Joan of Arc should not look so beautiful, I thought as a seven-year-old,
while looking at a painting of her at the Met. People who heard voices in the woods would look more like crazy misfits with
frazzled hair and rumpled clothes, wouldn’t they? I was drawn to Joan because I’d been having my own premonitions
since the age of three, but those experiences never fit in with my everyday world as the owner of a Snoopy with a sparkly
Elton John costume or as the student placed in a math class with fifth-graders several years older.
There was a disconnect for me between taking part in the material
world as a reliable, over-achieving child and having a spiritual life that might have been seen as...well, nuts. I was an
obedient kid and it felt like the most immense act of bucking the system to embrace the idea of, Hey, World! Everything you’re trying to teach me about
reality is wrong! It was more comfortable to doubt myself, to be the first one to call out the craziness of my dream-world before anyone
else could do it.
I didn’t know how to make the
two worlds of my dreams and my daily life coexist, and I had no role model. Except for Joan. Maybe. She didn’t fit
into the tidy realm of fractions and photosynthesis and Brownie troops, either, but she looked well-equipped to bridge
I paid her visits at the Met on occasion
throughout my childhood. In the painting, she was earthy and warm and seemed completely trustworthy to me, not like some flighty,
religious zealot who believed she was a messenger of God. As I reached my teens, having had my own inexplicable visions of
needles, cantors and houses I’d never seen, she struck me as looking like the kind of modern college girl I had admired
from afar. I could picture her nonchalantly throwing on a pair of beat-up Levi’s and a worn T-shirt and unknowingly
being the coolest girl in town. Somehow she looked able to manage the regular existence I was after, even with all her angel-baggage.
I realized that Bastien-Lepage, the painter whose name I could
never remember, knew nothing of all this when he painted Joan. But he had to know how magically he had crafted her, how she
looked humble and gorgeous and strong all at once. He had breathed life into her and created an athletic girl who could paddle
her own canoe with those thick, sturdy wrists; a girl whose merit you couldn’t question. I wanted to be someone beyond
question, too—even though I already was viewed that way. But I always had the mild fear that if I spoke a wrong word, if I talked too much about
my dreams, I’d somehow send my credibility crashing to bits on the National Honor Society’s meeting room floor.
I felt somehow protective of Joan while viewing the painted
image of her standing in the wooded yard of a cottage with angels hovering behind her. “Look how spaced-out she is!”
viewers around me would comment. Don’t judge her for this, I wanted to say to anyone who was looking.
In the painting, Joan’s left arm is stretched outward, fingers interlaced with the leaves
of a nearby tree, and her gaze is fixed upwards in an otherworldly stare. What always affected me the most about this painting
was the empathy and love that the painter embedded into Joan’s image.
I remember feeling struck by the kindness that came right through the paint as a child. Even
then, it was specifically this lack of mockery—the absence of any nudge and wink—that also unsettled me. There
were no metaphorical quotation marks around her image; Bastien-Lepage painted her vision as though it actually happened.
I had learned about Joan of Arc in one of the young-reader
biographies about women that my mother had lined up for me when I was in the second grade, so she occupied an adjacent spot
in my mind next to Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, and Harriet Tubman. But I could never tell if she really
belonged there. All of their facts were verified, but I had my doubts about whether her backstory could be proven, too. As
I grew older, the questioning feeling I had while looking at the painting started to trouble me, and it stayed with me even
during the long gaps between visits to the Met.
In my quest to live by the completely rational rules I believed highly-functioning adults
had to embrace, I had even dismissed the possibility of ghosts, despite the fact that I had seen two of them with my own eyes
at age twelve. If science couldn’t explain it, I sublimated it. Disavowed it. There was no Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny,
and I wasn’t about to put my money on a God who told a teenage French girl to free Orléans from the British.
So why was there no trace of patronizing this girl for her
kooky hallucinations in the painting? How could the painter so convincingly portray her as sturdy and reliable if he didn’t
actually believe in her mythology? He couldn’t seriously believe all that religious stuff, I figured. Adults just didn’t do that, did they? But
the paint seemed to say otherwise. Without consciously analyzing it, I interpreted the painting as heartfelt sincerity despite
a foundation of disbelief.
As years went by I began to feel embarrassed by this elaborate lie of compassion, and by the
time I was college-age, I suspected that maybe this contradiction was a part of being human. Maybe it was a clue to finding
the key to the universe that adults never told you about, that you’d spend your life being adoringly humored by others
who actually doubt you but never want you to know it because they love you. Despite my own premonitions, even I found it impossible to consider any longer that maybe Joan’s
story was true. Yet the painting made me desperately want to believe it.
I don’t remember having any knowledge as a child of
Joan being burned at the stake; I just recall a vague sense that things ended badly. Maybe I conveniently forgot the death-by-fire
Up until my early twenties, the uncomfortable distance between
wanting to believe someone out of kindness and actually knowing something else to be true stayed with me. I guess I always
realized subconsciously that this might apply to how people related to me. And in a convoluted way, I suspected that it might approximate
the way I questioned myself.
Labrador mutts, Scooter and Maisy, were panting behind me. We were on the trail in the woods at the Botanical Gardens before
we made it to a clearing on a scorching Georgia June day in 1995. I was twenty-four years old, and I was house-sitting in
an antebellum mansion belonging to Bill Berry, R.E.M.’s drummer, while the band was on tour. The dogs belonged to the
band’s manager, and part of my job was to take care of Scooter and Maisy. I loved them as if they were my own.
who saw them commented on how they loved each other, how they had a distinctive theatrical flair. If someone said that Maisy
was doing something funny, like dragging her butt across the lawn by pulling herself with her front two paws, Scooter would
put on a performance to outdo her—say, kicking up his hind legs like a mule. And he’d check periodically out of
the corner of his eye to make sure everybody was watching.
I knew it was crazy for me to take them to the woods that
day at noon. My running had turned into a compulsion. I was having a conversation with myself in my head about whether pushing
myself like this would ultimately keep me healthy when my thoughts were cut off completely. My inner dialogue
was boldly interrupted in a moment that changed my life forever. This was the Joan of Arc experience for which I had unwittingly
been preparing myself throughout my entire childhood. I heard a clear, booming voice in the woods. I had never heard a voice
like this before. It shook me in the fact that it was entirely sexless, without a trace of being either male or female.
you’re wrong,” the voice said in response to my earlier thoughts. “You will either become paralyzed or you will develop
The voice was not scolding or reprimanding, simply informing me in a straightforward
way. It was like there was a tacit clause—Excuse me, I hate to interrupt, but I just need to tell you—silently attached to the voice’s words. Before
I tried to process any of it more deeply, I felt the need to give the owner of the voice my input:
“Can I choose
the multiple sclerosis?” I asked anxiously in my head. I’ll take the case behind curtain number two, Bob.
The answer was
an implicit Yes. With words unspoken, I was made
to understand that multiple sclerosis was what I was going home with. I didn’t believe in God or angels exactly, but
when trying to figure out who was addressing me while running through the woods, either choice seemed like a pretty good guess.
My rejection of the idea of a personified God—especially a white guy with a long white beard—had gotten
me into plenty of heated debates over the years. In the past I had only believed in spirit guides theoretically, not as potential
conversation partners to chat with while running alone in the woods. But the voice I heard was singular.
really know anything about MS. As I kept running beneath the leafy green branches, I confused MS with muscular dystrophy and
was puzzled by thinking that it was a condition stemming from birth. The cicadas buzzed by the river bank, punctuating the
dense humidity with their drawn-out Morse code as I tried to process this unfathomable choice I had been given. In my mind
anything was more bearable than being paralyzed and being unable to walk or run at all.
Did the person doing the asking really
think I might say, “Yes! Sign me up for the spinal injury”? I had seen that story played out before and there
could be no happy ending for me. I didn’t need any time to opt for a mysterious diagnosis over a known fate I found
intolerable. But why did I have a choice to begin with?
Oddly, it was the voice and not the message that unsettled
me most. When I say that the voice was sexless, I don’t mean that it was vague and that I couldn’t figure
out its gender. It was absolutely neither one. The dogs didn’t seem to hear anything; they kept on running along the
red clay earth, tongues hanging out, tails wagging. I didn’t know what this could mean; I had no frame of reference
for it, and it frightened me as though I had looked in a mirror and seen no reflection. If you asked me to recreate that voice,
I couldn’t do it. Hearing it was like walking out of the house on a normal day and looking up to see two suns in a clear
blue sky when everything else looks completely normal. My brain felt like it was short-circuiting. I wiped my forehead with
the sleeve of my t-shirt. My clothes were saturated with sweat and my sneakers were caked with red Georgia clay.
I had no
yardstick with which to measure this experience, no compass to comprehend where the voice could be coming from. I was dumbfounded
and terrified, my head spinning, my heart pounding.
The words were haunting and unequivocal.
They seemed to reverberate from another dimension, yet they felt like they hit my eardrums tangibly in the physical
plane of the here and now, right on this path with the painted-white trail markers. My feet pounded Nike tread imprints into
the earth in rhythm with my breathing.
I had to stop running. Maybe this was a set-up from something like Candid Camera and a film crew would pop out from
behind the trees at any moment, laughing at my bewilderment. Or maybe someone was doing a kooky sound art installation and
I’d uncover a speaker camouflaged by branches. I looked around nervously, gazing up into the leafy canopy of treetops
above me. There was nothing unusual anywhere. I called out, “Helloooo! Is anyone here?” I knew there would be
This was a voice from somewhere else in the universe. The dogs kept running,
elated as they dashed through the clearing in the sun. All I could do was follow them.
In the next few
weeks I considered seeing a therapist. What had happened to me was simply crazy and perhaps someone’s credentials could
push it deeply enough to the back of my mind that I could forget about it for a while and convince myself in a couple of years
that it had been some kind of quirky hallucination. Within a month, however, I received the first sign that the voice was
right. It was sweltering July, but my body seemed to be confusing hot and cold sensations in my legs.
the fluffy grey cat I was taking care of as part of my house-sitting gig rubbed against my bare leg, I felt as though ice
cubes were touching my raw nerves. The scalding leather of a car seat made my skin feel as though Freon were running through
my body. I did realize that this was a fortunate symptom to have during July in Georgia, and the universe and I had a good
sense of humor about it. Yes, you’re going to be diagnosed with an incurable illness, but on the bright side, you’re not
going to have to pay a fortune to get the air conditioning fixed.
When I finally worked
up the gumption to open a medical encyclopedia in the oak library where I was staying, I flipped the pages nervously to multiple
sclerosis. There it was in black and white—a potentially debilitating neurological disease in which the body’s immune system eats
away at the myelin, the protective sheath that covers the nerves.
I read on, shaking, as I diagnosed and undiagnosed myself with each symptom:
Numbness or weakness in one or more
lack of coordination or unsteady gait: No, I can run five miles like a steam engine without breaking a sweat…definitely not me. Double vision, blurring of vision,
partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time, often with pain during eye movement: Nuh-uh, I have perfect sight. Electric-shock sensations: Oh crap! Tingling or pain in parts of your
maybe not…Fatigue, dizziness: No, no. Cognitive impairment: WHAT the…?! Somatosenory disorder, where neurological receptors that produce sensory modalities
such as touch and temperature are impaired and in some cases reversed, causing warmth to be perceived as cold and vice versa:
The phone rang and I don’t know why I answered it, but I did, and it was my mother. I continued bawling.
Through my tears I explained to her what had happened in the woods. I could tell she was starting to cry, too, but was trying
to keep me from hearing her muffled sobs.
“No, Kim, you’re wrong—you just had a false premonition this
time and this isn’t going to happen,” my mother stated in a steadier-than-usual cadence, wanting to convince us
both. “Sometimes you ARE wrong and you’ve just let your imagination run away with you. You can’t make a
diagnosis by looking at a book.” It didn’t sound like my mom talking; she had never told me she doubted me before.
I had told my
mom about all my dreams and premonitions since I was a little kid, and she had faith in my sixth sense.
I cried, the tears still streaming down my cheeks, “this was the clearest one ever!”
“You’ll see,” she
said softly. “I just know it won’t happen like you think. It’s been very hot and you’ve been running
too much, but there’s nothing wrong with you.”
My symptoms weren’t really terrible, but I knew I had to see a doctor. I wondered how I should phrase
the problem, and I was terrified that I would sound like an insane hypochondriac. My complaints included feeling like Freon
was coursing through my veins in one-hundred-degree heat; nerves that delivered electric shocks; and the feeling that it was
all due to MS because of a voice in the woods. I could imagine answering the first question I would be asked: No, absolutely NO family history
of mental illness. Ever.
I wound up in the office of a compassionate internist at the University of Georgia
health care center. The tension in my shoulders softened a little as I walked into his office. Dr. Peteet was affable and
seemed like the kind of guy who had young children. He had a lot of bushy, straight hair that poofed up around a side part,
the way I would draw a cartoon character with an exaggerated male cut. His eyes had a sympathetic droopiness at the outer
corners. As I told him my symptoms, I prayed he wouldn’t book me the first open appointment with the school psychiatrist.
But he seemed to take me very seriously and I finally worked up the nerve to ask him what was really on my mind.
any chance that this could be multiple sclerosis?” I asked tentatively.
His answer was thoughtful and deliberate. “Yes, there
is a remote possibility…but that’s probably the very last diagnosis we’d need to consider at this point.
There are many other factors that could be causing this, and MS generally first appears through other symptoms than what you’ve
described. This could very well be an isolated incidence—we’ll just have to keep an eye on you.”
My gratitude for
his response swelled in me like a pink balloon as he went on to ask me general questions about my past health history, caffeine
intake and stress levels. I was comforted by his manner, even though I was still convinced that I was experiencing my first
MS episode. I’d rather have had MS and be sane than have nothing wrong with me and be stark-raving mad. As the summer
went on, I kept on running in the woods with the dogs as usual. In a couple of weeks, the symptoms completely disappeared.
Maybe it wasn’t MS after all, or maybe the disease would just never hit me too hard. Maybe it would.