Last week, I binge-watched Scream Queens, a show that is a send up to the slasher films I mainlined in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was a horror buff: Michael Meyers, Freddie Krueger, any random serial killer, killer children, monsters that lurk in the shadows, humans becoming monstrous, and my beloved Scream (which I watched on repeat). Not only did I watch any film I could, I mastered in Stephen King’s novels. His ability to make me care about his characters and then viciously destroy them was as fascinating as it was disturbing. Horror showed me how bodies could be unmade. How bodies were maimed, cut, shot, tortured, and killed. How a body’s hurts could be physical and visible. How blood splattered on the floors and walls was a sign that things had come undone. Horror showed me the consequences of violence, physical and psychic. It stood as a warning of how terribly wrong things can go.
I was a horror buff, until I wasn’t. Maybe, I outgrew horror. Maybe, horror outgrew me. It is hard to say. I drifted away from these movies after I made the mistake of watching The Ring on the big screen and wasn’t able to sleep for days. I was convinced that the scary little girl might climb out of television to hunt me down. This film was not realistic horror, but supernatural. Yet, it disquieted me. A child comes back from revenge because of how she was treated. Supernatural vengeance was not a comfort. I locked myself in my bedroom of my barely two-room condo with Hannah the dog and Belle the cat to create a sense of distance between me and our TV.
Scream Queens evoked something familiar with a new twist, the sorority girls of Kappa Kappa Tau fight back against the Red Devil who hunts and kills them. I started watching Scream Queens in the fall, but couldn’t keep up with the show each week. I wanted to see how it ended. Who was the killer? What were the plot twists?
Life got in the way.
Last week, I started watching Scream Queens again to escape. Hannah, my now elderly dog, is dying. I can do nothing about it, but bear witness. Chris was out of town. The kids dutifully attended school and preschool. I felt helpless and alone as I checked on my old dog throughout the day and night. I turned to a television show that was as far away from life as I could muster. I was never in a sorority. I was not a rich kid. I avidly refused to pledge because I feared the money it would cost to join. I was never a mean girl like Chanel (Emma Roberts) with her disdain, cruelty, and casual racism. I watched Scream Queens to chase mortality from my waking thoughts. This show understands the importance of theatrics in horror. It dwells in the spectacle of death and the ability of bodies to be unmade. It evokes terror and makes fun of it simultaneously.
In episode 8, Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) warns Kappa pledge, Grace (Skyler Samuels), about investigating past events at the sorority house. Munsch, in her typically abrupt way, explains:
Do you know why I never went into therapy? Because the less we know about ourselves, the better. Rummaging around in your life, it’s like digging through a landfill. Sure, you may happen upon something interesting, but you’re gonna get filthy.
I paused the episode and replayed the scene. Not once, not twice, but three times. Something about the way the lines were phrased caught my attention. I finished the episode and moved onto the next, but Munsch’s lines stuck with me. She’s talking about therapy, but you could easily replace “therapy” with writing a memoir or personal essay. Personal essayists rummage around in our lives to uncover material. We find events, reconstruct them, and write them. In Art of Memoir, Mary Karr describes the psychological toll of memoir: suffering is requisite, not optional. “Writing a memoir,” she notes, “is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.” Memoir appears as “a major-league shit-eating contest.” This genre, for Karr, requires writers to battle with ourselves and challenge the narratives we create for ourselves. Easy stories emerge as too easy. Tidy narratives as too clean. We must dig beyond the stories we tell ourselves to find truth and bring it to the light. Karr continues, “No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides.”
I haven’t written a memoir. I’m considering it, but I haven’t quite committed to such a long project. What I do write are personal essays, which are similar but not the same as memoir. Essays are shorter form, contained and compact. They might narrate one event closely rather than follow a longer chronology. My personal essays never seek to master what has happened, but are my attempts to make sense of what has happened and how that feels. I find myself writing about feelings because I can’t often talk directly about them. I tend to suffer in silence and work it out on the page.
Rummaging around in your life, it’s like digging through a landfill.
Writing personal essays, then, is never an easy process for me. I start essays that I assume will be easy that prove to be difficult and painful. I write drafts and then abandon them in the cloud until I can manage the emotions attached to the subject. It took me 17 years to write about my hometown, 23 years to write about my grandfather’s death, and two years of writing intense essays to move on from academia. My hurt becomes visible with my words. My suffering manifests line by line.
Some events aren’t quite ready to become essays. Thinking about them makes me anxious, teary, or even panicked. That’s the burden of the personal essayist. Our material is our selves. We’re closer than close to what happens to us. We often don’t have the luxury of distance or feigned objectivity to make the work of writing our lives easier. We share same skin as the subject. We are the subject. We know when an event shattered us. We were the ones picking up the pieces.
In describing personal essay writing, my dear friend Liana Silva, says, “Bleed out so we can see.” Another writer friend stated that it is like “ripping out your own guts.” When I seek images for personal essay writing, I immediately think of vivisection, the process of performing operations on live animals for research. Except that, I’m both the experiment and experimenter. My skin cut back. My organs on display. My body opened up, so you, the reader, can see what goes on in intimate detail. There’s a fleshy vulnerability of being on display. I try to make meaning out of what has happened or is happening, but I have to let you in to see. There’s a stark honesty in putting one’s anguish out for others to read. There’s courage in telling our stories. There’s audacity in documenting how we manage to survive.
Personal essay comprehends the horror of life, the frailty of bodies and the fragility of the lives we create for ourselves. Personal essay knows that sometimes the worst does happen. That life can be capricious and cruel. That our lives ends as surely as they begin. That suffering is not optional, but requisite. That we can’t quite help what we’ve inherited, but we can survive it. That terrible things happen no matter what type of person you are. That reasons are never as clear as we need them to be. That making sense is sometimes the best we can do as we sit among the ruins of what we hoped our lives would be. That we can shatter into tiny, sharp fragments but we can meld them unevenly back together again. That loss is a loss, no matter what heartbreaking form it takes. That life moves on with no attention to our suffering.
Maybe I stopped watching horror when I realized that the spectacular isn’t the most horrifying. It’s the mundane that can actually destroy us.
While personal essay writing often leaves me little banged up and bruised for my efforts, I leave my essays feeling freer. Munsch, unsurprisingly, is wrong about therapy. You might dig through the landfill and come up filthy, but you also come out knowing more about yourself on the other side. You might even leave feeling less broken than when you started. When I put my suffering on the page, something happens. I’ve confronted events that hurt me. The confrontation might suck. It might take years to face head on. I might be filthy, but I gain an awareness of what happened and that I survived. That is why I write personal essays. My essays show suffering and survival. They are how I know I made it through. No matter how bruised I am while writing them. I’m still here; they’re my evidence.