Paying a Visit to BittertownBy Angela Tung
December 29, 2010
I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I give or throw away things a bit too easily. A favorite skirt and T-shirt among bags of donations, my wedding ring with a pile of junky jewelery, expensive pieces of furniture. While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.
Not so with stories.
* * *
I paid a long visit to Bittertown this winter.
In his memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss describes the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder:
[T]herapists force patients to relive the details of the death, making them repeat the minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of an analyst. The patient then replays this tape – this doting agony chronicle – at home every day. . . .It’s not about making the tape, or listening to the tape. It’s about possession, about having the story in one place. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up and put away,” [a New York Times article] said.
It’s a little like Buddhism (at least according to the very little I know). Imagine your grief is your hand; trying to smash it down expends effort; moving it is easier; it’s part of you but you can control it. But whereas in Buddhism, you’d release your grief and leave it behind you – your hand would become once again, just your hand – putting away that tape means keeping that tape. Keeping your grief. For writers, Strauss says, our books are our tapes.
No wonder being a writer is one of the most depressing jobs in America.
* * *
In 2004, my husband had an affair. Had an affair and got the woman pregnant. Just like John Edwards. I haven’t written too much about it here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I blab all about it elsewhere on the internet, or maybe because now, more than a year after I’ve started writing TNB, I feel like I know people here. And for me it’s always been harder to tell difficult things to people I know than to faceless strangers.
Anyway, so this is what my memoir is about. This and our whole relationship. Twelve years. A full Chinese zodiac cycle.
At the time of Joe’s affair, I could only write fragments in my journal:
July 3, 2004: Joe did the most terrible thing. I don’t know what to do.
July 8, 2004: Didn’t sleep again.
July 11, 2004: Felt better this morning but now I feel awful again.
Six months later, I could only write about it in third person. It was only about a year later, after I finally decided to leave, that I could write about it fully, from my own point of view.
* * *
“This can’t be good for you,” a guy I dated for a (very) short time once said of my memoir writing.
I shrugged, but inside, resented his comment. One, I wasn’t some delicate flower who could be undone by the mere act of writing. And two, I wasn’t the one who still cried when talking about my breakup, who was so anxious to be friends with my ex that I fell into a depression when an outing soured. I cried enough while it was happening, and I had no desire to be friends with my ex. I didn’t need to prove that I was over him or that I was “grown up.”
In fact, I needed to be far away enough from what happened in order to write about it well. To see my life as a story and myself as a character. I needed the grief to be outside instead of in. My hand, you could say, instead of my heart.
But while I certainly haven’t fallen apart while writing (and revising and rewriting) my memoir, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up those old feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness.
Paying a visit to Bittertown. Even after you leave, you still smell like it.
* * *
This winter I rewrote my memoir again, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (and part of December) to flesh out the parts of the book that I had rushed over, and I was surprised to find that unlike with revising, as I rewrote I was plunged deep back into my past life, even more so, it seemed, than the first time I wrote about it.
I was 21 again and falling in love. I was in China. I was with someone for whom nothing was good enough. My parents were worried. I was hiding something terrible from them.
Even after I stopped writing, my head was still back there. I started to think my boyfriend Alex was like my ex (he’s not). I wanted to go to China again. I was furious again at my brother-in-law’s fiancee for telling me I should wear more makeup, for thanking me like a servant for helping my own ailing mother-in-law, for getting the bigger engagement ring, for snubbing my parents at a party because they were merely Chinese and not Korean.
When I talked to my mom, I worried that she was worried, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t, that she sounded happy, and I remembered that I was no longer with someone she hated.
For some reason, that same rage and hatred towards my ex and his mistress didn’t come up again. Maybe because my anger and hurt were so intense at the time that when it was all over, I had nothing left. Or rather, I simply couldn’t continue living with that rage, if I wanted to survive.
As for the other sections, why was this time different? Maybe because I’m in a relationship now. (My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of.) Maybe because those conflicts were never resolved. I never told my ex I felt nothing I did was good enough though I did let loose my fury at his betrayal. I never got into it with my brother-in-law’s wife the way I did with the mistress – calling and hanging up several nights a week, screaming messages on her machine, and one live phone call (Me: “Did you keep the baby?” Her: “Yes.”).
Maybe because it’s been a while since I looked this closely at the memoir. Maybe because in rewriting an already finished thing, I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.
I’m glad to say that as I finished each section, I was able to shake the resentment blob. I booted 21-year old me to the curb. I quickly lost the desire to return to China (in fact I dreamed that I got a teaching job with the same school, then realized I really didn’t want to go back), and couldn’t care less about the woman who was my sister-in-law for a mere two years.
* * *
But remnants of the bitterness remained.
Or I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I can blame the rewriting of the memoir, the whole reliving the past process.
Because I got jealous. Over some woman. Who I don’t even know.
A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists! and who is Chinese American! and lives in San Francisco! and is not me!
Bittertown: I’m baaaaaack.
And eating chocolate cake. In my pajamas. Followed by Doritos.
I know I shouldn’t care what other writers are doing, beyond work that inspires me. I know I should just read this author and be inspired by her work, her story. Or I should I realize her story is bullshit, or at least that she is the exception and not the rule, just like every couple who meets by chance, whose hands touch while reaching for the same book, or who get their nonfat chai lattes mixed up, or who see each other across a crowded subway car and know, just know, they’re listening to the same song on their iPods – I know all of that is only the stuff of romantic comedies created to fuck with our heads.
I should remember the quote I saw on a girl’s tote bag on the bus: Jealousy does the opposite of what you want. I should remind myself it’s okay to feel this. (It’s my hand. I can move it. I can let it punch me in the face, or I can let it feed me cookies.) It’s okay to wallow for a day or two. But then I have to let it go.
* * *
Bittertown is a difficult place to visit. There are bad memories and old worries at every turn. The residue of insecurity. And don’t forget those alien blob things. But it’s also familiar. It’s that damaged yet well-known relationship. It’s what kept me from leaving my marriage for almost a year. Do I stay and make do with this awful familiarity, or leave and enter the – possibly more awful – unknown?
Well, I think it’s time to pack my bags. To leave and visit a new place, tell a new story. It’s time to give the tape away, once and for all.