One Book Every Woman Should Read

mybodyisabookofrules

“My body is decaying as I let my brain marinate in trauma. Soon, maybe my whole body will be set aflame.”

—Elissa Washuta, My Body Is a Book of Rules

I’ve spent a lot of time with the pages of Elissa Washuta’s first memoir, My Body is a Book of Rules. This recollection of trauma is organized among seventeen fragmented chapters, and the work’s structure mirrors its subject matter. Within her memoir, Washuta documents her transition from being a college student at the University of Maryland, to her independent adult life in her twenties. In doing so, her writing delves deeply into her experiences related to the aftermath of rape, living and coping with bipolar disorder, and her internal conflict related to her American Indian identity and Catholic upbringing.

“I thought that if I weren’t attractive, I would have nothing. I meant it. In my brain I believed it more than I believed anything.”

—from “The Global Positioning Effect”

Elissa Washuta’s memoir shows a body and a brain in decay, while also providing insight into how they can both be deconstructed and rebuilt. Her writing is confrontational. Washuta utilizes prose that is blunt, precise, and lyrical as she documents her memories and reflections regarding sexual violence and bipolar disorder. Her writing is raw and urgent, and her voice is unapologetic. She articulates her experiences directly and holds others accountable, while having readers become witnesses to her life experiences. She forces others to acknowledge that these traumas exist.

My Body is a Book of Rules interrogates why women’s passivity is upheld as a societal norm. Her work speaks out against the expectation that women negate their own sexuality, while catering to the sexual desires of men, without reciprocation. She makes us question the cultural constructs that maintain the subordination of women, while also critiquing how trauma is often treated as a spectator sport.

“When we fuck, it hurts so much that my abdomen sobs, while my eyes betray nothing. Even my vagina has had enough of you. I don’t know which is more terrifying: being loved or being asked to love.”

—from “Faster than Your Heart Can Beat”

Washuta also asks readers to consider why women have been taught to feel ashamed for having a sexuality and sexual desires. In addition, she questions why women are responsible for obeying culturally constructed gender norms and sustaining them through our bodies and minds, when these sexist standards suppress our agency over our sexuality. One way she achieves this is by expressing her affliction and deviation from her Catholic upbringing.

“We were supposed to cross our legs, clamp them shut with steel; we were supposed to guard our chastity with our lives. It made sense. My body was a book of rules, my heart the spine, my skin plastered with pages. Written on each one was the text that held the world together. Do not steal. Do not lie, swear, disobey. Do not get angry. Don’t even let your thoughts go bad or the poison will fill your veins. Above all, do not fuck.”

—from “Please Him”

In addition to discussing the relationship of self-esteem to self-hate, Washuta articulates her struggles with bipolar disorder by showing us the extremes of sanity and insanity. She informs others of how prescription medications deny her and those affected by bipolar disorder their agency over their emotions, and how this is inherent to the disintegration of the brain and the mind.

“Giving up the insanity hurts, feels like killing a part of my brain… I remember those fierce days, those times I screamed into the carpet with my mouth open as wide as it would go, or the times my tingling forehead felt like it was about to detach and float up into the night sky. I have beaten my brain like a bad dog. It now submits… Still, I miss those frightening times, those ugly moods, that mix of irrational up and devastating low. I miss them because they were mine.”

—from “Many Famous People Have Bipolar Disorder”

Furthermore, Washuta uses pop culture as a means to bring attention to bipolar disorder and make its real life manifestations and effects more tangible to the reader. She does this by relating her experience to those of celebrities affected by bipolar disorder.

“Kurt had a tummy-ache, Britney had a headache, I had a heartache. Go with your gut. It’s all in your head. Your heart is in the right place. Is any of this shit real? Motherfucker, this pain is the realest thing I’ve ever known. My moods cycle faster than my heart beats. I will not fucking put a smile on my face, unless I’m drunk.”

—from “Many Famous People Have Bipolar Disorder”

Similarly, when discussing her experiences with sexual violence, Washuta references pop culture when describing the process of watching Law and Order in order to come to terms with the facts of her rape. She portrays how criminal investigations of rape are illustrated in the media, and how perpetrators are absolved of punishment for the violations they inflict on women’s bodies.

SVU has even made its way into my dreams…I have re-watched many episodes, learning my lines. The crimes against me, the real-life ones, are without documentation. I didn’t go to the cops…A sleuth of forgotten details, I watched for plot points that would remind me of me so I could tell myself I was a victim: that is how I worked to solve my own case.”

—from “Sexually Based Offenses”

Elissa Washuta’s memoir places the body in direct relation and conversation to culture, and she conveys how rape culture and patriarchal ideals negate women’s voices. By being coerced to remain silent in order to avoid social ridicule, women’s narratives become invisible, and their traumas become normalized and dismissed. Many women believe that this is the situation they’re confined to. They feel trapped and hesitant to speak about their experiences related to sexual violence, and they face erasure. In discussing the aftermath of her rape, Washuta writes:

“It took me another year to use the word “force.” Another couple months to use “rape.” Using these words has become privileged. Fuck everyone who made it so, fuck the idea of crying wolf, fuck the day I was born tight, pretty, and eager to please.”

—from “Sexually Based Offenses”

My Body is a Book of Rules conveys what women have been conditioned to suppress. Washuta forces readers to examine societal norms and situations in which men debase women but fail to be held accountable for their wrongdoings, thereby reinforcing the conditions which hinder women from reporting rape, from recovering from trauma, and from believing that there is an alternative to the mental torture they endure. It is necessary for accounts such as Washuta’s to be told, heard, and given their proper visibility.

“I want to do that: do my penance and forgive myself, and let the world, or any god who’s watching, follow my lead.”

—from “Many Famous People Have Bipolar Disorder”

Elissa Washuta shows us the ways we store memories related to trauma in order to cope and protect ourselves. How negating a memory makes it easier to process. How it’s easier to have assaulters remain anonymous and be absolved of guilt. Nevertheless, Washuta conveys how there is beauty in seeing how a deconstructed body can be rebuilt, and how there’s something to be examined in fragmentation and the reasons for its reoccurrence in memory. By showing us how an individual can be remade in the aftermath of trauma, she empowers other women to also see its possibility, even if it may seem distant in their current life. As Washuta shares her truth, her memoir will excavate you to the core.

As a 23-year-old woman, I’ve found solace in the pages of My Body is a Book of Rules. They remind me of what I fear, what I’m avoiding, and what I’m reluctant to discuss. I see fragments of myself and notice the parts I clutch for. I hope to one day find these parts and take them back.

My Body is a Book of Rules will speak volumes to all women. I turn Washuta’s words over in my mind often. They make me feel less alone. They make me think that self-love and self-forgiveness are possible. They help me heal. Her words will help many other women heal as well.


Anuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American poet and writer from South Jersey. She is an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech and the poetry editor for the minnesota review. She is a Pushcart nominee and has received scholarships from the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Frost Place, the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, and the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. Her poetry and prose are forthcoming or have appeared in Slice Magazine, Zone 3, Copper Nickel, The Normal School, Ninth Letter Online, Word Riot, and elsewhere. Anuradha can be found at www.anuradhabhowmik.com.

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