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The Story of Us

my husband and me, not together yet
The "autobiographical first novel" doesn't always come out in one solid block of naive writing. Sometimes it fractures, as in a "fractured fairy tale," and it becomes a theme that runs through many novels in an author's canon.

I just read Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, which she describes to NPR as the closest thing to her own "autobiographical first novel," which she never produced in her youth. Instead, she wrote many novels about people and places totally unlike those in her own experiences growing up, but each was about a group of people thrown together unexpectedly and forced to create a community. This concept draws upon her experience growing up in a blended family, which she explores more explicitly in Commonwealth, hilariously splitting the character based on herself into two people: "the young woman who's saying, 'here is my story' and... the old author who is saying, 'I'm going to sell you out and take your story.'" (Incidentally, that old author is in the running for a Pulitzer and has had his books turned into successful Hollywood films. Dream it, girl.)

The NPR piece linked above starts by saying that "Good novels are like good parties." I don't know if that's always true, but it is for Ann Patchett's work. Commonwealth and her big breakthrough novel, Bel Canto, both made me feel like a disembodied spirit wandering through a fascinating cocktail party. These stories begin with actual party scenes filled with a diverse array of characters, each one so well defined that they seem to glow from within with a particular warmth and clarity. And on top of that, the group dynamics are so complex and organically interconnected that the crowd itself becomes a character, like a murmuration of starlings taking on different shapes.

Ann's NPR interview made me think about what my own autobiographical theme might be and how it has fractured itself into my novels. Like Ann, I skipped the literal production of an autobiographical first novel. I attempted to write one in my early 20s, and like most first novels, it was poorly written and boring. And because I still didn't have the life wisdom to quite understand the shape of my own life, it didn't make much sense either. I was stuck.

Then my longtime friend and critique partner Christina Mitchell urged me to embark upon a totally fresh project that had nothing to do with my personal history. I took this to heart and came up with an actual fractured fairy tale pitting the characters of "Sleeping Beauty" against those of "Beauty and the Beast" in a dynastic competition.

That silly idea became my first completed novel, The Grove of Thorismud. I am satisfied with the way that novel turned out, and yet I'm confident that the experience of creating it has enabled me to write an even better novel. So I have shelved The Grove to focus on my latest work, Matka Danu Miklagarth, which I hope will be the first novel I publish.

And now that I am halfway through my second novel, an autobiographical theme has made itself known to me.

Both The Grove and Matka Danu center upon intense relationships--family bonds, friendships, romantic crushes, and those that blur the lines--that mix characters at extreme ends of the empathy spectrum--that is, with very high or very low empathy--and other combinations of dangerous attraction. Vulnerable people are controlled by charismatic, Machiavellian figures. Domination comes disguised as love to characters who don't know the difference.

So now I realize that, although neither of these stories is autobiographical, the theme of domination-disguised-as-love is that kernel of autobiography in me, aching to be told. It is my story and also my husband's. It is the story of us.

My husband and I both grew up with close childhood friends who exhibited symptoms of an antisocial personality disorder. Our "pet monsters" sniffed out and ran with other monsters--unless and until they found themselves competing for the same prey, in which case the thickness of thieves turned on each other with sudden and stunning violence.

By our teens, my husband and I both had anxiety disorders and symptoms of PTSD. We had no language with which to describe what was wrong with us or why. We could not explain it to ourselves let alone tell our parents or ask for help. But we both had strong survival instincts.

We met each other when we were 15 and 16 and two of the same predators happened to target us both in overlapping campaigns. One of them--let's call her Ms. Pins--tried to push us together as a couple in an attempt to keep us both on a short leash. It was a move that mightily creeped me out and drove us both further away from her. Once we had successfully evaded her circle of control, my future husband and I found that we did have an attraction to each other, and our casual friendship evolved into a flirtation.

Unbeknownst to me, this flirtation enraged a jealous, secret, spurned lover of my husband's. Let's call him Mr. Needles. Mr. Needles sought revenge by swooping in at a party to "save" me from my husband's evil seduction. He convinced me that my husband, whom I didn't know very well, was a secret pervert and sexual predator, and that Mr. Needles would keep me safe from him.

I believed him at the time because I had been thoroughly convinced by Ms. Pins growing up that I was a hopeless judge of character too stupid to make social or romantic decisions on my own. Even when I cottoned on to her manipulations, it was just another piece of evidence that I had been easy to fool all those years.

So Mr. Needles drew me into an intense, controlling relationship with himself that lasted almost a year, complete with gaslighting, public humiliation, degradation, and ultimately heartbreak. This led to a cascade of traumatizing social experiences that left me severely depressed and anxious.

My future husband fared even worse.

We had tentatively reconnected after Mr. Needles' ruse fell apart, but we were too busy struggling through sad, dysfunctional relationships with other people to date each other. We both set out from our hometown and traveled to faraway places on lonely, painful odysseys, but we always kept in touch, sometimes in secret, sometimes reaching out as a lifeline to keep each other going.

Ultimately, my husband and I survived our "relationships of inevitable harm," as they are called by clinicians, and returned to the place where we started and found each other again on our own steam. By that time, I felt old and tired and worn out and world-weary. I was 21 years old.

I told my college roommate that I wanted to finally consummate this chaste courtship of six years but that it was a very big decision to make. When she asked why, I told her that I felt certain that if this happened, the next thing we knew, we'd be married and having a baby. She laughed at me.

But it was true. We eloped soon after I graduated. Together, we began to heal.

Understandably, I spent my young adulthood struggling to understand what had happened to us and why. What had made us such attractive, easy targets for so many predators, and how did we overcome that? We were both brought up under oppressive, shame-based Catholic teachings--Did that culture set us up? What had made our loved ones into monsters? And how can a person of feeling and intelligence worship a god who doesn't exist or a lover who is nothing but an illusion of lies?

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah.

But that isn't our song. That isn't the story of us.

Now, we are a strong and stable couple. We give and expect healthy love. We share a dark sense of humor. We stay up late at night giggling sometimes, like kids at a slumber party--this time without the nightmares. We are fascinated but not consumed by the shadows of life.

Our song may be bittersweet, but it isn't a lamentation. It's playful, layered, sweetly defiant, and unafraid.

"Us" by Regina Spektor is the song that came out at just the right time and resonated with both of us when we heard it. It's about the Soviet Union, but it works as a metaphor for more personal forms of domination disguised as love. It's a song about beauty made ugly, and it is itself a beautiful work of art created from that ugliness.

And that's the kind of book I am always writing. Even when it's about totally fictional people and places and events, the stories I write are always, in some way, the story of us.

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