“Lolita” Belongs to the Girls Who Lived It
Alisson Wood, author of "Being Lolita," on the power of women's stories
Alisson Wood’s high school English teacher told her that Lolita was a beautiful story about love. She believed him—after all, there were so many similarities between Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel and the relationship she and the teacher were forming, which she believed was true love. It wasn’t until college that she started to understand that Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator and a sexual predator—and that her teacher was, too.
Wood’s debut memoir, Being Lolita, is a fearless interrogation of her own experience being groomed and manipulated by an older man—and a reclaiming of the narrative of Lolita, reminding readers that the cultural understanding of the novel still tends to favor the predator’s perspective, and that teenage girls need support, not objectification.
I spoke to Alisson Wood about the flawed expectation of catharsis in memoir, being the kind of teacher she wishes she’d had, and not having a neat and tidy ending.
Lilly Dancyger: In the book, when you describe the first time you told anyone else about your relationship with the teacher, you say it was “to open my hand and let the secret fly away. How free.” That made me wonder whether putting this whole story down in a book and sharing it with the world felt freeing like that, or if it was more re-traumatizing and scary. I expect it’s a combination of those things, but can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to put such a personal story out there? And especially one that was so built on the idea of secrecy?
Alisson Wood: I think that oftentimes with memoir, especially if it’s about something traumatic, people really want to hear authors saying, “it made me feel so much better, it lightened the load, it was cathartic.” But I have not found that to be my experience at all. I’ve published pieces about being raped, being almost killed by a stranger, and now this long-term, really terrible, abusive, awful relationship that made a huge impact on me. And nothing about putting those stories out there—not the writing, not the publishing—made what happened to me better.
I do believe, however, that there is a lot of power in telling these stories, in particular for women. So often our stories are put in a corner of being domestic, unimportant, “chick lit,” and treated as if they don’t carry any real weight. So I think it is incredibly powerful and incredibly important for women to defy those stereotypes and tell their stories, as complicated and as messy and as imperfect as they are, and I’m very proud to be part of that tradition.
But it can cause a lot of stress, it can cause pain—especially for women and other marginalized folks who are often targeted on the internet. I’m certain that I will get a fair amount of vitriolic hateful emails about this book, because I have with every other piece I’ve written.
LD: How do you prepare yourself for that? Are you bracing for the hate mail? Or do you let it roll off your back at this point?
AW: Oh, it doesn’t roll off my back. But I have a wonderful therapist and this is something that we talk about a lot, because when you’re putting your trauma out for the world you don’t want it to be re-traumatizing. So you have to prepare and know what you’re getting into as much as you can. Intellectually I know I’m probably going to get some not very nice emails and comments, probably from white men. But understanding that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be hurt. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to upset me.
LD: I knew you’d have something interesting to say about the idea of catharsis, and that it’s not that simple. It’s actually a fight, it’s emotionally draining and challenging, and you’re met with a lot of resistance when you try to share a story like this.
AW: Completely. And that was why I chose to write this as a memoir. Throughout the process people were constantly asking, “Why isn’t this a novel? Have you thought about making this a novel?” And the whole time I was, like, “No! No.” The entire point of this book is that it is real. This happens to women. This happens to teenagers. This is not some fictional thing that you see on a page, that you read in Lolita. This really happens constantly—the abuse of young women, and the over-sexualization of teenagers, and manipulation, and domestic violence.
LD: That’s odd to me that people were pushing you to make it a novel. I found the tension between the fictionalized story of Lolita and the very stark reality of your own story to be a lot of what was so interesting about the book. And I could tell you were playing with that. Like how you used the structure of Lolita as a framework in the first two sections, but then broke away from it in the third section. That felt like such an important point. Like, we’re now departing from fantasy, and this is reality. I’d love to hear about that structural choice.
AW: I wrote the book out of order—it was much more impulsive and driven by urgency than driven by time or narrative plot. But at a certain point, when looking through how much writing I had and trying to piece it together, it just struck me: Oh. This is the same structure as Lolita. Part One is the extended grooming/“seduction.” The break between Part One and Part Two is when they sleep together for the first time/when Dolores Haze is raped in the novel. And then Part Two is their series of extended road trips to try to escape being caught. But the difference is that unlike Dolores, I didn’t die at the end. So I made a Part Three. I got to go on. So I tried to ask the questions, “What would have happened if Lolita had survived? What would her life have been like? How would it have been like mine and also not like mine? And how has this story, this relationship impacted me since then?” Which is, at this point, close to twenty years ago.
So, yeah, it was definitely a really conscious choice to engage so overtly with the Nabokov. And also it was just right there, I mean, the teacher had given me a copy of Lolita. He literally told me I was his Lolita, that it was a beautiful story about love, a story about us. He gave me Lolita-themed gifts. It wasn’t a stretch. But when I was a teenager I didn’t understand the book. I did not know what an unreliable narrator was. So I took the book at face value because that was what the teacher told me, and I was naive and believed him and thought he was so smart.
LD: Yeah, you mentioned the unreliable narrator, and seeing you have that realization in the book was such a powerful turning point in the narrative. You talked about realizing that Humbert is an unreliable narrator and how that helped you realize that the teacher was as well, but then you’re also questioning whether you might also be an unreliable narrator in the telling of this story. That made me wonder about memoir in general… do you think any of us are reliable narrators of our own stories? Is that possible?
AW: I definitely believe that nobody knows your story better than you, but I also understand that everyone has a point of view, everyone has a perspective, and memory is deeply, deeply imperfect. So those all complicate things a bit. But I did my best to use all the primary source documents I had, which were a lot. I had a dozen journals that I had filled from that period. I also had maybe two dozen or more of the letters that the teacher had written to me. Letters that I had written to him. Notes. Hall passes. Literal receipts from hotels with his name and address on them. I had so much stuff to work with. And what was really interesting was the times when what I remembered didn’t match what was in these primary source records. That’s the real reason I felt like I wasn’t actually a reliable narrator, because at the time that this was happening to me, when I was 17 and 18, I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. I thought I was so special, I thought I was so powerful. But looking back, it’s very clear that I was being groomed and manipulated and taken advantage of from the get-go.
LD: A really powerful example that you talk about in the book is the photograph of you backstage at the school play, and how you remembered feeling so sexy and in control, but then looking at the photo years later you saw something very different.
AW: Finding that photograph was truly heartbreaking, because I remember it being taken, I remember what that felt like to have the teacher looking at me just out of frame of the camera. How I knew he thought I was sexy, and I felt so powerful with him looking at me and me looking back at him, and it’s this moment of what I thought was a beautiful romantic connection. And then I saw the picture—and I just looked so sad, and I looked so young. I did not look sexy or powerful or any of that. I looked like a 17-year-old girl, which is what I was. That was an example where I realized very deeply that what, at the time, I thought was happening to me was not what was happening to me. I was being victimized.
LD: I think holding that complexity is something that you did really beautifully in this book. You really did justice to adolescent desire, and you described the agency that you felt so sure you had at the time, but you also made it very clear that you didn’t have nearly as much agency as you thought. That’s a complexity that so often gets lost in pop culture and literary depictions of teen girls. What do you think is most often misrepresented there?
AW: I think it boils down to the fact that women are still taught from a very young age that their power is in their looks and their sexuality. Which connects to women’s role being as wives and mothers. As much as we would like to say that that’s not how it is anymore, it is. I think it’s getting better, but I don’t think we are beyond this at all. We were definitely not beyond this when I was a teenager 20 years ago. And when you’re taught that that’s where your power is, you wanna grab hold of that as fast as you can.
It’s incredibly complicated because I also deeply believe in the agency, and the maturity, and the intelligence of young women. But I think the problem is that they often aren’t supported in the way that they need to be, they aren’t encouraged to look at themselves and value themselves beyond their bodies. I think that if I had been supported and encouraged in different ways, it would have been a very different story for me.
I was very vulnerable. I was sad, I was lonely, I felt like no one understood me and no one cared about me. But in all of that I was asking for attention and for help. I was not asking to be fucked by my teacher. That’s not what I really wanted, but I didn’t know how to articulate anything and didn’t understand my body or my role or what I really wanted in the world because I was a teenager. I mean, a lot of adults are still struggling to understand their roles in the world, and what they want, and agency, and healthy relationships. But especially as a teenager, I was lost, and I got preyed upon.
I thought I was in love, because he was paying attention to me. I was feeling seen. It’s natural for a young woman or a young man who is feeling lost and vulnerable to feel complicated feelings when they finally get attention. It’s completely developmentally appropriate for a teenager to have a crush on an adult, especially someone in a position of authority like a teacher. It is not appropriate developmentally, morally, intellectually for an adult to not just have a crush but then to take action on that crush for a teenager. That’s not okay. And that’s the difference.
LD: The way you articulate those distinctions in the book, I think is powerful and important for anyone of any age, but I kept imagining a teenage girl reading your story and recognizing something about a relationship in her life, and having that realization that you didn’t have until later about what’s really going on. Which I guess comes back to the idea that there are bigger things than catharsis in telling a story like this.
AW: For me that would be the best outcome, to have an impact on someone and to make someone have a moment of deep understanding about their life.
I also think something that’s really important is that when we think about Lolita today, the book and as a symbol in pop culture, we think of Lolita as this sexual, powerful, in some ways dangerous young girl. Right? There’s a Kat Von D lipstick called Lolita and it’s this deep, beautiful, sexy red. When we talk about Lolita fashion it’s this super girly—like with lots of ruffles and bows—but also a very sexy way of dressing. And it’s just so fascinating because, really, when we talk about Lolita as a culture, we talk about the hunger of Lolita. This sexy “powerful” girl who’s going to seduce and take advantage of a man. Like Lolita is the predator. When, in actuality, Lolita is not even her name. Her name is Dolores Haze and she is raped and kidnapped. She is a victim.
LD: This book felt like very much like a reclaiming of that narrative.
AW: Yes, definitely. It was a conscious act to try to do that. And one of the most powerful parts of writing this book was realizing that that’s what I want to do and I can do that. That was very empowering and made me feel really good. But writing the book as a whole did not make anything better. It did, however, give me a better understanding of what had happened and of myself because the project of the book took so much research. Rereading or reading for the first time so much Nabokov. And not just his novels but his work on butterflies, his research. Rereading every single primary source—all of my journals, all of the teachers notes, and letters, and everything multiple times. Which was, again, very painful and I do not recommend anyone do it for fun. But it really made me understand things about what happened in a way that I just simply hadn’t. And at every stage in writing the book I understood more. And I’m still understanding, I’m still unfolding what happened and how it still impacts me.
I think something interesting about memoir is that it’s a never-ending process. Just because a book ends doesn’t mean that the story does. It doesn’t mean that the ending is a nice, little bow tied up neatly. The ending was really hard for me because so often with women’s memoirs, especially if there’s trauma involved, the end is, “And then I got married and had a baby and everything’s great.” And that wasn’t my story. I am very happily single and independent, but I found love in teaching and I found love in writing. And I wanted to express that, but it’s very difficult because it’s not the traditional ending that you would expect or maybe want from a book like this.
LD: Yeah, I love that though. I think that came across really well. There’s something so vindicating and healing about seeing you become a teacher, and a good teacher. It’s clear that you care a lot about your students, but you also describe the very clear, firm boundaries that you draw of not getting personal with students, making sure to maintain that professional distance. So that correcting of patterns in an interpersonal sense, and also seeing you teach Lolita to students with so much more insight… That felt like a victory in the end, to me.
AW: I teach Lolita the way that I wish it had been taught to me, with context. We read the Rebecca Solnit essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” that wonderful McSweeney’s piece, “If Women Wrote Men the Way That Men Write Women,” which I’m in hysterics over every time I read it because it is just too accurate.
And professionalism is incredibly important to me because I think that’s important to model. I am very clearly in charge of my classroom and as a teacher I know that I have a certain authority, and I want to demonstrate for my students, especially the young women, that you do not have to depend on your body to have power, or to be smart, or to be valued.