2015. A self-portrait project revisiting four key literary figures from my childhood: Violet Baudelaire, from A Series of Unfortunate Events; Billy Bibbit, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Esther Greenwood, from The Bell Jar; & Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye.
I have always enjoyed the company of books & their characters all throughout my life. Growing up, we struggle to find our true selves. & sometimes, we are unable to relate to the “real” people around us. We feel isolated because of our mental illnesses & / or abusive environments. Everyone else seems so normal, unrelatable & unreachable.
But in literature, you can find representation. You can find experiences that eerily mirror your own, character traits that remind you of yourself, & life lessons that can actually apply — not the empty “it gets better” words of encouragement from elders & peers. You can take these words, these truths, to heart. & as dark as it sounds, you can keep on living.
Violet Baudelaire displays ingenuity, passion, & perseverance — all in the face of abuse. It took me a very long time to come to terms with the fact that my mother’s treatment of me was maltreatment. Violet’s story was one of my first steps toward recognition & self-healing. Despite the pain that she faces, she is a beautifully bright young woman who never gives up; she will always fight for herself, & for those that she loves. I’ve also taken to putting my hair up just like she does — to solve both menial problems, like taking tests, to much larger ones, such as ensuring I don’t follow in my mother’s footsteps.
“Anyone who knew Violet well could tell she was thinking hard, because her long hair was tied up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes. Violet had a real knack for inventing & building strange devices, so her brain was often filled with images of pulleys, levers, & gears, & she never wanted to be distracted by something as trivial as her hair.”
“That’s one thing we don’t have to pretend. We HAVE had miserable experiences, & we ARE hoping things will be better here. We’re almost as freakish as we’re pretending to be.”
Billy Bibbit is a patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s mental ward. He is a timid man, who has been manipulated & abused by his mother, & other mother figures in his life. & while it isn’t downright stated in the text, I believe that Billy has borderline personality disorder / BPD, made worse (& possibly caused) by the abusive environment his mother has created. Unfortunately, I completely relate to his situation. In my life, I have locked myself in my closet, huddling on the floor, fearing for my safety — much like Billy huddling in fear on the floor of the Seclusion Room. I empathize with anyone who has shared our reality. And unfortunately unlike Violet, who never gives into the void of despair, Billy eventually takes his own life, after being pushed too far by the Big Nurse.
“Billy flinched & put his hand to his cheek like he’d been burned with acid.
“No!” he cried. His voice scraped the white, bare walls of the Seclusion Room. He lifted his chin so he was shouting at the moon of light in the ceiling.”
“We watched Billy folding into the floor, head going back, knees coming forward. He rubbed his hand up & down that green pant leg. He was shaking, his head in a panic.”
Esther Greenwood, like Violet, is a very bright young woman — one so bright that she can’t quite commit to one future path. Esther experiences a rather strong existential fear toward this looming Future. The novel chronicles her descent into depression, triggered by various events, & her eventual (yet also quite traumatizing) treatment & recovery. When I first read the selected quotes at 15, I was stunned at how accurate it was to my life. But as I’ve grown older, graduating school after school and embarking into the workforce, the existential dread of how I will live the rest of my life, & the fear of failing to secure all or any of these potential options for my future, has only intensified. (My depression also reached its deepest point while enrolled in art school.)
“What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, & then I thought I’d be a professor & write books of poems & be an editor of some sort. Usually I had these plans on the top of my tongue.
“I don’t know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.”
“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each & every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, & as I sat there, unable to decide, the fig began to wrinkle & go black, & one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Holden Caulfield, like Esther, experiences chronic anxiety & depression over his future. He is also painfully cynical at the world, constantly seeing the worst in people — especially himself. Throughout many passages in the novel, he frequently experiences suicide ideation & idealization. & because it’s so frequent, both he & the reader become desensitized to it. The suicidal self-talk becomes quite casual — almost as conversational as talking about the weather, or how he scored on a test. While Holden never truly attempts suicide, there are times where he wishes he would just disappear, for it all to end. & there are times where Holden desperately wishes for it NOT to end; to the point where he’s pleading “please don’t let me disappear” as he crosses a street.
Unfortunately, I’ve felt both extremes more times than I can count.
“What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would’ve done it, too, if I’d be sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn’t want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory.”
“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall. But I don’t honestly know what kind of a fall. Are you listening to me?
This fall I think you’re riding for – it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling & falling.”
Unlike other self-portrait projects others have created, these are not just me adopting tropes or traits I both identify & empathize with these characters; they are not just costumes, or even two-dimensional figures only in text. They are me, & yet they are obviously not me. But more importantly, they have helped me through my childhood & my continued struggle to accept myself, or more accurately, my brain.