Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir
by Cris Mazza
Jaded Ibis Press, 2013
Includes soundtrack, Time Stroll, composed and performed by Van Drecker (with Mark Rasmussen on tenor sax)
“The writing of this book is the story.”
Reading Cris Mazza’s memoir is a truly jolting experience. There is so much going on all at once that the emotion there is nearly overwhelming. She makes it obvious to you what she’s thinking in present time, but Something Wrong With Her is also like stepping into the past with the help of journal entries, letters, doodles, textbook quotes, jazz terms, excerpts from Mazza’s past publications, and the memories and emails of her dear friend Mark. The book doesn’t really have an ending point because it’s alive; what she wrote about is still happening. Let me back up.
“I hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel.”
Something Wrong With Her begins as an attempt to find the origins of Mazza’s anorgasmia (the inability to experience orgasm) and ends up being a love story that spans decades. You may be asking, “Why didn’t she edit the memoir so it has more cohesion, or maybe do two memoirs?” Mazza acknowledges this in the introduction. Throughout the memoir she includes jazz terms (which she defines in footnotes) and uses jazz as a model for how she pieces together this large book: “A jazz chart sometimes provides only sketchy information: the key, the meter, the main melody, something that might only take thirty seconds to play if taken literally. But no one asks, ‘What does this tune intend to accomplish?’ as readers of book manuscripts sometimes insist upon knowing up front.” The jazz terms can be complex if you’re not a little familiar with that world, but if you don’t get all of them (I didn’t), you’ll be fine (I was). They basically enhance rather than create understanding. But let’s back up again–the memoir starts out discussing “frigidity” or “sexual dysfunction.”
As time and social attitudes change, the reasons Mazza assumes for her “sexual dysfunction” change, too. Before sexual harassment laws, Mazza was harassed, like many women, but what does this do to her sense of self and her attitude toward her sexual body? When a teaching mentor suggested she masturbate to relax a bit, or when her boss suggested they needed a secretary with great legs, these moments also changed Mazza–really, what do these moments mean? Who has the right to discuss her body (or comment on someone else’s, thereby comparing one body to Mazza’s), and what are the long-term effects?
“It isn’t all about sex. But my shit is all concentrated there.”
The treatment of her male peers also dig into Mazza’s sexual self-esteem when her male “friends” in high school ask to practice feeling up her body so they’ll know what to do with their own girlfriends. One boy pins Mazza down and plays a sick game called “see if you can get out of this one.” A number of times she is told that she has nothing to offer (sexually) or that she doesn’t put out when she should or that touching her is sinful. These may be moments with which Mazza’s readers can relate, but how did they affect Mazza differently? She believes this is love, that she is meant to enjoy the way boys make her feel because everyone else seems to be into it. There becomes a lifelong desire to appear necessary or be needed, which she accomplishes by working 40 hours a week in an office during college when she is only paid for 10. She constantly is assaulted by the question, “What is wrong with me?”
The one person who is there, from 11th grade forward, is Mark (yes, the Mark who plays sax on the soundtrack). What appears an obvious (to the reader) desire to express his love to Mazza, both verbally and physically, is mistranslated into assault in 18-year-old Mazza’s eyes. How is that possible? Further back we go…
Mazza explores her aversion to the human body, namely her own. She refers to her own breasts as “blobs,” covering them with a wash cloth while in the bathtub so that she need not see them. She even mistakes the discharge that comes with ovulation for a yeast infection that comes back every month. Mazza expresses through writing and quotes from writers like Erica Jong that the smell, appearance, and overall “dirtiness” of the female body is something with which she wants no part. Why would anyone want that part of her? The writing obsesses over this theme of what makes a person: her actions, choices, desirability, her sexual body? Mark’s desire for Mazza may be viewed as the overzealous nature of a teenage boy, or it could be interpreted as Mazza taking all her previous experiences with jerks from school and placing her fears between her and Mark.
“[My writing group seems] to want the book to confine itself to one purpose and drive toward that like a train that doesn’t switch tracks, barely even glances at the scenery rushing past, and certainly doesn’t derail, as [Something Wrong With Her] appears to be doing.”
Mark and Mazza spend years dancing around each other, never “getting it together,” and a lot of that might have to do with the way Mazza becomes stuck when she feels she is in a place where she is needed. She continues working in the same office for years during and after college, always finding new ways that allow her to stay there when she should move on. When she is forcefully ejected from the office, she completely falls apart: “Basically, I was almost constantly crying, about to cry, apologizing for crying, crying because I’d had to apologize for crying (another childish behavior), and then crying because I didn’t know what I was really crying about.” Mazza frequently calls herself childish in her memoir, but this passage to me suggests that Mazza is apologizing for being alive–for “inflicting” herself on others by breathing in the same space. I’ve read there are some women who will bump into an object and apologize to it, and I can see this young Mazza being one of those women. It’s also in this section where a connection between sex and sexual desire and being apologetic comes together: IS something wrong with her, as Mazza questions, because she doesn’t function sexually like other women seem to? It seems that every time she reaches a pivotal stage of personal development someone awful is there to suggest to her that yes, she is broken.
The result is that this memoir circles around these key moments with inappropriate individuals, sometimes repeating the same passages word-for-word. Many moments are re-explored because Mark, who now has reconnected with Mazza (30 years later! Practically the stuff of fiction!), adds in his ideas about what happened and how their dance affected his life. Really, we see a woman trying to wrap her head around what on earth was/is going on, and this is why reading Something Wrong With Her is like existing inside another’s head for 390 pages.
An interesting point I learned is that Mazza has been trying to think through her “sexual dysfunction” for much longer than I might have supposed. Throughout the book she quotes her published novels and stories to demonstrate that her thoughts have been on sex, but she may not have realized what the reason or result was. When she writes a story using a scene that actually happened between her and Mark in a bar, she admits she implies that the fictionalized male possibly raped the woman in the past, and so things are complicated between them. Some stories are close to Mazza’s life but rewritten to be more sexual, when the author wasn’t having sex at the time she wrote the story. Also, Mazza admits most of her female protagonists have gone through name changes, significant if you consider the fact that Cris Mazza was not born with the name she now uses. Reading through Mazza’s interpretations of why she wrote what she did in stories that date back decades is interesting, like sitting down and interviewing her on her writing process. You may finish Something Wrong With Her feeling like you know Mazza, perhaps better than herself.
INTERVIEW with Cris Mazza about Something Wrong With Her–
GTL: Revision can be one of the most frustrating parts of writing. How difficult was it to revise a “living memoir,” and was it difficult to know where it “ended”?
CM: Where it ended was a problem. I thought I knew, but then while the MS was being read, or waiting to be read, there were other developments in the “real life” part of the memoir story. That’s why I have dated boxed inserts and footnotes that are later than the date of the last chapter (which was in January 2010). I decided I didn’t want to have that original “ending” be a false ending, or like a bombastic piece of music that just keeps coming to a finale only to keep on going afterwards. BUT then, during a final revision, I did decide to add the last page after that ending, just because things in the “real life” story had developed so far, I didn’t want it to end on a note of that much uncertainty as far as Mark’s future was concerned.
Revising also presented the same kinds of problems. Just fixing sentences or deleting surplus wasn’t difficult, but every time Mark read a portion, he would have new comments and insights too valuable not to include, so I would date them and get them in there. Thus the scattering of all sorts of dates which I’m sure most readers won’t look at that closely. Nor do they have to, unless they truly want to map out the entire evolution of our understanding of each other. I’m not even sure I could do that, though.
GTL: While reading, I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu because many sections of Something Wrong With Her repeat, sometimes word-for-word. What made you decide to use repetition as a tool for telling your story?
CM: Partly I did it because the “core story” of the book involved such small events, partly because I was digressing so long before I answered the central question, partly because I found it interesting how much an event would change each time I referred to it or dramatized it, and partly because repeating and developing or playing with the main theme is how music works, particularly jazz.
GTL: In Something Wrong With Her, you quote one of your old journals. You wrote that you wanted people to read your work and then they “look at [you] afterwards, and [you] can see what [you] put on paper coming out in their eyes.” Have you seen this memoir reflected back at you yet?
CM: Yes, from Mark while we were finishing it, but he’s a jazz musician so things don’t come out his eyes, they always come back thought about, mulled over, and improvised to both echo the original idea and add to it (or ask a question about it). I’m not sure my college-girl description of affecting readers has ever really happened like that with a published book. Probably because I don’t hang out waiting for people to finish like I might have done then.
GTL: You quote many stories and novels that you wrote prior to Something Wrong With Her in the memoir because you realized that you’ve been “reflexively seeking to explain [your] sexual bankruptcy.” Do you think there will be a marked change in your fiction writing now that you’ve explored “sexual dysfunction” so in depth in this book?
CM: Good question, and time will tell. Perhaps I will no longer be exploring that series of unresolved relationships with older men. But I think human beings’ relationships to their sexuality and their own sexual pasts will always be an interest of mine.
GTL: Are you working on anything new?
CM: I started a project that could turn into a novella and series of related personal essays, concerning lifelong regrets, going back to pick up pieces, and (the novella) men in abusive relationships.
I want to thank Jaded Ibis Press from a reviewer’s copy of Cris Mazza’s book in exchange for an honest review. Full disclosure: I have stories published in two anthologies from Jaded Ibis Press.