I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
He’s the guy with the electric eyes and unkempt hair. The guy with the daddy issues and the temper and the drug problem. One day, he loves us, and the next, he’s gone. We are the good girls. We don’t drink or make trouble. We come from good families. So why do we need to tame that wild thing?
In her memoir, Land of Enchantment, 32-year-old Leigh Stein takes us inside this invisible addiction. In 2007, she pursues a life in Albuquerque, N.M., with her own wild thing: 18-year-old rebel Jason, who she meets at an audition for Medea. They make a pact to live together, be in love, and work on their careers — she will write her novel while he will chase acting gigs. Everything about their life starts out exciting, until slowly, Leigh realizes, it isn’t anymore.
Enticed by other girls and stricken with manic episodes, Jason’s violence breaks the surface. He begins by playfully hitting Leigh on her arms and legs, and then escalates his frightening behavior. Leaving Leigh increasingly anxious and depressed, his abuse takes her to the point where she no longer recognizes herself, “I could feel myself molting like an animal–,” she says, “shedding my childish skin, my kindness, my passivity, and in its place growing the scales of a woman who would do anything to get what she wanted.” Leigh feels like Jason’s only hope. She will take the physical and figurative hits for him. Even when she tries to move on with her life, Jason continues to haunt her. Then in 2011, everything changes. She learns that Jason has died in a motorcycle accident. The book cycles mostly between 2007 and 2011, and recounts Leigh’s mental exercise in recognizing her abuse, processing her grief, and at last, attempting to heal.
While reading, I couldn’t help but picture my own wild thing. I’ve always been a good girl. I was raised to follow the rules and do what was asked of me. The guys I dated were Nice Jewish Boys (NJBs), who my mom applauded and who I smiled at, uninterested. What I craved was the bad boy. In college, I ventured slightly out of my comfort zone and met a poet at my first frat party. It felt like he and I were the most uncomfortable people in the room, and we started talking over my first drink ever. He had an entrancing accent; troubled eyes; a murky past; and was also, I later found out, a severe alcoholic. I was in trouble, but I didn’t turn away.
Stein’s book made it easier for me to see why I would make that choice, and continue to make those choices even after I supposedly learned my lesson. I recently got the chance to talk to her about the book and the puzzling cycle of abusive relationships for FORTH Magazine. We also discussed her various dimensions of grief after Jason’s sudden death, as well as her dependence on the Internet to make friends and get her voice out to the world. Plagued by depression as a young girl, Stein felt comforted by the burst of life that Jason gave her, even if the experience was largely abusive. “If you’ve never experienced it,” she told me, “you might think, why is she with that asshole if he’s such a dick to her, and she says it’s so bad? But it’s not so bad all the time — sometimes it’s amazing.”
This is how the young brain works, Stein said. That wonderful “sometimes” is enough to justify all the not-so-wonderful other times. She told me that she’s done some research: The prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and behavioral control, doesn’t stop developing until we’re 25. This, Stein said, could be why “people become addicted to drugs and alcohol when they’re young. Of course they want to try, and then they become hooked and can’t control their behavior. That’s what happened with Jason. I was young; he was young. I couldn’t say no.”
Not being able to say “no” is something I’ve heard as early as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in elementary school, then again in health class in junior high, and again in Sex Ed in high school. It would seem we’d be able to get it into our heads by now. But the good girl complex makes us resistant to displeasing, and we’re often those girls that say “yes” to everyone and then end up overwhelmed by promises we make that we can’t deliver. Addiction is often invisible in the same way that abuse or depression can be. Depression, Stein told me, makes women more vulnerable to abuse, and vice versa. As a person who has experienced bouts of depression, I asked her about criteria. I’m often frustrated by criteria provided by the DSM-V — a manual on mental health (not one easily digested by the lay-person). In a similar way, people often think there are criteria for abuse. If there are no bruises to prove it, was I abused? In Land of Enchantment, Stein tells us that abuse, like depression, can live beneath the surface, that emotional abuse can be even more painful and long-lasting than physical abuse.
It seems as though for me, Stein’s book came out too late. If I had had the opportunity to read it in college, I might have avoided some heartbreak. But sometimes the only way to understand something is to go through it yourself. While I hadn’t heard anything bad from my peers about the poet, I just had a bad feeling I couldn’t name. The day I officially became his girlfriend, there was a massive hurricane — the corniest omen I could have expected. (Almost as corny as Leigh meeting Jason at an audition for a Greek tragedy.) I called my mom and she told me to get out of the relationship. Curiosity and boredom with my follow-the-rules philosophy got the better of me though, and I decided to wait out the storm instead.
It took a month for me to realize that the omen and my mom (as always) were correct. I would walk home alone at night after the poet dismissed me coldly from his apartment. A friend of mine found him one morning passed out under a bench. He had cut his face in a fist-fight that he said was from a fall on the street and covered it with makeup. He told me he thought about killing himself, but didn’t want to scare me away. He didn’t want to be the good boy. He didn’t know how to be good. I felt sorry for him and wanted to help, but knew I needed to get out.
In a similar way, the last time Jason visits Leigh is in New York years later. She has great friends and is enjoying her prestigious new job. The visit starts out with as much excitement as when they first met, until Jason hooks up with a bartender. He has another manic episode when Leigh invites him out with her friends. She realizes it’s over for good, and she just wants him to leave.
I knew it was over with the poet when we went home for spring break. Stein’s book made me think about the reasons I wanted him in the first place. He needed help, and I was available. I was bored and craved his intrigue, his foreignness. I didn’t want to be treated like a princess. I wanted to be treated like a confidante or therapist. In a way I loved to feel miserable with him. Then I realized I spent way too much time trying to fix someone who didn’t seem to want to be fixed.
Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart, echoes my sentiments in her blurb of Stein’s book: “I wish I could give this memoir to my younger self, and to all those smart, deeply feeling girls who so easily mistake intensity for intimacy.” This intensity, Stein told me, is something that feels like love, and sometimes is indistinguishable from it. The success of abuse is attributable to its duality. One moment, you hate each other, and the next, you don’t know how you could ever live without each other.
Leigh writes that though her mother, like mine, warned her about Jason’s empty promises, she remained “his believer, the one person in his life willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Finally, with the aid of therapy, antidepressants, and a new attitude, Stein was able to siphon her painful experience into something good. After Jason’s death, Stein started following a Facebook group devoted to women writers, which led her to found a nonprofit organization called Out of the Binders that encourages women to pursue careers in film and television.
Stein’s Land of Enchantment teaches us that it’s not cowardly to retreat at signs of trouble. Early on, she quotes a torch song by John Moore that I think sums up the nature of the good girl’s eternal obsession with the wild thing: “It no longer matters why she loved her mediocre man while he was there, all that matters is that she loves him now [that] he has gone.”