Suicides, Psychokillers, and the Question of Audience
The violence of girlhood in Jeffrey Eugenides and Lucy Corin
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The most iconic line in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides (1993) has to be this one: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” It is, Eugenides says, the closest thing to a suicide note that we get from Cecilia Lisbon after she decides to slit her wrists with her father’s razor. No one understands why she’s done it. She’s pretty, healthy, cared-for. She’s only thirteen. As the doctor points out, stitching up her wrists, she isn’t old enough “to know how bad life gets.” She tells him he can’t possibly understand, before, weeks later, flinging herself out a window.
Almost no one in The Virgin Suicides has ever been a thirteen-year-old girl. Nor, for that matter, has Eugenides himself. His novel is dominated by an indeterminate number of male narrators. They recount a boyhood spent trying to decipher Cecilia and her sisters, who in turn commit suicides as inexplicable as Cecilia’s. To the boys, the Lisbon sisters are mysterious, mythic. The boys peer through windows at them and collect their discarded objects. They want to understand the source of unexpected violence within them.
The boys peer through windows at them and collect their discarded objects. They want to understand the source of unexpected violence within them.
Of course, there’s a better way to get inside the head of a thirteen-year-old girl than by studying her salvaged high-tops: ask her. Lucy Corin does just this in her 2004 novel Everyday Psychokillers: a History for Girls. In this disjointed, disorienting novel-in-vignettes, we venture into that unknowable space within a thirteen-year-old girl like Cecilia Lisbon. Inside, it’s terrifying.
Pirates rape chained-up princesses. Egyptian gods tear off one another’s penises. Children’s heads turn up on roadsides.
Everyday Psychokillers takes on the form of its subject. Corin dismembers her story into loosely-connected chapters. She dissects her scenes, examining the fleshy innards of each character. Most importantly, she enters a young girl, opens her up and lets us see her contents the way she knows we want to, the way she knows psychokillers want to. Her narrator — an unnamed girl growing up in swampy suburban Florida — takes control of her own opening-up:
This is the age when you start noticing that you are a series of orifices. People are looking at your mouth. They’re looking at your ass. There’s a way that cutting yourself is a matter of beating them to the punch, of breaking your skin before it’s broken for you.
Corin is relentless in showing us cut-up girls: Anne Boleyn, the Venus de Milo, Ted Bundy victims. Her narrator sees violence everywhere. One day, her uncle Ted shows her his amateur bug collection. He’s a pale and pathetic man with good intentions, the most present parent figure in her life. He shows her how he pins his insects, placing a live rhinoceros bug on a piece of corkboard and driving a pin through its back: “As I looked at the bug, I wondered about the bug, which meant, for me, that I imagined a pin through my back.”
Corin’s character recognizes herself in vulnerable creatures. She realizes that, as a girl, she occupies the most vulnerable position she possibly could. Girls wander through a world filled with those who could hurt them. Most don’t want to hurt them — and this is good, because this is the only comfort possible when you’re a girl or an insect.
Corin’s character recognizes herself in vulnerable creatures. She realizes that, as a girl, she occupies the most vulnerable position she possibly could.
While the “stranger danger” warnings of our parents and teachers are rarely gendered, girls eventually realize that they can’t move through the streets the way the neighborhood boys do. Adults hint that things are different for them: they want their daughters to be virginal and demure, and they don’t tell them that this is so that fewer people will want to hurt them. But girls are observant.
Cecilia Lisbon sees it in the fish flies that descend on her Detroit suburb every summer, breeding briefly before dying all at once, leaving millions of carcasses to be swept away like fallen leaves from the streets and yards. Fish fly season coincides first with Cecilia’s suicide and then, a year later, with those of her sisters. The story is bookended by these periods of spectacular death.
Cecilia, staring at the dead flies with her “spiritualist’s gaze,” sees herself in them: “They’re dead,” she said. “They only live twenty-four hours. They hatch, they reproduce, and then they croak. They don’t even get to eat.” And with that she stuck her hand into the foamy layer of bugs and cleared her initials: C.L.
To the neighborhood boys, it’s just one more example of Cecilia’s inscrutable oddness. For them, danger stays far away in Detroit, “the impoverished city we never visited.” As long as the boys stay in their suburb, the violence and poverty of Detroit’s slums can’t touch them: “Occasionally we heard gunshots coming from the ghetto, but our fathers insisted it was only cars backfiring.”
Violence against women — as Corin’s psychokillers and battered daughters attest — doesn’t end at the city limits.
But if boys and their fathers can ignore violence, their female neighbors cannot. Violence against women — as Corin’s psychokillers and battered daughters attest — doesn’t end at the city limits. Violence is everywhere for girls — in the cities, in the suburbs, in themselves.
Fish flies — better known as mayflies in many parts of the country — are the only members of the order Ephemeroptera, or ephemeral wings. Grotesque but fairy-like, they recall Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s yellow butterflies, lending The Virgin Suicides a quality of fabulism. The Lisbon girls, too, seem lifted from a fairytale. They are beautiful and mysterious and tragic. The boys refer to them as “our naiads.”
Corin’s readers, meanwhile, stumble from myth to myth, through a swamp of exaggerations and spectacles — but the effect couldn’t be more different. The overwhelming feeling of Everyday Psychokillers is not wonder but fear. Not magic but menace.
When you are a boy, girlhood seems romantic. Eugenides’s narrators are awed by the glimpses of tampons and compact mirrors they catch inside the Lisbon house; the bric-a-brac become objects of enchantment. But being the girl, Corin suggests, is a battle.
Eugenides’s narrators are awed by the glimpses of tampons and compact mirrors they catch inside the Lisbon house; the bric-a-brac become objects of enchantment. But being the girl, Corin suggests, is a battle.
Corin’s tone may be bleaker than Eugenides’s, but she also seems to have more hope. Ultimately, her novel is driven by its heroine’s survival. In a world where psychokillers want to cut girls up, girls cut themselves to learn how to live through it:
So you can feel what it feels like, so you can watch it try to heal, so you can watch yourself live through. Your body seals itself up and the marks leave a record, writing on a wall, a kind of hieroglyph, your skin like paper.
Facing physical and psychic dismemberment at every turn — by psychokillers, by advertisers, by newspapers, by novelists, by readers — girls need to know they’ll survive. Seeing women as tragic waifs, as beautiful ephemera, is a privilege reserved for boys. That’s why Everyday Psychokillers is a book written for girls — and The Virgin Suicides is one written for their spectators.