Because it’s broken
by Sady Doyle
It’s easy to read the buddhist as a feminist text. It’s also easy to read it as a book about dissolving the boundaries between high and low art, or a performance piece about obsession, or a book about the abuse of spiritual authority. It’s even possible to read it as simply a book about abuse and its aftermath. Bellamy explicitly acknowledges that her subject — an ex-boyfriend, whose gruesome break-up tactics and even more gruesome post-break-up communications demonstrate him to be an endlessly creative and energetic mindfucker — was psychologically abusive. She acknowledges this about halfway through the book, at which point I was already suppressing the urge to mail her my copy of Codependent No More.
But maybe all of these frameworks are deployed — politics, religion, art, a healthy dose of psychotherapy; all the neat little devices people use to extract meaning from raw experience — precisely because none of them work. The book sucks in frameworks, chews them up, and spits them out, one after another. One after another, each coping strategy is found insufficient to the experience at hand. At its core, the buddhist is a protracted fight between two people for the right to know what happened.
The key story of the buddhist is simple, dull even. It’s also agonizing in a way that only extremely dull processes can be. It goes like this: Girl dates boy; boy is pathologically cold, controlling, manipulative dick; girl and boy break up; girl blogs. Girl thinks it would be a good idea to maintain friendship with boy; it was not a good idea to maintain friendship with boy; boy, as previously stated, is a pathologically cold, controlling, manipulative dick; girl blogs. Girl, sooner or later, invariably thinks it would be a good idea to e-mail boy again. Girl is invariably shocked and wounded when she learns that it was not a good idea to e-mail boy again. In between relapses, girl attempts therapy, complains to friends, opens her heart chakra, researches cult dynamics and New Age scam artists, and generally attempts to explain and/or heal the sucking psychological wounds inflicted by boy. Does any of this ever stop her from e-mailing boy again? No! Does this ever make her any less shocked and/or wounded to learn that he is a dick? It does not! And therefore, girl blogs.
I wanted to shake her. I wanted to tell her, so many times, that returning to the source of the pain is the one guarantee that the pain won’t stop. But then, that wouldn’t work, either; people do tell Bellamy this, many times. People have told me the same thing. (My e-mail inbox was, er. Not pleasant, during the period in which I read this book. At one point, I was slightly confused about why Emily had sent me the book, thinking that it might be her way of staging an intervention.) But trying to force the clarity of distance onto a person caught in this dynamic is like yelling at your broken leg to just go ahead and heal already. It wants to heal; it’s trying to heal; sooner or later, it’s even going to heal. But yelling at the broken leg is not going to get the injured person any closer to running a marathon.
The fact that Bellamy goes back to the buddhist, over and over again — not to reunite with him, not to confront him, but seemingly out of sheer inability to fully believe that he is really so awful — is key. She is attempting to navigate one of emotional life’s more complicated and traumatic processes: Understanding that someone you love has harmed you. Trying to wrestle that story into submission, to reconcile the person you thought you knew with the damage you know you’ve suffered — to “integrate the trauma into acknowledged memory,” as they say — can, under some circumstances, be a struggle to live.
Bellamy’s book is the best document I’ve read of that struggle, precisely because it never offers an actual resolution. It is always, only, an excruciatingly careful account of process; of how one woman slowly, carefully, memory by memory, attempts to tell herself a story that she can believe. Bellamy herself is such a powerful writer — so smart, so convincing, as she types out each new analysis — that I naturally believed her, and nearly missed the fact that she didn’t believe herself.
But consider, for example, the eternal chant of insecurity and uncertainty that is Bellamy’s recurring invocation of “my therapist says:”
My therapist said it’s likely that the buddhist no longer thinks about me, that he’s shut me out of his consciousness, my therapist said that this is not uncommon for a certain type of man (my therapist thinks he’s a classic narcissist)— my therapist says this is a highly effective defense mechanism… My therapist says he’s seen, over and over, the pattern of a depressed guy pulling someone in there with him, and once the person is hooked, he withdraws. My therapist has worked with both the depressed guy half of the equation, as well as the person drawn in. My therapist says that the buddhist is emotionally abusive, and that, based on the battered women he’s worked it’s very difficult to leave an abuser. My therapist says that having a meditation practice, no matter how serious, doesn’t guarantee it will have an impact on personality structure.
No one who is entirely convinced of her therapist’s diagnosis needs to say “my therapist says he is.” She just says “he is.” But Bellamy invokes the therapist, over and over. His authority, his access to sanity, his recognized ability to determine truth. Someone else says it happened, it must have happened. And right next to her invocations of outside authority, there’s her attempt to invoke the buddhist himself, to nail down what he said and when he said it and how true it was:
He said he’d felt pressure to be happy about seeing me, and he didn’t like to be pressured into being any way, and that’s why he wrote the emails. He said he had anger management issues. He said he was notoriously difficult in relationships because he tended to withdraw.
Of course, this is an account of their first date. And of course, she fucked him immediately after he said all this. But she goes back, tries to wring a confession out of the memory, tries to know him. As if knowing him now could ever save the woman she was then. As if gaining mastery of the story could give her any control over its ending. As if she even has a chance of knowing the story itself.
But there is no moral, no conclusive revelation. There’s never anything that any of her friends say, and nothing he says, and nothing she invents, that provides Bellamy with a less unbearable truth. She lets go, not because she’s better, but because she’s tired of trying to get there.
“In the psyche,” Bellamy says, “nothing ever concludes. I’ll never figure out how and why this person came into my life, who he was, how he vanished, what was my role in any of it. Am I better or worse off for knowing him? Has he changed me at all? There is no one way to view the buddhist— when I try to touch him, he dissolves and reshapes just beyond reach.”
There are still aftershocks to come. Rehashing the old fights in new detail, uncovering new revelations and alarming layers of deception, feeling, as she says, “the rage of someone who’s been duped in a real estate scam.” There are Facebook investigations of his girlfriends, which OH GOD NO DODIE WHY. But this is the heart of it, I think: That what matters is not how she views him, or whether she reaches him. What matters is the impossibility of seeing him, and that no matter how long or hard she reaches, they never touch.
What matters is not meaning. What matters is that, with or without the meaning, you still survive.