How do we begin to describe the indescribable? In McSweeney’s newest book That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, actor Samantha Matthews and author David Shields challenge the way we think about trauma by changing the way we talk about it. Read an excerpt of the collaborative text and watch the video trailer after the jump! And to preorder That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, out from McSweeney’s Books on June 9th, please visit their store.
I’ve been taught to not apologize before any performance, and I find it annoying when actors apologize for what they’re about to do, particularly during an audition, but in this case I need to do that, once; I feel terrified. If I just say it, instead of pretending to know what I’m doing, maybe I can start off on an honest path. My mind doesn’t think at all linearly. I have a hard time keeping up with my thoughts and narrowing them down. I don’t know. This might be a complete mess.
In no way do I want to feel like I’m being self-indulgent, talking about all of my “issues.” Who gives a shit? Who am I to be telling a story? I have this intimacy-junkie part of me, though, that wants to provoke others to see something deep inside themselves. I like breaking down barriers—not to be perverse but to find a more authentic connection. Generally speaking, we’re not unique.
A director once said to me, “Sam, it’s so exhausting for the audience to watch you hold up all that armor. If you could stop holding it up, it would be so much easier not only for you but also for us to watch. The energy required to protect yourself just gets in the way of telling the story.”
I have less and less of a need, I think, to pretend I’m a good girl. I should be professional, friendly, responsible, accommodating, easy to get along with, elegant, and graceful. Must never step out of the house without wearing at least a tiny bit of makeup, because you never know who you’re going to run into. Lipstick is a winner, because my lips sort of blend in with my face. Must be confident. Don’t slouch. Don’t diminish yourself in public or in any conversation. Wear classic clothes, which suit you. Nothing too tight-fitting because that looks cheap. Always good to make people wonder what’s under those clothes instead of shoving it in their face. Game’s over, and so is their respect for you. I must foresee everyone’s needs. If I’m incredibly attentive to everyone and everything around me, I can avoid all possible conflict, dangerous and trivial situations alike. No one can call me selfish, either. Don’t get in the way or be irritating. Don’t joke around and make silly faces with three chins (I’m really good at that) around your lover, who will then find you unattractive, even disgusting. Be aware of how big your nose is (once, on an airplane when I was fifteen, my mom told me maybe I could just get my sinuses operated on and the surgeon could do a quick little nose job while he was at it). Try to avoid the profile: not good. I should never talk about anything negative—that’s a waste of energy and makes others see you as a negative person. I can smile and say yes to everything, make your life easier. Keep those nails trimmed and not painted. No, leave them a little longer, but still not painted; he doesn’t like that. Don’t paint your toenails; he doesn’t like that, either. Be strong. No, don’t. That’s butchy. Seeing a difference between men and women is better. Be vulnerable, but don’t cry around men because there’s a study that says the smell of women’s tears actually lowers their sexual desire for you. Be mindful. Do yoga. It gives you a great ass.
Friday, Friday—how many days to Friday? It’s only Tuesday. Four more days of this till I can escape.
Interesting that you should choose to ask me now how I view my own physical appearance, as that very same theme came up over the last few days and led to an explosion of tears the other night. I was cast in what will supposedly become a TV series. The guy who is producing it, directing it, and starring in it is an American actor I worked with last year on a film. The premise and script of the series are really sharp, and I was flattered that he cast me, felt/feel a pressure to do well, etc. He was going to introduce my character later on, but at the last minute he decided to put me in the teaser. I knew nothing about my character, and when I went for my makeup test, the costume designer said the only thing she knew was I was supposed to be very sexy—the first time anyone has cast me in a role like this.
I received the script for the teaser two days before shooting, and my lines didn’t give me any more information about who I was. On the day of the shoot, I thought surely the director would let me know more about the role, but he was very busy running around, so I didn’t dare ask him. Finally, I asked him in a sort of jokey way, “So, Thomas, ya know, any information about what I’m doing here?” He said, “Well, basically, let’s just say you’re the sex kitten of the show. Do all your lines with that in mind. Everything should have an erotic undertone to it.” Gulp.
I was supposed to say the first line staring directly into the camera, which for me is always the most difficult thing to do. I like to work off of people and forget about myself. I saw my reflection and didn’t like the makeup job—bags under my eyes and a giant mosquito bite above my left eyebrow, which I immediately asked the makeup artist to cover up. She’d done what most makeup artists do: the minimal thing, making my tiny eyes disappear into my face. Eyes are everything; if the audience can’t see them, you have no power, and I felt ugly. I could tell the DP was having difficulty lighting my face to get that sex kitten look and I had to feel confident regardless.
To me, a sex kitten is a model, an Angelina Jolie. I felt short and squatty, my quads massive. One absurd Thanksgiving when I was nineteen, Jesse and Carl were invited to our house on Vashon Island. I hadn’t seen them or talked to them since I was about eleven. My dad thought it was a good idea to get the darling boys back in the house after an eight-year absence for a family reunion. I thought it was especially wonderful to catch up with them since Jesse had just made his TV debut on Oprah Winfrey, claiming to be a recovered rapist. He took me aside and apologized for abusing me, then he and my parents went to bed, leaving me up with Carl, who’d brought along his chef’s knife collection, as you do. He began to study my body with that look I was supposed to give the camera, telling me the reason brothers are always jealous of their sisters’ boyfriends is because they really just want to fuck their sisters. And he wanted to smell me and lick me and make me come. After all, I owed it to him, as my dad had abandoned him and he’d been living on the streets for years. I was sitting in a chair and he knelt down in front of me, grabbing my calves, massaging them and saying, “Ahhh. Too bad you got the Matthews legs.” “The big, ugly, unfeminine legs” is what he was saying: “You’re lucky I even find you attractive.” This is what I’m fighting in my head, trying to push away, as the camera rolls and the director calls, “Action!” Carl’s look is nasty, wrong, and I’m supposed to give the exact same look now, but I feel everyone can read what’s going through my head. I’m exposed—vulnerable, scared. I feel my face trembling.
I managed to battle my way through the first close-ups and the director said, “We got it. I know it feels really mechanical, but you’ll see: it’s just going to be quick flashes, and with editing it’ll work just fine.” The whole thing has become a farce. They took a risk by giving me this role, and now they can see I’m definitely not a sex kitten. They’re definitely going to cut me out of the series. (I’m waiting for an email from the director saying he’s going to go with someone else. And out of embarrassment, I don’t dare “like” any of the Facebook photos of the shoot.)
On my way home I stopped by our local restaurant and found my friend, the owner, sitting outside. I was hoping he’d be there, because I needed a drink. I needed not to feel humiliated. Focusing on the job and talking about it positively and numbing out all the detestable feelings would be the answer. I ended up meeting a couple girlfriends later, didn’t eat any dinner, and got quite hammered. I was now celebrating the idea of being cast and cracking jokes about the shoot.
I get home and William and I start watching an episode of The Killing in bed. There’s a scene in which the female cop discovers the councilman’s emails that are evidence he’s the rapist/murderer of a young girl. The computer screen lighting the dark, empty room where the cop is looking at the emails; and then suddenly the murderer behind her, his terrifying silhouette, and his asking her what she’s doing—all this takes me back to watching Star Trek with Jesse in that dark, blue-lit room. The fear, locked in there, no escape. And on the other side of that bedroom, the other brother waiting to hunt me. I lost it and broke into sobs, pressing my face into my pillow, and told William to turn it off. A feeling of disgust came over me. This fucked-up, ugly, Matthews-legged girl, spiraling into a pile of shit, mulling around in it, going darker and darker, thinking there’s no way anyone would be capable of finding me attractive, and even if I were beautiful, my mental state would be such a massive turnoff.
My eyes have been swollen for two days now—-yet another physical manifestation of the mess inside me. I can’t hide it. I just want to stay home and be left alone until it passes, but I can’t because I’ve got to take Roc and Ava to their afterschool activities and talk to mothers with whom I have nothing in common, pretending all is fine.
Samantha Matthews is a pseudonym. The co-author is an American actress who lives in Barcelona with her partner and two children.
David Shields is the author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications); The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (a New York Times bestseller); Black Planet (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); and, forthcoming over the next year, War Is Beautiful (PowerHouse Books) and Other People (Knopf). I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, co-written by Caleb Powell and published by Knopf in January 2015, has been adapted by James Franco into a film that will premiere next month at Vancouver’s DOXAdocumentary film festival. Shields’s work has been translated into twenty languages.