Alisson Wood on the Myth of Catharsis and Reclaiming One’s Power
The Author of Being Lolita in Conversation with Luna Adler
Alisson Wood is a lonely, artistic senior when she meets Nick North, the new English teacher at her high school. With his Abercrombie jeans, Cornell education, and grown-man stubble, Nick is “the perfect combination of accessible and forbidden.” And he quickly fixates on 18-year-old Alisson.
Before long, Alisson is spending the majority of her days in Nick’s classroom and sneaking off to meet him at the local diner each night. The teacher begins comparing the two of them to the characters in Nabokov’s Lolita; Alisson is the underage seductress and he is her helpless victim. “I called to him, he would later say,” writes Wood. “I was one of Poe’s Annabel sirens, one of Odysseus’s distractions, sad and singing, longing for someone. Needing to be pulled apart by someone who knew better.”
On one level, Being Lolita is a book about abuse. It’s a detailed exploration of how young women are socially primed to mistake control for love, and predation for seduction. It charts our society’s long-standing, largely unquestioned obsession with transforming women into muses, worshipping male genius, and glorifying the nubile female body.
But, at its core, Wood has also written a book about storytelling. By recounting her tale through the eyes of her younger self—and then examining it in the context of widely revered, misogynistic literary classics—she has added something new, vibrant, and crackling to the canon.
At the beginning of September, we spoke over Zoom about the myth of catharsis in memoir, redistributing power, and the tales we tell ourselves in order to both justify and survive the situations we find ourselves in. And how, by retelling these stories, we reclaim our own power.
Luna Adler: In Being Lolita, you reference your teenage diaries often. As an avid diarist and, now, as a published memoirist, I’m curious where you stand on writing as catharsis. I also wonder what the difference is to you between the two processes: journaling vs. writing a book.
Alisson Wood: I believe catharsis happens off the page, in the real world. If it happens in the act of writing, that’s just luck, and because of the real world work. The myth of catharsis remains though, in particular with women’s memoirs involving trauma, because it’s comforting to the reader—the idea that this difficult, time-consuming, artistic creation borne from my trauma was healing, made it better, solved the problem of the terrible thing that happened. But that’s a fantasy. Writing a beautiful book does not make an awful thing disappear.
LA: Can you speak about the process of getting to a place where you could write something so close to the bone?
AW: While writing can absolutely be a therapeutic process, the rules change when you write with a goal of publishing. The “I” in creative nonfiction is a construct, it is not actually the whole of any person, of me. A writer needs to be able to take tough criticism of structure, characters, even of the voice, and think of a reader. And if you are still deeply emotionally tied to your writing, you won’t be able to do those things in a healthy way. It will be overwhelming and gutting. I talked about the book a lot in therapy, which is something I wholeheartedly recommend for any writer—especially of memoir, especially if it involves trauma.Being Lolita charts our society’s long-standing, largely unquestioned obsession with transforming women into muses, worshipping male genius, and glorifying the nubile female body.
You also need perspective, to be able to see and make the patterns of its impact on you and your life. This part does require time; it’s impossible to understand how something will follow you or echo in the immediacy of something, you just have to wait and see. I couldn’t have written this book until I had done that work, and it’s been almost twenty years since the events happened. Time doesn’t do the work of understanding yourself, you do.
I started out very angry at myself, thinking I was stupid for “falling for it,” and deeply embarassed. By the end, after re-reading all of my primary source documents—notes from the teacher, literal hotel receipts, my journals, so forth—I became protective, even fond of my seventeen-year-old self. Which is wild, and not what I was expecting. I started to cry as I pressed send on the email with my final version of the book to my editor because I realized I wasn’t going to be “with” teenage-Alisson any more, and it made me sadder than I could have imagined.
LA: You brought up writing through the eyes of your younger self, and it made me think of how the teacher made you sign a contract stating: “I hereby swear that anything I write is a lie and completely fabricated…You cannot believe anything I say.” How do you retain your audience’s trust while telling a story via a narrator who is being gaslit?
AW: I made the conscious decision to be as close to 17- and 18-year-old Alisson as possible in my point of view at the beginning of the book, because I felt like in order to gain and keep my readers’ trust, I had to be 1,000,000 percent honest. Even when it was not flattering, even when it was some of the most shame-filled moments of my life. My hope was that by embracing that level of openness and vulnerability, my readers would understand and hopefully empathize with the situation I had found myself in. Because the fact is that I was an unreliable narrator of my life at 17 and 18. I thought that I was lucky, adored by this handsome older, smart man. I thought, “Wow, this is wonderful.” But in actuality it was not.
My story mirrors Lolita in that same way, except instead of Humbert Humbert being the unreliable narrator—I was. Because I was being manipulated. Just like the reader in Lolita. He describes this wonderful love story, which is exactly how the teacher described both our story and Lolita to me. My hope was that by taking the reader through this entire journey, from me at 17 years old to a 36-year-old woman, I could share it with the reader in a way that was vulnerable and real.My hope was that by embracing that level of openness and vulnerability, my readers would understand and hopefully empathize with the situation I had found myself in.
LA: When you first meet the teacher, you describe him as “the perfect teenage lollipop.” What drew you to him in the beginning?
AW: He was cute. To start with, as a teenager, so much of desire is about how you see people. So much of sex is visual. Much of what I understood about sexuality and desire was from television or movies, all these visual mediums. And the ubiquitousness of an older man with a younger woman, how it is romanticized. It’s steeped in misogyny. We set up women as desirable when they are weak, when they are vulnerable, when they’re fragile. That idea that her damage makes her luminous. And so, she needs a protector, someone to care for her, someone more powerful. An older man. There’s no need if there’s no vulnerability. This sort of toxic, performative masculinity feeds into this sort of dangerous, imbalanced heteronormativity. It’s a setting for disaster.
I was drawn to the teacher because he paid attention to me. No one—especially an older, attractive man—had shown me that kind of intense interest, ever. And I was incredibly vulnerable, so insecure. Predators know who to pick. It was easy for him to start isolating me and grooming me, and gaslighting me because I was already nearly there. I didn’t have many friends. In domestic violence relationships, one of the first steps is isolation, because then you lose the ability to get an outside perspective on the abuse. There’s no one to say, “What the fuck? That’s not okay.”
LA: There is a refrain throughout this book, first uttered by the teacher and later repeated by you: “Secrets are safe.” Years later, when you finally share your story with a friend, you write, “I remember what it felt like to tell someone—to open my hand and let the secret fly away. How free.” Has this feeling continued since releasing the book into the world?
AW: The feeling of freedom that I described when I first revealed the relationship was one of weight being lifted. It no longer felt like this active, constant battle to keep the secret of the teacher. It was exhausting. And by telling someone, it just vanished into the air.In domestic violence relationships, one of the first steps is isolation, because then you lose the ability to get an outside perspective on the abuse.
As an adult, this story of my life wasn’t a burden, because it wasn’t really a secret—people close to me knew that this had happened. But by writing and publishing this book, my secret has become empowering, and something I am so proud to share with the world.
Many of my published pieces have been around trauma: being raped, almost being killed by a stranger, now this traumatic relationship with my teacher. The worst things that have ever happened to me, I’ve given to the world. But I believe that the personal is political, and so it’s important for women to share our stories. I don’t think that any of my stories are unique. And I don’t think that the fact that multiple traumatic things have happened to me is unique, either. Crafting Being Lolita was, has been, and will continue to be work. But it is work that I want to do and I am very proud of doing.
LA: I read this largely as a book about power. In addition to writing Being Lolita, a lot of your life’s work has been about empowerment, such as teaching sex education and leadership to teen girls and founding Pigeon Pages. Do you see your work as contributing to a broader project of redistributing power? If so, has this been intentional?
AW: Being Lolita is definitely about power. Examining it, asking questions, the power of naming things, the power of storytelling—and who tells the story. When I wrote the book, I realized that so much of my life has been about power, as well. Until then, all of my previous work—which was primarily working with teenage girls—felt utterly disconnected to my own experiences. I knew I wanted to support these young women to make better choices for themselves, to feel powerful in their bodies and in their lives, but it was not consciously about my own experiences.
I loved teaching sex ed in high school, I literally felt like I was changing lives. By talking about sex ed, you’re talking about consent, you’re talking about safe sex, desire, communication, how to negotiate sex, how to prevent teen pregnancy. I really wanted to set up young women for kind, safe, romantic and/or sexual relationships that were what they wanted. So, the opposite of my experience.But I believe that the personal is political, and so it’s important for women to share our stories. I don’t think that any of my stories are unique.
Once I shifted to writing and teaching writing full-time, I made a point to, in my classes, create a canon that was almost entirely women and non-binary writers, queer writers, women of color. I wanted to introduce writers they may not have read in high school, writers outside of the white, male “traditional” canon. My hope is that these essays, stories, and poems can give my students, in particular my young women and queer students, ways that they can have the power of writing stories, telling their stories. I also founded a literary community, Pigeon Pages, which publishes and showcases both emerging and more established writers through our literary journal, interviews, and reading series. Everyone in the nest—all our editors, social media editors, interns, slush readers—we are all women, queer, and / or non-binary writers ourselves. I wanted to create the kind of community that I not only wanted, but needed in my life. And a community that could do the same work of uplifting and encouraging other writers.
In the moment, all of these felt discrete but holistically building from one another—empowering young women, the power of telling your stories, creating space for other writers, the power of controlling your own body and sexuality, empowering myself by writing. It wasn’t until I was writing the book that I was like, Huh. I connected the dots. And realized that my entire life has been asking questions about power and pushing against the patriarchal, misogynistic, and classist hierarchy that surrounds us.
LA: At the end of the book, you say that you haven’t had any contact with the teacher in over a decade. Were you worried that publishing this book would open that portal or that there would be repercussions?
AW: Whenever women write their stories, especially about things that involve violence or trauma, they’re always opening up that possibility of contact, of threats, of harassment. That happens when women speak up, and I think women writing memoir have a special level of risk there. But I believe that this is important work, and I try not to make decisions from a place of fear.
Every single day I hear from readers who send me messages or emails saying, “Thank you so much. I feel understood. I feel seen. This happened to me and I’ve never seen this on the page in this way before.” And that is so gratifying. It makes the risk worth it. I wish someone could have risked something to try and help me. I want to be the kind of person I should have had, the story I wish I was able to read when this happened. There’s that wonderful Baldwin quote, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim… she has become a threat.” I deeply believe that. And I’m like: All right, fuckers. Watch me.
LA: Did you have an idea of what your debut would be before you started writing this book? Did you have doubts about publishing it?
AW: I always knew I was going to write this book. That was part of why I kept things: the ephemera, the notes, the letters, the hall passes, the journals. But, of course, I also wish my book was about powerful women in my life or female friendship, or rainbows and unicorns and kittens. Something more fun!Every single day I hear from readers who send me messages or emails and they are so gratifying. It makes the risk worth it.
As an artist, I don’t think you get to choose your projects. It’s just what feels urgent. What is pushing at you? What is the thing that you’re thinking about all the time? We don’t get to choose what we’re obsessed with. We don’t get to choose what is filling our lives and what we keep seeing everywhere. Unfortunately it’s not a choice. I wish it was. But Being Lolita was the book that had to come first.
LA: Well, it may not be a story about rainbows and kittens, but it is a story about a strong woman. That’s exactly what you wrote.
AW: Yes, you’re absolutely right. I did still end up with a story about a strong woman. But the book centers around a man and I don’t like that. When I was workshopping the book during my MFA, a lot of times the feedback from men would be, “Well, I want to know more about the teacher. What’s his story? Could you just do some chapters from the teacher’s point of view? I want to hear more of his voice.” And I was just banging my head against the table, thinking, You are missing the entire point of this book, the entire goal of this book. You are misreading.
There’s a small part in Being Lolita where I was in high school and I was convinced that I was dirty or abnormal “down there.” Like many women, I thought there was something wrong with me because of the advertisements for douching, for scented pantyliners, for bikini waxes. The idea that my vagina was something I needed to manage, to “improve.”
So I gave a couple examples of times when I had clearly gotten the message—from my gynecologist, from someone who’d given me a bikini wax—that I was, in actuality, as we all are, fine. I didn’t have much hair, my cervix was a healthy pink. And my male professor was like: “Isn’t this a little TMI?” And one of the guys in my class said, “Yeah, it made me really uncomfortable. Also, aren’t you just kind of humble-bragging here?”As an artist, I don’t think you get to choose your projects. It’s just what feels urgent. What is pushing at you?
And I was like, What? That my cervix is pink? All our internal organs are pink! That I didn’t have a lot of pubic hair at 17? It was just so upsetting. It was so frustrating. Luckily, the women in the class quickly spoke up about how this was actually a very connective moment, that it felt very real. This was a book written for women. This book is not for men. I don’t care if it makes men uncomfortable. It does not make women feel uncomfortable, because so many women have had a similar experience. It’s just not written about or talked about in a mainstream way.
LA: In Nabokov’s Lolita, sex is mostly an allusion, or cleverly obscured on the page in a way that a hasty reader could miss. In Being Lolita, sex is rendered on the page much more explicitly. Can you tell me about that decision?
AW: I didn’t want anyone to misread the facts of what happened to me. And that was directly a pushback to subvert the way that Lolita was written, where so much of the sex is alluded to or written about very lyrically. There are so many moments where you don’t actually know what’s happening in the novel, the actual bodies and the mechanics. But in my book I was like, No. I’m going to put this all on the table. There will be no misunderstanding about the facts of my story. And what happened was ugly. And it was physically painful. And it was humiliating. And it was awful.
I was also very honest about my mental health, the fact that I had dealt with such serious depression in high school, and that was part of what made me so vulnerable. I had electroconvulsive therapy. I’d been a cutter. I was very honest about that, but it has been used against me. My first big review, the first line was, “By the age of 18, Wood had undergone electroconvulsive therapy and taken more than 20 medications, ‘ranging from Prozac to lithium,’ for medical problems including self-mutilation and suicidal depression.” Just setting me up as a crazy, mess of a person. And, specifically, an unreliable narrator in my own book.There will be no misunderstanding about the facts of my story. What happened was ugly. And it was physically painful. And it was humiliating. And it was awful.
One of my deepest fears was not that the sexual humiliation would be used against me, but that my vulnerability about the context of who I was at seventeen, the things that made me so vulnerable, would be used against me. Yet I really wanted to be wholly honest, to fight back against these stereotypes of mental illness, flattened images of victims, of who gets to write our stories. I felt strongly that, whether I like it or not, these were things that I had to do. And I did them.