Mama sings of being raped. Of the way the men hurt her. The way they made her eat her dead husband’s penis. The singing is significant. To sing is to transcend the pain, momentarily. The notes resonate, and the pain is hummed away by the vibrating presence of the sound. Daughter listens to the melody as it rises and falls. The words are left like sediment after the sound has faded. They reveal the story, point to the act heavy with completion, gravity. She’s heard the stories her whole life. The way violent men desecrate holy bodies. Her pain is different than mama’s. She will miss mama, but her trauma is imagined, the future violated by intergenerational wrong. She’s breathless with fear, the Peruvian sky gray. Mama slips away.
I can’t watch the 2009 film The Milk of Sorrow without crying. Written and directed by Claudia Llosa, it is perhaps Peru’s finest contribution to international cinema. When it was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film, the Peruvians I know, including my wife, swelled with pride. Not unlike when the relatively small country’s soccer team makes the World Cup. Collective excitement stirs the streets like electricity. Look at us, my wife will say. People will know Peru. They will know the country’s pain, she should say.
Llosa comes from notable creative stock. She’s the niece of writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. The original Spanish title of the film is La Teta Asustada, or the scared tit. Llosa was trying to capture some modern folklore, the belief that women who were raped in the country’s dirty wars transmitted fear in their breast milk. The Milk of Sorrow is an allegory for the intergenerational staying power of trauma, specifically the trauma of male violence. The daughter who watches her mom sing then die at the beginning of the film, Fausta (played brilliantly by Magaly Solier), is terrified of men, so much so that she places a potato in her vagina to block the rape she fears. The film follows her as she tries to confront her fear—doctors tell her she needs to remove the potato from her vagina—and as she raises money for her mom’s burial by working for a wealthy woman. Of indigenous descent, Fausta lives in one of the many hardscrabble neighborhoods on the outskirts of Lima, where natives from the Andean highlands settled to escape violence during the dirty wars. Llosa doesn’t shy away from a class and racial critique of the country’s capital. True, the wars engulfed the whole country, but poor AmerIndians bore the brunt of the violence. Fausta finds herself alone, betrayed by the wealthy woman she helps, and alone she must find strength. By Hollywood standards, The Milk of Sorrow is a slow film. It builds to a subtle climax, a subtle shift in the protagonist as she not so much conquers her fear as summons enough strength to move beyond it.
I can’t watch the film without crying because it in invariably reminds me of my wife, a Peruvian woman who grew up in Lima during the country’s civil strife, who emigrated to the U.S. in the new millennium and fell in love with a stupid gringo. I cry because I love my wife and have come to recognize what she sacrificed in moving here, what all women sacrifice in trying to love men.
Ghosts move at the speed of thought. They appear in our minds then go, as if entering and exiting as they wish. Not just the dead, but former versions of ourselves. We’re haunted not only by the uncertainty of the future, but by the finality of the past. We exist in a purgatory, where each branch of time works upon us simultaneously. When we talk about being “present”—the way singing can bring us into momentary fullness—we’re talking about parting the darkness of time and touching the eternal light. Ghosts evaporate. The horizon is clear, ringing. But more often than not, ghosts seize us just as quickly as the bliss of presence teased us.
Peru is a haunted country. Pre-Colombian ruins stud its jungle mountains and desert river valleys. It has the antiquity of Egypt but mixed with the restless energy of the new world. There are ancient ghosts in Peru, legends, conquests, but more salient ghosts from the country’s recent history. My first trip in 2008, I felt them. Communist and anti-communist slogans scrawled on adobe walls. Rubble alongside the road, sharp as teeth. The feeling I’d find a skull buried in the sand of a Pacific beach, the sun blood-red in the west. Even the winter fog in Lima hung heavy like a ghost, full of regret. It’s changed now. Peru is a haunted country but also a developing country moving at a breakneck speed. My last trip in 2019 felt like visiting a different American state, not the culture shock I felt in 2008. Western amenities have covered the country’s wounds. Booming construction, screaming traffic, franchise eateries, young Peruvians mall-sleek and business-savvy but not quite old enough to remember.
In 1980, two years before I was born, Shining Path communists launched an armed insurgency against the Peruvian state. The fighting started in the highlands and eventually spilled into Lima, where my wife lived as a child in a home cohabited by her parents and aunts and uncles. The Shining Path believed human rights were a bourgeois invention. They were bloodthirsty, merciless in their campaign for utopia. In response, state forces became a sadistic monster of their own. According to The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, over the two-decade conflict, nearly 70,000 people were killed or disappeared. The Shining Path were responsible for nearly half the deaths, though that percentage has been disputed by further research. State forces also claimed a significant number of lives. The autocrat Fujimori, who came into power in the nineties, was eventually linked to a right-wing death squad. The violence throughout the conflict was characterized by utter brutality, massacres and atrocities committed on both sides.
There are things from that time my wife and I don’t talk about. She doesn’t want to talk about them. It’s as if she believes if you don’t talk about ghosts, they have no thoughts to enter, and therefore dissipate in the air. She comes from a long line of stoic Peruvian women, women who had to put up with war, coups, idiotic husbands, endless indignities wrought by men. “La ropa sucia se lava en casa,” she says. Keep your dirty business at home, it means.
Still, there are times her emotions break, when the effects of trauma shatter the silence. They usually burst in the form of anger, over-assertion. Sometimes, they come as hot tears.
“You Americans,” she told me after Donald Trump won election in 2016. As an immigrant, she’d cried, of course. But then her sadness turned into spiky resolve. I was busy catastrophizing as only middle-class white liberal men can. “Scott,” she continued, “I grew up putting tape around the windows so the bombs wouldn’t blow out the glass. Donald Trump doesn’t scare me. I’ll grab him by the balls.”
I went insane during the MeToo movement. I had been battling untreated bipolar disorder my whole life, but my mind finally broke right when men were getting their comeuppance.
It wasn’t guilt that broke me. Our president at the time was a known abuser. His supporters dismissed the MeToo movement. Many men redoubled their misogyny. I, on the other hand, drifted in a paranoid state. I questioned my own maleness, my own complicity, my own allegiances. It was at the same time I was coming out to my family as pansexual. I was confused about what I wanted, what I truly desired. The pressure was immense. I listened to the horror stories my mother told me about sexual harassment. My wife had stories, too. She opened up like she had never opened up before. She talked to me before closing back up, and I loved her for it.
My own mind spun. I hallucinated the Virgin Mary. I saw the Virgin Mary in everything. In mountains. In songs. In numbers. She was embodied in my own wife, my Maria, the long-suffering Maria. My visions followed me into the psych ward. Maria spoke to me, advised me, an ever-present voice. I looked back at my life. I wondered what was spinning in the mind of each freshman girl in high school as they were picked off one by one by the senior boys. Were they scared? Were they excited? Did they feel like they were drowning?
Voices, moans, mad women crying in hospital beds across the hall….
I was lying in my own bed thinking these thoughts, naked under my gown, twisting in the sheets, seized by visions. I saw a green dot of light blinking. It danced on the wall then moved towards me. I understood it was the Virgin Mary, protector of all women, her eye, coming not for reassurance but something else….
Yes, I’m 15, feeling up my best friend, the first guy to touch her tits, and I’m insistent, giddy with discovery. She doesn’t say no, but she’s quiet, quieter than she’s been. I can’t know if she’s enjoying it because the moment has become about my desire.
Yes, I’m 32, married, a father, drunk in a bar, making passes at the bartender. I just published my first book, and I’m cocky. She doesn’t go home with me, which is good because my wife is at home. After the bar closes, I stagger to my front lawn and vomit on the grass. I tell my wife I screwed up. I throw up in the toilet.
Yes, I’m 38, thinking about that first book, how the made-up male character—a womanizer, a misogynist—screams at the feminized sun as he dies, saying he’s sorry, he’s so sorry.
Yes, I’m almost 40, and I’ve fallen in love with another woman, telling my wife I have to go, I can’t control it. She is weeping, telling me to stay, telling me she forgives my wandering heart. The man in me knows my penchant for damage, my own ruthlessness.
Yes, I’ve always known. It’s there, I see it, the whole sordid history of this world, and she’s here, my Maria. I think she’s going to mount the hospital bed, ride me, my body now arching with desire, but she doesn’t and I turn to my side and through the hospital blankets see a planet floating in space, the ground silver like the back of a fish, and I’m there with her in flowers blooming through black and the curves of her body like blue fire in the darkness of space and I’m almost going to come but I don’t come and instead get up and wander the halls of the psych ward crushing spiders under my heel and that’s when I see it—a single pink fluorescent light humming in the ceiling in a grid of white lights and it’s a sign, I’m sure, and I go to it and stand beneath it and gaze up at it and soon enough stretch my hand up to touch. It hums and opens like vulva and my arm is inside now and I put both arms inside and climb through and pull myself to the other side—which is a town in the Nevada desert, out on the plain, a town we’ve driven through as a family, and my whole family is there now, my son and twin daughters, like shiny cherubs, and there’s a party taking place and it’s wonderful and my wife says welcome home welcome home and I hear from beyond, somewhere in the dark of the desert, a thin whistle, as if some other creature is celebrating my return….
I am a selfish man. I have to be. I have to protect my headspace. I have to constantly check myself against reality. When I watch The Milk of Sorrow, I cry because I know I’m not in a position to help. I feel helpless. My disorder is a burden on my wife. She carries the nightmare of my hospitalization in her deepest thoughts, never sure when I’m going to break, wondering when our kids will become fatherless again. I want to reassure her that I can make it, that I’m okay. I want to reassure her that I’m a good man, even if I’m not a good man. I want to tell her she doesn’t need to be so tough. It’s not fair she has to be so tough. But words fail me. I feel the voices of a million women surging up in song. Their pain rings across the bony beaches, across the centuries. I feel their projections on me, their hopes and fears. But I’m not strong enough. I cast them to the side, where they fill the air with sorrow.
At the end of the film, Fausta takes her mom to the sea. It looks beautiful, windy and wild. She’s faced her fear, but there’s no easy solution, no storybook ending—just a willingness to move on. Llosa leaves Fausta there in this shot against the sea, as if to signal something new, whole, ghostless. A world still unformed and teeming with possibility. A world beyond the narrow, violent systems men constructed for themselves. I’d like to go there, to swim there, though I know it’s not for me. Maybe one day my children can be part of a better world. I see the way my wife looks at my son, who is gentle and kind, and I know in him she sees the promise of a new kind of man. It’s not that she doesn’t love me; I know she loves me. But love is a kind of ghost, too. It clings and hovers. It haunts. It refuses to let go. I remember walking through the hospital doors and seeing her. I lifted her in the air and squeezed her and brought her back down to earth. She was there in my deepest need. That is the image of love that forever haunts me. The least I can do is be present for her song. The least I can do is listen if she wants to talk.