Red Hen Press, 2014. 189 Pages. ISBN: 9781597099691
by Christina Gerard
My Body is a Book of Rules, by Elissa Washuta, illustrates the inner workings of Washuta's mind by using a non-linear approach that not only mirrors her thought process on the page, but provides a vehicle in which the reader can move with her through each experience. Defying social norms, Washuta writes intimately about her diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, rape and trauma, as well as her eating disorder. She details the eight-years she spent in catholic school and her departure from Catholic religion, juxtaposing an education that valued purity with a patriarchal society that is sex-centric. The essays in My Body is a Book of Rules are experimental and unique, refreshing and eye-opening, heart wrenching and bold.
In “Please Him” Washuta writes, “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.” She navigates the Cosmo Quizzes that, as a girl, taught her that she must “please him” both referring the men she will sleep with and God in comparison to the commandments she was taught in Catholic school. Her essays pull from an impressive array of materials including— her match.com profile, a letter from her psychiatrist, a diary, a list of her prescriptions, and actual text messages and emails.
“Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat,” in which Washuta lists her sexual partners counting backward from twenty-four to one, she writes “Counting backwards is a must.” With each number Washuta gets closer to the beginning, to the experience that changed her, an experience that is a constant dark echo in the back of her mind as well as the pages of her book. As the truth unfolds, it leads to the story of the rape that started it all, Washuta writes, “Still, every time, I say no, you say yes, and to you, it is nothing but a difference in opinion.” In a Law & Order SUV episode she melds the reality of her own rape and the fictional world of storytelling, in which she brings to life what may have happened had she reported her rapist. With each question asked throughout the fictitious trial, Elissa Washuta unveils not only the unique circumstances behind her rape, but the commonalities her story has with so many others in a relevant and social context.
The Cascade Autobiography, which refers not only to the Cascade Indians of her heritage but also literally cascades throughout My Body is a Book of Rules, is the thread that pulls the book together. Whatever journey the reader is on— be it reading Washuta’s old diary entries, a bibliography of books she read, or a sex study she did in college, the Cascade Autobiography pulls the reader back to what is the most important element of the book: her identity. While it focuses mainly on her Native identity as a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, Washuta carefully ties in other major themes, and subthemes, of the memoir into the Cascade Autobiography.
In Part 8 of the cascade, she describes how she struggled to answer prying questions about her ancestry from her peers, “I thought I was a full half-Native and a full half-Ukrainian until I was about ten. The simple question of ‘How much?,’ the wish to split someone’s ancestry into neat compartments, can actually tear a person limb from limb.” Each essay showcases one of the individual elements which essentially make up Washuta, the woman. While the Cascade Autobiography brings to light all the complex elements that make her who she is: her diagnosis, trauma, female form and sexuality, eating disorder, what society tells her to be, all as it applies to her native and non-native heritage.
Within the confines of 189 pages, Washuta transitions from Catholic school girl to freshman in college, manic to depressed, undermedicated to overmedicated, overweight to underweight, and struggles to walk the path of moderation due to her Bipolar Disorder. She details her experience on one medication after another in her search for the one that will stabilize her mental health, and, in doing so, speaks out for many young girls and women who are struggling with mental health, trauma, and similar personal journeys in a way that is rarely done: unapologetically.
This is an account that provides insight and education on topics that are widely underrepresented in society, topics that need to be talked about out-loud and without pause. Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules compels the reader to question the rules they live their life by and the expectations they place on others. Washuta’s words stuck with me, reminded me that we are all, in some capacity, being torn “limb from limb” by societal expectations, afraid to say what think, afraid to write what we want to write, afraid to be who we want to be. My Body is a Book of Rules inspired me to be more fearless as a woman and a writer, and to let go of the societal expectations I’ve let rule me.