Review by Samantha Rich
“I’d never failed at pretending before.”
In the first piece of narrative in her fractured memoir I’m Trying To Tell You I’m Sorry: An Intimacy Triptych, published earlier this year, Nina Boutsikaris sets readers on notice that she will be talking about identity and performance, particularly as it relates to women having sex in contemporary America—and that we will have a sense we have heard this story before. A fragile woman, introduced to sex too young and in unequal relationships with older, careless men, strives to find her identity and repair herself as she moves chronologically into and through womanhood.
And we have heard this story before, in its broad strokes, but the details are always different. A strong writer can draw connections that remind us of the essentials of dialing into the humanity of this story of the way our society and culture continues to fail vulnerable young women and leave them to find healing and understanding for themselves. Boutsikaris is such a writer; the first section of I’m Trying To Tell You illustrates the process of a young woman being damaged, used, and shaped by cultural forces and the people who enact them with indifference or delight, while the second and third show the consequences that carry on through the rest of that woman’s life, long after the people who hurt her have moved on. The writing itself also shows these consequences: while Boutsikaris is indeed a strong writer, that doesn’t mean she never flinches, and the format of those flinches tells the reader even more about the her psychic scars.
The first piece in her triptych, “Nepenthe,” is the strongest. Boutsikaris tells us the etymology of the word: “Literally, the ‘anti-sadness’” to show how she has tried to be this for her lovers, for her mother, for figures in power throughout her life. The dangerous, seductive magic of the concept is shown in narrative pieces about how she lost herself in trying to be “nepenthe” for all of them. She gives up her desires, her autonomy, her self-protection, her very sense of self in bits and pieces, in order to comfort, please, and pacify men who show no interest in giving her anything in return. Not anything equivalent, to be sure—nothing at all. Shaped from childhood to accept this as her due, she does, each little narrative fitting into the greater one with another example of how a young woman learns to be content with always giving and never getting back.
The following pieces, “This One Long Winter” and “Sons and Other Strangers” offer less impact and less cohesion, respectively. “Long Winter” follows her through a period of undiagnosable illness, when doctors tell her nothing is wrong, and she forces herself through a winter of self-destructive partying in New York. She fades away, and welcomes it: “He must have liked how little space I took up; starving, demure in lack.” In “Other Strangers,” Boutsikaris leaves New York and writes from an unspecified desert, near a train line. Here, there is more human connection, and relationships that are more tender than the indifferent, trauma-infused sex and drama of the first sections. There is a sense of growth, of not-quite-yet-blooming. The last lines of the book build up to the word “proof”:
“I will send my friends the video he took of me shooting the rifle, and then later I will send it to other boys, so that they will also understand, so they will see how tough I am, how fearless. Someone once stood behind me and recorded the proof.”
Proof of existence, proof that Boutsikaris not only lived and breathed and acted, but that she took the specific action of shooting a rifle. She now has the potential for violence, in self-defense or otherwise, and she puts that into the world as a notice and a warning. This ending is in sharp contrast to the lost sense of self from the beginning and the blurry, uncertain sense from the middle sections. In other words, by the end, the writer’s voice has found a place to plant its feet.
Boutsikaris has a repeated structure throughout the book—so consistently that it appears to be an intentional tic, intended perhaps to create an inner rhythm to the pieces. The structure itself, though, illuminates the insecurity that runs through the narrative, the fear of that absence of self. She makes a statement, then follows it several times with variations on “meaning” or “this meant…” The cycle of statement and elaboration or explanation is exemplified here, from “Nepenthe”:
“…and there he was, leaning on the doorframe asking me where I’d been.
Which meant I was powerful again. Which meant that I wasn’t.
Meaning after my English test I would follow him up the hill to his room with the Tibetan bedspread where I lay on my back in the June afternoon because I wanted to be enough.
But he was not real. Meaning he was real.”
Even recognizing the presumed intentionality of this, it grates in reading. I found myself wanting Boutsikaris to make a statement without immediately redirecting and dressing new images and language around it. Just one clean, standalone statement. One image, even if it means giving up the internal rhythm.
But she doesn’t, this time. And so, ultimately, the “Intimacy Triptych” is just as much an insecurity triptych, where clever and well-crafted language coils around an anxiety that the reader might see what the writer fears is true—that there isn’t substance at the core. This fear is as encouraged and fed by our culture as the abuse and damage that created it: that women who have been hurt are hollow, that they cease to exist. The strength of Boutsikaris’ writing, around the places where she flinches, show this to be a lie.
Another thread woven through the text is references back to art (Renoir, Kiki Smith) and philosophy (Derrida, Kristeva), coiling around the matters of subject and object, the actor and the acted-upon. The deftly sketched connections between these references and the sex, trauma, illness, and healing arcs of the narrative pieces demonstrate that at the core there is a vivid, beating heart. Future work from Boutsikaris that grows into the confidence of its own strength will be welcome additions to the canon of women’s unflinchingly honest voices.
Samantha Rich is a writer, reader, and history buff. She lives in Maryland with a (bossy) cat and a (nervous) dog.