The Autobiography of E. Alice Isak

dedicated, with love


“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” ~ Gertrude Stein
“I rise is I rise is I rise is I rise.” ~ Alice Isak

🌹 🌹 🌹

My name is Alice Isak, and I feel like a woman reborn.

Risen like a—no, wait.

First you’re gonna need some backstory.

Like many others, I started blog-writing under an assumed name. For all the usual reasons: privacy, discretion, a desire to say whatever I felt without provoking uncomfortable impasses with family or angry outbursts from a recently-ex’ed ex-spouse. And one other thing:

I hated the person I’d become so much, it hurt to see her name in writing.

Call it my midlife crisis, if that helps.

The stereotype of the “midlife crisis” centers on the experiences of our culture’s classic Everyman: a white man climbing the corporate ladder, solidly middle-class, able-bodied and able-minded, definitely straight. Midlife-Everyman is wealthy enough to trade in his car for something fancier, more prestigious—a red convertible, perhaps, straight from the production line. He may trade in his wife for a newer model as well, equally shiny and topless.

According to the cliché, when our Everyman realizes his life is half-over, he says to himself: “I am not the person I thought I would be.” And he despairs.

For many women I know, midlife is the time when we say to ourselves: “I am still the person I thought I had to deny.” And though we may break for a time—suddenly feeling the weight of burdens long denied and longer carried—in the end, we do not despair.

We get angry.

We get loud.

We start to holler—often for the first time—our own damn truths, in our own damn voices. Continue reading “The Autobiography of E. Alice Isak”

Portrait of the Statue as a Young Girl

[CN: emotional abuse]


A daughter is a bicycle. A daughter is a coffeepot.

A daughter is an implement, valuable only for her usefulness to someone else.

To anyone other than herself.

♦ ♦ ♦

The bravest thing I ever did as a child was to stand completely still. It taught me a lesson I have yet to fully unlearn.

The experience functioned as a touchstone for how to win in a conflict — or at least, how not to lose. Which is to say, how to lose less. How to not lose everything. I recognize the same stillness in myself even today, the superstitious paralysis that overtakes me as if “silent and motionless” means “safe.” As if it ever meant that.

Stillness was my touchstone for protection.

Touch stone. Become stone. 

Only the stones survive.

♦ ♦ ♦

Age 6

I had watched my brother learning to ride a bike the summer before, and I wanted no part of it. Over and over, I had watched as my father made him push the two-wheeler to the top of the driveway, up the sloping hill that felt mountainous to our short legs. Over and over, my brother climbed onto the bike’s brightly-colored banana seat and balanced himself the best he could. He and my father would take off down the hill, his feet pumping furiously just to keep up with the spinning pedals and my father running behind, holding the bike upright and then — without warning — letting go.

Over and over my brother fell.

Over and over my father screamed.

Some of his yelling I could hear from where I stood on the porch, a quarter-acre away: “You’ve got to look straight ahead! Don’t look down! Look far out ahead! You fall down because you look down!” Some of the yelling was more intimate, my father bent over where my brother still lay on the ground, his legs tangled around the bike, his knees scraped. I don’t know what angry words got spoken in those moments, only that my brother emerged from each interaction looking smaller than before. His face had the shuttered expression that I knew meant he was trying very hard not to cry.

Over and over. Over and over.

This summer was my turn. The same bike, the same hill. The same instructions: “Make sure you look straight out and far ahead. You look down, you fall.” I looked straight and far. I fell anyway.  Continue reading “Portrait of the Statue as a Young Girl”

We Have Nothing to Fear But Love Itself

[CN: rape, emotional abuse] 

48715452_18ea44079c_o (1)
(“So thick you couldn’t see the building.” photo by Vicky TH via)

The conversation we had begun that afternoon did not finish until after nine at night. I felt spent and numb, yet somehow giddy. My throat was raw. When I stood up, I rocked unsteadily on my feet.

“What now?” my mother asked. “Shall we go get dinner? What do you usually do after these kinds of talks?”

I blinked at her and shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never actually told my mother about being raped before.”

~ ~ ~

I am now going to tell you a story. That is, I am going to try. I suspect I will conceal more than I realize, and reveal more than I intend. Such is the nature of stories.

My mother would read the words I am about to write as violence. As betrayal.

She might not be wrong.

The capacity for cruelty runs through my family, and I am not exempt. Perhaps it runs through yours, as well.

~ ~ ~

When does someone else’s story become also mine, their memories threaded so densely through my own that I must either speak the forbidden or else tear my tongue out at the root? Secrets wrap around my throat like strangling vines grown thick across a trellis.

I could always lock away this story: until she is dead, until he is dead, until all the family beyond me is reduced to ash and dust. It feels like a ghoul’s choice. I picture myself as some starving vulture, shuffling anxiously from one taloned foot to the other, waiting for the meat to die.

Continue reading “We Have Nothing to Fear But Love Itself”


[CN: sexual assault]

“I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” 

~Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

My friend S recently had several poems accepted by Storyscape Journal, which asks its authors to classify their work as Truth, Untruth, or We Don’t Know And They Won’t Tell Us. I love this concept. At the same time, I wonder: would I struggle to commit publicly, if given such a selection of boxes?

S, who cites “confessionalist and post-confessionalist themes” as prime influences on her writing, checked Truth. She struggled a bit on her own path, but decided finally that poems could be judged within more flexible standards of truth-telling than memoir. She, like I, often wrestles with the genre implications of her work—that selection of setting that best allows a gemstone to gleam.

Another of her poems (forthcoming elsewhere) is titled, “I want to write a memoir.”

“except all I remember are dreams,” is its opening line.

* * *

When I write out these stories of my life, I am very careful never to lie.

Is that the same thing as choosing to be truthful?

Continue reading “Confessions”

Fierce Truths. Necessary Stories.

Two young girls chase each other exuberantly, flush with the thrill of play and life and laughter. A writer watches them from a distance:

“In them, I glimpse the girl I fleetingly was. I want to take them by their small, sweaty hands, sit with them on a stoop littered with bubble gum wrappers and cigarette butts and show them where I’ve been and hope my words may offer some protection. Give them a story that is confounding, contradictory, and truer than any other stories they will hear.”

“Girls Run Circles” from I am a red dress, by Anna Camilleri^

Last fall, I bought a book in Portland. I bought it almost at random: the famous bookstore was famous; the resonant title was resonant.

Or maybe a whisper in my bones told me I needed it.

“Give them a story that is more true, most true, true blue. I would say: You may lose yourself. Life is about finding much of who we once were and there are many lost girls who eventually find something of themselves again. I would tell them, you are precious and special and beautiful, not because you are girls, good girls, pretty girls — just because you are.”

red dress_book jacketAnna Camilleri’s I am a red dress: Incantations on a Grandmother, a Mother, and a Daughter was the first (and final) book I read last year. The first book I had read in over 18 months. I hadn’t made it past more than a few pages of anything since the ethnographic and cultural study of African-American women’s politics I read in glassy-eyed panic during the long nights of June, 2013, spent in Unit 6 — a book I read mostly to prove I was not crazy.

I was not like the young woman in the room across from the admitting station, who stabbed a nurse in the arm with the three-inch pencil she’d been given to fill out her meals-request form for the next day. (Though after the first day spent alone in my silent room — I too mighta stabbed myself in the leg with a pen, if they hadn’t all been taken away together with my shoelaces.)

I was not like the large man in the flapping-open hospital gown, who migrated about the dining area eating pudding cups off the trays of anyone not yet arrived. (Though after the second day of eating only institutional food — I too was eyeing other patients’ unsupervised desserts.)

Crazy people, I reasoned, don’t bring critical feminist analyses of race and politics with them to the psych ward. 

Continue reading “Fierce Truths. Necessary Stories.”