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First Person

The Human Centipede; Or, How to Move to New York

November 1, 2012 | by

I moved to New York for graduate school. I was in my mid-twenties, and what do we do when we’re in our mid-twenties? We move to New York with very little money and very high hopes. Like many, I entered into the nexus of love and wealth and fame looking for a piece of the glistering and transmutable dream itself. In short, I was here to write a book.

But standing on the threshold of this dream, I began to panic. I thought, I have arrived, and thought nothing of how far I had to go or what it would take to get there. I could see downtown Brooklyn from my window, and most days my impression of New York came from inside my bedroom. Outside, the sidewalks were cobbled and uneven, and the houses and apartments looked like replicas of the houses and apartments I’d watch on TV.

I’d lived in Brooklyn less than a month but had already settled into an inexplicable depression I’d nicknamed The Darkness. I couldn’t leave my apartment, except to attend class in Manhattan two nights a week. Sitting on the F train, I felt sure no one could lived in New York without a constantly replenished supply of antidepressants, courtesy of some kind of pharmaceutical Fresh Direct. The city and its boroughs, alternating blocks under perpetual construction, seemed to reflect its residents. Walking home on those Mondays and Wednesdays, I saw the funeral parlors and casket makers on what felt like every corner and wondered if funeral parlors and casket makers really were ubiquitous in New York, or if I was just noticing them more.

I couldn’t seem to go above the Twelfth Street location of my class, not to Central Park or the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the New York Public Library. I had no interest in going below Twelfth Street, either. I definitely couldn’t go to the youthful hub Williamsburg, specifically to the newly opened McCarren Park Pool, at any time of day, for any reason, ever; all the people my age made me feel old. I put on makeup in the morning and washed it off before bed, having never gone outside. The idea of “making it” was everywhere, and I needed to avoid it. I’d moved to the supposed greatest city in the world in order to spend seventy-two hours at a time insulated and solitary, developing an allergy to people and a near-romantic attachment to Netflix. Like a crazy hermit in the cave on the hill—my hill being Brooklyn Heights—I watched movies like The Human Centipede and wrote to a popular online advice columnist about my thoughts of jumping out of a window because I couldn’t do what I’d moved to New York to do. I was full of the vulnerability that drives people toward the Internet.

Writing a letter to “Dear Sugar,” the advice column of TheRumpus.net, was a last resort: it felt just short of running into the street, dropping to my knees, and begging no one, desperately, for help.

“Right now, I am a pathetic and confused young woman of 26,” I wrote in an e-mail draft to Sugar days before my birthday. “I’ve sat here, at my desk, for hours, mentally immobile. I look up people I used to love and wonder why they never loved me. I lie facedown on my bed and feel scared. I get up, go to the computer, feel worse.”

As soon as we’re done growing up, it seems, we must face what to do with our lives. No one had ever explained things to me, other than stuff about taking vitamins or carrying mace or avoiding herpes no matter what. I was so filled with wanting; I craved to know a little bit of anything, facts, some meaning, if a Facebook friend was a real friend. Was there a secret order, an unshared code? I felt like I’d gambled and lost, yet I hadn’t started playing.

The Human Centipede is a 2010 Dutch horror film about a doctor who kidnaps three tourists in Germany and joins them surgically, mouth to anus, to form, not unpredictably, a human centipede. Whatever you’re imagining, it’s worse. The movie claims to be “100% medically accurate,” and—you have to love the Wikipedia entry on this—“When approaching investors prior to filming, [director Tom Six] did not mention the mouth-to-anus aspect of the plot, fearing it would put off potential backers.” I understood. Like director Tom Six, I too sublimated my inner proclivities so they’d be palatable.

I was aware that some might dismiss my paralysis, say I simply had a bad attitude. After all, I didn’t have anything wrong with me at all, except I couldn’t write—and that at times I’d hyperventilate and my heart would beat so fast I could see my chest flutter and it was impossible to get my breathing under control. Once a panic attack was under way, I could only collapse and wait for it to pass. I’d cry until my nose was clogged or so forthcoming with snot that I’d again be unable to breathe, which would immediately trigger another panic attack about having a panic attack. The hardwood floor and I shared an intimate connection—me sobbing on it—and inside my head thoughts like “I am miserable” played like the horror movie Gremlins on a loop (specifically the scene when water spills on Gizmo and causes him to convulse and spawn five new destructive, evil, rage-filled monsters from his own body) until the phrase multiplied and amplified and I was now miserably berating myself for being miserable, anxiety turning to suicidal thoughts because the pain was so unendurable and exhausting and unending. A bottle of prescribed anti-anxiety pills, a cheese knife on the wrists, an open window—these plans replaced grad school, paying rent, buying groceries.

Hugging the hardwood floor, I “reasoned” it would take weeks to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. I needed to reach out, and it had to happen now. The online medium appealed: the accessibility and urgency and visible anonymity. And I believed in the connective tissue among art, mental health, and online publishing. “I want to jump out of a window for what I’ve boiled down to is one reason: I can’t write a book,” I wrote to Sugar." I wanted to jump out of a window because I was in so much pain, I needed someone to see how much. I wanted to be an emergency. I didn’t want to die; I wanted to be saved.

You know who else wanted to be saved? The three human beings connected mouth to anus in the human centipede. I think I loved The Human Centipede so much because my life seemed less horrifying by comparison. The physical reality of watching a German doctor surgically attach—“100% medically accurate,” mind you—three human beings mouth to anus overrode the demands of my bleak mental reality, and in those moments the intensity of my inner life lessoned. Mouth to anus, my God, nothing’s worse than that. Witnessing movie actors die, hands and knees, lips to tush, suggested that being unable to write was a walk in the proverbial park.

I also watched Frozen, in which three teenage friends get stuck midair on a chairlift after the slopes close. Spoiler: not all of them make it. Additional spoiler: there are wolves. Other movies I enjoyed during this period had names like Cannibal Holocaust, Dead Snow, Trollhunter, The Descent, Insidious, Dead Alive, Antichrist, Final Destination (and its four sequels), The Crazies, The Descent Part 2, Return of the Living Dead 3, Quarantine 2, Russell Brand in New York City, Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, Black Christmas, Mother’s Day, My Bloody Valentine 3-DGothika, The Resident, Whitney Cummings: Money Shot, A Nightmare on Elm Street (the remake, a horror movie on top of a horror movie in terms of being almost offensively worse than the original), Living Death, The House of the Devil, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Carriers, Monsters, Nine Dead, and Deadgirl.

“How do I reach the page when I can’t lift my face off the bed? How does one go on when you realize you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?” I asked, and hit Send, right before I hit play on The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence.

What I now refer to as my public suicide note went live on August 19, 2010. “Think of the canon of women writers,” I’d written. “A unifying theme is that so many of their careers ended in suicide.”

“It’s not true,” Sugar (who, in real life, is author Cheryl Strayed) answered in her column. She encouraged me to let go of these “inaccurate and melodramatic” beliefs. Rather, she wrote, “The unifying theme is resilience and faith ... It’s not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve.”

Of her first book, she confided she’d reached the point where not writing it was worse than writing one that didn’t “make it.” And it was true: watching every horror movie available online was worse than writing a bad book.

That Sugar hadn’t written her book by the time she was twenty-eight was, she said, a “sad shock.” Of herself, she’d “expected greater things.” She, like me, believed she’d wasted her twenties and was “lazy and lame.” She “wrote stories in feverish, intermittent bursts, believing they’d miraculously form a novel without [her] having to suffer too much over it,” just as I thought I entered into the nexus of love and wealth and fame, sure I wouldn’t have to suffer, by which I mean “work,” too much securing my piece of the glistering and transmutable dream itself.

“But I was wrong,” she said. And so was I. If I wanted to write the stories I had to tell, Sugar told me to gather everything within me to make it happen. She advised me to suffer, but by “suffer” she meant “work.” Not panic. Not destroy myself. Not hurry, not rest, but simply move. She told me to “write like a motherfucker.”

Sugar had explained things to me, real things, more than the stuff about taking vitamins or carrying mace or avoiding herpes no matter what. I got to work. First, I wrote about how I couldn’t write. And that’s when the miraculous happened: I found myself en medias res writing. I wrote about everything I was going through, like my Netflix dependency. Because of Sugar, I wrote the book I was sure was impossible to write.

When I moved to New York, I learned about suffering, which I was sure was an ending. It isn’t. Suffering is running away to find yourself only to lose yourself; suffering is being connected mouth to anus in a human centipede; suffering is not being able to write a book but writing one anyway because working is not what kills us, it’s what keeps us alive. Suffering is the beginning to another story. Even if that story is The Human Centipede III: Final Sequence.

Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column on TheRumpus.net. Follow her @ElissaBassist, and please visit elissabassist.com for literary, feminist, and personal criticism.

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26 COMMENTS

16 Comments

  1. New to New York | November 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    This was lovely.

    I moved to New York this fall, for grad school, and I’m having a bizarrely similar experience (except I’m uptown instead of in Brooklyn!)–all these things like not having gone to Central Park, the Met, I don’t know what’s wrong with me after looking forward to getting here for so long, after having firmly decided years ago that New York was the one place in the world I had to be… To arrive and then to then feel somehow glued to the floor, my bed, inside my apartment…it’s exasperating.

    Thank you for reminding me…these things take time.

  2. Ryan Starsailor | November 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Yeah, this is was really quite wonderful. My favorite things to read are both funny and sad . . . and this had a nice blend of both.

    I also want to say that I think you’re brave for writing this. It was refreshing to read such a genuine piece.

    Also, hey: Let us know you put out a book. I’d read it.

  3. Jennifer | November 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    We should definitely grab a drink and escape the ever hungry parquet flooring. I moved to Brooklyn 3 months ago to have my stab at the art and fashion world of photography… I’ve just finished the entire Big Bang series and am moving on to movies with Troll Hunter at the top of the list.

    It hasn’t come to anti-depressants but, there was an E.R. trip after a fainting at the Manhattan pub induced by stress, anxiety and hunger.

    E-mail me, pen pals are awesome.

  4. Jamie | November 3, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Such a beautiful and profound piece!!!!

  5. PMC | November 3, 2012 at 10:26 am

    I gave up the chance to move to New York and I failed to get into a school there.I’m in my mid-twenties and at times feeling as inadequate as you did (although I can’t stomach the human centipede). And you’re absolutely right; the only way to do this is to do it, and get over the self pity. We all expect too much of ourselves. The point is to sit down and see what we’re really capable of.

  6. kw | November 4, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Honestly? I dunno if I have ever been so angry when reading a LongReads recommendation. Boo-hoo! Boo-hoo, you might not be as special as you thought! Boo-hoo, life requires EFFORT!

    I understand the feelings this woman is writing about. It is frustrating that so many people go through periods of feeling useless and lonely. But MANY people are able to get thought those periods by staying busy, by working, or by reaching out to others.

    I’d love for the writer to wait 10 years and look back on this piece I’m guessif it will feel selfindugent. And if it doesn’t? I’m guessing she is Carrie Bradshaw.

  7. Andrew Caulfield | November 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    That was inspiring and I think you’ve just helped me to get on with my own life.

    Thanks, petal. I hope you find what you’re after.

  8. Oh Hell No | November 4, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    The world’s tiniest violin. It’s megalomaniacal blathering like this–assumed by the writer, via her psychotic narcissism, to somehow and wrongly make her a victim–that makes the world hate us. You don’t like New York? Leave. It’s not brave to write this. It’s only pure indulgence. You were TWENTY-SIX. That’s eight years of adulthood. But that’s American for you: it’s everyone else’s fault. Can you hear the tiny violin? Can you hear it? I hope so.

  9. Joey Dunn | November 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    Comeon dude ets roll with it man, Wow.

    http://www.Anon-U.tk

  10. Doron Diamond | November 5, 2012 at 12:47 am

    Loved your original message and the response it generated from Sugar Cheryl. Think about this: without your story, without your question, there would not have been anyone to advise “write like a motherfucker”. That phrase has become as popular and helpful as any of her others (hell I’ve told some of my writer friends that line, and they do find it inspiring). So really, awesome of you to have the guts to put yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable, and for seeing the distinction in wanting to be seen in pain vs. wanting to be seen to be saved. Great to read this, it was well written, and as someone who started in the same Brooklyn boat as you at the same Brooklyn time, I can confirm that if you put in the work, you’ll get it done. Don’t worry too much about the quality. Just work. Can’t wait to read what you write next!

    -Doron Diamond

  11. NABNYC | November 5, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Love the piece. It reminds me so much of myself, decades ago, moving to NYC as soon as I got out of college. I had the good sense to drag a friend and roommate along so I did not have to tackle the city on my own. In fact, I grew to love NYC although I now live on the other coast. But I do remember in the first year having those same feelings. I’ve got a clue: it’s fear.

    NYC is a big city with lots of busy people, mostly in a hurry to get somewhere. Plus all the serial killer movies and books take place in NYC. You get into elevators, walk down streets, hear loud noises: it’s all fear. Once you get used to the city, the fear dies down although you need to hold onto the common sense (lock your doors).

    I hope you go to every museum, go to lectures, get a job somewhere and meet people, eat in every restaurant in every neighborhood, go hear music, go to the movies new and old, and spend as much time as possible at the tkts line buying discounted tickets to see terrific broadway shows. And meet as many people as you can. Years later, I still have good friends that I met, lived by or work with during those years in NYC. It’s a great city.

  12. Fajr | November 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I read her original letter to Sugar and felt exactly how she feels. I recently moved to NY, to ahem write a book, and while it’s only been a month, I’m having delusional, over reactions to my inability to write.

    To know that Elissa pulled it together to write is a glimmer of hope.

  13. Savannah Ryan | January 26, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Wonderful!!!! Thank you, this story was much needed this morning. Truely inspirational and raw!

  14. Video likes | March 24, 2013 at 7:29 am

    I rarely leave responses, however i did some searching
    and wound up here Paris Review – The Human
    Centipede; Or, How to Move to New York, Elissa Bassist.
    And I actually do have 2 questions for you if you don’t mind. Is it simply me or does it look like a few of the comments appear as if they are coming from brain dead individuals? :-P And, if you are posting on other sites, I’d like to keep up with everything fresh you
    have to post. Would you list of every one of all your shared pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page
    or linkedin profile?

  15. general | April 4, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    Very good article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site.

    Keep up the great writing.

  16. Social media campaign | April 17, 2013 at 1:33 am

    Good post however , I was wondering if you could write
    a litte more on this subject? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Many thanks!

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