“Juliet the Maniac” Is a Raw Portrait of a Bipolar Teenage Girl
Juliet Escoria on how mental illness can be seductive and why she doesn't buy into the trope that sex can change you
When I read Juliet the Maniac this winter, I found that I was no longer alone in my head. Juliet was with me too, her thought processes, her internal monologue. And then I started feeling a third person in my head, too, my own teenage self, woken up from the past by teenage Juliet. I too was a young woman whose mental illnesses were stopping me from engaging in life the way that those around me could, and Juliet Escoria captured this experience with pitch perfect resonance, both specifically for her character and universally in ways that the reader can recognize as their own.
I’ve known of Escoria’s work for a long time, so between that and the overlaps in our writer-network constellations, I was really excited to meet her IRL and discuss a book that I loved so much. The meeting did not disappoint! This interview was cut down from about five times this length, an hour in which we continually veered from the questions I had formulated from the book into digressions on our lives and personal experiences, only to return to the central gem that is Juliet the Maniac.
It’s no surprise to me that this book is resonating so strongly with readers—it’s always hard to know how a book will fare in the world, but Juliet the Maniac is special. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope to do my part in convincing you with this conversation, one of my favorites that I’ve had the pleasure of doing.
Juliet Escoria and I met at a cave-like coffee shop in Williamsburg, not far from where she was staying. We talked about why high school sucks, how mental illness can be seductive, writing a hologram version of herself, and why she doesn’t buy into the trope that sex can change you.
RS: During the weeks I was reading the book, even when I was doing other things, I would still get the internal sense of Juliet in my head. And I was wondering, is that something you intended, that you knew people might be feeling? Did you have a sense of trying to have such a strong internal monologue that it would imbed in people?
JE: What I wanted really to convey was what it felt to be a teenager. It’s weird because Juliet is me but not me, so it was odd to really get a sense of this character that shares a lot of traits with me but is still fictional.
RS: How did you navigate that line between you/not you?
JE: It was tough. I had to think of Juliet as a separate person than me, this mirror image, hologram-type of my personality. At the end of the book where it says “I am still haunted by her,” that was a very real feeling, of having this companion for years who’s this teenage girl who’s like me but not me, so I felt very much, not to sound mystical or whatever, but in communion with this thing that I created, that is based in truth, but not truth.
RS: When the narrator is in high school, I felt like I was getting a very strong commentary on the bad parts of education. The specific example I noted was when the narrator was turning in a paper on Macbeth, and the teacher is trying to be so nice and be like “Oh we could do this or this or this,” but I was like…why don’t you just let her not write the paper! Nothing matters!
JE: I went to a high school that was really highly rated, like Juliet, and it was a complete nightmare for me. I think it was a nightmare for a lot of kids who were outside of the norm, because it was wealthy, so there was a lot of emphasis on appearances, and being good at school and being popular. As a natural perfectionist it really broke me, so I was glad that our district was big enough to have the continuation school.
There’s so many ways to be different, and I think that a lot of high schools don’t account for that. In West Virginia, for example, the schools look radically different in terms of what is the norm, than they do in Southern California. But, still, there’s not a lot of room for people to be outside of that norm. I think that things like alternative schools are really important, and just realizing that people learn in all different ways. Just because you have high test scores and good grades doesn’t mean you’re learning anything or it’s benefitting you in any way. People are kind of rethinking education, but, of course, as in most things, we still have a long way to go.
My mom was a teacher, my dad was a teacher, I’m a teacher, so I do definitely believe in the importance and value of education. But I think it’s a little too rigid. Especially high school. High school sucks.
RS: It’s such a bad time. You captured that so well with the character. High school is probably the first time that so many people realize they have atypical brains. And to then be realizing that while you’re in this really stringent…
JE: Even the routine. I can’t imagine going to a job from 7:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon, five days a week. That just seems horrible.
RS: You also captured really well the intensity of a teenage friendship and how the progression of them can be so similar to relationships. I hadn’t thought about this in a while, but reading it, those teen friendships, you have one, and you think it’s going to be your big important one, and then one person kind of drops the other and it’s really intense, sad, scary. I don’t know, do adults do that in friendships?
JE: I don’t have that.
RS: I haven’t had it as an adult either! Do you think that is specific to teenagers?
JE: I wanted to represent the interchangeability of friends. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of books about the strangeness and intensity of teenage girl friendships, but it’s like a solid friendship. My experience was very amorphous, of one friend bleeding into another and getting replaced by the other. So that was important to me. It’s fucked up to make generalizations about gender, but I don’t know if teenage boys experience that quite so much. I do think it is practice for romantic relationships, but maybe practice for unhealthy romantic relationships.
When I started to become an older teenager, I still had really intense best friendships that would last for a few years, and then be replaced by someone else, but it also happened with boyfriends. It’s a progression of someone who’s not good at emotional relationships. I feel like a lot of teenagers could be diagnosed as borderline personality disorder, kind of like a contemporary diagnosis of hysteria. I think that’s just something a lot of teenagers go through, the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Basing your personality around a relationship, whether that’s a boyfriend or best friend.
RS: And enjoying the intensity, but not really understanding how much of it is based on the other person. Because then when you drop the person there’s no….at least I remember from my teenage years, I would feel the loss, but the other person I’m like well they clearly don’t care!
You did a great job displaying the phenomena. When I got to college, it never really happened to me again. Never, I don’t think. I’m still in touch with everyone I’ve ever been close with.
How did you write a difference between the friendships at the high school and the friendships at the therapeutic boarding school?
JE: The first friend, Nicole, I didn’t want her to be a bad person or a bad friend, but just a bad match. Like a proximity friendship rather than a “something in common” friendship. The superficial things that people have in common, like music and makeup. And I wanted Holly and Alyson to be more like real friendships, ones based on internal struggles, but still between two very flawed individuals who aren’t always able to help each other because they’re fucked up. Helping and hurting each other at the same time.
RS: That really translates to relationships too. And how that dynamic is not helpful for people in a friendship or a relationship, and it kind of underscores the similarities between intense friendships and relationships.
JE: If your flaws don’t mesh up, you’re going to hurt each other rather than help each other, which is what friendships and relationships are supposed to do.
RS: The dynamic can be so traumatic to a life that’s already lacking consistency. One line that I really noted within the narrator’s friendship with Holly was “my experiences, coming out of someone else’s mouth.” I feel like that is where a really strong friendship begins.
JE: I felt like such a freak with the bipolar disorder, and I don’t know why because I wasn’t alone in experiencing that. Not every bipolar experience looks like mine, but my friend was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so I don’t know why I felt like such an alien. But I did have moments like that–moments of recognition–and I wanted Juliet to have moments like that too, feeling like an outsider, but sometimes with a Venn diagram of similarity, and that being significant to her, especially growing up in an area where blond-smiley-tan is the norm.
RS: I think I only became comfortable discussing mental illness and medication with my friends much more recently. Now with my friends here we joke about it, it feels safer than it did when I was a teenager.
JE: We have come a lot further in terms of stigma, and of mental health treatment. I think part of it too is awareness. I don’t think people were as conscious of what bipolar disorder looked like and the fact that it’s a spectrum, in the nineties. As research for the book, I went through my parents’ old files about me from high school. One of them was a printout of bipolar disorder symptoms from like Yahoo.com, and it seemed so odd that you would need to go on the internet to find really basic information about your daughter’s psychiatric diagnosis and then print it out. Now I am surrounded by people who are versed in mental health issues, so I might not be the most objective, but I feel like people in general are pretty aware of what the basic symptoms of bipolar disorder are.
RS: I loved your line so much about the character getting her first credit card being more significant than losing her virginity. I’ve never read something that expressed that so well, but I had a very similar experience.
JE: I bought into the idea that somehow sex would change you and you could tell just by looking at someone, which is a very corny idea. I really don’t think it matters. I think if we didn’t place such a value on it, then teenage girls like me, teenage girls who are interested in being bad, probably wouldn’t be so interested in having sex. I also feel like that’s seen in literature: “Is the teen character a virgin or is she not a virgin?” That seems like such a stupid distinction, and I didn’t want to play into that binary. But I figured that people would want to know, and that I couldn’t just not acknowledge it.
I was kind of surprised that everyone let me keep that section in the book. I was waiting for [my agent] Monika to tell me to take it out, or for my editor to tell me to take it out, but no one told me to take it out.
RS: I thought it was amazing. I’d never heard it expressed that way. Virginity never seemed as big of a deal to me as emotional intimacy, which I didn’t experience for a while after I first had sex.
JE: That is actually significant, being vulnerable with someone who you’re having sex with. You’re putting yourself in an opportunity to get hurt. Just having sex with a guy that you think is cute, obviously there’s risk in that, but it doesn’t strike me as some sort of important milestone.
RS: There’s anxiety but I think it fades faster than the anxiety of emotional intimacy.
JE: In high school the risk of being branded a slut—I felt like I was, but I don’t know if I actually was. But I wanted that branding. It seemed safe in a way. Teenage girls feeling the need to find themselves clearly marked as “good” or “bad” or somewhere in the middle. A need to categorize things, and categorize themselves, even if that categorization is harmful.
RS: At one point, I felt like being branded as a slut but sexual was better than being branded as not sexual at all. And those were the two options, it felt like.
JE: And it was like, if I go there, then I don’t have to worry about it anymore. I can do what I want. I don’t have to have that “Oh god am I going to turn to the dark side?” panic. Nope, I’m already there.
RS: My next question was talking about the medication, but I already did that! That’s always the best.
JE: We could talk about medication more if you want!
RS: I would love to talk about it more. I hadn’t read a book, at least recently, that went so in depth with it. The part about hair loss, this medication that I’m on now, a risk was hair loss, and that’s the only thing that really freaked me out which is so fucked up that that’s the one that made me so upset, but I was watching it like a hawk.
JE: I think doctors have gotten better than they were when I was first diagnosed about drugging the shit out of you. I feel like I haven’t had a psychiatrist who’s wanted to do that to me in over a decade, so that’s good.
When I was originally diagnosed, you’d be put on medicine that had side effects, and then you’d be medicated to manage the side effects, and it would just go on in this vicious cycle. By the time I was done with the boarding school, I was on at least four psych meds, which is a lot. When I was thirty, my doctor told me that I shouldn’t have any side effects, and if I experienced side effects it meant that I’m not on the right combination. That was mind blowing to me, that a doctor would say, “You deserve to not have side effects,” because it seemed like doctors were like, “Whatever, you’re bipolar, what do you expect?” I think they have gotten away from that line of thought.
RS: That representation of medication is a lot of the reason for me and people I know why we didn’t want to try them in the first place.
JE: Mental illness can be seductive too. Being bipolar is fun. Manic episodes are fun. They’re scary, but also fun. My brain has tricked me into thinking like “Oh, this medicine is bad for me because it makes this part of me fake.” People are drawn to that, the self-destructive streak, a fear of being totally stable.
RS: And for creative people being like, what if it ruins my creativity. That wasn’t necessarily my biggest fear. I was more lazy. But the thing that really changed me is I was in a really bad situation with a guy, and my mental state was really bad, and after that I was like wow it doesn’t really matter if I “lose” anything, stability is the most important thing.
JE: It took a long time for stability to feel like something I wanted. Sometimes I’ll still get like, “Oh it’d be nice to be manic, maybe I should stop taking my medicine,” and then I have to remind myself of what happens when I am not stable. And it’s just not worth it. I don’t think I’ll ever be normal in terms of my thoughts, and that’s cool, so even if I am stable it’s not like I’m going to turn into some totally normal person. And I like that. I like being bipolar.
RS: It’s amazing how much of this you made come through in the book without it being a straightforward statement.
JE: That was important to me too because I feel like, it’s so easy to lecture. I have a lot of thoughts and theories and issues with things that have happened to me, as anyone would, but I think that’s why I wanted to do a novel as opposed to nonfiction. The urge to lecture is lessened in fiction. So I felt like I was going to be able to say things about class and gender and mental illness stigma and what it means to be a young teenage girl in the world if I tried to be super specific and super honest rather than having a thesis statement.
I wanted to say something about class, because one thing that’s troubled me is, what if my parents didn’t have the means and desire to treat me? I don’t know if I’d be alive. That is disturbing to me. Money plays way too much into if someone has the ability to receive effective treatment. Living in West Virginia has been really frustrating, in terms of seeing what is actually out there for people who are mentally ill. There’s such a limited number of doctors and therapists.
Part of it has simply to do with what’s in your bank account— paying for a therapist, paying for a medication, paying for a therapeutic boarding school—but it’s also having the knowledge of how to navigate the hoops of the mental health system, and the ability to tell doctors that they’re wrong. That’s something that really angers me, how much class does play into mental health treatment and quality.
My psychiatrist in West Virginia, she’s great, one of the best ones I’ve ever had, but she’s an hour away, and if I had a different job, like a nine-to-five job, I don’t know how I’d see her.
There’s so many things that come into play in receiving quality treatment, that I think have to do with situation and class that aren’t fair.