Book Reviews

The Modern Memoir: Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is a Book of Rules

Published by Red Hen Press in August 2014

By: Tai Dietrich

My Body Is a Book of Rules is a memoir made up of a collection of essays detailing the ominous struggles faced by author Elissa Washuta. Unlike the all-too-familiar beginning-to-end chronology many memoirs follow, My Body presents readers with a series of fragmented essays made into a clear and cohesive whole. In a way that is exceptionally frank, Washuta describes to readers her journey through the ebbs and flows of sanity and insanity, self-esteem and self-hatred.

Washuta begins the book as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland coping with the aftermath of a rape while suffering from both bipolar disorder and an eating disorder. The quest for the perfect chemical cocktail caused Washuta to quickly jump from mania to depression and forced her to endure one of the more horrific side effects antipsychotics can inflict. She describes the heartbreak she felt when she found out she was allergic to the bipolar miracle drug Lamictal: “My medication dosage was finally perfect, and I was finally in a good place—happy, clear, motivated. […] Then, …, I got this rash. ALL OVER MY BODY.” When her psychiatrist told her she had to stop taking Lamictal due to her fatal allergic reaction she “cried in his office” because it was “the only thing that helped me get it together after I crashed as low as I did.”

After graduating, Washuta moved to Seattle to attend an MFA program at the University of Washington. Unlike Maryland and her native New Jersey, there were other American Indians with whom she could feel a sense of community and belonging. My Body is a memoir within a memoir where at the beginning of each chapter parts of Washuta’s “Cascade Autobiography” describe her experience trying to come to terms with her mixed Native American heritage. In Part 12 Washuta describes an interaction she had concerning blood quantum and Nelson, the handsome Navajo boy:

“…[A] Navajo mentor sat down with me and told me to marry Nelson and have children, because I needed to get the quantum up in my bloodline, and Nelson’s family was very important because his uncle owned all the Burger Kings on Navajo Nation.”

Author Elissa Washuta

Author Elissa Washuta

The author’s prose and conversational writing style helps readers feel truly immersed in her story. I found that there were several relatable anecdotes describing how the side effects of medications and manic episodes can be taken advantage of: “So the Wellbutrin is going back up. Hopefully that’ll help me lose those five pounds I put on, and if nothing else, it’ll send me into a hypomania that will help me get my thesis done.” Reading My Body makes it easy to feel as though you’re in Washuta’s mind, looking and seeing through her eyes.

My Body is uniquely designed, well-written, and refreshingly honest in its approach to memoir as a genre. Washuta’s memoir sparks immediate interest due to its unorthodox construction and unique content, including things like a doctor’s note, a Cosmo-esque sex quiz, a bibliography of her most influential books, a list of prescriptions, diary entries, old IMs, and a profile. She recounts her rape in the style of a Law & Order: SVU episode; and describes the different types of bipolar mania using her own life, along with the lives of famous bipolars Kurt Cobain and Britney Spears. She illustrated the depressive episode with Kurt, the manic episode with Britney, and the most dangerous of bipolar episodes, the mixed episode, with her own experience. She vividly describes the danger of a bipolar mixed state: “Mania and depression at once mean the will to die and the motivation to make it happen.” Washuta definitely achieves the candor of suicide without the self-seeking melodrama that is sometimes attached to it; and while she does tell a sad story, it does have an optimistic resolution. Her transition from deeply troubled college student to medicated and functional adult shines a light on the harsh realities of sexual violence and mental illness while also revealing the silver lining that comes with the right medications and a little confidence.

Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, was born in New Jersey and now lives in Seattle. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2009 and has been the recipient of an Artist Trust GAP Award, a Potlatch Fund Native Arts Grant, a 4Culture Grant, and a Made at Hugo House Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Filter Literary Journal, and Third Coast. She is an adviser and lecturer in American Indian Studies at the University of Washington teaches in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. My Body Is a Book of Rules is her first book.

Visit Elissa’s website

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