Rewriting the Rules with Author Elissa Washuta

 

The cover of My Body Is a Book of Rules. A woman with her back to us sits in a tub, looking at a fish head. Disembodied human hands grab at her from different angles. 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.

A photo of Elissa Washuta

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. 

Exactly.


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.

 

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Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Hey, thanks for the

Hey, thanks for the interview, really interesting stuff, I am looking forward to Washuta's book.

I do have a bit of an issue with the phrase "lost her virginity to rape." I don't know whose phrasing this is, and if it is Washuta's, I am not trying to tell a survivor how to frame their experience. If it is Updegrave's though, I feel a bit differently about it, as a description of someone else's experiences. These thoughts aren't fully formed, and some of them are reaction, so pardon the rambling.

The first issue I have with it is the passive phrasing, which strikes me as a bit odd. Why "to rape", which with that phrasing becomes an act committed by no one , but to an act of rape, which at least references distinct acts, or better yet, a rapist, which acknowledges that there is a person who rapes, rather than erasing that person from the equation.

The second, and bigger issue for me is "virginity." How is virginity being defined? Does consent factor into "losing it?" If virginity can be lost, does that mean that it can be taken? Does virginity refer to a certain type of sex act - traditionally penis in vagina sex (PIVS)? And if it does, doesn't that prioritize a certain type of sex act, thus making all other types of sex less important? I think that framing sexual assault as a loss of virginity over-emphasizes the value of virginity and subsequently virtue, and relies on some weird and archaic ideas about female sexual worth. That is not to say that being sexually assaulted before having consensual sexual experiences doesn't mess people up and disrupt sexual development and sexuality, because it really does. And it is also really important to talk about how often people experience sexual violence before they experience consensual/appropriate sexual acts, because that is such an important piece of the rape culture puzzle. However, I think framing it as a loss of virginity buys into an archaic idea about specifically female sexual worth and purity. Specifically female because "losing virginity" is worded as a passive sexual act, traditionally equated with females, virginity traditionally being more important for women and their virtue than for men. And all of that stuff does do some work towards erasing men's experiences of sexual violence and violation.

And here is the more personal side of my discomfort. TRIGGER WARNING.

When I was 14 years old I passed out drunk in a room with a guy - who had barely spoken to me before I was drunk - feeling me up. I woke up alone, and I don't know what happened, but even with my suspicions about what did happened, I still considered myself a virgin until my early 20s when I had hot, awesome, consensual sex with a guy who did not know I was a virgin, and who I am still friends with more than a decade later (who still doesn't know I was a virgin, cause it just has never seemed relevant to tell him). And I have always thought that sexual assault did not count towards losing one's virginity, for me or for anyone else, even before whatever happened when I was 14 happened. Later I started thinking of loss of virginity as an erosion, not a break, with virginity sort of washing away as someone engages in more and different sex acts that were not THE sex act, often thought of in our heteronormative sexist society as penis in vagina intercourse.

So that's it, that's where my discomfort sits. I think essentially, that the phrase "losing one's virginity to rape" gets close to a relevant description of sexual violence that occurs before one consents to sexual activities, but for the sake of brevity relies on sexist sexual values, thus ignoring nuance and a chance to talk about the necessity of consent to differentiate sex from rape, which in a rape culture, is a needed distinction.

Thanks for reading.

You raise some big issues,

You raise some big issues, thank you!

I certainly agree that "act of rape" is more specific, though for me the word "rape" is loaded with all of those things -- the person committing the act, the person being violated/coerced/injured, the circumstances of the moment, the cultural context. In my mind, it is not passive. But I love the idea of taking language further, making it more powerful, and you've given me another angle to consider.

As far as "virginity" goes, you will find that Washuta does use the word in several places in the book, though I don't have my copy in front of me to verify every context. It's actually something that struck me as I was reading -- how we can/do confuse violence with rights of passage, how the brain works to contextualize our experiences, how we move from fear to blame to relief to anger to wounded, sometimes in the same breath. That is all just to say that her use of "virginity" in the book hit close to home for me, thinking of my own early sexually experiences as I grew up, how I tried to turn bad decisions and bad things into something that meant something better. Growing into ourselves is complicated. And Washuta certainly shows us that here.

There's also a subjective value in our experiences and how we define things. Virginity holds different weight for different people, and ultimately, I think when we experience any violation, it is part of our work to define and redefine as part of our healing. The larger work includes how we, as a culture and as humans, support and nurture and love and be a part of healing while we also work to interrupt the violence. It also sounds like you have the start of a great article or essay about the complexities of virginity and value.

Thanks for the thoughtful

Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

I don't disagree with anything you said here, and I think the added clarification that Washuta uses the word virginity it helpful.

I do think I make a distinction in my original comment that could be considered arbitrary, which is when I expressed more discomfort with you using the virginity phrase, versus Washuta. On one hand, it is so important to allow survivors to define their/our own experiences and not to shame or correct. And on the other hand it is important for those of us who write and talk about rape culture and sexual violence to point out what is problematic in cultural assumptions/ stereotypes. Which is in part how I made the comfort distinction, but that does not acknowledge that those two groups are not at all mutually exclusive, and many of us write about rape culture and sexual violence because we are survivors. So for that reason I am glad that you clarified Washuta's use of the term virginity and its resonance with you.

I do still think that it is important for people who write and think about sexual violence to challenge sexist assumptions and modes of thought, but yes, also, a lot of that writing is going to be cathartic and geared towards healing over analysis and that is okay. It's also important not to shame or castigate people for what some might deem "wrong thinking" as we might also point out how some ideas might not serve the healing process.

Anyway, your comment re-muddied those waters and blurred those distinctions, which is a good thing.

It's a tough business, because we are all socialized with some degree of nonsense that already needs to be overcome, and so our thinking about the traumas we suffer is going to be tainted by that dominant cultural baggage, as we try to heal and move beyond it.

I am Elissa Washuta, and I

I am Elissa Washuta, and I did indeed lose my virginity to rape. Although I acknowledge that the act was committed by a rapist, it was the act itself, and its memory, and its aftermath that destroyed me, long after the rapist was gone. The passive construction seems fitting, placing me in the subject position.

I contend that I did, indeed, lose my virginity that night, and not during subsequent sex acts, because of how the rape felt to me, emotionally. This is personal, and I can't really explain it any better than that. I felt that I had been guarding and waiting and it was taken. I am not saying that I believe anyone else needs to define virginity the way I have for myself. I am saying I lost my virginity that night because he violated what I was guarding and that was traumatic. I do not believe that it is inherently wrong to feel that I was no longer a virgin after being raped.

If I use wording that relies on sexist values, it is because I live in a sexist nation. I was taught in my Catholic school to guard my virginity with my life. This is the story I have for you. I'm not writing to heal so much as to turn the mirror back on the world.