Sometimes, history just begs for a second chance. Look at Sigmund Freud—his psychiatric case studies now are horrifying to read. As a literary text, they tell a complicated story of a man struggling to work through (or perhaps simply entertain) his own sexual obsessions by projecting them onto vulnerable people who put their trust in him. But when you remember that these are real people who lived a hundred years ago, that Freud's fumblings into their psyches had very real consequences in their lives, and that we never really got to hear the patient's side of the story, an empathetic reader can't help but get depressed for his patients.
Portland author Lidia Yuknavitch tries to balance the scales with her latest novel, Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books, $16.95). Yuknavitch gives a voice, and a second chance, to a patient of Freud's named Ida Bauer, whom Freud referred to pseudonymously as Dora. In real life and in the book, Dora is struck mute after a traumatic incident involving her father. But Yuknavitch tips the scales of power in Dora's favor by making her a modern teenager, and by setting the book in modern-day Seattle. (In a so-obvious-it's-perfect update to the story, Ida's pseudonym comes from an ironic Dora the Explorer purse she carries everywhere.) It's a kind of fairy tale where history is given an opportunity to be set right, not unlike Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
This Dora is a young woman who is never without her phone, who is surrounded by a support system of like-minded young people—anorexics, lesbians, overweight gay boys—who have a natural resistance to the bullshit of psychotherapy. She does battle for her own independence, and she struggles to not be buried in the flood of her psychotherapist's issues. Here's an early encounter with Freud:
"So you don't take people's lives and make them into books? With different names?"
He coughs some more. He sounds a little asthmatic. I see my opening. I do random jumping jacks.
He goes, "Ida, wouldn't you like to have a seat?"
"Thanks, Siggy, I'm kinda fond of the ass I have already," I say patting my girl butt.
He scratches something invisible on his chest.
Keep it moving. They hate that. They like you best on the couch.
In case her strained and showy dialogue hasn't clued you in, Yuknavitch's Dora is a brat. She shoplifts. She pushes people away when they try to help. She pulls elaborate, dangerous pranks involving prescription medications and webcams. Which is to say, she's just as fucked up as Freud, and she's way more comfortable with her own fucked-upedness than the man who's supposedly out to cure her. And unlike the real-life Dora, the fictional version can take power in her own femininity:
There's a girl calm people don't know about. It's a girl teen standstill. A motionless peace. It doesn't come from anywhere but inside us, and it only lasts for a few years. It's born from being not a woman yet. It's free flowing and invisible. It's the eye of the violent storm you call my teenage daughter.
Dora's publisher is actively straining to equate Yuknavitch with another Portland author who's known for his difficult characters and short, sharp sentences: Chuck Palahniuk. The jacket copy, without a trace of a wince, promises that Dora has "been called the chick Fight Club," and Palahniuk himself writes the introduction. While the impulse to compare a newer author with a popular author who came before probably debuted with Gutenberg, it's a shame that her own publisher is trying to cloak Yuknavitch's voice inside that of an older male peer. Palahniuk here is the stuffy older mentor who Yuknavitch, with all her prose's glorious, snotty energy, is showing up at every opportunity.