect training

It was called “affect training”. Susie purchased the course for her as a gift; a course Susie had completed herself, and had found beneficial.

In the brochure Monica had been given were photographs of people with different expressions on their faces. Sadness, happiness. Some looked blank, others looked forlorn. It ran for six weeks, for an hour a week, at 6 o’clock on Thursdays. The course was held in the old fire station in Darlinghurst. Monica walked in through the garage where the fire engine was once parked. In the corner of the room was a pole and on the wall was a round, silver bell that resembled a counter bell. A startup software company rented the offices upstairs.

The woman who took the course was tall and her name was Judy.

“Welcome!” Judy said, each time someone new walked in. She opened her arms and the sleeves of her white shirt hung like wings.

“Some of you,” said Judy, “are here because you are required to be.” Monica looked around discreetly and made a note of who she thought they were. “There are others who are here by choice.” Monica nodded her head slightly so that others could see this description pertained to her. “All of us, though, are here to understand what’s inside us.”

Judy’s hair was white, but Monica couldn’t tell whether this was a product of age or if it had been coloured professionally. “What do you feel, right now?” Judy asked. “Everybody, take some time to think it over.”

Monica didn’t feel anything, except perhaps cold, but she wasn’t sure that coldness was a feeling, since it wasn’t something she could control.

“Tell me,” Judy said.

“Bored!” someone called out. Later, Monica learned his name was Lachlan. Whenever Judy asked a question, Lachlan was the first to answer.

Another man called out “frustrated” and uncrossed and recrossed his legs. The woman beside Monica, whose name was Charlotte, said “nervous”.

“Good,” Judy crooned, and she wrote the words down on a whiteboard.

Their first task was to complete a worksheet which had hand-drawn faces printed on the page. Each face contained a different expression, and their task was to name it. “Sad” was the first face, and also the easiest. When Judy put the answers up on the projector, Monica saw that most of her answers were wrong. She had named “curious” as “confused” and for “fatigued” she had written “disaffected”. She hid her worksheet against her chest, since she wasn’t used to failing. Judy looked at her and asked her what she was feeling. Monica said she was “embarrassed”.

“In this class, when someone names their emotions, we give them a clap.” The class applauded Monica. From the corner of her eye, she saw someone slide down the pole in the garage, exit the building and move into the night.

Sometimes they watched films. Sometimes they read passages from testimony given by people who had suffered terribly. Once they read a short story by Raymond Carver. Nothing, though, could make Monica cry. When they were watching Schindler’s List, there was a feeling that swelled inside her and she felt for a moment that she might sob, but the only thing she could do was gag, and nothing actually came out.

One week they played a game like charades. Monica was paired with Charlotte and they sat opposite each other on chairs. Charlotte pulled her arms in around her shoulders and rubbed. Monica stared at her and eventually said, “Comforted?”

Charlotte said she was feeling “tender”.

When it was Monica’s turn, she wasn’t sure how to make the shape of what was inside her. She drew a large circle in the air with both hands.

“Round? Complete?”

And Monica nodded, because she was too ashamed to admit that what she felt was “empty”, and she wasn’t even sure if “empty” was a real feeling.

Then Charlotte made another face, scrunching up her eyes and pouting with her mouth, and Monica asked whether she “needed to go?” For a moment, she had forgotten the game and was concerned Charlotte might actually need the toilet.

Charlotte laughed and Monica laughed. And then they were in a fit of laughter, and Monica was in fact crying; tears were streaming from her eyes. And when they stopped laughing, they realised that Judy was there, glowering at them. And she said, “Charlotte; Monica. I feel disappointed.”

For the last class they were asked to bring along a soft toy, but Monica didn’t have one at home. Judy had told them to find something that spoke to their “selves”.

At the toyshop was a brown bear in a tutu and a large fluffy dog sitting on its haunches. There were dolls that stared and stared. The only one that appealed to Monica was a round purple ball with a stitched face that looked as though it was pressed against glass. It didn’t resemble any animal she knew. It fitted neatly into her torso when she held it and its strange multicoloured ponytails brushed her face. This creature, in its weirdness, spoke to her.

Monica took it to the last session, determined to cry. That night they were telling their own stories. One woman had had her children removed from her care. Another man said he couldn’t remember large chunks of his childhood. There was, he said, just nothing there.

But though she felt sad, no tears came. Monica held her creature and rested a cheek against it. And then she thought suddenly of Susie and she found that she could cry, and the tears were dripping off her face. Judy stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders said, “Great work.”

Afterwards Monica walked to the train station. There was a feeling inside her she remembered from childhood, the contentment that followed tears.

Near the station, outside the fun house, were two mirrors side by side. In one, Monica’s reflection was large and grotesque; in the other her body looked petite. She walked towards them, coming closer and closer to these visions of herself. Eventually the two reflections merged, and then there was only one of her.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 19, 2021 as "Affect Training".

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Gretchen Shirm is a Sydney author. Her latest novel Where The Light Falls will be published in July 2016.

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