With her debut novel, Dora: A Headcase, Lidia Yuknavitch takes on Freud, transporting his famous case to current-day Seattle and adding a dose of feminist irreverence.
Out of all of Freud’s case studies, why Dora?
I read it when I was around 25 and I became incredibly pissed off. Dora was Freud’s adolescent bisexual patient whose father hired him because she’d lost her voice. Freud convinced himself that sexual repression had caused a sort of PTSD and she’d developed symptoms based on issues she hadn’t worked out about her own sexual past. But the story that he imposed upon her had to do with the idea that she had unresolved feelings about an older male who’d made advances toward her. And the story that she kept trying to tell him was that she had other, stronger feelings that went beyond his narrative. When I read it, I felt like her story had been taken from her. At 25, I didn’t understand much, but I knew what it was like to live in a family where your voice and your story got taken away from you. I think I had to wait to be a good enough writer to take it back, but I never forgot. I always knew I would write something someday where I would give Dora back her voice and “talk back” to Freud.
Why does Dora rebel against that idea of being a good citizen?
Fictional Dora is a big rebel. Her rebellion has to do with something I feel really strongly about, which is that we need some new girl myths in our culture. I teach young college-level people at a community college, where young women and men have the lowest self-esteem in the universe year after year. They’re trying to follow cultural scripts, but they’re hating themselves and feeling terrible about their lives. But the beauty of the people I get to work with is about how unusual, non-conformist, and bizarre they are. So I had this idea to go back to early ideas of identity formation and tell new stories—that’s what I mean when I say we need new girl myths. So I wanted to make a girl who busted up those narratives and presented other options.
What about Dora saying that sometimes your whole life happens when you’re an adolescent and then the rest of your life is just those same stories playing out with different characters?
I think there’s a way in which that’s true, that formative experiences happen to us in childhood and adolescence. I don’t think it’s as prescriptive as we behave, and I think that if we had other options about ways of being, we’d be willing to try them out. I don’t think it’s a closed narrative. One thing that’s incredibly cool about life and that is very psychologically liberating, and related to writing and art, is that you can revise and reinvent. You can take what was fact and remake it with fiction, reinvent a self and make up a new life and a new family, make up how to love if you were hurt and don’t know how to do it. Or if you’re stuck, you can literally rewrite yourself and leave, create an exit and a new self. If there’s a cool legacy about Freud at all, it’s that in part he showed us that the “talking cure” is a fictional possibility and if we treated it as though the possibility of art making, fiction making, retelling stories, or remaking a self could liberate you instead of trap you, I think that’s a really stunning idea.