Contemporary memoirists seem to be in competition to see who’s been through the worst shit, sharing their roughest moments in the most emotionally affective way, while also trying to make these moments relatable and turn them into stories we can learn from. Elissa Washuta’s memoir “My Body Is a Book of Rules” takes us down these familiar roads. I found myself picking up threads that closely resemble some of my own experiences: a short-lived, but fierce, obsession with Nirvana; memorizing Cosmo tips for life, while also memorizing Bible verses for Confirmation class; and embarrassingly confessional, not-at-all-literary journal entries. But, like a good memoirist, Washuta, who reads in Baltimore on Saturday, Dec. 6, as part of the Federal Dust series, uses these experiences, as she details her harrowing college years and early 20s, to lead us through her depressive episodes, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a rape, and circuitous, complicated bouts of self-loathing and self-destructive tendencies that follow.
She constructs the narrative in erratic ways, playing with many different kinds of structure. One chapter is an academic essay dissecting the term “hook up.” In another, which may be a nod to Joan Didion’s “White Album,” she prints a letter from her psychiatrist in Maryland to her new one in Seattle, adding her own darkly comic commentary: “The patient’s level of composure and charisma during office visits made it difficult to believe she was so fucked up.” One chapter poetically empathizes with Kurt Cobain’s psychological state before his suicide, and Britney Spears circa 2007 (the shaved-head era). Another chapter, “Sexually Based Offenses,” starts to confront rape culture, through a made-up “Law & Order: SVU” sketch, in which she has to defend her case to the “bad cop,” while the “good cop” interjects statistics and doses of empathy. The “villain” is quoted intermittently, with gross comments like “bad guys do what good guys dream.” The whole book could focus on just this aspect, unpacking the ways that rape victims are challenged and disbelieved.
Though the shifts from one chapter to the next can be awkward and jarring, Washuta sets up this illogical logic that strings together her memories of this particularly rocky period in her life. Her memories, stitched here like patchwork, make something like a story quilt through her manic and depressive episodes. It’s really effective, as she drags you down with her to her lowest lows, and in the last chapters, when she’s in Seattle for grad school and things seem stable, she hints that maybe it was the change of place that was so necessary, farther from places that trigger the past, and closer to where her Native nation resides.
The nonlinear story only encompasses a span of about six years, a period in which it seems she can never catch a break. Every problem that Washuta faces is complicated and compounded by the next one. She never seems to resolve the events that she repeatedly circulates back to, and yet she never dwells long enough to unpack them effectively.
Some of her problems, like her eating disorder, are only hinted at or mentioned as an aside. At an early point, she mentions her “belly’s swell that my mother told me was an Indian thing while I battled it with Weight Watchers point counts.” In another chapter, she describes the various medications she’s taken, some as treatment for her bipolar disorder, which caused her to gain or lose weight. In one of a series of chapters culled from diary entries, she lists all the foods that she thinks are “disgusting,” which includes pretty much everything. “Everything but fruit and nuts is disgusting, basically. Fruit and nuts and whiskey. Protein powder,” she writes, “. . . and prescription drugs. Wellbutrin is my favorite food. Wellbutrin made me skinny. If I hadn’t gone crazy last summer, I’d still be a cow.”
The most frustrating—and, at times, compelling—thing about such moments is that she offers no apology or explanation for that thinking, no qualifying statement. In a particularly painful moment later in the book, Washuta tries to rationalize her rape through the lens of her Catholic upbringing. She mentions the martyr Maria Goretti, who denied a man’s sexual advances but was then stabbed and killed by him. “The fight in her got her killed. Is that what God wanted? Is that what he wanted for me? I knew that I had sinned by letting my rape happen. But that didn’t mean I was wrong to fear Damian’s violence.” This self-blame is damaging, but it is also common. And we can’t condemn her for thinking this way, because rape culture feeds us this type of thinking. It’s the same thing as when a rape victim is asked, “What were you wearing?” or “Did you say ‘no’?” “How can we be sure?” Washuta leaves this thought there for the reader, open, the way it appeared in her mind at the time.
Washuta’s conflicted self-analysis leads to other problems as well. Washuta identifies as Native American, because she’s 1/32 Cowlitz, 1/16 Cascade—though the rest of her heritage is European, and her surname Ukrainian. She uses chapters called “A Cascade Autobiography” to directly tell about aspects of her Native heritage, using spare anecdotes about her great-great-great-grandfather Tumalth, who was hanged in 1856. But she gives us nothing about these nations that she identifies with (and she is a card-carrying Cowlitz member). And, while blood quantum rules—in which some tribes require a specific fraction of Indian blood in order to be a member—originated as a racist system that would ensure the eventual extinction of Native nations, Washuta doesn’t offer much about her upbringing to show how she was raised with these Cowlitz and Cascade cultures in mind. So she ends up looking like another white person claiming to be Native American in order to garner sympathy, to build an identity, and for personal gains. She even tries to explain her rape through her “Indianness,” writing about it as a “pain so old [it] begins to feel like predestination, locking every generation into more . . . I savor the twisted prestige of inheriting old hurts most people only read about in books.”
This could be the mission statement of a certain kind of American memoir. But, it lacks a critical perspective. White privilege is being able to pick and choose your identity, which parts of your heritage you choose to identify with. And Washuta doesn’t discuss that, but she says she’s incensed when people look at her white skin and ask her how much Indian she is. She doesn’t address her white-passing privilege, though she does admit that people always think she’s white. While there are stories of people who are raised in Native cultures though they have very little “Indian blood,” it’s irresponsible, as a white-passing person who identifies as Native, to not directly acknowledge or address the privilege that comes with passing.
Elissa Washuta has gone through a lot of shit. But we all go through shit, and we try to make sense of it, because we have to, because it’ll make us insane if we don’t. In parts, Washuta brings up really important, discussion-worthy points about mental health and medications, rape culture, and consent, but then she stretches too far, trying to link it back to the facts and effects of colonization in Native Americans without addressing her own white privilege. This lack makes Washuta seem short-sighted—a flaw for a memoir, which is self-awareness made literary.
Elissa Washuta will be Participating in the Federal Dust Reading Series on Dec. 6.
For more information, go to federaldustreadingseries.tumblr.com.