Alisson Wood, BEING LOLITA

Alisson Wood, BEING LOLITA

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alisson. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alisson Wood: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: I am just sorry this took us so long. Especially as soon as I started reading your book, I was like, what has the holdup been? I’m so sorry. Anyway, delighted to be talking to you. Being Lolita, can you please tell listeners what this is about?

Alisson: At its core, this is a book very much about power and sex and gender. In a much more simple plot way, it’s about how when I was seventeen, I became ensnared in this incredibly abusive relationship with an English teacher in high school. He gave me the book Lolita. He told me it was a beautiful story about love. I was seventeen. I didn’t know any better. The book follows the story of how I was groomed and how things escalated very quickly and became very abusive and how I was able to leave the relationship and then what my life has been like since and how this experience has impacted me both for good and bad.

Zibby: How would you say the experience has impacted you?

Alisson: On the not-so-good hand, trauma never goes away. This experience was incredibly bad. It was very traumatic. In a lot of ways, it set me up for a lot of bad relationships. This is why it’s so important to talk to teenagers about healthy relationships and consent and boundaries and red flags of abuse. There’s all this research that shows that your first relationship very much creates this mold for future relationships. My first relationship was a secret. It was incredibly abusive. It was full of manipulation and lying. That was what I thought love was. That was tough to figure out that that’s not love. I’m thirty-six now. I spent a lot of time in therapy and just figuring things out and making a lot of mistakes. There is the other side. You can get through it. On the good side, though, I think that because of what happened to me I am incredibly, incredibly aware and supportive of my students. I teach now at NYU. I teach undergraduate students. I’m so aware and careful. I want to be a teacher that I wish that I had had as opposed to the teacher I had.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I feel like so many of the authors I interview mention the influence of one teacher along the way as setting them on their path to becoming a published author. Someone has to notice your gift or your potential or whatever. That can just change everything. The power that you have as a teacher on all these aspiring authors — you teach creative writing, right?

Alisson: Yeah.

Zibby: It’s pretty, I would think, almost a daunting responsibility in a way.

Alisson: It is. A funny thing is that I got angry about what happened to me in a brand-new way once I started teaching. Undergraduates, they’re eighteen, nineteen. I teach an intro class, so it’s a lot of freshman. As I’m sure any parent knows, they’re still kids. They’ve never rented an apartment on their own. They’ve probably never paid a bill. They’ve probably never worked full time. They might not even know how to cook. In so many ways, they’re still kids. When we send them off to college, it’s this wonderful opportunity for a safety net for them to figure out how to be an adult. There’s a dorm, so they’ll never be homeless. There’s a dining hall, so they’ll never go hungry. There’s all these safety nets in place, which is wonderful. When I began teaching, the first time I went into a classroom with my own students I was just struck by how young they are. For someone to go into a classroom thinking anything except, how can I support and encourage and keep these students safe — for someone to go into a classroom and be thinking about their own sexual or emotional or ego gratification is just monstrous. It made me angry about what happened to me in a whole new way because I think teaching is sacred. I think young people should be nothing but supported. To do anything else is just horrible.

Zibby: What do you think your teacher originally thought when he went into teaching? Do you think that this just happened? Do you think he went in with lofty goals? I know he was so young at the time as well.

Alisson: He was somewhere between twenty-six and twenty-eight. I don’t remember. There’s sort of two options for how that went. On one side, he really did misread Lolita. He really did think this was this utterly romantic story. He really did think that he and I were in love and this was this thing that was fine. That means he was kind of stupid, to be frank. I’m sorry, really? I was seventeen. I was a high school student. How on earth could you do the backflips in your head to make that seem fine? The other option is that he was a predator from the start and he knew exactly what he was doing and he was doing it on purpose. That’s also incredibly, incredibly difficult because I want to believe that people are good and that people aren’t evil or anything. I don’t know. I never will. Either he was stupid or he’s a terrible person, and probably a little bit of both.

Zibby: These are the choices today. Not so great.

Alisson: No, not so great. One of the toughest things — this is something I’ve had to face and acknowledge over time. This is what I lean to, I think he was predatory from the get-go. I think he knew what he was doing. I just don’t understand how you can go into a high school and not think, huh, maybe I should not try to fuck my students, and how you can make that seem okay. That then means that I was a victim, clean-cut a victim. Something that’s interesting about victim blaming, even especially when you do it yourself, which I did, of course, for a long time — I was like, well, I flirted with him. I wanted this. I thought he was so cute. To start with, that’s completely developmentally appropriate. It’s completely okay for a teenager to have a crush on their teacher. No big deal. That’s fine. It’s part of what’s going on when you’re a teenager. Hormones are flying. It’s so exciting. Then there’s this teacher who maybe pays attention to you. That’s totally fine. What’s wrong is when the adult, the teacher, crosses that line. That’s morally and ethically and, at times, legally wrong. My experience was normal and completely okay. The victim blaming part came in when I wanted to believe that I had some level of control over what had happened, so I blamed myself which is then blaming my choices, my actions. In actuality, I think I was just a victim. I don’t think there was really any blame on my part. That’s also really hard to face because that’s really sad. You want to believe that you’re a powerful, strong person who has some control. It’s tough to face that that’s not always the truth. It’s been a process.

Zibby: Everyone’s got their stuff. Do you think you became a teacher in a way to kind of right the wrongs of what happened?

Alisson: The funny thing is it was in no way conscious. I’ve always wanted to teach. I’ve always loved that. I’ve always loved writing. It felt very natural and organic. Then of course as I’m writing the book, I’m like, huh, interesting. I end up a teacher. It’s one of those things where it’s like, I don’t know if it’s quite that simple. Clearly, part of what I do is to try and right the wrong that happened to me and be the kind of teacher that I wish that I had had. That’s really important to me.

Zibby: It’s almost a way of making amends in a way.

Alisson: Definitely. Reparations, but I’m not the one who should be making the reparations.

Zibby: I know you’re not. I know. I didn’t say it made sense. I’m just saying from one of those weird subconscious things that we all do to cope with something.

Alisson: Isn’t that such the work of women to do this kind of work for others? That’s such a woman thing that we are trained to do. We’re trained to care and fix things. That’s a whole other conversation.

Zibby: Yes. Let’s save that for a cup of coffee or something.

Alisson: Maybe a glass of wine.

Zibby: A glass of wine, that would be great. I was so interested in how you came into this book and how you came into, not the book itself, but how you as a character came into the relationship of the book and your backstory and how you started it feeling so other than other people in your school and that you had gone through a lot yourself. There were all these rumors about your hospitalization. Had she tried to kill herself? Had she been doing this with other guys? All that swirling around you and your previous diagnoses and also the whole insomnia part which I thought was really fascinating. You got in so much trouble for that all the time, missing classes and everything. Even though it was documented, it put you on a totally different trajectory from an academic standpoint. Tell me a little more about all of that.

Alisson: Like so many teenagers, I struggled when I was a teenager. Starting probably when I was fourteen or fifteen, I began having really serious depression. There was no specific reason. It just happened like it does oftentimes with teenagers. When you start hormones and puberty, that can often be a time when depressive episodes or any sort of mental illness will sort of kick in. I just became incredibly depressed. At one point, I was cutting myself. I never tried to kill myself, but I was in a very dark place for a very long time. Like you mentioned, I became an insomniac. I switched my nights and days for a while. I was not a happy, stable camper. I was very, very depressed for a long time, and so I stopped going to school. If you’re up all night and you’re sleeping during the day, you’re not making class. My depression was so serious that it was at the point where I had ECT. I had electroconvulsive therapy when I was in high school to try and snap me out of it. ECT is incredibly safe. We have this real stigma about it in our culture because of the way that it’s portrayed in movies and in TV, but it’s actually really safe. It’s only a couple seconds. You’re under anesthesia. You’re not awake. They give you muscle relaxers. There’s no shaking. It’s an incredibly effective treatment for depression. This is very much an aside in my book, but it is something that I think is important that I wish we didn’t stigmatize treatments for depression. I think we’ve gotten better about talking about mental illness and medication. We’re better at that, but I think ECT is still something that’s sort of, that’s only if you’re psychotic or something. It’s really dangerous. It’s really not. It’s actually one of the safest treatments for pregnant women because anesthesia doesn’t pass through the placenta, so there’s no danger to the baby as there are in many medications. I’m sorry, this is an aside.

Zibby: No, I find it really interesting. I’m like, gosh, I could’ve used a little ECT when I was pregnant.

Alisson: It saved my life. I really believe that. It’s this dark corner of mental health that people don’t talk about because there’s this horrible stigma. When this was happening, this was the late nineties, early two thousands. This was almost twenty years ago or more than twenty years ago. There was a lot of stigma about mental illness at that point still. It’s interesting thinking about that because part of the reason that medication has come so far in being normalized is because prescription companies were able to start advertising their drugs. I remember the first time I saw the ad for Prozac in a magazine. It was the stormy and then the sun. Prozac, it’ll fix it. That’s part of why. There’s been all this money in advertising to make medication seem okay and thus to make people buy it, whereas there’s no big ECT. There’s big pharma. There’s no big ECT. It’s machines. There’s no money to be made, so there’s not this public service trying to break down the stigma.

Anyway, when I came back to school — I had gone to a therapeutic day school my junior year. Also, that was a normal school, smaller population. The only real difference was that we had group therapy in the afternoons where it’s just teenagers in a circle talking about what’s bugging them. I came back my senior year, and people thought I had died. People were like, she ended up at a hospital because she tried to kill herself. She’s this slut, blah, blah, blah. Teenagers can be cruel. I think that hasn’t changed. I was very much an outsider when I first came back to school. I didn’t really have any friends. I felt very alone, which also made me really easy prey. One of the first steps in an abusive relationship or in an abuser’s plan of action is to isolate their victim. I was already pretty isolated. It just made it easier.

Zibby: Wow. To your point about stigma, by the way, I’m on the board of the Child Mind Institute. It’s all about helping childhood mental illness up through teenagers, so it would include high school and all that. There’s research and there’s treatment, but a huge component is trying to get rid of the stigma of mental illness because that’s a whole added layer of everything.

Alisson: I really struggled with — that was something that I wasn’t sure if I should include. On one hand, I felt like it was really important context to who I was and how this happened. I was very lonely. I was very sad. I was depressed. I was very vulnerable. It was part of why I think I was such an easy target. I really believe that. At the same time, I was afraid that because of the stigma it’d be used against me.

Zibby: No.

Alisson: It has been.

Zibby: Really?

Alisson: Yes. One of the first critical reviews of the book, the opening line was, “Alisson Wood had shock therapy, was a cutter, was on twenty different medications, and then this happened.” It set me up to be like, oh, she’s this crazy unreliable narrator. Who’s going to listen to this book? Honestly, that first review was sort of all of my fears. It was everything I was afraid of that would happen. I really felt like it was important to be honest and to be fully honest and fully vulnerable with my reader. I feel like that makes a good memoir. That’s part of the point, to share.

Zibby: A hundred percent. It would’ve been a different story without that context. It’s not like because you’re depressed you deserved to be sexually abused. Who would think that? The behaviors come from the underlying stuff. I’m sorry that that happened to you. That’s really beside the point and someone who just missed the plot of your book entirely.

Alisson: It’s so common. It’s so common for teenagers and for any age group, but I think it’s especially common for teenagers because oftentimes that’s when it’ll first start popping up. I just think we’re so bad at supporting teenagers with this. We’re just so bad at it. I think we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go. Especially queer teenagers or trans teenagers or women, it’s tough.

Zibby: I know you worried about the beginning, but even just having the whole story out there when you decided to make this a memoir and publish it and then actually as you were writing it and it was coming out, did you have fears about that for all the personal stuff? The whole thing is very personal.

Alisson: The book is really personal.

Zibby: I know. That’s what I’m saying.

Alisson: It is a very personal book. You know, I actually am not and didn’t worry that much about that. Really, what I worried about was the being honest about the depression part. I worried about how I would be judged for that. For some reason, I was like, this is what it is. I feel like when you write a memoir you make a contract with the reader. It’s like, okay, the whole truth, nothing but the truth even when it’s really ugly, when it’s not flattering. It’s funny. I didn’t struggle with, someone’s going to read this, people are going to know this about me. I struggled at times with the actual writing because it was going back to something really traumatic. It was going back to something really awful and painful and embarrassing and just like, oh, my god, I cannot believe I need to write this scene when this happened. I knew it was important. This bothered me to no end, early readers were like, oh, my god, the scene where he made you pee in front of him, that’s the best scene. I’m like, that one? One of the most embarrassing things and shameful and awful things, sexual humiliation things, that ever happened, that’s your favorite scene? Okay, great. To me, that speaks to how universal in some ways, maybe not that exact situation, but I think for so many women we’ve been put in situations where we had to do things that we didn’t want to. Abuse is so common. Also, the power imbalance abusive relationships like with the teacher, it’s incredibly common. I hear from readers every single day still. I hear from readers, emails and DMs and things like that of women thanking me for writing the book, which is just so amazing, but then talking about how, I feel understood. I feel seen. I feel acknowledged because this happened to me or something very similar happened to me. That’s honestly the best part about this book and has been the best part about publishing it.

Zibby: Having made it through the trauma of reliving the moment and going through the actual writing and being a creative writing teacher, I have to get your advice for aspiring authors. You must have hours’ worth. What are some of the things that were most helpful to you and that you think are the most key in trying to write a memoir?

Alisson: I was really lucky in that I had an awful lot of primary source documents. I had a stack of journals from my senior year. I had all these photographs of me from that time. I had a whole bunch of letters and notes and hall passes and hotel receipts and all these things that were really helpful in creating the timeline because memory is faulty. Memory can make mistakes. An example of something I write about in the book is how I distinctly remembered this moment or this scene where the teacher, in the shop room, in his study hall, the teacher wanted to trade me my bra size for the size of his penis. I distinctly remembered that happening, but I thought it had happened in May. In May, I would’ve been eighteen. We would’ve been almost “together.” That’s still awful, but it sort of mitigated it a bit in my mind.

Then when I was going through my journals and trying to track things, I realized that it had happened on November 21st. That meant I was seventeen. He had only known me for, at most, two months. That also showed how quickly it escalated from after-school help because I was a really good writer to sexual coercion stuff. That today, of course, would’ve been over text message or a Snapchat or whatever, trying to coerce me to send him a topless photo for a dick pic. That was a moment when I really snapped through the victim blaming and was like, nope, there is no way, no how that anyone can make an excuse for this. There are no jumping jacks that you can do to say this was fine and this was my fault. Nope, nope, nope. That was really upsetting, again, to just face that. I think that was one of the hardest parts about the book. At some points, it felt like I was opening up this onion of trauma. The more I looked, the more I reread, the more I dove into it, the worse it was. Writing the book was really hard.

Zibby: I bet. Also, tell me two seconds about Pigeon Pages.

Alisson: Pigeon Pages is a writing community that I founded about four years ago. I founded it because I really wanted to create my own writing community. I wanted it to be full of women and queer people and non-binary folks and trans folks. Basically, I didn’t want any straight white guys in it. I wanted to create my own community. We hold monthly readings. We are a literary journal. We publish every week, poetry and prose. It’s really wonderful. We’re opening tomorrow, an essay contest with Morgan Jerkins, who’s the wonderful author, as our judge. We’re so excited.

Zibby: I just had her on my podcast.

Alisson: She’s the best. She’s so wonderful. She’s judging our essay contest. It opens October 1st and runs through November 15th. You can find out all sorts of information at —

Zibby: — Maybe I’ll enter.

Alisson: We’re @PigeonPagesNYC on all the socials, and that’s our website.

Zibby: I couldn’t believe how many authors who I’ve had on my podcast have been contributors in some way to Pigeon Pages. I was going down and down and down. Oh, my gosh, so many. I’m all about it. I followed it. I’m very interested. It’s awesome.

Alisson: We’re a lovely nest.

Zibby: That’s so nice.

Alisson: Also, a lot of bird puns.

Zibby: Yes. Why not?

Alisson: We believe writing is joy. Let’s be a little silly. We can all get a little pretentious. Pigeon Pages is a place for, all right, let’s knock that down a bit. Let’s talk about writing, which is what it’s supposed to be.

Zibby: I love it. Alisson, thank you. Thank you so much for coming on, for discussing Being Lolita, for going through the pain that you had to go through to get it on the page so that other people could benefit. I hope to continue our conversation offline sometime.

Alisson: Yes. Thank you so much. I’m so honored to be here. I truly appreciate it.

Zibby: It was my pleasure. Bye.

Alisson: Bye.

Alisson Wood, BEING LOLITA