A Love Letter to All the Crazy Exes
Hello dear ones,
The past few weeks have been filled with many high pain days, and also so much writing. It feels like a gift to have had just enough spoons and brain juice to put these words onto the digital page. For this week’s offering, I wanted to share an essay that I’ve written with you and that’s all I have the capacity for. To all the crazy exes reading this, I hope you find some power in these words. And thank you to my friend Raechel Anne Jolie for reading a draft of this essay and offering your words of encourage and feedback. You should sign up for her newsletter.
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“That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it? / You aren’t getting over him.” – Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
“I want you to know, that I am happy for you / I wish nothing but the best for you both,” so opens Alanis Morrisette’s infamous 1995 breakup anthem, “You Oughta Know.” It quickly becomes clear that Alanis is not, actually, all that happy, as she belts out in the chorus “And I'm here, to remind you / Of the mess you left when you went away / It's not fair, to deny me / Of the cross I bear that you gave to me / You, you, you oughta know.”
This song catapulted Alanis into fame, and quickly got her labeled as rageful, vengeful, and angry. As I watch Jagged, the documentary about Alanis’s life and career, we’re shown magazine covers and album reviews referring to Alanis as “hot and bothered,” whose “venom-laced anthems” make critics wonder: “Why is this young woman so darn mad?” Alanis’s most infamous cover was on RollingStone Magazine, with the words “Angry White Female” emblazoned beside her.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic described “You Oughta Know” as “an emotional purging, prompted by a bitter relationship” and the album as a whole as “bitter diary entries [which] are given a pop gloss that gives them entry to the pop charts.” For Erlewine, as with so many other male music critics, Morrisette is a “sophomoric 19-year-old, once burned by love.” Please don’t get me started on the misogynistic argument that women writing about their feelings is nothing more than a diary entry, while men are lauded for bringing the personal into their writing.
I find myself angered by the fact that Alanis had to defend herself and her post-breakup rage: “When I write really angry songs about someone, I’m not writing to get back at that person. I’m writing because it’s the only environment where I can get angry and not have it be destructive,” she explains in Jagged. “It’s just an expression, unjudged and uncensored. I was not writing to punish. I was writing to express, to get it out of my body because I didn’t want to get sick.” Alanis’s words resonate with me, as a human who writes non-fiction about their healing and their relationships. We’ve been told again and again to write from the scar, not from the wound, but I find something pathologizing about this injunction.
I wonder what she would have said if she’d received a letter from that ex, requesting that she remove the song from her album and never write about him again. What if he’d told her that her representation of their relationship was so wildly different from his own that he was truly worried about her? Would she have noticed the gaslighting? The attempts at seeking control? At silencing her? I believe that this would only have stoked the flames of her anger. I’d like to imagine her response: “Where was your concern when you fucked her?” she’d ask. “Can’t you see your misogyny is showing?” If she wrote another song about him, would he tell all of his friends that she was the one who harmed him? Would they sit around and diagnose her? I wish I could say no. But we all know that the answer is probably yes. No one likes it when a woman refuses to remain silent.
Greek mythology’s Medea might be the original crazy ex, famous for murdering her own children. In Euripides’s telling, Medea accompanies Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece that is currently in the possession of her father. Obtaining the Golden Fleece, a symbol of authority and kinship, would enable Jason to obtain his rightful spot on the throne. But without the help of Medea’s magic, and her decision to kill her own brother, it would not have been possible for Jason to secure the coveted prize.
After the quest is over, Jason marries Creon’s daughter and Medea is overcome with grief. For Jason, the marriage is an advantageous one, as it will enable their two children to be linked to royalty. But for Medea it is a betrayal of their marriage and their kinship. Jason’s actions serve as the catalyst for Medea’s act of infanticide: killing their twins and refusing Jason’s request to bury them, Medea rides off with her dead children tied to the back of her horse-drawn chariot.
But this isn’t the only story. In Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Jacqueline Rose explains how
“In other versions of the tale, in circulation before Euripedes, Medea does not murder children: hatred of Medea drives the Corinthians to kill them, or else the relatives of Creon kill them in revenge after she has murdered Creon and fled to Athens, or she puts her children through a rite designed to make them immortal, during the course of which they die.” Returning to Euripedes’ tale, Rose notes that Medea is driven to kill her children because she cannot believe the assurances she’s been given that her children will remain safe. None of these stories matter, however, for Medea “is a scapegoat, another mother who is guilty because everyone else has failed.”
The myth of Medea will be weaponized against Margaret Garner, a Black woman and slave in pre-Civil War America, who escaped to Cincinnati in 1865. US Marshals found Garner and were planning to return her and her family back to slaveholders under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But instead of letting her children suffer a life as slaves, Garner killed her daughter and was in the process of doing the same to her other children when she was stopped. After she was tried in one of the longest fugitive slave trials in history, Garner was sold off to a family in Arkansas and she died two years later from a typhoid epidemic.
Garner’s story has inspired various representations, including the 1867 painting by Thomas Satterwhite Nobel entitled The Modern Medea. Garner’s story inspired a much more nuanced representation in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, in which the ghost of the murdered child, named Beloved, comes back to haunt Sethe (her mother) and her remaining family. Garner and Sethe are not crazy exes, but the trope will be applied to them regardless. Like Medea, Garner will become a scapegoat, a story, to borrow Rose’s words, “of what happens when a woman is held responsible for the ills of the world.”
The portrayal of Garner as Medea brings us close to another problematic trope: the angry Black woman. And here we’re brought back again to Alanis: the angry white female. While the epitaph is a nod to the 1992 Single White Female, the inclusion of race works to distinguish Alanis from the angry Black woman. And yet, in an article for The Huffington Post, Candice Frederick notes how Jagged Little Pill “unapologetically articulated the rage young women of color have but are too often advised to suppress … Morissette expresses so many thoughts that many of her female fans of color had no space to release at the time.” And, as Frederick goes on to point out, “Morissette was ultimately well-rewarded for it.”
Frederick’s analysis and the story of Medea pose important questions: Whose anger must be kept silent? Whose may be derided by still rewarded? Who gets to be the crazy ex and who cannot afford to be labeled as such? The stakes are always higher for Black, Indigenous, and women and femmes of color. We must protect all of the crazy exes. We must hold all of their stories as sacred.
The crazy ex. The hysterical woman. Unhinged and delusional. Watch out for them. I search for representations of them in media, and I return to many of my favorites from the late 90s and into the 2000s.
Nancy from The Craft (1996): uses magic to transform her face into Sarah so that she can seduce Chris, the boy who slept with her and then told everyone she was a slut. Also doesn’t help that he tried to rape Sarah. When Sarah enters the room and Chris is seeing double, Nancy loses the illusion and starts to laugh. “He’s gotta pay,” she tells Sarah, refusing to leave. Things might’ve gone differently had Chris not told Nancy that “she was just jealous.” “Jealous? Why would I be jealous?? You don’t exist to me.” As Chris backs into the window, Nancy’s voice rises “The only way to treat women is by treating them like whores” As Nancy’s rage increases at Chris’s apology, she turns into the perfect representation of the crazy ex, shaking and flailing her head, repeating “He’s sorry. He’s sorry. He’s sorry,” until the window behind Chris opens and Nancy’s rage blows him right out. We watch Chris tumble out and hear his body hit the cement. By the end of the movie, Nancy is locked up in an asylum, thrashing in the white padded room, unable to move because she’s restrained to the bed.
Catherine in Cruel Intentions (1999): “A bulimic headcase” dumped over the fourth of July by Court Renolds. When Catherine finds out that Court has broken up with her for the virginal Cecile, she concocts a scheme with her step-brother Sebastein. Catherine cannot get back at Court directly, or it’ll be traced back to her. So Sebastein will seduce and deflower Cecile, tarnishing her reputation and humiliating Court in the process. Everything is going according to plan until Catherine realizes that her step-brother has fallen in love with Annette (another wager) and is no longer interested in having sex with Catherine (his prize for their wager). And so she sends Cecile’s new lover, Ronald, after Sebastien, claiming that her step-brother hit her. When Ronald finds Sebastien in the streets, Annette arrives onto the scene and is pushed into traffic. Sebastian runs to her rescue, pushing her away in time, but gets hit by the oncoming car and dies. Annette’s revenge is to take Sebastein’s journal, photocopy it for the whole school, and reveal Catherine for what she is.
Jenny Schecter from The L Word (2004-2009): In a twist on the crazy ex-girlfriend, Jenny is the crazy soon-to-be-girlfriend. First, she tries to get revenge on Stacey Mirkin, a journalist who wrote a bad review of her book, by attempting to seduce her girlfriend, which involves adopting a near-dying dog named Sounder to bring to the girlfriend, who’s a vet, so the dog can be put down. It works, but the plot is revealed, and Jenny is labeled manipulative and evil. In the final season of the show, we watch Shane's ex-girlfriend Molly give Jenny a letter of apology addressed to Shane. Jenny, who’s been harboring feelings for Shane, hides the letter in the attic and never mentions Molly’s visit. Before this transgression is revealed, we start the season seeing Jenny, dead in the pool. In the reboot of the show, L Word: Generation Q, we learn that Jenny dies by suicide. Mia Kirshner, who played Jenny, took to Twitter to express her rage about how Jenny was treated: "Nope. Jenny is not dead. That's not the story that needs to be told about a survivor of sexual violence. It's not a story that can be wrapped up and tied up with a bow. So no, she is not dead."
I can’t help but notice how all of the crazy exes end up locked up, punished and humiliated, or dead. No compassion. No curiosity. No humanity.
It can be so easy to write off these women, label them crazy, unhinged, hysterical. We want to distance ourselves from them. “That’s not me,” we proclaim. “I’d never act like that.” And while Nancy, Catherine, and Jenny are all hyperboles, the crazy ex taken to the absolute extreme, I refuse to distance myself from these women. I can see myself in all of them.
Like Nancy, I too would like to see the boys who assaulted me, who pursued me for sex and then disposed of me, who labeled me a slut, punished. Yes, I am an abolitionist who believes in transformative justice. And that doesn’t make me immune to the very human desire for revenge. It felt so refreshing to read Kai Cheng Thom name how, “I have lots of revenge fantasies, and they are very, very comforting to me at certain times.” She goes on to explain that the problem isn’t the desire itself: “The problem is the enactment of punishment and revenge: pain and violence tend to replicate themselves like a virus. Punishment does not end violence; on the contrary, it breeds it.” Punishing Chris won’t actually help Nancy heal. Nor will punishing Nancy by locking her up. These acts fail to address the real reason she’s so crazy: rape culture and misogyny.
I look at Catherine, who people could all too easily label as a selfish bitch (at best) and narcissist (at worst) and I understand how she wants connection so desperately, but the only way she knows how to have connection and maintain some semblance of power is through sex, and by controlling everyone around her like pieces in a chess set. Her actions are deplorable, of course. She is absolutely manipulative. And her manipulation is a survival adaptation in a world that makes it impossible for her to hold the amount of power as a man. She’s learnt that sex is her only currency, and rejection feels like a life or death situation. None of this makes her actions okay. But if we’re ever going to heal, we have to look below the tools she uses to survive and ask why does she need those tools? How does causing harm protect her? And then let’s look at the ways in which, in the world she lives in, men get to fuck whoever they want and they’re celebrated. But when she does it, she’s labeled a slut.
I love Jenny Schecter. I watched in horror as the show’s writers trashed her character, a woman who was raped as a child, and turned her into a monster, the perfect villain. If you google “Jenny Schecter narcissist” you’ll find countless articles declaring her as such. I’m grateful for the reparative readings of Jenny that’ve followed in the years preceding the end of The L Word. Heather Hogan of Autostraddle argues: “She was a duplicitous megalomaniac whose self-indulgent, self-destructive antics knew no boundary. But you know what? So is Don Draper. So was Walter White. So was Dexter and Jack Bauer and House and Tony Soprano. But they’re dudes, so that makes them interesting. Jenny Schecter is a lady, so her deal makes her a cunt.”
Jenny’s trauma isn’t a get out of jail free card. But it is context for why Jenny is so self-focused: her survival has depended on it. On a reddit thread entitled “Jenny isn’t 100% awful,” one user offers a reading of Jenny that really resonates with me: “I’m exhausted about sexual trauma stories that are about overcoming. How many of us are damaged and don’t end turning absolute shit into spiritual gold? Jenny is very realistic and true to me, as a portrayal of someone deeply damaged by sexual assault and who probably has BPD as a result of that trauma. As someone with sexual trauma, I actually find this portrayal of just how damaging trauma can be to be really feminist. Letting the damage show is an important part of telling the truth.”
What fascinates and irritates me most about the treatment of Jenny is the ease with which she’s pathologized, labeled as a narcissist or someone with BPD. I can’t help but notice how these diagnoses have been weaponized within queer community, thrown around at anyone who could just as easily be labeled the crazy ex.
As someone who’s rejected labels my whole life, and who’s written extensively about the ways in which diagnostic labels pathologize individuals in order to cover over the ways in which our symptoms are a direct result of living in a traumatizing world, diagnosing people you’ve never met, and even those that you have, has become a major red flag for me. Because, when we diagnose someone in this way, we justify their disposal. I also can’t help but wonder how we’ve swung so far on the pendulum of “believe all survivors” (a value and call to action that has a specific history in ensuring that those who’ve been raped or sexually or physically assaulted can access care) that as soon as someone we know says “they did [insert harmful thing]” we immediately, and unequivocally believe them, and participate in casting the other as the villain. I believe that we can support those we love, while also holding space for the fact that there are two stories here, one that we may never know.
When it comes to interpersonal, emotional, and mental harm, the terrain is much murkier than we would like it to be. Two people can have two very different experiences of what happened. That doesn’t mean that one person is unequivocally correct, while the other is delusional or dissociated. I can validate the hurt without affirming the details of a situation that I was not present for. I’m now wary when I hear someone talk about another person in such pathologizing terms. We all want to make sense of the harm that we experienced. And diagnosing someone else can give us the “why?” that we long for. I have many of my own theories on why things have ended poorly in past relationships, which, when shared with friends, they’ve lovingly called me in to say “Margeaux, you can’t know that for sure.” There’s a difference between having a hypothesis, that I’ll never be able to prove, and turning that hypothesis into truth that I can then weaponize against the other. There is a difference between holding an opinion about someone and spreading that opinion as fact.
The new crazy ex lurks beneath the deceptive surface of words like narcissist or borderline personality disorder. You can tell yourself that you’re not participating in that trope because you avoid the words crazy, hysterical. But really you’ve just found a different way to package misogyny and collude with the medical industrial complex. You can armchair diagnose me all you want. I’ve long since embraced my lineage with the hysteric.
It feels all too easy to label Medea a hysteric, Alanis vengeful, Nancy a psycho, Catherine a bitch, Jenny a narcissist. Lazy even. Why do some people feel the impulse to attach a word to another human and let it become their identity? Why are we so quick to lose sight of their humanity? adrienne maree brown provides one possible answer in her book Emergent Strategy:
“People mess up. We lie, exaggerate, betray, hurt, and abandon each other. To transform the conditions of ‘wrongdoing,’ we have to ask ourselves and each other ‘Why?’ In my mediations, ‘Why?' is often the game-changing, possibility-opening question. That’s because the answers rehumanize those we feel are perpetrating against us. ‘Why?’ often leads us to grief, abuse, trauma, often undiagnosed mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder, difference, socialization, childhood, scarcity, loneliness. Also ‘Why?’ makes it impossible to ignore that we might be capable of a similar transgression in similar circumstances. We don’t want to see that.”
We’re all capable of being someone’s crazy ex. And given that this label is a misnomer, one rarely grounded in truth, it’s likely the case that we are always already so. Crazy ex, and all of its variants, old and new, become a shield: so long as I call you this first, then I’m safe, I’m in the clear, I’m seen as good. Because it’s rarely, and sadly, the case that folks question the assessment of the not-crazy ex. It’s taken at face value. You don’t allow yourself to wonder if there’s another side to the story, because they couldn’t wouldn’t lie about this.
“It’s now become a red flag to me,” a friend of mine shares over dinner, “when I hear someone I’m dating talk about their ex(es) like this. I used to unequivocally believe them. Quickly jumping onboard to condemn this person I’d never met. And then, months later, they’d start to gaslight me, control me, tell me that I was too sensitive. It’s not that I don’t believe that they were hurt or even harmed. But to talk about another person as though they’re the bad guy, as though you are the victim, it makes me wonder.” I nod. I know her experience.
Pathologizing those we once had relationships with – and, often, in this day and age of social media, we’re also doing this to complete strangers – feels like a new manifestation of DARVO: deny abuse, reverse victim and offender. In order to avoid accountability, we turn the other person into the villain. We diagnose them and then, in the same breath, we’ll critique the DSM and the medical industrial complex. The cognitive dissonance: the inability to see how labeling someone as the crazy ex, explicitly or implicitly, is antithetical to abolition and transformative justice. For we cannot speak of liberation while simultaneously dehumanizing another.
“Write from the scar, not the wound,” I’ve been told. If you’re a non-fiction writer, you’re familiar with this injunction. I’ve always felt unsettled by this rule. And now I understand why: it’s pathologizing. The implication is that you can’t be objective if you’re writing from the wound; that the wound will make your writing too emotional, too biased. “When I write from the scar, it's harder for the patriarchy (this includes females, sadly) to dismiss me” explains Heather Demetrios. You must wait until the wound has scared over; in other words, until you’re Fully Healed™️.
Disability justice activist and author Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha offers a brilliant critique of this ableist version of survivorhood in her essay “Not Over It, Not Fixed, and Living a Life Worth Living.” Piepzna-Samarasinha describes how
“The idea that survivorhood is something to ‘fix’ or ‘cure,’ to get over, and that the cure is not only possible and easy but the only desirable option, is as common as breath. It’s a concept that has deep roots in ableist ideas that when there’s something wrong, there’s either cured or broken and nothing in between, and certainly nothing valuable in inhabiting a bodymind that’s disabled in any way. This belief creates the myth of the “good survivor” who is cured, fixed, over it; and the “bad survivor,” who’s “still ‘broken.’ Still freaking out, still triggered, still grieving, still remembering. Still making you remember. They’re annoying, aren’t they? No one wants to date them. They cry, they have panic attacks, they can’t get out of bed, they’re not ‘over it.’”
Her description of the bad survivor reminds me of all the crazy exes.
Piepzna-Samarasinha wonders about a different world, one in which “crazy was really okay”: “What if some things aren’t fixable,” she asks. “What if some trauma wounds really never will go away–and we might still have great lives?” Alongside her questions, I feel called to pose some others: What if our wounds never become scars? What if we understood that writing from the wound isn’t any less valid than writing from the scar? Trauma, after all, means wound.
It’s been twenty-four years since I was raped. I still feel that as a wound. It’s been over six months since my brief, six-week long relationship ended. I still feel that as a wound. It’s been eight years since my first non-abusive, deeply supportive partnership ended. Some part of me still feels that as a wound. It’s been twenty years since I was the young girl that my father called “irrational” when I had feelings. That is, very much, still a wound. Perhaps I am, to borrow Leslie Jamison’s words, a wound-dweller.
In her essay “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison describes how
“I was once called a wound-dweller. It was a boyfriend who called me that. I didn’t like how it sounded, and I’m still not over it. (It was a wound; I dwell.) I wrote to a friend: “I’ve got this double-edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments—jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot etc etc etc. On the one hand, I’m like, Why does this shit happen to me? And on the other hand, I’m like, Why am I talking about this so much?”
Jamison responds to her question: “I guess I’m talking about it because it happened. Women still have wounds: broken hearts and broken bones and broken lungs.”
Maybe one day these wounds will become scars. But the fact that they’re still wounds today doesn’t mean that one has a personality disorder, or that you’ve made your trauma your whole personality (as I was once accused), or that the words that you’ve written about your experience are inaccurate. And to make that claim of me, or any other writer or artist who processes their heartache and their grief and their trauma through their creative practice is to be no better than those who promote and collude with the medical industrial complex. And it is, quite frankly, harmful.
When you write from the wound, beware. One day a friend of your ex – who you’ve never met – will write to you and say “you’ve made your trauma your whole personality and commodified it.” In her memoir I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, Lynn Melnick, accused of the same thing, proclaims, “I live every day with the physical and emotional consequences of the violences that have happened to me; they are the story I have to tell.” You are a writer. You write about your life. And your life has been filled with trauma. It would be impossible to not write about these wounds. It would be a lie.
I was 10 when “You Oughta Know” came out and though I was a few years away from my first breakup, the power of Alanis’s words reverberated in my body – like an omen of what was to come. A clarion song. Over 20 years later, I’ll stand in a stadium and listen to Alanis belt out her rage-filled ode to a woman scorned and I will scream along with her. Because now I know what it feels like to be disposed of by an ex. I know how crazy-making it is when you’re treated like a hysteric for being hurt. I too have become someone’s crazy ex.
When you’ve spent your whole life being told by your father, your brother, so many boyfriends, that you’re crazy or irrational, it’s really easy to hear someone – an ex (partner or friend), a family member, a stranger on the internet – diagnose you and say “that must be true.” A lifetime of being gaslit will make you slip into their truth like water. And so, when you find yourself saying to your therapist “Maybe they’re right, maybe I have NPD. Maybe I’ve just been fooling you, fooling everyone,” she’ll turn to you and say “the fact that you’re wondering if this is true is a sign that you don’t.” You want her words to be enough, but they aren’t. So you’ll get on calls with your best friends, and repeat your fears. One of your besties will tell you that they’re too hypervigiliant to have missed any attempts at deception – and you’ll laugh. Their words help bring you back to reality.
What this fear helps you realize is that you have slipped into the belief that having a personality disorder, being the crazy ex, somehow means that you’re worse than those who don’t, who aren’t. And that is not an ideology you want to prescribe to. And so you write this essay, a love letter to all of the crazy exes, because I do not want to dismiss us. Because, as Jamison writes, “dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore. Plug it up.” If I stop writing about the harm I experienced, then perhaps I won’t be labeled as the crazy ex. And, if I stop writing about it, those who harmed me don’t have to reckon with the harm that they caused.
The hard truth that I’m learning to accept is that I cannot control how others respond to me. I cannot stop them from labeling me, pathologizing me, punishing me. But I can make the choice to not do that to myself – or to do that to others. Whether I like it or not, I am part of a lineage with all of the crazy exes mentioned here and those who I haven’t. I will not reject them, just as I will not reject myself. We are so much more than the stories that others will tell of us. We can choose to not take their projections as truth. And we can make the commitment to not do this to one another. We’re already wounded enough.
Instead of piling wounds on top of wounds, instead of locking up Nancy, punishing Catherine, dismissing Alanis, villainizing Medea, killing Jenny, valorizing the “good survivor,” what if we focused on how it is we might heal ourselves and heal one another? What if we looked under the labels to see a human that is hurting, whose heart has been broken? How might an openness to their wounding enable those wounds to close? I want us all to have the chance to heal the wounds we’ve caused and the wounds that we carry. I want us all to be so lucky.
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