Reclaiming the Self: Door of Thin Skins by Shira Dentz

Aviya Kushner
| Reviews

Door of Thin Skins by Shira Dentz (CavanKerry Press, 2013).


Door of Thin Skins is a collage of poetry and prose—confused, astonished, active, and passive—set in 1980s New York. It is the harrowing story of the abuse of a young woman by her much older, married therapist, anda book that benefits from multiple reads. Because Dentz’s sense of disorientation is such a central part of the narrative, the first read positions the reader. The second read establishes disparate elements, the visual depiction of shock and sadness, and is also about taking the opportunity to appreciate the arresting individual lines and phrases that populate this book. The third read is about tracing exactly how this could have happened at all.

Paradoxically, initial confusion is a great strength of this eighty-two page collection, because it recreates the sensations that surround the start of abuse. The collection opens with a description of Dr. Abe, the “therapist” at the center of the narrative: “A/whale of a man greets me at the door of his penthouse apartment. Very/ friendly.” A reader familiar with Moby Dick immediately thinks back to that classic, and it is clear that this “whale” will form the central story and the moral challenge of the collection. As the book pushes on, the “whale of a man” takes over the then-twenty-one-year-old narrator, shadowing her life for nearly twenty years. Door of Thin Skins tries to prepare us for the events that unfold, and yet, we are as unprepared and appalled as the speaker must have been.The relationship gets strange very quickly. Dr. Abe spouts a fountain of disturbing quotes that seem to fall on the borderline between fairy-tale statement and garishness. The doctor’s comments only seem more chilling, arranged sparely in poems, often italicized so the reader can feel them echoing over and over in the victim’s mind. They become a fairy-tale-like sequence, and focus on devouring the girl. A poem titled “O,” which appears early on, reads:


The Dr. says, if I could put you in my pocket, I would.

I know this isn’t right, that I should be wishing such a thing:

perhaps I could become the size of a fairy tale.


The page then devolves into a long line of plus signs, as in mathematics. And then:


a fairy tale.

Repetition and echo make it clear just how powerful a hold the doctor has on her. In case Dentz’s diminishing sense of self-worth and power isn’t obvious, the rest of the page is composed entirely of minus signs.

Immersed in the language of the book, gripped and yet lost, trying to understand, I kept thinking—is this legal? And of course, it isn’t, but it takes until page seventy-five for an investigator to contact the narrator/victim and ask for her testimony for a possible case. Dentz describes that appalling passage of time—six years—brilliantly, on page seventy-seven:


Onetwothreefourfiveyears pass   on the sixth    Prosecutor H.

calls an


These lines are a relief, but are also an example of how layout and letters work together in this collection to recreate the experience of the speaker. The layout shows both the writer’s visual aptitude and her awareness of how music makes a world. It is this understanding of the sounds of silence, and the look of it, that elevates this collection from therapy to art. The writer is able to tell her own story, despite the efforts of a “whale of a man” to remake her narrative to suit his wishes.



Aviya Kushner’s first book, The Grammar of God, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau/ Random House. Her poems have appeared nationally and internationally, in Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, The Jerusalem Post, Poetry International, and Salamander, among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry, and teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

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