AUGUST 25, 2021
WHEN ERIKA SCHICKEL set out to write The Big Hurt in 2008, she had in mind a rollicking “pastiche of stories” about her glamorous adolescent delinquency as a child of 1970s Manhattan literati and her ill-fated tenure at a “progressive, bohemian boarding school” in the Berkshires: “[R]olling around in the tall grass with boys, smoking dope out of apple pipes in the woods, ice-skating on quaaludes. It would be a funny bad-girl story that would bring back all the richness of that weird time and place.”
Now, 13 years later, the book is here, and it’s proven itself to be something quite different. Still sharp-tongued and darkly hilarious, it is also one of the more relentlessly honest, big-hearted reckonings with abuse to come out of the #MeToo era. The problem with the original concept, Schickel notes, is that “the story wasn’t funny, and the more I rummaged through the memories I had put away three decades ago, the sadder it became.” Indeed, when you strip away Schickel’s cheeky, effervescent prose and charismatic self-deprecation, there is little to laugh at: compulsive shoplifting; self-absorbed, sort-of-famous parents in the midst of a “spectacularly ugly zeitgeist divorce”; and a series of bleak, often exploitative sexual relationships with older boys and men, beginning at age 13 — all leave Schickel with a defensive and affectedly blasé disregard for her own agency or well-being.
It’s a sad story, and sadly common. But what makes The Big Hurt so singularly rich and harrowing — what sets it apart from the troves of young girls’ coming-of-age stories set in a culture that primes them for sexual predation and emotional abuse — is that it percolated while Schickel was ensconced in a tumultuous, marriage-ending affair. The romance — with much-older celebrity crime-fiction writer Sam Spade (a pseudonym, though his identity is easily Googleable) — bears striking resemblance to the disastrous trysts of her youth: Spade is possessive, mercurial, and more interested in Schickel as a muse than as a partner. The various transgressions, humiliations, and traumas of her adolescence crackle with renewed urgency; she is reliving them as she writes.
We begin in the early stages of Spade and Schickel’s affair, which — at first — is composed entirely of Facebook messages, then handwritten letters sent via fax (it’s 2009, but Spade was born in the 1940s and remains a Luddite). Spade is aggressive in his temerity, writing such cloying phrases as, “My brave bride, I brace at thy breasts” and “I want my mouth on your vagina.” Schickel plays along, titillated by his brazenness (“It was presumptuous. It was embarrassing. It was thrilling.”) but wary of what she has to lose. After all, this isn’t Schickel’s first rodeo; she’s lost everything to a risky affair before — one that involved a similarly saccharine written correspondence that eventually crescendoed to a physical relationship.
This earlier affair takes place during Schickel’s final year of boarding school, with a married teacher in his mid-30s. The romance is short-lived, lackluster, and gets her unceremoniously expelled from campus and barred from graduation ceremonies. But while this disastrous relationship is teased as the formative trauma — the “big hurt” to which the title refers — Schickel takes her time getting there. Her larger project is to sift through all the echoes of trauma in her own life, the lives of her parents, and the broader culture, of which this event is but a single reverberation.
In the course of researching the memoir, for instance, Schickel discovers that she comes from a long line of “teacher-fuckers,” including her own mother, whose ménage-à-trois affair with a Harvard professor and his wife left her fundamentally altered. (“[S]arcastic and uncaring,” recalls a childhood friend, trying to articulate the shift. “She became mean.”) While Schickel only manages glimpses of that arrangement and its consequences, the suggestion emerges that whatever occurred was traumatic; that being selected as the sexual object of a distinguished intellectual had buoyed her mother’s self-image as an intelligent, ambitious young woman; and that as that relationship unspooled, so too did her own self-worth.
That sexual relationships between students and teachers might lend a young mentee elevated social status or virtue is an old idea with roots deep in the Western canon of Greek and Roman literature; that these relationships might be inappropriate, manipulative, and ultimately destructive is a newer one. The Big Hurt follows on the heels of several cultural reckonings with the subtle condoning — even encouraging — of sex with students, particularly in literary circles. Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, for instance, which was released in English earlier this year, recalls her seduction as a young teen by Gabriel Matzneff, a big-shot writer and known pedophile, whose predations on young children were long indulged by the French literati, rendered charming by his prestige. Also this year, after W. W. Norton stopped printing the new Philip Roth biography in the wake of a rape allegation against its author, Blake Bailey, several of Bailey’s former students came forward with allegations of their own — often of predatory grooming that began in his middle school classrooms.
Schickel is an expert at capturing the atmosphere in which abuse like this thrives — one where the maturity of children is repeatedly overestimated, their vulnerability dismissed. In one illustrative scene, 13-year-old Schickel is asked on a movie date by a man in his mid-30s, which her mother not only allows but also allows without apparent hesitation or concern. What results is a child who is regarded as an adult — expected to have the agency and know-how to make informed decisions without guidance or support. This thinking naturally backfires, and Schickel’s impulsivity and poor decision-making so frustrate and bewilder her parents that they ship her off to boarding school. Predictably, her rebellion continues — even intensifies — with sex and alcohol, escalating to a nightmarish episode near the end of her first year, in which Schickel’s older boyfriend drugs her, allows a friend to rape her, and then abruptly dumps her.
As harrowing and uncomfortable as it is to watch this young girl grope through the dark for some semblance of security or belonging, Schickel manages to dodge self-pity. Her tone is more inquisitive than regretful: how had her parents failed so spectacularly to protect her? As she navigates the present-day ruins of her stable family life and the violent moods of her new lover, arriving at some sort of answer becomes imperative — a kind of atonement for the wrecking ball she’s loosed through the lives of her husband and two young daughters.
There are, as she discovers, many answers, and they are as richly layered as they are painful. Much of her reflection centers around her parents. There is her father, the renowned film historian and critic Richard Schickel, whose misogyny and narcissism Schickel must reluctantly confront in her research. (Schickel discovers, for example, that her father publicly defended literary rock star J. D. Salinger after he was accused of using his status to seduce and discard female students.) Then there is her mother, whose disregard and eventual abandonment of her daughter leaves Schickel with emotional scars and full of resentment. Still, Schickel concedes that her mother was perhaps as much a victim as she was, “caught in the brambles of the 1950s, navigating the whiz-bang sexual revolution with the factory settings of a more conservative time.” Just as Schickel is a young child confronted with more responsibility than she can handle, perhaps her mother was an adult confronted with the same — assumed to be capable of navigating a rapidly changing landscape of sexual and gender politics with little to no guidance.
It is a framework that critics like Katie Roiphe (who incidentally makes a cameo in The Big Hurt as Schickel’s childhood neighbor) are wary of — one that infantilizes women, turns them into helpless victims. But even Roiphe concedes in her most recent book, The Power Notebooks, that the complexity of sexual dynamics cuts both ways. In recounting her relationship, as a 15-year-old, with a rabbi more than twice her age, Roiphe writes, “I have so long and so passionately resisted the victim role because I was not purely a victim, not purely traumatized, but I am beginning to realize that this does not mean I was not also or very complexly those things.”
This is the contradiction that Schickel loves to sit in — that space between victimhood and culpability where the mess of actual human experience resides. She leans into the mess, albeit without the stringent concision of a writer like Roiphe. For all her humor and insight — of which there is a great deal — Schickel is not a disciplined writer, which often means scenes that go on too long or reflections that begin to feel repetitive. At one moment her language is evocative, energetic, and original (she describes parents “intermarrying, creating Escher-esque stepfamilies” and students dating each other “like they were square dancing”). The next, it lapses into cliché (after losing her virginity, Schickel vaguely claims that she “had been transformed”). But it all comes together in a kaleidoscopic portrait of life messily, complexly lived, told with equal parts unfettered rage, measured calm, and compassion.
Early on, fourth-grader Schickel and her best friend are lured into the living room of a 13-year-old boy from her neighborhood and pressured into stripping naked for him. Afterward, while Schickel is already hot with shame, the boy spreads word at school, and she is relentlessly and cruelly teased by her peers. It’s a scene of forced exposure that has many parallels throughout her story — most devastatingly when Spade publishes a detailed account of their affair for the public to consume and scrutinize.
The Big Hurt is a different kind of exposure, one that is less exploitative and more exploratory. That the title is stolen from an early draft of Spade’s invasive memoir is significant: this is the real story, Schickel suggests, revealed on her terms. That she gives him a tongue-in-cheek, almost farcical pseudonym is perhaps a little petty (if more of a courtesy than he extended her, as he did nothing to conceal her identity in his version). But Schickel, poised on the cover in her Patti Smith T-shirt, cigarette dangling from her lips and middle finger raised, is under no illusion that she has to forgive, to justify, or to neatly distinguish right from wrong.
Lily Houston Smith is a critic, essayist, and podcast editor whose writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Soft Punk Magazine, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and Guernica. She edits book reviews and reading lists for Laid Off NYC and is pursuing an MA in cultural reporting and criticism at NYU.