The loss of physical contact over lockdown changed Karin McCracken’s perspective on intimacy.
we are at a screening of a sci-fi thriller you made but the seats are all full so we sit on the floor you shuffle across behind me with your legs wide and knees bent one on either side of me i lean back and after a few moments rest my weight against your chest you put your arms around my waist one index finger ending up on the skin of my hip and i think oh i see we’re in love
In March 2020, as the world faces the rising threat of contagion, my flatmate and I confront our own health crisis: a suspected scabies infestation. How or why this happens is unimportant. What’s critical is that at 11pm on the first night of lockdown I spend 15 minutes applying a medicated gel to the entirety of my body. Do I need to complete the ritual in front of the bathroom mirror, fully nude? Almost certainly not, but this contribution to the plague-atmosphere feels right. While we wait to see if the treatment is successful, my flatmate and I cannot have physical contact. As we are a bubble of two, I will touch no one for the foreseeable future. I mull this over while rubbing Lyderm® directly onto my scalp.
That night, I dream about being in love
That night, I dream about being in love – the first of a series. Over the course of social isolation I fall in love with past lovers, new friends and fictional characters in vivid high-definition. From the very beginning the dreams are specific to physical contact: I know we’re in love from the quality of touch I experience (I can’t stress enough that these are not sex dreams. If only! The closest I get to having a sex dream is a harried foursome with three awful men I knew at university. My teeth fall out at the end).
Knowing I’m in love based on touch is not a phenomenon I’ve encountered while awake. I have experienced touch with people I’ve been in love with that feels exceptional (I am reminded of Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire: “Do all lovers feel they are inventing something?”), but it’s never touch that has confirmed it, and touch has never been something I feel I need.
I do not like the dreams. They are embarrassing: a subconscious preoccupation with touchy, romantic love.
In the morning I go for a run, another thing I do not like, as penance.
we’re on our way to meet david sedaris who runs a local writing group we’re striding up moxham avenue and i stumble grab for your hand you heave me up laughing and kiss both my eyelids
In the 1950s, American psychologist Harry Harlow made infant rhesus monkeys interact with ‘surrogate mothers’ in a laboratory. The surrogate mothers were of two types: the first a cylindrical wire form with a wooden top to approximate a head – the Wire Mother; the second foundationally similar, but covered in a rubber foam and thick terrycloth, also sporting a wooden head (this one more cartoonish than outright hostile) – the Cloth Mother. In the classic study the two Mothers sit next to each other. A feeding bottle has been affixed to the Wire Mother’s metal torso. The baby rhesus monkey, very small and evidently afraid, is forced into the space, at which point it invariably bounds toward the Cloth Mother, shrieking with fear and pressing as much of its small body against the soft fabric as it can, until eventually it is soothed. Over a 24-hour period the baby spends as much time as possible clinging to its upholstered guardian, venturing to the Wire Mother only as often as hunger requires.
Safe to say, there were a range of ethical issues inherent in Harlow’s works. The experiments caused the monkeys profound suffering. That suffering manifested in variety of ways, including an inability to socially reintegrate, self-mutilation, and sometimes death as a result of refusing food. Despite this, the research was landmark: Harlow’s maternal deprivation data confirmed the significance of contact comfort. The results demonstrated an unlearned, biological need for physical contact – a need as fundamentally basic as the drive for food.
My personal conclusions relate to soft cloth. I buy a cheap pair of men’s trackpants online that are too big for me, wear them with an XL men’s hoodie and look like the boy you dated in highschool that had a secret second girlfriend (his name was Beau and we were in a theatre troupe together. Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene). The dreams continue.
we’re on stage together in a play and we start laughing everyone is furious with us but we cannot stop i cover your mouth with my hand and you cover mine i can feel your breath on my fingers
In 2006, I get my first boyfriend. While discussing options for other firsts with schoolmates, a girl tells me that her friend has told her that its important to choose a first sexual partner very carefully, as a hormone called – and I remember this clearly – OxyContin is released during orgasm that emotionally binds us to the partner for the following three years. As in a nihilist German fairytale, I would be chemically tethered to the boy for an electoral term while he would remain definitively untethered to me. To avoid heartbreak, I am advised to choose someone that will stay the course.
There are many vibrant inaccuracies baked into this myth – not least, that there was a material risk I would have an orgasm while losing my virginity – but the power of oxytocin is not one.
Until recently oxytocin was best known for its role in reproduction, due to its significant presence during labour and breastfeeding. More recently, however, oxytocin’s role in social connection and developing intimate relationships has been established. The hormone increases social interest, improves recognition of others’ emotions and facilitates pair-bonding. Despite its association with romantic, sexual and reproductive behaviours, oxytocin is just as often released during touch with family, friends and even pets.[i]
Importantly – and maybe why the hormone gets airtime with teenagers – oxytocin feels good. Oxytocin has an anti-stress effect, reducing feelings of fear and anxiety, suppressing the level of circulating cortisol in the bloodstream, decelerating the heart-rate and lowering blood pressure.[ii] Sometimes referred to as the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin at sufficient levels can and does produce a feeling of calm and connectedness to others. That is to say – at least in my view – the feeling of happiness.
we’re standing on a bridge in a tropical climate the day is hot and sticky a young girl collapses next to us falling from the bridge and sailing through the sky into the water below you grab my shoulders and squeeze telling me it will be ok i feel a thrill through my collarbone we jump hand-in-hand and fall towards her
I wake up and don’t immediately realise I was dreaming, making the love-dream aftermath worse than usual. I trudge up Devon Street in light rain and mist, and run early morning laps around the Boyd-Wilson Field. Within a few minutes I give up, hate myself for it, and recover on the spectator stand. The only other people around are a man and a young boy kicking a football. The boy, maybe five, yells “GOAL!” whenever he nudges the ball. The dad finds this funny. He wraps his arms around the boy in a swooping hug, hoists him onto his shoulders and jogs him in a victory lap, the boy holding his arms out like an airplane yelling “flying, flying!”, his face contorted with joy.
As well as the physiological benefits of touch and oxytocin release, a number of studies claim that casual social touch in public spaces can have pro-social benefits: a 1976 experiment measured how a touch on the arm from a librarian radically improved borrowers’ attitudes to the library and the staff.[iii] A brief and light arm touch during a therapy session was shown to ease discomfort and enhance rapport and patient self-disclosure.[iv] A touch from wait-staff can increase the size of a tip,[v] and a touch from a college classmate improves the chances of assisting that peer.[vi]
I want to press the palm of my hand against a forehead, a collarbone, a cheek.
There are difficulties in ethically assessing the impacts of unexpected social touch among adults, now more than ever. Touch for anything other than greeting, getting attention, or receiving and providing assistance is a rarity between adults in public social spheres. Uninvited touch from a stranger will often be experienced as somewhere between surprising and violating. Protecting our personal space is connected in the most primitive sense with survival; as a result, allowing someone to come close enough to touch is an act of vulnerability and trust. This is one of the reasons that the occasions for physical contact are relatively few and far between; of all the senses, touch is the least frequently used in social relationships.[vii]
With the advent of #MeToo, these 20th-century experiments now seem slightly bizarre. The idea that a librarian could find a reason to touch me and I’d like it feels dubious.
Or, felt dubious. Not so much now. I conjure up flashes of touch in my mind. I want to press the palm of my hand against a forehead, a collarbone, a cheek. I imagine, when this is all over, browsing books at the central library. A librarian is reshelving next to me. She leans over, lightly puts her hand on my arm, says, “I loved this one, have you read any of her stuff?” I melt. I’d follow her off a cliff. Nothing dubious about it.
I talk to my therapist on Zoom. I tell her I am lonely. She asks me what I’m feeling in my body. This is her custom: “What do you feel when you say that?” or “What’s happening in your body right now?”
This line of enquiry was difficult for me to understand at the outset, mostly because I don’t particularly trust my body. I’ve historically treated my body as largely shameful and disappointing; weak, clumsy, a dill pickle with toothpicks for limbs. I had spent much of my 20s trying to ignore my body. Now I was being asked not just to pay attention to it, but to acknowledge what it had to ‘say’.
In her anthology The Book of Touch, Constance Classen writes:
The sense of touch, like the body in general, has been positioned in opposition to the intellect, and assumed to be merely the subject of mindless pleasures and pains.[ix]
Classen and other deconstructionist authors on the topic of bodies and touch highlight and subvert the ‘mind/body split’ analysis. Rather, these authors see the individual as an embodied being; not just a transcendent mind trapped in a declining animal frame.[x] With good reason: the downstream impacts of viewing the body as purely a fleshy prison are significant. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist with background in the brain/body connection argues that the core of our self-awareness lies in the physical sensations that transmit our true feelings:
[P]rimordial feelings provide a direct experience of one’s own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence. These primordial feelings reflect the current state of the body … All feelings of emotion are complex musical variations on primordial feelings.[xi]
I tell her: hollowness through the stomach, pangs that start in my gut and travel up to my throat. It makes me feel tired, encourages me to sit still, lie down, get back to the dreams.
we’re at my old high school at night we climbed a fence and i’m showing you around and we’re on the field and we have a cartwheel competition but you hold my legs up on my turn so i win and all the blood rushes to my head
One morning during lockdown I go for a run after a work call that provides a glimmer of possible futures. I feel good and, to my surprise, so does the run. It feels good even when it feels terrible: staggering up Tasman Street, wheezing down Adelaide Road to the basin. I realise that it is important to keep running when it feels terrible because that’s when it starts to feel good. I run again the next day, and the next. I’m conscious of my calves; they hurt all the time.
Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, argues that a friendly relationship with your body is critical to self-regulation. Without it, we’re reliant on external regulation from drugs and alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the desires of others.[xii]
She asks why I miss touch ... because it feels a little like love, I guess?
I run 12 kilometres and laugh when I come to a stop next to Te Papa, eyes stinging from the sweat pouring into them. I look at my legs and feel a bubbling affection for the muscle and sinew and bone. A novelty.
I tell my therapist I miss touch. I miss my friend Tom stroking my forearm, and holding my baby niece. She asks how I feel, and I say there’s a ripple under my sternum and my stomach is twisted. She asks why I miss touch. I think about that. After a time: because it feels a little like love, I guess?
we’re paramilitaries in a civil war you have been shot i’m waiting in a safe-house and you are carried in half-conscious i understand fundamentally that i am the one who must stitch up the wound because my touch will improve your chance of survival while i’m suturing you rest your hand on my knee reassured and reassuring[xiii]
I’ve run from Aro Valley to Newtown, over the Constable Street hill and down again to the needle, then set out around the coast, each bay a reward. The day is sunny, cool and still. At Balaena Bay I briefly experience a weightlessness that makes my eyes go wide: flying, flying!
While the shower heats up I study myself in the mirror, noticing a relaxation through my body. Not being around people has reduced a defensive awkwardness in my shoulders and neck. I step into the pour of hot water, head tilted forward, shifting my weight to allow an even distribution of the heat across my back.
I rise up on my toes for a moment to feel the edge of my calves’ tightness. The heat feels good. Rotating the tap with my left hand until my skin stings, I place my right hand on my quadricep to inspect (again) the new mass of muscle forming there.
A curiosity: on days that I run, I do not dream.
We arrive at Alert Level 2. People are pouring out of their homes onto the streets, and this contact-ambience provides a feeling of almost touch, all the time. The sweatpants are folded away for cold nights.
i’m at my parents house bouncing my niece on my lap suddenly she is transformed smaller and angular and furred screeching her eyes black and huge i quickly pass her to my sister-in-law careful to unfurl her tail from my wrist in the exchange
kristin your baby is a rhesus monkey and it’s all my fault
anchored to her mother’s abdomen matilda curls into a ball and falls asleep softly softly kristin smiles hand on her monkey’s head
it’s ok karin it’s just a dream you’re just dreaming
Twenty of us spend a night in a enormous house in the Hutt to celebrate Gemini season. We’re all lumped together on couches slung close to the fire, faces lit up amber. My legs are pressed against Hannah’s and my hand is resting on Vanessa’s knee, and at one point I lean over and kiss Vanessa on the cheek. My breathing is deep and even, my shoulders are relaxed against the leather. I notice a muscle behind my eyes that has loosened, and a warmth travelling out and away from my chest and into my hands, which is to say: I feel happy.
Things start to feel normal. The dreams stop, I run less often.
I’m at home when a notification lets me know a press conference is happening at 9:15pm. My shoulders tighten up and and my stomach drops. I sit next to my flatmate and we watch it together on the couch. The emergency alert emits from my phone and both of us flinch.
I haven’t been for a run in three weeks, but I go the next day. I’m slow and jangly after taking too long a break.
I run past Balaena Bay. My breath is ragged, I speed up, hopeful, one foot in front of the other, suddenly the fatigue starts to recede, joints oiled, smooth motion, off the ground, eyes wide, right at the edge of it, a palm against a forehead, an eyelid kiss: a little like flying, a little like love.
[i] Dan-Mikael Ellingsen, Johan Wessberg, Olga Chelnokova, Håkan Olausson, Bruno Laeng, and Siri Leknes, “In Touch with Your Emotions: Oxytocin and Touch Change Social Impressions while Others’ Facial Expressions Can Alter Touch,” Psychoneuroendocrinology 39(2014): 11–20.
[ii] Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Wendy Birmingham, and Kathleen Light, “Influence of a ‘Warm Touch’ Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol,” Psychosomatic Medicine 70, no. 9 (2008): 976–985.
[iii] Jeffrey Fisher, Marvin Rytting and Richard Heslin, “Hands Touching Hands: Affective and Evaluative Effects of an Interpersonal Touch” (1976) Sociometry, 39(4), 416 – 421.
[iv] Joyce Pattison “Effects of touch on self-exploration and the therapeutic relationship” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1973)40(2), 170–175.
[v] April Crusco & Christopher Wetzel, “The Midas touch: The effects of interpersonal touch on restaurant tipping”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1984, 10, 512–517.
[vi] Miles Patterson, Jack Powell, & Mary Lenihan “Touch, compliance, and interpersonal affect”, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior (1986), 10(1), 41–50.
[vii] Stephen Thayer, “History and Strategies of Research on Social Touch,” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 10, no. 1 (1986): 12–28.
[ix] Constance Classen (ed), The Book of Touch (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2005).
[x] Anne Cranny-Francis, “Semefulness: A Social Semiotics of Touch,” Social Semiotics 21, no. 4 (2011): 463–481.
[xi] Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Random House Digital, 2012), 17.
[xii] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (London, UK: Penguin, 2015), 218.
[xiii] I consider this episode an unholy marriage between the absence of touch and the Troubles in Northern Ireland – two of my lockdown fixations. My entry point for the latter was Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, a book I read at a pace which (I hope) accounts for this ~low point~.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.