‘Something Wrong with Her is a memoir told in linked essays, with each chapter a kind of formal experiment. Essay titles include “I Write as a Charlatan,” “Interlude: Subtone: I Say Scared, You Say Scary,” and “Riffing: Girls with Long Dark Hair”; these titles point both to a jazz term (interludes, subtones, riffing) and the overarching theme of writing one’s sexual history. These experiments attempt to replicate the feeling and form of jazz via language. Too, each essay-chapter is comprised of literal traces of previous selves: fiction taken from Mazza’s other published works, emails, fragments from her diary, photos and marginalia.
‘Jazz is a cerebral form, yes, but it’s also an embodied one — aficionados discuss its coolness, its soulfulness, its heart. What powers this hybrid, fragmented text is the existential tension between mind and body. Mazza struggles to wrap her head around what seems to come so intuitively to others: how to live sensually in a body. Her language resists the sensory, a neat trick when done in the mode of creative nonfiction.
‘Contemporary essays and memoirs both are often saturated with details of body and place. Consider the rough-hewn descriptions of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: the backpack that digs into shoulders and hips, sloughing off flesh; the narrator pausing on her trek to have sizzling sex with a stranger. Mazza’s form resembles jazz, yes, in its precision and improvisation on a theme. But it also resembles the mental control executed by the jazz musician as she riffs on but never loses her melody: every word chosen points back to its maker’s struggle to access the world by way of the body.
‘This cerebral focus is the book’s great strength. Mazza’s intellect is incisive — at times bordering on cruelty toward her former self — as she burrows deep into her psyche to uncover what in other memoirs might be referred to as the originary trauma: a failed sexual encounter with the man she retroactively anoints the love of her life. Mazza refuses to read this moment as being a site of origin, or of being irrevocably traumatic, however. She seeks out this man years later, then rewrites the lost years they might have shared as an obsessive wrestling with their relationship’s dissolution.
‘Something Wrong with Her leaves unconfessed whether Mazza ultimately reuinites with her former lover, or if the string of heartfelt emails they exchange is all there is or ever will be. Its subtitle, a memoir in real time, necessitates this final opacity — a happy ending would resolve on a major chord, and this book, rightly, ends on a minor seventh. In this choice, I hear Dederer’s plaint, that “if questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.” Mazza’s work, via form and content, occupies a space of existential doubt: how do we write through both the mind and the body? How does the act of writing and compiling our past selves influence who we get to be in the present? And how does women’s writing about sex especially foreground these difficulties?’ — Brooke Wonders
Cris Mazza Site
Cris Mazza @ Twitter
Lust as Violent as a Hernia
There’s Nothing Funny About Not Being Able to Orgasm
Cris Mazza interviewed @ Bookslut
On Losing It and Other Chick Stuff
A Catalogue of Possible Forewords
“Are We Ready to Read Cris Mazza Yet?”
An Alt-X Interview with Cris Mazza
Fixing “What’s Wrong”
Cris Mazza @ FC2
Didn’t Say No
Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?
Feature Illustrations: Cris Mazza Memoirs
How Cris Mazza Became a Writer
Q & A with Cris Mazza
“Many Ways to Get It, Many Ways to Say It”
Buy ‘Something Wrong with Her’
Cris Mazza – UHV/ABR Reading Series
Trailer: Anorgasmia, a film by Cris Mazza and Vitale
College of DuPage – Writers Read Series: Cris Mazza
from The New Inquiry
Megan Milks: The forensic methods you adopt in this memoir are fascinating, especially from a writer’s perspective — you frequently turn to your fiction as evidence for how you have understood or made sense of your life, and the people in it, often on the same pages in which you turn to old journal entries for similar insight. Do you see your fiction as a form of life-writing?
Cris Mazza: My fiction should be able to stand on its own, without a reader’s knowledge of my life, and be or say whatever it’s going to be or say as an entity. So far, from critical reviews through my career, it has and does — often surprising me with the nuances and ideas critics locate. But fiction, mine or anyone else’s, can be life-writing if one looks at it purposely in that way, and with the various spotlights provided by other kinds of artifacts: letters, journals, memories, other people’s memoirs, etc. Or, seen another way: A writer’s fiction is just one more artifact to examine in excavating that writer’s life.
At first I went back to my fiction to help stimulate my memory about the events that had provoked the stories or novels. That helped some, but laying the fiction side-by-side with journal entries, letters, and my memory (the most flawed of my tools) allowed me to look at what I’d done to the experience to make it work as fiction. For the most part the utilization, the changes, do make the fictional unit work better as a story, a novel, as art. But even when the alterations, additions, deletions, etc. are for the benefit of the fiction, looking at specific choices when turning experience into fiction showed layers of my relationship with the experience at the time.
For much of your career you’ve been known as a sexual provocateur — this memoir is provocative and tell-all in a much different way. Was it a difficult decision to commit to this project? What led you to tell this story now?
“It” was in every layer of life: friends, social/professional networks before those on the internet, conferences, students, student work, other forms of manuscript reading, and now Facebook, blogs, and — always present — published works. “It” being: open, free, uninhibited, hungry, and complete female sexuality, not just flagrantly (and insultingly) used by advertisers, but imbued in the sensibilities of women, in how they talked, related personal stories, presented themselves: sexual beings whose lives were made complete by it. Like anyone who got tired of responding one way when you feel another, enough was enough.
Since I came of age long after the ’60s sexual revolution, there was no “honor” or “virtue” in the status of being a virgin. I read the breakout books of the next generation, notably Fear of Flying. It’s appropriate that the word “Fear” came in the title, but Erica Jong’s character was not afraid of sexual contact. I saw, in reading, only women who were frustrated by being unfulfilled by unimaginative sex partners, by stultifying marriages, by being defined by a stereotype of female sexuality with no encouragement for them to express their true sexuality. I saw women who knew what they wanted sexually, who were bold enough to seek it, who still retained the vulnerabilities of being human but were made more complete — even powerful — by the completeness of their sexual experiences. This was before the onslaught of memoirs, and before memoirs ventured into incest and sexual abuse. Even when sex was hurting women, the “recovery” part of their stories seemed to include a road to sexual completeness. When memoirs entered the territory of sexual excess, it wasn’t always the case that sexuality was hurting women. Women were now powerful: the sexual surrogates, the dominatrix, the sex workers, portraying their careers enthusiastically without claiming to be victims.
Then using delight in sex became many women’s way of expressing themselves on every topic. It seemed as though one had to reveal how lusty or orgasmic they were no matter the subject being responded to. Pretending anymore was no longer an option for me. I started to get bitchy (if I even joined a Facebook thread), but there’s no isolation like hiding what you really feel (or don’t feel).
Something Wrong with Her is many things at once: an investigation of your sexuality and sexual history, an analysis of past relationships, an excavation of your journals and stories, a performative memoir…It’s also in many ways a collaborative love story — your lover/friend Mark becoming not just your frequent addressee but also a participant in the writing of the book. Why was it important that Mark become a co-author in certain moments?
The true importance of having Mark participate in the book was a lucky (but predictable) side effect to how natural it was that he should be included. Earlier on, every time Mark responded to something I told him about writing the book, usually a remembered event or person I was focusing on, his responses — question or comment but frequently both — would alter and add to where I thought I was going with all of this. With his written comments (in email) being not only enough to prod me, affect me, change me as I wrote, but also so thoroughly him in character, it almost seemed a shortcut to include him in his own words than to try to describe and characterize him. Besides, he was participating in the book, and it was a book “meant to be read while it was being written,” so how could I not include Mark while and in the ways in which he participated? The final way being to proofread a finished draft and comment on anything more that provoked him. Or maybe that’s not even the final participation, as Mark expressed things in his genre when he played the featured saxophone solos for the jazz suite that was commissioned to accompany this book.
Mark says: I had wanted to tell her what I was thinking for 30 years. Having it be important enough to put into a book, and then to even share in shaping that book, was, at the same time, like a fantasy and as natural as the first email, when I said “Some things have happened that I want to tell you about.”
If the book is one “meant to be read while it was being written” — and, it seems, is still being written, as it’s being read — I’m wondering how you see this kind of approach, which seems to resist interpretive closure, in relation to the formal demands of the memoir, given that the genre seems to necessitate closure of some kind. In particular, how do you see your memoir departing from other memoirs of sexuality and sexual abuse, which so often (as you note above) end in sexual completeness and sexual fulfillment?
Yes, and they also usually end in some kind of new self-understanding, new self-acceptance, new way of approaching sexuality — some form of emerging on the other side of whatever experience it was. On the one hand, I can understand a notion that one ought not write a book until a vital experience or phase of life is complete so that the author/narrator can have the distance to see the whole picture. On the other hand, for me, there was no way to “complete” the experience of anorgasmia. Plus, more importantly, the process of writing the book itself was part of the experience, maybe the most important part of the experience, since without the probing, without the going back to find then discuss it with Mark, so many of the ideas and almost-answers I did discover would have never been there for me to have distance from to put into a big picture, as unresolved a big picture as it may still be. Female sexual dysfunction is almost a non-experience, the opposite of an adventure that you have, then process, then write about. Maybe I also see writing — in the circular, obsessive way this book was written — to be somewhat the opposite of idealized sex, which suggests one shouldn’t be clogging things up with thinking but just doing. I don’t know about closure. I think it’s something we’ve invented to pacify the realization that stress and anxiety and fear and regret are part of being an adult.
In an essay on The Rumpus, you point out the ways in which (certain kinds of) sexuality and sexualization are culturally privileged, rendering stories like yours invisible. The asexual community, which (largely) defines an asexual as someone who does not experience sexual attraction, has done a lot of political work around divorcing asexual experience from sexual dysfunction; and around validating asexuality as a legitimate sexual identity and viable lifestyle. My agenda here is not to suggest that you are/could be asexual — rather, I am wondering what connections you might see between asexuality/asexual politics and your relationship to sexuality and sexual politics.
I don’t think I was trying to carve out a definable identity of the anorgasmic that can be duly recognized and take its place alongside other recognized identity groups. Forming groups as such seems to have a political reasoning, as you suggest, and I’m not sure my relationship with sexuality is political. True, culture in general sets aside the asexual if every message — about anything — is based on sexual desire and desirability. Even the weather channel has girls in sexy dresses telling us the forecast. But the same could be said about obesity, or other forms of being classically unattractive — sexual culture has to ignore them. Except, no, they are bombarded by a part of sexual culture — advertising — in that it is assumed those groups have a hunger to join the culture of the “sexy.” That’s why I am uncertain where I belong. Do I wish I were different than I am, sexually? This would mean I view my sexual identity as being inoperative or malfunctioning, rather than my sexual identity simply being different from the culturally privileged one. And yes, the title of my book, in fact, puts my attitude there. And if my “problem” is rooted in personal psychology — without a sound traumatic reason — then there’s not even the “victim” group to give me political posture. Basically, I was in what felt to be a terra incognita, isolated. Perhaps asexual individuals likewise lived in a similar kind of isolation and could band together with the sexually dysfunctional the way the gay and lesbian communities banded with the transgender community. It’s related but not exactly the same..
Basically, my relationship to sexual politics is that I wanted to stop pretending, and finally said, “Hey, what about me!” That sounds like a conclusion many different identities have come to.
Your comment about not being in the “victim” group here seems important. I listened to your radio interview on “Ask Dr. Love” with Dr. Jamie Turndorf, and I was struck by her urge to read your narrative through the lens of trauma and victimization — something you resist quite strongly in the book, and continued to resist during the interview. What is at stake when it comes to understanding your dysfunction as rooted or not in trauma?
One thing immediately at stake for me is Mark. If I were to cry “victim,” then he would be one of the victimizers. No, this isn’t like an awful Harlequin romance where a woman falls in love with her rapist. We weren’t rapist and victim, we were two kids. He was as scared and inexperienced as I was. I don’t know what it’s like to be an 18-year-old boy filled with so much urgency, feeling the pressures and influences and expectations he got from his environment. He was clumsy, he was overzealous, he was following cues he’d seen and heard, even taunts he’d received about incompetence. The same thing might have turned another girl off, made another girl laugh, led another girl to acquiesce, and another girl to show him a better way. But I panicked, then spent years obsessing on my panic. That alone has to be half the problem.
I say this in full cognizance of the football-team rapes and drunken-party rapes filmed on cellphones, passed around, and the victim further punished. Perhaps there’s more behavior like that in recent years because of what their culture has taught them about their status and entitlements. Unlike the first boy I’d gone with, Mark stopped as soon as I bolted. Dr. Turndorf was right about that first boy who played rape games. Just my bad luck that I was so skittish to start with, and then had him as my first boy-girl experience. Mark never had a chance for anything but disaster.
You spoke in the interview of the tremendous shame that women with anorgasmia and FSD experience in a hypersexual culture, and this is something you address in the Rumpus essay as well. The words themselves — anorgasmia, dysfunction, frigidity, “something wrong with her” — seem to droop with negativity. Is there any way to look at FSD or anorgasmia in positive terms? What if we were to consider these experiences of sexuality as simply more examples of sexual diversity rather than more examples of bodies that need to be “fixed”?
A person born with no legs — like the Olympic runner from Australia — may be an example of body diversity. But a person who experiences a spine injury and becomes paraplegic … would he or she dream of a fix? So, yes, I would see asexuality as sexual diversity. And I admit, something must have been missing from me from the beginning because the fabled “curiosity” that is supposed to drive girls, or whatever physical urges are supposed to overwhelm us in puberty did not happen. Which helped feed my fear when faced with my earliest intimate situations which led that first boy to report on my inadequacy to his friends. Which fed my sense that something was wrong with me. There seems no way out of this circle. Nurture or nature? Which one do we fix?
There are a number of recent or forthcoming books that seem aimed at exploring sex from less, well, “sexy” perspectives. A book by Sophie Fontanel called The Art of Sleeping Alone has recently been translated into English; in the academic world, queer theorist Annamarie Jagose has a new book called Orgasmology that, among other things, considers the fake orgasm to be a productive and valuable invention (as opposed to merely a symptom of sexual repression or bad sex), and Benjamin Kahan has a forthcoming book titled Celibacies. Meanwhile, asexuality is starting to get attention: there’s Anthony Bogaert’s book, Understanding Asexuality, the first on the subject, and my own co-edited volume Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, due out in March. Where does your memoir fit into all this? Are we entering a new cultural moment for thinking about sex?
I’d like to think we are, and I’d love to be part of it. I was never really part of any of the other transformative moments concerning sex, and I so wondered why it was all happening outside of the bubble I apparently lived in. As I mentioned, the sexual revolution of the 60s was before I could’ve participated (although many precocious children my age might’ve been there for that). Then the feminist/sexual-liberation movement in the ’70s, spearheaded by Betty Dodson, famous for her group techniques with nude women sitting in a circle with mirrors, learning how to masturbate. Even when Nancy Friday was collecting narratives of women’s sexual fantasies in the ’70s and ’80s, I couldn’t have participated; my personal fantasies were unambiguously physical comfort, not sexual abandon or curiosity. Meanwhile, by the early ’80s, my fiction was being labeled transgressively sexual. But in my fiction there was almost always a joyless or otherwise grim tone, and the sex fraught with various forms of dysfunction I’ve not experienced — from violence to power transactions, from cold objectification to punishment, and sometimes just a garden-variety warped search for validation.
But part of me is skeptical of the atmosphere changing in a good way. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought someday the progressive political values I and everyone I knew held would prevail, because “we” would come of age as far as leading the country, and the racist, religious, classist attitudes would dwindle into a minority. What a disillusionment. Mainstream culture has come a long way in incorporating ideas and attitudes of gay and lesbian sexuality into its love of “sexiness,” but a person who doesn’t crave or hasn’t ever really enjoyed (or even fears) sex? What can this culture do with that? The books you list show there are pioneers out there, and, again, I’d be beyond honored if I were to be considered among them.
Cris Mazza Something Wrong With Her
Jaded Ibis Press
‘Something Wrong With Her turns away from the bogus story of what’s sexually ‘hot’ to finally tell the story of what’s real and human: the other bodies who don’t fit into this culture of idiotic faux sexual excess. By articulating the chronicle of her own body, Cris Mazza successfully seduces us into questioning the libidinal fictions we’ve been telling ourselves about our own bodies. Beyond brave writing.’ — Lidia Yuknavitch
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I miss the MGM Studios backlot big time. I must’ve taken about a hundred tours of it when I was a kid. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. Yeah, it’s nuts, right? And that Los Feliz river, which was only about three blocks from my current LA apartment. It just literally dried up and finally died in the early 1920s. Yeah, my agent did a hard push recently to do a reissue or consolidation of the Cycle to mark the 30th anniversary of ‘Closer’s’ publication and the birth of the Cycle, but Grove has no interest whatsoever. At some point I think probably the Cycle books will be transferred to some other press. Dalkey Archive told me at one point a few years ago that they would like to republish the Cycle if that’s ever in the cards. We’ll see. ** Amphibiouspeter, Hi. America’s youngness is spooky. If you look at photos of Paris from that same era, it looks almost exactly the same, just with different stores in the storefronts. Yes, do remember to give me updates on how your projects go if it would interest you to share that. I don’t know if it was a bank holiday. Everything was open yesterday, so I guess not? France does love bank holidays. They seem to happen practically weekly. Have a splendid Tuesday. ** Dominik, Hi! I should sneakily film our TV producer with my phone so you can see. She is an outsized, bizarre creature like some wacky, comedic character in a 1940s movie or something who’s been wildly miscast as an authoritarian. Anyway, the proposal is now in ARTE’s hands, and we will wait to see if we’ve managed to sway them. There was a hint/threat at our last meeting with them about them bringing in a professional screenwriter to ‘fix’ our script. That would be a nightmare, needless to say. The synopsis is still flummoxing me, urgh, but Zac and I are doing what I think will be the final edit on the script today, and that’s very exciting if that proves to be the case. There’s a grant we’re applying for whose deadline is in a week and a half, so we kind of have to finish the script now if we want to try for that. You’re heading to Amsterdam on Thursday! So great! I hope the traveling isn’t stressing you because I bet it’ll be totally smooth. How long are you there? What are you pre-planning to do there? That’s very exciting! I think 2019 is probably too soon for the biography to be published, but I don’t know. I’ll ask the author. I didn’t really get out more over the weekend. That turned out to be a bit of a pipe dream. I, yawn, worked mostly, as almost always. I think after Zac and I hopefully polish our script, there might be film viewing in the offing or dinner or both. I don’t know anything about how those things work, but it does make a lot of sense that you opening up to the workshop would be inspiring to them and an encourager for them to do the same. Sounds stressful for you, though. ‘The Sinner’, I didn’t know that but I’ll see what it is. Thanks. We’re going to cross-wries in our travels, right, bleah. No, for the NYC trip I’m actually to just take a short, week-long blog vacation and not post at all while I’m there, give everyone a break and a chance to check out the archives or something. But then I’ll restart the blog again on September 11th. Well, then we might not get to talk again until then. If so, have the most incredible time in Amsterdam (and back at home), and explore the place like crazy, and store your favorite adventures in your memory to tell me when I get to see you next! Lots of love, Dennis. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. At least you didn’t use clove cigarettes. Their stink is worse than a skunk attack. Ah, gotcha on the ambient sound’s interference. It’s good you got solid early takes. Whoever is behind Grasshopper must be stinking rich, god love them. ** _Black_Acrylic, Glad you enjoyed, pal. Have you made any progress, mental or actual, on your next project? ** Misanthrope, I’m not sure I want to give people the opportunity to immediately believe I’m that old. Might be sad. Good: the blood test! My weekend was a drifting by of apparently acceptable flotsam and jetsam too. Excitement is the best internal thing in the entire world, man, so ride it. Into the ancient lake even. ** Nik, Hi, Nik! Sorry I haven’t written to you yet. I’ve been work-swamped, but I will pronto. Yes, we’re a bit, or more than a bit, surprised at how ‘do it by the book’ ARTE is being. I think a lot of that must be because of our inexperience with TV. And, yeah, Gisele has never directed anything ‘on film’ before apart from one music video, and that is an issue, but between all of her theater work and Zac’s and my filmmaking, and so on, you would think they’d both give us a little more credit and not be so hardline about what a ‘TV series’ needs to be. It’s strange. The hope is that we’ve sufficiently beefed up and, urgh, conventionalized our proposal that they’ll start to see the virtue in making something very entertaining in an unusual but hardly experimental way. I mean, we’e not angling to do a ‘Twin Peaks’ or anything that radical. Anyway, thanks for the support. It’s nice to have your crossed fingers bunched up with ours. Wait, you move to Bard today? Wow, I hope that goes really, really well. So awesome! You at Bard is going to be big and great, man. I can feel it, as you can too, I’m sure. All the luck there is! And check in and let me/us know how everything went and is going, yeah? Bon voyage! ** Okay. I realised I had never turned the blog’s spotlight towards the work of Cris Mazza before, and now that problem is rectified. Check it out. See you tomorrow.