Based on an Untrue Story (On Fictions Bound And Binding)
This post “spoils” the ending of one of my favorite books, Aimee Bender’s An Invisible Sign of My Own. I’d prefer not to ruin it for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure (although I’m not entirely convinced that’s possible). So, please, know that — if you’d need a few days to track down and devour this book — this post will be here, after.
An Invisible Sign of My Own – Aimee Bender.
About the time I transitioned from juvenile lit to young adult, I began repeatedly writing the same story. It would involve a girl, about my age, with a name I liked better than my own. She would be in crisis. Those around her would express concern; she’d continue to spiral inward. Someone would reach for her; she’d withdraw. These People-Who-Cared would follow her into the spiral, kick up a fuss, and work tirelessly to lasso her back among them. Finally — when all seemed lost — she’d resurface. (They would save her. ) In conclusion: hope.
I still have these stories — spiral-bound printouts, 80 to 200 pages apiece. They’re hard to reread, in a way those that preceded them — of magic dollhouses and teachers from Mars — are not. They’re painful largely because they’re so poorly coded. Rereading them, I inevitably remember the amount of time I spent living them. Not just, as one might think, because they’re based on my experience, but because my experience was based on them. I was writing — and then living — my wish.
I mean this very concretely: I began to live out the things my characters did, in hopes of drawing out the responses they received. Yes, I cut and starved and purged and quit speaking because I was in pain. But I did those things (also) because I believed that they would bring in someone to help me with that pain. (Cries for attention, cries for help.) And when people did arrive, when people did pull me aside and offer me an ear, I did what my characters did: I pulled back. I said I was fine and then showed that I wasn’t. I waited to be asked again. Sometimes I was. Sometimes I wasn’t. But no one came after me the way that I waited for someone to come after me. And when friends did reach out, I did not magically rise above the tide.
This will come to be important. Listen closely.
The other day, I walked to the library. I’d been fighting depression and migraine and felt increasingly like a human fog machine. I walked to the library because I figured thirty minutes in direct sunlight couldn’t hurt. Also, the library in question feels a bit like an urban Hogwarts, and — as a result — has vaguely medicinal properties. For awhile, I wandered the stacks. Then, I snaked an old favorite from a shelf and opened it to the beginning. I curled up in a chair and began to devour it.
The book I reread — Aimee Bender’s An Invisible Sign of My Own — is a favorite I’ve only read once. Since the year of its release — the year my sister first read me the phrase “On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax” — Invisible Sign has remained one of my personal, most meaningful books. But it’s existed for me, increasingly, as a blurry memory. The bits I remembered best, prior to rereading, belonged to an off-center romantic subplot: Mona, the main character, has a very literal habit of quitting pleasure. She wards off her feelings for a boyfriend, for instance, by eating soap. I remembered this. I remembered her love interest (the science teacher) and how she spends a brilliant afternoon with him, only to draw herself away at the last minute, to chew on an ivory bar. I remembered his confusion, and the way she disappears in the wake of that decision.
I remembered, also, the scene that comes later. When the two are again curled up together in Mona’s apartment, and she begins pulling away, insisting she needs to use the bathroom. I remembered the firm (but entirely unthreatening) way he refuses to allow that. The increasing franticness with which she tries to escape what she wants. I remembered his constant, gentle refusal, how she eventually trusts that he’s not going to let her wreck this. How she manages, finally, just to have it.
Rereading Invisible Sign I was stunned to discover the gap between my remembered plot and the one that unfolds in the text. My memory of this story wasn’t wrong, just incomplete. The science teacher does hold onto Mona as she works to destroy what she wants. But the person who lays the groundwork for that is not the science teacher. It’s Mona. I remembered their last scene together correctly, but I forgot the scene before it, when she says, “next time, if there ever [is] a next time, if I say I am going to the bathroom, don’t let me go.” I forgot the opening of that scene where he makes good on that request. Forgot how she senses she must make the first move, must “halve the space between them,” — how she personally and actively initiates that exchange. I forgot that the science teacher knows her needs so well because she, the hero of her story, tells him: this is what my needs will look like.
This is the shape of my resistance, and I will need you to help me fight back.
This past week, I returned to therapy for the first time in two years. In doing so, I was struck by how often I still fight against that story I wrote (and rewrote) as a younger person. I’m working, always, against the notion that the quickest, truest way to facilitate closeness is to pull away. That, when that doesn’t work, I need to pull further. If I take care of myself, it’s because no one else is here to do so. Instinctively, I wait for the hero; I have to work against instinct to be that person. I have to do this, not because I’m alone, but because the more I care for myself and express my needs, the more able others are to help me manage them.
I feel sometimes, like life is an act of revision. It makes sense, then, that I love Invisible Sign. It’s a book that begins with one story and ends with a rewrite. It begins with the story Mona is told and ends with the story as she tells it. She does not, as it turns out, tell that final story alone. Her audience chimes in, adds details (pirates), colors within and outside the story’s lines. But the ending is hers. The voice is hers. The right to revision is hers.
It’s yours also. It’s also mine.