On Patricia Highsmith and the Horror—and Revelation—of Obsession
Hannah Meyer Considers the Power of Destructive Desire
in Fiction and Life
The only place she can meet is Penn Station and she only has an hour.
I’ve been looking for a sign to tell me whether or not to move to New York during my month of couch surfing. I’m a baby queer of twenty-four with purple paisley pants and a razor-burned undercut. I’ve been getting too drunk with college friends at gay bars and grabbing coffee with the loosest of acquaintances, including A, a playwright I first met as a college intern. The night before my flight back west leaves, I’m sprinting through the station and see A leaning up against the platform. Blond hair spills over a blue handkerchief tied above sun-dappled shoulders. My vision swims.
A is endearingly pretentious and jaded about the world in a way that feels comforting. Art and queer love rule her orbit. A asks if I want to take a walk and she tells me about the play she was working on at Yaddo that summer. The woman she hooked up with. I describe the fragments of a novel I’m struggling through. I don’t tell her about my flight the next day or my mind-numbing communications job or the heterosexual relationship that I’ve begun to realize I’m only passively participating in.
Three hours later, we ride the train uptown together. She rests her hand on my thigh, moves her lips to my ear and says, We should go to the cinema together sometime. I nod. She slides her hand higher. It’s as if she’s saying, Yes, there is this much beauty in the world and you can have all of it. The train stops. She waves and disappears into the sea of flickering faces. My flight leaves in a matter of hours. I decide to make good on these theoretical plans. I text my friend, “I met a woman! She touched my leg on a train and I must move to New York.”
Patricia Highsmith and I have a number of things in common. We love snails. We’re gay. And we’ve made drastic decisions because of women. I first read Highsmith’s The Price of Salt alone in my apartment in New York a month after I met A. The 1952 book follows nineteen year old Therese Belivet who meets the married Carol Aird after Carol leaves her gloves at the Bloomingdale’s toy store counter. Therese is trapped in a life that she has accepted as so, but over quivering eggs and midday Manhattans, Therese and Carol begin an affair that uproots both of their lives.
Their encounters are blissfully ordinary, but Highsmith’s language is brims with the promise of something deeper underneath. The first time Therese enters Carol’s house, Carol offers her a casual glass of milk, “The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill.” With Carol, even something as mundane as a glass of milk is vibrant and erotic.
Highsmith does the horror of obsession better than anyone else. Therese’s obsession teeters between a lyrical pull toward self destruction and a transformative, operatic romantic fervor. “But there was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol. That evening, the dark flat streets of New York, the tomorrow of work, the milk bottle dropped and broken in her sink, became unimportant.”Highsmith does the horror of obsession better than anyone else. Therese’s obsession teeters between a lyrical pull toward self destruction and a transformative, operatic romantic fervor.
Therese’s artistic ambition and queerness bloom as a result of her fixation on Carol. She pursues her career as a stage designer, a vocation that her boyfriend dismisses. Despite the many obstacles in the couple’s path—Therese’s boyfriend, Carol’s husband bent on obtaining custody of their daughter, McCarthy’s homophobic America—the truest iteration of Therese materializes from her obsession with Carol.
Like my decision to move to New York, The Price of Salt was born from a sudden onset of queer kismet. Highsmith was twenty-seven years old, working at a department store when she saw a frosty blond who became the muse for The Price of Salt. Highsmith, like her protagonist, memorized this woman’s information, but instead of returning her gloves, she traveled two and a half hours to the woman’s house in New Jersey to watch her from the window.
In her diary, Highsmith writes, “I went to see the house of the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her for a moment in December. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.” The Price of Salt is Highsmith’s only novel without a murder, but Therese, like Highsmith’s murderous Tom Ripley, harbors an obsession that threatens to up-end her entire life. Many of Highsmith’s queer and queer-coded characters across her oeuvre teeter between lover and stalker.
This secret fixation is something that many queer people feel, a yearning for something that is not yet safe to articulate. Suppressed longing marks the early experiences of many of us. What makes Highsmith so unique is how she combines the inherent horror of desire: the desire to possess someone entirely can uproot a person’s life. In a sense, obsession shows us who we truly are, despite the forces that seek to silence us.
In A Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.” The choice is two-fold, either suppress the obsession and live an inarticulated life, or give into it unpredictable pull.
My obsession becomes like gasoline fueling me towards an unknown destination. I move to New York with my most concrete goal being becoming someone that A would want to sleep with. I’d never felt obsessed by any of the men I’d dated, but my fixation with A renders me feral. Before I met her, I assumed I should secure a Decently Lucrative 9-5 Job and a serious boyfriend. Instead, I work three jobs, date a gorgeous femme coworker, and write until late. I become obsessed with this version of myself that I imagine she would want. I imagine meeting up with A and telling her that I’ve just returned from Yaddo and hooked up with half the women there. I wander around Brooklyn, drafting chill texts in my notes app like, “Hi, how are you? Are you free to get coffee sometime?” I’d known other artists but none who lived with the freedom and fervor that she did. I could not go back to who I was before.
Moving 5,000 miles across the country because a stranger hit on you, is quirky and chutzpah-filled if a relationship materializes, and deranged and pathetic if it doesn’t. She texts me back that she’s on a year-long fellowship with her wife. The same day, I receive three writing rejections, cry in the park, and barely eat for the next forty-eight hours.
In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom Ripley is sent to retrieve the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf from Europe. Tom becomes obsessed by his lifestyle and is enchanted with Dickie himself. Tom Ripley kills people around Dickie and after murdering Dickie himself, Tom becomes him. “It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself.” Tom’s obsession with Dickie causes him to commit identity theft, thievery, and murder (among other transgressions), but it also allows him, albeit secretly, to revel in his own queerness.Obsession is self-mutilating but in its destruction it can also be illuminating.
By the end of the novel, Therese has killed the self that no longer makes sense to her. She breaks up with her boyfriend and ascends from her days as a stage design apprentice. After a rehearsal for a play she is the set designer for, Therese and Carol meet again. In their final moment of extremely loaded eye contact, Therese realizes “It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.”
A was not the woman in a thousand cities nor was she in heaven and in hell, but there are women I meet in New York. Hot femmes on trains who give me a will to live; ill-fated trysts that begin at work; and relationships that rewire me.
The final moment between Therese and Carol also makes me think about how this novel is about Therese coming into her own not only queer person, but also as an artist. After Therese drinks that fated glass of milk, the world feels forever changed, “She flung herself on her bed and drew a line with a pencil on a piece of paper. And another line, carefully, and another. A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves.”
The first time I slept with my now-girlfriend, I felt as though sunlight was spreading through my ribcage through my limbs to my fingertips. By way of queerness, I became intimately and sensorially connected to the world. From this place, from the white hot center of desire seeded what felt like a limitless capacity to write. I have drunk the milk. The world had opened itself up to me and I to it.
Now, a few years, trysts, and relationships later, I realize how obsession can elevate a person onto a pedestal and distort them into a reflection of one’s desires. Obsession is self-mutilating but in its destruction it can also be illuminating. I no longer view my desire to center my life around art as inconvenient and unnecessary or falling for women as an obsession-laced horror house, but as central tenets of my life. If reading literature teaches us how to live, reading Highsmith teaches us how to honor obsession, for through obsession we meet ourselves.