Before Mary Karr & David Foster Wallace had even kissed, he tattooed her name on his arm.
How you react to this tidbit tells me more about you than you probably know.
There’s no objective, publicly-accessible diagnosis of David Foster Wallace, but after recently re-reading Mary Karr’s Lit, as well as D.T. Max’s DFW bio Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (sidenote: holy fucking shit, what a title), I started to wonder if it was possible that DFW suffered from borderline personality disorder. I’m hypersensitive to the disorder’s manifestations only because I also have it. (I’ll spare you the melodramatic details of my experience with it—maybe another post.) But to sum up borderline personality disorder, according to the NIMH:
Persons with BPD are often uncertain about their identity. As a result, their interests and values can change rapidly. They also tend to view things in terms of extremes, such as either all good or all bad. Their views of other people can change quickly. A person who is looked up to one day may be looked down on the next day. These suddenly shifting feelings often lead to intense and unstable relationships.
Other symptoms of BPD include:
- Intense fear of being abandoned
- Cannot tolerate being alone
- Frequent feelings of emptiness and boredom
- Frequent displays of inappropriate anger
- Impulsiveness, such as with substance abuse or sexual relationships
- Repeated crises and acts of self-injury, such as wrist cutting or overdosing
So. What does this have to do with DFW? Let’s just say that when I found the Mary Karr to my David Foster Wallace, she walked into the room & I would have been willing to tattoo her name on any part of my body of her choosing before we even spoke a word. (Thankfully, I didn’t do this… well not exactly…) Is this objectively totally fucking insane? Yes. I’m aware. But it doesn’t make the impulse cease. At this point in his life, for DFW, it seems his identity hinged upon Karr. She was goddess enough for him to immortalize her on his body—but as soon as they fought, this all changed.
With one disagreement, Karr was no longer DFW’s object of worship. Instead, she became his target—throwing a coffee table at her head (she later billed him for “the brokenness”) & pushing her out of a car in a bad neighborhood & leaving her there being two prime examples. This speaks loudly—to me, anyway—to the black-&-white thinking of those with borderline personality disorder. A person is all good or all bad, as the NIMH phrases it, which leads to extremely intense & unstable relationships. (See: all of my relationships ever.) I’m drawn to the intensity—even if it comes at the cost of my mental health & well-being. In other words, I’d rather be in chaos than in utopia when it comes to relationships.
On that note, I did some metaphorical coffee-table-throwing tonight. I’ve spent so long playing David Foster Wallace, standing here with my Mary Karr tattoo proudly emblazoned on my bicep, that it’s exhausting. I’ve resisted metaphorically pushing my own Mary out of a moving vehicle because I’ve fought tooth-&-nail to keep her idealized—partially because I know that I can’t do “in between.” It’s love or hate—that’s just the way my brain wants it to be, & who am I to argue with it?
The problem is that my identity has become so entwined with hers that admitting that maybe I don’t want her flitting around in my consciousness 24/7 feels like a betrayal of the only sense of self I’ve come to know. The thing is—I (realize now that I) don’t want to marry her. I don’t want to date her. I just want to be important to her. I want a platonic relationship with her that transcends the bullshit. It hovers somewhere in the uncomfortable place of what Socrates calls “Divine Eros.” It may begin physically, but transcends gradually to love for what he terms “Supreme Beauty.”
I had a dream last night—a dream wherein she sent me a letter telling me that she was in a location no one but me knew about & I had to keep it a secret. I awoke feeling only one thing: anger. I realized that Goddammit, I didn’t want to be the only person who knew where she was. I couldn’t take that on for her.
That’s when I realized that over the last few months, I’ve felt like a music box that sits on her dresser. (FWIW, I initially wrote “vanity” rather than “dresser”…) For weeks, my fragile ballerina body will be folded up, bound with felt & springs, & then—for just a minute—she’ll turn the little gilded key that lets me loose. And my God, will I spin for her. I’ll dance & shine & strain my tiny porcelain arms in an effort to reach toward her. But then that’s it—back in the box I go for who-knows-how-long. And when I’m origami-ed into that box, every single part of me is stifled. I’m bitchy, I’m stressed, I’m anxious, I don’t write—in short, I’m unhappy.
I don’t blame her for this. (Much.) David Foster Wallace followed Mary Karr around like a puppy dog, proposing marriage despite the fact that she had already had a husband, writing her love letters that were nothing short of tomes. He’s the one who got himself into the situation. But he’s also the one who punched or kicked or chewed a hole in the side of Karr’s music box. By no means do I want to imply that I advocate or defend his actions in throwing her coffee table at her head. This is domestic violence, flat-out, period, the end.
But. Though I can’t (& would never) throw living room furniture at my version of Mary, I’m hurling numerous household appliances at her in my mind tonight. Toasters… lamps… vacuum cleaners. I climbed into that music box as a fully willing participant. I lodged myself on that tiny pedestal & curved my arms into fifth position, waiting for her to need me. But my arms are tired. My legs are tired. My heart is tired. And because, like the NIMH points out, she can’t be anything but “all good” or “all bad,” I’m now filled with the intense desire to chuck coffee mugs at her for not being the “all good” I’d spent months wanting her to be.
Of course she’s not perfect—I wouldn’t want her to be. Her flaws are utterly intriguing. But tonight, I find myself illogically angry with her because she didn’t leave enough space for me to fulfill the role I dreamed of fulfilling when I first put on that tutu. David Foster Wallace couldn’t understand why Mary Karr wouldn’t let him in in order to do that very thing. Maybe he never understood. But he eventually came to the realization that he had to move beyond her.
He got another tattoo: a line that struck through her name. What climbs into my gut & takes up residence there is the fact that even though he crossed her name out, it remained there—a visible part of him until his death.
I can’t help but think of one of the most famous quotes from Infinite Jest—“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” For DFW, was it crossing out Karr’s name that set him free? Was she the lesson? Maybe what he had to learn was that he could simply disengage from the tiny gold mechanism that held him in place for so long. That he could climb down. That a lifetime of standing demi-pointe for her in the hope that maybe one day, she’d notice simply wasn’t worth it.