Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve escaped into two books when my mind gets dark. The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susan and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Both books draw me in with a romantic painting of old New York, a place where single young girls came to escape, to live, to learn, to love, to become. A simpler life, a romantic life - one with white gloves, pearl earrings and pantyhose.
I related a lot to the feeling of suffocation Sylvia Plath shares and to the gradual decline from normal breathing to being under the bel jar, slowly suffocating. You’re the frog in the saucepan, with the water slowly warming up around you, boiling you alive.
I find The Bell Jar in particular hard to read now because I associate it so closely with these dark times. I think of it and I can picture stiff warm air, sweaty legs against hot vinyl bus seats, bottled fake tan and cheap plasticky foundation from a chemist.
I suppose that is the way with association.
After my experience of trauma at 16, I was unable to maintain friendships with many of the people who were around when it happened. They had the same kind of association.
When I began long-distance running training, my favourite path along the Cook’s River took me through a glade and onto sports fields. I would look over to the houses backing onto the sports field and I would know that that was where it happened.
If I was going on a particularly long run, I’d run by the bus stop we sat at that night. And just down the road, the train station where I have some of my last memories from the evening.
I was always intentional in maintaining my route if it took my by these places. This was my space, my suburb, my city long before anything bad happened. I wanted to remember that sports field as the one where I spent many summers watching my brothers play cricket, writing in my diary or picnicking with mum. I wanted to remember that bus stop as the same route that took me to the unit of my beloved, and very much missed, grandmother.
The Valley of the Dolls is an easier read. It’s dark but I can never see myself in the book in the same way I can with Sylvia Plath.
It takes me on a journey from aspiring to appalled. At first, I feel myself seethe with longing to be in the pages - part of the story myself.
But then comes the characters’ fall, and suddenly I’m scared. Because this is my cue.
Here I am, digging in my fingernails. I can feel the suffocating enclosure of the bell jar. I’m fighting, resisting. I’m grasping at the world, striving, struggling and surviving.