“Any conversation can become a diagnosis,” writes Elissa Bassist in her new memoir, Hysterical.
Satirist and comedy writing instructor Elissa Bassist is angry. She’s been angry for a long time, but was unable to voice her rage because of societal pressures throughout her relationships and career. When you’re a woman or any non-male gender, you’re always one interaction away from being labeled a “crazy psycho bitch,” historically classified as “hysterical.”
Eventually, her body couldn’t take it anymore. Unfortunately but ironically, the only time a diagnosis seemed to evade the men Bassist came across was when it came to her actual medical illnesses. Finally, an alternative medical practitioner suggested the chronic illness threatening Bassist’s life was a direct result of all of this silencing.
The result: Bassist wrote a memoir that’s part medical mystery, part cultural critique, part literary confessional, and part manifesto against the patriarchal norms that placed her body in a world weighed and measured by men’s biochemistry—and kept her sick much longer than necessary.
Previously, I had taken Bassist’s Catapult humor class titled “Tragedy + Time” and was able to talk with her over Google Meet about how she applied all of her comedy writing prowess to create this darkly funny memoir.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste Magazine: So, years ago author Cheryl Strayed told you to “write like a motherfucker,” and then I noticed the book blurb on your cover where she says, “You wrote this like a motherfucker.” I was like, “Wow, full circle.” So, tell me about that.
Elissa Bassist: Yeah, so I wrote to Cheryl at this time, in August, in 2010. So, 12 years ago. I wrote it, and it published [in her advice column Dear Sugar]. I really, really believed that I could not write a book. It just did not seem like something I was capable of doing. But Cheryl called me out by saying, “Well, you can’t write a book because you’re not writing. You’re not working. You’re not working hard.”
And she was totally right: I just expected a book to materialize. As if a literary miracle would occur and it was just a matter of talent, and the Muse doing all the work for me. It was a very 26-year-old mindset. And I learned about hard work over the past 12 years after wasting a lot of time not working a lot, feeling really guilty a lot, hating myself a lot, getting really depressed, having a lot of panic attacks.
I went to grad school to help me write that book. And I wrote an incredibly shitty first draft of it, that I remember giving to my agent at the time and being like, “You’re welcome—here’s a perfect book.” And then, months later, getting notes back from her and being mortified. I was just constantly bouncing from feeling like I was a genius to feeling like I was illiterate—which was such a mind fuck.
And then I spent many, many years just figuring out a writing discipline. And figuring out what it was I wanted to write about, and figuring out how to follow my obsessions as opposed to writing about what other people wanted me to write about—what I thought the marketplace wanted, what would go viral, trying to reverse engineer the process which doesn’t work.
I just had to fail a lot. I had to get hundreds of rejections from hundreds of agents, who didn’t like my voice, who didn’t like my life, who didn’t like my writing style, who didn’t like my narrative arc—who didn’t think I had a narrative arc—and a lot of that feedback was helpful. And a lot of it was derailing.
I felt like I was always trying to please someone else in order to get representation and to get a deal. And I completely got off track for many, many years. I wanted to write like George Saunders, but George Saunders was already taken and in trying to write like him I just wrote like a poor woman’s George Saunders and I lost what set me apart.
I’m trying to recap these 12 years where I was trying to find my voice again after feeling like it wasn’t good enough and trying to lose it. Then finally, I got sick, and I didn’t want to write a book at all. I just wanted to survive.
And once I survived—spoiler alert—I was like, “I’m never going to complain about writing again.”
Writing is hard, and it should be challenging, but it shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth and it shouldn’t put you into a depressive state, as a lifestyle. And it shouldn’t exacerbate mental illness—it shouldn’t come at the expense of your mental or physical health.
And even though Cheryl had told me in her advice that my life was more important than my writing, I didn’t believe it until I almost lost my life. And then I was like, “Oh, yeah.” And then I had gotten so many rejections and was so sick of trying to write other people’s idea of my book that I gave up and decided to write what I wanted to write.
“Oh, this is all it takes to write a book is to totally give up and not try to please anyone but yourself.”
Paste: It sounds like the whole journey is reflective of what your book’s about: finding your own voice. And letting people know that no, you’re not okay with how things are happening because of rape culture.
Bassist: Rape culture is ruining everyone’s fun, but I’m blamed for talking about it—the journey became the memoir. It just became such a predominant life theme, and it’s what I kept going to. It was the story that wouldn’t leave me alone, and I was pulling threads together, seeing themes, and I needed 12 years to do that.
Paste: I write a lot about horror comedies, and in one of my pieces, I quoted horror critic Joe Bob Briggs who said that horror comedies—when they’re successful—are 80% horror and 20% comedy and as I reached the last section of your book, I was like, Okay, this is a perfect horror comedy because it’s 80% horror and 20% comedy. At the sentence level, you crack these jokes that are hilarious, but over and over, it’s just all these very horrific truths.
Bassist: Now, that’s the best take I’ve ever heard on the book. I thank you so much for it. That balance is interesting because, also, when writing political satire, it’s 80% joke 20% fact—it’s flipped. I guess that’s a special ratio.
Paste: It’s kind of interesting because I know you parasocially, and some of the stories you tell here, I’ve heard other versions of them from you in your classes or I’ve read some variations of these essays before in other forms.
Bassist: I like to spill the tea in my classes.
I mean, because I had been routinely silenced and told I would ruin my own life if I talked about it, and that had scared me into silence for so many years, and my silence only helped bad men while it was hurting me and other people—now I will talk about in my classes because I’m just like, This is a normal conversation to have: to talk about what people have done and to normalize talking about it.
Because still—to this day—we’re seeing the backlash, or the backlash of the backlash, where talking about the crime is worse than the crime itself. We just vilify the people who will speak out about it and protect the people who did it. And I just hate that so much.
Paste: When you’re silent for so long, it does take a toll on you, and I’m sorry that you had to go through it, but it is amazing you were able to write this. And you couldn’t write this book as a straightforward account of your experiences because of exactly what you wrote about in the book: that women aren’t believed. You can’t simply write something—you have to come with the receipts, as they say.
Bassist: Exactly, exactly. I feel like you see me, you got me. It felt like a meta experience—my voice alone is not good enough. And I need to have evidence, and quotations, and statistics, and correct corroboration, and point to five other examples for my one personal experience in order to be believed.
Also having the self-consciousness and insecurity of feeling like my own voice wasn’t good enough. And I had to back my own self up for just personal reasons, personal fears, and it had to take 11 years to write this book in order to connect all those dots in order to see all of that.
Certainly, when I was 23, I had no sense of power dynamics and just believed everything was my fault and believed everything the 40-something-year-old men told me about myself. Only now, in my early middle age, can I see that these were 40-year-old men talking to a 20-year-old girl.
And how dare they say what they said and do what they did. I mean, it’s mind boggling to me, but of course it isn’t technically illegal. So did they do anything wrong?
Paste: I was just blown away by your footnotes, which were so hilarious and so great and enlightening, like true footnotes. Whenever someone, myself included, thinks of footnotes, we think of David Foster Wallace or Junot Diaz, and all of those footnotes are just like…onanism. It felt like you were taking back the footnote, to be what they should be: illuminating and fun but not masturbatory.
Bassist: Thank you, again, for seeing me and understanding what I was doing. So, I went through a phase, which is still currently ongoing, of being obsessed with David Foster Wallace and all male authors everywhere, because they are the “True Geniuses.”
And I, for so long in my writing career, wanted to emulate them, tried to emulate them, failed to emulate them, and then questioned why I was emulating them. And the footnotes became a true exercise in satire and then, as you said, taking back the footnote and trying to make them actually footnotes—you can take this or leave this. Like, you can skip all these footnotes and still read the narrative as you wish, or you can choose your own adventure and get this aside that, to me, is outrageous, educational, something that has been sidelined in our culture that is still an important point. But I want to call out how it’s been sidelined by sidelining it? I mean, it was just a fun ride.
Paste: Throughout the text, I mean, you get as angry as you are, rightly so, but you have fun—you do alternate endings “if this had happened.” I see a lot of play in there from your satire writing. It’s taking those forms, and those thought exercises, and putting them in there to grapple with these things that are really hard to contend with.
Bassist: I mean, yeah, writing nonfiction can be such a bummer, especially when you’re writing about rape culture, depression, and suicide. And in order to not bum out my reader and also to survive the writing process, which was grueling, I had to entertain myself and I had to make myself laugh.
And since I teach humor and satire, those forms utilize templates. And so I just wanted to do that in my own book, in order to make the reading palatable and to have fun while writing about the darkest shit that has ever happened to me. I needed that levity to keep going and to keep the reader engaged. And thank God for humor writing—for saving this nonfiction writer from herself.
I was getting my MFA in creative nonfiction at the New School in 2010 and I just felt like such a humorless asshole. So I started taking improv classes at UCB improv, and sketch classes, just to take a break from myself in my own head. Those lessons in comedy were incredible writing lessons and incredible life lessons. And I was like, I can do it all, and have it all, and then I was a much happier person.
If only there weren’t so many sexual assailants who did improv.
Paste: So where can we find your book and classes, since you teach satire writing and have an upcoming class on how to write a tragicomedy memoir?
Bassist: Yes, and it’s only $35! Such a good deal! My website is ElissaBassist.com and you can find Hysterical at any local bookstore, Amazon, of course, bookshop.org, or wherever you buy your books.
Hysterical is on sale now.
Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.