In the days after writer Leigh Stein’s ex-boyfriend, Jason, died in a motorcycle accident, she grasped at memories of him, of their tumultuous and abusive relationship. They had been 22 and 18, respectively, when they met, and by the time he was killed, at just 23, their relatively brief relationship had been over for years. Despite the break-up, they’d stayed in touch. A month and a half before the fatal accident, he’d visited her in New York City for the first time. Stein hadn’t seen Jason in two years by then; she’d moved across the country from Illinois, where they met, and New Mexico, where their relationship spiraled out of control. His presence seemed both familiar and alien.
A lost loved one’s face and voice can slip away so quickly, without their presence. But for Stein, the memory loss after Jason’s death was creeping, invading not just her recollections of him, but memories of her whole life from that time. She couldn’t call him and ask, “Remember when we…” and hear him say, “Yes, of course I do.”
“Without Jason, my memories were fish,” she writes. “I couldn’t hold them. I didn’t trust myself to hold them.”
Stein’s memoir Land of Enchantment, published earlier this year, is about many things: abusive relationships, grief, chronic depression, adolescent alienation. Or maybe, to put it another way, it’s about one thing: how much of ourselves we store in each other.
“A theme of this book is that I just want witnesses around me. I just want my experience reflected back to me,” Stein told me as we sat in a sun-drenched, sweaty coffee shop this July, flies circling her hair like an uninvited halo. Her memoir dips back into her angsty adolescence, when she battled depression so severe she skipped school for days at a time to sleep, then stayed up all night surfing the internet, searching LiveJournal for like-minded girls to follow and befriend. It also covers her tumultuous relationship with Jason, with whom she moved to New Mexico to fulfill a romantic dream of living on their own while she tried to write a novel. There, isolated and disillusioned, she realized her boyfriend was growing abusive toward her. Even after she managed to leave for good, and moved to New York, she missed him. Then he died.
“I just want witnesses around me. I just want my experience reflected back to me.”
Humans are social beings. Psychological studies have found the harmful effects of ostracism and solitary confinement can be profound. Adolescence and young adulthood, often times when we’re trying to fit in, find identities that suit us, and relate maturely to others, leave us particularly vulnerable to the pangs of rejection. So it’s hardly surprising that a memoir, like Stein’s, grounded in those neurotic ages would also be deeply bound up in anxieties over being visible to others.
Too often, she wasn’t. Though Stein’s adolescent depression wasn’t exactly subtle ― she’d miss school, sleep all day, and dig scissors into her legs to ease the inner turmoil ― everyone around her, including her own mother, a therapist, missed the signs. “If I break my arm, you say, ‘Oh, my God, what happened?!’ But if I’m depressed and not going to school ... nobody noticed!” she recalled during our conversation. “Nobody noticed. I lived with a therapist. But I was invisible.”
At 13, she told an online friend named Daniel she was going to commit suicide. She hoped to be hospitalized after her mother found out; she wasn’t. Instead of relieved, she felt like she’d failed to perform the true seriousness of her suffering. “If I’d really attempted, then I’d already be admitted in my nightgown,” she writes. “The only person who treated me like I was as sick as I felt was Daniel, who knew me only as a faceless voice.”
In first love, we’re often desperate for that kind of undivided, unquenchable attention that romance provides. Childhood can feel powerless, adolescence alienating and lonely: Love, even dysfunctional love, can feel like living a real, verifiable life for the first time.
Stein’s relationship with Jason was rocky from the jump. After their first enchanted dates ― and the loss of her virginity ― he dropped her for a model named Veronika. She couldn’t let go of the possibility of being with him, she wrote, “fueled by this idea that I was nobody if no one was in love with me.” She sent him wild poetry and messages, desperate to reclaim his attention, to become real. Finally, it worked.
Even after they got together, she couldn’t feel secure in his attention. When they’d been dating for just half a year, he told her that meeting new girls was “like opening presents at Christmas.” But the power of his charisma made his occasionally undivided gaze intoxicating. “[A]ll I wanted was my body laid out like a page of Braille,” she writes; “I wanted Jason to read me that way.” She told him she wanted to write a novel, and he offered to work for a year to support them in New Mexico while she wrote. (Next, they’d move to LA for him to pursue his dream, as an actor.) He seemed to see her as a writer, as an attractive woman, as the person she wanted to be ― which made it all the more devastating when his eyes wandered.
At that age, it’s hard to feel like we really exist if someone isn’t in love with us, looking at us with that kind of fervent attention. It’s not quite as simple as being visible, though. Stein’s book doesn’t merely reveal a desire to tell her story, in her words, but a desire to tell that story in chorus and conversation with others ― a need that can’t always be filled. Even now, she says, her mother can’t really talk about the years surrounding her suicide threat at 13. “She doesn’t remember a lot of it,” Stein told me. “She says she’s just blocked it out because it was such a horrible time.”
Because her mother can’t affirm her memories of those times, those recollections feel treacherously vaporous. “I wished,” she wrote about a failed attempt to talk with her mother about a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” costume from her seventh grade play, “she could give me the gift that Jason gave so effortlessly: the words ‘of course I remember.’”
For all his faults as a partner, Jason was a witness who made her past seem solid. Even long after their relationship collapsed for good, after months of increasing abuse, Stein would call her ex to ground her memories of their time in New Mexico, to ensure they weren’t just stories she was spinning in her head. He’d always say the same thing, she writes: “Of course I remember.”
Then, Jason died, and she lost that anchor to her past life. “Those sleepless nights [...] were even lonelier knowing Jason wasn’t out there anymore, not anywhere, not even as a friend or an enemy; there was no way to call and ask if he remembered the night he went looking for the little white cat,” she writes.
Not only that, she became something new and invisible: a grieving 20-something. “When Jason died, I knew people who had never been to a funeral,” she told me. She sensed around her “this lack of recognition for what it is to be grieving when you’re 26 or 27.”
“It makes people really uncomfortable,” she told me. “People who have never experienced death ― they never know what to say, they’re always saying the wrong thing, they’re trying to make themselves feel better instead of you.”
Yet she was desperate to talk about her grief, to have her loss seen and recognized. Eating a hearty dinner with her new boyfriend, she wished she “were wasting away instead. Look at her! She’s wasting away! people said behind my back, in my fantasy life. [...] I wished my body could telegraph my grief for me, so I wouldn’t have to try and explain what I felt but didn’t yet understand.”
She thought about getting a tattoo in memory of Jason, a Georgia O’Keeffe painting that later became the inspiration for Land of Enchantment’s cover art. “[Y]ou want to gash your flesh for the dead,” she writes. “And when strangers see what is on your skin, you’ll be able to explain, This is what I lost.”
Without shared memory, how could her peers understand what she’d lost? The invisibility of grieving at a young age springs not just from a discomfort with talking to friends about your pain, but from the lack of any relevant experience for them to compare it to. When my own mother died, I was 11. For years, I gritted my teeth when friends compared my grief to their 14-year-old dog being put down, to their grandmother falling and injuring herself, to their parents splitting up. Those comparisons simply didn’t track. Their reservoir of feelings about those traumas didn’t reflect my feelings about my mother’s death. It wasn’t enough to have my grief heard ― it needed to be mirrored back to me, or it wouldn’t, and didn’t, make sense.
Stein found, as I did, that there’s comfort in closeness with others who’ve lost a loved one. She became “a woman who can form an instant friendship with anyone who has lost a parent, child, friend, or lover,” she writes. “It’s a club. You’re a member.” By recognizing their past in each other, they unburden themselves of the need to perform “okayness,” or to explain what grief is. Major loss is a shared vocabulary, a familiar set of touchstones. Rather than saying, as some of Stein’s friends did after Jason’s death, “It seems like you’re handling everything really well!”, this recognition says, “Of course, me too,” or, “I know how that feels.”
“When I relive the book, I describe my own memories to myself, in a way. And that feels so real.”
While contemplating her tattoo, she spoke to a friend, Cathrin, who said she had always thought about getting the word “sehnsucht,” a German word for longing, tattooed on her forearm. Stein never got her planned tattoo, but this conversation was a salve. “Maybe you didn’t want a tattoo,” she writes. “Maybe you just needed to talk to someone who understands this kind of longing.”
When I talked to Stein, she said she wrote Land of Enchantment instead of getting a tattoo. “The tattoo that I wanted is what I sent the art director for the cover,” she said. Doing readings from the book can be unexpectedly emotional, she told me, though the material is so familiar, carefully written and smoothed out with her own patient work. “When I read it aloud at a reading, I relive it, and I get upset,” she said. “It’s like, when I relive the book, I describe my own memories to myself, in a way. And that feels so real.”
Jason isn’t there to pick up her call and tell her “of course I remember” anymore; others all too often simply don’t remember or can’t relate. In Land of Enchantment, Stein has created her own witness, a voice standing outside of her, saying, “Leigh, I remember.” In doing so, she’s created a witness to so many isolating yet common experiences, ones that can feel shameful and lonely: being addicted to an unhealthy relationship, being wracked with almost theatrically profound sorrow, desperately needing attention in order to feel real.
These are the stories we hide because we think we alone are this fragile, but by sharing them, Stein proves, we see in each other how strong we are.