From Trying Not to Feel to Feeling Everything: Juliet Escoria’s Juliet the Maniac by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

A bipolar teen on her journey from self-immolation to self-actualization.

Juliet The Maniac Copy

“The pupil is a hole in the iris that lets the light in. The pupil of a doomed person is just a hole,” Juliet Escoria writes in her first novel, Juliet the Maniac (Melville House Books), and I’m haunted by this description of the trauma that remains, no matter what. I know, because I keep looking in the mirror.

Escoria continues: “Now, on December 14, 2015, my pupils no longer broadcast doomedness or blackness or even emptiness. There is something sad in them instead, even though I am mostly happy now. The sadness is something you can’t get rid of.”

The Juliet of Juliet the Maniac does not suffer any specific or defined trauma that stimulates her mania. It’s simply a shift in brain chemistry that the world refuses to deal with in any sensible way. And she knows this immediately, even if she hasn’t yet received a diagnosis of bipolar, type I, rapid cycling: “There was something wrong with my head, with my vision. I looked at my hands and I could see the individual molecules that made up my flesh, the air between them, neon pulsating veins. I was dissolving, slipping from the human world into an angel, a demon.”

Juliet’s first suicide attempt as a teenager is triggered by the drugs prescribed to allegedly help her. We learn this in “A Fact Sheet from the Future,” one of several nonfiction passages that interrupt the narrative, giving us insight into Escoria herself, the writing process, and the actual places and experiences that inspired the novel. These missives can feel intrusive at times—and yet, the interruptions potentially allow for a deeper reading, exposing the process of writing and living as part of the novel itself. It’s like the interview with the author takes place within the text.

In another letter from the future, Escoria reveals that she keeps thinking about how “the fictionalized version of myself should lose her virginity. Maybe I should write it just the way I lost mine.” But Escoria decides on a different path: “My first credit card had way more of an impact on my life than losing my virginity. Just know that this version of Juliet was having sex. Bad, boring, teenage sex. The kind of sex not even worth writing about.”

Escoria’s descriptions are moving in their absences and silences: “The important part was the act. Juliet has found a new way to lose herself, a new way to disconnect. A new way to shut off her brain.” Somehow this description feels more chilling than the unwritten details, the string of wanted and unwanted behaviors needed in order to disappear.

Juliet also loses herself when she’s partying with her friends, a cascade of drugs to escape the world. To exist in the world. To exist. Her descriptions of partying are meticulous, and they get you high, a finely-crafted claustrophobia giving way to a raucous world of exploration and destruction: “all the windows were broken and we were bleeding and breathing heavy, hot and destructive and alive. The floor was sparkling with glass, crunching under our shoes. There was nothing left to break.”

Even when there is nothing left to break, society will try to break you. This pattern gets revealed throughout the book: institutionalization, pathologization, separation, dehumanization. Describing her second time in the mental hospital, Juliet notices it herself: “Same sexist doctor, same milk bags of glue, same needle in the arm every morning.” From this vantage point, she watches Fourth of July fireworks through a narrow window:


And it made me feel like what I was: someone removed from society,
who was therefore only able to see a tiny reflection of the outside world.
The fireworks were small and far away, but they were beautiful, because
it turns out, society is something that looks best from a distance.

 

Juliet the Maniac conveys the enforced distance of a society that refuses to care, or care adequately, but also the critical distance of a teenager developing her own worldview. Skipping school and getting high with friends when the shock of the Columbine shooting explodes on someone’s living room TV, Juliet realizes, “The things they’d always told us were dangerous—they were wrong. Instead, the dangerous things kept us safe.”

Again and again, Juliet finds family among the reckless and the recluses, the broken and the broken-hearted. Again and again, these families are ripped apart—by parents, by caretakers, by doctors, by mental health professionals, by institutions, by people with no training who have too much power, by other teenagers, by Juliet’s misguided pain.

Before long-term institutionalization, Juliet describes a party in an abandoned church that turns into a mass bible burning: “there was so much fire that it felt like we were burning in Hell. I thought we might take the whole place down, I could practically hear the whirring of the flames and the screaming. We belonged there. It was home.”

This is a home that must be taken away, at any cost, and replaced with rote conformity. Home, not as a specific place, but as camaraderie in any space, in spite of the rules of polite society. And, the rule-breaking necessary in order to feel something beyond the societal norms that institutionalization seeks to reinforce. To experience something that may be damaging, or it may be healing. In any case, it is experience. A scene of sexual exploration with other girls leads to a quiet embodiment: “We lay there for a few more minutes, listening to each other’s breaths, as something buzzed around us, something I could only describe as warmth.” Doing illicit drugs while cleaning, Juliet feels “realer than real, electric and on fire.”

It isn’t the drugs that matter (or it isn’t only the drugs). It’s the electricity that pulsates from within the prose. That fire burning inside. What Juliet the Maniac manages to convey so well is the development of the teenage brain revealed in the moments where Juliet goes from trying not to feel, to feeling everything, to feeling nothing, and then to feeling something else, something “realer than real.”

A new counselor institutes a practice of publicly confronting each teenager with every personal flaw as a vicious form of “therapy,” but when it’s Juliet’s turn she refuses to be humiliated. “What the hell is your job anyway?” she asks. “Are you paid to point out the obvious?” Soon she will feel a new kind of calm. She will think of her body as “something to use rather than destroy.” Perhaps, in spite of the world, she can move from self-immolation to self-actualization.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is most recently the author of a novel, Sketchtasy, named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018.

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