The Hand that Heals

On being “touched” by God

Amy Jo Burns
Jun 18, 2019 · 5 min read

My mother told me a story once about the angel who came to heal her in the middle of the night. He appeared at her bedside and said, “I’m going to fix your back.” He touched her, and then she felt a day’s worth of throbbing before it disappeared. After that, the lifelong ache above her tailbone never returned. In her forties, her body freed. My mother taught me the rawest form of pleasure comes from the absence of pain.

My earliest memory of her: the way my mother’s muscles seized while giving my younger brother a bath. I was four. She was twenty-nine. Friends were visiting; we ran in the sunny yard on an endless and warm afternoon. My brother had fallen in the dirt and ended up in the tub. My mother was on her knees when she realized she couldn’t move. Someone called the paramedics, and they carried her out of the house on a stretcher. It terrified me. My mother — who could open any jar, clean any stain, sing any tune — was never frail. Yet somehow she’d become fragile.

Thirty years ago, we attended a church where people were healed. Limps, aches, pains, gone. Healing was a primal act, like breathing. There was no language for it, except for those who could speak in tongues. The sound of it was like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, a mother shushing her baby to sleep. It might have been beautiful, if it hadn’t been a ghost story. All those hot-blooded men, praying the secret words of God. Women, hovering in the ether. Me, feeling like I was screaming at the top of my lungs, but no one could hear.

There’s a fault line where faith and trauma meet.

On one side of the line, this church stands in the fields of western Pennsylvania. It’s mostly empty now. The faithful followers there worked with their hands — roofers, quilters, farmers, hunters. They worshipped a God who spoke with His hands, just like they did.

I didn’t realize until I’d left home that I’d grown up in a faith-healing church in the Rust Belt region of Appalachia. Those terms — faith-healing, Rust Belt, Appalachia — were words I never heard while I lived there. All three are titles thrust on us, from the outside in. An unwanted embrace.

On the other side of the line is this. When I was ten years old, my piano teacher put his hands on me. It was sexual assault, though no one used those words in 1991. It felt wrong; it also felt familiar. Every Sunday, I had watched men press their palms into supplicants who asked for prayer, often causing them to kneel. I’ve never seen such euphoria as I witnessed then. The church celebrated the kind of God who conquered the humans He’d created. We are weak, we sang, but He is strong. My piano teacher — the strong — insisted himself on me, the weak. I couldn’t help but liken him to the God my people loved.

I said nothing — not when the police questioned me, not when my parents asked, not even when I realized I wasn’t the only girl my piano teacher had targeted. I didn’t know how to voice it, which felt like another predestined shortcoming. I couldn’t speak in tongues, either — not like my father, not like my brother would one day. How disquieting to be chosen by my piano teacher, our local god, for his secret things, but not to be chosen by the omniscient God for His.

I forced myself to forget. In 1992, my piano teacher went to jail. By the time I turned twelve, he was released. At fourteen, I saw him walking our small town streets. I couldn’t remember the way his hands had traveled my skin, and I doubted he could remember my name. He waved at my father, not at me.

All I knew: I lacked wholeness. I had the kind of ache that fed on itself. Healing was impossible to find because I suffered a shifting wound. Where did it live — in my heart or my mind? Was it found in the trauma itself, or in its forgetting? No one could put their hands on it, the way an angel had for my mother. Not even me.

I wanted to become my own atmosphere, my own solar system, my own Milky Way. I found sovereignty the summer I turned fifteen, floating face-down in a swimming pool on the outskirts of town. Treading in the deep end, just to see how long I could go. I was surrounded by boys that hot day in July — boys who could outrun me, out-muscle me, outsmart me. We treaded in water twelve-feet deep, and one by one, they fell away. What savage thrills I felt when I saw that my body, on its own, could outlast them all.

Let me tell you more of pleasure like this: in the halo of a pirouette. I spun them every Wednesday night in a squat building overlooking the town pool. Ballet was the language of my longing, the way I orbited something deep inside me no one could reach. When I danced, I was kinetic. I was inertia. I was the angel who reworked her own body until it sang.

Often, we practiced without music. I relished the soundlessness of it, until my teacher broke the silence and said: that was the perfect pirouette. And I knew it was true because I also knew this — inside, I was ever spinning.

The last time I felt it was this: age twenty-one, trudging through heavy snow in a heartless northeastern winter. I never made it home before dark. My feet sank into the snow, the cracking sound of each step echoed as if someone followed closer than breath. But it was just me, alone, dreaming of other velvet nights I’d spent when I was sixteen, while ice spread across the windshield of a boy’s car like tendrils of crepe paper. He wanted to kiss me, I think, but he didn’t dare. I delighted in denying him, in keeping what I had for myself. But that kind of pleasure never lasts the night.

Before I turned twenty-two, I would remember everything I’d tried to forget.

It took me a year and a half to tell my family what my piano teacher had done one summer afternoon, long ago, in the dark of his basement. They responded the way the men of my youth would have — they tried to pray it out of me, with their hands. I was loved by them. I was also misunderstood.

They thought human touch could fix me — but that was their language, not mine. God spoke to them through hands that mend, and I needed a new tongue to speak. God came to me in silence and in sorrow, because there are some wounds that won’t be fixed. Jesus’ scars didn’t heal, and neither have mine.

I said this was a ghost story. But I am not the ghost, as I once thought. I have a heart, and I hurt. I bend, I break. The body holds the memory of pain forever. Pleasure, it forgets.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Amy Jo Burns

Written by

Amy Jo Burns is the author of CINDERLAND and SHINER, which is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Amy Jo Burns

Written by

Amy Jo Burns is the author of CINDERLAND and SHINER, which is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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