‘Book of Rules’: Memoir Tackles Mental Illness, Sexual Trauma and Native Identity

'My Body Is a Book of Rules' by Elissa Washuta deals with mental illness, sexual trauma, and Native American identity.

Elissa Washuta, Cowlitz Indian Tribe, writes with fearless, gut-wrenching honesty and ambition in her creatively crafted memoir, My Body Is a Book of Rules. Detailing her struggles with bipolar disorder and sexual trauma to the affects of her prescribed medications, Washuta weaves a tale of growing up while struggling with Native American, physical, sexual, and psychological travails that Cosmopolitan magazine called “...an ultra-modern take on contemporary femininity, mental illness, and identity.” Currently a lecturer in American Indian studies at the University of Washington, ICTMN caught up with Washuta, who has been in the middle of a busy book tour since the memoir was released in August.

First, can you explain the meaning of the title?

The title is almost directly lifted from one of the chapters of the book, “Please Him,” from a passage that reads, “My body was a book of rules, my heart the spine, my skin plastered with pages. Written on each one was the text that held the world together.” I was writing about the impact of my Catholic grade school education on my developing body there, but it became a statement that could apply to so many of the threads of the book—my psychiatrist’s ever-shifting rules for treating my bipolar disorder, my self-imposed diet rules, the U.S. government’s rules handed over to American culture for how to authenticate Indianness, and society’s rules for how rape victims should comport themselves during and after the act.

By using so many varied personal sources, do you feel you drew a map of your brain for the reader, and yourself, to navigate?

I did try to create a map of my brain, in a way, as an alternative to the conventional linear narrative that is more common in memoir, because I knew I couldn’t fit the many threads of my story into a container of that sort. I found success in adopting the forms of communication I saw in my world: a term paper, a Match.com online dating profile, a letter from my psychiatrist, the prescribing information that comes from the pharmacy. I told my story using these containers.

Elissa Washuta wrote 'My Body Is a Book of Rules."

With high rates of sexual abuse, depression, and suicide in Indian country, do you think it’s important for young Natives to read your book?

I believe that one of literature’s greatest gifts—at least, the one that has helped me the most—is its ability to bridge the broad, lonely gap that separates all of us from one another. I hope that readers will benefit from seeing a person on the page who is laid bare in her struggle to tease out the intertwined threads of sexual trauma, mental illness, and questions of identity, a process that never results in neat answers or complete healing by the end. More young Natives than ever are required to think of ourselves in terms of a diminished notion of blood quantum even though we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as divided individuals—I worked to tease out how deeply the notion of quantum cut into me.

Why is it important for someone who isn’t bipolar or doesn’t relate to your specific experiences?

Everyone, whether they know it or not, knows someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, or some other mental illness. Certainly, everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted. So much of the text that comes to us dehumanizes people and their stories, turning them into statistics or sensational sound bytes. By reading a sustained account of a person’s experience, readers can become immersed in the narrator’s mind and learn what that experience truly feels like. This is the basis of empathy, I think.

What did you learn about yourself that you hope to pass on to the reader?

The process of writing, revising, and publishing the book took seven years, and I learned a tremendous amount about myself during that time—ages 22 to 29! I think, perhaps, the thing that was most significant that came from the writing process is that once all my deepest, darkest secrets came out into the world, I felt no shame or animosity—only warmth and acceptance as friends and strangers shared in common experiences.