A Review of Brahna Yassky’s Slow Dancing with Fire
May 20, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Jennifer Lang
By the time Brahna Yassky, author of Slow Dancing with Fire: A Memoir of Resilience, realizes her skin is on fire, it’s almost too late; fifty-five percent of her body, including her right arm—her painting hand—is marred. In her early thirties, she spends three months in a burn rehabilitation unit followed by the better part of a year in her parents’ house outside NYC, where she has no choice but to surrender and accept help with the mundane acts of living, from being fed to being dressed to being driven. Over time and with a tremendous amount of outpatient therapy and unconditional support from her family and her own determination not to be considered a burn victim, she regains enough strength and mobility to return to her loft in Tribeca, where the accident happened.
In the first four chapters, as Brahna floats in and out of a morphine-induced state in the hospital, she flashes back in time to her earlier life: childhood, lovers, painting. The constant switch between her present realities—the medical staff check-ups, the bandage changes, the therapies—and past memories mirrors her foggy state of mind.
Brahna puts a lot of emphasis on beauty, exteriors, and appearances, and on seeing and being seen. But when she looks at her skin and finally understands the extent of the damage and the finality of her body after dozens of surgeries and skin grafts, she wishes she were invisible. For the first time, she is forced to look at the world through a different lens. That shift in perspective becomes a journey of healing, of self-acceptance, and of understanding that beauty is inside.
Her journey, of course, doesn’t happen overnight or all at once but slowly, over time. First, she widens her circle, lets extended family and select friends visit, dares to show herself. Then, still unable to paint, she focuses on others, sharing art with people in need like the elderly, disabled children, and low-income schoolkids. Each experience makes her appreciate how much joy it can bring and how therapeutic it can be to those who are lonely or lost, broken, or burned. Next, she earns her credentials as an art therapist.
But Brahna writes:
In the year since my accident, I’d become obsessed with the intimate knowledge of how life can change drastically in a flash and was drawn to people who had that experience. I saw other people’s flaws as the most interesting parts of their faces and bodies. Mental and physical wounds were the stuff that moved and inspired me, but I still couldn’t accept them in myself.
To accept her new body means accepting loss, both physical and emotional. The summer after the incident, when she rents a house in the Hamptons and starts living in the world per her doctor’s recommendation, her only sibling and his partner, two of Brahna’s biggest cheerleaders, visit. Dressed in scar-compression garments, she bikes and plays tennis and swims in fresh water every day, but none of it is easy or comfortable. When she expresses her desire to drive to Montauk and buy fresh fish to put on the hibachi that she didn’t dare light, her brother says he came to relax, not to be her chauffeur, which sends her into a tantrum. Much to her shock, the men pack up and leave, unable to and uninterested in catering to her needs or wishes. Their once close relationship becomes distant and painful. And because of some deft foreboding earlier in the book, we know it will not end there or well.
In contrast to losses, Brahna gains experiences she never imagined. Her open-mindedness and willingness to try new things lands her making a short movie about the accident then writing this memoir. Her need to overcome and accept her new body is inspiring and contagious. While I’ve never experienced physical trauma, I’ve had my own version of drama and had to dig deep, to be resilient, to reinvent myself, to start anew every six years after my husband and I moved—countries, continents, cultures—in search of home. Sometimes it takes reading about other people’s resilience to recognize your own.
Jennifer Lang, born in the San Francisco Bay area, lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as assistant editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat—practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003—with her legs up her living room wall, Lang’s experimental memoir-in-shorts Places We Left Behind will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.