The Teen Angel gets mad, eludes Freud

A Review of Lydia Yuknavitch’s "Dora: A Headcase"


Last month, I attended a reading unlike any other at Broadway Books. It was a party celebrating the release of Lydia Yuknavitch’s novel, “Dora: A Headcase,” thrown by her writer friends Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain, who also gave readings that night. Occupy Broadway Books, which sold out, was publicized like this:

“This adults-only event will include prizes, live music, adult beverages, potentially (probably) offensive language and subject matter, and much, much more. Ralph Huntley—band director of OPB’s LiveWire!—will provide music. The authors request that, in the spirit of bedtime stories, attendees dress in sleepwear. The first fifty people who arrive in sleeping attire will be presented with a giant stuffed animal courtesy of Mr. Palahniuk.”

Heads turned to observe the lingerie, kimonos, and long pale legs hustling across NE Broadway  to qualify for a big stuffed bear from Chuck, who was dressed in a ruffled ascot inside a sleek red robe, bunny slippers and an unlit pipe.

Let’s see: There was wine, dark chocolate and mood music, and Chelsea Cain, the creator of the icily bloody Gretchen Lowell, tossed plastic body parts around the room. Between Chelsea and Lydia’s reading, there was an intermission during which people ran around the block in their sleepwear with Chuck to create a spectacle for the reporters. Even the guy who wiped out on the pavement and was given a t-shirt to wipe the blood off his face seemed to be having a wonderful night.

Based off what I had intuited about Yuknavitch  from her stunning memoir “A Chronology of Water,” I expected to encounter great intelligence and some ideas transgressive enough to make my jaw drop. What really shocked me, though, was the warmth she and Chuck and Chelsea exuded: I’ve never attended a reading where established writers were so kind to each other. Or so open to answering both aesthetic and personal questions—one being “What did you do with the first big money you got from writing?” and another “What would you do if your book was listed on Oprah’s Book Club?”

Here’s a clip of Lydia’s reading that night in the voice of Dora (not included in her novel).


I’ve described this event to illustrate that this coming-of-age novel comes from a different mold, one that celebrates a different way of being and  worthy of a non-normative “coming-out” party. One that involves stuffed animals, wildly inventive well-crafted dirty stories, and sweet white wine in great abundance.

Also, some wrestling with Freudian theory. Here’s the traditional account of Dora’s story, which is based on a real case study.

In 1900, Sigmund Freud was the therapist of a young girl named Ida whom he later renamed Dora in a landmark case study of sexual hysteria in women. In the study, Ida intermittently lost her voice. Freud chalked up Ida’s silence (technically: aphonia) to Dora’s suppressed desire for her father, who was having an affair with a friend of the family, Mrs. K. Ida ended up quitting treatment after 11 weeks; Freud continued to think about her long after, and eventually published his analysis. Ida’s case became famous, but a central question was raised. Does Sigmund get this young woman’s story right? Gaggles of brilliant feminists through this century have said no.

Here’s the real story, à la Lydia Yuknavitch.

Meet a realized, contemporary Ida, a sixteen year old living in her parent’s condo in Seattle. She is seeing a therapist, whom she calls Siggy, with the last name of Freud. If you saw her with her crew in the food court in Lloyd Center you might call her a punk. She shaves her head bald in the opening scene. She’s tech savvy: She keeps a mini tape recorder at the ready in her Dora the Explorer bag and she knows how to use it.

She steals her parents’ pills, takes her clothes off on escalators, and frequently enacts mayhem (termed “art attacks” here) with her hoodlum friends. She is in love with a gorgeous girl, Obsidian, who makes her swoon and lose the capacity to speak. She is bright but fails standardized tests: she voraciously reads books of women’s writing, which her older tranny friend from Rwanda gives to her. She is an artist; in a book from another era her name might be Judith Shakespeare.

Do you think you can guess where the narrative goes? My own guesses were wrong. The prose galloped far faster than my imagination did. Like here:

“But no way is he gonna take this round. I give Sig the drop dead stare and part my legs just wide enough there on the couch to flash him some teen muff before I stand up and and jet across the room. Panties on a need to wear basis only. You gotta have an ace in the hole.

He drops his pen on the floor and coughs. Coughs. A lot. Something sticks in his throat. He stares at his thighs and rubs them briskly. Careful not to set your pants on fire.

Bring it, old man.”

And later:

“In my bedroom I write letters on the walls. Hidden underneath the wall posters. With a purple sharpie. Today I’m writing under Nico.

What I write are Dear Francis Bacon letters. Francis Bacon the painter. You know, the guy who painted the screaming melting pope. Possibly the coolest painter in ever. Why? It’s the faces. He makes faces look like they can’t hold still. That’s so right on. Marlene gave me a Francis Bacon book a year ago and I just about peed. That Francis Bacon understood how faces are. For instance. When you get up close to someone to suck face? Their faces look like Francis Bacon paintings. No lie. I so get that. A face that just might smear off or explode. Underneath Nico I write: “Dear Francis Bacon: My face is an I hole.””

Perhaps an I hole is a private orifice that can text and also take pictures at high-resolution but has no thoughts of its own. Or maybe an identity hole formed through an ardent make-out session. Note to self: Look at more Francis Bacon paintings.

It’s a bildungsroman, but this is no “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” or “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” These kids are angry. They’re mad at society and they aren’t going to disappear into it—that is not an option in the universe of this novel. They perform some truly awful acts in the book that aren’t easy to read about. Here’s how Dora considers and eventually justifies her revenge on Sig, which I won’t spoil here (it’s twisted, formidable, and epic):

“He could pass out. Go into a coma. He could go blind. A few guys have actually died. My throat gets a little tight and my chest feels like someone is pushing on it. I think about Sig going coronary.

But you know what I think about more? I think about all the times I didn’t understand what the fuck was happening and no one bothered to explain it to me. Like when I got my period. I thought I was dying of cancer. My gym teacher took me into his office and explained it to me. Yeah. That’s what you want. You want some balding old creep explaining your bleeding vag back to you while some middle school lunch lady comes in shoving a giant cotton pad in your face and telling you to put it between your legs, dear. Awesome.

I think about Mr. K trying to stick his Altoid tongue down my throat on a lakeside picnic—no one rescuing me from the lakeside letch. I mean I had to pop that guy right in the nose hard enough to make his eyes water. I was fourteen. There are no superheroes.”


Lidia Yuknavitch teaches at the Clackamas Community College Creative Writing Conference/ Photo by Joshua Dillen

In an interview with Jeff Baker for the Oregonian, Yuknavitch states that “Dora was a three book idea—to rescue girls from historic or literary documents and refigure them through voice.” This book doesn’t rule out the possibility that Dora loses her voice due to sexual hysteria, but the more obvious reason for her silence is that she isn’t being heard. I want this world to be big enough—I want books to be big enough—for Dora and her friends to have space to speak.

Sure, they might upset people at first. They’d probably steal my Vicodin that was prescribed for tooth pain. They might ruin some dresses at Nordstrom Rack that I might have bought by spilling vodka on them. What if that’s the price to bring these youth into society? Can Ida and Dr. Freud, with their divergent expectations of a good life and their differing versions of the same history coexist? Yuknavitch imagines so in “Dora: A Headcase.”

I want to read stories I haven’t heard yet. To listen to the voices that might cause me discomfort. Voices that contradict my own but turn out to be not so dissimilar. Why not go there? It’s the only place in town where people in nightgowns bound around the block clutching enormous stuffed animals.


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