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  • Over the River and through the Wolf
  • Desirae Matherly (bio)

As a postdoctoral student, when I taught a nonfiction workshop to undergraduates they began testing the genre’s limitations by the second week. Several beginning writers decided that their lives had been “too normal” to provide them with material and wondered if some fictionalizing was acceptable. I worked hard to overturn the myth of the “normal,” insisting that personal essays permitted ample play of the quotidian. When I saw that they weren’t satisfied with this answer, I added that even the most normal, bell-curved lives admit to fissures. Negotiating these crevasses is the most meaningful challenge of students writing personal essays in their twenties. “Let’s hear about that since you brought it up,” I would say, willing to accept that many would not run with the theme of a perfectly normal mother who occasionally drank to excess or a relatively well-adjusted brother who tortured cats in the backyard for fun. But some students did follow out these questions, and I have one image in particular lodged in my mind: the blades of a ceiling fan slowly turning in a room as a man rapes his friend’s teen-aged daughter on her bed in her suburban home while the family is out for pizza. What? How did my student’s experience illuminate my own sadnesses and voids, even if there was nothing in my life exactly like this, or perhaps especially because there was nothing in my life exactly like what she described? Trauma brings people together in some passion for the real, and I can’t help but see a little of our Victorian ways return in the pages of students barely two decades into this life. How grateful I am to be older.

But often I cringed at their own perceptions of normalcy and relative perfection they seemed to accept as unworthy of analysis. Sure, I did receive essays that were structured around action figures and comics, the passing of much-loved grandparents, surfing, hot(t) girlfriends, and [End Page 31] music, and I encouraged these essays to broaden, free of a psychoanalytic frame. Who cares, ultimately, why a twenty-two-year-old boy hoards over three hundred action figures in his room back home, or why none of the women in my class claimed to have ever read comic books? As a Freudian and a slightly androgynous woman, I might enjoy pondering these questions, but who am I to say where someone else’s self-analysis should begin and end? I am not trained for this work. Perhaps a concern for our own dysfunctionality is the integral and cardinal origin of self-analysis. If something isn’t broken, why fix it? This would certainly explain why I am unwilling to write about happiness. Maybe I practice negative dialectic a bit too much. My own life, as I have represented it in essays, has been colored by anxieties over class, gender, love, and moral responsibility, and frequently the relationships I portray in my essays are unhappy. One might imagine that abnormality is all that I know.

Maybe I began wondering about words like “normal” when I went through a circuit of elementary schools with an absent father, cared for by a single mother. I never fit in. I wrote, drew, and read to fill my lonely time. I was an only child, but I liked being alone. I wasn’t outgoing. I wore funny-looking handmade clothes: Japanese-print skirts with elastic waists, knee socks that fell down with every step, and unmatched belt-shoe combinations à la What Not to Wear. I was friends with the kids who had no friends. I loved standardized tests and the authority that administered them. I wasn’t normal, not if “normal” meant “fashionable,” and by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I enjoyed not fitting in. I found ways around my peers’ opinions, and fortunately, I had an expansive and compassionate family who loved me. My mother eventually married a man who said things that hurt my feelings almost every day if I didn’t avoid him or if I didn’t do my...