No band in history has written a lyric that more aptly describes the anxiety for perfection quite like Radiohead, in its first hit, “Creep”: “I want to have control / I want a perfect body / I want a perfect soul.” More than 20 years after Thom Yorke penned this confessional line, the idea of perfection is still fraught: It’s often a goal, an obsession and, in some cases, a coping mechanism for many people.
In her harrowing new memoir, Controlled, 24-year-old author and journalist Neesha Arter (The New York Observer, The New York Times) writes—in poignant detail—how an obsession with achieving bodily perfection was a damaging way that she dealt with trauma at 14. Simmering in blame and confusion after she was raped by two former friends, Arter attempted to push away the horrific experience by focusing on losing weight and tried to disappear completely through anorexia. What ensued speaks volumes about our contemporary image-obsessed culture, one that also wallows in silence and shame.
“There is a common superstition that ‘self-respect’ is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general,” Joan Didion wrote in her celebrated essay “On Self-Respect.” She continues: “It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.”
This private reconciliation Didion wrote about in 1961 is still something that’s so difficult to grapple with. “On Self-Respect” is a favorite essay of Arter’s; fitting, as Controlled speaks so precisely to how difficult it can be to shed self-loathing and blame, and what happens when one can recognize the need for help and come out the other side stronger and more capable. Upon the release of her memoir Tuesday, Arter spoke with Newsweek about survival and speaking out.
First of all, thank you for writing this memoir. With the Bill Cosby accusations so visible in culture right now, it’s high time for your book to come out.
I know. I agree. I think it’s good timing. I love the New York mag piece. Did you watch the videos? The one where the woman said she was doing it for her daughter and started crying? These people are my heroes.
Your book is super-detailed, down to the specifics of clothes and conversations. Did you keep a diary back then?
The beauty of being young and writing a memoir…. I wrote a draft when I was 18, which was just four years later. And I’m still very close friends with the three friends [Jane, Emma and Brad] I put in the book. The character Brad is my best friend to this day. So when I was writing it, he was reading it along and helping me. But it was hard to forget. To this day I can still remember a lot. Specifically the year 14…. I don’t think I’m going to forget that.
Grappling with what happened is harrowing, of course, but was it also a fight to get this book published?
Here’s a bit of the process: I wrote it when I was 18. I was lucky, I had a phenomenal mentor who was the head of the creative writing department. I was a creative writing major. He always believed in me. I don’t know if this would have been possible without him. So I kept working on it—it was my senior thesis. It’s funny, when I first wrote this book I thought, If I can get this book published, I can get over it. I can move on with my life, because I never thought about it for four years. I was 14. When the legal case ended at 15, I thought, OK, this is done. Pushed it away, pushed it away. Then brought it back up, went to therapy. I was always trying to get a [literary] agent, but I was in L.A. and that’s not really the place for that.
So when I was about to graduate, I came [to New York], had a couple of interviews and was like, OK, I’m going to do it. I moved to New York, but didn’t know anyone here. At one point I worked with an editor who…wasn’t very nice. It’s hard because not everyone is going to believe in you. You have to believe in yourself more than anything. People think that these are so female, women’s issues. No. This is a human issue.
He’s been accused for decades, and it took [comedian] Hannibal Buress telling a joke about him to make this visible.
The shame has got to go, especially when [none of the women] did anything wrong. This is absurd. I was at this photo shoot for something, and this makeup artist was asking me if I was nervous for the book to come out. I said, “Well, yeah, it’s a little nerve-wracking.” And she says, “Do you think guys will think you’re difficult to date because you’re damaged?” I was, like, This is crazy. If you’re sexually assaulted, it’s not your fault. That was upsetting. But if I listened to half the things people said to me, I wouldn’t leave my house in the morning.
Read More at Newsweek.