>

Exploring the art of prose

Menu

Normal Girl by Kelly Lindell


Just as creative nonfiction often borrows narrative devices from fiction, it also borrows literary devices from poetry. Kelly Lindell knits her flash “Normal Girl” together through musical echoes and repetitions. “Be a Normal Girl,” functions much like a refrain in poetry, closing three paragraphs, and rhyming with the variation at the close of the piece: “See a Normal Girl.”

Repetition occurs on multiple levels. The repetition of the appellation “Normal Girl” shows how social expectations are internalized at a young age. Repetition represents a psychological compulsion as well. (See Lindell’s discussion of OCD in her author’s note.) Repetition also signifies return, in this case the writer’s fear of repeating family history. As Lindell explains in her author’s note: “I often worried I was bound to repeat my great-grandmother’s legacy of mental illness. Was my brain fated to betray me? Was my future, in some ways, predetermined?”

Family history is embodied in setting: as a young girl, the writer picnics and plays hide and seek “in the shadow” of the abandoned mental institution where her great-grandmother was lobotomized. When she practices softball on the asylum grounds, “[h]er ghost is pressed in my cleats. Her potential hides under the bases; her echo in the clink of my bat.” The repercussions of trauma are felt in future generations: a grandfather raised in foster care threatens the writer with a psychiatrist if she doesn’t act like a Normal Girl. And so she learns: “Be quiet. Hide it. Be a Normal Girl.”

No longer playing hide and seek, Lindell breaks those silences in a beautifully wrought lyric flash that expresses both vulnerability and strength. As she says in her author’s note, “My hope is that, by speaking about mental health more openly, we can better empathize with each other and the personal challenges we all face.”  —CRAFT


 

Bedtime in first grade is finger jelly and sock lint. Vaseline rubbed on my bloody, split, vellum-dry knuckles; hands cocooned in white Nike gym socks, wrapped on my wrist with scrunchies. I am told to sleep. Wake up for school with shiny-soft human hands. Do not take the socks off to wash hands (again). Do not flicker the lights in multiples of three. Do not say the Lord’s Prayer nine times. No need to say it loudly; God will hear. Maybe say it in your head, if you must. Dad is trying to sleep. Be a Normal Girl.

Normal Girl does not think about Germs. Normal Girl steps on sidewalk cracks with delight. Normal Girl likes hugs and head pats. Normal Girl only speaks when she is spoken to. Normal Girl does not hunt for werewolves in the neighbor’s yard. Normal Girl does not keep lists. Normal Girl does not tweeze her leg hairs to make physical language of a pain she cannot articulate. Normal Girl does not wash her hands until her skin bleeds. Normal Girl does not fear punishment from God for neglecting the bedtime prayer ritual. Normal Girl does not think of karma or consequence. Normal Girl thinks of ribbons. Normal Girl thinks of kittens. Normal Girl turns the light switch off once. Only once. Be a Normal Girl.

Grandpa says, “Stop being a weirdo or we will take you to a shrink.” This is a warning. We live in the shadow of the asylum. That is not a metaphor. We picnic in front of the children’s ward. Play hide and seek where the orderlies once smoked and gossiped. Practice softball by the building where my great-grandmother was lobotomized. Her ghost is pressed in my cleats. Her potential hides under the bases; her echo in the clink of my bat.

The asylum is closed now. It is a public park consumed by vines, vices. Local students read ouija boards in the underground tunnels; tag walls with profanities in the mortuary where her body laid. They lose frisbees behind broken windows to rooms where she was restrained. Brad Pitt, baby-faced, filmed Sleepers where doctors shocked her temples; our townsfolk on-screen as extras. She had “hysteria,” derived from the Greek word for “uterus.” Grandpa was raised in foster care. The shrink takes—lobes and mothers. Be quiet. Hide it. Be a Normal Girl.

In life I acquire letters: OCD, ADHD. My disordered alphabet. I acquire labels that sound like insects: trichotillomania, dermatillomania. The words eat my skin, inform my shape. Cloaked, a fabric of expectations. Look. See me. See a Normal Girl.

 


KELLY LINDELL is an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School in New York City, but calls Connecticut’s Naugatuck River Valley her home. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Longleaf ReviewCRAFT, and Atticus Review.

 

Featured image by Nathan Wright courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

I can now order craft beer at the former asylum where my great-grandmother was lobotomized. The state hospital has become a brewery called Newsylum that serves an IPA named Therapy Session. The one-hundred-acre campus is also home to a town hall, recreation center, walking trails, softball fields, and a dog park. Many of the buildings still sit abandoned, corralled by chain-link fences speckled with signs that warn visitors to keep their distance. Turkey vultures roost in the neglected cupolas, scavenging stray pub pretzels or picnic scraps. As a child playing on the institution’s grounds, I often worried I was bound to repeat my great-grandmother’s legacy of mental illness. Was my brain fated to betray me? Was my future, in some ways, predetermined?

Repetition is important to the structure of this piece. The echoing of “Normal Girl” is used to reinforce the persistence of my obsessions and the rigidity of the rules I created for my adolescent self. On a literal level, it represents the repetition in my compulsions, which were replicated until they felt “right.” It also, more plainly, fortifies my deep childhood yearning to be “normal.” The Normal Girl becomes a mythical figure, the phantom that younger me aspired to in order to be accepted and gain a perceived safety from society or institutions. It’s possible that my desire to be a writer might stem from this childhood feeling of being misunderstood and a longing to communicate more effectively, especially when many of my emotions surpassed my limits of language and comprehension at that age.

I have often felt a pressure to be silent about my experiences with mental illness, pressure that partially stems from my family’s unfortunate prior experiences in seeking treatment for loved ones. If writing is an act of vulnerability, reading is a practice of empathy. My hope is that, by speaking about mental health more openly, we can better empathize with each other and the personal challenges we all face. Who among us has never felt, at times, a desire to be free of our private conflicts and fears—a desire for simplicity and security in the promise of “normal”?

 


KELLY LINDELL is an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School in New York City, but calls Connecticut’s Naugatuck River Valley her home. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Longleaf ReviewCRAFT, and Atticus Review.