I previously had no concept of what it was like to be a victim of your troubled mind.
Game of Thrones
Well, I didn’t die
Ha, ha, my book came out this week but if I didn’t have my daughter to care for, I would jump off a bridge! In fact, I almost died two hours ago—isn’t that hilarious?
My friends know me as an open book, someone who speaks her mind to a fault, and though I have had my share of private longings and grievances like everybody else, I had previously struggled to stop obsessively talking about my suffering with everyone I knew. Until then.
I finished my wrap and my pre-mom robot chatter—“Madison has the best farmers market, doesn’t it?”—and shuffled down the stairs to prepare to give my speech. As I watched the other writers take their places at the podium to make jokes and share inspirational stories, they all looked so normal and put together, like being a person came so effortlessly to them. But enough of that; it was my turn to speak. I approached the stage and scolded myself, as I did whenever anything good had happened that year, like my daughter laughing for the first time or my book getting praise. Oh look, you little bitch, here’s another moment that was supposed to be good, but you have ruined it all.
I stood over the crowd and delivered the speech I had practiced on the road. People were charmed and laughed at the right times, which was no surprise. I had fooled everybody, for the first of many times throughout my book tour.
One of the chapters in my novel was inspired by Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” My favorite passage in that deceptively complex story is about how the married philanderer, Gurov, returns to Moscow after meeting his mistress, Anna, on the seaside of Yalta, where he falls madly in love for the first time in his life. He can think of nothing but Anna and feels like the world’s everyday realities are an assault on his private longings.
One evening, he finds he can no longer keep his feelings to himself and confides in a friend at a restaurant that he had met a lovely woman in Yalta. Initially unresponsive, the friend replies at last: “You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!” After this exchange, Chekhov writes: “These words, so ordinary for some reason, moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days!”
I was always moved and amused by this passage—the sturgeon was his turkey wrap, I suppose—but I did not understand the depth of his suffering, or how the difference between one’s private and public self could be as vast as an ocean. Some writer I was! Wasn’t fiction supposed to be all about those sad, lonely people and their secret lives, the dark insights into the depths of their consciousnesses that they hid from the public? I always thought this was one of the more boring aspects of fiction and cared more about exploring the public self, the impulsive decisions that rule our lives: the parties, the arguments, the bad behavior, and so on. And yet, here I was, finally getting it when I felt like my inner and outer self had nothing in common, when any word I uttered was a lie. This was the greatest shock of my life, more shocking than the bump that jolted me awake on the road.
They all looked so normal and put together, like being a person came so effortlessly to them.
The three months after my near-death day bore testament to this fact. I wasn’t exactly old Gurov, but I too struggled to keep up a public face while I was dying inside. My book was autobiographical, an immigrant coming-of-age story inspired by my many moves, and I returned to many of those places to read from it, which made the experience even more surreal. At my book launch in Brooklyn, I faced dozens of friends from all stages of my life and felt guilty that they came, convinced they were only there out of pity. Afterward, in the dark of a bar, I told a friend about my insomnia and immediately regretted it; he had been trying for a decade to publish a novel, and I saw how ungrateful I sounded on my big night. I went back to chugging wine and joking around and said I was just being dramatic; I was a little tired but fine.
I read from my book at the beloved bookstore Prairie Lights in Iowa City, where I lived, fulfilling my dream to read there after attending dozens of readings as a graduate student, awaiting my turn. I looked over the crowd and said, “I can’t believe you’re all here!” Everyone laughed, but I wasn’t kidding. I didn’t deserve anyone’s love because I couldn’t sleep.
I went to my pre-Iowa home of Oakland and got choked up when I practiced reading a chapter where my heroine complains about working for a how-to company, because the girl who wrote that chapter whose biggest problem was writing how-to articles and not publishing her novel had no idea how good she had it. After the actual reading, at a bar where my husband and I had once played countless rounds of darts, I took on the part of the conquering hero, laughing with my friends instead of telling them about my nightly panic attacks.
One of my last trips was to Florida, my family’s first home in America, where I spent three days by myself on the beach during the day and my evenings connecting with readers. It could have been an amazing and well-deserved vacation if I didn’t spend every minute hating myself.
My last evening there, the local librarian, bookseller, and I ate one of the best meals of my life: fresh gleaming oysters, the softest crab cakes, and foamy local beers. Still, I was bombarded with the usual self-hating thought: Wow, this would be such an awesome moment if you weren’t a psycho! Mercifully, the tour ended after that.
I started feeling like myself again by the end of that summer, courtesy of a new job, working meds, and leaving the cold for good to start fresh in a new place with my new job. Once the dust settled—sleeping again can help with that—I saw my fellow humans differently. When I stood before my new students or walked by random people on the street, I thought: Are their smiles sincere, or are they dying and screaming inside? How about my new friends and colleagues or the neighbors walking their dogs by my house? How about those writers on the stage that day in Iowa or all those booksellers, so cheerful in spite of the cold? Who was I to say they weren’t suffering too?
When Covid-19 hit and I listened to every episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast while pushing my daughter all over town in her stroller, I was fascinated by the backstories of the killers, usually a hodgepodge of a terrible upbringing and debilitating mental illness. While I could never excuse their behavior, I could begin to understand it, how they could walk right up to a cliff and jump. I thought of friends who struggled with anorexia and anxiety and depression and how, while I tried to be understanding, part of me thought some of it was within their control. I previously had had no concept of what it was like to be a victim of your troubled mind. I thought more of Gurov, The Bell Jar, of an acclaimed contemporary novel I once told a friend I found “a little dull” because I found extensive explorations of mental illness to be uninspiring.
Two years after my almost-death day, I stress the inside-outside theme every time I teach. I see it in Daniel Orozco’s story “Orientation,” narrated by an office employee who lets a new hire in on the secrets of his coworkers, who include a woman who regularly weeps in the bathroom, a man haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, and a woman who is routinely sexually abused by her own husband. “But we’re not supposed to know any of this,” our narrator tells us matter-of-factly.
I see it in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Hell-Heaven,” which is narrated by a woman reflecting on a time in her childhood when her mother had fallen in love with a friend. Her mother had acted stern and proper at the time but later confessed that one afternoon, she had nearly set herself on fire out of lovesickness. The daughter says that by the time she and her father got home, her mother “was in the kitchen boiling rice for our dinner, as if it were any other day.” So rice instead of sturgeon, then.
I stress the inside-outside theme every time I teach.
Most recently, I noticed it in Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” where a defective radio exposes an anxious homemaker to the secrets of the residents in her apartment building, people who are short on money and love, getting abused, and afraid that they will never feel like themselves again. In the end, we learn that she, too, is full of secrets. Her husband recounts a string of her misdeeds and asks, “What makes you so Christly all of a sudden?” I asked my students what they thought the point of the story was. One scratched his head and squinted at his camera before taking a stab at it: “The world is messed up, and so are we?”
My student was right, though I think he was only two-thirds of the way there. The world is messed up, and people are messed up, but it’s a comfort to know it, in a way—to have it all out in the open, in its chaos and glory. The world is still a big mess now, of course, though things are looking increasingly hopeful. In fact, I just wrapped the virtual book tour for my second novel in May. Though I didn’t get to feel the warmth of actual readers in the room, I enjoyed it much more than the first one because I didn’t have to do it with a broken brain.
When people attended my events, I didn’t think it was out of pity for me. When people reached out to say they read and loved the book, I took the compliment instead of convincing myself they had only purchased the book out of obligation and didn’t really mean their kind words. Okay, I thought during the six-stop tour that allowed me to “see” my grad school classmates and my current colleagues from work, connect with other Russian-speaking immigrants, and field embarrassing chat comments from my family members, so this is how it’s supposed to feel—like a celebration, not a con act.
Something else I learned during my virtual tour: Many people have been reading more than ever while they’ve been cooped up indoors. Likely, they encountered countless protagonists who pretended they were doing just fine as they went out in the world while the reader understood that, internally, they were racked with pain and despair. Maybe more of them have been stopping to think about the pain behind the smiling faces of their loved ones and strangers as a result. May those dear readers have the great fortune of learning the hard lessons from literature instead of real life.
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine and moved to the United States as a child. Her debut novel, OKSANA, BEHAVE! was published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in 2019. Her fiction and non-fiction appears in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Southern Review, Guernica, The Threepenny Review, Crazyhorse, Slate Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Auburn, Alabama and teaches for Auburn University, where she will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the fall. She is also a fiction editor at The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. Her second novel, SOMETHING UNBELIEVABLE, will be published by Random House in April 2021.