An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s September selection,
Hysterical by Elissa Bassist
forthcoming from Hachette Books on September 13, 2022
Subscribe by August 15 to the Book Club to receive this title and an invitation to an exclusive conversation with the author via Crowdcast
In the spring of 2018, the fourteen-year-old girl I babysat—my charge and protégé since she was nine, who was more little sister than job (I imagined she’d attend to me in hospice when I got there, and in exchange I’d radicalize her)—jumped out her fifteenth-floor window five days before her fifteenth birthday and landed on scaffolding, and how can I say this? She died.
Kate Spade killed herself a few months later, then Anthony Bourdain, and I couldn’t type, text, scroll, or sleep without splints. The mysterious pain that began eighteen months ago was back and more mysterious than ever.
The orthopedic hand surgeon diagnosed it as bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome/wrist flexor tendonitis, and I took the F train in Brooklyn to occupational therapy twice a week. Every day I did a series of wrist stretches and smeared my body in CBD oil and magnesium spray, and I wore ice packs and heating pads, bought ergonomic everything, and borrowed a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine from the celebrity couple whose dogs I walked. In my apartment, I’d hold out my forearms in a gesture of receiving and stick electrodes from my wrists to my elbow, and once I selected the lowest setting, electrical impulses pumped into my arms and flooded my nervous system so that pain signals couldn’t reach my brain.
But I didn’t feel better, only much, much worse, and throughout the summer my arms maintained their form but had no function.
At the memorial for the forever-fourteen-year-old, there was a table strewn with paper and pens to write her a note and put it in a box for her parents to keep. I waited until the end, until the other attendees—half of whom were kids—wrote and left, then I knelt down to write in a flower-patterned dress that I gave away after the service. But there were too many words to choose from for ultimate heartbreak.
I wrote draft after draft of not tribute nor requiem but “Fuck you”; then “I love you.”
“Fuck you” because I had to be mad at her since I couldn’t be the other thing. Being mad at her was the lie I had to tell myself to endure my grief. And anger was also the truth inasmuch as—
Have you ever said something you wished you’d never said?
“I want to jump out the window for what I’ve boiled down to is one reason: I can’t write a book,” I wrote to the famous online advice columnist Sugar (née Cheryl Strayed) in August 2010. And in April 2018, the forever-fourteen-year-old jumped out the window for a reason no one will ever know.
The forever-fourteen-year-old and I had spilled our guts to each other, but because no one knows how to talk to teenagers or about suffering, she didn’t tell me how much pain she was in.
(Her suffering is a question I’ll ask forever, and mine is the silence and the impulse to ask the question even with the certainty that the answer won’t come.)
My suffering had always divided me from “them.” Suffering didn’t tell “them” anything while it told me:
- Everyone suffering suffers alone.
- No one understands how to suffer.
- Each suffering is a snowflake.
- Suffering shows up in ways that do not resemble suffering.
- When suffering, there is no “before” suffering, and there is no “after” suffering; all there is is floor and bed.
I’d sought out depression in my charge-protégé-sister as she hit her teens and her emotions kicked in and turned sappy lyric-like, and because she and I had a lot in common. But her suffering was a snowflake, which she would suffer alone, without my commiseration or advice.
I wrote to Sugar for advice my first summer in New York, when I was hunched and spiraling. In the letter I’d talked about myself: “I am a pathetic and confused young woman,” a millennial who had to write publicly about being unable to write and who was “sick with panic.” Why? “I write like a girl,” I’d begun, and explained that I wrote about “my lady life experiences” in ways that came out as “unfiltered emotion, unrequited love, and eventual discussion of vagina as metaphor,” and so on that reduced me to my body and my psychological state, which would be mocked and disregarded. But I couldn’t help it—all my words came out stupid and female, unbearable and wrong—and I’d point and laugh at my sentences and mark them: not good enough, not good enough, not good enough. My writing was girly, and girlness was insufficient, and my insufficiency did not make me poetic, it made me want to self-defenestrate. Not only was I not a household name, but also I didn’t know how to do or be anything, not an artist or a heroine or a wife or an intern or an insect.
Sugar’s advice to my cry for help was, among other things, “write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
Her advice was a talking cure that went viral. It ended up on coffee mugs that ended up on TV shows and on T shirts and baby onesies. I was secondhand famous in niche literary circles for a phrase I didn’t write (I didn’t write, “Write like a motherfucker”) and for my suffering that inspired it (I wrote, “I want to jump out the window”). For years I received well-meaning emails from people who hoped I had Written That Book and was Writing Like a Motherfucker.
I hadn’t, and I wasn’t. I was sleeping like a motherfucker. I was Netflixing like a motherfucker. I was sexting the emotionally unavailable like a motherfucker. I was recommending books written by male authors to guys I liked because they “didn’t really read women” like a motherfucker. I was teaching other writers to write like motherfuckers.
And after the suicide, the only book I could write like a motherfucker was The forever-fourteen-year-old jumped out the fifteenth-floor window and splatted on scaffolding.
Her suicide cracked open something in me huge and starless, and despite how much I felt, I would feel more. There was room inside this feeling for everyone, everywhere. But not room enough in my mind, so perhaps it shot to my wrists and converted into “carpal tunnel syndrome.”
At the time I wouldn’t say (soberly) that unvoiced rage had anything to do with my arms or central nervous system. Instead, I returned my massive iPhone and used my teeth as fingers and cried indiscriminately, like whenever friends joked about wanting to kill themselves or a dead girl showed up onscreen. But when my spinal disc slipped months later amid the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings on allegations against him of sexual assault, and the pain in my forearms was just . . . gone, as The Mindbody Prescription by male author Dr. John Sarno predicted, I believed what I had read—that pain like mine skips around to other locations or organs, finding substitutes to express what the sick person won’t. I had also read that the mind creates symptoms as a defense, to sidetrack the sick from emotional ruin; psychic pain is the true threat, and the protective gift of physical pain is its distraction.
“Your pain is a gift,” a massage therapist had told me about my first symptom, a six-month headache. (For a fleeting, fleeting moment, I visualized smacking her in the tit.) As if the wound was the place where the light would enter me, as male mystic Rumi wrote. As if the pain would not go away if I kept banishing then refreshing it. As if it would not leave me alone until it taught me what I needed to know about my voice. “There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor Earth,” wrote male poet Czesław Miłosz.
Excerpted from Hysterical: A Memoir by Elissa Bassist. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.