December 2007

Elizabeth Bachner

fiction

The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America by Michelle Tea

The first time I read The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, I thought, Yes. Finally. No book has gotten closer to describing my own experience as a teen American girl, even though I came of age on a different continent than Michelle Tea, and never slept with another girl, and never worked as a prostitute. She captures something so close to the core of contemporary female experience that I want to get trite about it. I want to gush. I want to call her the Voice of a Generation, the New Jack Kerouac.

The autobiographical narrator in Passionate Mistakes is an Aquarius. She works a series of jobs she barely understands, she dresses funny, she tries weird mixtures of drugs and makes out at nightclubs and endures nauseating sex and uses The Courage to Heal with her deceptive, rich-brat girlfriend. She moves to Provincetown and Tuscon, people come into and out of her life, and she transforms, in awful, subtle, obvious, inevitable ways. She’s an activist, a feminist, a Pynk Panther, a grrl poet who’s read Andrea Dworkin (not just read about her), a working-class warrior, and each of these identities holds layers of irony, and terrible traps, and inescapable disappointments. “This is a hard story to tell, everything being tangled up in every other thing,” muses Michelle, but she pulls it off.

Rereading the story almost ten later, in its new, semi-annotated edition -- there’s an interview with Tea in Brandon Stosuy’s forward, and an afterward by Tea’s mentor Eileen Myles -- I am struck by how few real peers Tea has today. I would have expected other chroniclers of the American girl experience, 1987-1992, to come out of the woodwork, to be discovered. I keep waiting for their books to explode onto the scene, to get the kind of adoring press reserved for the Jonathans of Brooklyn or their wives. But instead, Michelle Tea stands alone. There’s raw honesty to every word of this book. Ten years ago, I immediately demanded that my boyfriend read it. Anyone who wants to understand exactly how, why and in what form sexism still exists in America must read it. From the opening scene, in which a member of INXS (sadly, not the singer) uses a lame excuse to feel 14-year-old Michelle’s non-existent boob, Passionate Mistakes is hilarious, irreverent and damning.

Then there’s Michelle Tea’s inimitable turn of phrase. On the creepy father of her goth twin friends: “He wasn’t like a father, he was like a skuzzy guy you had to put up with, like some freak on the bus who you’d tell to fuck off but he was their father and they had to live with him, telling him to fuck off over and over.” On sex with her last heterosexual boyfriend: “If we were left alone for more than five minutes his hand would be on the black denim crotch of his jeans and zip whing his cock was out and I would be expected to do something with it. I was his girlfriend.” On kissing a woman with bad teeth in a nightclub: “I had no idea I wanted to be kissed that way but there it was, like a dream remembered.” On turning a trick for the first time:

…the more I thought about it the funnier it really was until it was hilarious, that a girl could sink to this, the ultimate depths of femininity right, the worst case scenario of womanhood, and that it meant absolutely nothing, this was funny. And strangely liberating, not in a I’ve-Reclaimed-My-Sexuality way because there was nothing of mine to be claimed here. It was the feeling of another societal myth shattering in my cunt, hitting bottom only to discover there was no bottom, only me, and it was possible to go to these places and come back unscathed like a Persephone eating not a few seeds but the whole bleeding pomegranate and flipping off Hades as she skipped out of Hell.

Intricate corruption. That’s what happens to the girl in this book, and what happens to all of us. Maybe it happens growing up poor, or when she finds out that her trusted stepfather has poked holes in all the doors to spy on her. Maybe it happens on the streets of Chelsea, Massachusetts or with skinheads in Harvard Square. Maybe it happens in technical school, or during a misguided threesome. Maybe it happens at the Howard Johnson’s near Fenway, when a lawyer who defends women in sexual harassment cases pays the nineteen-year-old Michelle to jerk him off with hand lotion, telling her, “It’s a shame what men get away with.” Maybe it predates and transcends all of those situations. It’s just what happens. Feminism can’t save you, or brilliance, or moving to Tuscan with a yard full of fruit trees, or being wanted by rock stars, or good sex, or poetry.

On rereading Passionate Mistakes, I can’t help obsessing. What if there are other young women alive today, writing books this original, and this true, and we never get to read them?

The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America by Michelle Tea
Semiotext(e)
ISBN: 1584350520
200 Pages