It’s hot in the car. I roll the windows down and hope for a breeze to stir the air. The trees beside the field spread a generous expanse of shade that doesn’t touch me where I sit within the suffocating embrace of a black metal box heated by a relentless sun. I shouldn’t complain, perhaps. Preferable to roll a window down and yet melt than to huddle in coat and gloves against an equally inescapable cold. It seems only yesterday that the field was layered with snow, the drifts from the plows blocking out entire swaths of parking spots and a slushy ice-salt mix coating the asphalt where the most frequent traffic had passed.
How many hours had I spent in that parking lot, in that car?
It takes a certain power to make someone wait for you. It’s a symbol of status, having someone wait on you, wait for you, wait upon you. Whatever else it is, it’s a clear indicator of his power over me that I have spent—will spend—so long doing nothing else but waiting.
Sitting in that car, waiting in the place and after the fashion he allowed me, I don’t always have anything with which to occupy myself. It’s not that I’ve nothing I need to get done, nothing I want to do—no, not that. Instead, I am a constant aching ball of nerves as I agonize over all the many demands upon my time which are on hold as I sit and sit; wait and wait. Chores at home, errands to run, tasks set both by basic daily living needs and by even his demands upon me all await me. The stress of feeling my responsibilities adding up even as I’m kept from fulfilling them is compounded by the frustration of having so much else I’d simply like to do which is barred me, though I’ve nothing else on which I’m spending my time (save waiting, hours on end, just waiting).
Antsy in my inactivity, I suddenly thrust the car door open and step almost gingerly out into the comparable coolness of the still, open air. Feeling as though I’m tempting fate even in this small defiance, I walk around the car in careful circles—stretching my legs, pretending at exercise, feeling ridiculous, anxiously watching with every turn towards the building from which he will be exiting when it’s time for him to return to me. My mind skitters across the glossy surface of a fear I refuse to name. He can’t see me from the windows of his classroom, can he? Surely not. Even if he can, how could even he care about me just taking a turn about the car? It’s not like I’m going anywhere, speaking with anyone, doing anything objectionable…Surely not even he would object. Besides, surely he can’t see.
I make certain I’m back in the car well before he’s scheduled to get back, just to be safe.
It’s easier to be brave, to speak my mind, to muster the audacity to voice the disagreement and dissatisfaction that simmer within, when I’m alone in the car and he’s just a voice on the phone. Unimportant, really, whatever sparked this particular argument—all that matters is that I’m angry and he’s angry and I’m yelling and I hang up on him and . . . he’s angry. Such a relief, to be disconnected for once, for just a moment, yet . . . he’s angry . . . too dangerous. Call back, pretend it wasn’t purposeful--of course I didn’t hang up on you! Of course you’re right!—go through the day pretending like I believe that he believes the paper-thin lie.
He’d gotten worse. Something about me working, perhaps; something to do with my spending so much of my time literally beyond his physical grasp. He didn’t like me interacting with others, demonstrating an ability to be capable and independent and me (just me).
Whenever I go out, I must keep him constantly on the phone. Connected from the moment I step foot beyond the front door, talking to him as I drive to work, knowing that (muted) he’s listening (perhaps, if he cares to) as I walk into work, as I teach my classes. Obligated, at lunch and during my prep period, to talk to him (and only him).
Each morning, starting with a fully-charged battery that will slowly, inevitably, drain from the force of sustaining an endless call. My very own pocket-portable Orwellian nightmare.
The argument resumed at lunch. I don’t know quite what possessed me that day, but I hung up on him and spent the rest of my work day flinging myself desperately into my work—all my focus on students, on grading, on pinning up projects to the walls, on not thinking about him.
I knew what awaited me. Knew I had to avoid it at all costs. I had the carefully-planned attempt in mind, already, by the end of the day. I told him I only noticed that the call disconnected as I was going to connect my headphones to speak with him on my drive home. I apologized. I was indignant at his disbelief. I tried to convince myself that it was true, the better to convince him. I couldn’t afford to have actually hung up on him—the consequences of such an offense were far too severe.
Perhaps I succeeded in convincing him. I utterly failed, however, at convincing myself. I was close—so close—to getting home when the part of me that was still fighting once again burst free (what had gotten into me?) and I hung up on him, yanked my headphones free. Pulled over into the park as though on autopilot, not quite believing what I was doing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself there, sitting in the park scarce minutes from home, hesitating and catching each possible moment I could before I had to get home or risk his knowing of my deliberate delay. He always suspected something, whether or not there was ever anything to suspect. Giving him cause to suspect only made every moment worse as he felt more justified.
I couldn’t go home. He was angry. I couldn’t pretend everything was okay. Couldn’t bring myself—not this time, anyway—to walk that gangplank to the inevitable plummet that awaited. He would beat me. There wasn’t any avoiding it. I knew it. Yet, there I was, safe beyond his reach. I had a car, a phone, a purse. I had distance. I didn’t have to face him, did I?
He kept calling, kept texting, kept leaving voicemail after voicemail. My phone, already running low on power from its usual day of sustaining an hours-long call, reminded me that it was dying. The only charger I had for my phone was one that plugged directly into the car and nowhere else. The only way to keep my battery alive was to keep driving.
This was a fickle charger. Power trickled reluctantly into the phone, at best. More usually, the slightest shift in position was enough to prevent charging altogether. I couldn’t stay put. I’d been found at the park before; it was just down the street from that place I couldn’t quite call home. Shaking, sick with unspent adrenaline and already woozy with tears, I drove.
It would have been easy—so easy—to drive myself somewhere safe. I could have gone straight to the welcoming arms of my parents, not quite so much as an hour’s drive away. Yet, something held me back. Something caught at me and tugged me and had me constantly going back to read those messages from him, to listen to each and every incessant voicemail. Threatening, desperate, vulnerable, angry, sad, confused. His show of emotion weighed and tugged at me constantly. No going back—no, it was too much; it was too late; it was too dangerous. No going forward—what would that even look like; how would I manage; it was too late for that, too. Trapped by nothing but myself; not quite going to either place I may have considered home.
It was winter, and it was cold. I huddled in my coat and struggled to see past tears to keep driving, everywhere and nowhere. Constantly fighting a losing battle with the phone and that damn charger. Don’t check it. A constant refrain. I won’t check it. A promise to myself broken as often as it was repeated.
It was dark—first the dark of the dusk that comes too early in winter, then a deeper, colder darkness as the evening stretched into night. I drove strange circles around those places familiar to me. Parked in mall parking lots after-hours, weeping quietly with doors locked and shoulders hunched, driven away by fear that someone would somehow find me there. Parked behind churches, in busy lots bustling with late evening crowds, in quiet streets. Afraid to stay too long in one spot—the constant refrain of the dying battery driving me on, besides. Crossing north and south between each possible home; a strange erratic pendulum. At one end, desperate not to be found. At the other, almost wishing that I would be.
An object in motion tends to stay in motion, but eventually with enough resistance against it, that energy will peter out and that object will come to a halt.
This time was not the time I finally stayed away. I didn’t even try to speak to the family I drove quietly past in the darkness. I went back to him. Pretended that I believed his words of apology, that I somehow was foolish enough to think things wouldn’t only be much, much worse for my brief spark of courage, quenched so utterly by my own fears.
Didn’t I deserve it, though? I’d promised him, after all.
Adjust the cord. Try to find at least some feeble trickle of energy. Sapped, desperately signaling a critical lack of power. Growing gradually closer to being fully drained.
Content Warning: Chronicling always deals with the difficult topics of abuse, domestic violence, and depression/mental health; this chapter, in particular, also deals with suicide
I was supposed to be searching—out, walking the streets of this city, still so foreign to me—hunting for an apartment, for employment. Instead, closed off inside our temporary residence while he was away at class, all I could think of searching for was escape. It was a relief to be without him—a fleeting sort of faux freedom—while he was at the university for at least a few hours. Yet, as wonderful as it was to be by myself, the sense of isolation—of being in a city of millions and yet being completely, entirely, on my own—was an ache unshakeable within my core.
In a way, it was easier to experience the isolation, the loneliness, the transparency and the anonymity, in a place where I truly was foreign, truly was an out-of-place piece of the greater puzzle of humanity. Tongue tripping over native phrases, falling into a silent language of gesture or avoiding interaction altogether where possible; easier to feel as though I didn’t belong where it was so blatant—irrefutable.
Fantasies that filled me equally with self-loathing and despair, for even as I dreamt them I knew I’d never follow through. I could leave—could hail a taxi, could with halting words and gestures convey my destination, could literally take flight from here and leave him to fend for himself. Head out and just be gone. I could. I wasn’t truly trapped—or, rather, what held me was not lock and key, incapability, lack of resources or resourcefulness. No: what trapped me, instead, was a snarl of emotions too hopelessly interconnected to detangle and resolve. My fear, my insecurity, my self-loathing, my stubbornness, my pride, my love, my loyalty, my anger.
I ached, constantly, in every way possible. Bruised, beaten, convinced so deeply of my own worthlessness while equally deeply resentful of what he was doing to me—was it any wonder that I came to the point of wishing for another sort of end? An escape where I no longer had to suffer, where I didn’t have to answer that most difficult of questions: what next? An escape where, in some small way, I might have vengeance—he might finally value me if he missed me. At the very least, he’d be inconvenienced. He’d have to do something for himself. It would be his turn to be on his own.
I only had a small, travel-sized bottle of generic acetaminophen, and this already small portion of pills had been diminished still further from more appropriate (more intended) use. Still, maybe what was left would be enough. Whatever the case, it was something against the inertia, against the stale uselessness of fear so frequent and so deeply-ingrained as to be exhausting rather than stimulating.
I swallowed them dry, the chemical taste of the white pressed-powder pills sticking stubbornly to my tongue, and the memory of the shape of them within my throat briefly stopping my breath however much I tried to swallow it down.
I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to not exist. I didn’t want to have no future, no hope, no chance to experience something—anything. Yet, I was so tired. I was so tightly bound within the decisions the both of us had made, I couldn’t see my way out—however clearly I could fantasize about it, the possibility of leaving didn’t feel real.
Even as I was struggling to breathe around the lump within my throat, I was torn between the fear that it would work—that the handful of pills would be enough—and the fear that it would not. Immediate regret intermingled with a shameful hope that this, at last, was an attempt to leave him from which I couldn’t turn back—a decision I couldn’t take back, even if I’d changed my mind.
How many times had I left, only to return? Even knowing that things would be worse, only worse, for my having even tried to go, still I returned—each and every time. I left for myself, I left for him, I left in anger, I left in fear, I left in despair—and it made no difference. The most I’d stayed away was, what? One day? Perhaps two? Pathetic. Insignificant. Insufficient for anything but digging deeper into what would surely be my grave, one way or another.
That day, I learned that a travel-sized bottle of pain-reliever is not enough for anything except inducing an incredible amount of pain. I can still taste it, can remember so vividly the hours of vomiting that progressed from the more normal consistency through a vivid yellow bile that burned, and on into dry heaves so fierce as to tear my throat so that all that came up was saliva streaked with crimson.
I’m unsure whether he suspected the cause, but for once even he could not deny that I was ill. He didn’t care for me—was more upset at the inconvenience to himself than anything. Was angry and on edge, as usual. Was dangerous, as always.
I nursed myself to a shallow sort of wellness and called myself ‘recovered’ by the next day. Deep within, I also nursed my shame: for having tried at all, and for having failed so miserably.
I came to Gregory Maguire's fairy tale retellings via a somewhat unusual route. Whereas most of Maguire's fans began with his take on L. Frank Baum's Oz, in particular through the novel Wicked and its incredibly successful Broadway musical adaptation, I began with his Cinderella retelling: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. After falling in love with that book, I eagerly devoured Wicked and was very excited to receive the gift of his then-newly-published book Mirror, Mirror (published 2003). I'll admit that I came into my first reading of Maguire's Snow White retelling with certain expectations. Both Confessions and Wicked subverted the tales upon which they were based by giving the traditional 'villains' of those tales voice, and providing them opportunity to be the heroines in their own story. In particular, I expected that Mirror, Mirror might have a similar approach to its fairy tale as Confessions; I anticipated that Maguire would make use of an historical setting where any of the magical elements of the tale are eliminated in favor of a more realistic take on the tale. These expectations were very much wrong; despite surface similarities, Mirror, Mirror is very different from Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Revisiting this book over a 15 years later, I am better able to recognize just why it was that reading Mirror, Mirror left me with an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment, as though I were the one who had bitten into a glossy apple only to taste a poisonous bitterness.
I will not go into full detail on my thoughts regarding Mirror, Mirror here, both to limit spoilers for those who might want to approach this novel for the first time, and because I will be saving much of what I have to say for my Book Club discussion with Mary (which will be posted this weekend in the Enchanted Garden). What I will focus on here is providing an overview of what to expect going into this book, and of the rather mixed feelings I have with respect to it.
Mirror, Mirror begins in a way that is, indeed, very reminiscent of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, in that it is clear that the setting for this tale is an actual historical place and time. I have written about the primary places and historical figures Maguire includes in my post in the Enchanted Garden. However, it deviates almost immediately as fantastical elements which would be treated as superstition in Confessions are portrayed as simple fact--a theme which compounds throughout the book as supernatural creatures and occurrences with no possible natural explanation become increasingly prominent. The most prominent way in which Mirror, Mirror differs from books such as Wicked and Confessions, however, is in the portrayal of the villain of the tale. If Maguire had kept with the precedent he set up in his previous books, readers might expect that the protagonist of Mirror, Mirror would be the 'evil' stepmother/queen in the tale. At the very least, they might expect that this character would be humanized in a way that leaves readers wondering at the fairness of her characterization as the antagonist. However, instead of taking the fictional character of the 'evil queen' and granting her a chance to be understood in a more positive light, Maguire takes an actual historical figure (Lucrezia Borgia) and dehumanizes her into someone as vain, self-obsessed and sinister as the queen in the classic Grimm tale.
Mirror, Mirror can be uncomfortable to read at times because of how Maguire deals with sexuality, especially of pre-pubescent and pubescent girls. Part of this can be understood as deliberately shedding a light on what was historical reality. Lucrezia Borgia was married at the age of 13, after all. However, something about the way Lucrezia is portrayed, in particular, was deeply unsettling to me. There’s a judgmental undertone to descriptions of her dying her hair and taking care with her appearance in other ways. She was clearly victimized at a very young age by both her older brother and others within the context of the story. However, she is very much depicted as a jealous, heartless woman who has turned her own attractiveness into a tool to manipulate others for her own gain, and who cannot truly see anything outside of herself.
In contrast, whereas Bianca de Nevada (Snow White) is similarly sexualized, Maguire portrays this as an imposition laid upon her and something to which she is exposed against her will rather than something internal to her character. Much like the white color for which she is named is actually a reflection of every color, Bianca is a mirror reflecting back the character of those who look upon her. Bianca herself is 'pure' and, really, somewhat featureless. Things happen to her and around her rather than her truly causing the action of her own tale.
I could write an entire essay exploring the symbolism and themes within Mirror, Mirror. Much like the onions that Maguire frequently references and uses for imagery and metaphor throughout it, there are layers upon layers which can be picked apart to get to the core of this book. Perspective, color, light, identity, and sexuality are only some of the themes on prominent display throughout the novel. I will explore some of my thoughts on these themes in the Book Club discussion to follow.
If you are looking for a somewhat surreal, dark, adult fairy tale retelling, then Mirror, Mirror might be just the read for you. If you are looking for a twist that does some interesting new thing to the story of Snow White, turning it on its head the way Wicked and Confessions do with their respective tales, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly of the Italian Renaissance, then this could either be a very interesting or a very frustrating read for you, depending upon how you view the liberties Maguire takes with the historical figures presented.
I would not recommend Mirror, Mirror for light reading. While it is a very rich book for readers willing to plumb the depths of the imagery and themes Maguire employs, it is not at all the escapist fantasy that many fairy tale retellings are. It may very well leave you feeling unsettled as you read--not a bad thing for a novel to do, but certainly something to keep in mind when determining whether/where on your reading list to place this book.
It used to represent freedom and absolute comfort. I never had my own space, never had privacy—not really. The very idea of being able to strip down and slide, naked, between the sheets of my bed, was tantalizing and titillating on its own. I’ll admit that it was deliberately to tease, when I first mentioned it to him. Just a casual remark completely in keeping with the tone of the conversation. Oh, sometimes the reason it takes me so long to answer my door is that I sleep naked and I’m slipping into some clothes. I relished in the response received, in that feeling—so new to me, so difficult for me to believe—that I was desired.
Similar, the first time I allowed him to see me naked. Lying there—nervous, yes, but also so very excited, almost catching a laugh upon my breath as I thought upon the reaction he’d have when he pulled back the covers of his bed only to find me waiting there, more ready for him than he had any reason to expect. Sharing myself that way was a choice all my own. It wasn’t forced upon me, it wasn’t rushed, it wasn’t expected or even outright requested. I knew that it was something he wanted, something he would like, something he would appreciate…At least, I thought that I knew that. Looking back, did I ever really know anything of his thought or feelings? Part of what pains me most now is the fear that I never did, not really. How much--just how much—was false? Whether my own misconceptions (false hope, assumptions) or deliberate deceit, the end result was the same.
What moment was it, that something which once empowered me, which I once chose to share, became a crippling prison into which I’d allowed myself to be forced? When did something so harmless, so freeing, become a prison unto itself?
It’s amusing to see how in film nudity is so frequently, so studiously avoided. Lovers who never quite seem to get naked in bed, women who ridiculously sleep without removing their bras (as though that weren’t the first thing to come off at the end of a long day): it’s just one of the ways that media doesn’t quite map on to reality. Equally unrealistic, in my experience, are films where a captive is tortured or ridiculed while remaining clothed. Nothing matches the feeling of vulnerability that comes from being altogether naked. Nothing.
Unprotected. Unable to run. Humiliated. Cold.
The chill settled within my stomach, an unshakeable ache that my hands, my arms, could not soothe away. Any sort of cover would have been welcome—even the ability to curl upon myself so only my back was exposed to the chill (indifferent) air would have been a blessing. Clothing, comfort, cover of any kind were all barred to me. I stood, naked, shifting my weight from foot to foot, bending subtly to try to shake the pain gathered in my spine, trying to be silent, to seem totally still.
Yet, obeying sometimes made it worse. Don’t obey and risk beating, bruises, blood. Obey too long and risk the same. How to find the balance? How to know whether or not it’s safe, now—at least somewhat so—to crawl into bed, or to possibly at least sit upon the floor? Perhaps bed was allowed, but no blanket? If I slumped to the carpet, would I be beaten, filthy fool that I was, and forced, again, to bathe until my skin was itchy, raw, tormented by the torrent of now-cold water—warmth long gone? If I slipped into bed, would I awake to cuddles and the pretense that this didn’t happen, doesn’t matter, is at least over for now? Or would I awaken to a sudden blow, to split skin and bloodied sheets and desperate scrubbing--out damn spot—to forestall stains even as I wipe the blood and tears from my aching eyes? Or would I flinch from a blow sensed, but not yet landed, and so earn a beating even if one were not actually imminent prior?
Damned reflexes that betray. A hideous guessing game where, even when I gained some small reprieve, I always lost. There was no chance of winning. Not there. And so I stood—naked, vulnerable to him in every possible way, trapped by the equal powers of fear and indecision.
Looking back, the moments blend together. I see myself…
The time I thought maybe I’d leave, after all. Downstairs, desperately pulling a long wool coat on over my nakedness, cowering in the entryway. Reaching for the door only to be pulled back, yanked down, left gathering the scattered fistful of hair I’d lost; penance, perhaps, for the attempt.
The countless times I was denied cover—whether lying in bed without a scrap of blanket or standing at attention. Not allowed to sit, to crouch, to lie down, to move, to think too hard about just what I’d come to--mustn’t think, mustn’t cry, mustn’t run, mustn’t flinch, mustn’t speak, mustn’t let out the scream that’s welling up inside. Even when it is warm, cold will settle into your belly if you give it such chance to do so. It will ache.
How must I have looked, huddled within the dripping confines of the tub in our bathroom? Hair hopelessly tangled, curls turned to knots and loose strands caught up with those still attached to my scalp. Snot and tears and blood running together in a mess that progressed from damp discomfort, to itching, to a burning, unrelenting sting.
Wanting to shower, but then also wanting to stop. Neither one my choice to make—oh, certainly, I was left to make it. Yet, with such harsh penalties for making the wrong choice and only one correct selection I was supposed to somehow discover—what choice was it, really?
Just how many times did I sit so long damp in the shower after bathing that I had to bathe again in order to feel clean? Even once already one time too many; I truly could not count, could not guess the hours.
Whatever the situation my memory places before me, elements remain the same. Desperately trying to distract, to change the mood, to wait it out, to gauge what action (or inaction) will lead to the least amount of pain, of punishment. Hating my own flesh for its weakness, hating him for exposing that weakness, and hoping he’d never see some telltale flash of fire to speak to that hate, that resentment that smoldered deep within my being, that said this is wrong even when the rest of me failed to fight. Hoping my own thoughts and feelings—so very opaque to me—weren’t just as naked to him as he kept the rest of me.
I'll readily admit that it was the thorough enjoyment that I took in Netflix's 2018 series The Haunting of Hill House which led me to seek out the novel which inspired it. What I discovered was a book that is very rightfully considered a masterpiece within the horror genre, and an author whose books and stories will certainly provide fodder to haunt my dreams for years to come. Shirley Jackson's writing, whatever else I may say about it, most certainly left an impression upon me.
The basic plot of The Haunting of Hill House arises from the premise that an investigator of ghostly phenomena (Dr. John Montague) has invited several individuals "who had, in one way or another, at one time or another, no matter how briefly or dubiously, been involved in abnormal events" to live with him in Hill House in order to study its reputed haunting. This premise has very clearly proven incredibly influential in ghost stories of all kinds in the decades since Hill House was first published back in 1959. I grew up reading books and watching films that were very much based around the idea of the paranormal investigators inviting a group of psychics and experts together to live in a haunted house in order to study it. I have to say that, while it's been done well in the time since, no one has improved upon Jackson's take on it.
Of the numerous individuals invited by Dr. Montague, only four replied. Of those four, only two actually came. The events that follow, while very much captivating, struck me as being less important than the tone in which Jackson conveys them, and the perspectives from which they are explored. The primary protagonist of the book is arguably one of Dr. Montague's two guests, one Eleanor Vance. Eleanor is a fascinating character who is at times completely relatable and at other times utterly incomprehensible. The transformation of Eleanor's character over the course of the story was, for me, the most beautiful--and horrible--aspect of this novel. I would go into more depth, but I would hate to spoil the experience for any uninitiated reader who might want to delve into this book after reading this review. Suffice it to say that even if you have seen the film adaptations of this work, it most certainly still contains surprises for you.
The tone Jackson employs in this novel reminded me of Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw (first published in 1898). This is true both in that Hill House very much reads as a Gothic horror story, and also in that it left me with the same sense of unease and vague dissatisfaction in the end that I remember having as a child upon first reading The Turn of the Screw. There are no definitive answers given, and this is compounded by the fact that there is certainly reason to doubt the reliability of the narrator. If you have read and enjoyed Henry James, then you will almost certainly likewise enjoy Shirley Jackson; both wrote the sort of horror that leaves a reader feeling unsettled and confused rather than truly horrified.
In summary, it is for very good reason that The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the best ghost stories ever written. If you enjoy ghost stories, Gothic fiction, or psychological horror, then you should absolutely give this--and Shirley Jackson's other written works--a read. If you do not appreciate ambiguity, or are simply not in the mood for reading something which will haunt you with its imagery and with lingering questions, then this is likely not the book for you. However, I do highly recommend it; let's all be delightfully unsettled together.
When people learn how long I stayed with him, how long I dwelt with his violence and his control, they often remark upon it. Specifically, they question: how could someone like me—someone as smart as I am—stay in that sort of situation? How could I let him treat me that way for so long? Even if they don’t say it, I know they’re thinking, “I wouldn’t have stayed; I would have left; I wouldn’t have let myself be treated that way.” Yet, when I respond with a bare acknowledgement of my own stupidity—my own complete and foolish disregard for myself—they’re equally quick to backtrack. “No, I didn’t mean to say you’re stupid.” What did you mean, do you think? Do you even know?
I’ve always been this person inside. Always this strong, this caring, this kind, this careful, this carefree. I just buried it deep beneath insecurity and neuroses; beneath the conviction that he was right and I can help and don’t be so selfish, Elizabeth. Selflessness, charity, putting others first. It isn’t sustainable if you’re only a ghost of yourself, a shell emptied and hollowed and beginning to crumble apart.
I stared out the window at the bright sunlit world, briefly mesmerized by the slight sway of the tender branches of a young pine and the tall stand of lavender, set to motion by a breeze that was undoubtedly welcome to those outside in the dry desert heat. Sun-baked sandstone and glittering pale granite lined a patio that overlooked the mountains, and a part of me wondered at the knowledge that the metal tables and chairs that bedecked the paved area would be scorching to the touch should anyone try to use them.
I felt weirdly cut off from the world, sitting in a chair that, while it had seemed welcomingly soft when I first sat down, now felt hard beneath me where the fake leather molded to my form. The coolness of the air-conditioned room had been welcome, too, at first. Now, though, I found myself shuddering and thinking almost longingly of venturing outside into the blazing heat of the summer afternoon. I knew that I wouldn’t, though—that there was no way I would be able to bring myself to leave my spot at the low table, open laptop sitting before me so that I could make some pretense at business, waiting. I was waiting for him, just as I would always wait for him, and the thought of it sent a pang through my chest and had me suddenly suppressing tears. Blinking rapidly to forestall an embarrassing episode of public weeping, I quickly turned away from the window, staring blankly at the open document on my computer screen. The contrast between my situation inside and the brilliance of the summer just out of reach beyond the glass was suddenly more than I could bear; it all too clearly resembled the contrast between my current existence and the seemingly-blissful normalcy of the lives of everyone who passed in and out of the building around me. When had I become such a mess? I questioned myself, although I well knew the answer; he was the reason I was here, after all. Waiting. As usual.
Thoughtlessly, I rubbed my arm in an attempt to warm it—whoever controlled the air for this building obviously did not spend much time in it, or was one of those strange folks who prefers to wear a sweater indoors even during the hottest desert summer—and winced when my hand brushed too strongly against a nearly-forgotten bruise. “Fuck,” I whispered the word beneath my breath, then instantly flushed in embarrassment, checking furtively to be sure that no one had heard me—speaking aloud to myself as I sat in my little corner would be bad enough, but cussing … I reddened further, and had to force myself to take a few deep breaths.
No one was looking towards me, and there weren’t that many people around anyway. The university was sparsely populated, most students choosing to take a break rather than continue to study over the short summer semester. Further, it was a holiday weekend—most students and faculty would be home preparing to celebrate Independence Day. It felt as though I was a part of a small, exclusive club of those whose lives so revolved around the university as to have no reason to ever be anywhere else. Or, rather, I wished that it could feel that way—I felt far too isolated, and too aware that I was no longer a student myself, to feel comfortable the way everyone else appeared to be. It felt as though ever since I had graduated, I had a sign pasted to my forehead that warned people that I didn’t belong; it was with wistful nostalgia that I remembered the days when I felt comfortable anywhere and everywhere on campus, no matter the day or the hour—when this place had been school, workplace and home.
I glanced again at my watch, although I knew there was no real reason to do so—after all, there was no set time he would arrive; he would get here whenever he was done, and no sooner. Nonetheless, I kept checking the time—appealing to watch, cell phone, and laptop alternately—it wasn’t as though I really had anything else to do. Although, even that was a lie. There was plenty that I could—and should—be doing; I simply couldn’t bring myself to embrace those few activities that I could accomplish while I waited for him.
Trying to convince myself my shudder was solely the result of the cool air blowing down on me, I shifted in my chair and crossed my legs, the cold air striking unpleasantly against the back of my thigh where I had grown sweaty from sitting for so long. Smoothing my slacks along my legs, I tried to focus my attention on the work that awaited on my computer. The blinking cursor in the open document seemed to taunt me as I sat with fingers poised over the keyboard. With an inward curse, I again gave up. Giving myself empty assurances that I would be able to do it later—there was plenty of time, my mind just wasn’t in the right place—I sat back and once again settled into staring out of the window, this time hardly seeing the bright colors of the plants set against a clear blue, sun-washed sky.
I have read Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak many times. It is a book which I found to be beautiful, haunting, and profound. Somehow, however, despite Speak's impact on me, I never sought out and read Twisted until this year, over a decade after it was first published. I mention Speak in context of my review of Twisted because, in many ways, the two books are companions to each other. Both place the reader within the confines of the protagonist's perspective; and in each the protagonist is a teen trying to simultaneously deal with high-school, relationships, trauma, and mental health.
Given the serious nature of the material Anderson covers in this book, as in her other books, a content warning may be warranted here: Twisted deals with several potentially-triggering topics, including suicide, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse. Anderson handles all of these topics with great care and thoughtfulness, but she also does not pull any punches as she delves into the depths of Tyler's troubled mind.
As I have come to expect from Anderson, this is a YA book that is a challenging, important read for both teenagers and adults. I would highly recommend this book in a guided reading setting; it would be an excellent selection for a book club, summer reading program, or as part of a class curriculum. Reading it and discussing it as a group helps to ensure everyone processes the difficult content in a healthy, helpful way. It also provides great opportunity for those who struggle with similar issues to the characters in the book to discuss their own problems while comfortably using the guise of discussing the characters.
Even if you are an adult who does not in any way work with teens, I still recommend that you give Twisted a read. This is a book to turn to if you are looking to challenge yourself or to work through similar problems to those listed in the content warning above.
Overall, I'd say that Twisted is a short, memorable, evocative realistic fiction novel. I would pair it with Speak as a must-read.
It began with the photos. Really, not even photos, so much as the mention of them. To be accurate, it began with an entry in a blog. Not an email—not any sort of missive—and certainly not a phone call. A bland, innocuous, update to a blog it’s entirely possible no one ever really read. What it represented, though…I knew, even then, at least in part. The reaching out of it; communicating with, caring for, considering someone else. More particularly, to family, but really wouldn’t anyone at that point have been equally perceived as some sort of threat?
The way he phrased it, what I had done wrong was to deceive him. It wasn’t that I’d written the post, but rather that I’d hidden it from him. Or tried to, anyway. Obviously a job poorly done, that. Yet, why had I even the impulse at all to try to keep it from him? A personal blog, started before there was an “us”—back when it was still just “me.” An update from my first real trip abroad, from what should have been a brilliant, grand adventure. An apology for silence, for a recent lack of the sharing that so characterized not just my upbringing, my family, my acquaintances, but me.
I’d tried to keep it from him because I knew he didn’t want me to talk to my own family. He feared they influenced me. Surely, given time and effort, I’d prove myself to him and show him where he was wrong, and we’d all get along just fine. For now, though—for now, I’d just go along with what he wanted on the surface even if underneath I was drowning; screaming soundlessly, clawing at the edges of the transparent prison in which I’d allowed myself to be sealed, vision growing dim at the edges just as it had when his hands had gripped my neck. The scarf from his mother that had been a Christmas gift a few months prior almost hid the bruises entirely from view. I don’t think anyone even noticed. I sincerely hope they didn’t, not for the sake of my own shame or embarrassment, but for theirs. If they noticed, and they—none of them—said, did, anything at all…They didn’t see, surely. What was obvious to me, what had me anxiously tightening and adjusting that silk scarf about my neck, was not even noticeable, really. Surely.
Minor sign of the constant inward struggle, that blog post. He found out. I was scared—so scared—of him so angry, so I fled. Tried to lock myself away, to beg him to please stop, please calm down, please see what he’d become.
I can hear him, still, banging on the door. See him climbing over the edge of the stall. Hand bleeding from a cut he got struggling to get in to me. Did I see what I’d done to him? How I’d hurt him? What I’d turned him into? His voice, accusing, was a buzz within for so many years—Did I think he wanted to be a monster?
Nothing more dangerous than him no longer caring what happens to himself. If he doesn’t care what others think, then even public places aren’t safe, you see.
After he chased me into the girls’ bathroom, and I fled from the stall where I’d sought sanctuary, I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t loud enough. I still cared too much—didn’t want others to know, not really. Didn’t want him to get in trouble.
And so he caught me. Struck me, grabbed me, took me by my hair and dragged me down the hall. The dorm-room doors we passed were closed, indifferent as the occupants they shielded from view.
I was pleading, I was crying, I was trying not to cooperate, but the pain in my scalp had me scrambling; torn between the sharpness of that sting and the burning where my legs and arms dragged against the carpeted floor. His grip, even with that wounded palm, was unyielding.
Flung to the floor in the relative privacy of the small shared kitchen space, I was already half-blinded from tears when he took my glasses from me. Or, rather, knocked them from my face and didn’t allow them back to me.
I kept the pieces, carefully preserved, rattling about in a case, for years. He still has them, probably. Along with everything else I left behind.
You see, he snapped them—my eyeglasses—into an irreparable number of pieces. Such a smart move, really. An early indication of a skill he’d cultivate over the years to follow. First step to instilling terror, to maintaining control over a person: make them as vulnerable as possible. What’s more vulnerable than to be blind? How better to control me in that moment than to take my sight from me?
He then proceeded to threaten to take my life.
My response wasn’t to ask for pity, but to beg him to consider his own life. He wouldn’t get away with it, you see. It was too obvious. Everyone would surely know he’d done it. He didn’t want to go to prison, did he? To lose his own life? His own goals and dreams?
Which returns us, again, to the lesson: the scariest moment is when he no longer cares about himself enough to truly try to hide what he is doing anymore.
That moment someone walked in. What a sight we must have been. Me, a disheveled mess with hair in wild disarray, snot- and tear-stained, bruised and scraped, sniveling and crouched in the corner upon the floor. Him, hand bleeding and clutching the remains of my eyeglasses, clothing askew from his own exertions, damp with his own sweat and tears.
Someone walked in, alright. Paused a moment, hesitant upon the threshold of the room. Just long enough to cause a brilliant, painful, flare of emotion in me—a dizzying, kaleidoscopic mix of trepidation, horror, shame, and hope. Then, a single phrase, “Oh, sorry,” and the stranger was gone just as suddenly as he’d come.
Enclosed within a building with hundreds of residents, yet entirely alone, I talked him down, that night, from the verge of killing us both. Somehow, I talked him down.