WHAT IS IT like to grieve the loss of a loved one in the age of Facebook and online memorials? How do you mourn a person who threatened to destroy your life and dreams? When do you finally move away from the stronghold someone has had on you for years? These are some of the heavy questions memoirist Leigh Stein chews on in her new book, Land of Enchantment, about her complex feelings surrounding the death of an abusive ex-boyfriend.
Split mostly between 2007, in the thick of their love, and 2011, when Stein learns of his death, Enchantment tells the harrowing tale of her life with Jason, a then-19-year-old man she met and fell in love with in Chicago. Stein was 22 when, a few short months later, the new couple moved to New Mexico—the “Land of Enchantment.” Sharing an apartment in Albuquerque, Stein struggled in her new life. What was meant to be a writing year for her while Jason worked to support them turned into a six-month waking nightmare rife with harrowing neighbor interactions, drinking and drug use, and barely scraping by financially. After Jason quits job after job, Stein winds up working as a waitress in the desert, with less than half of her novel written.
She deliciously evokes the experience of falling in love with someone who’s bad for you, even when you know it’s a terrible idea. Stein’s book tells a Cinderella story in reverse—one in which the heroine has to get away from Prince Charming so she can start a new life all on her own. She writes beautifully and openly about what it was like to be in an abusive relationship well after the fact, once she’s had the clarity to see it for what it was. She also deals with her own mental health issues over the course of her life, and their overall impact. This well-crafted memoir easily jumps back and forth in time, never leaving the reader behind but always leaving them wanting to know more. A quick read, the 224-page book expertly lets readers glimpse the common experience of what it’s like to lose a loved one, even a person your own age, for the first time. In the end, it’s a story about no longer letting someone have power over you.
I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship, but I was with a verbally and emotionally abusive partner for longer than I would have expected of myself. As Stein writes, it’s often not until later—after the breakup, after the dust has settled, after the experience of being treated better—that you can see abuse for what it was, and have the courage to name it.
Stein, a year older than me, also touches on the familiar realization that she’s been publicly writing about her private life since she was 15, since the days of LiveJournal and message boards. “Online it was so much easier to talk, without judgment or shame, about all the dark things I wanted to talk about,” she writes. “Anxiety and depression, loneliness and longing.”
Stein’s book brings these dark things from the screen to the page. While reading it feels slightly voyeuristic at times, I’m glad she has chosen to let us in on her story.
by Leigh Stein
(Penguin Random House)