“Scratched,” by Elizabeth Tallent

Elizabeth Tallent

Reviewed by J.R. Davidson

Elizabeth Tallent’s mother refused to hold her when she was born.  This rejection was a triggering point, subconsciously stored until years later, sending Tallent on a lifelong quest to make herself lovable.  By her mid-thirties, having written four novels and several short stories, Tallent collapsed into a “perfectionist seizure.”  She couldn’t finish anything for over twenty years, having become enthralled with a beauty that was always just out of reach.   In her own words, “As a perfectionist I leave a lot to be desired, and if you leave a lot to be desired, you’re unlikely to run out of desire.”  With Scratched, Tallent has finally mustered enough courage and self-trust to bravely define her flaws and to show us her work in its radiantly imperfect form.

Tallent’s obsession with being perfect and writing perfectly is both a driving force and a crippling disability that haunts her to the present day.  She spends a substantial amount of her memoir reimagining her birth.  Tallent scratched herself either in utero or in the hospital nursery, as many newborns do.  The scratches usually heal quickly and leave no lasting scars. Post-partum, Tallent’s mother told the nurses that she was too upset and put off by her baby daughter’s scratches to hold or feed her.  We are not told and will never know if her mother’s unseemly behavior is a result of “twilight sleep” anesthesia, or if she actually abhorred so severely the sight of her “imperfect” infant that she refused to accept her.  Nevertheless, Tallent correlates her self-inflicted scratches with her lifelong struggle to perfect herself in order to be loved.  As her life unfolds, Tallent graciously avoids bitterness and owns her perfectionism with humility.

Several subsequent events further illuminate possible sources for Tallent’s insecurities.   Many conversations and gaslighting scenes portray her mother as being a textbook case of borderline personality disorder.   Her father is described as typical of the Eisenhower era with a buzz cut, horn rimmed glasses, and a short sleeve button down.  He smokes, flirts with her mother’s nurses, and ignores Tallent’s childhood pleas to go to the hospital when she fractures her arm.  After a disagreement in college, Tallent’s parents bluntly tell her, “We want nothing more to do with you.”  It would be an understatement to say that Tallent’s neuroses are justified, if not altogether uncommon.  Her strength lies in how accurately she pinpoints her condition.

Tallent self-diagnoses the connection between the loss of parental love and her perfectionism with heart wrenching clarity: “[T]he loss of love . . . this skeptical affliction is rooted in the soppiest gullibility, perfectionism a love letter the psyche sends to an unresponsive Other, swearing “I’ll change everything if you will only come back.”  This passage should elicit a visceral response in anyone who has children.

She vividly captures her strict-liability, no recourse family as one “in which only the lusty prosecution of mistakes – one’s own, others’- proves one’s integrity.”  However, Tallent never lets her past make her resentful.  She fully acknowledges her own role in her perfectionist story.  “I guess I will start here: confronted with, ashamed of, my enthrallment.  It doesn’t matter what it’s cost me, perfection’s destined deliverance is what I believe in, unerring rightness, beauty the barest millimeter beyond this page.”

Despite its merits, much of Scratched is written in passive voice via the author’s stream of consciousness, making it – at times – somewhat difficult to follow.  A few scenes come across as unrealistic or unnecessarily antagonistic.  For instance, Tallent reimagines her father joining the nurses, shortly after she was born, to watch the White Sox play baseball.  The commentary just doesn’t work.  “[E]very fumble grieved.”  (You don’t fumble in baseball).  “Right down the line and it’s….strike three!”  (You would hit a ball right down the line, not throw a pitch.)  These are minor issues, to be sure, but they should have been caught.

Likewise, Tallent’s exploration of femininity and her contrasts between the sexes often come dramatically unprompted.  One reviewer called her early work “luminous,” and Tallent questions, “Did the work of male writers get called ‘luminous’ or was it a girl word, was the vagina luminous and the penis brilliant?”  The reader is left wondering where that question came from.  Is luminous not good enough?

Shortly after the baseball gaffe, Tallent goes on a tangent about an imagined Freudian conversation between her father and a nurse, exploring colloquialisms on genitalia which again has no real connection to the surrounding scenes.  In a later passage on men, she makes awkward references to her father’s fashions, the neighborhood boys, and the JFK assassination, all of which feel tangential at best.

Yet, to appease Tallent’s wrath, Scratched is more than luminous.  It glows.  It shines brilliant, fresh, redeeming light into the dark traps and illusions of perfectionism.  Tallent knows that perfectionism is futility, but she still believes in its promise of creating something beautiful.  We should be thankful for her self-deception and self-awareness.  It is not perfectly expressed here, and it never will be, and that is OK.  On the very last page of the acknowledgements, Tallent boldly asserts her self-acceptance:  “It gives me pleasure to say: Errors are all mine.”

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