Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Katherine Indermaur

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity, the gestation and development of these imaginings focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book. In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Katherine Indermaur, author of I|I (Seneca Review Books, 2022)

Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Katherine Indermaur

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity — the gestation and development of these imaginings — focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book.  In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Katherine Indermaur, author of I|I (Seneca Review Books, 2022)

Katherine Indermaur

Seneca Review Books, 2022

In an early fragment in Katherine Indermaur’s I|I (Seneca Review Books, 2022), we are briefly introduced to Bernardino Ramazzini, who documented Venetian mirror-making technology in the late 1600s.  Ramazzini observes, “Those who make the mirrors become palsied and asthmatic from handling mercury….you may see these workmen…scowling at the reflections of their own suffering in their mirrors and cursing the trade they have chosen.” This quote is followed by Indermaur’s own thought, “Seeing the reflections of the subject’s own suffering magnifies it. Blink in a mirror and it happens twice.” This book collects the different ways philosophers, scientists, mythologists, poets, historians, and the speaker herself have reflected upon the mirror and its implications for gazing at oneself. Sometimes this mirror is a pond, as in the reference to Aesop’s fables; sometimes it is the tool that enables Perseus to slay Medusa; sometimes it is “a misalignment of air,” as the speaker describes standing in front of the mirror with her husband after picking her skin, unable to cover up the rawness. The reader learns about the history of and varied perspectives on the mirror while simultaneously fragments slowly reveal the speaker’s own complex relationship to her reflection. Living with dermatillomania, the mirror is a trigger and an obsession. We view this struggle through little slivers, looking at the author from the corners of our own eyes as we contemplate how suffering is magnified and what practices hold the potential to diminish it.


A practice: To determine where one experiences oneself, a simple
test related to mirror images may be used. When the subject’s eyes
are closed, try writing the number 3 on their forehead. Ask them,
What do you see in your mind? Is it a 3, or an E?

If they see it as an E, the implication is that it is being seen from a
psychological self inside their head. If it is seen as a 3, their psycho-
logical self is before their face.

There is some evidence that more men than women see themselves
from the outside—from in front of their face—as though they have
mirrors watching their own expressions, how they appear to you.

Now that you know the trick to discerning where one experiences
the self, you of course can’t know yourself. You’ve seen the trick re-
vealed. Reveal, from the Latin reve¯la¯re, to remove the covering from,
unveil, to raise the lid of, open. To let light

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My husband was sitting on the couch and I asked him to close his
eyes. I|I stepped between his legs and lifted his hair to draw a 3 on his
forehead with my|my index finger, slowing through the loops. I|I
asked him what he saw there. He opened his eyes and said It de-
pends. I|I said No, I mean what did you see there initially. What was
your first impulse.

He said I’m telling you my first impulse was It depends.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My|My dog watches himself in the window that turns, at night, into
a mirror from the inside. Fact is, windows are mirrors always. All glass
reflects some light. Light reflected and untraveling dark. Light and its

motionless lack. In the basement, I|I catch movement out of the cor-
ner of my|my eye and start, startle. Underneath a stack of damp,
empty boxes, a mirror, lurking. I|I say lurking like it waits in shadow
for light. Like something that can turn—be turned.

Lurking, from the German lurken, to shuffle along, from the Swedish
lurka, to be slow in one’s work, from the Norwegian lurka, to sneak
away, in the hope of not being seen.

Haunting, of uncertain origin.

TS: As the accruing fragments in I|I weave together historical knowledge about the mirror with varied philosophical and scientific perspectives, the speaker’s own relationship to the mirror emerges. The speaker reflects on aging, “mourning leaves us vulnerable. In the mirror, I|I am always mourning a face I|I no longer have” (46).  Even when a slight distance is created, there is no respite from connection to oneself, “A common perspective in autoscopy is the bird’s-eye view—seeing oneself from above. To leave the physical body and all its maladies only to be stuck gazing at it. No refuge from the self, always in its frame” (52).  And the sink, positioned below the mirror, is a receptacle for the physical consequences of dealing with dermatillomania, which seems to be triggered from this gaze. An analogy unfolds, “Scabs cling to my|my skin like shells to shore. I|I line them up on the edge of the sink. I|I make patterns where there was chaos before: a whole ocean, a whole landscape unbreathing beneath it. // There is a power in destroying my|self, but it is less than the power of not having to” (50). Here we face the fragile façade of feeling in control when, at the same time, compulsions hold significant power. In I|I, we see the speaker as an adult, trying to change patterns to avoid the mirror, like wrapping scarves around her wounds. We’re curious as to what your relationship with the mirror was at a young age. We find this one reference to a younger self, “I taught myself to look pretty with a mirror. I|I taught my|self sexy with a mirror. I|I learn by error and error and error. // The mirror taught me to look very very closely” (34). This is relatable – privately testing out the performance of certain characteristics, styles, etc. in a mirror before trying them in public. Despite the accuracy of a mirror’s reflection, people are prompted to scrutinize as much as they are to admire, a process that begins at an early age. It’s funny to think about a mirror’s reflection being a long-term, daily relationship nearly as much as our own bodies. What kind of presence was the mirror to you in childhood? Was it a surprise being, a real relationship, a singular space created, or something else?

KI: When I think about the mirror in my childhood, I also think about the beginning of the book: “As a child I|I stood staring at the reflection of my|my eyes in the bathroom mirror switching off and on the overhead light. In the on position: the quick closing of the center of my|my black-point eyes, the shock of light swelling the blue. In the off: the center growing dark open to dark open, like ears hoping to listen” (2). There is a playfulness here in the experimentation with the world, with trying to understand it. That was one of the first passages of the book I wrote, maybe even the first.

Necessarily, I also think about how my relationship with the mirror in childhood was one without dermatillomania symptoms, without the compulsions you mention. (Body-focused repetitive behaviors, or BFRBs, often onset during or after puberty.) I find myself in a position of wanting to look for early signs of those compulsions in childhood, or to somehow explain their absence, but this justification-by-timeline doesn’t strike me as honest. Like, how do you describe a phenomenon’s absence without orienting the whole endeavor toward that phenomenon?

There are certainly signs of cultural pressures taking root, such as in the “I taught myself to look pretty with a mirror” passage you quote. For me, this was the primary mode of interaction with the mirror as a girl. It was a tool to get ready to be seen by others, to become presentable or even worthy of esteem. It’s interesting to have to see yourself before it’s seemingly appropriate to be seen by others, though. To become worthy, you have to confront the unworthy.

So in my childhood, the mirror was both an object of fascination and a tool.

TS: Interspersed throughout I|I are “practice” sections. These practice sections create repetition in a book that allows fragmentation to build a portrait of the narrator. These sections also ground the narrator’s voice in a body while taking the reader back to their own physical self. The speaker frames the concept of practice in relation to trying to manage her dermatillomania, “All my|my many systems. Systems of practices. A belief becoming.  // A practice: one way to intentionally conduct my|body toward hope.” (59) Practice is equated with hope. Later, we are shown a specific practice that the speaker participates in:

“A practice: On a summer evening, I find a meadow. I walk to its middle,
roughly. Turn slowly in a circle, breathing, watching the perimeter. Then
change directions—circling, breathing, watching. I do this as many times
as I need to convince my self that I am safe here in this meadow.

Once landed in safety, I close my eyes. Remember every way I have
thought to end my self. At each remembrance, I come back to the safety
of my meadowbody. Open my eyes.” (69)

Hope segues into security. This practice documents the meadowbody as a grounding force, gives us an example of how to reflect on suicidal ideation and still feel safe. Other practices don’t document the speaker but, instead, instruct the reader. They range from instructions for babies playing with mirrors during “tummy time” to instructions that ask the reader to look at the self in the mirror for one minute every day. To see past the self, to see “nothing at all” and let “astonishment” creep in (10). Some are even more open ended, like the practice of eating foods with reflective surfaces:

“Suggestions: Coffee. Hot glazed donuts. Waxed apples. Melting cheese.
Glossy broth. Lozenges. Ganache. Before bed, make of them a list. Circle
all the listed vowels. Distill the most common vowel and write it big on its
own piece of paper. Inside your mouth, find the shape your tongue makes to
pronounce this vowel. Fall asleep holding this silent shape inside” (41)

The practices in this book seem to be on a spectrum from calming to disruptive. No matter where they fall, they offer the reader an opportunity to interact with objects around them in a different way and consider themselves through new lenses (new mirrors). The book itself becomes reflective by pointing to the reader and asking them to participate with or mimic the writing. Life mimics art. How necessary do you think it is for people to interrupt typical patterns of behavior and thought to see ourselves differently? As you were constructing this book, how central was it to you to bring attention to the reader’s own experience of their body in the text? How important is it to you for readers to be invited to participate in the practices beyond just reading them and picturing the steps?

KI: Thank you for drawing attention to these special “practice” sections of the book, which are dear to me. They were a later addition to the book and feel structurally integral to it now. They don’t just function as reprieves from the less embodied, more erudite main text, but as their own accruing system.

To address your first question, I think it’s essential to interrupt typical patterns of behavior and thought to see ourselves differently. To me, this is what reading so often does—what viewing and participating in art does. We come to new understandings of ourselves through songs we hear, movies we see, books we read, art installations we visit.

To get to a point where we can see ourselves differently, we must first possess a fundamental curiosity about ourselves, to understand the self as deeply mysterious. Perhaps this is why Rilke defines love for the young poet this way: “I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Intention is immanently rewarding, too. As I write, “The closer I|I look, the more there is to see. // The reward for looking deeply is like an afternoon spent at one window—how the day opens, deepens within a frame” (4). One of the things I|I believes is that putting oneself in the way of mystery, orienting oneself toward curiosity, being open to receive—that this is a true method of healing.

Because the effects of dermatillomania are as felt on the body as they are in the mind, it was important to me that I|I work to incorporate bodily participation in the reader. (Of course, incorporate comes from Latin corporare, to form into a body!) I think there’s this misconception that mental illness is contained in the mind, that is, until it spills over into self-harm or suicide. But it isn’t. Mental illness is physical. To live with mental illness is an embodied experience, even if it’s not outwardly visible.

This insistence on embodiment is where ritual’s magic plays out. Across time and cultures, rituals have been shown to remove uncertainty from physical experience through trusted instruction of what to do with one’s body, even if the body is in objective peril. I think here, in particular, of the vision quests many Indigenous adolescents were sent on in order to become adult members of their societies—vision quests in which they did not eat or drink, in which they understood from tradition and instruction that they were to climb mountains in this extremely vulnerable state. Participants described a mental acuity and clarity, a great physical calm, and a feeling of connectedness to something greater than their own individual body.

It is less important to me that readers actually physically follow the instructions in I|I than it is for them to feel that shift in the language. I have no control over how readers engage with my work, nor do I wish to have that sort of control. I hope instead that readers approach these sections with curiosity about the workings of their own minds and bodies, though, and stay in tune with the way their bodies make the text real—how deep the breath, how tense the throat, how big the pupils, how tightly the hands grip the page.

TS: I’m wondering if you could speak more to how your notion of healing evolved as you were writing this book, and I’d also be excited to hear about your definition of scrying, which develops throughout the text.

The practices also remind me of Yoko Ono’s books Grapefruit and Acorn in that the reader is asked to participate in the text with the intention of moving from the body into the mind. If a reader can begin to imagine the impossible tasks Ono sets before them – for example, reading something they have written that has been folded into a crane or watching snow fall until it covers a specific number of buildings – the reader will also be able to imagine a larger task that seems impossible: world peace. However, the practice pieces in your book move from the mind to the body and they help the reader to see the possibilities of reality. On page 65, there is a practice that created an amazing image as it discusses picking at one’s own (divine/ Christ-like) wounds as almost a divinatory practice:

“A practice sanctioned by Jesus: Put your fingers into your wounds.
Worry yourself open. Make yourbody transparent in spots. Like
there is a truest layer, a deepest surface.

Oh little wounds, little faith. Belief: Scry again and”

This is an echo of the definition of scrying this text sets forth, hinting at the author’s own complicated relationship with (self-)reflection on page 8:

“Mirrors offer more seeing. A deepening of sight. My|My vision opens out, opens into the surfaces of things.
My|My open visions out, unsurfaces things.
Staring, I|I scry to believe in the world in layers.”

And the definition of scrying over not just the body and the mirror, but also over writing on page 58:

“The moon remains the same, with or without the light that is not
hers. What I|I’m saying is that it’s not my|my language in my|my
mouth. Words are reflections. Their color’s in the saying, the scry-

I love the unfinished sentence in the practice on page 65. This coupled with blank space requests repetition infinitely. I realize that we can talk to our wounds, which is one genesis of writing. This practice digs deeper into flesh, into the possibility that a body contains universal truth, though this truth is not simple. Nor is it found when its sought.

Scrying is both an act of divination as well as a vehicle of human emotion – to call out, to cry out. Etymologically speaking, the crying out came before the divinatory practice of reading into objects. Scrying takes practice out of our heads and into our bodies. Unlike Ono teaching readers to imagine peace, I / I asks the reader to see the body as it is. A warning comes with this idea: We may not always take what is imagined to a place of peace.

Another question arises: What is the importance of writing that does not work toward imagining peace?

KI: The connection you draw here between healing and scrying is so interesting. Scry, meaning to gaze into a reflective surface with the intent to see one’s fortune or the future or the like, comes from descry—meaning to catch sight of, especially from a distance, or to reveal (per the Oxford English Dictionary). We can think of scryers as those witchy folks who gaze into crystal balls to tell you something you don’t know about yourself but want to. And, as you said, the earlier meaning of scry is crying out.

There’s this idea in scrying that the mirror is a portal, an opening in the fabric of the known world into a place where time is not delineated and where the truth is what’s visible. (In our world, surface is what’s visible—and it’s often not true, which is one reason we look to crystal balls and things.)

Wounds are also an opening. Wounds are receptive. Like eyes scrying. Wounds reveal the truth about our bodies—that we are fundamentally permeable, unsafe, tenuous, borderless. I’m thinking now of those medieval paintings of Jesus’ side wound that look very much like a study of the labia. In that passage you quote about the “practice sanctioned by Jesus,” I was thinking of the long and often female tradition of stigmata, a Christian mystical practice of seeing the crucifixion wounds of Jesus upon your own body. I was struck by the surface-level similarity of the wounds I get from skin picking and the wounds a stigmatic claims for herself. For the stigmatic, her wounds make her receptive to divinity.

The mouth must open to speak. And the ears must be open to receive language. I knew that as I|I interrogated etymology throughout, I’d have to reckon with that digging—that unsurfacing of words for their ancestry I do repeatedly in the text. Beneath the surface of each word lies an entire history of bodies writing, singing, screaming, whispering—speaking.

I|I does a lot of reaching. One of my favorite passages of poetry ever is this one from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.:

I falter where I firmly trod,
_____And falling with my weight of cares
_____Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
_____And gather dust and chaff, and call
_____To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

I love this image of a world-sized, dusty staircase in the dark. I love that the staircase is an altar—consecrated, making the climber a kind of sacrifice.

This is certainly a lot of where the reaching in I|I is rooted. In In Memoriam, Tennyson calls to what he feels is divine. Crying, scrying, for something beyond the sloped surface he climbs.

When thinking about your final question, I find myself at this image of reaching. I think imagination is essential to every piece of creative writing. Imagination sits at the center of a contradiction. To imagine, one must both doubt and hope—doubt in reality and hope in possibility (Dickinson: “I dwell in Possibility —”). I|I does imagine, but it doesn’t stick to one kind of imagining the way Ono’s work does in your description. It isn’t satisfied with possibility alone. It needs the depths of doubt, all its layers open, to reach.

TS: This book seems to research our relationship to, and dependence on, light as much as it excavates the history of mirrors. In fact, the word “light” is mentioned approximately 64 times in I|I. Mirrors need light to function, to fulfill their purposes. They also turn our bodies into light as you state, “In mirrors, light is all we are” (55). Light is not just what illuminates the exterior. You reflect, ““Light, as particle and wave, spans both surface and depth” (6) and “The Palace of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors contains 357 mirrors bedecking 17 arches. Each arch contains 21 mirrors arranged like windowpanes so as to reflect the palace gardens, to bring the outer world in as light” (22).  Here, you’re referring to the landscape refracted into a domicile, but we can also read this in the context of our bodies, as visible experiences being incorporated internally. Letting the outside world into us.

When I first started reading your book, I thought light might be an enemy of sorts, because it allows the mirror to function as well as to trigger dermatillomania, but we end up with much more complex offerings of light. Further into I|I we are reminded of the early biblical reference to light (Let there be light) as well as your own divinatory understanding, “The Godhead, a light source, a face to shine upon you. Across the great divine distance, an ancestry of faces. So much to mourn. So many distant, heavy hours” (46). Light can shine with otherworldly attention and it can illuminate what we need to mourn. Light also emerges as a way to exist, more of a philosophy of being, “There is a way to be present without being absent of what’s already here. It is the way of light” (64). How did your own relationship to light evolve or change as you researched and wrote this book?

KI: Light has always played an outsized role in my writing (or maybe a right-sized role, come to think of it), but I really was overcome by it when I moved from North Carolina to Wyoming a decade ago. My time in the sagebrush prairie, the alpine, and the Utah/New Mexico desert have all profoundly influenced the way I think about light and, subsequently, divinity, and beauty.

That last quote you mention, “There is a way to be present without being absent of what’s already here,” came from my understanding of Mark Strand’s poem “Keeping Things Whole,” which begins: “In a field / I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing.” Light strikes me as a way to get around the law of the conservation of energy, that energy in the universe is neither created nor destroyed. While yes, light is both a kind of energy and a phenomenon caused by the release of energy, like the nuclear fusion of our sun, it also has an accumulative feeling because it allows us to experience more of what is through sight. In that last quote of mine, I am reaching for the possibility of an abundant universe, one in which we don’t always have to take to give. Light’s illumination practically gives presence rather than being the absence of anything else, like Strand’s speaker’s body being the absence of air or birdsong or pollen or flying insects while walking through a field. In my mind, light gives us permission to keep things whole by belonging. We don’t have to constantly be on the move to keep things whole—and, just maybe, we can even give back more to that wholeness.

TS: I really like your explanation of “unsurfacing” as digging up the ancestry of words. Digging into our own skin, this also brings us to our internal psyche. One theme that emerges in I|I is transformation. Sometimes the desire is to transform from subject to object or to be both at once. You acknowledge the mirror’s power, “A curse:  the subject of staring. The subject is punished for being-holding beholding themselves. The subject pines for the beauty of their own reflection, for subject/object” (24). Here, the ache is the pull to be simultaneously the subject of beauty as well as the object viewed.  Not one turning into the other but being both at once, for the self. Not too much further in the text, you introduce the physicist Carlo Rovelli and paraphrase him, “Rovelli says people are not things, but happenings. // Light isn’t matter, but process. A we becoming” (30). Here, we move away from curses and objects and toward sentient beings as movement, continually evolving events. In this optimistic definition, humans are transformed into experience and potential, a process of becoming. Later in this collection of fragments, transformation becomes less existential and more tangible:

“In a yoga class, I|I heard a woman confess that she thought her
pregnancies would cure her of anorexia. They didn’t, granting
instead a deeper nuance to her dysmorphia, knowing her body
was capable of growing then birthing then nursing and still seeing
wrong, seeing fat.

I|I confess that I|I, too, have held this hope—that being pregnant might
purify me|me of my|my desire to cause my|self harm, that seeing my|self
as a vessel for another would keep me|me from hurting my|my child, thus
from hurting my|self.” (53)

Transformation seems both hopeful and slightly desperate. The desire seems to be that a more drastic physical change/experience will also bring psychological relief to an affliction someone has been battling for years. As someone myself who lives with OCD intrusive thoughts, I understand this hope. For me, it wasn’t entirely futile, although the hope hinged on geographical change instead of bodily change. Sometimes I needed to physically be in a radically different location to break up the intrusive thought loop. It helps disrupt the pattern. Do you think humans are capable of radical transformations? Are there aspects or sides of the self that feel possible or impossible to transform?

KI: I am glad you indicated that the transformation seemed desperate as well as hopeful. The desperation is important to me because our culture so often shames desperation as weakness. I think we could use more desperation in our culture. It’s indicative of caring deeply about something, which is vital everywhere.

I believe that humans are capable of radical transformation. I think the trouble with radical transformation is that it usually requires radical crisis. When I think of radical transformation, I think of my friends who have gotten sober, given birth, gotten divorced, uprooted themselves and relocated, gotten educated, left the church, estranged themselves from family or communities. These transformative moves were all preceded by crisis: addiction, the body breaking open, leaving home—they all needed something different. These transformative changes require a bravery to trust in the process when there is little to no evidence that the process will actually stick. Sounds desperate, right?