Hands Off: On Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely

Touchy Feely (2013) | Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures

[content warning: this essay contains mentions of abuse]

Abby, a massage therapist, sits on a toilet in a bathroom crowded by the prickly calm of spider plants in full, fanning bloom. She scratches her knee, and the camera hones in on the bumpy geography of her skin—the scraping of her nails like the static buzz of an old television set. Gently, she presses two fingers down into the flesh, watching the skin deflate and spread as if it were water jolted by the flat of a skipping stone. Beneath the light pressure, the knee reveals a tinge of redness. Abby continues to knead, then leans in to investigate. Something close to apprehension—or revulsion—peels across her face.

In the now, to write about touching is to write about carelessness. For the past few months, my fingers have curled inward, tucked away from the threat of any shared surface, any plot that exists between my body and the potential for another—or whatever traces we may unintentionally leave behind.

These anxieties transform the casual day into a frenzied dance, a domesticated horror show. I wake up, drink water, then scrub my hands to numbness. I eat a scrambled egg, then stare out the window—the colorful properties of outdoor life confined and shrunk inside the frame. I move to the couch, to a book I don’t read, to a movie I watch in the sense that I’m staring. I do things like go for a walk, make signs for a protest. I pick up a loaf of bread from the storefront.

Carelessness survives in these motions, a small ghost that tugs at my hand when I reach for the button at the corner of the street, or when I pull the gate to my apartment open, or when my hand unconsciously drags my hair away from the eyes. With each brush, the day darkens, and I trip into the image of my body spread out like a toxic mist over everything.

*

The sight of a body stripped of human legibility is uncanny—to stare so deeply into one patch of flesh is to no longer recognize the being it belongs to. Abby, as spectator, aims her disgust for her own surface as though she were staring at it from above, through a bird’s eye. Her mouth twists into grimace, like she can’t make legible the fact of her skin, the freakish sight of her body naked and visible in the low bathroom light. When the camera zooms into her knee again, the surface warps into a stretch of unsmooth land uninhabited by feeling. From her vantage point, the body is not only separate—it does not exist. In its place, a cracked and splotchy wallpaper creasing over bone.

Skin, then: a kind of alien entrapment. 

Like Abby, I have dragged my own history of touches across a valley of dead cells in search of refuge from it—the skin that is mine. The self I can’t abandon.

The film’s plot, on the surface, reads as whimsical—Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a massage therapist who succumbs to a seemingly random fear of touch around the same time that her dentist brother, Paul (Josh Pais), develops what his patients consider a magical, healing touch. Unable to perform her professional duties, Abby retreats inward, thereby closing herself off to her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Conversely, Paul sees a boost in his ego on account of his unexplainable healing powers. His excitement distracts him from the needs of his own daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), who wants to leave his nest but stays put out of obligation. But while director Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely is interested in its characters quirky dynamics and arrested developments, the film is moreso about the destabilizing force of contact. It is also about a woman’s longing to tame a piece of that wildness, that sensational fear impossible to language. 

Touchy Feely (2013) | Magnolia Pictures

Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), so broken by her sudden affliction, longs for a touch that won’t induce nausea. It’s a romantic contradiction, how she asks for what repulses her. 

I mean romantic in the idealized sense.

She commands her longtime boyfriend: take your shirt off, then stares as one might a car upturned and ablaze—a mix of awe and bewilderment blotting out the care in her eyes. She tells him: kiss me, then flees from the room as he approaches.

Romantic—like a dream. A fantastical want.

Standing over the exposed back of a patient, Abby bears into the crevices. Her hands hover, stagnant, above where they’d otherwise knead serenity back into the body’s stream. Instead, she wavers, twitching, refusing touch. Her outstretched arms cast shadow, then disappear from the frame.

I don’t remember when I stopped touching my mother, only that it happened because she said it did. The proof is in her strained face when I stand outside the airport, lifting my luggage onto the curb. My arrivals and my departures—these are the two exceptions I allow for contact, try not to flinch at. My mother wraps her arms around me, and it is brief, and I am cold, and I am trying my hardest not to be.

In the present months, I’ve awoken each morning with an urge to be held down long enough so that my body relinquishes all function. This, despite the aversions I know are still there.

I’ve found longing in the present myth of a hug, have shocked myself imagining any form of embrace. In my aloneness, I’ve been free to make-believe a version of myself that is not panicked by the suddenness of a finger—one not waiting anxiously for the casual violation of open arms to end.

Abuse is difficult to literalize on the page. Often, it is an act devoid of any clear meaning, a burglary conducted with no interest for the objects inside the house. The question becomes how one might take inventory of a feeling once the broken glass is swept and all the doors are relocked. 

Here, for instance, I can put words to the image, but I can’t image the words. I consider this lack to be a reflection of my weariness, my distrust for the images I have made to make sense of what has happened to me. 

In this sense, I am less like Abby and more like her brother, Paul, a family dentist who inexplicably develops the ability to heal his patients’ mouths at the same time Abby loses her ability to heal their bodies. Initially, Paul is a skeptic. His business is failing and he can’t seem to wrap his head around his sister’s occupation. Dentistry is practical—the results are finite, tangible, literal. Reiki healing is less so. You relax on a comfortable stand and hope the oil placed upon your body drags whatever psychic horror is plaguing you out into the open. Paul distrusts the powers of Reiki until his own magic manifests. His patients consider him god-like in his ability to rid them of their pain. As such, he becomes skeptical of his own hands and the tangible labor they perform. Reiki thus provides him with a new outlet—a communing with a force he can’t otherwise see.

And so, like Paul, I wade through the possibility of magic, hoping each time I am touched that I might suddenly receive it as one would a gift, or a compliment. This is to say, unburdened.

I’m drawn to another image in the film: alone, Abby stares at the fronts and backs of her hands as if waiting for them to tell her something she doesn’t already know about herself, some secret key that might unlock the source of her dismay and free her from within. Her magic is gone—she no longer believes in it. And yet, a small part of her waits for its return. I find the tiniest pinch of hope in that wish—that wish which keeps our doors open for the possibility of change.

*

In writing this, it occurs to me that I’ve written about this fear before, in other ways. An obsession I circle and circle overhead. 

Poetry has been useful for me to think about this fear—this touching—in that it allows for an obfuscation that is acceptable to readers and myself. Poetry smears the fear around, reshapes its properties into imagery I can stomach. Writing this is different. The full sentence is disarming. I begin to type it out and it becomes clear rather quickly: there’s no image I can put here to hide behind. What’s on the surface is scary because, like skin, it merely is.

There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Abby runs into an old flame named Adrian. They speak in awkward gaps and shifting glances, sitting inches apart on a bench overlooking Seattle. Adrian asks Abby if she wants to see the old house he used to live in with his now-deceased grandmother one last time, before he sells it. Their old stomping grounds. Abby agrees to enter, to follow him there. Room after room, Abby all but floats through the space, seemingly untethered, uprooted from the floor.

I remember the light…the light in this room. It felt like morning, but it wasn’t.

One night, I dream myself a pair of wings. Beneath me, a figure on all fours stumbles through a desert, cupping the dry hole of their mouth with their hands. Without warning, I descend, peel away at their face with my face, their arms with my arms. I tear this body to shreds, like paper torn in strips to make papier-mâché. I sink my teeth into a softness, then wake up, alarmed to find my jaw fixed around the corner of my pillow. I am freezing and surprised that my eyes are wet. I am hungry. 

In the waiting room, I listen for my name to be called behind a fish tank big enough to house at least six fully-sized fish, by my estimation. I squint, make out just one—a small, floundering thing, lapping the perimeter. Trying to make use of all that space.

Can you try the doctor begins, to think back to a time when touching didn’t scare you?

In his office, the couch I sit on is blue. The plant on the table sags, but not offensively. These are the things I can name with confidence.

The dynamic between patient and council reminds me of the scene in Shelton’s film where Abby tells Bronwyn, a fellow massage therapist, about her sudden aversion to skin-on-skin contact. Bronwyn stares, incredulous at Abby’s lamentation, then offers drugs as a quick resolution.

I need you to fix me, please, Abby says.

You can fix yourself, says Bronwyn, handing her ecstasy.

It’s important that I tell you that the light in the room was the only thing worth remembering—how it broke across the floor in streaks that almost turn the memory beautiful.

In his poem “God is an American,” Terrance Hayes writes that beauty…makes it difficult to live.

I was a child.

Floating up the stairs of Adrian’s house, Abby says: I remember our bodies, like one thing. Like one complete thing.

The man touched me, kept touching. My body and his body dissolving into one.

Abby: I remember feeling like maybe I didn’t have a body. 

Adrian: Did it hurt?

Abby: I don’t know. That part I don’t remember.

Like beauty, a pair of hands can break your heart. Watching the film in my apartment, I remember the time I almost keyed a friend in the ribs for sneaking up behind me on a walk to the bar. I laughed about it once the panic died down, but the initial twitch—the impulse to enact violence so immediately—unnerved me for the rest of the night. 

Abby’s fear of touch is not rooted in the traumatic, but in the unknowability of the future. What commitments will it force her to make? Which people will remain there with her, when she finally makes her choice? Touching, in the caring sense, allows for a pause—a means for one person to say to the other: I have not left. But Abby’s problem is that she’s always trying to leave. She ducks out quickly so that she isn’t made to settle. Her aversions mirror each other—her refusal to touch is the same as her refusal to tell her boyfriend that she doesn’t want to move in with him. They are exclusively linked—when one goes, so does the other.

If I think back to that room, where it happened, I don’t immediately turn to his hands. What I look at instead is the ceiling, full of gaping, plastered faces. As though I’d paused a horror film right when the victim opened her mouth to scream. Then I think of my parents, so handsy with everyone—so eager to hug, hold, and caress. Their language of care that I cannot accept.

When we talk of assault, there’s a tendency to hone in, or fixate on, the inciting moment—the contact that we can label and deliberate over as if the moment itself exists in isolation. As if the end of an assault ever marks its true ending. As if assault does not stitch itself to your feet like a second shadow, dragging behind you into every place that once made you feel safe. Even the use of metaphor here is deployed to pretty-up what is hollow. I have done it because even now, I am terrified of being looked at in this way.

Abby’s teenage niece, Jenny, is concerned about her father and his floundering business. She forgoes sending out college applications because she feels she’s best needed at home, helping her father with his dentistry practice, a field she has no real investment towards. Her interests lie elsewhere—for one, she has her eyes on Abby’s hunky boyfriend Jesse, a tattooed goof who cares for Abby deeply. 

Jenny desperately seeks some form of release from the mundane activity of helping her father pry into the mouths of strangers. On a whim, she invites Jesse to a concert, hoping, against all odds, he might briefly put aside his relationship with Abby to indulge her desire to be cared for physically, tenderly. Of course, her goal is shortsighted—selfish—but painfully honest. She takes up space on his couch, has difficulty meeting his soft gaze.

Have you ever wanted to kiss someone so badly that it hurts your skin?

It’s a sentiment that aches, and when I hear it stumble awkwardly from Jenny’s mouth, I’m reminded of all the ways my skin has separated me from that need for passionate touch. Yes, there is pain, both psychic and physical, in the threat of one body’s collision with my own, but there’s another pain that sits in the hole between my wants and my ability to reach for them. I’ve spent years trying to bridge my fears and desires, searching helplessly for compromise in a space that is stubborn and unchanging. The truth is that, like Jenny, my want is so simple: to reach out and feel, however briefly, another lived-in mass of a body, the skin and bone, the warmth that is felt on the surface and also beneath it.

Touchy Feely (2013) | Magnolia Pictures

Abby gets her touch back in the end. Proof that fear can be fleeting, or restless—eager to move on to the next hapless victim. She holds her brother’s hand and doesn’t pull away when he places the other one on top. 

The final scene: Around the dinner table, the family—freed of their burdens—luxuriates in the company of each other. The motions of joy are simple: a body brushes against another as it moves to fill an empty seat. Someone lifts a salad bowl to fill their plate. A hand moves to a shoulder and remains. 

And what remains of us? This morning, I lifted the window to better hear the chirping of a songbird. The ballad was quick—it drifted in through the open space and vanished in the same breath. The bird took off, a quick featherlight blur, and in the wake of its absence, I felt a swift pang of loss, like I’d missed an opportunity. Having glimpsed the bird’s fidgety head so close to my sink, I was struck with an urge to reach out and brush a finger against the soft brown—to feel, for a second, the beating warmth of a life that was not my own, not the body I lugged all the way from my bed to the kitchen for water. But I didn’t. The bird was there, then gone. In the empty room, I stared at the dishes piling in the skin, the drooping plants I’d been neglecting. I put my hands on the cabinets, then the dishwasher. I dragged my touch across each wiped surface, walking my fingers across the table, to the couch, towards the television set. I filled my hands with things to do and continued.