Finalist, 2016 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction (and Reader's Choice Award winner)Most Memorable: November 2016
This course engages students in the careful reading and critical analysis of your body as it is flung at high speed toward a dew-soaked lawn on a hot night in June of 1999. Through close reading of this image, in which you wear a pink-flowered white dress freshly stained with grass and blood, you will deepen your understanding of the next millisecond when your body knew to scramble to its feet. This course will require you to marvel at the millennia of evolution that taught your female body something that your eighteen-year-old brain didn’t yet know: He was going to hit you again. And you needed to be standing up for it.
This course includes analyzing various passages concerning your high school boyfriend. Many of these excerpts are of recognized merit. For example, his parents were outsiders, from New York City, and he was the first kid in your Appalachian town to be accepted to an Ivy League School. You had no idea what an Ivy League School was, but it sounded impressive. He was older and had access to a world you’d only caught glimpses of on David Letterman and 60 Minutes and You’ve Got Mail. He introduced you to the idea of the Northeast, a place where rich, important people gather in order to become even more rich and important. You didn’t care much about being rich, but you sure as hell wanted to be important. After careful study of texts available in pre-Internet Appalachia, including Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Gone With the Wind, and Cosmopolitan Magazine, you developed a theory-based framework of strategic initiatives, tailored to the rural girl with no connections: Find the boy who wants to leave this shithole and has the means to do so. Attach yourself and don’t let go until you reach your destination.
When reading your letter of acceptance to the same college he was accepted to a year before, be sure to leave room for a variety of interpretations. For example, the interpretation that you are stupid but have gotten lucky. Or that you have somehow tricked the admissions committee. Or that the letter is irrelevant because you aren’t pretty or thin enough, the defining tropes for women of your generation. There’s also the interpretation that you have fabricated the acceptance letter because you are pregnant and trying to con his parents for money. And still another that posits the only reason someone like you aspires to a fancy-pants college is to swindle your high school boyfriend into marrying you.
Be particularly cautious of an interpretative reading that might spring into your head in the dead heat of a breezeless Appalachian night in high summer: You could just break up with him. If applied too liberally, this interpretation can lead to his sweaty hands squeezing the air out of your throat. You are on another lawn, wearing a blue dress with black dots. Do you want to die? He asks you over and over again. That part you remember. But you can’t remember if you answered him, and if you did, what you said. A close examination of this scene will force you to admit that you didn’t much care whether or not he strangled you to death. No acceptance letter, no matter how closely you read and analyzed the text, could lead you, at that point in your young life, to accept yourself.
Writing is an integral part of this course. For years, you will try to write about these events, but on the page they will seem pathetic, or worse, comic. Your early writing on this subject matter will focus on describing the aspects of physical brutalization in what your writing teachers call “vivid sensory detail.” You will write the hot back of his hand stung my face and his punch to my head was an electric shock and other overblown yet tepid sentences of that sort. You will focus on the positions of the bodies, his and yours, but these placements won’t be very advanced. These early writing attempts will fail to satisfy the requirements of this course. For one thing, such writing feels cheap. Like you are trying to win sympathy, or worse, like you are trying to cheat your way to becoming a good writer. As if along with structure and style and syntax, you have added an unfair ingredient: Violence. You do not want violence (and its more shameful corollary, victimhood) to be the grammatical slide upon which you scoot. And why are you even writing about this, anyway? That’s the question that will always stop you mid-sentence.
Years will pass, and you’ll get a few more letters of acceptance. You’ll find yourself a writing teacher, encouraging young students (the same age you were when he practiced murder on your throat) to write about real life experiences. They hesitate at first, but a few weeks into the semester, they begin to open up. They write about parents waking them up at night to perform bizarre rituals of abuse. They write about strangers yelling racial epithets to them on the street. They write about bathtub suicides and CPR resuscitations and waking up in psychiatric wards. They write about feeding tubes and murdered siblings and the moment when a stranger hands over cash for sex. They wonder, as a class, if a bashed-in door counts as domestic violence. After all, the female writer has made the guy seem pretty great, apart from his door-punching habit. It’s violence, say some. But a door is not a face, say others. You don’t pretend to know the answer, but you love the question.
But sometimes your students have questions you can’t leave unanswered. They look to you, their writing teacher, and ask: Why am I even writing about this, anyway? And for this question, at least, you feel the need to provide an actual response. They save you like that, your students. They force you to answer questions you should have answered for yourself a long time ago. You tell them: Because it happened and it’s true. You tell them: Because it means something, even if you don’t yet know what that is. You tell them: Because no one has ever been you, and you matter, your life is unique and important and irreplaceable.
There is no recommended or required reading list for this course. However, if you want to have any chance of passing the exam, you should consider that for centuries, writers have wondered whether or not they should explore topics that feel too overdone, clichéd, boring, or self-serving.
Consider Sample A:
“I am myself the substance of my book, and there is no reason why you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject.”
—Michel de Montaigne, Essays
And Sample B:
“If you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.”
—George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
And Sample C:
“There is no overwhelming need to read the preface. Really. It exists mostly for the author, and those who, after finishing the rest of the book, have for some reason found themselves stuck with nothing else to read. If you have already read the preface, and wish you had not, we apologize. We should have told you sooner.”
—Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
On an intermittent basis, the Advanced Placement Committee—a contentious panel comprised of your past, present, and future selves—will convene to pose two Exam Questions. The first Exam Question is easy. It will take only a few years to answer and is included on this exam only to test your grammar:
Why did you continue to date someone who was actively trying to kill you?
Answers May Include:
- He seemed to be going somewhere you wanted to go and you didn’t know how else to get there.
- You didn’t think of yourself as someone worth murdering, let alone saving.
- He was very good looking.
The second Exam Question is far more challenging and will require a decade or more to answer:
What does your experience with a murderous boyfriend portend in terms of your future prospects for a healthy, successful match with a sane, loving, nonviolent partner? Does this experience suggest inherent flaws in your character that you may never be able to fix?
Sample Answers to Second Exam Question
You will write throughout the entire exam, though the audience and purpose of the writing will change:
Age 21: You write to him, begging for his attention, which to you means tell me I’m pretty but to him means sex. He stalks the corridors of your dormitory, leaving hoarse, whispering threats on your voicemail. One of those many nights becomes the last night, though it will take you a few years to know that this relationship is actually and finally and fully and forever over.
Age 22: You begin to write to yourself.
Age 23: You begin to date other people, people who are not him.
Age 24: You aren’t very good at dating. You date the extremes of safe and dangerous.
Age 25: You declare you do not give a shit about this exam.
Age 28: Maybe you do give a shit about this exam.
Age 29: Maybe you should study? Read self-help books? Online dating?
Age 30: You are supposed to be married by now, but you are not. You have failed.
Age 32: You are supposed to be married by now, but you are not. You have passed.
Age 33: This has nothing to do with you. You are a heroine trapped by her society, her times.
Age 34: For the first time in your life you begin to see the placement of your younger self. She was a kid, and like all kids, she could not articulate herself. She couldn’t speak, write, or even quote the words to explain what she felt. She obsessed about her appearance because, without words of her own, she could only be seen. Everything seemed like it had been said or written or done before. Everything was a cliché. Still, even then she knew she was going somewhere new, somewhere unknown, somewhere yet to be written. Like a character in a novel, she had an arc, though she could not see whether her conclusion was tragedy or grace.
Age 35: Through careful analysis of the imagery, you begin to see her sailing through the air toward the dew-soaked lawn on that June night in 1999. You plot her body on the trajectory, but now, from your advanced perspective, her placement has changed. You see how she scrambles upright a millisecond after getting thrown to the ground. You see now that this means something more than mere survival. She’s tougher, smarter, and more resilient than you had remembered her. You see her exchanging her body for her future, the fundamental transaction of every female character in classic literature. And now that the future is here, you can forgive her for bringing you to it.
So so beautiful and healing to read! I wrote down several quotes <3 Thank you for sharing this.
This is beautiful on so many levels. A fully realized work of art. Ultimately the sophisticated tools—including 2nd person POV, borrowed syllabus structure, future tense—serve and express the content in such a rewarding way. Our pasts are mysteries, and how the writer situates herself in relation to it here shows that as well as reflects on it. Best essay I have read in a while!
I really liked this!
Terrific writing. Powerful piece. Thank you for sharing.
By 1996, I had divorced the abuser whom I’d married. Abused first occurred 3 years into the marriage, beginning with a slap that wasn’t hard enough to knock me down. The slap, however, was so unexpected that it knocked me further into unreality. Thank you for writing about this; it is a necessary conversation.
Your article moved me almost to tears. The subject matter is too too real for someone, who has been abused, to want to face yet your words were compelling and I could not leave the page. My writing is not writing at all but I do it for myself and do not care if no one else reads it or not. This is an important subject for women today that needs to be brought out into the open more often so that violence against women can be eliminated.
The ingenious approach to personal narrative is irresistibly inviting; a softly sardonic voice holds sway. The writing is somehow simultaneously gentle and gut-wrenching. Flawlessly crafted work of art.
Loved how you married form and content in this piece, and then created that beautiful arc of not just self-forgiveness but transcendence.