Alisson Wood Reclaims Her Power in “Being Lolita”

Alisson Wood, author of Being Lolita (Photo credit: Christie Spillane)

When Alisson Wood was 17, she returned to her high school after spending a year attending an alternative school—and even more time attempting to navigate a tenuous grasp on her mental health. She was the student other students stared at, but never dared approach, which, for Wood, created a sense of loneliness that manifested in her walking the hallways, alone, trying to find a place to belong and coming up short. “There’s a long history of loneliness and literature,” Wood writes of this experience in her debut memoir, Being Lolita, published on August 4. “Of loneliness as a prerequisite to love. Almost like you can’t really love someone unless you’ve been alone and loveless for a long time. At least, if you’re a woman. Almost as if this protracted alone time is a purification, prepares a girl to be worthy of a man’s love.”

Wood’s loneliness is what draws her into English teacher Nick North’s web, where he begins grooming her—first in a classroom, where they’re alone together as he guides her writing, and then in a diner, where he tells her repeatedly that the secrecy of their burgeoning, predatory relationship is what should appeal to Wood. North, who Wood refers to as “the teacher,” uses Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita (which is still, oddly, taught in high schools across the United States) as a parallel for their love. North’s an older man who just happens to fall for his student; Wood’s a student in need of saving. Over the course of a single school year, the teacher continues to groom Wood, where he dangles the elusive string that once she graduates, they can be together—and bring Lolita’s tragic love story to life.

In reality, though, as Wood realizes in hindsight, the teacher is a wolf and she’s the prey, a perfect blend of vulnerability and innocence whose only mistake is wanting to have the happiness that has long eluded her. “All I wanted was to be seen,” Wood writes. “To be acknowledged, to be understood. To feel that connection when eyes meet and communication is instant without a word.” Being Lolita, which is separated into three distinctive parts, is told nearly entirely from the perspective of this 17-year-old girl, who would’ve taken pleasure in carrying this enormous secret, the one thing in her life that feels as if it belongs to her. We’re treated to this teenage protagonist’s journal entries and other innermost thoughts without Wood guiding us as an adult narrator.

Not only does that allow the reader to unravel the many layers of this convoluted “relationship”—if it can be called such a thing—but it takes us on a journey with her as she realizes, once she’s graduated from high school, gone off to college, and begun a sexual relationship with the teacher that he’s little more than an abusive man who grooms young girls into being his Lolita. We have these realizations at the same time our narrator does, a decision that allows our narrator to remain in control of her story. Being Lolita, in this way, is a different kind of memoir about consent: one in which a girl slowly regains her power, her ability to separate her life from the one her abuser constructed for her. Bitch spoke with Wood about the power of revealing this story through memoir, reconstructing fragile memories, and the dangerous implications of treating Lolita like a love story.

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Memoir is often dismissed as a navel-gazing genre, especially when it’s written by women. We know this is a sexist designation, but it still leads me to a question: Why did you choose to write a memoir opposed to fictionalizing this experience?

I got a lot of suggestions to make this a novel early on in the process, but I always knew that this was a memoir. I wanted to underscore that I was definitely not consenting in this relationship with the teacher, if you can call it a relationship. I wanted Being Lolita to be a memoir because I thought that was part of its power. I didn’t want to open the door to the argument that this is just a novel. It happened to me and I know so many other women who have had similar experiences. I teach undergrad creative writing at New York University and every single semester, there’s at least one young woman who reveals at some point that she was taken advantage of by a teacher, a coach, or some other male power figure. When I was working on this book in my Master of Fine Arts program, at least one woman in the program would talk about their very similar experience every single semester. This is a pervasive problem; it isn’t made up, exaggerated, or sensationalized. This happens all the time.

You write extensively and in detail about your mental health during high school, including having electroconvulsive therapy. Why did it feel important to begin the book there?

Well, it felt really important for a reader to know the context of [who I was] going into my senior year of high school, and why I was an easy target. I was isolated and incredibly insecure. I didn’t want to hide that. I was worried about [including that information] because I was afraid that some critics would latch on to that—and some of them have. The first line in my first official review tells readers that I had electroshock therapy, used to be a cutter, and was on 20 medications. That’s setting me up as an unreliable narrator or a “crazy girl,” which happens a lot with memoirs, especially memoirs written by women. But instead of being afraid of that or working in fear, I wrote the book from a place of openness and honesty. I [wanted] to tell my readers that this happened, but it doesn’t mean I’m broken and it doesn’t mean your life is always going to be like that.

You’re reaching back more than a decade to write this memoir. We know that memory is fragile, and I know you chose to comb back through old journals as you wrote this book. What were some of your other approaches to mining your memory?

I was incredibly diligent about using primary sources. I had about a dozen journals that I had written from that year in high school. I had more than a dozen letters from the teacher that ranged from love letters and very sexy letters to the apology letter that I detail in the book. I have hard copies of that. I still have hotel receipts and hall passes. So I [tried to] be accurate in the timeline and what happened, even when it was incredibly painful, embarrassing, shameful, and difficult. I didn’t talk to many people, partially because I knew that the entire point of the relationship was to keep it a secret. And I did, which is unbelievable looking back at 17 and 18-year-old me keeping this big secret, but I did somehow. I did talk to my mother a little bit [while writing the book]. Her reaction was, “I don’t remember, Allie. I don’t remember anything. It was so long ago.” When she first found out [about the relationship], I tried to ask her some specific things: What did she think I was doing that summer when I was never home? What was she thinking when I was out late all the time? She didn’t remember. But she did tell me about that instance that I wrote about in the book when my therapist told her she shouldn’t be so on top of me all the time. That was a big revelation; that explained why my mother was so hands off at that time.

I reached out to Richie, a friend of mine from high school, because there was a legal review when I was selling the book, which is very unusual. So in addition to spending about two hours in this tiny office with my editor, my agent, and this lawyer combing through my journals, looking at photographs, and going through the teacher’s letters and hall passes, the lawyer also wanted to talk to somebody who may have known [about the relationship]. So I reached out to Richie, who I hadn’t spoken to in 10 years. He was so kind and generous and was more than happy to talk to a lawyer. When he and I had a conversation about it, he was like, “Yeah, I remember. You two were always together and everybody thought you were sleeping together.” That was very surprising.

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You revolve between calling this man the teacher, Nick, and Mr. North. Was that intentional? How did you decide what moments called for what specific designation?

It was definitely intentional. It was something I thought a lot about. When I call him “the teacher” in the book, it’s generally in the beginning and the last section of part three, which follows my life after the relationship was over. In part three, I’m examining how this really horrible traumatic experience has echoed throughout my life. I [began calling him] the teacher because that’s how I began thinking of him. It was a bit strange because most people who’ve been in relationships call their exes by their first name, a nickname, or a more intimate name. I never did. I thought of him as the teacher when I dated him—though dating is not the correct word.

For most of the book, I call him Mr. North, which was what I was supposed to call him in school. But when we were alone or meeting late at night at diners, he told me to call him Nick, which is obviously a pseudonym. So I tried to switch up his names in the book to show the reader that I was trying to keep his different identities separate. It wasn’t just about me in public and in private with him, but also about who he was with me and how I thought of him. There’s so much power in names, and there’s so much power in identity. My students and I always read Ada Limon’s “A Name” poem, Margaret Atwood’s “Spelling” poem, and other poems about identity. There’s so much to a name, specifically for women. It’s also pertinent to nonbinary and trans individuals.

A man’s name never changes. Whatever he’s born with is what he’ll die with. And he has his father’s name, his father has his father’s name, etc., but women’s names change, dependent upon their romantic relationships. [Most often, a] woman’s last name is her father’s last name, unless we’re thinking about queer relationships. Outside of that, a woman’s last name is linked to her father’s last name, which is linked to his father’s name and so on. It’s so complicated for women. Our names and identities are so tied up whether we want them to be or not.

When you begin meeting with the teacher in a diner to workshop different essays and other stories, he writes to you, “Keeping it a secret makes it special.” How did he use this kind of specific language to get you to buy into the idea that this relationship was worthwhile?

I’m a big believer in patterns. This is partially because of therapy, which [taught me to] look at my life, my experiences, and my choices to see how my current decisions are built on past ones. How are your choices in your life reflected in choices your parents made and choices that were made for you when you were young? On a craft level, I believe that repetition is a way to create meaning. Some writers trot out the horses at the end of a story, which brings out some of the elements, the metaphors, and the themes they’ve been exploring the whole time and create closure for a reader. I was partially trying to create my own patterns in this book, including the patterns that were happening not only with the teacher but in the rest of my life. These patterns continue to echo and twistedly reflect what happened.

When I think back on this relationship, there are some phrases and moments that stand out, and so many of them happened over and over again. [These patterns] were some of the events I remembered the most, like how he would put the napkins in the glass at the diner, and I would just stare until the ink bled out of the paper. That happened multiple times because destroying evidence was part of what he did. He would say, “Secrets keep us safe,” which I thought was a sincere sentiment at the time. I believed him and I thought he said those things as a way of taking care of me. I thought he was being protective and sincere, but in actuality, he was just being manipulative. I was hoping that using patterns and repetition would help a reader understand my experience.

Being Lolita by Alisson Wood (Photo credit: Flatiron Books)

You only tell this story from the perspective of a 17-year-old narrator, so it was really powerful for you to revisit this old box of memories and see a photo of yourself at 17. At the moment the photo is taken, you think you look sexy and grown, but through your adult eyes, you realize just how young you looked.

I have that photo tacked up in my office. Whenever I’m working on a project, I create a mood board with photos, notes, and all sorts of other things, so I have that picture tacked up. When I saw that photo, I was just so struck by how sad I looked. I looked so young. There’s no mistaking it. There’s no way that an adult man, even someone in his late 20s, could look at that girl and think, “She’s ripe for the picking. She’s grown. She’s mature enough.” I was clearly a teenager. [Seeing that photo] made me angry, but of course, behind the anger was a lot of sadness and hurt. That was definitely a moment where I realized, This wasn’t my fault at all.

When I began writing the book, I was still victim-blaming. [I was telling myself], “Well, you flirted back with him. You thought he was so cute. You thought you were in love.” But that photo reminded me that’s not what happened at all. My biggest goal in the book was to bring the reader along, hold their hand, and try to show them what it was like to be 16, 17, 18, and 19-year-old me. I tried to capture my voice at the time and the way I was thinking. I tried to recreate my experience as it happened, which meant that I didn’t know what was happening. I’d never thought of him as a monster. I thought he loved me. I tried to create that on the page. I tried to paint the adults in the story, including the teacher, fairly and without judgment because that was how I experienced it.

You ask, “At what point does a man transform into a wolf?” For you, and for our narrator, when does Mr. North transform into a wolf?

He was always a wolf. He was always a predator. I don’t believe he fell hopelessly in love with me. I don’t believe that this was some sweeping love story for him. Maybe that’s what he told himself, but that’s also what Humbert Humbert, [the narrator in Lolita], told himself. But it’s just frankly not true; feelings are not facts. He knew what he was doing, and even if he didn’t consciously realize he was wrong, he still made choices. He was the adult, the teacher, and the one in power; it was his responsibility to make better choices—and he didn’t. I also believe he was a predator from the get go because I’ve heard that a very similar situation happened the year after I graduated, and there was an even bigger age gap between him and [that student]. When I discovered the journal entry when he asked me to tell him my bra size in exchange for him sharing the size of his penis, I thought it happened in May, right before I graduated. It was shocking to realize that happened so early in the school year. That was another moment that caused a lot of anger because it’s so inappropriate. There’s no way to make that okay. It’s just so wrong, and that’s when I realized this was the situation I was in and he was a predator all along. Maybe that’s just who he is, but I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in 10 years.

In your book, you easily weave in references to pop culture, almost as if you are using culture to contextualize your experience. You reference everything from Shakespeare characters to more teenage pop culture figures like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and even the Little Mermaid. Why did you decide to make pop culture one of the languages of your book?

The book is set in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which is now considered a throwback. But there’s nothing more important to teenagers than pop culture, and the book is set when I’m in high school. So I had to reference musicians and brands. I reference Abercrombie and Fitch a couple times because that was what everybody was wearing. [These references] helped me create an environmental, emotional, and intellectual context for the reader. There are also a lot of literary allusions. When I was first working on the book, I originally thought I would be in a lot more direct conversation with Nabokov-like sparring or line-for-line moments with Lolita. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself about that. Though I’d read dozens of books about Nabokov and about Lolita, I was having a lot of imposter syndrome about my ability to put my book in conversation with his work. But I realized at a certain point that I could just use the same tools he used—the Western canon, alluding to fairy tales, referencing other literary works—and then create my own story.

Part of acknowledging predators, acknowledging violence in women’s art, and acknowledging the cliché of the dead girl is realizing that pieces of art aren’t perfect.

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After you and Nick break up, you finally tell Richie about the relationship. You write, “And I remember what it felt like to tell someone—to open my hand and let the secret fly way. How free.” How did you define freedom then? How would you define it now?

Then, the “relationship” felt like an active burden. It weighed on me constantly. I felt like I was lying to people who I could’ve been making friends with, like the girls who lived on the same floor in my dorm. I felt the discomfort, pain, and stress of keeping that secret, so to tell someone made such a difference. Just one sentence allowed me to let a deep breath out and let go. I no longer had to walk around with that same burden. It was a concrete freedom: I wasn’t talking to him anymore. My days weren’t being arranged around him, and my actions weren’t being influenced by what he wanted and what he thought. I wasn’t worried about being hit or having something thrown at me because we got into a fight because I was learning things he hadn’t taught me. I wasn’t worried about being in pain during sex or having sex that I didn’t really want to have.

It’s been close to 20 years since this happened. While I believe the trauma doesn’t go away, it’s much more like grief now; it comes and goes and comes back and disappears again. I’m not burdened by this, and I wasn’t before writing the book. The freedom I feel now is being able to tell this story and reclaim some power. My voice is my power, and I’m now able to share this with other women and make them feel like they’re not alone. I understand because this happened to me. I hope that I’m creating that kind of freedom for others.

I imagine that it’s difficult to write a memoir that is this revealing. How did you find the support you needed to take on a book project of this magnitude?

I could not have written this book without my wonderful friends and my community of other women and nonbinary writers. I did not do this alone. I consciously surrounded myself with other strong women writers, a lot of whom were memoirists. I’m very close friends with T Kira Madden, who wrote the beautiful memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. I would text her all the time about some of my worries and anxieties. I’m also friends with Raven Leilani, whose amazing book Luster is out now. We text every day. So I’ve been so lucky that I’ve had those two women, along with many other women who’ve gone through this process, in my corner and ready to support me and offer advice. I’m the founder of Pigeon Pages, a literary journal and reading series that’s now virtual. We publish prose, essays, and poems every week, and the entire staff is all women and nonbinary folks. It’s wonderful because we’ve created this community around loving literature, working together, and supporting one another. I’m just so grateful for all the women and nonbinary folks who have been there for me these past few years. It’s all about the family you choose.

Sue Lyon as Dolores in Lolita (Photo credit: MGM/Photofest)

Every time you read Lolita, you find something new within its pages. What’s the newest thing you’ve found?

I always knew Being Lolita would be my book’s title, but during the cover process, I got some other cover choices that were all wrong. Years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that the book cover include a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses that are shattered. After the last suggested cover, I asked my editor to give this one last idea to the designer, and [it resulted in] this stunning cover that I love so much. After I had the final cover, I was reading Lolita and noticed in part one, chapter three, that Humbert is describing his childhood love, this pretty unique Lolita, and she has sunglasses as her only witness. That was the first mention of sunglasses in the book, but I hadn’t noticed that before. I’m constantly noticing things [about the book]. I’m constantly learning new things. My students point out new things all the time.

I believed the teacher when he told me Lolita is a beautiful love story, and in some ways, it’s a beautiful book. But it’s also problematic as fuck and it can be both things [at once] in 2020. Part of acknowledging predators, acknowledging violence in women’s art, and acknowledging the cliché of the dead girl is realizing that pieces of art aren’t perfect. Acknowledging that Lolita is beautiful and also problematic as fuck is one small step in that larger never-ending work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.