A Review of Elissa Washuta’s
My Body Is a Book of Rules
By Elissa Washuta
Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2014.
224 pages. $16.95 (paperback)
Elissa Washuta’s memoir My Body is a Book of Rules has so many narrative threads, I found myself wondering: how do you contain all this material? How do you tell the story of rape, which comes through fragmented or shadowy in memory? How do you tell the story of bipolar disorder, which commands a long roster of medications, sometimes mimics psychosis, and draws up such self-hatred that you can’t trust your own brain? And how do you tell the story of owning your Native American heritage, navigating your own awareness of it and everyone else’s perceptions of the way you do or do not belong in it?
My Body is a Book of Rules isn’t a straightforward narrative. Instead, Washuta gives her story many containers: a doctor’s letters, diary entries, a term paper, a list counting down her sexual partners, a prescription log, a bibliography, chat transcripts, an imagined Law & Order: SVU script, a Match.com profile, heavy footnotes, and short biographies of saints. This isn’t even an exhaustive list. But as each new form arrived chapter by chapter, I thought: “How else would you tell this story?” How else would you convey these disorienting, gut-punching yet defining experiences? One of the blurbers of the book, Sallie Tisdale, wrote, “It reads like the inside of your own head.” I wouldn’t go that far, but would say that the many forms are incredibly effective in carving out these narratives and somehow approximating the experiences for readers.
You could say there’s one main narrative arc: a young female writer with bipolar disorder, reeling from sexual trauma — an unreported rape — moves from Maryland to Seattle to attend a graduate writing program. It’s a coming-of-age story, sure, with all the requisite searches for identity and belonging, but told through the prism of a brain broken by bipolar tendencies and a spirit still wrestling with the assault and its implications. In many ways, the writer searches for ways to live a “normal” life — one in which the brain isn’t constantly cycling out of control, one in which her interactions with men aren’t colored by doubt. But she also knows that she may not find stability; she will have bipolar disorder for the rest of her life. At one point, she confesses: “I’m also always thinking, it shouldn’t be this hard just to have a brain. Everyone has a brain.”
Through diary entries and narrative memory, Washuta pointedly captures her experience of cycling thoughts and mixed states. “I remember those fierce days,” she writes, “those times I screamed into the carpet with my mouth open as wide as it would go, or the times my tingling forehead felt like it was about to detach and float up into the night sky.” Her bracing honesty carries a charge; we feel for the person trapped within the machinery of her brain.
She gets at the experience from other angles, too. The doctor’s letter, for example, reports her condition as a student in Maryland: “The patient described nightly treks across campus to sit in a tunnel …” and “… the patient said that her internal organs felt as if they were being constantly unraveled and knitted into something too tight.” Shifting into an outsider’s take on her condition, perhaps Washuta recognizes that her brain may be territory too claustrophobic for readers at times. In another chapter, she widens the scope of her experience, chronicling the steps to Kurt Cobain’s suicide and to Britney Spears’s public, head-shaving meltdown, comparing their bipolar behaviors to her own.
Through the memoir, Washuta not only forges her identity as a writer with bipolar disorder, scurrying through a pharmaceutical maze, but at the same time forges her identity as a woman, and even then, a woman who has been raped by an acquaintance. The rape is a brutal pivot point on which the narrative turns. In a coming-of-age story, it’s difficult enough for characters to navigate the new terrain of gender relations, but here Washuta has the much heavier task of defining herself after a rape that stole her virginity. How do you tell that story? It’s no surprise that she tries to access and encompass it through different narrative forms.
In the early chapter “Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat,” for example, she counts backwards down a list of sexual partners, talking to each in second person. For example, of #23 she writes: “The sex is fine. The hugs are excellent, exactly what I was looking for, what I bartered access to my insides for.” Or #9: “Early on, you make it clear that we are wrong for each other. You are looking for something, and I am not that thing.” These modules transcend physical intimacy, sometimes describing emotional entanglements and longings, the way people do and don’t connect, as in this line for #4: “My heart is stuck up in a tree, waiting for you to knock it down with a stick.” Chillingly, the person holding the #1 spot in the list, the one Washuta reveals at the end of the chapter, is the man who raped her.
It isn’t until two-thirds of the way through the book that Washuta gives us, in scene and footnotes, the actual rape incident. The footnotes lead to chat conversations Washuta had with a friend soon after the rape. She also mixes in some fiction she wrote near that time, including a flash piece written from the point of view of a man resembling the rapist. In another chapter, three years after her rape, Washuta remembers the night through the framework of a Law & Order: SVU episode, reformatting her details to fit the show’s predictable dramatic arc. “I sought to watch until everything in my head,” she writes, “every doubt, every piece of fuzz obscuring some memory, would be replaced by Olivia’s voice telling me that I was so, so strong.” The chapter ends with a recreated script of the episode that would have been hers, but this time controlled by her hand, not the rapist’s. In these ways, Washuta as storyteller circles the rape, perhaps distances herself from it, repackages it, and controls it.
Another identity Washuta learns to navigate is that of her Native heritage. Her coming-of-age, moving to Seattle as a bipolar writer arc is interwoven with a sixteen-part narrative called “A Cascade Biography,” which details the hanging of Washuta’s great-great-great grandpa Tumalth in 1856 and the survival of his daughter Mary, the last fullblood in the author’s family line. In the series, which is interspersed between other chapters, Washuta explores her early awareness of being Native American (she is a member of the Cowlitz Tribe), eventually earning an undergraduate scholarship based on her heritage, and questioning her place within the community.
Sometimes she explores the relationship between her tribal identity and sexual behavior. At a graduate school symposium, for example, she writes: “I started thinking about myself not as a part of a Native community, but a different tribe, one of young women sucking on silence, biting down hard on their tongues, because putting out is normal, and no matter how much it hurts to be quiet, it hurts more to say something… Having been raped as a virgin used to seem to have a lot in common with being Indian. People were skeptical and I didn’t have enough proof. Both had to do with being fucked over.” She considers her bipolar disorder from a similar lens. Having no family history of bipolar disorder, she writes, “I can’t tell the doctors what they want to hear; we were without diagnoses until I fell. Bipolar disorder has the clinical film of a white man’s invention.” The intersection of these narrative threads gives the book a sense of cohesion despite the many forms.
By the last third of the book, Washuta has moved along the arc to a point of maturity: “The wreckage of my early twenties looked like a battlefield littered with partners’ bodies,” she writes, “and for years, I wielded my anger like a sword, making my hate count, keeping the gash open. With the rapist out of my world, I carried out those duels against myself, a poor sparring partner, beaten down and humbled. In time, though, my sword became one like that of the archangels.”
Still, though she has reached a level of maturity about the many facets of her identity, that doesn’t mean she has, or will ever have, all the tensions worked out. Even in the final chapter, driving lost through Seattle at night, she’s “feeling a need to take my skull off like a hat.” Yet Washuta leaves the reader with a sense of hope; we trust that she will keep finding her way forward.
My Body is a Book of Rules is so much about containers and what cannot be contained in expected forms: the container of the brain holding consciousness, of the body holding self. Potentially there’s order, but so often there is not. It’s about wrestling and controlling. How does a bipolar mind control its perceptions? How does one process rape and wrestle with the enormity of heritage? An answer suggested by Washuta’s book is: by imposing these structures on them, by giving them disguises, perhaps, to make them more palatable.
My Body is a Book of Rules is a painful book to read, but true, often funny, and overall worthy of admiration.about the author