by Alisson Wood
Flatiron Books, Aug. 4, 2020
304 Pages, $26.99
Warnings for: emotional abuse, sexual abuse, abusive relationships
This past fall, I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for the second time. Both times I’ve read it—both times as required reading for literature classes—my reaction has been one of loathing. Part of that loathing stems from the knowledge that many view this as a classic, a must-read, so much so that it is regularly assigned in classes across genres, sometimes even to high school students. (Can you imagine? Reading Lolita at fourteen?) Whatever Nabokov’s intentions, the book has taken on a life of its own, creating in some that same visceral sense of loathing that I experienced but in others a deep adoration for the “beautiful love story” between thirty-seven-year-old Humbert Humbert and twelve-year-old Dolores, whom he calls Lolita.
I suspect you may have cringed at the age difference between these two “lovers,” and rightly so. Humbert Humbert is a manipulative, murderous pedophile who kidnaps Dolores and takes her on a year-long road trip across America so that he can have sex with her far from watchful eyes. Despite this fact—and despite his failed plans to drug and rape her—he claims that Dolores herself seduced him. This “love story” is couched in the language of a poet, meant to bamboozle the reader, to impress him, to mask a predatory relationship in romantic syllables. And those unable to see beyond Humbert Humbert’s polished veneer—young, impressionable readers, for example—often interpret this story as one of youthful seduction and influence (Dolores) corrupting an otherwise honorable intellectual (Humbert). It is with this setting in mind that one should read Alisson Wood’s debut memoir Being Lolita.
Think back, if you will, to your high school years: Barely into your teens and in the throes of puberty, you still have a lot to figure out about yourself. You’re casting about for role models, for people who will show you The Way Things Are and usher you into adulthood. Perhaps, like Alisson, you’re one of the six percent of teens that experience depression—or one of the ten percent that experience severe anxiety.1 And as you finally start to get the hang of things, to pull out of your depression, into your orbit comes an attractive, hip, young teacher whose sole focus seems to be on you and your creative work. You fall instantly in love.
So goes Alisson Wood’s Being Lolita. At seventeen, Alisson is an aspiring writer and actress recently returned to Hunt High School from a remedial school following a severe bout of depression and anxiety. Within the first few days of the start of her senior year, she is introduced to Mr. North, a twenty-six-year-old English teacher, a writer, an admirer of Nabokov. What begins as an afterschool tutoring appointment develops into a twisted and manipulative romance between a teenager and her teacher, not unlike the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Dolores. Alisson’s teacher adopts a dual personality: Nick at their late-night diner dates, Mr. North at school, and his paranoia over their potential discovery parallels Humbert’s descent into madness.
But Alisson’s story involves a more direct connection to Nabokov’s famous novel; Nick North (N.N. to Humbert’s H.H., he gleefully points out) gives his pupil—Ali, he now calls her—a copy of Lolita, uses it to groom her, spending many of their dates reading aloud: “He spoke to me in Nabokov’s opening lines, languidly: light of my life, fire of my loins. I thought it was the most romantic thing ever. But I was ruining it—I had a bug bite and I kept pushing my ankles together, trying to quell the tinge of itch. A child who couldn’t sit still” (Wood 3). This image, more than any other, calls to mind Dolores’s oblivious childishness, the innocence with which she took interest in Humbert Humbert, allowed him to pursue her. And Mr. North’s response, too, is just as telling: “He leaned down to my foot next to him and put his lips on my pink, swollen ankle. I felt his breath on my skin. And it was like every locker in the halls of my high school swung open at once, metal kissing cinder-block walls. It felt just like that” (3). This brilliantly-crafted opening scene sets the stage for what’s to come and makes a clear parallel between Lolita and Wood’s memoir.
Throughout its pages, Being Lolita is rife with similarly breathless passages that compel the reader from start to finish. Wood expertly builds suspense through well-placed scenes, all the while fulfilling the reader’s curiosity piece by piece instead of delaying it until the end. Divided into three parts, nymph, capture, and dissection, that catalogue the evolution of Alisson and Mr. North’s relationship, Being Lolita simultaneously seduces, shames, and redeems us—us who, like Alisson, like Dolores, have been a teen, have grappled with juvenile feelings, have felt the need to be taken seriously. In Wood’s words, “It seems as if no matter how active or passive a girl is, she is still doomed” (17).
But more than anything else, Being Lolita is a tale of redemption. It reminds us that abusive relationships are complicated, and, perplexingly, not all bad; there are no perfect villains. Wood’s memoir is not a straightforward fleecing of a teacher who took advantage of a high school student; rather, it is her reconciliation with a traumatic period in her life, a re-conditioning of her feelings of helplessness, of self-blame and self-questioning.
How do you reconcile emotional abuse from a teacher who has gained your trust? Who has been kind and supportive? Wood examines each scene with tenderness for her younger self, identifying the warnings she’d missed before:
“I wanted desperately to reach through time and space back to myself at seventeen and twist my skin until I stopped and listened…: That is not love. Do not get caught. But that’s not how knowledge works. These were things I would have to learn as a seventeen- and eighteen-year-old, how secrets aren’t a code for love. How words can dissolve and distort” (251).
Being Lolita thrusts us back into our high school selves; despite the added vulnerability she experienced from her depression, teenage Alisson is not very different from many of us: impressionable and wanting to impress, seeking her place in the world. It is not until her college professor contextualizes Lolita that Alisson is able to begin processing the ways that Mr. North used the book to seduce her. That a man in his position could use a book like Lolita to coerce a young woman into a relationship does, indeed, demonstrate the power of words, “How words can dissolve and distort,” and how, ultimately, it is up to us—the reader, the teacher, the academic—to decide how to present and contextualize those words. A heavy task, and a difficult, necessary one.
If Lolita has a legacy, a purpose beyond artistic indulgence, one could claim that it acts as a mirror. We interpret the book according to our own experiences; we decide who to believe: an attractive, educated adult man or an irresponsible, impish child whose point of view never once surfaces in the novel.
Being Lolita is, in many ways, the other side of the story. And, lucky for us—and for Alisson—enough people chose to believe her. But, more importantly, she chose to believe herself, to find redemption in her own words. Unlike Dolores, she is able to take agency in her story, to write her own ending, and, as a teacher herself now, to contextualize the text for the next generation.