“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”
― Frida Kahlo
Millais’ Ophelia 1851-52
I’m noticing a pattern, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Since my husband flitted off to SXSW under the guise of a business trip this week, I found myself in front of the TV late the other night, just beginning to wind down from my day, still a little off from the weekend time change, so I decided to watch Young Adult. I went in without any expectations good or bad. I liked Juno fine, but did have some fundamental issues with the lightness with which it handled teenage pregnancy. Charlize Theron was a total bad ass in Monster….So I hit play.
Let’s go back a minute and connect the dots.
When I was 18 and newly away at college for the first time, I found myself, like many suburban kids, thrust into a world I had been sheltered from, and suffered from what I call ocean syndrome. This little fish had swam out to sea. I was for the first time beginning to understand how truly small I was in this great, big old scary world. I called home one day, and my dad answered. Normally I would have asked for my mother, but I suppose she wasn’t home. My dad was stuck trying to console me, and as a man of few words I imagine this did not come easy for him. I was crying and asked him why I felt so confused, the world was huge, I had no idea, why didn’t you tell me, blah blah blah. I was struggling to figure out where I fit in, what was wrong with me and how did I not know? His response was, “Carrie, if you didn’t feel this way, there would be something wrong with you.” Just a few words, but at the time it felt like a revelation…You mean everyone feels like this?
Cut to two nights ago, I’m 37 and married, 2 kids sleeping upstairs, and I’m on the couch pressing play, watching Theron’s Mavis Gary, who at age 37 is divorced, depressed, bitter and lonely, living a big time Minneapolis life of boozing and anonymous sex, walking shamefully through her existence as her semi ghost-written young adult fiction series sits on the sale rack at Barnes and Noble. A girl interrupted, Gary is reeling from the recent knowledge that her old high school flame has just had a baby. Faced with the abyss, she hops in her car, pulls out a mix tape circa 1993, and sets off on an odyssey which everyone except Gary knows will surely end in despair, despite her desire for love and happiness. She seeks to regain control of her life, and control of the one that got away who has now become the embodiment of bliss. She convinces herelf he needs to be saved from his mundane, suburban existence, and she is going to be his liberator. What she finds, however, is not what she expected. The dynamic between Gary’s overdressed, black leather clad, hair extension wearing self set against the ex’s content, casual, loving, happy wife is striking and one of my favorite things about this film. The film goes on to reveal Gary as a narcissistic, nostalgic drunk, teetering on the edge of the hill she’s about to fall over.
Now none of this is particularly new or groundbreaking, but what struck me is this. As we watch Mavis Gary in her dogged pursuit of happiness, we are also watching her descent into madness. She is not merely struggling to define her place in life or lamenting over a divorce and a sideways career. She is not just taking a naive stroll down memory lane. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. It’s normal to pause, it’s normal to question. We’d all like to revisit some part of our younger days on occasion, for any number of reasons (until you remember how much being a teenager sucked, but that’s another issue). No, Mavis Gary is not merely having a moment, she is actually mentally unstable, an addict whose breakdown in front of much of her family and friends is anything but funny, and would have, if written by Shakespeare, ended in suicide, or in the real world, a swift trip to rehab. I was surprised at the serious turn the film took, and that what at first seemed quirky and oddball became serious and scary.
So what’s the pattern? It reminds me of when I first saw the film Revolutionary Road, I had to immediately read the book because I didn’t totally get it. I remember a girlfriend calling me and asking, “Is she crazy or was she driven crazy?” What I realized after reading the book was that April Wheeler was not just a dissatisfied suburban housewife who descended into madness because of her surroundings. She descended into madness because she was unstable to begin with. So the pattern, or rather the question, is simply this. Can a woman of any age question her existence, feel lost and insecure and confused, find herself at a crossroads in life, maybe feel an aching to escape it all and not be portrayed as insane? Is it possible to question, or to feel flawed and strange without descending into total madness? Is it possible?
Or are we driven mad by the constraints of a world that continues to just not get it? And no, Tom Corbett, I will not close my eyes. Stop trying to control me and stop reminding me of how strange and flawed I am. I’m quite aware of it already.
Do I sometimes long for my youth? Sure, sometimes. Do I question the choices I’ve made, the woman I’ve become? All the time. Do I sometimes feel like my walls are covered with yellow wallpaper? Absolutely, but I remember those words if you didn’t feel this way, there would be something wrong with you.
Does this make me crazy? I guess that depends on who you ask.