The pissed-off muse

She dreamed of being immortalized in literature -- until he showed her his manuscript.

Topics: Eating Disorders, Writers and Writing, Life stories, Books,

When I was a little girl I used to fantasize about the kind of guy I wanted to marry: a musician, filmmaker, writer or painter. I didn’t really care which one I ended up with — I only knew that I wanted to be with someone who could immortalize me in celluloid, in stereo, in print. I wanted to be his muse, his inspiration, Zelda to a (preferably non-alcoholic) F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wanted to move someone to such great depths that a Mona Lisa would spring from his paintbrush.

When I was 24, I met Sam, a tormented, bespectacled writer who was, I believed, nothing short of brilliant. Sam published in well-respected literary journals, was a veritable encyclopedia of information, could talk film noir with the best of them. And yes, OK, he was Jewish. A literate Semite who liked movies. What more could a girl ask for?

So Sam and I entered that precarious territory known as a relationship. We did all those nauseating couple things: walks in the zoo, autumnal strolls through Harvard Square, weekends wearing nothing but grins. He was a little more neurotic than I’d bargained for — he suffered from occasional bouts of agoraphobia and separation anxiety — a little competitive when it came to our respective writing careers, but soon our lives were entwined. We both taught at the same college and we hung out with the same circle of friends.

I even felt close enough to him to talk about my food problem. Like so many women, I was obsessed with food and weight; as I liked to describe it, I was a failed bulimic, a failed anorexic. I’d mastered the binge but I couldn’t perfect the purge. Like so many men, Sam just didn’t get it, and he questioned me endlessly: “How old were you the first time you weighed yourself?” and “What’s your favorite food?” Sam seemed genuinely fascinated by this, and upset by the obvious pain it caused me. He seemed to really want to help me shake “the food thing,” and I appreciated that.

And so I’d answer as honestly as I could, grateful that someone finally cared enough to ask. I’d never spoken about it with anyone before; it was my own private hell. It took a lot for me to talk so openly with Sam, but I trusted him.

With time, though, Sam grew progressively more irritable when it came to the food thing. “Why can’t you eat like a normal person?” he’d say, his brown eyes blazing behind his round John Lennon-style glasses. And then, more specifically, “Why can’t you eat with me?” To him, food was something intimate, special, something to share with the people he loved. My relationship with it, of course, was a lot more complicated, and try as I might, I couldn’t just change 16 years of conditioning.

Sam and I had been dating for about a year when he handed me the manila envelope.

“My story,” he said, grinning broadly. “It’s done.”

“Great!” I said. He’d been struggling with this piece for months, and I knew he was proud of it. “Should I read it now?”

He nodded. “Sure. I’d like to know what you think.” Off he went to take a shower; I sat down to read.

It began simply enough: a poignant little tale about a husband and wife in the throes of marital angst. They loved each other, but she had these weird problems with food that, he believed, were the source of the couple’s misery. I read on, and slowly my blood began to boil. There, in print, were conversations I’d had with Sam, confessions I’d made about my own dietary struggles. I felt like smashing his computer through the window. No, the character wasn’t me, exactly — she was a tall blond lawyer, which, as of this writing, I am not — but she possessed enough of my idiosyncrasies, my neuroses, to be a damn good replica. This wasn’t fiction; this was my life.

I felt violated, betrayed, voiceless — like Emily in “Our Town,” who saw things clearly a little too late. Sam had taken aspects of my life — personal, painful aspects — and condensed them, trivialized them, into 18 pages of prose. I finally understood why members of certain cultures refuse to be photographed: They feel their soul will be stripped from them. That’s how I felt when Sam wrote about me: like my soul, the core of my being, had been mercilessly snatched from me.

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I probably should have known better. On our first date, Sam had told me about his previous girlfriend. They didn’t have much in common, he said, but she was very knowledgeable about all things feminine: menstruation, the female orgasm, how it felt to be a 16-year-old girl. Their relationship didn’t last, but her insights mysteriously worked their way into a short story of his, a story written from the perspective of — surprise! — a menstruating, 16-year-old girl in search of the female orgasm.

Yes, I probably should have known better, but I honestly never thought he’d use my life as fodder. When I’d imagined being someone’s muse I thought he’d wax poetic about my shoulders, my sense of humor, my patience during the long nights he’d spent “creating.” Instead, Sam had appropriated my most painful and private struggles for his own uses. Part of being in a relationship means opening yourself up, making yourself vulnerable. I thought Sam and I were becoming allies.

“I can’t believe you did this,” I said when Sam came out of the shower. I was so mad my teeth were chattering. “Why did you have to write about me?”

“It’s not you,” he said. “Maybe she’s got similar traits, but it’s fiction. Don’t you think I have any imagination?”

“Oh, yeah? What about the scene with the Diet Coke? What about her thing with the salad dressing?”

And then I started crying, violently, terribly.

“I can’t believe you’re reacting like this,” he said. “You laugh about your food problem, you joke about it; how serious can it be? It’s the things we don’t talk about that are most important.”

“Bullshit!” I fumed. “You asked me to talk about it! You questioned me! I never volunteered any information.”

“I should never have shown you the story,” he said.

“No,” I said. “You should never have written it.”

We broke up soon after, and got back together, and repeated that pattern a few more times, like a flu you can’t quite shake. We pretended to get along, but it was clear that the gap was too wide, torn by my lack of trust and his insistence that he was just being a writer (“Maybe so but all of Truman Capote’s friends stopped talking to him after he betrayed them in print,” I pointed out). Every time Sam asked me a question I wondered if he was looking for material for some future story, and I was never able to relax around him again.

Six months later he was offered a job at a newspaper down south and took it. It was unspoken but understood that we were breaking up for good. Within weeks he found a new girlfriend. I hope she knows what she’s getting into. I’ve never met her, but I expect to read all about her in one of those well-respected literary journals.

It’s been four years since all this happened, but my chest still tightens and a howl forms in my throat whenever I think about it.

Still, I’ve learned some things since Sam and I broke up. For starters, musicians travel too much. Painters have dirty fingernails. And filmmakers hide behind cameras. As for writers, well, that’s what I do. I don’t need some guy to immortalize me in print; I’m quite capable of doing that by myself.

Abby Ellin writes the "Preludes" column on young adults and money in the Sunday Money and Business section of the New York Times.

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