Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Passion of Alice by Stephanie Grant

Book: The Passion of Alice
Author: Stephanie Grant
Publisher: Bantam Books; Reprint Edition (September 1, 1996)

Temperance is simply a disposition of the mind which binds the passion.
Thomas Aquinas

“Passion” is one of those words that can cover a lot of territory, especially when you stop to think that it can mean everything from anger and steadfast conviction to love, devotion, and steamy sexual shenanigans.  
Curiously, though, the word “passion” comes from pati, the Latin word meaning “to suffer.”

However, this last definition of passion is the one that is rarely considered when reading works of literature featuring women and lesbians: The Passion of Christ is the biblical account of Jesus Christ's arrest, trial, and suffering—it ends with his execution by crucifixion upon Calvary. While details vary, most versions of the Passion begin with the events in the Garden of Gethsemane. A few include the Last Supper, while others begin the story as early as Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the applause and adoration of the masses.
Think Monday Night Football with donkeys and palm fronds, instead of nose tackles and nachos.
Regardless of specific details, this definition of Passion is about injustice, doubt, fear, pain and ultimately, degrading death. Spiritually, the Passion is the perfect example of suffering, which is one of those perky and pervasive themes of the Christian religion.
Of course, suffering is not the only theme of the Passion, although some Christians believe that Christ's suffering and the wounds that he suffered redeem humanity from sin. Another theme is incarnation, and how the death of Jesus shows humanity that God had become truly human, and that he was willing to undergo every human suffering, right up to the final agony of death. Yet another theme is obedience, and that despite initial, and very human, reluctance and fear, Jesus demonstrates his total acquiescence to God's wishes.
But the final theme is victory—the victory of Christ over death, which is why the Passion is ultimately inseparable from resurrection.

“I was used to being perceived as having a good attitude. Self-control, self-effacement, self-denial. People like this, especially in girls.”
― Stephanie Grant, The Passion of Alice

Stephanie Grant’s debut novel, The Passion of Alice, takes readers on a vastly different journey through the famed year of 1984. Alice Forrester is a high-functioning 5’10”, 89 lb. anorexic who barely survives a President’s Day episode of heart failure. Upon her discharge from the intensive care unit, she becomes a patient at the hospital’s renowned eating disorders clinic. The Seaview program is part twelve-steps, part tough love, part new age self-discovery, and part speed-dating free-for-all. Alice’s overbearing mother, Syd, along with an oddball group of staff and doctors work to help the young woman to understand her addiction, its triggers, and how she can regain control of her weight and her life.

But Alice learns more about herself and the margins of her personal canon through her co-conspirators and fellow patients than she ever could through the anemic, one-size-fits-all clinic services. As these young women tentatively explore the depth and breadth of friendship, ambivalence, trust, and desire, they taste for the first time, the possibility of things like normal lives. But before these feel-good realities can settle in and take root, the fragile balance begins to disintegrate, and the rippled looking glass of the anorexics, bulimics, and compulsive overeaters begins to crack. Shocked into the ultimate reality of their eating disorders, the women test the boundaries of their compulsions and deprivations. Alice, in particular, plays the heroic role of plate cleaner, knowing well that one day she will reclaim her capacity for the divine. But before she has a chance, the hedonistic, undisciplined, and unrepentant Maeve takes Alice on an unplanned adventure down a rabbit hole of sexual awakening and true self-knowledge. And, if it doesn’t kill her first, it will change her life, forever.

Make no mistake, The Passion of Alice is about women and appetites. As the narrator and protagonist, Alice’s self-starving is no more about self-hate, doubt, or fear then it is about self-image. Instead, her anorexia is a form of clarification and ultimate self-knowledge, a way of differentiating between want and need, beginning and ending—an example of spiritual achievement where what one knows is automatically created, and what is willed is fully known in its truth.

But, for Alice, passion and suffering go hand-in-hand—if she can feel passion, then she will suffer. So, she controls her passions by denying herself food, companionship, desire, and sex. She uses her anorexia as a tool for managing her passions, starving herself until nothing is left but the fine point of her existence. What happens, instead, is that when she reaches her true essence, she is greeted by the undeniable desire for women and sex.  

Ms. Grant’s rich and raw secondary characters play the foil to Alice’s dry wit and biting sarcasm, and are as varied and unrelenting as their eating disorders. From the regal Queen Victoria to the enigmatic child star, Amy. Through Louise, who is searching for love, and the waif-like, disintegrating Gwen, to the bulimics obsessed with exercise and shiny spandex, and ending with the purse-soiling, coke-snorting Maeve, who is the physical and spiritual antithesis of Alice. The first-person narration is clean, crisp, and full of surprising observation tinged with casual contempt. It manages to tell a story that is multilayered, droll, heartbreaking, and unbelievably powerful, all the while giving voice to a chorus of shared taboos.

Author, Stephanie Grant
The Passion of Alice is a sharp, stark, and edgy novel that takes on the dark and debilitating truths of eating disorders in women. And, while the story primarily focuses on Alice, an anorexic, it takes great pains to shine a bright light on the toxic perceptions and relationships women have with food, body image, societal expectations, and sexual appetite. Ultimately, though, the message is about resurrection, and while Christ’s passion culminated with his acquiescence to God’s wishes upon Calvary, Alice’s passion ceased at the very moment she acknowledged she needed one compelling, chaotic, and flawed woman, in every imaginable way.

Published in 1995 by Houghton Mifflin, Stephanie Grant’s The Passion of Alice was nominated for Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction and the Lambda Award for Best Lesbian Fiction.

As a side note, I picked up The Passion of Alice not long after listening to my wife, Ann McMan, talk with Bev Prescott on Cocktail Hour Productions’ The Barbell show—the episode was titled Once More, with Feeling: Body Image After 50. Ms. Prescott does an amazing job of talking about health and wellness in the lesbian community, and Ann was unbelievably frank and open about her successes, failures, and challenges, one day at a time.