In 2007, when Leigh Stein was twenty-two years old, she met Jason at a Medea audition. He was spontaneous and charming, and the two quickly fell in love, abandoned school, and moved to Albuquerque. Albuquerque represented a land of sunshine, culture, and freedom. There, Leigh planned to write her novel while Jason worked, and eventually they would move to Los Angeles where he would pursue his acting dream.
But after Jason was cast in his first play in New Mexico, he began to drink, yell, and stray. He forced Leigh to take antidepressants, hit her arms and legs, and threw her against a refrigerator. Leigh spiraled into depression. She wanted their relationship to work, but he was turning into someone else — someone violent. “I didn’t care if I got ruined,” she said.
After being spun into and out of Jason’s abusive web, Leigh finally left Albuquerque, settled into a new relationship, a new job, and tried to forget him and move on. Then, in 2011, she received a phone call from Jason’s brother. Jason had died in a motorcycle crash.
In Leigh Stein’s memoir, Land of Enchantment, we root for Leigh to make the right choice but feel the strength of Jason’s grasp. Leigh’s landscape of adolescence doesn’t hold back details — she writes with an honesty and clarity that is typically hard for young girls to articulate. While many memoirs aim to be something — an abuse memoir or a coming-of-age memoir, say — Leigh’s is neither. It’s about a girl who fantasizes about a life of romance and adventure. The real Land of Enchantment is not Albuquerque, but an imagined Albuquerque made beautiful by memory (or mis-memory). The Land of Enchantment is this head space, the unreal element that all young girls, and everyone, holds dear — the breath that keeps their dreams alive.
Stein doesn’t feel a need to define words like “abuse” or “victim” or “mental illness.” All of these words kept popping up in her various dealings with psychiatrists, family members and friends. What comes across is that in a culture obsessed with words, criteria, and definition, what’s really important is feeling. Ultimately, Stein says, “I wanted my life to belong to me again.”
In anticipation of her memoir’s August 2nd release, Stein and I discussed grief in the Internet age, intangible diseases, and the work of memory.
KA: It’s easy to criticize young memoirists for lacking the perspective required to reconstruct and evaluate a personal narrative. Why did you decide to write this memoir when you did?
LS: In 2011, Jason died. In 2012, I was working on a second novel and kept sending my characters off to New Mexico. It seemed like I really wanted to write about New Mexico and what happened there. Then, I was asked to read nonfiction at a reading in New York City. I wrote an essay that turned out to be the chapter in the book where I find out my college classmate died in Afghanistan. The response I got was so overwhelming — all these young women kept coming up to talk to me. One woman was crying and said her best friend had died, and she couldn’t stop looking at her Facebook page. That night I thought, wow, this is the biggest response to anything I’ve ever written, and maybe what I’m writing is a book about mourning and the Internet.
That’s the book I thought I was writing. I wasn’t even thinking that I was too young to write it. I thought it was important to write about the experience of grieving online, which is unique to our time. Then, it dawned on me that I was also writing about my relationship, so the book evolved over time. I do think the fact that I’ve grown up on the Internet is crucial to my story. While someone like Mary Karr can write a memoir about blossoming sexuality as a young woman (which is great), that wasn’t happening over text messages. I do think that my generation has something to bring to the table, and has real-life stories. I don’t want to wait another ten or twenty years to tell them.
KA: You write a lot about how online communities like LiveJournal were vital to your development as a person and a writer. What do you think you would have done in a pre-Internet age?
LS: I wouldn’t have had any friends! I met my friend Julia on LiveJournal, and she’s one of my best friends today. It was important to me because I wasn’t meeting people I connected with in real life. At school, I was lonely and didn’t have a lot of friends, but I found them online. When I was thirteen, I was part of a listserv that introduced me to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The Internet was my portal — it helped me find all this literature and pop culture that I don’t think I would have found otherwise. I would be a completely different person if I hadn’t been in the online community since I was a young teenager.
I grew up in the dark — in basements, in bedrooms, backstage in the wings behind the velvet. I grew up at sleepovers where the girls with the power were the ones who came up with the most humiliating dares for the others. We didn’t realize the name for what we all wanted so badly was power; the closest we could get was attention, standing outside in the middle of the night unsupervised, lifting our shirts to flash our small breasts to streetlights, screaming the words we weren’t allowed to say in daylight. When were our real lives finally going to start? When and how would we learn all we could do with our new bodies, and what could be done to them?”
KA: We don’t really have a lot of writing about the Internet age right now.
LS: Right, which is so bizarre. It’s so hard to write about experiences that happen online. I found this challenging when writing my own book. We spend so much of our time on social media — why don’t we have literature describing what it’s like to live online? It’s like an imaginary line in the sand — real life versus online life. But I don’t think that line exists. I could be thinking about something, and then get a text. I would love to read writing that shows how we’re interrupted constantly by these messages on our devices.
KA: Turning to the subject matter — this is a book that is very emotionally charged. What is it like to edit your own work while still being emotionally connected? Did it come naturally as part of the healing process?
LS: When writing a novel, it’s all in your head — you think, what would she do next, what would she say next, would she do this or would she do that? You follow it organically. With the memoir, I knew what had happened. The question was, how do I organize what happened? What I struggled with and ended up revising a lot was the opening chapters. I had a monthly writing workshop in Brooklyn and each month I would workshop a chapter. I would get a bunch of feedback, but they were my friends and knew me, so some stuff I didn’t have to explain to them in writing. But then, I knew I needed another reader. I needed help because I didn’t know how I would come across as a narrator to someone who didn’t know me. In 2013, I went to the Tin House writing workshop, which I loved, and they spent the whole workshop saying, Where was your mom? What does your mom think? I was so angry because this wasn’t a story about my mom. But over time I realized this was crucial to the story, and what they were really asking was, Who were you in that moment when you met Jason? Who were your parents? What was going on then?
KA: How did you reconstruct the painful narrative of your relationship? Did you rely on your journals?
LS: I’ve relived my memories of Jason in my mind so many times, that I’ve got them down almost perfectly. But I did go back to my journal for fact-checking and details.
It was really hard to go back. We perfect stories in our mind. We tell ourselves the same story so many times that it’s comfortable for us to revisit it, and then when we go back to the source text, we find things we’ve forgotten. There were some days where I would just read my diary and I couldn’t write — I was done for the day because it was so emotionally exhausting. It’s like that when you go back in time.
I knew how to play a woman in crisis.
KA: One prominent theme of the memoir is that abuse is much more than what you can see. I think people are bogged down by criteria. They say, If I wasn’t hit, it’s not abuse. It’s the same with mental illness: If I don’t experience over two weeks of continuous anxiety, then I don’t have depression. You say it’s okay to not have criteria to define yourself as someone abused or someone with depression — that these words are not necessarily diagnoses, but rather, ways to connect to one another.
LS: It’s interesting that you draw the parallel between depression, which is invisible, and psychological abuse, which is also invisible. In both experiences you think no one has ever experienced what you’re going through. It’s shameful to talk about both things. I do think about what happened to me when I was thirteen. I would hope that middle schools are more progressive now. Back then, nobody knew what to do with me. I’d like to think that in 2016 it’s better, but I don’t know. It’s really powerful when you put something out there that somebody can relate to and realize that they aren’t alone either.
KA: There’s a line you write about how women feel comfort in being wounded. Why do you think that being wounded is comforting? And why do some women tend to revert to these abusive relationships?
LS: I think I was addicted to Jason. The analogy of addiction helps explain why I was so drawn to this person even when all signs told me not to be. It was a compulsion. In terms of woundedness, I think that comes from the stories I loved as a teenager. One of my favorites was A Streetcar Named Desire where [Blanche DuBois] gets raped by her sister’s husband and then sent off to a mental hospital. I think a lot of it, too, is my age. When you’re young, your emotions and hormones are at peak level.
I’ve done some research — I’m writing about addiction a little more in terms of this relationship and have found that the prefrontal cortex of your brain isn’t finished developing until you’re twenty-five. This is the part of your brain that affects decision-making, behavioral control, and is why people become addicted to drugs and alcohol when they’re young. Of course they want to try, and then they become hooked and can’t control their behavior. That’s what happened with Jason. I was young, he was young, I couldn’t say no.
KA: Even the Internet is contributing to this age group’s addictive behaviors, and potentially abusive relationships. For example, sexting, catfishing and cyberbullying give way to a whole new world of invisible abuse. Do you think the Internet enables abusers?
LS: That’s a really interesting point. The other facet of addiction is dopamine. When you’re drinking or using drugs, your brain gets flooded with dopamine and wants it more and more and more. That’s the thing about abusive relationships — if you’ve never experienced it, you might think, why is she with that asshole if he’s such a dick to her, and she says it’s so bad? But it’s not so bad all the time — sometimes it’s amazing. It can trigger a flood of dopamine. You keep hanging around so that you can get that rush.
It’s the same thing with digital technology. Why do I check my email thirty-two times a day? Just because I hope that one of those times is going to be some amazing email. I’m waiting for my next dopamine hit. Melissa Broder writes about this in her essay collection. She’s a former alcoholic and talks about now she now relies on social media to get her little hits.
KA: Were you ever afraid about writing negatively about Jason once he passed away? Did you ever worry about what his family would think?
LS: There’s this idea that memoirists are out to get everybody and tell all, but I didn’t feel I was doing anything wrong. The idea of permission is so entrenched in women writing. They feel like they need someone to tell them they can write the story, but no one’s ever going to give you that except yourself.
KA: I want to hear about your turning point. Do you think Jason’s death freed you?
LS: I think my turning point was when he visited me for the last time. I kept going back to this romantic idea of our adventurous life together. His visit was going to be so exciting and dramatic. And it was for 48 hours. The rest of it was a total nightmare. I finally saw that I didn’t have to do this anymore. I could have my life in New York without him. I couldn’t wait for him to go home.
KA: To me, Land of Enchantment is much more than a memoir about an abusive relationship. It’s about reevaluation, metamorphosis and agency. What message do you hope to get across to your readers?
LS: If it’s anything, I think it’s what I say at the end of the book, which is that I dare you to do the thing you’re not ready to do. For so long, my awareness of being in an abusive relationship flickered on and off. But I’d always make excuses about why I couldn’t leave him. Even when my friend got me a job in New York, I wasn’t ready to go. I wanted to stay living with my parents, feeling sorry for myself, and with Jason. I wasn’t ready to go, but I did, and it’s probably the best thing I did.
KA: At the end of the book, you talk about starting BinderCon, the nonprofit you run that encourages women writers to create progressive narratives. Can you tell us about what made you funnel your experience into something positive?
LS: To go back to our earlier conversation about the online community — if I hadn’t been someone who really enjoys hanging out with people on the Internet, I don’t think I would have started this. Somebody started a Facebook community for women writers that exploded overnight. I was one of those early members and spent every day checking the group, so I thought, we should have conference and meet together in person. Then we became a nonprofit, and now we’re organizing two conferences a year in Los Angeles and New York. Our mission is to get more women writers into powerful roles in television and film, so that we can change the narratives and culture about women. Part of my challenge, too, is remembering what stories I grew up with. Who wrote these stories? What was my idea of love? What if we had more women creating these cultural narratives? What messages could we send to young women? We could change everything.
Leigh’s memoir, Land of Enchantment, will be released on August 2nd. Below, find information on her upcoming book tour.
LAND OF ENCHANTMENT (Plume Original / Hardcover / August 2, 2016)
NEW YORK CITY LAUNCH WITH RACHEL SYME
Tuesday, August 2nd (7pm) Powerhouse Arena 32 Adams Street, Brooklyn
Wednesday, August 3rd (6pm) Bookworks 4022 Rio Grande Boulevard NW
LOS ANGELES LAUNCH WITH WENDY C. ORTIZ
Thursday, August 4th (7pm) Book Soup 8818 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood
CHICAGO LAUNCH WITH ALISON BOWEN
Wednesday, August 10th (7:30pm) Women & Children First 5233 N. Clark Street
Photo Credit: Milena Brown, Plume
Working at the intersection of literature and activism, Leigh Stein is the author of three books, and the co-founder and Executive Director of Out of the Binders, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers. Her début novel The Fallback Plan made the “highbrow brilliant” quadrant of New York Magazine‘s Approval Matrix, and her poetry collection Dispatch from the Future was selected for Publishers Weekly‘s Best Summer Books of 2012 list, and the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. Land of Enchantment, her memoir about young love, obsession, abuse, and loss, will be published in hardcover by Plume on August 2, 2016. For her advocacy work, she has been called a “leading feminist” by the Washington Post, and honored as a “woman of influence” by New York Business Journal. Originally from Chicago, and briefly in Albuquerque, she currently lives outside New York City.