A literary agent once told me that, although my pieces about my life were well-written and interesting, she could never sell a memoir because I “had no hook.” Again and again she asked me about my life. I answered honestly, and in her e-mails I could see the regretful shake of her head. I was raised by parents married (to each other) for fifty years, no one abused alcohol, heroin, me or my brother, and we did not survive a single natural disaster or part ways with a religious cult. My trials, such as they are, are relatively normal in the annals of human history: insecurity, romantic difficulties, garden variety anxiety, hangnails, aging parents, icky jobs and the unexpected but unspectacular losses that characterize any life fully lived.
Despite the vanilla pudding that is my story, I have always lived a rich inner life in which I am a tragic heroine. Tonight I watched “La Vie en Rose,” a movie about the life of singer Edith Piaf. I was drawn like a stolid, gray moth to a throbbing blue-red flame. I have never been abandoned by my parents, had to sing on the streets for money, or loved a married man who died in a plane crash, but it was my story. Some dark, empty place inside me resonated with every blow, every sob, every self-destructive act. I was embarrassed to find, as the credits rolled, that I was still sitting frumpily on my couch wearing athletic pants and a T-shirt. Really, in the parts of me that are important and alive, I was sitting on a park bench in Paris writing to the man I loved, telling him that I knew he would never leave his wife and children, but that I would sacrifice everything for whatever time he could give me. I was singing “Je Ne Regrette Rien” on stage, my heart breaking with the knowledge that it was my last concert. I was damaged, tragic, and fascinating.
Piaf was not the gateway drug. In middle school I listened endlessly to Don Mclean’s “Starry, Starry Night,” a spear of poignancy. I was drawn to artists who suffered: Schumann who threw himself off a bridge and died later in a mental institution, and Virginia Woolf who walked into the water with her pockets full of rocks. In my worst moments I thought about them as if probing a hole where a tooth once was; I was, as Keats wrote, “half in love with easeful Death.” The sane part of me, though, that practical super ego, was worried about upsetting my parents, so I kept my secret fascination to myself.
In high school I discovered Sylvia Plath. I read and re-read every word written by or about her. I knew about every suicide attempt, the frantic spurts of writing that characterized the depths of her despair, the handsome Ted Hughes and his cruel betrayal, and the end – her head in a London oven. I loved the poems, the short stories and The Bell Jar, but my love for her craft was magnified and polished by her beauty, her mental illness, and the inevitability of her suicide. There was something about being so crazy that you came unmoored…that you could do serious damage and hurt people and become the burning center of attention because you couldn’t help it. There was no issue of Personal Responsibility, Maturity or Getting Over Oneself if you were Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton; if anything, you were more valuable by virtue of sharp edges, broken places and a perpetual whirl of drama. One could, apparently, just let go and stop worrying about what every damned other person in the world thought, and what would happen to them.
There were others, real and fictional. I was thrilled by Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, Ophelia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman as they broke rules, acted out and left a swath of pain across polite European society. They were mad with love, or just plain mad, and they lived passionately, hurtling towards tragedy without stopping to do laundry, pay bills or think about anyone else. I saw “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” before I read Fowles’ novel, and for days as I walked across my snow-covered college campus I imagined myself in a black, hooded cloak, flushed with madness over my seduction and abandonment, so far from the plodding rules of society that I could do anything to ease my pain. Meryl Streep’s character would not have sat in the counseling office telling a stranger in a Fair Isle sweater that she got really anxious sometimes. She would not try to get herself together to avoid upsetting her roommate or her parents.
Later, I was sucked in by Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. Although whinier and more self-indulgent than the clean burning fuel of Plath’s brief, bright arc, her balls-out insanity attracted me. She actually did all of the crazy things that I wanted to do, at about the same time I wanted to do them, on the other side of the Charles River. She got on the plane and flew across the country to see the guy who wouldn’t answer her phone calls. She drank too much, got involved indiscriminately and then apologized to everyone she had hurt. She screamed at people, she burned bridges, and she woke up in strange places only to have some espresso and whip up an article for “Rolling Stone.” She couldn’t help it, she was sick, she was an artiste, she was acting on impulse, damning the torpedoes, creating memoir-worthy scenes and living on the razor’s edge. I was doing what I was supposed to do, unable to risk a reign of terror more significant than a solo crying jag in my apartment.
It is, in the final analysis, good to be relatively sane, to be considerate of the feelings of others, and to be able to conform to the basic rules of society. The drama in my life is confined to passive-aggressive Facebook statuses and the odd snarky remark at a City Council meeting. I’ve been good, I have left most boats un-rocked, and objectively I know that I have done right. The “I can’t help it” excuse for passionate excess is really only valid if one really can’t help it; clearly I can.
Sometimes, though, like tonight, I let myself walk that dark corridor towards the things I would do uncensored, wild, and quite mad. I become a fascinating woman in my imaginings, the jagged bright splinters of my psyche reflecting the light that burns at the very center of my being. I am an artiste, uncontrollable by social convention and hurtling towards a tragic finale.
Beneath the laundry, the volunteering and the sensible flats is a woman with a hell of a “hook.” Maybe it’s enough that I know she’s there.