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
"Yuknavitch has wrestled with the force of her own convictions and given a powerful voice to a badass character born on the literary landscape."
"Dora is too much for Sigmund Freud but she’s just right for us—raunchy, sharp and so funny it hurts."
"With an unerring ear and a very keen eye, Lidia Yuknavitch casts a very special slant of light on our centuries and our lives. Put simply, the book is needed."
I have been waiting for Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel Dora: A Headcase since reading her memoir The Chronology of Water last year. In the memoir, Yuknavitch traces her journey from an abusive childhood and a troubled young adulthood to a middle age of acceptance, but above all, she rewrites what it means to be a woman and a girl in a culture that seeks to keep us silent. She gives voice to the corporeal experience that we girls and women are taught to shroud in shame. She locates creation and destruction in the body. She writes of her scars without flinching. She tells the stories that break the façade of the girl.
In Dora: A Headcase, Yuknavitch creates a girl who takes back her story. The character of Dora is based on the teenage girl at the center of Sigmund Freud’s 1905 case study on hysteria. Freud treated Ida Bauer, who he named Dora in the case study, for aphonia, the loss of voice. Despite her telling him otherwise, he attributes Dora’s hysteria to her unresolved sexual feelings for Herr K., a friend of the family who made advances towards her when she was fourteen. He also traces her symptoms to her repressed desires for her father and his lover Frau K., Herr K.’s wife. In the case study, Freud writes Dora’s story for her. In the novel, Yuknavitch gives Dora her voice.
Yuknavitch’s Dora is a seventeen-year-old punk teen in contemporary Seattle. She is on the cusp of adulthood, but adults treat her as a dependent minor without her own agency. She has suffered from bouts of aphonia after her father’s friend, Mr. K., propositioned when she was fourteen; he backed off only when she drew a pocketknife to her neck and cut a smile into her skin. Much to her frustration, she has yet to have sex. She faints when she becomes physically intimate with another, including her friend Obsidian, a girl from the Coeur d’Alene reservation with whom she is in love. With her posse of queer and misfit friends, she stages art attacks around Seattle. The adults consider these teen behaviors acting out, and Dora’s father sends her to the best shrink he thinks his money can buy, an elderly man she calls Dr. Sig.
“It’s not therapy. It’s epic Greek drama. You gotta study up. You got to bring game,” Dora says of her sessions with Sig. She knows that as a man in a position of authority, Sig has the power to tell her story over hers. And she knows that Sig views her problems through the lens of unresolved sexual issues. So she makes up outlandish dreams that hinge on objects that Sig thinks of as symbols of sexual repression. She likens the cracks on his office ceiling to vaginas. When he asks if she masturbates, she replies, “Do you?” and insists that he has to tell his intimate secrets before she will tell hers. She always carries a Dora the Explorer purse with her, modified with pins and skeletons. Inside the purse, she hides a recorder and tapes it all.
“I consider it my duty to beat Sig’s story of me,” Dora says. She wants to make a mix-tape of her sessions with Sig and snippets of punk music and play it at a rave. That is to say, she wants to recite Sig’s words in her own art. She wants to tell her story in her own voice. She knows that Sig is writing case studies of his patients. But she discovers that his publicist wants to turn the case studies, and in particular her story, into television for the money. Her pathologies would be broadcast on television for mass entertainment. Against her will, she would be portrayed as a “teen little monster girl,” a rebel bad girl who would serve as a catharsis and a warning for parents who believe in their right to absolute control over their children.
In her anger, she plots revenge. She makes a film instead. With the help of her posse, she sets up Sig and captures a horrifying, embarrassing, and absurd sequence involving his dick. She splices these scenes with images of the homeless, cuckoo clocks, nuclear explosions, humping buffaloes. “It’s a movie about everything. This world we live in. The bodies we’re stuck with. The lives we get whether we want them or not. How hard you have to work just to get through a fucking day without killing yourself.” To combat the invisibility of girls and women in the culture, she adds images of female artists who blew up the conventions of their media and made their own art. She considers the consequences of her actions, but she also says, “But you know what I think about more? I think about all the times in my life I didn’t understand what the fuck was happening and no one bothered to explain it to me.”
The plot of Dora: A Headcase is over the top. The pace is manic. It teeters between absurd comedy and the thrill of a chase. I often laughed out loud. Comedy in Dora is not just about entertainment; Yuknavitch uses farce to expose the hypocrisies of our institutions, in particular that of the family and its control over girls’ lives. Dora’s father suffers a heart attack. Her mother disappears to Vienna. At the same time, a raw cut of her film goes viral. Sleazy men stalk Dora and offer her money for her footage and when she refuses, their tactics become more violent. Amid all these traumas, Dora literally loses her voice. Her voice comes back to her as she defends the integrity of her art and her friendships. From the wreckage of her hijinks, Dora recreates herself. From the wreckage of her language, Yuknavitch creates a girl who demands, “I just want my stories to be mine.”