When she was 22, she moved with her boyfriend Jason to New Mexico, known as the Land of Enchantment, to write her first novel. They lived there together for six intense months. Four years later, when Jason was killed in a motorcycle accident, Leigh Stein not only had to process the death of a person she loved, but also what she came to admit was an abusive relationship. Her memoir “Land of Enchantment” is about so many things: grief, abuse, growing up, the power of prose, and, through it all, the changing landscape of love.
Catch Stein reading from her memoir at Women and Children First on Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 7:30 p.m.
JB: One of the themes throughout the book is the idea of witness. How was this idea important while you wrote your memoir?
LS: That fits the story of why I started writing this. I was asked to read at an event that required an essay, and I wrote about my college classmate who died in Afghanistan, and the comments on his Facebook wall. A woman came up to me afterwards and cried and said that I was the only person she could talk to, because her best friend had died and she couldn’t stop looking at her friend’s Facebook page.
It took years with your therapist before you could use the word abuse. Do you think there’s a societal influence in not wanting to identify with abuse?
We have this idea that abuse is something that happens to other people. Leslie Morgan Steiner wrote a book about domestic violence called “Crazy Love” in which she makes such a case talking about how she went to Harvard, and still she finds herself with a partner who threatens her with a gun. We’ve been told this is something that happens to stupid people, poor people, whatever it is—that we’re too smart.
But the other thing is that it was not always bad. Jason was so charismatic; it was like being around the sun. I wanted to be in public with him and be seen with him, but in private he could be a completely different person. It wasn’t always bad, if it was nonstop terror, of course I would’ve wanted to leave him—but it wasn’t.
I really love Vivian Gornick’s book, “The Situation and the Story.” It was important to me while writing this book. She says you can’t just have the good guy and the bad guy—that’s not how real life is. I wanted to write complicated characters that are true to life. Jason had good parts, and I was also complicit in some ways.
And I do love him and miss him sometimes. Holding these contradictions in your head, it’s hard to understand. Some woman said to me, “Oh it’s good that he’s dead.” Is it? I don’t think of death as his comeuppance.
The title refers to the nickname of New Mexico, but it’s also a metaphor for your relationship, and maybe more. I imagine that the idea of being enchanted has changed for you.
I don’t believe my relationship to the word has changed. When I thought it was a book about mourning, I was going to call it “Electric Elegy,” but when I landed on the idea of the land of enchantment as a metaphor, it seemed so obvious. However, the idea of love has changed. With Jason, love felt like a drug. Everyone experiences the honeymoon phase, but over time it changes. When love is a drug it never stabilizes. You have to keep fueling your addiction.
Part of this is age, which is so important to the story, because the level of emotions I felt then and the level of emotions I have now have changed. When I was with Jason I thought, if I don’t have him, I’ll die. That’s what love was. Now that I’m in a relationship with someone else, it’s totally different. Now I don’t feel if I lose my boyfriend that I’ll die.
In the book, you mention the advice you gave at the first annual conference for women writers that you started, “I dare you to do the thing you don’t think you’re ready to do.” Do you find that message to still be the most poignant for you or has it changed as you’ve gone further in your career?
I think it’s the best advice I could give. It’s so easy to say to yourself, I’m not ready. I have another book I want to write. I keep telling myself it’s not the right time, but it will never feel like the right time to do something you’re afraid of.
How are you Rebellious?
I never used to think of myself as Rebellious, but I’ve always been motivated by someone underestimating me or saying something is not a good idea. When I was waitressing at the diner [in New Mexico], and I’d tell people I was writing a novel, they’d give me this look like they thought my dreams were too big. That motivated me.
Tell me I can’t do something; tell me it’s not a good idea, and watch me because I’m going to do it. When I say I’m Rebellious I mean, I don’t want to be bad, but I want to prove you wrong.
(Image of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico courtesy of Wikipedia)