In My Body is a Book of Rules, Elissa Washuta delivers a coming-of-age memoir in a succession of linked essays that mirror the rapid cycling of her bipolar brain. She pulls readers into the world of a young woman as she struggles to reconcile her mixed Native and White heritage, mental and physical well-being, and sexuality in the wake of losing her virginity to rape. She uses a pop-culture framework and formally inventive chapters. She juxtaposes a Cosmo quiz with Catholic catechisms, annotates her match.com profile, and reenacts the aftermath of her rape as an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
What excites me most about Body is how Washuta exhibits agency — a critical element that is often lacking in mainstream discussions of trauma. In “Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat,” she recounts the people’s she’s had sex with from most recent to the first, the first being the rape that took her take her years to come to terms with. “Each addition proves that I am not afraid to repeat my mistakes until one of my decisions happens to be good,” she writes. “Counting backward is a must.” This accounting reveals her culpability. The reader watches with a mix of horror and sorrow and recognition as she navigates her sexual relationships from a scarred and faulty foundation. It speaks to how we are all shaped by our past, and how we often take over and wound ourselves, claiming a false form of self-control that is at least as destructive as the harm that others inflict. About midway through that chapter, Washuta pulls a punch that stunned me, a trick she uses in other places in the book, where she asks herself a question and forces the reader to ask the same thing. “I don’t know which is more terrifying,” she says. “Being loved or being asked to love.”
Body isn’t a memoir about just one thing, and it lacks a strong chronological narrative. The chapter called “A Cascade Autobiography” shapes and holds the whole. Written more as traditional prose, it’s the longest piece in book and is broken into sixteen parts, placed between each of the chapters. Although it explores many issues, it’s grounding. With its familiar and recurring style, it brings together the strands of ethnic identities, sanity, and intimacy that come barreling at us through the uniquely constructed pieces. “Cascade” reveals the interconnectedness and inseparability of body and mind, culture and action, history and healing, and continues to explore the idea of agency. “Having been raped a virgin used to seem to have a lot in common with being Indian,” she writes. “People were skeptical and I didn’t have enough proof. Both had to do with being fucked over. But Indianness is now cool, evidenced by the dream-catchers spangling every rack at Urban Outfitters. Being a rape victim just sucked, for a while. Sometimes though, without meaning to be, I was proud: I have suffered, and that entitled me to something, but I didn’t know what.”
As a reader of essays and memoirs, I usually want what’s described as “show, show, show, show, show, then tell beautifully.” This isn’t what Washuta gives us. So why am I so crazy in-love with this book?
At times, Body is a difficult read. Washuta places the reader inside her mind and body, brings us right into the experience no matter how uncomfortable. It’s difficult because I wanted to rush in and yell, “Stop! No, wait!” when she was on the cusp of a bad decision. I related to those bad decisions, viscerally. But Washuta doesn’t narrate the solution, or take us out of whatever reaction we’re having. She just holds us in the moment. Because of that, I could see how much of my emotional, physical and sexual self I’d both lost and given away as I fumbled along my own course into adulthood.
It’s a common critique that writing produced by younger people is lacking in reflection. The old joke is that a person in their 20s (or 30s, 40s, 50s) couldn’t possibly have enough life experience to write a memoir. In Body, Washuta shows why younger voices and voices outside the mainstream matter. They show us the immediate implications of our current culture on our psyches, bodies, and hearts. In her refusal to apologize or sugarcoat her thoughts and behavior, and her refusal to let others off the hook for their actions, Washuta forces us to reflect on our own experiences and draw the connections.
In an online commentary, Washuta wrote, “If I use wording that relies on sexist values, it is because I live in a sexist nation. I was taught in my Catholic school to guard my virginity with my life. This is the story I have for you. I’m not writing to heal so much as to turn the mirror back on the world.” Her mirror cracks the illusion that we are separate, that culture is something that happens around us. It is part of us.
And yet there is light: the freedom that comes with admitting our broken parts, with self-reliance, with letting go and getting lost, with being willing to do the work of mending.
I strapped myself to my grief for a long time and beat it into the folds of my skin. Every sexual misstep was a line of litany petitioning some savior for intercession… I know now that I am enough… I seek no savior now, not one in the sky who will wrap his hands around my soul, not one on earth who will wrap his arm around my shoulders. Comfortably unattached, I walk and chant, touch my own hands, waiting for something to be revealed.