Blot Lit Reviews: My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
Imagine you’re sick—you’ve caught that bug that’s been going around. Now imagine that all of those symptoms you’ve been suffering are invisible, and when you get back to work the following the week the best excuse you can give your boss is that you “haven’t been feeling well.” You can’t explain why—or even how. You just weren’t feeling good. For many this experience is no game of make believe. It is the reality of living with a mental illness.
The negative stigmas that come with those living with mental illness are often misplaced and cruel. Elissa Washuta’s My body is a Book of rules, is a unique and structurally innovative memoir that follows the author’s struggles with mental illness, identity, and substance abuse during her college years.
Washuta viciously attacks her past and her present with candid snapshots of painful and emotional experiences in her life. Her stories range from snapshots of her native American ancestry to “getting kicked out of Catholic school,” to casual sex, drinking, and the reality of functioning (or not) with Bipolar Disorder. In all of this, Washuta’s work is, at its core, a tale of the feminine experience. The explorations of mind, body, identity, and culture—are ultimately an introspection of Washuta’s experiences during her time in college.
Abnormality, something that frightens many people, is what gives power to this work. Washuta felt no need to follow in the patterns and expectations of the literary works before her—she does whateer the fuck she wants and it’s really and truly refreshing. Danielewski would be proud. The myriad of different structures—from IM conversations and blogs to psychiatrists letters and prescription information—create a frame for some of Washuta’s harshest experiences.
Take “Preliminary Bibliography,” for example:
King, Stephen. Carrie. 1974. New York: Signet, 1975.
I adored Professor Satelmajer for putting this on the syllabus, because it was a bold move. By senior year, I was tired of reading high-quality literature and was glad to have something trashy to read. On my “books read.xls spreadsheet, there is a month long gap between my completion of this book…and the completion of my next book for pleasure. Matching up that list with the list of my prescriptions filled at the University Health Center Pharmacy tells me that the cap coincided with my potentially-nearly-fatal reaction to Lamictal. I was bedridden for two weeks with a fever of 103, and then covered in a rash, and then immobilized by Benadryl, and then put on lithium instead of Lamictal. I thought my life was over; why read? To what end?
The faux annotated bibliography spans most of her lifetime and is a realistic and human in its exposition. I know I have quite a few works, songs, paintings, whatever that I can’t look at without associating it to a time in my life.
Perhaps the reason that things like “Preliminary Bibliography,” works so well is Washuta’s writing style. She wastes no energy on the “flowery,” or “extra,” and instead uses her talent to develop emotionally cutting truths. This is particularly true when she speaks of bipolar disorder in particular. Perhaps my favorite work in the memoir is “Many Famous People Suffer from Bipolar Disorder,“ where Washuta uses the life of Kurt Cobain to exemplify a depressive episode.
“I wanted to move to Seattle because it seemed as good a place as any to be blue. Thirteen years after Kurt died, I moved. What did I expect to find? Ghosts thrive here, but they never talk to me… at Linda’s Tavern, the bar where Kurt was last seen alive, a friend of a friend kept filling my pint glass and resting his hand on my thigh. Moving through the compartments of the bar, Kurt must have been noticed, much more visible than I. The friend of a friend sexually assaulted me that night. I left my body when I flattened my back against the couch and the friend tried to get inside me. No ghosts passed through the room, no guardian angles. I was all by myself, without Kurt’s ghost watching over me the way fourteen I dreamed he would….so I fell back into my body and took care of myself. No one else can.”
This piece continues in this manner, and Washuta organizes it under the symptoms of those suffering from bipolar depression like: The patient may feel sad, occasions for celebration often have little influence over dark moods, manic episodes may be triggered by schedule changes…etc.
If you are looking for a light and happy read, sorry, but it isn’t My Body is a Book of Rules. Washuta barrels straight into the nasty grit of living with exceptional insight and a writing style and structure that is completely unique. It’s an innovation, one that definitely belongs on your shelf.