Melanie Thernstrom’s senior thesis was entitled Mistakes of Metaphor, an account of the mysterious disappearance and murder of her best friend, Bibi Lee. That thesis, reworked as The Dead Girl, was published by Pocket Books in 1990 to major critical acclaim.
Berkeley student Roberta “Bibi” Lee went running with her lover Bradley Page on a Sunday in 1984. He came back alone. When she failed to return police mounted one of the largest missing-person searches in California history. Five weeks later Roberta’s battered body was found and within hours, Page had confessed to Roberta’s murder—a confession he was later to recant. With its enduring themes of innocence and evil, truth and uncertainty, human motives and emotions, The Dead Girl is a complex exploration of the nature of reality and the frail, shifting and suspect ways in which we respond to it.
David Shields: Remind me how The Dead Girl began—as a senior thesis at Harvard?
Melanie Thernstrom: Yes, it was my senior creative writing thesis. I had intended to write half poetry and half prose, but the poetry ended up feeling forced, so I cut it out. It was titled Mistakes of Metaphor. The first shock of publishing it commercially was the title change because I felt like the original title perfectly expressed the theme of the book (and I love alliteration). My book editor said it sounded like the title of a dissertation.
DS: That’s a terrible title. I’ve never understood your sense that the book is about the danger of metaphorical thinking. That to me isn’t what this great book is about.
MT: Funny you dislike it! I think it’s perfect! I do think one of the themes of the book is the dangers of metaphorical thinking. The promise of art is the ability to create meaning out of loss, and so much art is devoted to celebrating that astonishing power, but in fact those meanings can be negative or positive, helpful or harmful. In the course of writing the book I came to distrust the meanings that I had woven around Bibi’s death and to realize the ways in which they were entangling and trapping me… What do you think the book is about?
DS: To me the final title is an incredibly great title. It’s what the book is about. The dead girl(s). What I so admire about the book, and what was/is so liberating to me about the book—and why it was so crucial to me—is the audacity of marrying the public to the private, the interior journey to the documentary narrative. To me, your book is one of the great books about that late-adolescence, early-adulthood feeling among “sensitive” people of constant dread, flirtation with suicide, etc. The book is about one literal dead girl, and one figuratively dead girl. That is my reading of the book—is that what it’s partly about for you, being “dead” in certain ways? To me, you are the ultimate focus of book—your death, averted, barely.
MT: Yes—being dead and wishing to be dead with her… And the long journey out of that state of mind.
DS: What I love about the book and find so powerful about it is its deep dread rendered internally and externally… How dare you place yourself on stage with the casket? What gave you the nerve? No other way to tell the story?
MT: One of the central questions of the book is: can you be friends with someone who is dead? The epigraph of the book is an epitaph from a Russian tombstone: he alone is dead who is forgotten. The seductive promise of the elegy is that by writing about the lost person you can give her eternal life. And in some ways this is true, but in other ways, it’s an illusion—and a dangerous one. The more obsessively you try to paint a true portrait of someone—to create that “one true text” that will truly embody the person—the more you are forced to confront the fact that all you have really done is embalm them: turn them into a literary character, an effigy.
DS: I’ve always liked Sallie Tisdale’s sense that the real subject of a book is what the writer is unwilling to talk about—that the writer has to get to that. What for you was that sense with this book?
MT: Yes, when I’ve taught autobiographical writing I’ve always encouraged students to push themselves to find that deep interior narrative. I think that I wanted to write a book that was about Bibi, but the true story was that it was also about me. My own unhappiness kept kidnapping the story and then I realized that was also the story. The book grew out of a long obsessive series of diaries—something I would stay up late writing every night. But because it was a thesis, I only had to picture my thesis advisor, Monroe Engel, reading it—and he was a kind older novelist, not at all judgmental—so I felt able to be honest. Not just able—driven—to find a way through my thoughts. When another teacher gave it to his agents who told me they could sell it, I did blanche a bit at the idea of publishing something so personal, but by then it was already written so I felt liberated from the emotion. That’s the paradox of personal writing—in some mysterious way the act of writing frees you from the emotions you are representing so by the time it’s published, emotionally it’s old news so you don’t feel as vulnerable.
DS: Were you quite young when it was published? I forget.
MT: I was young when it was published—23—but I didn’t feel young. I felt adrift and cast out and exiled from childhood and filled with a sense of loss and dread. I dreaded the future because I always felt (as did Bibi—this was part of our bond) as if something terrible was about to happen. And then it did and it seemed to confirm all those feelings. Ironically, I feel younger now (now that I’m middle-aged and have health problems!) because I finally feel optimistic. I think that I never really felt young until I had children (although I didn’t have them until very late). Before then, I felt as if I was moving away from the good time, childhood—and so did Bibi (although paradoxically our childhoods weren’t that happy). And when Bibi died I became focused on wanting to return to the time we were together. A turning point for me was when I told my friend Bob I wanted to be dead so I could be with Bibi and he said, “You wouldn’t be dead together—you’d be dead separately.” That’s when I finally realized that the loss was absolute—that nothing I could do—risky behavior, flirtations with suicide, writing—would lead me back to her. The only thing I could do was to finally truly say goodbye.