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Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty's Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books.

Blurbs

"This is the book Lidia Yuknavitch was put on the planet to write for us."

– Rebecca Brown, author of The Gifts of the Body

"This intensely powerful memoir touches depths yet unheard of in contemporary writing."

– Andrei Condrescu, author of The Poetry Lesson

"Reading this book is like diving into Yuknavitch's most secret places."

– Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

"The book is extraordinary."

– Chuck Palahniuk, author of Pygmy

"This is the book I've been waiting to read all of my life."

– Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch

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Chapter 18: How To Ride a Bike

07/05/11

It’s fitting that yesterday we talked about fathers and Lidia’s attempt to humanize hers, because today’s chapter deals with a pivotal moment in their relationship. After yesterday’s chapter, in which Lidia unpeels the layers of her father’s story (his career, his time as an artist, his service in the war, and his own absent father), this chapter provides a startling jump back to the version of her father we’ve come to know.

In “How To Ride A Bike” Lidia is ten, her sister has run away from home, and, as a consolation, her father brings home a “hot pink Schwinn with a banana seat and streamers coming out of the handlebars” (pg. 107). But instead of letting Lidia’s excitement translate into determined practice, her father forces her to ride the bike for the first time, pushing her clumsily around the neighborhood streets, getting angrier and less patient as her feet fail to move, as her ten-year-old body fails to balance:

“Goddamn it, I said put your feet on the pedals. . . . I said look up, goddamn it. . . . Don’t cry, for christ’s sake. . . . Would you please pedal? For christ’s sake” (pgs. 108-109).

This is not the idyllic scene of a little girl learning to ride a bike for the first time. This is not the cinematic moment where the music swells and the frame slows while a father lovingly teaches his daughter how to ride a bike, gingerly brushing off her sweater in between benign falls. This scene is aggressive and violent: Lidia is scared and stunned at the hands of her raging father. It’s important to note that while what’s literally happening is that Lidia’s father is teaching her how to ride a bike, what is implied is a figurative rape: he forces her to relinquish control of her body, he forces her to engage in an act that is terrifying and physically painful, and he forces her to keep going even when she asks him to stop.

What happens when her father takes her to the top of a hill and lets her go without any real instruction on how to steer or brake is gruesome, humiliating, and culminates in a violation of Lidia’s girlish body. This, in a way, is Lidia’s loss of innocence.

The perversion of this typically idyllic scene is startling. We feel Lidia’s fear. We feel her physical pain. We also feel, when she steels herself against tears, how immensely this moment must have shaped her life. I can’t help but think of Lidia’s insight on page 76 that “damaged women . . . don’t think [they] deserve kindness” and how this moment must have confirmed that conviction.

I have a hard time explaining this to people who have never experienced it themselves, but I’ll try: when you grow up in an environment in which your comfort, safety, and happiness are not paramount, you grow up to be a person who believes that your comfort, safety, and happiness are not paramount. If your parents do not make you feel loved and safe and respected, you will never know that you can (or should) feel anything other than unloved, unsafe, and disrespected.

For Lidia, the trauma of learning how to ride a bike desensitizes her. All of what was innocent in her (her tears, her vulnerability, her thin skin) is broken. In the wake of her trauma, Lidia is left “Bleeding. Bleeding. But not crying. For years and years, after that” (pg. 111).

One of the wonderful things I learned in therapy was that we, as adults, can be our own protectors. So many of our behaviors are leftover defense mechanisms from childhood: how we were neglected, how we were abandoned, how we were made to feel unimportant. But the good news is that we aren’t ten years old anymore. We can protect ourselves. We can nurture ourselves. We, wonderfully, can be our own parents.

Of course, it’s not all hunky-dory, problem-solved. Even if you’re fully capable of nurturing and being kind to others, nurturing and being kind to yourself can be a constant battle. Here’s one way that works for me: I think of what I would say to my children if they were in a similar situation. What would I say to my daughter if she were in love with a man who had never loved her? What would I say to her if she were on the precipice of change and suddenly terrified? I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t say: I wouldn’t say, “Get over it” or “Stop being such a baby” or “You’re so pathetic” or any number of things I say to myself in moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. What I would say is something more along the lines of “Darling girl, be strong. You will be okay because you are kind, resourceful, resilient, and brave.”

I should clarify: I don’t actually have any children of my own.

So, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I will: sometimes I go as far as to write them letters. Instead of sitting on my couch and hating myself for not being strong enough, or smart enough, or perfect enough, I write letters to my unborn children telling them what to do if ever they find themselves in a similar situation.

Here is one that I wrote last year:

Recently I lost the most significant person in my life. Thankfully he is not actually lost. He is alive and well, living and existing just fine without me, and I am grateful for that. Grateful that he is not lost forever.

What I have felt since has been awful. It has been a combination of sadness and a sense that “this is all my fault.” Try as I may to dissuade it, it’s there: I am too fat, too quiet, too uninteresting, too indecent, etc. What all of that self-criticism distills down to is the belief that I am unlovable. Even while I put on a determined face and agree with my friends that he is an asshole and a jerk and all the other typical man-hating tropes, even while I feel angry and hurt and rationally right, what I feel underneath all of that is, “He doesn’t love me because I did something wrong, because I am wrong. He doesn’t love me because I don’t deserve to be loved.”

[See above re: damaged women not believing they deserve kindness.]

The dialogue in my head goes like this: “He wants to be with seven other women instead of me because no one would want to be with me.” Never do I question him. Never do I ask myself what kind of person would want to be with seven other women instead of me, the girl he called his “other half,” the girl he called his best friend. Never do I stop focusing so much on what I did wrong and ignoring the more obvious questions: What did he do wrong? What is wrong with him?

This is what I think: when someone who has always loved you—who is supposed to love all of you—suddenly, without explanation, does not, it is not your inability to be loved that is to blame, it is their inability to love.

People are inherently damaged. We come into the world pure: smooth skin, blue eyes, soft fingernails. And we harden. We scar. Our skin thickens, our nails crack. All we can do is try to map our scars. All we can do is try our best to be kind—to others and to ourselves. We are not responsible for anyone else’s inability to be kind or understanding.

You are not responsible for anyone else’s inability to be kind or understanding.

This is what I know: if someone is not capable of loving you the way you deserve to be loved (because, believe me, you deserve to be loved well), they do not deserve to love you.

OK. Your turn. What are the ways in which you take care of yourself when you are at your lowest?

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24 Comments

  1. ydde said on 07/05/11 at 12:31 pm Reply

    Another great post, Emily.

    Frightening, even to read commentary on this chapter, the way aggression can be so terrifying and so powerful.

    Things like that break my heart, even to hear second or third hand about. It hurts me to know that people are cruel, and that sounds so strange, but mostly what gets me to that lowest of the low are things like that. Knowing people are cruel, that love is hard and rarely there when you most need it, that the most beautiful people can hate themselves for things that are not their fault.

    When I’m at my lowest, I usually write letters to other people, most of them only in my head, and I spend all night just pouring words into the ether, wishing things were not how they are.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/05/11 at 8:28 pm

    YDDE, it’s always so wonderful to see your name in the comments here. You should collect all those letters, turn them into an epistolary memoir.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/05/11 at 9:14 pm

    That is such a great idea, Molly. Do it, YDDE!

    ydde said on 07/05/11 at 9:43 pm

    Oh man, that would probably be really embarrassing for me. But, I mean, too, it’s probably the most honest kind of writing, when you’re not worried about who or what or why, but just need need need to get the words out, whether they make sense or not, whether structure and form exist at all within them.

    I wrote a triptych novel that came out the same way, all at once, in three days, and, man, it’s too much for me to even read it now, because I forgot to cover my head and bury all the facts in the sand. It’s mostly about film, but it’s mostly about death and the difficulty of love. But even that’s too embarrassing for me, probably never seeing the light of another’s day.

  2. Molly Gaudry said on 07/05/11 at 6:08 pm Reply

    “What are the ways in which you take care of yourself when you are at your lowest?”

    I watch Amelie in bed on my laptop.
    I drink mugs of warm milk with sugar.
    I go to coffee shops and splurge on cappuccinos.
    I wear pajamas all day.
    I have Netflix On-demand marathons.
    I watch The Golden Girls on Hallmark.
    I read Margery Sharp novels (Cluny Brown’s my fav).
    I lie down outside and stare at the clouds.
    I sing “Good morning, Reiny” to my dog in the morning.
    I paint my toenails.
    I wear too much makeup.
    I sleep a lot.
    I call my mom.
    I read blogs and leave comments more than usual.
    I crochet baby blankets.
    I text everyone in my phone that I don’t normally text.
    I try to smile at strangers.

    Reply

    Jordan Blum said on 07/05/11 at 6:22 pm

    I’ve heard that Amelie is a good movie. Am I the correct audience for it, though?

    Emily Lackey said on 07/05/11 at 7:04 pm

    We should all create a list like this that we can pull out when we’re feeling low. Thanks for sharing some of your ideas, Molly. I’m totally stealing some. :)

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/05/11 at 8:25 pm

    Jordan, Amelie is one of my favs. I think you’d like it.
    Emily, make your own list here and I’ll steal some of yours!

    ydde said on 07/05/11 at 9:37 pm

    Everyone is the correct audience for Amelie. Such a great film, and it makes you feel so good inside.

    I definitely tend to medicate with heavy doses of films and netflix is likely the greatest invention since the internet.

  3. Jordan Blum said on 07/05/11 at 6:20 pm Reply

    Emily, thank you for sharing such intimate words. I felt your pain as I read your letter, and I love your outlook on loving ourselves (and screw whoever doesn’t love us). Also, your connecting of the bike incident to rape is spot on and perfectly states why it’s so important.

    When I’m at my lowest, I reflect on all that I’ve accomplished so far with my life. I realize that I have done a lot for someone my age and I did it all myself. I also listen to music and play video games (but that’s a more blunt and less poetic answer). Occasionally I’ll write a poem or story, but I rarely do (maybe I should).

    Reply

    Jordan Blum said on 07/05/11 at 6:23 pm

    Maybe I’m gender stereotyping here, but I’m surprised neither of you mentioned listening to Tori Amos haha. I think she’s incredible.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/05/11 at 8:27 pm

    Jordan, that’s a nice comment you left for Emily. Um, I have never listened to Tori Amos. Who’s Tori Amos? Am I totally missing out?

    Emily Lackey said on 07/05/11 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks, Jordan! I think Tori Amos would aid in the wallowing, not the lifting up. And oh my GOD, Molly. You’ve never heard of Tori Amos? You’re kidding right?!

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/05/11 at 8:41 pm

    Did she play God in Dogma?

    Emily Lackey said on 07/05/11 at 9:13 pm

    I think that was Alanis Morissette.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/05/11 at 9:17 pm

    Oh.

    ydde said on 07/05/11 at 9:38 pm

    That was highly humorous to me.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/05/11 at 10:19 pm

    :)

    Dawn. said on 07/06/11 at 12:10 am

    Ohmygawd Molly. Tori Amos needs to get in your life. Particularly ’90s Tori Amos. Watching her bang the shit out of a piano and wail like some wild goddess when I was 11 confirmed my few-years-old suspicion that I’m into girls lol.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/06/11 at 12:45 am

    I shall taketh thyselfeth straight to YouTubeth forthwith.

  4. Jordan Blum said on 07/05/11 at 10:15 pm Reply

    *slaps head8*

    Reply

  5. Dawn. said on 07/06/11 at 12:05 am Reply

    People are inherently damaged. We come into the world pure: smooth skin, blue eyes, soft fingernails. And we harden. We scar. Our skin thickens, our nails crack. All we can do is try to map our scars. All we can do is try our best to be kind—to others and to ourselves. We are not responsible for anyone else’s inability to be kind or understanding.

    You are not responsible for anyone else’s inability to be kind or understanding.

    This is so beautiful, Emily. I want to print it out and hug it.

    Books and HBO/Showtime shows are my chief sanctuaries when I’m low. Also, smoothies or milkshakes. :)

    Reply

    Emily Lackey said on 07/06/11 at 8:29 am

    Oooh, milkshakes. I’m making a list similar to Molly’s, and I’m definitely adding that!

    Emily Lackey said on 07/06/11 at 8:30 am

    Oh, and: thanks! :)

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