10 Stories About Self-Destructive Women
Maria Adelmann, author of "Girls of a Certain Age," recommends first-person narratives of women making messes of their lives
One of the greatest thrills of reading a first-person story is in the tension between what the narrator understands about themself and what we, the readers, understand about the narrator. But in these first-person stories of self-destructive women, the lies are so thin, the self-delusion and denial so absurd, the jokes so dark or so dead-pan or so sarcastic, that we get the sense the narrators, at least on some level, know they’re wreaking havoc on their own lives. Perhaps the obfuscation isn’t about how they’re making messes of their lives, but why, what pain those messes hide.
Many of the narrators in my short story collection Girls of a Certain Age behave self-destructively as a means of coping with circumstances beyond their control. In “First Aid,” the main character makes a case for self-injury. In “Human Bonding,” a college student is thrilled to be punched in the face. In “None of These Will Bring Disaster,” an unemployed binge drinker purposefully picks up smoking and keeps finding herself in unfulfilling relationships. “If you keep stepping in the same ditch over and over,” she says, “people stop feeling sorry for you because you’re either an idiot or a masochist.”
Maybe I’m the idiot or the masochist, because no matter what the women in these stories and novels do—no matter how blatantly they lie, how many mind-altering substances they consume, how easily they turn on their loved ones—I find I am rooting for them, holding out hope that they might change.
Luster by Raven Leilani
When the 23-year-old Black narrator of Luster is fired from her job, she ends up moving in with her older white boyfriend, his white wife, and their adopted Black daughter. “I creep around the house and try to be racially neutral,” she says. What ensues is cynical, hysterical, and occasionally absurd. As Gabino Iglesias writes in his NPR review, “Leilani writes as if she’s stabbing the keyboard with scalpels made of class resentment and memories of racism and misogyny.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
The wealthy, depressed WASP narrator of this novel decides to use prescription meds to sleep for a year. The novel takes place mostly in her memories and hazy moments awake. “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation,” she says. “Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything.”
Why Did I Ever? by Mary Robison
The narrator of this fragmented novel is a hilarious script doctor with depression, ADD, insomnia, three ex-husbands, a drug-addicted daughter, and a son who’s been the victim of a violent sex crime. The narrative unfolds in tiny moments that range from the profound to the mundane. “I feel around in my handbag, extract something, use it, and put it back,” she says. “Later on I might need something else. This is my life, what my life is really made of.”
“The Toast” from New American Stories by Rebecca Curtis
“According to www.firstborns.com, firstborns are alike in that they’re bastards, or more often, at least,” says the obnoxious narrator of “The Toast,” who lies to get out of attending her kind, older sister’s wedding, only to be tasked with delivering a toast in absentia. The story, which cheekily borrows its structure J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” is ultimately a heart-wrenching exploration of sisterhood.
“Voltaire Night” from Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth
We are somehow charmed by this adjunct teacher who passes time by drinking with her adult education students while challenging them to tell their worst stories. “I was depressed as hell and wanted to share my bad news,” she admits in the first paragraph, a paragraph which ends with this relentless sentence: “In those days I felt most of the time like someone had knocked me in the head with a brick, and even though I had stopped drinking, I had started again, and the way I saw it, a real brick in the head would have been okay because then I’d be dead or at least unconscious.”
“Foxes” from Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
Among Black Light’s many beautiful and gritty stories is this gem, which took Parsons 12 years to write. In it, a mother drinks as her young daughter tells a fairy tale that illuminates family dysfunction. “I try to keep tabs, but I am never drinking from a can,” says the mother. “I keep track in my own way. Am I blinking regularly? Can I feel my mouth? Sherry is a pretty drunk that warms up the light around your face. No harm can come, I remind my daughter.”
“The First Men” from My Date with Satan by Stacey Richter
“I’m riding up an escalator with Roxy explaining how she’s the worst mother in the world. Some of my students, I say, have really bad mothers, but she takes the cake. Roxy, who’s a real cunt, says something along the lines of ‘you ungrateful whore’ and storms off to Ship and Shore, which is retailese for Fat and Ugly.”
So begins this very ’90s story, which starts out at a shopping mall with its requisite Sunglasses Hut and food court and ends not so long after in the middle of a desert, where the narrator clings to the hope that the students to whom she owes drug money won’t actually kill her.
“The Snow Queen” from Monsters by Karen Brennan
This narrator gets things started with a few white lies:
“I’d just moved back to the city, having been away for a long time during which I’d accomplished quite a bit of work—I’m no judge of the quality—and was crashing at the apartment of a friend I’d run into at Borders bookstore after two weeks of hapless wandering.”
The “hapless wandering” turns out to be homelessness. The “quite a bit of work,” she later admits, brings “to mind a row of walls with vague, poorly executed scrawls.” The story, which is ultimately about grief over a lost, drug-addicted son, plays on themes from the eponymous fairy tale by H.C. Andersen.
“The Lost Order” from American Innovations by Rivka Galchen
“I was at home, not making spaghetti,” begins this story of absences and aimlessness in which the unemployed narrator slowly ambles her way through a day comprised mostly of not doing things. By the end of the story, we begin to question her reliability, as does her husband. Yet she enjoys his litany of accusations, smiling as all of her “vague and shifting self-loathings are streamlining into brightly delineated wrongs.”
“Strays” from A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Glimmers of hope shine brighter from the darkness, which is why I love this line, from a woman at a methadone rehab clinic in the middle of a desert: “The world just goes along. Nothing much matters, you know? I mean really matters. But then sometimes, just for a second, you get this grace, this belief that it does matter, a whole lot.”