“[T]his is not a book about overcoming anorgasmia,” says Cris Mazza in the author’s note to her memoir, Something Wrong with Her. Yet there on the cover is a reference to “frigidity,” the fraught and cruelly outdated term society used to characterize women who are unable to enjoy sex.
Mazza wants to raise the issue prominently, but not to resolve it. In a way, she seeks to create for us the discomfort, the lack of resolution she feels in her own life.
Her book rejects the notion of memoir as vehicle for personal transformation. In fact, it resists many of the tropes of traditional storytelling. Mazza establishes early on that her sexual dysfunction has been debilitating and difficult on pin to a specific cause. Something Wrong with Her is her attempt to write in what she calls “real time;” to delve into her past with a hyper-focus on the one relationship that’s defined her life: an early romance with Mark. Together with Mark she deconstructs two difficult nights in their shared past.
Without giving too much away, it is these two nights, these two stumbling opportunities for intimacy gone wrong, around which the narrative—and Mazza’s fixation—circles. These scenes are not remarkable so much because they’re abnormal for poorly executed encounters of sexual discovery, but because they become definitive moments for Mazza, moments that she seeks to recreate and dramatize repeatedly in her fiction. For Mazza the difficulty of these two nights with Mark come at precisely the wrong time—just as she is in the midst of a power struggle at work between her superiors–one that negatively defines her value and her understanding of self.
Mazza doesn’t just tell a single, forward moving story, though. This book is an amalgam of texts that exist in dialogue with each other. While she writes in the narrative of her relationship with Mark and her time caught between two superiors vying for power, this storyline is purely a framework for exploration of another kind. Mazza uses inset, scanned pages of her journals, letters she wrote at the time of these incidents, quotes from her novels and previous memoir as secondary and tertiary storylines that speak to the main one, sometimes challenging observations she’s made or raising questions about them. At times Mazza includes Mark’s email responses to her manuscript, or her own changes to earlier drafts, marked with dates. Even Mark seems to lose the thread of a through line from time to time:
“MarkR wrote: I don’t really understand what you mean here, but I just started to get that old, (very old, but still all too familiar) knot in the stomach and lump in the throat thing …”
These multiple storylines, riffs on the same scenes and themes, demonstrate how even Mazza herself is still searching for an origin for this problem for herself.
At these times the book feels insular and private—Mazza and Mark, coming together after decades apart; Mazza peeling apart her own fiction, looking for memories she can only barely touch now.
Maybe I didn’t always experience my interpersonal life as dull or unsatisfying because so much of me was always present in an alternate realm, having alternate adventures and loves and epiphanies there. Writing began, pretty early-on, to fill in for what life was supposed to offer, and I failed to look farther because writing (somehow) fulfilled me enough to not realize what I was doing, and because it was, again, “safe.” But safe from what? What had sent me into retreat? Or, if I can see the “what,” is there a way to say why? … On the excuse of seeking serenity, I have built a life that prizes seclusion – but at what price?
There are mentions of therapy, physical causes, and psychological involvements with other men who were not good to her. But Mazza chooses not to fixate on these details, centering her story always on the post-mortem analysis of what went wrong with Mark, how that shaped her sex life and reaction to sex.
It is clear that in Mazza’s mind, her time at the university band office is inextricably tied to her sexual dysfunction, and thus, to her complicated feelings about Mark and those two fraught nights. She returns to the idea of her time working there again and again as she circles around the idea of Mark.
Was I linking a hyperbolic rendition of my experience in the power struggle to my own sexual dysfunction? Was I seeking a psychological foundation for the sexual issues that had plagued my adult life? My cognizant perception would have been a belief that in fiction there’s a more tightly knit connection between past and present conflicts than I assumed existed in “real life.” But I wonder if I was reflexively seeking to explain my own sexual bankruptcy. And for some reason in that novel I looked there – the mentor, the power struggle – when there were other places I should have looked.
Though Mazza refers usually to Mark being in the background, lurking around every scene in her memory, it would seem that in reality the Windrem/Harlan storyline actually functions in that way. While her focus is Mark, Windrem and Harlan are always the echoing chorus, shadowy influences during a developmental time.
Both Mark and Mazza comment that the author seems more comfortable with people as she has rewritten them fictionally.
My writing had always been the means for the person in me to be expressed – yes in the adolescent sense of wanting people to understand me deeper, and in the wider sense of manifesting myself in the world: i.e. to exist. To validate all the shit that had gone on (only?) in my head and make it, finally, real.
Something Wrong with Her is frank. Bold. Mazza faces head-on that which would give most writers pause. What surprises about this book, however, is how much more cerebral than physical it is. It’s almost all in her head.