Elissa Washuta is white and Native, bipolar, and lost her virginity to rape. Her first book, My Body is a Book of Rules, is a modern coming-of-age memoir that reaches into these tangles of the body and mind through American pop culture. “I didn’t want to create just a rape memoir, or a bipolar memoir, just a memoir of one small segment of my life,” she says. “Everything I have experienced has been so intertwined.”
My Body is a Book of Rules is not a traditional memoir. Through linked essays set in her early 20s, she tells the story of her bipolar diagnosis and its early treatment alongside “coming around to the fact” that she was raped and then sexually assaulted. She set out to intentionally write a book that couldn’t be easily pinned down, and in doing so has given us an intimate and unflinching look into the nuances of identity and culture. It will be released August 12 from Red Hen Press, and you can check out an excerpt of the book online.
Washuta and I sat down over tea one Saturday and, in the company of her longhaired-lover-of-a-cat Dolly, talked about her book. The conversation is condensed and edited for clarity.
SAMANTHA UPDEGRAVE: Can you talk about the opening chapter, “A Cascade Autobiography,” which is broken into 16 parts that alternate between the other chapters?
ELISSA WASHUTA: It’s the backbone. Issues of ancestry and where I came from, the people who compose me, are integral to the rest of the book. It’s one of the only times I really talk about my childhood, so it’s important for it to lay underneath. In an anthropology class about Native Americans, I wrote this essay [as my creative final project] about the fact that I had been raped. That was when I was first really coming to terms with the fact that I had been raped. That was the first nonfiction piece I ever wrote.
It had to be the backbone of the book. Rape culture was intertwined with colonization from the very beginning. Rape of Native women was one of the colonizers’ tools of oppression. None of this is new. This is older than America. When we talk about rape culture in America, we are talking about something that has a legacy wrapped up in the genocide of Native peoples. This does not affect only Native American women; this affects all American women.
In the final chapter, you write, “My body is not the sum of what’s visible.” Could you talk about that shift from rules being so physical and tactile to being able to soften your grip?
The change is about choice. It’s true that my body is broken in a lot of ways, my mind is troubled, and my brain is suffering from an illness, and I keep going through a lot of problematic cycles because of these things. But I’m not stuck in the rulebook. I’m the one who wrote all the rules. Even if someone else wrote all the rules to begin with, they handed the book off to me a long time ago and I’m the one keeping score now. If I don’t like the choice I made, I can make another choice the next minute, or I can choose to disregard that rule. I can make a new rule. I can take a nap.
You write, “Giving up the insanity hurts, feels like giving up…” In that process of letting go, with all its complexities like medications, what did you find filled in those cracks?
Having a new conception of myself, rather than a sufferer, as a maker and a doer. A person who builds things. Who makes tinctures and broth and medicines for herself. When I see myself as a self-healer, that is a powerful replacement for this romantic notion that I used to have of being crazy. There is so much more than taking the drugs my doctor prescribes, and that’s something I’ve learned in the past couple of years. That fills things in. I don’t miss those days anymore, because it feels more complete now to be in control.
In my early 20s, I was facing a situation that I felt would either destroy me or I had to let it go and move forward. I worried—who will I be without that crazy anger and resentment and so much pain? I’m just going to be dull or boring. You write about the time you start taking your meds, life becomes “sublime and droll and disappointing.” When we make that decision to not let those things control us anymore, and are accepting….
There are phases, though. What I’ve learned since writing the book—I started 7 years ago—is that when I was just treating the disorder with the meds, life did seem disappointing and droll, but then when I worked in other ways to care for my body and my brain, I realized it’s not. Life isn’t droll and disappointing. My brain is a pretty busted brain and it takes more than just these shoddy drug company chemicals. I do need herbal measures and really good fats. I need massage. When I work these other things into my life, I have vivid mental experiences that are pretty amazing. That’s something that has happened in the years since finishing the draft of the book.
In “Please Him, Part II,” you go back to the ideas from an earlier essay where you pray to God and realize that God isn’t going to answer. You write, “I must worship myself first. Loving God takes faith, loving myself takes a different kind. I know at least I am real. But loving myself means knowing I am worth it even when I fall. I am a believer.” Is that language of prayer and faith an important part of how you see yourself, or how you take care of yourself?
Yeah, it is. Especially the movement from how I interpreted the teachings of Catholicism as they were given to me. In my school we learned so much about the saints, the virgin martyrs, the hairshirt, giving your life for God, and sacrifice. There was so much about sacrifice. I found that I really had to move away from that. I’m still working on it, but trying to take care of myself and remind myself that it’s important because I’m in need of mending. The upkeep of me is going to take a lot of work and it’s not selfish to take care of myself. If I don’t, I’ll just end up being more and more broken.
I’ve been thinking about #yesallwomen today. Women are posting their experiences related to misogyny. It’s powerful—people speaking much more openly than they normally would about painful experiences, the collective action of people being seen, sharing these experiences. I’m not a private person. I’m very willing to share these things that happened to me, and the only thing that holds me back is other people’s discomfort. I often find that when I’m describing my book, I am more willing to say that it’s about my early twenties or my bipolar disorder than I am to say it’s about rape because I can see that it makes people uncomfortable. The more we can get stuff out there like this, the more people will be aware that rape is not unusual. There isn’t just one lone rapist out there. These incidents of violence and misogyny happen to women over and over and women feel shamed into not speaking about them.
Other people’s discomfort becomes a mechanism of silencing those voices. And we take that in as our shame.
Read our review of My Body Is a Book of Rules in the book reviews section of the fall issue of Bitch.
Samantha Claire Updegrave is an urban planner, MFA candidate, and an assistant editor for Soundings Review. When not tethered to a desk, she can be found stomping around town with her little 5-year-old T-Rex. Find her online at samanthaupdegrave.wordpress.com, or on Twitter @scupdegrave.