THE SHADOW WOMAN • by Joanna Bressler

The woman limped in on two canes, sat down, sighed, and folded in on herself. We all gave her the once-over, some of us surreptitious, others not. The woman had high cheekbones in a square face. Around her mouth she was caving in with age, wrinkle folded into wrinkle. She’d let her hair go white. But she’d been attractive once, in a stern way, like a nature poet or the dean of a women’s college.

Possibly she’d had a stroke. It was there in the two canes, in her lopsided mouth, in the way she gripped her hands convulsively. To stop them from shaking, that’s what we all thought.

We invited her to speak first because this was her first time.

It took her a long time, each syllable punctuated by pauses, stammers, throat clearings. Grimaces distorted the left side of her mouth. No one had foreseen the rocky speech. It seemed more of an infirmity than her limp and her too visible attempts to control her hands.

She said she was grateful to be at the meeting. She said things were hard for her right then. Of course, we all thought she meant the stroke, the limp, the mouth, the canes; we all thought she meant her uselessness. But she never said that, never acknowledged it by word or gesture. Did she not know?

We tried to hide our disappointment.

You see, everyone in the meeting is on the lookout for someone. Someone to care for them. To understand how much they’ve suffered, how hard they’ve tried. To be that one person who will reverse loneliness and sorrow, absolve guilt, undo past mistakes, make sickness go away, make it all better. Everyone is looking all the time but trying to hide it all the time too. No one ever talks about it directly. In fact, no one ever talks about deep need here. Only about shallow triumph.

This new woman was not a good candidate to be that someone, that one who could absolve everything gone wrong in a life. Too much had gone wrong in her life. The tics, the canes, having to struggle for each word out of her mouth. Whoever she had once been, whatever she had once accomplished, she was diminished now into a shadow.

Then, after everyone had their turn to speak and we were gathering ourselves up to leave, she raised her hand. What could we do?

Without warning, her voice burned into us, like stones thrown, and harsh this time or maybe it was what she was saying. Nothing about gratitude. Nothing about it being hard for her. About stabbing herself, she started right in with that.

“I used to stab myself in the legs. I don’t do it anymore, I can’t remember the last time I did do it, it was a long time ago, maybe a month, maybe two, maybe even longer. I didn’t cut myself, I stabbed myself.”

She opened her hands to us, “Like this. Here and here and here, over and over and over…” and as she spoke, she drove her fingers into the tops of her thighs, her nails aimed straight down. Her nails were not like a college dean’s or a nature poet’s at all; they were like snaggleteeth. Like scissors, like penknives, like switch blades. They were not like anything human. Dark red spots surfaced through her beige slacks and still she lectured on, her voice vibrating through our meeting room like a pistol firing.

Everyone hunched down in their chairs to avoid it. Everyone’s fingers curled up into their palms, everyone trembled, everyone turned cold, everyone would have stammered had it been their turn to speak. Everyone felt like they were about to burst open and start telling the truth.

Then the room shimmered as if a strobe light was flashing, On then Off, and the woman slumped back in her chair again, coiled her hands into tight little balls, and said, her speech impeded and her facial tics working away, “But I don’t do that anymore. I’m better now.”

Even so, we’d seen her step out of her shadow.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Joanna Bressler was a dancer, a therapist, a psychology professor, and even worse. Now she writes and edits, publishes creative non-fiction and, as of today, publishes fiction too. Thank you, Every Day Fiction, for making it happen non-posthumously.


Rate this story:
 average 5 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Incredible poet imagery that carried me into the tense and frightening action. Your creative phrasing and moving pictures held my attention like Velcro. Wonderful work.

  • Wow. Just wow. The narrator’s tale, the story of these meetings (and how right on that was) and how this woman just turned it all on them… You told the woman’s story through the narrator’s eyes. Not an easy thing. Edge of my chair. Well done.

  • There was a lot to like about most of this story — sense of anticipation, tension, and so on — but the ending sort went off the reality mark.

    I can’t imagine someone not stepping up and stopping the old woman. To let her stand their and hurt herself to the point of visibly bleeding seemed very strange. Was there no one to stop her?

    Also, and I’m not sure exactly why, but the third paragraph from the end (the “everyone” paragraph) felt like a voice or POV change. Maybe not, but it also felt off.

    Three smaller stars today…-

  • JenM

    This was hard to read, even painful. But it was a nescessary read and oh so so perfect in showing us what we needed to see. Five stars.

  • I think this would have been much stronger if there had been less repetition about her infirmities. We are told about the tics, the canes, the shaking hands 3…4 times? Some of these could have been cut. Being told this over and over did not make what was going on stronger, it lessened it for me.

    three stars

  • Rose Gardener

    The author has been very observant of the ‘damaged’ amongst society and how even those seeking their own emotional comfort see the physical shell before the inner shadow. I found this riveting, moving and thought provoking. 5 stars.

  • What kind of group was this? A twelve-step program? Group therapy? A women’s church group? Does it even matter? No, it absolutely does not matter, not to me.

    From being peripherally curious about the other group members and the purpose of the group in general, I was drawn to the damaged lady like iron filings to a magnet. Her intensity turned every other group member into a helpless spectator, no different from the reader.

    Excellent writing and a marvelously intense tale.

  • I don’t know if the metaphor of the pistol firing towards the end works for me.
    An intense scene, a snapshot of an encounter, but I don’t know where it was going.
    However, very intense, I felt that I had to shut my inner voice up and listen to this poor old lady in the story.

  • The first paragraph was a bit of a struggle, but after that some great writing.

  • Amanda

    Chilling imagery that I wanted to look away from…but couldn’t! This piece leaves me with plenty of questions which only made me want to know more, read more. I read this once this morning and then again now because I continue to think about this artfully, hauntingly created scene. Five stars.

  • I loved the ‘groupthink’ use of first person plural here – it was very effective and really drew me in. But I’m feeling really dense right now, because I’ve read this three times and I’m clearly not seeing what I’m meant to see. Without understanding what kind of group it is, I felt a little adrift. I didn’t understand why they were disappointed that she didn’t talk about her ‘uselessness’ or how that tied into them hoping to find someone to absolve them. I feel like I’m completely missing the emotional context of what they’re doing there.

    Is the self-harming meant to be literal (fingernails sharp enough to draw blood through her slacks? Is that possible?) or is it a metaphor? (If so, what for?) Why did it seem to frighten/paralyse them but make them feel compelled to start telling the truth? What are they lying about/hiding normally? What was going on with the shimmering/flashing light at the end? If she was diminished to a shadow of former self but the stabbing meant she stepped out of her shadow, is the group saying that it was a good thing?

    I really want to like this, but I don’t understand!

  • vondrakker

    Sorry Joanna, I got lost as to
    the point of it all.
    3 ***

  • Suspenseful writing– and I liked the weird not-knowing-ness of the story.

  • A compelling, tragic story that unveiled infirmities and strengths in a way that made me want to read more about this woman who held the attention of the group. 5 stars from me!

  • Gretchen

    Cool story. Very powerful scene.

  • Chuck

    Terrific story. Compressed: nothing wasted. Great impact.

  • Erica

    Wonderful story, chilling to the bone. I particularly liked the word repetitions–canes, mouth, everyone–drove the story into my head like the woman’s fingers into her thighs. Great work Joanna. 5 stars.

  • I am reminded of an older, disabled woman having just checked into a room in Ventura, California last summer. She had returned to the front desk, demanding that the harried clerk send someone to correct some perceived fault in her own room immediately.
    After she left, the clerk informed me that this act was one of many played out every weekend of the year. The motel was the woman’s stage, and we were her unknowing audience.
    Your tale was much more powerful, but it reminded me just the same that life really does imitate art.

  • Wendy T

    I agree with Carrie, that the physical characteristics were overdone but I like the emotional feel of the whole piece. My enjoyment was marred by rather too many unanswered questions – but the imagery was powerful and the story will haunt me for while.

  • jessica

    Made me shiver. I think I’ve been to this place, more than once since I recognize the feelings of the narrator. Yikes! Good story.

  • patricia hickerson

    I give Bressler’s story a nine for suspense as well as smooth and riveting style. Having sat in on a lot of similar therapy sessions, I appreciate the underlying humor of the piece. The old woman’s story was almost Buddhist in a Christ-like way. Take in the suffering of the world, breathe out cool, open, fresh content. Story needs to be re-read to get all the nuances.