I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On surviving sexual assault and how telling stories can empower us.
I first met Alisson Wood when she signed up for a class that I taught through Catapult. Right away I was struck by her willingness to write about difficult subjects with clarity and conviction. Her forthrightness is part of what makes her such a trustworthy writer. Alisson is now a teacher herself, as well as the founder and editor in chief of Pigeon Pages, a literary journal and reading series.
Her debut memoir, Being Lolita (Flatiron Books) unravels an abusive relationship she was in with a teacher at her high school. “All I wanted was to be seen,” Alisson writes. “To be acknowledged, to be understood. To feel that connection when eyes meet and communication is instant without a word.” That yearning is vividly rendered on the page, from the description of the teacher’s sleeves “chalk kissed with white” to relating to Lolita as a lonely teenager: “I watched Lolita through the looking glass of Nabokov’s language on the page and was hypnotized. All I wanted was to mimic her in everything, since, really, she was in control the whole time. She got what she wanted. I wanted that too. I wanted to be like Lolita.”
Alisson dedicates this book to three people: her grandmother, her mother, and her seventeen-year-old self, “who needed this book most of all.” There are many moving aspects of Being Lolita, but above all it’s a stunning reclamation of the self. By telling her story, she takes control of the narrative, and in doing so, empowers others to do the same.
Michele Filgate In the beginning of your memoir, an English teacher in your high school reads Lolita to you while you secretly meet in a diner. We learn that you were seventeen at the time. Nick North was twenty-seven, and he used Nabokov’s classic and controversial novels to win your affection, to take advantage of being in a position of power. You’re a teacher yourself and you talk about this later on in the narrative. How did you view Lolita when he introduced you to it, and what do you think now?
Alisson Wood At seventeen, I did not know what an unreliable narrator was. I had never heard the term. So, when the teacher told me it “was a beautiful story about love”, I believed him. He was an English teacher, he had gone to college and grad school at Cornell and Columbia, I thought he was so smart and couldn’t even fathom that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Also, the cover features the famous pull quote from that first review of Lolita in Vanity Fair, “The only convincing love story of our century.” Why wouldn’t I think this was a love story?
Now, I see the book as one of many tools predators can use to groom and then abuse young women, yet I also recognize it is an example of the power of language. It is a beautifully written book (though, frankly, it needed a good edit—Nabokov famously refused to let editors cut things and hated them and let’s be real Part Two just goes on and on and on) yet it is also wildly problematic. This is 2020. It can be both. One does not undercut the other. If it wasn’t such a well written book, it wouldn’t have the power to manipulate. And yet the opening section—it’s gorgeous. It sings. But it is like a siren call—it’s also dangerous.
MF I’m really interested in the structure that you chose for your memoir. Part Three, “Dissection,” opens with “There is no Part III in Lolita.” Did you know from the outset that you would tell your story this way?
AW I absolutely did not. It was a huge moment of understanding the project of the book, when the structure sort of opened up in front of me. Structure is hard, no matter the size of the project, but especially with books and memoirs in particular, because while our lives are chronological memory is not. One day while re-reading Lolita for the dozenth time, it just hit me: this is the structure of my story too.
Nabokov’s novel is halved into Parts One and Two, with Part One being about an extended grooming/ “falling in love/ “seduction” and Part Two is their extended road trip and her eventually running away from him. The break between the two is when they have sexual intercourse for the first time. That was my story too: Part One of my book is my senior year of high school, or the extended “seduction” period when the teacher groomed me; Part Two is a series of road trips that summer (really) since the relationship was still a secret and how I eventually left him. The break between the two is when we had sex for the first time. It was so easy to borrow. But then, spoiler alert, I, unlike Lolita, don’t die at the end of Part Two. So I get a Part Three, which is my life since that experience and how it has impacted me.
MFWhile writing this book, you pulled from old letters, journals, and other forms of communication with Nick that you held on to for all of these years. How difficult was it to revisit those words as an adult, knowing what you know now? What else did you rely on to access memories from your teenage years?
AW It was really important to me that I do my due diligence in using primary source documents for this book. It was incredibly painful. Embarrassing. Shameful. It made me angry in new ways—first at myself, then at the teacher, and then at the adults who simply weren’t there for me and didn’t look out for me like they should have. I was hardest on myself in the process of writing this book. I do not recommend reading your high school journals unless it’s for a project and you need them—ugh! I was miserable. But it was also really useful, because I was able to get a fixed timeline about how things happened, and track the escalation of things, in ways that I just couldn’t if I was only using memory.
I distinctly remembered this one afternoon, in school, when we were writing notes back and forth during one of his classes. He asked me to trade my bra size for his dick size. I remembered that moment exactly. But I thought it had happened in maybe May of that year—only weeks before I graduated and we were going to be “together.” But when I read my journals I realized, nope, that happened in November. November. I was still seventeen, he had only known me for two months. That was a moment where I was really like, Whoa, he was truly a predator.
I also made myself a playlist of songs that I distinctly remembered listening to a lot in high school—I called it “High School Feelings”—all those really emotional songs like “Colorblind” by Counting Crows, “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer, “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt, “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. These songs took me straight back to my big teenage feelings. The film Lady Bird, which was set at the same time period of my memoir, did such a great job incorporating music into the atmosphere of that story, which I think high school is so ripe for. Music is just so important and impulsive and impactful when you’re young, I think. It’s hard to be jaded yet. “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band is a really good song! We’re all these raw emotional synapses firing over and over, it’s impossible to not connect.
MFWhen I hosted you on my Red Ink panel about silence, you shared a James Baldwin quote that you said you often think about: “That victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he, or she, has become a threat.” In so many ways, this is the work of a memoirist: to speak their truth; to have a chance to tell their side of the story. But it’s also incredibly painful and disconcerting to revisit traumatic scenes from our past. How did you protect yourself and empower yourself to write about an abusive relationship you were in?
AW Therapy. Therapy, therapy, therapy. I recommend therapy to anyone who is living, who is writing, especially nonfiction, especially if it is about something traumatic. While writing can be an incredibly effective and valuable therapeutic practice, if you’re writing for an audience, with an eye towards publication, that’s a whole different beast, and if you’re looking for catharsis there, you’re undercutting yourself from the start. You’re not setting yourself up for success. You need perspective to be able to look at your writing with an eye towards craft, thinking about a reader, being willing to take tough criticism, to let go of entire chapters. You can’t be so raw that you can’t let go.
So, I did a lot of work to protect myself emotionally before and during the generative parts of the process, which were always toughest for me. Editing wasn’t so bad (emotionally), but writing about these awful, traumatic things for the first time—it’s difficult. It will never be easy. And if it is easy, I wonder if you’re really digging in enough to the truth of it all. (That’s what I always asked myself, anyway, though not to the point of masochism.)
I also did my best, even though it was very hard, to talk about these sections of the book that were most difficult, even if I wasn’t ready to share the writing, with my trusted friends and other writers. Because they understood. They could empathize not only with the experience of trauma, since we all have traumas, but also with the difficulty of getting it right on the page. The origin of the word memoir is the French mémoire, which translates in English as “memory.” Mémoire can be deconstructed again in Latin as rememor or rememorari, which translates to English as “to call to mind” or “be mindful.” Yet it is not enough to just be mindful, to imagine something, but one must do so again and with power.
Or perhaps rememor is suggesting that power can be gained through the act of repeated, intense mindfulness, a void that gains strength with each call. And what is writing if not an attempt to gain power? (Clarity of an experience is power, an understanding of the world is power, to speak aloud—on the page—a trauma that has been oppressed is power.) And it takes place over time … by the physical, repeated, forceful act of putting the pen to page, or hitting one of twenty-six squares over and over on a keyboard. I deeply believe that telling the truth, writing it down, sharing your story with a reader, is one of the most powerful things that can be done in this world. By taking control of my story, I am no longer a simple victim, someone being acted upon by a predator. I am now the actor. I am the threat.
MF At one point in the book, you write: “Secrets are safe, he would say to me, write to me, whisper before I left the room. I had never felt like that before in high school. I had always felt like I was being watched, hunted even. Now I felt like no one could reach me. Like I was finally safe.” Nick made you sign a contract and swear you wouldn’t tell anyone about the relationship, and he claimed that this was how you could prove your love to him. I can’t help but think of how easily teenage girls are drawn to secrets—and particularly girls who feel like misfits. A shared secret can lead to the illusion of intimacy between two people. I think of a Rilke quote I brought up on another Red Ink panel: “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.” What did secrets mean to you when Nick entered your life, and what secrets do you wish you could share with your former self?
AW I already felt like I had lived a life of secrets. Mental illness is still so poorly understood from a cultural perspective, and rife with negative stereotypes, so almost twenty years ago it was a major point of shame for me. I was constantly attempting to hide how bad my depression was, which led to me not going to school, because those were days I didn’t feel like I could hide, which then only exacerbated the feelings of shame and failure, and the cycle escalated. For me, shame is still one of my most painful emotions. And shame is something I try to hide. So, this idea of having a secret that was exciting, filled with desire and longing was incredibly attractive. It made me feel special, like we were in this secret together, and it held us close; it was so intimate. Of course, now I see how that sort of isolation is manipulative, and part of the grooming process. But at seventeen, I was just so desperate to be seen and to feel cared for, that a secret like that truly felt safe and good.
I’m not sure what secrets I would share with my teenage self—I feel like now I strive for integration at all corners of my life, I reject secrecy of almost any kind. I hate secrets. Of course, there are the good secrets—exciting career news that you can’t share publicly, helping someone pick out an engagement ring, a birthday party, things like that. But otherwise, nope. And maybe that’s what I would tell teenage Alisson—a secret is almost never kept for a positive reason. Someone asking you to keep a secret is a red flag. The goal should be transparency and honesty, and secrets aren’t part of that. That also connects to confidence and strength of identity, which are things I simply did not possess in high school. I was ashamed of myself and my choices all the time. Secrets felt familiar, and so I believed the teacher when he said they would keep me safe.
MF This isn’t the first time you’ve written about a difficult topic. Your first published piece is a powerful essay published by the New York Times in 2015 called “‘Get Home Safe,’ My Rapist Said.” You also wrote an equally brilliant essay for Catapult called “On Adrenaline, or Running for My Life.” Your Times essay came out before the #MeToo movement took off. What was it like to share your traumatic experiences then versus publishing a book in a a world where more and more people are coming forward and holding abusers accountable for their actions?
AW When I published the New York Times essay about being raped by my boss at work, it was a big deal. Essays about women’s real experiences with rape and trauma weren’t often given that kind of platform, and I got hundreds, literally hundreds, of emails and messages from strangers within the first forty-eight hours. The messages fell very clearly into three camps: my favorite were the emails saying “Oh what a great piece, congratulations!” I loved those ones. The largest group of emails were from (mostly) women, thanking me for writing my piece and sharing their own experiences with rape or sexual assault, often in detail. Those messages were so impactful, but also very hard to read. The last group of emails were angry diatribes from men—you slut, you whore, you liar, etc. Exactly what you would expect. It was overwhelming and hard.
Now, I am honestly trying to brace myself for a similar response. The readers I’ve heard from already have all been wonderful and so kind—I’m so happy to talk to my readers! I’m honored that people are taking time out of their lives to read my story, and to share that it was impactful for them. I also am a realist, and know that there will also be negative responses. I have zero control over this, so I do my best to not think about it too much. It is what it is.
I think I will always be writing about power and gender, and I deeply believe that the personal is political, so I’ll probably continue writing essays and memoir. I’m grateful that I’m publishing this book now, since the #MeToo movement has done so much important work in naming predators and organizing people around the need to change our culture and justice system. The acknowledgement of abuse and abusers is the first step to create change, and the support of women’s stories is a vital piece of that work. When I published my essay about being raped in 2015, it was a very lonely experience. I’m not alone in telling my story anymore.
Being Lolita is available for purchase here.
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of a critically acclaimed anthology based on her Longreads essay, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, published by Simon & Schuster. Currently, she is an MFA student at NYU, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Slice, the Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Gulf Coast, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at NYU, The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and Catapult.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee