BY LILLIAN BROWN
L’appel du Vide:
The literal English translation of the French phrase "l’appel du vide" is "the call of the void," but it means something more along the lines of the urge we all have to jump from high places, or into traffic, into the void.
The blue fish has been swimming on its side since I woke up this morning. He wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary before I fell asleep, but that still allows for an additional four hours of distress. This particular situation doesn’t come as that much of a surprise--certainly nothing out of the ordinary--and serves more as a dull reminder of what’s to come. The fact that it’s happened before, multiple times, allows a familiarity that saves me time from having to figure out the meaning of his strange movements. His behavior is a sign of death, and part of me wonders if I should just let this one play out. The poor guy has been alive for over three years: long enough to watch his partner leave, long enough to watch the new fish come in, long enough to suffer, long enough.
I’m in bed watching reruns of Law & Order: SVU, and trying to rationalize why Sergeant Olivia Benson is still with the force. Sure, she’s acting captain now, but that took over 15 years, so now what? Maybe I’m drawing in the actress who portrays her, Mariska Hargitay, and trying to justify 17 seasons with the same TV show. She’s the only actor on the show that has been credited in all 385+ episodes, but to what end? There’s captain, then commissioner, senator, president…valiant death? Every great character has an equally great goal, but all goals have an upper maximum.
It’s because of this that my closest definition of limitless is Olivia Benson, the seemingly omnipotent being. Everything that could possibly happen to her character has been written about: the dead mother, the rapist father, the essentially estranged partner/work husband, the assaults, and of course, the fight for her foster child, Noah, against his crazy father after the death of his biological prostitute mother, but the creators of the show are still churning out new stuff, new lines to put themselves on, and then cross. I theorize that this is the first glimpse of the Matrix, but try to tone it down as to not alert "them" of my knowledge, and return to the episode.
The TV always needs to be on. Sleep rarely comes, but having a dark, silent room certainly aids to the insomnia. My particular comfort in crime shows can be a bit disconcerting, but it’s just background. The television is even sometimes left on during sex, much to the beloved’s chagrin, but serves as a quiet pastime for myself after he inevitably dozes off.
The number one show, and what I sometimes feel to be the true beloved, is SVU. My fascination with (fictional) criminal justice led to the discovery of the show, but my decision to stay became so much more. There’s a certain sense of sacredness that comes with the habitual watching of a TV show that has lasted so long. The show itself consists of many philosophical archetypes, and has become a form of religion for me. There is no Hail Mary or Our Father, but rather, the familiar "dun dun" at the end of every scene. The sound is supposed to be a mix of a jail cell closing and a judge’s gavel smacking the bench; it’s magic.
I’ve also begun using jargon from the show. Whenever someone around me gets even slightest bit injured I like to shout: "Call a bus!" And when I’m trying to get a point across, I enjoy referring to things as "especially heinous." But it works, keeps me loyal to the program, and has somehow put a hook in me. Sixteen seasons later and I’m still comforted by the knowledge that there will be a new victim each week in need of justice, and that the squad will always be there to put the pieces back together. This is another glimpse of the Matrix, the linings of our universe.
Insomnia does not have an upper limit. While researchers say that you can’t go more than ten or so days without sleep, insomnia itself can’t be described in any traditionally quantitative value. It’s not two sleepless nights; it’s the first season of Criminal Minds. It’s not a migraine from sleep deprivation; it’s one of USA network’s NCIS marathons. Insomnia is nine or so episodes--not hours--of SVU a night, with moments caught in between awake and asleep, but never past that in between.
During one of my recent bouts of insomnia I came across a rerun from late season 13 that began with a taxi cab abduction and then a severed leg with an octopus tattoo and then another severed leg from 2001 (both caught by a crazy fisherman) and then a one legged woman with an affinity for elf ear modification and then a psychiatrist who had sexualized severed legs because his mother lost hers when he was in middle school. I was intrigued. I was horrified. I was intrigued again. I can’t quite tell if watching the program brings me pain or pleasure, so I decide on something in between: pressure.
Throughout my sophomore year in high school I had a friend who always stayed up with me when I had trouble sleeping. I remember that, on particularly rough nights, she would say, "The void is calling me, sucking me up." Although I couldn’t vocalize my understanding (I still don’t know if I can) I knew what she was talking about. Looking back on it, there’s no way the void hasn’t always existed, but these inklings of recognition, slivers of the bizarre, are what begin to fill in the gaps, substantiate the void, and make cosmos out of chaos.
The girl, a part-time insomniac, gave me her two betta fish when she graduated that same year to "help pass the time in the middle of the night." She was giving me her companions, passed down to her from an old biology teacher. It seemed like a casual enough commitment, since the pair had already passed the average betta fish lifespan, but once my love for SVU transcended to my passion for the fish, it became so much more. The blue and red fish were from then on known as Benson and Stabler, respectively.
I quickly switched them out of the small divider tank that they shared and gave them each their own space, but still kept them side-by-side. It was great. They were great. They were Benson and Stabler, partners.
But one night, as I attempted to coax Stabler out from the bottom of his tank (not floating at the top, like on TV) for a feeding, I noted his lack of mobility, and general paleness compared to his usual, electric crimson. He almost seemed to come out of his body when I jostled the tank, hoping for some sign of life. But the lights had gone out, just like that. He was there, and then he wasn’t. Much like a certain fictional Detective Stabler, I unabashedly thought as I carried the tank to the bathroom, trying to come up with the best way to dispose of the carcass. He was there, and then he wasn’t.
This matter of life and death quickly prompted me to look up statistics on the fish, which led to the decision to buy another one (this time a purple and brown "baby betta"), on the assumption that Benson would sadly be gone soon enough. The new fish was tiny and constantly zipped around the tank, providing a challenge every time I tried to change the water. I call him Fin, Detective Odafin Tutuola.
If this was fiction, the former owner of the red and blue fish would have also been an avid SVU watcher, but she wasn’t. If this was fiction, every day would begin with a "previously on," providing a recap of my life that would tell me what parts would be relevant for the next twenty-four hours. It’s so easy when SVU does it. If there is a big cliffhanger in the season finale, the next episode--the premiere--will open with flashbacks. The show’s creators run on the assumption that you’ve been with the program for a while, or that you’re at least a little bit familiar with it, but they’ll still help you with the details. This usually works and is enough to please the fans, except for a few years ago, when they broke the law, the contract between audience and show. They were no longer straddling the line. No, we were long past that.
They left Olivia--the viewers, really--hanging. A repeat sexual offender emerged from the shadows of her apartment in the last sixty seconds of season 14 and pointed a gun at her head, before saying, "Welcome home, Detective Benson," and finally, lunging. The creators took out the heart of SVU and beat it to a pulp, before cramming it back in wherever there was a gap, leaving it damaged and beating in places that it didn’t belong. Yes, this was art, and yes, the show would prove to handle it with their usual grace for such a vulnerable topic, but this would be her second assault, second close call to rape, and this time she was in it for days, fans for months, as we waited for the fifteenth season.
This was also the first summer that the red and blue fish were in my care, so I took to paying extra close attention to the pair, rationalizing that if they could survive the break, then the real, fictional, Detective Olivia Benson could too. So when the two betta fish and my favorite heroine made it through the summer together, I knew that it was fate. They are all part of the void: this thing that is (at best) an impression, a negative of the picture that is life.
During school breaks, when I sleep at home, my mother spends a decent amount of time chastising me for being able to sleep with such horrid content in the background. She is, of course, referring to the wide array of cop shows I watch, with an emphasis on Dick Wolf Productions. The man has created an entire universe, with fictional crossovers between Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago P.D., Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, as well as the unscripted productions of Cold Justice and Cold Justice: Sex Crimes. I usually argue that the show isn’t giving me bad dreams (my nightmares are more of the medical horror genre) and that it proves to be a brilliant distraction, from boring (or frightening) sleepless nights. It’s true, other than constantly thinking that I’m being followed when driving, I’m surprisingly unfazed by most of the horrors. Yes, new episodes still get my heart thumping, and particularly gruesome crimes have me reaching out to the people that I love most with a long overdue text or e-mail, but in general, I’ve developed a stomach for these sorts of things.
It helps that there’s heart in the show, and not just in the form of Olivia Benson (although she’s definitely the linchpin of the squad). In season sixteen, it is revealed to the audience that one of the two Stabler replacements (whom everybody has grown to love) is, in fact, a rape victim herself. This is a first for the core squad, and explains some of the questionable decisions and self-destructive choices made by the Atlanta native, Detective Amanda Rollins. While it had been hinted at in some of Rollins’ earlier seasons that something happened to her in the past, she had always pushed it off as "something not worth pursuing." I immediately re-watched some of her primary episodes, and did what I had done all those years ago with Olivia Benson: I looked into her back-story, sought out explanations for her actions (not justifications or excuses), and found empathy, humanity, and tenderness where I’d long forgotten to show it.
A few episodes after the big confession, the one that rocked the SVU squad’s (and my own) understanding of Amanda Rollins, consists of multiple conversations between Sergeant Benson and the detective. In one talk, when Amanda is telling her superior about her progress in recovery and the suggestion of continuing with therapy, she tries to assure her that she’s okay, and getting better. Benson explains that she gets it, but asks, "Can you go back to the detective that you were five years ago and feel compassion for her?" I immediately answer the question during a late night marathon, well aware that I feel compassion for Detective Rollins, but quickly realize that most of the recovery is, in fact, a matter of self.
Lilly, forgive yourself.
I found these words in one of the "random_notes.docx" files on my laptop. While they were in the same document as the late night ramblings of "I found my toothbrush in the shower," I still believe that 3 am me was onto something. I’m not quite sure what part of me it is that I need to forgive, but I’m pleased that I’ve recognized this to some extent.
This was around the time that I began to really question my plans for potential career choices. For the longest time I was set on being a homicide or sex crimes detective, or even a pediatric oncologist--something gruesome, something that innocence should be spared from. It wasn’t some valiant attempt to play hero or rescuer, but more of a quiet struggle to protect someone else, and--something that took years for me to understand--maybe even a punishment of sorts for myself. Olivia Benson put it best when, in response to someone asking why she did her job, she said, "Somebody has to do it."
In the second episode of the series, a young Detective Olivia Benson walks into her captain’s office, Donald Cragen, after discovering that they’re two of the last people in the precinct late one night. In a simple attempt to forget her own reasons for solidarity she asks, "So, why are you alone tonight?" Cragen, a reformed alcoholic, proceeds to share the circumstances of his wife’s death from years ago, and how all he wanted to do was drink again, "hoping for surrender--oblivion."
Olivia understands, personally, but also equates the concept to the victim of that episode who "slept with every guy on the block just to get to that same place--oblivion." Oblivion, like the void, is a siren when you most need it, when you’re most susceptible. And for something that tries to kill you, it’s very comforting.
I bring Benson through the house, past all of the TVs, and into the dark kitchen, so that I can shred a few peas for him, all the while watching as he struggles to lower himself to the bottom of the tank. One fin flops around uselessly, turning him further onto his side, while he filters through the freshly changed water (the second cleaning that day). I’m not even quite sure what I’m trying to accomplish by feeding him bits of peas; I just know that it’s worked before. Somehow the food clears the infection from his swim bladder, allowing him to regain control of his movements. The concept is simple but not easy, otherwise it wouldn’t be so hard, and leaves me with a hollow sense of compassion that usually feels like enough. And for now, it is. For now, it’s 9 pm on a Wednesday night, and there’s a new case. For now, forever, I’m awake.
Lillian Brown is an articles editor at The Missing Slate. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine, Switchback, and Driftwood Press, among other publications.