The Messiness of Desire: An Interview with Suzanne Scanlon

“The Rape Essay (Or Mutilated Pages)” by Suzanne Scanlon is featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading with an introduction from Belinda McKeon. Scanlon’s’s collection, Her 37th Year, An Index is available from Noemi Press.

Julia Tolo: It seems to me that the use of Mary Gaitskill’s “On Not Being A Victim” in”The Rape Essay (Or Mutilated Pages)” emphasizes the confusing nature of relationships between men and women, and, as Gaitskill writes, how it is hard to create rules of conduct or even interpretation. May I ask, what came first: did you read Gaitskill’s essay and decide to write this story, or did you begin to write the story and then realize that Gaitskill’s essay was a good fit?

Suzanne Scanlon: Mary Gaitskill is one of my favorite writers, one of the first contemporary women writers who inspired me to be a writer. I read this essay long ago,in the nineties and have been thinking about it occasionally over the past few years. I wanted to engage with it somehow, and it made sense to do so in this story (which is part of a larger book). It’s such a complicated discussion to have, and Gaitskill is able to address nuances and subtleties that get ignored.

JT: Could you talk about to what extent Esther’s interpretation of essay is influenced by circumstance and the context in which she reads it (that Harold gives it to her)? Would you say your interpretation of the essay differs from hers?

SS: I wanted the story to contain the conversation, the dialectic. Esther reads it according to the context, but can’t fully deal with it. She’s given the essay by a teacher who is seducing her. She has her own mind, but she’s also totally in love with this guy, so.

I would say that my interpretation of the essay now is that Gaitskill is right on. It was a difficult argument to make. There is something about learned helplessness and the messiness of desire that Gaitskill takes on, and that has been very hard for me to admit, personally speaking. Also, the essay is impossible to reduce to a soundbite or a rule. Which is why I admire it.If my story only gets people to go read that essay, I’m totally happy.

JT: In her introduction to the story, Belinda McKeon discusses how she found the dialogue confusing in her initial read. Is this a reaction you expected? Or, in other words, did you intentionally decide to leave your reader wondering (at times) about who is speaking?

SS: Yes. I get tired of tags — he said/she said — and I like fiction which is more like theater, where the voices overlap, and the rhythm or sound of the conversation creates its own life. To me this is more important than our sense of who said what. It’s meant to link to represent the way voices often merge, or echo or mimic.

But this isn’t the most unusual thing, either — lots of fiction writers do this — Manuel Puig, for one.

JT: “The Rape Essay (Or Mutilated Pages)” is part of A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance, an anthology edited by Belinda McKeon. Did you write this story to the theme of the anthology? How do you think about the concept of distance in the story? For me, the concept of boundaries — though not expressly about distance, is the strongest connection to the theme.When Esther’s doctor says to her, “It would be, as your professor, an act of love to maintain boundaries,” he is noting that Harold has become too close.

SS: Yes. I like that. I was thinking more of the distance from the past to the present, the reconstruction of memory. But I wrote this story as part of a larger book I’m writing, and shaped it a bit to fit in the anthology.

JT: I read “All That You Aren’t But Might Possibly Be” in BOMB, and there as well as in “The Rape Essay (Or Mutilated Pages),” the saint of insanity, Dymphna comes up. How did you become interested in Dymphna, and what has she meant to your writing?

SS: I was raised Catholic, and then became depressed in college, which happened to coincide with my discovery of feminism. I think one of the most important things I learned through feminism was that women’s suffering and women’s experience was sacrificed — that women’s voices were left out of larger conversations. Dymphna’s mother died when she was young, which was my story, and something that I never felt I could “get over” — not in the way that I was supposed to, anyway — I could not stop a certain obsession with my mother’s death, this loss, and I knew this was the crux of my depression… but that didn’t mean I could change it. I needed to suffer, at least, for a time, I did. At the same time, I met a number of women whose depression stemmed from violent trauma — specifically, the trauma of rape or sexual abuse — and that was often left out of conversations, where the women were considered sick or “crazy” — like Dymphna. That was the cultural narrative — women are crazy — instead of what these women had suffered are bore. Why is Dymphna the patron saint of “nervous illness”? Because she was raped/abused, etc. I grew horrified at the way the Catholic church, like all of patriarchy, would scapegoat women (and other outsiders) under the guise of mental illness (which of course further disenfranchised them, and still does, as I discovered). I still can’t believe the story of Dymphna, and I wish I had been taught this in Catholic school. Maybe I keep bringing her up in my writing because I want others to know this — the way women’s “nervous illness” has been a construction, perpetrated by the Catholic church and other power structures.

JT: Similarly, I’ve found an interest in the experiences of the mentally ill and mental institutions in your fiction. You touch on this in your interview with Kate Zambreno for BOMB, as well as the act of portraying the “mess of life.” I love this idea of mess as virtue, and I was hoping you could say something about your fascination with mental illness and perhaps how it pertains to the idea of showing the messiness of life in your writing?

SS: I’m not fascinated by mental illness. I’m interested in people and suffering and the way people survive trauma and cope and heal or don’t heal. I’m often bothered by the way very complicated experiences get reduced to”mental illness.” Which is not to say it isn’t real, and that people don’t need care (which is less and less available, of course) — but, my interest is linked to what I said above, and to my experience of having been misdiagnosed, and over-medicated. I know many who have been helped by therapy and medication, but I worry a bit when an otherwise critically thinking person accepts a diagnosis without some critical or contextual engagement with the structures (medical/pharmaceutical/political) that have created these categories (which are always shifting, and often gendered). Kate Zambreno writes brilliantly about this — her writing is endlessly inspiring to me, and we have bonded around this interest, as well as around our need to find and create alternate spaces. Fiction is one space, one of the best alterna-spaces. Kate noted once that she and I are in the “Dead Moms Club” and that was important to me. That’s not necessarily mental illness — or it doesn’t have to be — but to lose your mother as a young girl or a young woman is a trauma that I don’t think we have words or space for in this culture where one is meant to be contained and self-actualized — not needy or longing or devastated or just totally lost. Which is how I’ve felt much of my adult life.

***

Suzanne Scanlon is the author of Promising Young Women (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2012), and Her 37th Year, An Index (Noemi Press, 2015). She lives in Chicago.

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