Dissecting Pain: An Interview with Alisson Wood
I read Being Lolita in two feverish, painful, clarifying, enthralling, disturbing sittings, over the course of two nights, while my toddler daughter slept in the next room. I found myself wanting to reach into its pages and save the girl who was caught in them, but — as I kept reading — I started to understand she didn’t need my saving. Her author was the woman she’d become, and her voice was electric, alive, rigorous, humane, allergic to reduction.
It would be easy to summarize Being Lolita as a memoir about a toxic, exploitative relationship between a high school English teacher and his student, and it is about that—but it’s about that in the way Walden is about a pond, or Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is about sharecroppers. Which is to say: it’s also about so much more. It’s about narrative itself—the poly-edged blade of storytelling, how it seduces and distorts and justifies; how it liberates and unsettles; how it settles like fog but also pierces through obscuring mists with the chill sunlight of something uncomfortable getting discovered. It’s a book about the way stories can feel like straitjackets and also like exhalations; how we can lose or find ourselves in them—sometimes both at once.
The book begins at one chalkboard and ends at another, with the student becoming a teacher, reclaiming the stories that once took away her voice even as they convinced her they were giving it to her. It’s a book that’s faithful to the grit and grain of lived experience, how it inheres in a thousand particulars itching like mosquito bites under the skin: the Latin conjugations and hallway gossip and crepe paper banners of high school; the gimlets and bloody sheets and wearying, labyrinthine convolutions of endless gaslighting. It’s a book that knows if you follow these slivers back into the pulse and flesh of memory, they take you somewhere more complicated than the stories we often tell ourselves about abuse and violence; and they force you to reckon with its messy, enduring aftermath.
I first met Alisson Wood after a reading last year, when she approached me to tell me that my own writing had been meaningful to her. There was something in her voice and in her eyes when she described the book she had written that made me realize the world needed it. And when I read Being Lolita a year later, I felt the world expanding—gaining another layer in the compost of its infinite human experience, of all the stories we need to hear told. As I read, I was deeply moved by the ways Wood summoned the teenager she’d once been, faithful to the furrows of that psyche—its delusions and its fragilities and its curiosities and its capacities and its hunger—even as she gazed backward through the years with exacting and attentive clarity.
This is a story about the residue of toxic narratives, but it’s also a love song to language; it’s a story of narrative as violence, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about finding a voice. Which is to say, it’s a story about the double-edged sword of stories: how they can wrong us, and how they can give us back to ourselves, or let us become multiple. Throughout this book, I was struck by the role that writing plays in your relationship with Nick: how he frames the relationship inside a literary legacy (Humber Humbert, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe); how much of your communication happens by writing (passing notes back and forth, your showing him your diaries); and how committed he was to shaping the narrative of his own exploitation as a love story. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the story that you wanted to tell about writing and language alongside—or inside—the story of this relationship?
I wanted to bring the same awareness of language that Nabokov brought to Lolita to my own story, to subvert not only the narrative but the tools of creation. At first, I was incredibly intimidated by the idea of engaging with Nabokov overtly; there are graduate level classes devoted entirely to his works and worshipping him as an artistic genius– who am I to even attempt this? Then I realized that instead of trying to mimic his language on a line level, which I do do a few times to underscore a point in the narrative, I primarily wanted to use the same lens of western literature as a storyteller. I began bringing in the literary and historical allusions that he brought to Lolita— fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, works by Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll. And it was incredibly organic– these are texts the teacher actively engaged me with as part of the grooming process. That became my key that allowed me to leverage my strengths. I realized I had no need to try and pretend to be a Nobokov scholar although, of course, I had already read dozens of books on Nabokov and Lolita and many of his other writings. But I chose to let go of any performance anxiety as a writer, and do what I wanted to do: tell my story with the power of language.
I also emphatically agree that there are double swords in everything– a knife can be used to attack a stranger or to cut bread for your family. “Lolita” is shorthand in our culture for a teenage sex pot, a seductress, but in actuality she is a victim of kidnapping and rape. I wanted to embrace that duality fully in my own narrative. At seventeen, I thought my story with the English teacher was one of passion, love, the highest romance, and now as an adult who teaches creative writing to students close to that age, it is so clear that the “relationship” (if you can even use that word) was predatory, manipulative, and incredibly abusive. I thought telling the story strictly from my current perspective as a thirty-six year old woman would be boring and less true– my understanding now is different than my understanding as a teenager. I wanted to be as close as I could get to my seventeen and eighteen year old self, and share the way that I engaged with the world, myself, and the teacher without shame or defense. And also the way I engaged with language then, by quoting from my journals, his letters to me, notes we passed in class. In the beginning I was afraid of using the primary sources, of integrating literary allusions, even Lolita itself. And then it just opened up to me– it was right there, the whole time. I didn’t even have to reach.
At the beginning of the book, you describe the first time Nick kissed you—not on the lips, but rather on your ankle, kissing a bug bite. It’s a stunning moment: we feel your youth, and his manipulations, so palpably. But you use such a beautiful, surprising metaphor for the internal sensation of that moment: “it was like every locker in the halls of my high school swung open at once, metal kissing cinder-block walls. It felt just like that.” On the first page of the next chapter, we see an echo of that metaphor in the actual lockers of your high school hallway, which are described as “green like the flu”—full of illness, not wonder. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that metaphor of the lockers flying open, and what you wanted it to evoke? And perhaps the uses of metaphor in this story more broadly? Were they a useful entry into emotional nuance? And perhaps the deepest, hardest question of all: How did you approach the task of illuminating emotional complexity within an abusive dynamic?
This was the first scene I wrote for the book. I’m a big believer in the power of opening chapters, opening lines. My goal was to establish as many things for the reader as quickly as I could — the setting, major characters, feelings, tone. I wanted the reader to suture to my voice on the page as quickly as possible, so I wanted high stakes and urgency. When I thought back to this experience, I tried to remember the moments that felt most charged– that was one of them, when I felt his mouth on my skin for the first time. I thought I was deeply in love at that point, overwhelmingly in lust. I remember feeling so special at that moment, so wanted, so desired. And yet, I was in high school. I was a teenager. This was my teacher. This was a secret. So I also wanted to bring the reader into my high school even though the scene was set in a diner. And when I held tight to that moment in my memory, I remember feeling this internal bang when it happened, an explosion in my body. The metaphor was instinctual. But I see it as not only creating that sound in the reader’s mind– the metal locker doors against cinderblock, that basic, cold school building architecture– but that bursting open. It made me feel like I wasn’t trapped in my teenage self, that through his desire I was more than that, I was sexy to a grown up, I was mature, I was special. It felt like the world had expanded beyond my high school.
In the following section, I tried to establish this idea of mirroring, by using the locker metaphor again but as a description of discomfort, of unease. As the opposite of expansion and creation, as oppression and toxicity. Just another double-edged sword. Throughout the book I leaned into the idea of doubling and doubling. Not only was it a tool Nabokov used extensively and repeatedly throughout Lolita, but I am fascinated by patterns in my life, and this time period just continues to echo as I get older. I see memoir and essays as pattern-making in a way. I saw this repetition as a way to underscore the touchstones of my experience. Repetition creates emphasis, and so meaning. That was my goal, at least.
People don’t start out thinking their relationship is abusive, ever. It creeps in. The escalation over time. I didn’t see myself as a possible victim. What I thought was flirtation and care was grooming. I saw sincerity and love in his attentions, but it was actually predatory. Another example of that double-edged sword.
I tried to be as true to my teenage self as I could, even when the scenes were incredibly personal, even violent, and full of shame. Those were the hardest chapters to write. It was a genuine emotional process between my current writer self and my view of seventeen-year-old Alisson. At times I was so angry at her, for falling into these traps, for letting him do those things to me. I was so embarrassed by my actions, by my choices. It wasn’t until I could move through those feelings to the tender, unhealed ones behind them — the ones of hurt, pain — that I could write from a place of empathy for myself, and so truth. I also actively did my best to be fair to everyone else in the book– to not blame others, to be hardest on myself. (My therapist argued at times that I let others off the hook, but that’s for me to process.) So I also wrote about the good moments with the teacher, the ones where he truly made me feel stronger, smart, deserving of love. The moments of kindness, even joy. Painting him as a monster wasn’t something that interested me. It’s inaccurate. If there weren’t good moments, there wouldn’t be anything pulling me back to him, even when things got truly bad. So I tried to reveal both, the awful and the gentle, sometimes in the same scene. And expose my own bad behavior in the relationship, as I cheated on him and eventually began lying. But that’s how abusive relationships become toxic quicksand– you become trapped. You feel guilty for your own misdeeds, so you forgive or overlook those of your partner. It’s an awful cycle. And I did my best to show all of it, all the moments that rang through. I wasn’t afraid of the complexities, and instead chose to expose it all to the reader.
I find your attention to complexity so moving—not only in the book itself, but also in how you think about it: how you describe the vexing simultaneities of an abusive dynamic; how you describe the shame and tenderness of spending time with your younger self—not simply dismissing her, or looking over her shoulder, but really trying to get back inside her perspective and bring it to the page—and even how you unpack the layers of resonance in that metaphor of lockers swinging open. And yes! As a reader, I felt those locker doors banging against the cinderblocks, with violence and also that gust of sudden liberation. As a writer, I admire the sharp intuition and sophisticated craft of what they’re doing on the page—haunting the diner with the high school, bringing together violence and desire, reminding us how young you are.
I love how you honor the ways in which your younger self—the self you wanted to protect, as you figured out how to craft this story—was so engaged with language, and with writing. In these pages, she is always a mind, and always a maker; never just a victim to whom things happen. One of the moments when her fascination with language comes up most powerfully is when she discovers that Lolita’s name (Dolores) means “sadness” in Latin, and this etymology underscores connections she already felt intuitively between pain and desire, or pain and desirability. It makes me think about how you describe yourself, as a teenager, understanding waxing as a kind of sacrament, an almost Catholic ritual—undergoing pain in order to deserve love, or desire—or about that quote from Nabokov that appears in the book, that “beauty plus pity is the closest we can get to art.” That somehow beauty and pain—or fragility—have to conspire in order for something to hold meaning. What were the connections—between pain and beauty, pain and love, pain and meaning—that she (your teenage self) believed in then, and how do you understand those connections differently now?
I have always been fascinated by the duality of our gender roles, and how those social constructions bleed into the mirrors of emotion and violence, pain and love, masculine and feminine. We see this in our real, everyday world in domestic violence, expectations of being a mother or being childless (which connects to the virgin and whore duality, of course), and in ideals of beauty. I was lucky enough to be raised in a very liberal, politically mindful, feminist home, so I had some understandings of those conflicts even as a teenager. Or, I was at least aware of them and, of course, like all teenage girls, aware of their trappings and dangers. I knew you had to carefully negotiate them to be desirable.
In western heteronormative culture, we set up women to be fragile beings because then they need protection. It creates a role for a man. Without that fragility, there wouldn’t be the void to be filled. And that idea of needing, which can muddle into want or desire, creates love. And then on the other side, a man wants to help, to feel needed, and so fragility, pain, becomes beautiful and desirable. And so an object of love. I’m greatly oversimplifying these very complex social constructions, but I deeply believe that awareness of them is vital in order to subvert them, either on the page or in daily relations.
As a teen girl, I read a lot of plays, Sylvia Plath, and of course had a foundation of fairy tales, tragic Shakespearean women, the romanticization of Plath’s suicide. Seemingly every girl in every folklore story was this gorgeous, wanting women who was suffering and needed a man/prince, or else she died. The romanticization of dead or depressed girls was just everywhere. Specifically, women who died from their suffering– Ophelia, Juliet, Virginia Woolf, the little mermaid, even in the movies I was watched then, from Angelina Jolie in Gia to Greta Garbo in Camille. For a woman to be beautiful, she needed to be in pain. Suffering created desire from others. Or, as you wrote in “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, “violence turns them celestial.”
Reading that essay of yours was a major turning point in my understanding of women and pain, love and pain. I was floored at these indelible connections between iconic women in western literature and the personal pain; it felt not only true, but also badass. These were the kinds of allusions that male writers made all the time, linking their experiences to art, but it wasn’t as common — maybe comfortable? — for women writers to do those things. And bam, that essay just ripped through those restraints. What had been regulated to the “domestic” (women’s pain) cracked open and took hold of those foundations of literature, and subverted them. It was inspirational, and gave me the bravery to do that same work in this book. When did those ideas and connections reveal themselves to you? And when did you know you had to write it?
First of all, thank you! It means a great deal to me to know that the essay played some role in your process of finding a voice or a vein for this book. And honestly the essay itself emerged from conversations much like the one we’re having right now: long talks with good friends in which we were not only dissecting various kinds of pain but also trying to get at why it felt simultaneously urgent and shameful to dissect that pain.
Which brings me to my last question, which is about dissection—specifically, about the third and final section of your book, which is actually called “Dissection.” The first two sections are called Nymph and Capture, and taken as a trio—nymph, capture, dissection—the three titles conjure the image of a female body that gets vanquished and picked apart. But actually “dissection” accomplishes something more like the opposite: it narrates your attempts to reclaim the story—as you put it so generously above, it allows us to see you subverting the foundations of the narratives you had received—everything from an analytic paper you wrote interrogating the critical impulse to “blame” Lolita, to your own experiences as a teacher, encouraging your students to interrogate the narratives they encounter with you. I loved your impulse not to end the book with the end of the relationship itself, but to end it years later, with you standing as a teacher at a chalkboard—and to document the years of thinking and reading and reckoning and teaching that complicated and deepened your understanding of what you had lived. Can you describe the emotional and intellectual and narrative work you wanted “Dissection” to do, and how you wrestled with the question of how and where to end the book?
I intentionally chose the section names to do work for the reader, as I strive for every word, sentence, choice in the book to accomplish things on multiple levels. I very much wanted to invoke a female body, specifically a girl-body, by starting with Nymph. And that also conjoins the image a butterfly, of a sprite, an ingenue goddess, all these other allusions and objects I wove in throughout the text. I thought Capture was the natural escalation of the narrative and metaphor, to be trapped in a butterfly net and an abusive relationship, and Dissection was the action I wanted to end the book. I think with women’s memoir, ones dealing with trauma in particular, there is an expectation of a happy ending that usually consists of a man and marriage, maybe children. Domestic bliss. And I wanted to end on something else—not only because, practically speaking, I am not married nor do I have children, but also because I wanted to show that a woman can tell her story and create her own happy ending that doesn’t include marriage and a man. My happy ending is through my work and writing, not in reproduction. There aren’t enough models for that.
I see myself as the dissector in Part 3—as the one with agency, taking a magnifying glass to the remains of this part of my life, investigating primary sources and trying to understand. And yes, explicitly reckoning with what happened to me, reclaiming my story and my life. And the story of Lolita, at the same time. I tried to connect the patterns in the book, to show how abuse and trauma echoes, how long it can take for things in your past to make sense. It’s hard work. It’s not a straight line. I feel like readers often want to know if “I’m ok”, if this process was cathartic, and while I dove even deeper into this part of my life during the writing than I ever thought I could, it didn’t make things better. It didn’t make me feel better. It doesn’t change the facts of what happened. But I find strength in the power of sharing my story, in the hopes it can impact others in a positive way. I want that to be what the reader is left with.
I also realized that by choosing to end with me at a chalkboard, now teaching creative writing, versus addressing my relationship with the teacher, that I was unconsciously tracing the traditional “hero’s journey”: the path of a primary character starting one place, facing obstacles, fighting a monster, and then returning home where everything is different, to give a quick and dirty explanation. The classroom was home in this story, writing was home. But now, instead of being the student, as I was in the beginning, I am the teacher. Literally. Writing this explicitly feels somewhat narcissistic and awkward (calling myself “the hero”, etc.), but structurally, that is what I am doing in Being Lolita. And I really doubt a man would have the same discomfort.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, a New York Times best seller, the novel The Gin Closet, and, most recently, The Recovering. Her second essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in fall 2019. Her essay “I Met Fear on the Hill” appears in our Winter 2018 issue.
If you enjoyed this conversation, you might also enjoy “Writing Postpartum: A Conversation between Kate Zambreno and Sarah Manguso”