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“A Last-Minute Addendum” by Jess E. Jelsma


There are many ways for a writer to respond to an earlier work of fiction. A story can take on the architectural shape of another story; a story can modernize or feminize the original; a story can change the point-of-view from the protagonist to another character. In every case, though, the writer is trusting the reader to see the connections: although prior knowledge of the earlier work is usually not required, it clearly enhances the read of the story. There are meanings that bubble up because of the connections and the reflections that the newer story is making.

In “A Last-Minute Addendum,” Jess E. Jelsma uses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865, as a jumping-off point, as a way of considering the life of a teenage girl in Manhattan in the early 1990’s. It’s a wonderful text to use in this manner, as it’s universally known. Even if the reader is not intimately familiar with the Carroll book, they will know enough to understand the references that Jelsma is making. But just in case you’re not, here’s a website that contains the text of the book along with the illustrations. And the more you’re familiar with the world that Carroll has created, the more pleasure you will get out of the marvelous world created in this story by Jess E. Jelsma.


Let it be entered into the record by fifteen-year-old Yael [Last Name Redacted] of New York, NY: The recent presentation, entitled “The Finest Little Girl in the World,” given by Dr. Feinstein and Dr. Letham at the Annual Conference for the Advancement of Modern Psychoanalysis is in need of the following major corrections.

 

1. The primary subject of the doctors’ presentation—a teenage patient given the pseudonym Little Jane—was not, in fact, observed in a clinical setting. Her inpatient treatment took place in a six-story, pre-war brownstone at 25 Stuyvesant Street. She was allowed three—not five—trips to the bathroom each day. The pocket door to the commode was to be left open at all times. This stipulation was explained as a method of curtailing any covert use of laxatives, enemas, or diuretics (though it should be noted that Dr. Feinstein and Dr. Letham searched the patient’s belongings upon her arrival). As part of her Family-Based Therapy, Little Jane was served three meals a day, each totaling approximately eight hundred calories. Tea was taken in the third-floor parlor at 10:00 a.m. and then again at 4:00 p.m. Two tablespoons of heavy cream and one cube of sugar were stirred into each serving of English breakfast tea as had been prescribed by Dr. Feinstein. Aside from a thirty-minute recess in which the patient was encouraged to sunbathe, nude, in the home’s sunken garden, Little Jane was confined to her fourth-floor bedroom for up to twenty-two hours a day over the eight-week course of treatment. The walls were decorated with framed illustrations from a rare, first edition copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Above the marble fireplace: Alice discovering a door that was much too small.

Beside the bookcase stocked with novels by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Louisa May Alcott: Alice contemplating a Drink Me bottle.

Above the daybed with its white lace coverlet: Alice slumped down in her chair, staring sulkily at the Hatter and the March Hare.

Little Jane’s favorite illustration came from Chapter II, The Pool of Tears: Alice stretched far too tall and far too thin, a monstrous version of the perfect little girl she’d once been.

 

2. Contrary to the exhaustive list of potential causes listed by Dr. Letham and Dr. Feinstein, the patient’s physical condition did not stem from her subscription to Teen Beat or her childhood fascination with the New York City Ballet. It did not originate in the pages of the romance novels she hid beneath her twin bed frame—dozens of mass market Avons and Harlequins purchased from Argosy Books or traded on the Stuyvesant High School black market exchange. It had no relation to the Carpenters cassette tape she’d once listened to each day as she took the subway from 86th to 14th, though she could acknowledge the logic behind such a link (R.I.P. Karen C.).

What was harder to explain: Little Jane’s affinity for soft, brother-sister duets rife with thinly veiled longing.

Surely Freud and Jung would have something to say about that.

And yet, on closer examination of the social practices deemed perfectly appropriate by the Victorian psychoanalysts:

Wasn’t it true that Little Jane’s waist was no smaller than that of the young woman who tightened her corset to reshape the girth of her ribcage? Wasn’t the patient’s skin no paler than that of the dowager forced into heavy black bombazine and crape, her two-year sentence spent eating and drinking behind the mourning veil that hid her face? Wasn’t her hunger no more sated than that of dear little Alice wandering, dumbstruck, through Wonderland, ever growing and shrinking as she oscillated between predator and prey?

In addition, there was the matter of the patient’s family that had yet to be examined.

What of Little Jane’s mother and father who put stock in false prophets speaking in the language of Oedipus and Electra complexes? What of the parents who shipped their daughter halfway down the length of Manhattan to an East Village brownstone without a second thought—the facility less a clinic than a curio cabinet of past civilizations, its six floors stocked with cheap plaster and ceramic replicas of famous Grecian urns, Chinese guard lions, and statues of Hindu goddesses? Who saw only a future of decline now that Reagan’s War on Drugs had given way to Bush’s Points of Light? Who equally feared the rise of dope, AIDS, MTV, and charming serial killers like John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy?

Of course, Dr. Feinstein and Dr. Letham neglected to explore this familial connection in their course of treatment and evaluation. While they counted out sugar cubes and measured cream for afternoon tea, they missed Little Jane’s daily homage to the statue of Parvati in the back garden. Had the psychoanalysts been more observant, would they have devised some theory to address the patient’s fascination with the goddess of love, fertility, and devotion? Would they have revised their hypothesis to explain the prayers she whispered for another teenage girl only six blocks away, wasting away in her intro geometry class? Would they have offered some interpretation of Little Jane’s foremost desire, her longing to wallow so deep inside the white rabbit’s burrow that she suffocated in its depths?

 

3. The biggest correction, perhaps: the patient was NOT afraid of sex. She was not frigid or sexually stunted despite the anecdotes her parents may have passed along to doctors Feinstein and Letham. She was not fearful of the penis, merely unamused by its adolescent antics, and as such, decidedly disinterested. What was it that Freud had theorized about the phallus—that all women are inherently envious? As far as Little Jane saw it, she had simply evolved to some higher, more sophisticated psychosexual stage. Such a feat should have been celebrated with a second bat mitzvah, not punished with imprisonment and therapeutic practices approaching force-feeding.

After all, hadn’t suffragettes like Sylvia Pankhurst used hunger strikes to successfully draw attention to their causes in the past? Hadn’t their tactics proved righteous in the end, the government forced to acknowledge that women should be granted the same rights as men?

A quick examination of the facts:

True, in the months before the start of her Family-Based Therapy, the patient did agree to go on several dates with young boys her parents had selected. True, she did coo at the Central Park penguins, nibble on a black and white cookie at Glaser’s Bake Shop, and see Ghost as her mother and father demanded. Yes, she did let one boy hold her hand, another kiss her on the cheek, and a third buy her Milk Duds at the East 86th Street Cinemas. Unknown to her parents or the psychoanalysts: Little Jane also traded a five-minute, over-the-zipper petting session for a pack of Virginia Slims, a quick, emotionless transaction on her parents’ rooftop deck. When the 10th grader attempted to reciprocate, the patient pushed his hand away and bit down, hard, on the filter of one of his mother’s cigarettes.

“You wouldn’t know how to do it right,” she said.

Yes, Little Jane was caught a few weeks later with her best friend on the same rooftop deck. True, the two of them were smoking the remaining Virginia Slims, their pink ChapStick leaving waxy rings on each discarded filter. Yes, they did take turns reading aloud from a yellowed copy of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. They set down the book every now and then to flip over in their two-piece bathing suits because they wanted an even tan. In the background, the boom box was playing Madonna’s Like a Prayer album, though Little Jane would deny that there was any intentional symbolism in this.

True, both the patient and her best friend were relatively thin, but that was not the real reason that Dr. Feinstein and Dr. Letham were called. Little Jane did not loathe the thin layer of cellulite on the outsides of her thighs or the new stretch marks on the tops of her best friend’s breasts. She did not long to renounce her femininity or retreat back into the safety of a womb that had proved increasingly hostile and intolerant to her very being.

Like Alice, she simply wished to be. No more taunting Cheshire Cat. No more stupid tea parties. No more Eat Me cakes and Drink Me bottles that failed to leave one the proper height or fill an empty stomach.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Let the record show: Lewis Carroll didn’t intend the riddle to be solved.

 

4. As should now be evident, “The Finest Little Girl in the World” experiment was not a success. The patient was not cured of her condition, though her face may appear noticeably rounder in the psychoanalysts’ coerced after-shot. She was not transformed into the perfect little girl her parents remembered from elementary school, the one who routinely planted triple front handsprings at gymnastics competitions and kissed a picture of Corey Haim every night before bed. She did not long for boys’ attention or envy their penises as Freud said she should; she simply got better at hiding her indifference.

On the subway to Astor Place, Little Jane listened to a Dolly Parton cassette tape her mother had gifted her for her fifteenth birthday. At school, she made a show of eating her egg salad sandwiches in front of the lunch monitor who’d been appointed to report back on her daily progress. Throughout her intro geometry class, she sat with perfect posture and kept her legs pressed together beneath her skirt. On her parents’ rooftop deck, she exchanged another petting session for a bottle of 100 proof cinnamon schnapps, a quid pro quo her parents would have tacitly approved of had they known.

In the interest of retaining her newfound freedom, Little Jane submitted herself to monthly appointments with a dietician and bi-weekly check-ins at 25 Stuyvesant Street. She kept her nails neatly trimmed, wore Clinique foundation, and coiffed her hair in the styles her mother suggested. She used a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium to mask the musty smell of her Virginia Slims.

In between study hall and 4th period, she knocked on the far stall in the second-floor girl’s bathroom and whispered their agreed upon password, “Où est ma chatte?

A fun aside to Dr. Letham and Dr. Feinstein: the phrase wasn’t one Little Jane picked up in her French II class, but from the doctors’ framed pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Je suis là,” her best friend would answer, sliding back the lock.

And for a few minutes, they would be swept up in their own rising tide. When the waters receded, they would gladly join the ever-circling Caucus Race because, between the two of them, there’d never been any need for first or second place.


JESS E. JELSMA is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and holds an MFA in prose from the University of Alabama. Her previous work has appeared in CatapultFlywayIndiana ReviewThe Normal SchoolPost RoadPrinters Row, and various other publications. She can be found online at jessejelsma.com or @jessejelsma.

 

Author’s Note

As a writer who double-majored in psychology and anthropology as an undergraduate, I’ve always been fascinated by the unexpected narratives found in primary documents. Scientific articles, conference papers, and field notes all have a relatively rigid structure that authors are expected to follow. As such, readers know what to expect in terms of structure, voice, and tone regardless of the text’s content. The type or “genre” of the piece provides a shape to fill while also instituting a number of constraints that can feel either familiar to those well-versed in the field, or completely isolating to outsiders not familiar with the rules and vocabulary of the discourse community.

For me, the real magic happens when fiction tackles one of these shapes, taking on a hybrid form that blurs the boundary between what is considered “real” or objective and what is clearly invention. Numerous contemporary novels incorporate both short- and long-form documents, such as Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (written as an English Literature syllabus) and Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members (written as a series of letters of recommendation). Perhaps the novel I most had in mind when I started writing “A Last-Minute Addendum,” however, was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While the majority of the book is narrated in a first-person present tense perspective, aligning the reader with Offred, the “Historical Notes” section at the end of the novel reveals that everything that has come before was recorded as a series of spoken tapes, likely sometime after the original events took place. It is up to the close reader to go back and reconsider what she has read in light of the newly unveiled constraint of audio tapes. Why did Offred choose to recount her experience as though it were happening at the present moment? Can the spoken aspect of the tapes account for the vast temporal shifts between chapters and even paragraphs, with Offred often weaving in between the past and the theoretical present? What does Atwood gain be reconfiguring the narrative as a static primary document at the book’s end? Does the transcript nature of the “Historical Notes” suggest that even more time has passed since the Twelfth Symposium on Gilead Studies?

In “A Last-Minute Addendum,” I took inspiration from Atwood’s conference transcript, formatting the short story as an addendum to a presentation at the Annual Conference for the Advancement of Modern Psychoanalysis. At the time, I was also working on a theory paper that drew heavily from Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body which dives into issues of disordered eating, treatments being implemented in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and links between anorexia, hysteria, and agoraphobia. I found myself reading contentious conference transcripts in which doctors, psychologists, and academics argued about the true source of the rising prevalence of eating disorders amongst teen girls. I saw the opportunity to borrow part of the conference format while flipping the typical vocabulary, tone, and content on its head. I wanted to write a piece that both complied with and completely subverted the genre, turning the vocabulary and theories of psychoanalysis back around to make a commentary on the popular family-centered therapy being implemented at the time.

Formatting the story as a fictional document also felt appropriate given the other real-life inspiration behind the piece: a six-story brownstone on Stuyvesant Street that once belonged to the grandmother of a former romantic partner. The brownstone was, at once, one of the most terrifying and wondrous places I’ve ever been, stuffed to the brim with both genuine antiques and recreations—imported crystal chandeliers, tableaux of Victorian taxidermy, Hindu statues, and yes, those first edition illustrated pages from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The house itself was part-forgery, part-museum, which felt like the perfect setting for a story that strived to achieve a similar feat. In that same vein, by repeatedly invoking Alice and the world of Wonderland, I hoped to reinforce the upside down that is both Yael’s course of treatment and a story set in a skewed yet familiar world—strange, wondrous, and maze-like in its depths.


JESS E. JELSMA is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and holds an MFA in prose from the University of Alabama. Her previous work has appeared in CatapultFlywayIndiana ReviewThe Normal SchoolPost RoadPrinters Row, and various other publications. She can be found online at jessejelsma.com or @jessejelsma.