Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Coming To: A Lexicology of Fainting

Emily Geminder

1. vein

From Old French veine, from Latin vena. The earliest senses were blood vessel and small natural underground channel of water. See also: blood, artery, channel, the channeling of the dead.

It’s a wake, we are told, my cousin and I, but we hear it like one word: awake. Who is doing the waking? We don’t ask. We are six. We know there’s a body and the body is her father. But how the body is her father is harder to say. He’s become a dark spot hovering just above our eyelids, a presence that tilts the whole room. We move through it like we would a funhouse, not knowing what’s real—everything swollen and overwrought, red velour everywhere and grown-ups stiff as wax. They whisper out of the sides of their mouths like bad renditions of ghosts. Beneath them, we cling to each other—hands, wrists, fingernails dug into arms—and we move this way, like one four-legged creature, up the narrow carpet toward the coffin.

  A small stool sits beside it, waiting. We look at each other and know what we must do. She whispers as if to prepare me: They drain all the blood out of you when you die.


We are bowed heads in the dark, wakeful at 1 a.m. We are shapeless, we are voices—saying and unsaying.

She tells me again about the man who fell on a nail and punctured his wrist. This is the year she’s interested in death.

So what happened?

Her so-what shrug. He died. He spilled out through his veins.

This is the year we are eight. This is the year we become creatures with blood, veins: spillable things. I start looking away from my own wrist, fragile now as a bird’s neck and equally fraught. Blue-gray veins run there like thin wicks of flame. Veins are terrifying; veins are bewitching—a ghostly glimpse of some bad end. Veins are inside you, which means there’s no escape.


But the first time it happens, there’s no blood, no veins. I’m sixteen and sitting in a doctor’s office. The nurse squeezes her blood pressure pump and sighs. Can’t get a pulse on you.

Maybe you don’t have a pulse, suggests my mother. Maybe you’re dead.

I don’t know yet what to expect. Later, it will start to prick faint and familiar—the way gravity loosens and churns, the way the back of my head becomes a queasy universe, unfathomably deep. But that first time—the time I faint on the word dead—I wash straight into Nothing.


Fainting undoes the world and remakes it. It seeps: once it begins, it won’t stop. It becomes its own logic, a mythology slowly coalescing around itself. I faint in doctor’s offices, in bathrooms. I faint at the mention of blood, hearts, veins. I faint at the mention of sex, alien probes, enemas. I faint once at the word epidural, having confused it with enema. (Fainting is an imperfect lexicology.) I faint trying to use a tampon. I faint at the sight of three drops of blood on tile. I faint at the thought of fainting. My own heartbeat unnerves me.


2. faint

Middle English: cowardly surviving in the phrase faint heart; from Old French faint, related to feign, stem of feindre: to make a pretense of a feeling or response, invent a story or allegation. From Latin fingere: to mold, contrive, make.

I’ve been in Phnom Penh a month when the faintings begin. They come across my desk as a brief: sixty workers fainting in a garment factory. They faint not one by one but all together—fainting at the sight of fainting, as though they’ve seen their own ghosts falling to the factory floor. Like most garment workers, they are women, nearly all of them very young.

More mass faintings follow at other garment factories: sixty, seventy, a hundred women at a time. The women speak of dizziness, of ghosts. Sometimes these are the same thing. A darkness fell over my face.

I’m twenty-five, working at a newspaper, and mostly my own bouts of fainting have come and gone. But now, sitting in the paper’s cramped offices, I start to think about fainting again—what it says and what it unsays. The way the fainter turns from the world even as her body points mutely back. What, after all, is more submissive than fainting, what more yielding than the swoon? And yet, how quicker to call attention to the body than when one—or many—falls suddenly to the floor? I want to know what constitutes this refusal, this turning away that also points.

Factory owners accuse the women of feigning. Chemical experts and engineers draw up reports. Healers are called, and monks perform elaborate ceremonies. And still the women keep fainting.


Faint heart, we say of someone who is timid or afraid. In Khmer, there’s a similar phrase: khsaoy beh daung. Weak heart, often used to describe one who faints. In Cambodia, khyâl—wind or inner air—is believed to pass through the body at all times, much like blood. Symptoms of panic or anxiety, such as heart palpitations, are often construed as khyâl’s cessation and may bring about catastrophic thoughts—the fear of fainting, for instance, or even death. The dizziness that presages fainting is said to arise from a rush of wind and blood to the head. Khyâl goeu, this is called. Wind attack.

But dizziness is also a common way of speaking about distress. He shakes me, one might say. He makes my soul dizzy.


3. dizzy

Old English dysig: foolish; related to Low German dusig, dösig: giddy. Perhaps from dheu: dust, vapor, smoke; to rise in a cloud (and related notions of defective perception or wits). Having a whirling sensation, empty-headed, shaking, weak. Used of the foolish virgins in early translations of Matthew.

We stand atop the stool and watch him inside his coffin. The surprising thing isn’t that he’s dead or stiff or even drained. What surprises me most is that he’s still actual and there—that he takes up space in the same world we do, a pillow dented beneath his head.

And then the stool begins to shake. It happens slow and also fast—the stool teetering beneath us, our knees giving way. The satin of the coffin is red and gleaming, and I know: That’s where I’m going. No one can save me from it. No grown-up, no God. Not even my cousin beside me.

But when I open my eyes, we aren’t inside the coffin. Instead, we’re tangled together between coffin and stool, grown-ups coming to fish us out. The aftershock of falling drags little animal cries from our throats, and it startles me, this sound—the sound of the world flooding back, voices washing over us. A moment before, I was alone at the end of the world, teetering at the brink of Nothingness. Maybe this is what it is to come to. An aloneness creeps its tendrils up my spine.


At the cemetery, we play freeze tag. We know to run fast. We know which grave to avoid. Winter light sets the stones ablaze, and they flash at us like gleaming cauldrons in the ground. But we run so quick, nothing can stick to us—not a mumbled hymn in the distance, not even his name. When we get too close, my cousin turns her face away.

We never speak of him, though sometimes, sitting in the back of her mother’s car, my cousin starts writhing and shrieking beside me. I forget! she screams. I forget!

She means his face, I know. This is the first disappearance. Her mother starts carrying a picture of him everywhere so she can see.

Sitting beside her in the back of the car, I start to think of ghosts as faceless—just chapped flaps of skin where their faces would be. It pains them, I think, in an odd transposition: not her pain but theirs.


At night, we tell ghost stories in my basement, though how the ghosts are in them is sometimes hard to say. The rusty nail could be the ghost, for instance—the way it drains the body. Or perhaps the veins.

My cousin’s voice is always coming untethered, rising up and up toward the cellar beams. Be quiet, I’m always whispering. Be quiet. Upstairs, there are footsteps, voices jagged and sudden—staticky ghosts in some wrong frequency. I’m always more afraid.

 One night, she has a story about a drunk who throws his children out a second-story window. In this story, I think, the window is the ghost. Or maybe the falling.

 I know what she’s waiting for. I know what she’s asking: What ghosts live in this house? But I just turn my face away toward the dark. You can never call the ghosts by name.


4. ghost

Old English gāst (in the sense of spirit, soul), of Germanic origin: wrath, wraith, horrible, frightful. Connected to the idea of the wound: to rip, to tear, to pull to pieces, to find oneself undone. The voice that speaks through the wound.

The women come from villages in the countryside, and they bring their ghosts with them. They are fasteners; they are spinners. They sew on tags: Nike, Puma, Gap. Around them, machines click their silver clicks.

The women live in dormitory-style buildings—six, seven, eight to a room. They wake before daylight and pile into trucks. At the factories, they’re told not to speak. Bright blue surgical masks blot out their mouths.

Sometimes they go on strike, chanting in the streets, and riot police shoot teargas into the crowds. The women sing protest songs: O! Ma! Ma! I can’t tell night from day . . . Dizzy and fruitless, hoping one day for health, / Spinning, until the day we return to our beloved mothers.


Among Cambodians, the incidence of panic attacks and sleep paralysis is particularly high. Khmaoch sângkât, people say. The ghost pushes you down.

Dreams, it’s believed, arise from the wanderings of the soul, or proleung, while the body lies asleep. Recounting a dream, one speaks in terms of the soul, never I. A dream of a particular place means the soul has left the body to journey there in the night: My soul went to a rice field in the countryside. A ghost attack signals that the soul is in danger of becoming dislodged: The ghost strangled my soul’s neck.


In our office, there’s a woman whose father is rumored to have worked at Tuol Sleng, the torture and extermination center. But these are just whispers. Encoded silences. You don’t talk about the things you know. Don’t take your heart out of your chest to let the bird peck it.

The oldest reporter at the paper was seven in 1975, the year of the fall. He lost his parents and all five siblings. I’m not sure how I know this, just that these things are known. Encoded. At story meetings, he frequently begins: Yesterday at lunchtime, when I was at the brothel—


It’s hard to know which stories of the Pol Pot years are true—their scarcity turns each into a kind of parable. There’s the story, for instance, of the woman who escaped the work camps and managed to make her way back to the city. But the city had been emptied; no one lived there anymore. She found her way back to her old neighborhood, to her old street. She walked the empty sidewalks like someone returning from the dead, looking for something, anything, to remind her. But when she found her house, she knew she couldn’t stay.

Not even ghosts lived there, she said.


One day, the oldest reporter comes and pulls a chair up beside me. My life is like a bamboo train, he says, apropos of nothing. Many ups, many downs.

He sees the Khmer homework sitting on my desk and points to the word spin.

The word spin is the same as overwhelmed, he tells me. Your soul spins out of your body.


5. spin

Old English spinnan: draw out and twist; related to spinnen: spinner, spider. To weave, plait, braid, spin yarns. See also: the three Fates, esp. Clotho—she who spins.

We put our ears to walls and knock, searching for secret passages. We hold séances and petition the dark: Who are you? What is your name? We run away screeching, not waiting for the reply. Who knows what ghost we might call up out of the dark? Who knows what we might name?

When my cousin leaves, the clocks tick still, and night lays close and heavy. I stay up late. I keep watch.

In the mornings, the world is mostly where I left it. There are things that are always there, nameless and familiar as my own skin. They take up space and no space at all. The empty glass always on my bookshelf in the morning, a dot like dried blood at the center. The way my feet stick to the kitchen floor. Broken glass like cracked bits of light.


But sometimes it’s not the same world at all.

One morning when my cousin is visiting, I wake up and find I can’t move my legs. They feel like they no longer belong to me, like they’ve forgotten how to work. Or like I’m a ghost, disappearing in reverse. It’s the morning she’s supposed to leave—catastrophic things always seem to be happening when she leaves.

I have to be carried out to the car and into the doctor’s office, where I sit on crackly paper, afraid. But just before the doctor lays his hands on me, my legs shudder awake. Fear sets them running again.


There are ways to leave the world, though most require dying. It’s true that you leave at night, asleep, but when you wake the next morning, the world is still mostly the one you expect. After fainting, the world you come back to isn’t the one you left. It takes long minutes to become familiar again. Or it takes long minutes to believe: Yes, this is the world—the real one, mine.

Coming to, this is called. There are the usual questions: where and when. But before that, there’s something else. Not who am I or even what, but a question of being an I at all.

If you’re coming to, there must also then be the question of where you’re coming from. And how can you come from anywhere when you’re no you at all?


6. tongue

Old English: tunge, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch tong and Latin lingua: language, dead language, forgotten tongue. The thing that slips from the tip of the tongue.

Some of the women break into tongues before fainting. Afterward, they recall sensing an omen of blood running through the factory. They describe a dark path they can’t see with their eyes. There was darkness all over my face.

At a Chinese-owned factory, one woman screams in fluent Mandarin, demanding offerings to the local ancestral spirit, or neak tā. The woman is possessed by a ghost, some say. The factory owners have failed to make the proper offerings.

The women scream, bent over in pain. Their eyes roll back in their head. But afterward, they can’t remember the things they’ve said.


In the early seventeenth century, the French city of Loudun became the site of one of Europe’s largest mass possessions. At the public trials and exorcisms, lasting for years, the possessed spoke in a high Latin they claimed not to understand. They too were women and girls in cramped quarters—a convent of Ursuline nuns. They were also from small villages. Most were very young.

At the trials, the possessing demons were commanded to say their names. Often, they refused, saying nothing or simply, Enemies of God. Sometimes they shrieked with hysterical laughter. Ha-ha, did not tell you.

Or they claimed to forget their names. I forgot my name, said one. I can’t find it.

Another: I lost it in the wash.


7. darkness

Old English deorc, of Germanic origin, related to tarnen: conceal, hide, disappear. Dark smoke, dark shadows, the looming dark. But darkness came. A stab in the dark.

The year of the fall became known as Year Zero, as though time itself had been stopped. Asked about this term decades later, Nuon Chea—Brother Number Two, as he is better known—says that poverty was zeroed, corruption was zeroed. Many things were zeroed.

The enemy had to be smashed, he also says. The Khmer Rouge had a policy of smashing—used metaphorically to refer to the struggle against perceived enemies but also as a euphemism for killing. Victims were sent by the truckload to mass graves. They were knelt down and clubbed in the back of the head so that they fell forward, zeroed, into the ground. Some trucks were filled entirely with children. In official records, they’re noted only as smashed.

A prison without walls, some call those years. Fire without smoke.


Words weren’t the same words anymore. The Khmer nation was now known as machine, from the French. The word blood became glittering and sublime: spilled blood, glittering blood across the fields. The sublime blood of the workers. The regime itself was known only as Angkar—roughly translating to the organization, though it came to take on a kind of all-seeing impermeability, a force at once ungraspable and close. Officials often referred to it as having the eyes of a pineapple—a panopticon seeing in all directions.

Angkar was vast, god-like and all-knowing, yet it was also intimate and close: it invaded every sphere of life; it dragged its victims off in the middle of the night. It forced marriages between strangers upon threat of rape or execution. Those about to be executed were often told, Angkar wants to see you.

 Even a word as innocuous as sneur—to ask—took on fatal implications. Soldiers would appear and say Angkar had asked for a family’s son. To ask came to mean take away and kill.


8. body

Of unknown origin.

Who are you? we ask the dark. What is your name?

We run away before we get to the last question. Asking, after all, can be a dangerous thing. How did you die?


At fifteen, we starve ourselves or we run away from home. We are possessed. We are stricken with things we can’t say. Our own names sound strange to us. Our eyes roll back in our heads.

This is the year we are trapped: inside houses, inside rooms. The body itself can become a trap. We are held captive in our own skin.

By sixteen, we believe our mothers when they say maybe we’re dead. Maybe you don’t have a pulse. Maybe you’re dead. They’ve merely spoken aloud what we secretly believe—that we’ve already begun to disappear. That we can’t speak our own names.


I forgot my name. I can’t find it.

I lost it in the wash.

If the possessing spirits couldn’t say their own names, the possessed, in turn, couldn’t speak certain words. It was believed that the devil prevented them from saying, for instance, my body.

One witness to the trials recounted: And when she was brought to say, “My God, take possession of my soul and my body,” the devil twice took her by the throat when she tried to say “my body,” causing her to shout, grind her teeth, and stick out her tongue. Forced at last to obey, she received the holy sacrament that the spirit had several times attempted to make come out of her mouth by causing her to vomit . . . It took more than half an hour to receive it, she being so agitated that six to seven people could not restrain her. She could not worship God, but finally she opened her mouth afterward and communed peacefully.


9. tongue

Old English: tunge, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch tong and Latin lingua. To find one’s tongue, speak. To lose one’s tongue, go mute.

Rape-murder is not a real word, but we use it anyway. The copy chief debates the term but is overruled. Almost every day, there’s at least one rape in the paper. They are child rapes or gang rapes or both. Sometimes they are rape-murders. We make jokes about these stories and judge newcomers by their response. The ones who protest, we know, will not work out.

From the start, I know to keep quiet. For the first few months, I have to wait while the panicky animal in my chest subsides, but then I feel nothing. Or I feel nothing until one day I’m rewriting notes from a Cambodian reporter: the story is about the rape of a sixteen-year-old who then, discovering she is pregnant, tries to kill herself by drinking shampoo. But suddenly, as I type, the words no longer look like words—they’ve become ants marching off the screen. Gravity comes loose and strange.

In the office, we’re always pressed for space, and the copy chief sits so close to me, our elbows touch. I can feel him reading over my shoulder. He intones, Unfortunately the shampoo was Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears. I start to laugh and then can’t stop laughing. The possessed at Loudun also sometimes could not stop laughing. For a moment, I fear I’ll never be able to stop.


There are ways to leave the body, but few of them are quick. Even dying takes time. Fainting is brief extinction—spasm or swoon. Fainting comes and is gone.

But what is it that leaves the body? And what is it then that comes to?

Sometimes it appears to me like a silent movie—darkness and then a grainy film flickering before my eyes, a cast of characters I’ve never seen. But who is doing the watching? In these moments, there’s no one looking out from behind my eyes, no watcher—just the reeling nothingness of space. The mind spins like a broken gear looking for something, anything, to latch onto.


10. darkness

Old English deorc: to fall dark, to be in the dark; unknown, unknowing. The dark that uncovers the dark.

Fainting was common in the work camps—a response to overwork and starvation, to the sight of executions and decaying bodies. Cambodians often attribute deaths during the Pol Pot years to khsaoy beh daung, weak heart, following ongoing exhaustion and starvation.

But the heartbeat is also a signifier of fear, and some researchers view the frequency of heart palpitations among Cambodians as a somatic manifestation of personal and collective trauma. (And what trauma is not both?) Psychiatrist Devon Hinton writes: Here the very activation of the body—the beating heart—may invoke and resuscitate feelings and memories of the past.


Sometimes the oldest reporter is asked a question about a story and he becomes so incensed, his face slides away. Rage appears to float him up and out of his body, and he shouts at the managing editor, I’ll kill you. I’ll kill your whole family. Afterward, he looks around, his hand pressed against his heart, as though he can’t quite say who he is or where.


Ghosts whose bodies were not cremated are known as khmaoch chao: raw ghosts. Those who died violently are called beysaach: horrible-death ghosts.

During the Khmer Rouge years, the dead seldom received the death rites believed to allow the soul to pass easily into the next world. At best, they were dug shallow graves.

In dreams, it’s not only one’s own soul that wanders but those of everyone the dream soul meets. Encountering those who died during the Khmer Rouge years, then, is particularly distressing, as raw and horrible-death ghosts are especially perilous to the soul. It may be believed that a Khmer Rouge cadre, ghost, or sorcerer has forced the soul back to the site of memory in the night.

The dead in dreams, they say, call the soul away from the body. If the dreamer answers, she may never come back.


11. ghost

Old English gāst (in the sense of spirit, soul): noisy ghost, quiet ghost, wakeful ghost. Vengeful, blundering, lonely ghost. The thing that moves too quick for words. Who walks among us like a ghost.

When they first come to the factory, the women are spooked by the machines—their mechanical juts and stabs, the endless noise. The workers sit in lines, facing in one direction. Between the surgical masks that cover their mouths and the paper scarves that pull back their hair, only their eyes are visible. They don’t speak.

Fainting may be associated with speech, as in the case of breaking into tongues, but it also carries connotations of muteness. Sanlap bat moat bat kaa, it’s said. Lost mouth, lost throat.


At sixteen, I return again from running away—I can’t seem to stop. Running away is a kind of fit, a spasm. It shoots me out, this last time, on the other side of the country. But afterward, it’s impossible to speak of.

My cousin and I regard each other warily. My tongue has gone slow and heavy, and anyway, she looks like a stranger. Who are you? I want to ask. What is your name? Our faces hang strange and hollow. Whatever language once existed between us is gone.

Who are you? What is your name?

And the question we could never quite manage: How did you die?


In Cambodia, the dream self is just one of many layered and shifting I’s, all conjured at various moments by the mind: the I-who-makes-offerings-at-the-temple, the I-who-goes-to-the-brothel, the I-whose-soul-is-being-chased-by-a-Khmer-Rouge. The circumstances of one’s birth and naming contribute to the self’s protective cosmology, while episodes of fainting or nightmares point to its possible breaching. The question is not Who am I? but How embedded is my soul?

To feel weak, or light in the body, means the soul may have come loose. To refasten it—especially after a dream in which the soul has been called away—a red string is tied around the wrist.


Before Pchum Ben, the yearly festival of the dead, the oldest reporter’s deceased family members come to him in a dream. He takes his fourteen-year-old daughter with him to make offerings at the temple, where he writes the names of the dead on slips of paper and then burns them. So the offerings may reach them in the afterlife.

An old woman, a monk’s assistant, ties a red string around his daughter’s wrist. May no ghost bother you, she says. May bad luck stay away. May the soul stay in the body.


12. dizzy

Old English dysig: foolish; related to Low German dusig, dösig: whirling, light-headed, stupefied, stupor, stunned. Struck senseless, struck asunder.

The year I’m twenty, I live in Banaras, India. One night, at a dinner at my Hindi professor’s house, there’s some talk of blood and I can feel the world giving way. When I open my eyes, two wizened old ladies peer down at me through thin, translucent veils. They’re the house’s cooks, I realize later, but for what feels like hours, I look at them and don’t know who or what I am: something inside me has come dislodged; I can’t remember my own name.


In Banaras, I’m writing my undergraduate thesis on spirit possession. Every day, I take a rickshaw across the city to the tomb of a Sufi saint, a mazar, where women come to rid themselves of ghosts. At the time, I see no connection between possession and fainting. What I’m interested in is the interchange between shared and private symbols—whatever that means. I explain it to people as the reason there are no alien abductions in rural India and very few spirit possessions in the United States.

Fainting is something I have few words for, whereas I have many words for spirit possession. Few turn out to be of much help. The women unbraid their hair (ghosts hide in braids) and flail their bodies, sometimes spinning in circles. Voices tumble from their throats raw and deep, and family members crouch around them to ask: Who are you? What do you want? But afterward, the women can say little about these voices. They rebraid their hair and smile demurely. I forget, they say.


Possession, I sometimes think, is a language of its own, one you can speak only when you’re inside it. A language, essentially, but an unsayable one. Its questions—Who are you? What do you want?—unmake the central claim of the self: namely, that it is singular and whole, continuous from day to day; that it can be spoken.

In the logic of the unconscious, says Lacanian psychologist Annie Rogers, words are not isomorphic with memory (or its inverse, false memory), but are placeholders for the unsayable. And the unsayable repeats in its own terms, in its own form of truth.

Or maybe this is just another way of saying, as Auden did: And ghosts must do again / What gives them pain.


One day at the mazar, I hear a word that surprises me. Khailna: to play. At first I think I’ve misunderstood, but then I hear it again. I keep hearing it—women describing their trance states as play. Khailna can mean many things: it can mean a child’s play or the playing of an instrument; it can mean to play a part, to perform. I try to think of the body as a site of all these things at once.

Fainting, of course, has its own performative etymology, related to feint and feign. To make something, it implies. To create, to say. But what is it that fainting says? What blow does it feint? The answers never stick. It’s like asking, What does the unsayable say? We don’t know—it only repeats. Its gaps unsay us.


13. spin

To stretch, to twist, to writhe. See: Clotho, she who spins. To turn rapidly, to come unturned. To spin yarns (stemming from garnan, ghere: intestines, guts; colloquially stories); to be witness to the story’s entrails spun and unspun.

In 2012, almost a year after the faintings begin, armed guards are called in at a factory strike in the city of Bavet. The strikers throw rocks at the windows of the factory, which manufactures shoes for Puma. Police are standing with riot shields at the ready when a man enters through the factory gates and fires his gun into the crowd. A bullet enters the back of a twenty-one-year-old woman, piercing her lung and exiting through her chest. It lodges in the body of another woman, eighteen, standing nearby. A third woman is shot in the arm. After the crowds disperse, the factory grounds are dotted with dark red shoeboxes.


The youngest of the three Fates was Clotho—she who spins. By some accounts, such as the Fabula of Hyginus, the Fates were associated not just with spinning but the invention of the alphabet. While the common connection is between fate and time—each Fate representing past, present, or future—their etymology also suggests a link to language. In Latin, the plural Fata is derived from fatum—that which is spoken—which, in turn, comes from fari: to speak.


A picture is released of the shooter, and he is quickly identified as the city governor. Government officials arrive at the hospital where the three women are recovering, one in critical condition. The officials offer money in exchange for silence, but the women refuse. They go on to give testimony at the trial a year later. Their wounds still cause them pain, they tell the court. They are weakened easily. They are afraid every day.

Afterward, they return to work at the factory. The governor is never arrested.


14. vein

A blood vessel or small underground channel of water. To be the vessel that carries one across; to be the stream that runs alive, beneath.

Duel sanlap is how fainting is most often described in Khmer: falling and the loss of consciousness. But words are never that simple. Sanlap comes from lap, or loss, though it may also mean a fluid and whirling type of memory. Perhaps not coincidentally, the word is sometimes mispronounced sralap—darkness following a bright day.

In English, the terminology is no less muddy. For centuries, the medical term for fainting was lipothymia. To leave the mind. It differed from death, it was said, only in degree. Syncope, meanwhile, is a cerebral eclipse, though it can also mean an elision, a quickening of time. In music, it’s a weak beat followed by a strong. It comes from the Greek roots for sun and to cut: it cuts off each time. It upends, escapes.

The greatest fear, I sometimes think, is that we are trapped: in bodies, in rooms, in time. Or the greatest fear is that we are not trapped at all—that we can spill wide open.

If one is, as Kafka says, dead in one’s own lifetime, then the heart thuds a traitorous song: alive, alive. These are the things that move unseen: blood, wind. The heart, which opens and closes invisibly. By what internal mechanism, we can never really say.

Fainting, then, is catastrophe or exodus. It’s an underworld that erupts in broad daylight. Fainting is a darkness, a flare.


In Khmer, to swim across a pit of water means to escape a terrible situation. People frequently say of the Khmer Rouge period, for instance, I swam through those years.


For a while, I think of memory as like swimming underwater. Its shadows fall the way light glimmers through waves—broken and formless; light, dark, light. Eventually there comes a moment, I think, when you have to rise up for air. Eventually you come crashing through.

But it doesn’t work like this, I begin to see. There’s no crash, no through. More, memory closes itself off like a secret passage—nothing but the wall around it—and you swim through the lit rooms of yourself, forgetful and unafraid.


15. come to

To recover consciousness, wake, or (of a ship) come to a stop.

Dith Pran, the photojournalist whose experiences formed the basis of The Killing Fields, disguised himself and went to great lengths to conceal his background during the Khmer Rouge years. But unlike many, he never changed his name, which, should it have been recognized, would have meant all but certain death. He later explained: Your name is given to you by your mother and father and by Buddha. If you are a good person, your name will be lucky and Buddha will protect you.


I faint and then I stop fainting. The ghost on my chest comes and goes.

My cousin and I speak again, though we no longer say and unsay into the dark. Instead, she tells me, almost in passing, I’m going to visit my dad’s grave. Twenty years have passed since we watched her father inside his coffin. That she’s going doesn’t surprise me so much as the words themselves.

My dad.

In all the years of whispering in the dark, I never once heard her speak them.


The oldest reporter tells me that a few years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he won a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union. The most shocking thing, he says, was the doors that would glide open right in front of you. He couldn’t fathom the internal mechanism by which they opened and closed, and standing there in the airport, trying to make his way to the taxis outside, he found himself paralyzed. A group of young men saw him standing there—arms crossed, afraid. They told him the doors were magic: you had to say the magic word to get through. So he stood there for what seemed like hours, trapped.

How did you get out?

I forgot all my Russian. I couldn’t think of any word. So finally I looked down at my plane ticket and saw my own name. That’s what I said to myself as I walked through the door.