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How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate object … I had desired with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of my dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room.—Dr. Frankenstein
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, has always been a literary touchstone for me. Based on the ancient story of Prometheus and written by a young girl (Shelley was 19 at the time), it is a perfect metaphor for the uncontrollable, chaotic nature of creation—you never know what you’re going to get. As a child, I wore a series of wooden and metal limbs as the result of a congenital birth defect. I often felt like Frankenstein’s monster, put together with planks and screws and nails and straps.
At the prosthetist’s office, the creepy guy with the sweating bald head marked where the leg was attached with Revlon’s iconic red: Cherries in the Snow. It was a color I wore to junior high dances, where I huddled with my girlfriends like a trapped and nervous bird on one side of the gym while the boys strutted and peered at us from the opposite wall. There were other times when I felt truly monstrous: when the hinges leaked oil into my jeans as I walked down the hallways at my junior high school; when it took my father 20 minutes of sweating work with a shoe-horn to force a girl’s shoe on a prosthetic foot made for a man; when a boy I shared a sleeping bag with at a church lock-in got as far as my waistband and then said, “It freaks me out to go any further.”
In these moments, I felt deeply aligned with the monster, especially in those chapters when he enters the woods and is rejected by the family whose warmth and kindness he is so ready to accept and to return. This body that had been created—by whom? by what? My religious upbringing did nothing to help me sort this out—was wrong, faulty, freakish.
Last fall, when I still lived in New Mexico, three times a week I commuted south on Highway 14 from my home in the small mining town of Madrid to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I was a visiting professor. I decided to listen to Frankenstein on CD. With the birth of my daughter, I had less time to read for pleasure, and I missed it. The two-lane highway twists through desert mountains with sweeping views of the ever-changing sky, past tiny towns where the only resident has decorated the large yard of his small house with hundreds of colorful bottles that catch the light as you round the corner past the abandoned dry goods store. I-40 is another steep wind, this time a journey shared with trucks en route across the state, perhaps to Oklahoma and beyond. Several times during my journey over that week I found myself near tears at the monster’s dilemma, about the ways in which his inability to find acceptance from himself and others in the body he’d been given—that had been created for him, out of love—made him murderous with rage and self-hatred. Twice I was pulled over and given “warnings” for speeding during particularly intense parts of the book. I would arrive at the faculty parking lot, put up my disabled parking placard and wander, blurry-eyed, to my class. Before listening to Frankenstein read aloud, I’d probably read it at least 50 times. It has never failed to disappoint, move, surprise, astound and empower me.
The empowerment point is central here. The stories we find in books— old stories reworked, old myths revivified, new stories we’ve never heard before that have something to say about the triumphs and tragedies of the human condition— keep us alive, focused, thinking, and being in the world in a way that no other venue of storytelling can, or ever will. Every generation needs its storytellers, and every person has a story to tell. This is the great purpose of Lighthouse, where individual writers find their stories, their voices, and feel empowered to tell them. The lessons about the human experience—the one we all share—reach down across the ages, across the miles, and once put into the world, never leave it. This is a great gift—the only one, in the end, that any of us has to give.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller, an Editor’s Pick, and a finalist for the PEN Center Literary Award in Nonfiction. She’ll be teaching a juried memoir workshop at Lighthouse’s Lit Fest, June 3-17.