Reading Cat's Eye in Therapy

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I landed in Dr. Pollock’s office in my second year of university.

When I first started to lose my mind, I modeled my breakdown on the books I’d read about breakdowns. Prozac Nation, reading incredulously as yet another chapter was dedicated to Bruce Springsteen, waiting for Elizabeth Wurtzel to get back to chasing her roommate around Cambridge with a knife. I looked over at my roommates speculatively. Three stoners, musicians all, fellow students at Berklee College of Music. They would never go for a hysterical chase scene outside in the New England snow.

Then I found Girl, Interrupted and a quieter, funnier way to be nuts. That was Susanna Kaysen’s word for it. Nuts. I liked that. A blunt word, short. It sounded permanent. But also zany, like a Nora Ephron heroine.

Therapy was slow going. I was so jacked up by the time I sought help that I’d spend the whole hour-long appointment relating every feeling I’d experienced on the bus ride over to Dr. Pollock’s office, which also took an hour. She pointed out the hopelessness of this, how we’d never get anywhere if I required a 1-to-1 ratio of therapy to life. Glumly, I agreed with her, but I didn’t see what I could do about it.

Eventually, I got better. Better as in less bad than before, not better as in cured. That’s when we started getting into it. My family, my rape. She had me do a little ceremony. I burned the clothes I was wearing when it happened. Plaid jodhpurs with laces at the ankle and a black T shirt. The shirt burned okay but the pants had acrylic in them, so they melted on the old fireplace grate and it smelled terrible. At my next appointment, I told her about my very witchy little bonfire and left out the part about the stink. She gave me a present. It was a toy, a white stuffed bunny. This is what a seventeen year old girl is, or it is what I was. Sleeping with strangers one night, curling up with the stuffed animal my therapist gave me the next.

On the wall opposite my chair in Dr. Pollock’s office was a bookshelf. I often scanned the titles when I was trying to think of an answer to one of her gentle questions, or when I ran out of ways to describe how much I hated being in my own body. I assumed they were her books, her personal collection, so I was surprised when she offered to loan me one. Had she seen me looking at them and thought I was covetous? But she explained it was more like a lending library for patients, and you didn’t get to pick your own books, she picked them for you.

She gave me Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I read Reviving Ophelia first, and it helped, I guess. The conclusion that books draws, that girls who have a tough time in adolescence often grow up to be resilient, authentic adults seemed a lot like the platitudes I heard from my mother. It wasn’t much comfort to me in the thick of things.

I put off the Atwood because I knew about her. As a Canadian, I’d read some of her stories in high school English. Lots of woods and water and impenetrable adult protagonists. But Cat’s Eye, it turned out, was about girls.

Over on Goodreads, the consensus is that Cat’s Eye is about bullies and being bullied, a literary pre-cursor to Mean Girls. I didn’t read it that way back then. It’s like how I missed that the movie Heathers was satire. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate piece of speculative fiction to me, to use the phrase Atwood herself likes so much. Same with Cat’s Eye. Cordelia and Elaine torturing each other across the decades was almost romantic, the way Tolstoy is romantic. This was a love story I had lived.

But as I followed Elaine and Cordelia, one incident after another mirroring my own experience, I had the original second-wave feminist thought: what if I’m perfectly sane? What if all my pain and anger is actually a perfectly normal reaction to living in this body, in this world? I didn’t know then that other women had already drawn this conclusion, I didn’t even understand that Atwood had drawn this conclusion.

You’ve probably heard that depression is anger turned inward. I’d heard it about a thousand times by then, but I didn’t feel it until my anger made a one-eighty. I was mad at everybody! I’d come in to my appointments and explode. That guy’s an asshole! This other guy’s an asshole! My school is an asshole! The state of Massachusetts is an asshole! And so on. Dr. Pollock encouraged this. She noticed the circle was getting bigger before I did. “So, you’re mad at the whole world?” she asked finally.

“The whole fucking thing!”

It was a lot better than just being mad at myself. I knew I was improving when I started asking Dr. Pollock how she was after thirty minutes of talking about myself, suddenly mortified by my rudeness.

The main thing you notice about Cat’s Eye is that Elaine and Cordelia, friends and antagonists, are mirrors. They switch places, each wielding power and each losing it. Elaine paints a picture of Cordelia with half a face. Elaine’s face is the other half, duh. I shouldn’t say ‘duh.’ It’s great. It’s fucking amazing. This is a book where it takes two fully-realized, infinitely complex and enigmatic female characters to hold up all the mirrors Atwood is providing for you to see yourself in.

But what I think about now when I think of that book is that Elaine’s father was an entomologist. He studied bugs. So was Atwood’s, a rare moment of undeniable biography from her. She spent the earliest part of childhood in the bush, looking at insects.

Girls. We’re down here at ground level, small and quick. There are some interesting things going on. We make alliances. We break them. We build strange and mysterious structures, inscrutable to outsiders. We eat each other. We survive.