A Space for Writers of the World
My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, c2014
225 pages. $16.95
I thought I understood bipolar disorder before reading this book. I thought: highs/lows, chronic disorder, meds, things piling up and some frenzy to cover it all in a headline, a smile, or a definition. Britney Spears. I get it. But I was never so intimate—so close to the electricity and whelm of its particularly type of functioning until now. No longer looking for its sum, I am floored by its morphing equation. Washuta does more than show her experiences in her non-fiction collection My Body Is A Book of Rules. Rather, we see that the life of someone with bipolar disorder is an experience of reading a body in revolt: the push of blood and chemicals, the attack of air to the lungs, and the cells that scream the boundaries and solid truths of a body are all delusions. This book navigates the author’s bi-polar diagnosis and treatments, her move across country from college to graduate school, sexual escapes and feedings, and a rape once unacknowledged, but now underlining and punctuating each facet of her adulthood until we must carry both the trauma and the illness side by side as we read. It’s not a spectacle; it’s not a romanticized madness or tragedy. It’s an impossible search not only for a delicate balance of meds, resources, and self-care, but also the search for a compassionate witness to the meat-space we call our own body.
Taking its moves from experimental writing, this work troubles the ideas of truth and reality by relying on diverse essay structures. Washuta puts the elements of a memoir through a workout: try it as a social media profile, as letters, as diary, as lists, and as dangerous tunneling under technical subheadings and descriptions. She accounts for things, re-organizes her narrative, and builds the event again. In doing so, the book argues there is no one way to tell these stories. Instead, by continually re-fitting the narrative structure of her story, we see new painful shadows and once familiar traces become omens and revelations. For some, the changes in form and the inexplicit connections between themes might limit the reading experience. We’ve come to expect memoir and essay to summarize and put forth one solid thesis in order for us to feel it is worthy of our time. I was, at times, frustrated when an argument was simmering behind a scene or section, but never made it to the surface. However, I think part of writing about and through trauma means re-enacting on the page the confusions, attempts at culling out something called Truth, and even frantic styles and reasoning of a mind experiencing the present. I won’t say the traumatized mind is disorganized or unwell or abject. Functioning with a disorder or under trauma is just another type of reading and expressing, not a lack or error. This book demands we let go of those expectations—give up the happy ending, stop trying to fix or manage things, and abandon the type of sense-making that dresses up as logic. We must make sense with our gut and re-imagine the tent poles that hold up Reality.
This is not to say the book is manic or disorganized. The language itself shows signs of careful coalescence. Washuta’s sentences are not spinning out into confusion, but they do gaze for long periods of time while the room spins or they seek a drain—they whirl down into something. However, when the syntax seems its most hurried, there are moments when a particular line or paragraph finds a poetic stability. Its beauty is both in the bare lines that read like a truth and in the building language that gets us there. Washuta is also careful to bring in her quirkiness and humor. It’s usually a darker, cynical mask, but it is playful enough to remind us of ourselves—of our own humanness. There exists in this work a particular laughter and wit that is hard won after years of surviving. I found myself caught in her images, always honest and vulnerable, but made easy and remarkable simple and sly: “My heart is stuck up in a tree, waiting for you to knock it down with a stick.”
I came to this book (as I imagine others might) expecting Native American identity to be the focus and it is a thread that moves through the work. It is not, however, fully developed, which one may take as a sign of a forced theme or perhaps the work of a promising, but first book writer. When I wanted a solid connection between the author’s experiences and how it reflects her heritage, I began to question why I, as a reader, think there is a work—one book or essay or line—out there clearly about Native American identity. Just as the fellow students, mentors, and even our narrator within this memoir are quick to tally up Washuta’s Native-ness, why did I feel it so necessary to seek her definition of Native American identity and to carry it along side her mental illness and trauma? To be honest, I still don’t know if wanting more of a discussion on female Native American victims of assaults is a programmed response to memoir and Native American writing or if I can guess the connections, but would like to read it in her own words. And maybe her non-answer is an answer more truthful than what would make me more comfortable as a reader. Regardless, I do realize now that this book has picked up on her ethnicity as just one of many centers, all of which are moving out of eyesight under different magician’s cups. Each time I think I find an answer, it has vanished. But this is not performed for entertainment nor is it a trick on me, the reader. Rather, lineage and causation become stale things that only a delusional person who believes we can find our own story as a clear path uses. I had to let go and say I give, I give. I know nothing of why the mind does what it does, why the body is a place of taking for others, why one’s ethnicity is not blood, but is life-giving and thumps around ever-present. I know nothing, but only the song of movement. I know no story, but the rattle it makes as it is shaken through a maze of body. I’m a fool to seek answers in a labyrinth. Instead, there is only Elissa’s voice—strong, raw, beautiful—this voice and the walls and depths that shape its echoes.