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“Don’t fucking lie. Seriously, don’t fucking lie. Don’t claim to have been the only white girl gang-banging in South Central. Don’t claim to have been raised by wolves. Don’t claim that you took a root canal without pain killers. You are not a bad ass. You are a writer. The first step is to accept this and not fucking lie.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates, on writing a memoir.
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. I understood for the first time the power in the image of the rivers, the Styx, the Lethe, the cloaked ferryman with his pole. I understood for the first time the meaning of the practice of suttee. Widows did not throw themselves on the burning raft out of grief. The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief (not their families, not the community, not custom, their grief) had taken them.”—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Why I Am a Thief
Editors’ note: In 1902, Mary MacLane, a nineteen-year-old-girl from Butte, Montana, published a book detailing her fantasies, her outrageous philosophical ideas, and intimations of her own genius. The book was a sensation, selling a hundred thousand copies in its first month, and launching her into a short but fiery life of writing and misadventure. A template for the confessional memoirs that have become ubiquitous, “I Await the Devil’s Coming,” is being published in a new edition by Melville House this week.
Here’s an excerpt: http://nyr.kr/Ykht64
Photograph: Library of Congress.
I miss you. Those weighted words sit like gravel in the back of my throat, leaving tiny tears in the lining of my esophagus. I swallow hard. I know you miss me too, but I fear that this is all of my fault.
I made this happen.
I was six and I just had to have a dog. There was no ifs, ands, or buts about it. At first you were reluctant to oblige because you thought I was too young to take care of a pet, but after persistent begging you finally caved into the idea. I was ecstatic. We brought her home a few days before my birthday, at the tail end of December.
She loved the backyard almost as much as I did. We built snowmen together, well, I built the snowman and then she would wag her tail and barrel into my masterpiece. I would initiate snowball fights, but she just caught them in her mouth and the fun was over.
She was my best friend.
Spring awakened with a steady downpour of rain. I watched it through the kitchen windows, waiting for the sun to take her throne in the sapphire sky. Finally she did but when you brought me outside to play in the backyard we discovered several holes dug into the ground by my new best friend. You were livid and demanded that I go inside ‘right that instant’.
That was the last day of Spring Break. When you dropped me off at mom’s later that night you had calmed down, you told me not to worry about the dug up yard, it wasn’t anything that a little mulch couldn’t fix and that next weekend, when I visited, you would have it looking as good as new. I was incredibly relieved, and gave you a kiss on the cheek and hopped out of your truck.
That was the last time I saw you prior to the accident.
The next day mom picked me up from school early for an emergency. Her face was drained of color and her eyes were swollen as if she had been crying. I was confused. She explained to me that you had rented a bigger truck to pick up mulch for the backyard and that when you stopped to get gas you realized that one of the back tires was sitting lower than the other three. While you were pumping air into that tire something terrible happened. It exploded. This explosion occurred just inches from your face.
You were helicoptered to the nearest hospital unconscious. I think mom called it comatose, but I had no idea what that entailed. There was extensive brain damage, critical injuries, and a severe absence of any hope of your survival. I was devastated.
Six months later the unthinkable happened, you awoke. I was told that you had lost what equalled up to a quarter of your brain. You had to relearn everything. You could not eat, talk or walk by yourself. Honestly, when I finally saw you two years later, you were no longer my father. You were the ghost of the man I loved.
I miss you, the real you, so much sometimes that I become blind with rage at who you have become. You are a miracle and I am ungrateful, guilty as charged. I make up excuses as to why I don’t visit you more often but it all boils down to the fact that I don’t know who you are as much as you don’t know, and that is a hard pill to swallow.
Still, I miss you,
I suppose I always will.
I broke up with her a few days before my dad had his heart attack and it was the most difficult thing in the world because of the dynamics that tend to form in abusive relationships. I felt hollow. I felt like a can of pinto beans with just the juice left over at the bottom. She showed up on my doorstep a few days after my dad’s heart went kaput. I woke up to see her standing in my bedroom. I thought I was having a nightmare. She had taken a taxi 70 miles because she didn’t like driving on the freeway. The taxi had left her there, so I was stuck with her for the day. I didn’t brush my teeth. She came with me to the hospital. We sat outside and shared a cigarette. It was cold. She moved up against me. I was uncomfortable but I didn’t say anything. When I took her the hour and half long drive back to her house, she asked me to come inside. I did. Within five minutes she had my head pressed between her legs. That was the first time I realized that I didn’t need a blade or a flame to hurt myself.
“I always believed I was different; as long as I can remember I have felt like an outcast, as if I didn’t really belong to my family, or to my surroundings, or to any group. I suppose that it is from that feeling of loneliness the questions arise which lead one to write, and that books are conceived in the search for answers.”—Isabel Allende, Paula, trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden
“Why am I so anxious? And then it hits me. I'm not anxious, I'm lonely. And I'm lonely in some horribly deep way and for a flash of an instant, I can see just how lonely, and how deep this feeling runs. And it scares the shit out of me to be so lonely because it seems catastrophic -- seeing the car just as it hits you.”—Augusten Burroughs; “Dry”
i remember the first time i learned to hide my feelings. the elementary school psychiatrist called me out of class to talk about my parents’ divorce. her name was linda. she was nice. she showed me images of faces making different expressions. she had me point at the ones that represented how i felt. i didn’t know where to point so i made it up. she was really nice.
i remember the first time that not having feelings felt natural. i had been in an argument with my mom and i left the house. when i got back a couple hours later, the house was empty. i found a note on the couch. it was in her handwriting. it said, “i can’t do this anymore, tell the kids i’m sorry.” i was holding my phone and for some reason i threw it as hard as i could at the wall. i didn’t feel anything after that. i figured she was dead. an hour later my stepdad got home and he told me she was alright. she was in the hospital. she had overdosed on her meds. he laughed about it. i went to see her. her lips were black with liquid charcoal. they make you drink that when you overdose on pills. when i went back to school all my teachers looked concerned and asked if i was okay. i smiled and said everything was fine. i was fifteen.
i remember the first time i let myself feel something in a long time. i was twenty four. i hadn’t eaten solid food in weeks. when i tried to, i would throw it up. nothing felt real. i had formed nonsensical delusions in my head about everyone knowing i was dying and no one telling me. it was one long panic attack. one day i was in the car and some cheesy song came on. the sun was in my eyes. i started crying. i just decided to let myself. everything came back. i was alive again.