review: HEART OF GLASS by wendy lawless

This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 4.12.16

Nick Flynn wrote, “What you fear your whole life comes to pass… You spend your whole life running from it but your foot is nailed to the sidewalk. You circle around until you wear yourself down.” For Wendy Lawless, the nail pinning her down was her “insane, increasingly violent mother.” After the suicide attempts, “essentially [kidnapping] my sister and me and [taking] us to London,” and “drunkenly crashing Robin’s high school graduation (literally, with her car),” Lawless had enough. She escaped to a room on Eighth Street, which had “a kind of festive whorehouse feel.” It is 1980, Lawless is twenty, and the plan is to get a film degree from NYU.

Less than ten years later, at her best friend’s wedding, she sees herself wearing her mother’s mask when she sends two potential suitors to the bar to fetch her a drink. “The first one back got me,” she writes. “I would have denied it had anyone pointed it out, but I was behaving exactly like my mother, who always played multiple boyfriends against each other.” One man walks off and does not come back, letting the other win by default. “I told myself that he was clearly frightened of my raw vagina power,” Lawless writes, “but at the time he probably guessed at my little contest offering myself as the door prize.”

Heart of Glass follows Lawless through her tumbleweed years, from New York to Colorado and back again, after the time covered in her debut memoir, Chanel Bonfire. She introduces herself by declaring what she is not: “She reminded me of the girls I’d gone to high school with in Boston—cherished princesses who had never had a big zit or a hair out of place or a cavity. I felt sorry for her.” Quipping that “I’d had plenty of experience with the police,” Lawless struts for show. But later she confesses she was “invisible. Everyone else talked a lot, but I was afraid to open my mouth, in case it made me look stupid.”

Insecure by nature, Lawless did not make quick friends with her film school peers. She attempted to dismiss them as “pretentious hipsters, with their neon-colored dyed hair and their full-time sunglasses, as if they were extras in a Fellini movie.” But mostly she was disappointed that New York was not “freewheeling, filled with friends, parties, fascinating conversation, and late nights at rock-‘n’-roll clubs.” Instead, “everything was still the same.” Making a life was not as simple as abandoning her mother and watching it arrive.

Restless on a weekend getaway with a former partner, Lawless has a tryst with a radio DJ she used to know. “I was being a bad girl—for the first time in my life—and there was something thrilling about it,” she writes. But when the sex is “mechanical, very little touching besides the necessary parts” and the DJ dismisses her by saying, “I have a big day tomorrow,” she is disgusted and ashamed. “Not only was I a sneak, I thought, I was also a total whore.”

Things do not get better. Her boring but steady relationship turns suffocating then violent. She leaves when her boyfriend Michael slaps her across the face over an argument about Citizen Kane: “I started walking up Broadway to Jenny’s, stopping at every phone booth to try to let her know I was coming.” When she gets there, Jenny and Jenny’s boyfriend Pete are already upset. Lawless asks what is wrong and Jenny says, “Some psycho just murdered John Lennon in front of the Dakota.” A week later, she realizes her period is late. At Manhattan Women’s Medical Clinic on Park Avenue South, her doctor says, “Let me just tell you that if you were my girlfriend, I wouldn’t want you to feel this.”

Though there is no doubt that the trauma Lawless experienced in her childhood and teen years is genuine, her mother’s absence from the book is odd. She appears for the first time in the form of a message on Michael’s answering machine. With audible pauses to take a drag from her cigarette, the mother reads more like Cruella de Vil rather than an actual human—and certainly not a threat. “I thought perhaps I’d inform you as to my plans for the remainder of your possessions,” the machine says, and just “the sound of her voice, slightly nasal, with its sneeringly arch tone barely masking her fury at me” prompts Lawless to “want to puke with fear.” Six years later, a different boyfriend demands that Lawless resolve her issues with her mother. When Lawless calls, her mother says, “Well, I’ll tell you how I am. I have cancer!” and hangs up. Lawless, reduced to tears, proclaims defeat. A few days later, Lawless musters the courage to say, “Georgann, if this is the way you’re going to behave—the robo-calling and the nasty messages—I just don’t think we can be friends.” Her mother’s response? “Well, Wendy, that’s fine. I don’t want to be friends; I am too angry at you.”

Lawless writes, “I realized that, in a larger sense, all the hurt she’d caused me in the past was over, done with.” She resolves that her mother will “never do that to me again. I simply wouldn’t let her.” In Heart of Glass, she doesn’t. Lawless doesn’t even mention her mother again until the post-script, when she writes, “My stepsister Mary, umbrella grasped firmly in her hands, stood guard at the church door in case of a surprise appearance by my mother.” Georgann, though, is not there—the glass slipper is found, the wedding goes on—and Lawless, in complete sincerity, ends her book with “And we lived happily ever after,” the evil birth mother vanquished.

Is it too neat? Is it rushed? Is it strange that a celebrity, already inhabiting a persona, decides to use a fairy tale as the device that knits her book together? Hard to say. Much of the prose is dedicated to her false sense of bravado (like her remark about the police), and the times when her attitude failed her. In Colorado, she completes a program at the National Theatre Conservatory but returns to New York when it is over, missing city life. Searching for home, she attempts to squeeze herself into her estranged father’s family, which strains her relationship with her younger sister. She worries about her mother. It does not even occur to her to change until her best friend’s mother says, “What would happen if you decided to grow up?”

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