Lidia Yuknavitch gives the term “body language” fresh meaning in her debut novel, Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books). In response to Sigmund Freud’s famous case study, “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” Yuknavitch recasts 19th-century teen Ida Bauer, or Dora, as a 17-year old punk-rock video artist in modern-day Seattle.
In the original study, Freud chalked up Dora’s loss of voice and coughing fits to repressed sexual feelings for both her father and an old man named Herr K whose wife happened to be sleeping with her father. Feminists have long since debunked Freud’s repressive analysis and the whole “hysteria” diagnosis, but with Dora: A Headcase Yuknavitch retells the story via Dora herself. Along with a troupe of gender-bending misfit pals—Obsidian, Ave Maria, Little Teena, and the Rwandan drag queen and den mother Marlene—Dora uses art and technology to reclaim her voice and write her own sexuality. Pill popping, guerrilla art attacks, a Jungian foursome, and a symbolic castration that Freud himself would have a field day with? Yuknavitch’s Dora is a girl on fire. Nina Lary caught up with the acclaimed author to hear more.
What motivated you to give voice to this historical character?
I read “A Case Study of Hysteria” when I was 25-ish and it was assigned in a women’s studies class. I’m sitting there reading it, livid. Like: “Is anyone else seeing this?” The more I read, the more I saw [Freud’s] doctoring erasing the story she was trying to tell him. She goes in because she loses her voice and he listens to her and proceeds to take her story and put it into his then-budding theories that became the foundation of modern psychology. I read it as a theft and a murder of this girl and the story she was trying to tell. [So] I’m responding to the Ida Bauer in all of us I can’t give the real Ida Bauer her voice back, but I can give A Girl her voice back.
Why did you set it in the present?
I teach women’s studies at a community college, so I meet women who are 16 to 25 and get to hear their personal narratives as part of the course. The reason I relocated [the story] to the present was to honor these young women I’ve worked with over the years and to amplify that these problems haven’t gone away. The way we’re made invisible hasn’t gone away.
I like [hearing] reactions to Dora because we don’t have many girl characters who are prickly like her. There’s two camps of people: Readers who can relate to Dora, [and those] who say she’s an unlikeable narrator. It gets me thinking about gender biases. Was Holden Caulfield a likable narrator? No. He was a whiny bitch. Or like, Lolita is considered the epitome of great literature, and the main character Humbert Humbert is a pedophile, you know, going after some teen muff. If Dora the Explorer had a slingshot and a BB gun she would have never become a famous cartoon [character]. But she had a backpack and a little backpack song, so she’s a safe adventurous girl. Safe adventurous girls are okay, but prickly aggressive girls? Still not okay.
I remember being 16 and speaking out for the first time about things happening in my family that were not okay. The adults just chalked it up to teen angst. Do we overlook the power of the teenage voice?
I have a theory that the fire of our creative energy is born in those years. And if we stopped spending our all time trying to curb those behaviors and grossly misreading them, they could be of tremendous use value to the culture.
Marlene gives Dora a copy of Mantegazza’s Fisiologia dell’Amore and she identifies with a passage on the daughters of Eve. How was that integral for her finding her voice?
I meant to highlight the idea that there are a gazillion possible “histories of sexuality,” and just because one or two gain prominence or are culturally sanctioned doesn’t mean they are the only options. So Dora/Ida is making up her own sexuality mythos.
I meant for Dora/Ida’s sexuality and gender to be fluid. She’s a girlboy. Obsidian is a boygirl. Little Teena is a boygirl. Marlene is a manwoman or womanman. But in the end, Dora/Ida really is in love with a woman, and she’s a woman, so for at least part of their lives they are in a woman-to-woman sexual relationship. My personal opinion is that the homosexual union is a union all people should experience as a stage of sexual development and evolution. Some of us will turn out “bi” in the end, some “lesbian,” some “gay,” some will try all of these subjectivities and find they need a trans reality and body. My point in the novel is that opening all the possibilities of gender and sexuality back up—free territories of discovery and exploration—that’s what our bodies and psyches can be, if we liberate them from all the bungheaded scripts we’ve inherited.
There’s an interesting parallel between the big castration scene and when Ida has lost her voice and begins to cut small mouths into her skin. What’s the connection?
[Freud’s] whole deal was the Oedipal plot scenario. And the phallus features prominently in that theoretical model. I was trying to come at it with counters in sexuality that are born of a female body. There’s enough criticism about how he messed up the female stuff, you know; there’s a whole feminist critique of what Freud got wrong. But I wanted to make a character who was bringing her body story to his wrong body story about girls. So I had to have her do body things in order to get her body to speak against the narrative he’s putting on her.
What does this body language give us access to?
I’m on a mission. I’m trying to develop this thing called Corporeal Writing that brings meaning-making back to our actual bodies. My goal for you as a reader is, “Did you feel something in your body when you were reading this?” And if you did, then I don’t care if you liked it or not—’cause you feeling something in your body was my goal. I’m trying to build a back-to-the-body sense of what writing can be. It’s not about the market. It’s not plot-driven, it’s not linear. It’s “Can we feel our bodies again and enjoy literature and art through them?”
Find more of Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing, as well as information on upcoming readings and events, at lidiayuknavitch.net.