When I first read The New York Times write-up “Fiona Apple Faces Outwards”, I am struck by how deeply her transformation over the past seven years from big-eyed girl-woman to gaunt and isolated artist has affected me. Apple was always talented, but this write-up of The Idler Wheel encapsulates how Apple has transcended the fleeting pop stardom that is often offered to young, attractive female artists and has instead become a full-fledged musical auteur.

Apple’s raw talent, inventive lyricism and, above all, commitment to a singular artistic vision make her a force to be reckoned with, as well as a particularly unusual success story for a female performer. Everything about her is intentionally crafted. In her NY Times write-up her songs are “proudly skeletal,” her PR campaign (or lack thereof) is entirely her own idea. She tells her manager what to do. When asked about her lengthy title, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, she doesn’t back down from the idea that all 23 words are absolutely essential: “I put out another long title because that’s what the title’s supposed to be.”

I fell in love with Fiona Apple as a teenager, arrested by her power and pathos, and tried to emulate the rhythms of her emotionally charged lyrics when writing my own first poems. At the time, and for a long time after, I worried that my feelings and ideas were far too feminine and small to become the kind of grand narratives of the writers we read and admired throughout high school: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare. Like all young people, I learned at first by imitation, trying on different styles like different kinds of clothes, imagining experiences more exciting and dynamic than my own embarrassingly suburban life.

One of the main things I identified with in Fiona was her vulnerability, a trait that my adult-self feels profound ambivalence towards. The existential female experience in literature, when not cast-off, ignored or fetishized, is often presented as inherently fragile, as if in order to get through girlhood, female humans have to wade through a period of intense and agonizing vulnerability until somehow girls reach adulthood and, seamlessly, become women.

Girlhood, for me, was an overwhelmingly intense experience; throughout my life as an adolescent my soul felt unwieldy, so much bigger and braver than I was able to handle, so often perilously close to extinction.

This year marks the 7th anniversary of me no longer having an eating disorder. I developed one when I was 12. It started as a bad habit, and, like most bad habits, got quickly out of control at two specific points, once when I was a teen and then again when I was twenty-something. Each time, when things got too bad, I willed myself to stop.

Explaining an eating disorder to someone who has never experienced one is challenging. Why do you like the feeling of emptiness, the dead empty weight that gnaws at you after eating nothing but fruit all day? What was it like to destroy the food your mother sent with you to school? I blotted everything—tearing peanut butter off bagels, sopping up extra oil from pizza. In high school this was normal enough. Lots of girls had eating disorders. We spent hours scrutinizing our bodies in mirrors, wondering what looked normal and what didn’t, what was too fat and what was just normal.

I was good at being anorexic. I was the typical case-study: young, white, pretty, a perfectionist. If I put the energy I put into my eating disorder into class work I would probably have gotten straight A’s.  I didn’t.  Throughout much of high school, I was incredibly young and incredibly depressed and alienated and lonely and nothing made me happier than putting on my headphones and listening to Radiohead or Moby or Fiona Apple and imagining the world as a soft, delicate place that I could disappear completely into.

The narrative about young, thin, lost white girls is often a mainstay in our culture’s story about female madness and suffering. The waif is symbolic- she is doll-like, fragile, always a victim.  But, in reality, the act of self-destruction, of refusing to be reduced to a pretty thing to play with, has been a mark of difficult women for centuries. The female body has long been seen as something that needs to be willed into submission, whether fitting the latest fashions or being convinced a pregnancy shouldn’t happen through the use of pills or diaphragms or any other various birth control devices. The female body is thus a curious symbol when it comes to thinking about female agency and autonomy—everybody has some stake in it and everyone wants to control it. It is not coincidental that so many suffragettes at the start of the twentieth century went on hunger strikes to try and enact change; the idea that the personal is political is central to the experience of having a female body.

 

 

Not eating makes you constantly think about survival. It is the most present minded activity you can imagine. Here I am, you think. Here are my blood and guts and heart. Here is my rib cage. It is ironic that in a desire to disappear, your soul become so much more acutely aware of everything around you, how small you are in comparison to everything and everybody else in the world.

 

 

Eventually, I willed myself out of it. Therapists have always been surprised when I’ve told them this. Most anorexics, they tell me, have to go into fairly rigorous treatment. But one day, after a miserable year filled with anxiety and anguish and too many bad choices, dense philosophical texts and ruined love affairs, I decided it was time to change. I started drinking milkshakes and eating pizza and not blotting anything at all.

Our culture’s narrative of survival is almost always linear, a kind of hero’s journey, where through trial and tribulation someone emerges better, brighter, a success. The first time I willed myself to eat again, I remember my guidance counselor stopping me in the hall. “I was really worried about you,” she told me. “But look at you. Look at you! You don’t need anyone to save you. You saved yourself!”

But the truth is, we never change completely. Part of us is always our most vulnerable self, yearning and yearning.

Today, I feel hungrier, in a different way than I hungered before. I still crank up my music too loud. I still wake up too early and go to sleep too late. I still cry too often and at too much. The world still often overwhelms me. I still often feel incredibly alone with my feelings, with a kind of adolescent longing I probably should have killed off long ago. If I am healed, I am still a work in progress. If I was ever halved, I am still on my way to becoming whole again.

 

 

Fiona Apple’s re-emergence onto the music scene is interesting and provocative precisely because we aren’t used to a narrative of female re-birth. We are used to narratives of suffering and, in today’s world, used to narratives of female “empowerment”—a fluffy storyline that charts development from victim to hero. Historically, we have few female artists that reach the level of auteur, where a girl is granted the authority to act on her own impulses, to grow and change and still be complicated and fierce and uncomfortable and raw.  We don’t see grown up visions of the girls we once loved; we see many young female artists literally die out or fade away. In 2012 it is still relatively rare to see a woman above a certain age getting acclaim and attention.

This is the reason that Fiona Apple’s adult image, her face more gaunt and thin than her earlier big-eyed waif-ish self, is so fundamentally haunting.

Fiona is a difficult, dangerous woman, willing to talk about female madness, but unwilling to go silent into that night. She is no Marilyn Monroe who will forever be remembered and immortalized as soft and sad. At its most basic level, the Marilyn narrative is safe. Fiona, in contrast, is not safe. She writes about self-despair and anorexia and anxiety and being a girl and being a woman, but she is not floating gracefully in a pool of water or becoming just another sad eyed girl waiting to be found in a bed or a bathtub. No, Fiona has a motherfucking squid on her head. Her narrative of climbing up a hill eight hours a day every day until her knees eventually give and require months of therapy to heal is haunting and strange and sad, but also kind of fabulously inspiring because women aren’t generally given the space to go completely crazy unless they somehow heal and become less quirky, unique mavericks or else just die. Fiona Apple’s triumphant return is a mouthful of provocation, just like her lengthy album titles, a defiant determination that the ropes that fray her are ultimately keeping her alive.

 

 

Seven years after Fiona released her last album I am sitting in a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and listening to the rabbi tell us about rebirth. I never liked going to synagogue. Before I went, my aunt left a message on my voicemail reminding me to wear something modest.  “This teenage girl came to services wearing short-shorts,” she told me. “Everyone was talking about her.”

I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or insulted that my aunt still thought of teenage girls making mistakes when she thought about me. Our culture gives us constant mixed messages about this—the ingénue is a seductive and dangerous figure, a hot breath of sunlight that quickly dies away.

I’m often shocked that I survived those years of internal turmoil. When I was twenty-one and still in the process of healing, I applied to MFA programs and writing retreats. I vividly remember crying as I submit my applications, swearing up and down that if I didn’t get in to any programs I’d have nothing left to live for.

Here’s what happened: I got into the majority of the writing programs I applied to. I didn’t kill myself. I moved to Washington, DC. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I started defining myself outside of my eating disorder, outside of my relationships, outside of all my fears and anxieties about being a woman in the world. I started crying less and laughing more.

When I was born, a distant aunt told my mother, “Teach her to laugh. The women in our family have spent too many generations crying.”

 

 

In the synagogue, the rabbi tells us the reason we bow when facing the Torah. We are instructed to feel every single vertebra in our spine. To notice and appreciate our own architecture.  To be grateful we have a body, for how delicately crafted we all are.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It marks a time of remembrance, for thinking about the past and preparing for the future. On Rosh Hashanah we are supposed to apologize to those we hurt in previous years. We are supposed to think long and hard about the self as a way to become better and better people.

This is all in preparation for Yom Kippur, the day of fasting and atonement.

For seven years I said fuck you to fasting. I didn’t want to be reminded of that empty pit in my stomach, a reminder of the times in my life when I didn’t want to exist anymore, when I truly wished I could fade away.

But I’m not twenty-one anymore. Seven years later, I’m not the same material person who starved herself. That empty pit in my stomach means something different to me now.  The change was so gradual I didn’t even notice I changed. Years ago, I went on a date with a boy I liked a lot but didn’t love and he told me how he got over someone he loved dearly, “One day I woke up and I realized I just didn’t love this person anymore.”

One day, I woke up to find that I wasn’t in love with my sadness any longer and one day I woke up to find out I wasn’t angry at that girl I used to be any more either. She was always going to be some small part of me, nestled with all my fears and anxieties about growing up and growing older. I feel tenderly toward her, forgiving even, toward this part of myself who might have killed me, who certainly had a death wish for me at certain points of my life.

 

 

In the process of writing this piece, Fiona Apple was arrested for hash possession. You can see her mug shot all over the Internet.  She looks fragile and small and also kind of defiant with her closed eyes and determined pout. She is tiny, about my size, barely 5 ft 2.

What interests me most are the comments. People say things like, “What happened to her?”, “She used to look so pretty.”, “She clearly has an eating disorder.”

When I had an eating disorder there was about a 2-pound gap between people complimenting me for being so thin and people starting to get worried about me.

The idea that women’s bodies are somehow representative of health or suffering, that we can somehow read health or suffering onto an image of a woman, is incredibly troubling and endemic in our culture today.

At the same time, we all do it. I do it too. When I look at Fiona’s picture I see myself in those tiny bones. But I see myself in her determined jaw too. In her giant eyes closed. Unblinking.

 

 

I probably won’t ever stop feeling things strongly. Survival, for me, has meant contextualizing those feelings, acknowledging them, but filtering them through my writing and art. What I admire most about Fiona Apple is how much she owns her image and identity. She isn’t simply sad or lonely or anxious or creative or happy or in love or out-of-love. She is older and wiser and, while still sometimes comes across as small and vulnerable, she is unequivocally not afraid.

There is a saying that you should ask God for that which is sweet, as well as that which is good for the New Year, because often there are things that are good for us, which aren’t necessarily sweet at all.  At dinner, I filled up my plate with every kind of sweet food: apples, dates, pomegranates, almonds drizzled with maple syrup, everything doused in honey, mouthfuls and mouthfuls of the best things you could ever imagine.

I ate until everything good was gone.

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

15 responses to “Our Souls So Perilously Close”

  1. Maggie May says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and also love Fiona Apple’s music, her strength and determined self. I am not so sure
    what you are positing here about ‘rebirth’…I don’t see how she has been reborn. I also don’t see how looking at someone
    gaunt and hollow eyed and saying she is not doing well is somehow an anti female cultural narrative. Like you, I had an eating disorder for years, and like you, I just stopped it one day ( unlike you, it was because I became pregnant ) I also had all other kinds of suffering in my young life. When I see someone whose physicality clearly lets everyone looking know that they are making inner pain an outer reality, I feel sad.

  2. Maggie May says:

    I also meant to say that I totally remember my own experience with people saying how good I looked so skinny, and then five pounds later being ‘ so concerned ‘ with me, and that part is fucked up.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on my essay.

      I think what bothered me about the “shocked” comments about how “scary” Fiona looked was that they didn’t seem to come from a place of empathy or concern. They seemed to be dismissive of her and I find that deeply troubling.

      When Fiona first came out, her frailty and beauty were used in tandem to market her as this sexy waif figure. Now she has taken control of her image in clearer ways and the public response is a mixture of awe and fear. Her “rebirth” for me is one in which she owns her image in more clearly defined ways, even though she is still clearly troubled.

      Also, I appreciate you sharing your own experiences. Parts of this essay were hard to write for me. I think sharing is part of the healing process too.

  3. Tom Hansen says:

    I’ve always loved Fiona ever since I heard she told Dave Navarro to fuck off when he hit on her

  4. I loved this! I like the way it’s about women and art, but also about being human and surviving it, about how all bodies—not just women’s—are an image of suffering or of health, and how much that works its way into our art.

  5. Tom says:

    Fiona Apple is not and has never been anorexic. Listen to her very long and in-depth interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast (#297). She explains how her Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder makes her life difficult. Every day there is a shape and colour in her mind, and everything she eats or wears that day must conform to this image. She also defies anyone to tell her she’s anorexic, because it’s just not the case.

  6. Laura Bogart says:

    This is a dashing, daring piece. Muscular and analytic but with a poet’s relish for language and image. Love, love, love.

  7. Arielle – This piece was moving and courageous. While fans sometimes slip onto the side of thinking they know an unknowable celebrity better than is even possible, connecting personal your story to the artistry of Apple allows us some of that familiarity and intimacy we all crave.

  8. karen knauff says:

    This might just be the most beautiful and important thing I’ve ever read, and I don’t really care for Fiona Apple.

  9. Stunning writing. I have a handful of close friends who have suffered from eating disorders. I think it’s a difficult thing to write about and you do so with a vulnerability and lyricism and insight that the subject needs. Thank-you.

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