The Passion of St. Joan
by Jenna Clark Embrey
I grew up in a lot of places, all of them desolate in their own way, and landed in Hershey, Pennsylvania for high school. With a chocolate factory, a hotel, and a hospital, the town had just enough that most people never thought about leaving. Most boys I knew would spend a year or two in Virginia Beach, or Fort Bragg, and then return to Pennsylvania. Some ambitious girls would eventually move to Manayunk, having married boys from the mainline.
My mother hated grocery shopping, so she would give me and my sister her credit card and the keys to the family van. Unsupervised, we always bought more than we needed, things my mother would never have normally allowed us to buy: Healthy Choice cappuccino ice cream, Honey Nut Cheerios, Baked Lays. She figured the extra $30 we spent was worth it. I always bought magazines. For a year or two it was Seventeen, which I outgrew the minute my high school boyfriend put his hands under my bra. I then tried to bring home an issue of Cosmo, which was swiftly axed due to wordplay on the cover that my mother believed referenced fellatio.
We already subscribed to Time at home, so I decided the next grown-up thing to do was to get Vogue and Elle. With the exception of E.Jean’s advice column, I didn’t understand a word of either. It was a foreign language. I mostly looked at the pictures and tried to translate filler copy on articles about spring handbags and fall textiles. Everything was beautiful. The women were beautiful, the shoes were beautiful, the pages were glossy and thick and felt reliable between my thumb and index finger. It was my ticket out, if I learned to speak the language and make the shapes.
I quickly learned I liked Tom Ford and Carolina Herrara and Helmut Lang. I hated a-line skirts, hated flats, hated jewel tones, loved blonde men in Fair Isle sweaters. In April 2002, Vogue published their annual “Shape” issue. Angelina Jolie was on the cover and in a six-page spread that showed off her “Billy Bob” tattoo. There were floral prints and dark lipstick and in retrospect one realizes how much of 2002 was still very much 1998. Because the issue is the “Shape” issue, Angelina represents “tall,” and a coven of other celebrities represented “athletic” and “curvy” and “pregnant” and “skinny.”
What does “skinny” mean in Vogue? It is the boldest of declarations.
A few years before I started buying Vogue, I learned I liked bones. I liked my bones. I liked when my bones were readily visible. Before I read anything else in the “Shape” issue, I sprinted through to the “skinny” section. I wanted to know who it was that got this prize, upon who Anna Wintour had bestowed this title. I wanted her secrets.
Nestled near the edge of the page and strewn through the binding, there was the skeletal figure of an old woman in high contrast black-and-white. She had a face that didn’t seem real, with deep baboon dishes of eyes and a shallow parentheses frown. She was in a white Armani tank, and the bones in her arms—ulna, radia, tibia, were all perfectly discernible against her white Armani pants. I didn’t know who she was. I looked into her paper-and-ink eyes and I found something. God or myself. Both.
I had never heard of Joan Didion. I had never, not once, been assigned a female author in school. If you had asked me to name one, I’m not sure I would have been able to. But there she was, slick on the glossy pages, the woman herself.
Susan Orlean wrote the article, and reading it again as an adult I recognize that it’s a beautiful, loving piece of art-journalism. But at 15, I read it with some kind of original sin-prescience. Orlean’s main point is that Didion is in contradiction with both her writing and appearance: “You would not imagine such a person to be tiny, which she is…there is something warm and graceful and droll about her, also unexpected in a writer who has so often catalogued her dread, her paralysis, her irritability, her ‘neurotic inarticulateness.’” I felt my chest, my heart, getting ahead of every sentence as Orlean wrote it. To me, nothing about Didion seemed contradictory. It did not surprise me that she was small, or that she had a “sweet voice and a merry laugh.” I didn’t form an image of Didion in my imagination. It was somehow always there, though nameless and faceless until this moment.
At 15 years old, I was not in the process of becoming who I would be. I was born as clearly and perfectly myself as a baby could be, and the anxiety I scrambled through during the next decades of my life was rooted in the belief that something in me was wrong—was horribly, unequivocally incorrect. One of my most distressing fixations was my body. Like my personality, my essential self, my body has barely changed since I was a child. I’ve always had something of a strangely adult build, which isn’t to say that I developed hips and breasts early. I was always thin, but the kind of thinness that forty-year old women have—more sinew than bone, a way of wearing muscle and flesh that looks wholly permanent and inhabitable. In the Vogue article there is a picture of Didion as a young woman, the famous photo that graced the back cover of Play It as It Lays. She has one arm crossed over her stomach, supporting the elbow of the arm that holds a perfectly-cocked cigarette. To see that photo for the first time was to gaze into a looking glass, to confirm that I was not an accident of science. I felt my body tingle with what they call “mirror neurons.” It is the feeling, I think, that babies have when they first realize their reflection is not a stranger, but their own.
I wouldn’t read anything Didion wrote until I left home. The public library didn’t carry her books and the internet was still in its unhelpful, infantile stages. The only things I had were the two photos in the Vogue spread and the two quotes that were nestled in the article. One was from her introduction to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, where Didion says that her physical size was an advantage as a journalist, because people would “forget that [her] presence runs counter to their best interests.” The other quote was the only one that a teenage girl would need, especially one who desperately wanted to escape, to know escape was possible: “Quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again.” I crawled inside those sentences like a womb. She was the only thing I needed.
Discovering Didion was the moment the switch was flipped, when I stopped wanting to have the body of a cheerleader and instead wanted to hold on very tightly to the body I already lived in. I tore Didion’s photo out of the magazine and taped it to my wall. I stared at it every morning and begged, prayed, bargained with the gods to let me become as thin as her. I began starving myself, which wasn’t a new venture so much as a sport I engaged in on and off for years. There is no zealot like a convert, they say.
Like any addiction, eating disorders are a fluid, changeling crutch. It comes back into your life at different times and for different meanings. At that time in my life, anorexia became a thing of faith, less about my body than about my attempt to hold tightly to what I realized was the inner-workings of the woman I would eventually reveal myself to be. I had always felt like an outsider, growing up in a deeply Conservative, deeply Christian environment. Teachers were constantly horrified by me—there was something about how I moved about in the world, alternately quiet and explosive, that was not supposed to occur in my tiny, feminine body. I often wondered if I was secretly transgendered, as I knew that my soul wouldn’t be so alarmingly in a male shape. What I really was, as Orlean said in describing Didion, was “perfectly contrarian.”
There have been many times when I have tried to become something else. A hippie, an athlete, a bombshell—I’ve worn a lot of costumes, trying each time to see if one would feel effortless and therefore worth keeping. I never tried to be Didion, but somehow felt in my gut that my soul was a scrap of the same fabric as hers. This was all based on a two and a half page article, and I know that I must have projected most of my feelings onto her. But reading about her bouts of depression, her propensity to “hurt the people [she] cared about, and insult the ones [she didn’t],” I felt some surge of companionship, thinking she was another certain soul born into a certain body, the combination of which puzzled and frightened many folks. If I could keep my body thin, if I could keep looking like Didion, I could somehow hold onto this small part of reality that said I was a valid being.
Starving myself was easy. It was calm, controlled, and something that felt oddly natural. I have never had a big appetite, and even now I will forget to eat dinner entirely. The body can sustain starvation for a truly remarkable amount of time. It is, at its essence, one of the most primal and human of biological responses. I kept my Didion-like figure for years, but eventually my body rebelled and I ate ferociously, greedily, like threatened wolf. I gained weight seemingly overnight, and kept it for most of the rest of my young adult years, binging at every chance I could. During that time, I felt lost, alien. If I bring myself back to those years, all I can remember is a deep sadness and hate.
I can pinpoint my exact age of adulthood. It was the year I turned 24, and in this year, for reasons that are still mystical, I stopped actively choosing every bad decision that I faced. I still made plenty of mistakes, but they were less traumatic, more pathetically romantic than anything else. What it was was that I stopped making big, irreparable mistakes. At the same time, I found my true hunger again. I started hating the foods I had hated as child, starting leaving a few bites behind when I was full. I started realizing what it meant to be “full” at all. My body changed in response to my new mindfulness, and what I was left with was a body not quite like Didion’s, but one undeniably, naturally thin. It was the body I had always had, just finally coming to the surface again after a decade. It was also at this time that I had truly left Pennsylvania behind and unknowingly grown into being a city-woman, consistent in her contrarian nature and alternately quiet and explosive, in necessary doses.
I didn’t know this transformation was happening as it unfolded, though in hindsight it is clear demarcation in my timeline. Though it wasn’t so much a transformation as a time in which I stopped fighting myself, stopped trying to claw my way to what I thought people expected of me. Shortly after this, I discovered Didion again, but this time it was in her writing. I gobbled up Slouching Towards Bethlehem, bemoaning that she had taken what I thought was the most perfect title there could ever be. When I got to Goodbye to All That, I found that sentence I had clutched to as a teenager. But what comforted me beyond anything was that the same feeling of kinship was there—the heartbeat that I found in Didion’s photo was present on the page, and it still echoed my own. Without trying, without any fight at all, I was what I hoped I would be, some little piece of Didion in my stride.
Jenna Clark Embrey is a writer living in Brooklyn. Boston-born, she received an MFA in Theater Dramaturgy from Harvard. Before making the inevitable switch to nonfiction, her curiously autobiographical plays were produced at such places as the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and Boston Playwrights Theatre. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Newtopia Magazine, McSweeney’s, and The New York Times Online. Learn more at www.jennaclarkembrey.com and on Twitter at @IamJennaClark.