by Jay Wells
David Foster Wallace’s name is dropped in many English departments around the country in the same breath of James Joyce. Both authors are renowned among higher escalons of literary circles for creating door stoppers that could crack your skull open if the misplaced texts fell from its shelf. James Joyce created Ulysses, a text that examined the socio-political dynamics of pre-independence Dublin in the early 20th century and was written in numerous styles that broke literary convention in such a manner it required a companion book for the reader to reference to understand the happening being depicted in the text. It was endurance test to finish, A bragging right. The only knowledge I had of Wallace’s equally long work Infinite Jest, was it had a similar reputation. So I used Ulysses as a reference point when, Wallace’s tome came up in conversation that I was having with a young English major freshman at a fraternity party.
“Who’s your favorite author?”
“David Foster Wallace”
“The guy who wrote Infinite Jest?”
“Yes. It’s my favorite book.”
“Isn’t like it as hard and as long to read as Ulyssus?”
“No, I had to get that little book to understand that one.
“Wait, you read, Ulyssus for fun?”
“Okay, what do you like about Infinite Jest?”
“David writes in such a wonderful way. No one else is like him. He’s very tender and very detailed. He moves me a great deal. He has such a way with expression and humor. He also wrote a short story about pornography that was suprisingly capivating.”
“Oh, I’ll give him a read.”
I lied. I knew David Foster Wallace from him killing himself. I was having a bad bout of depression and typed in google,”authors who committed suicide” at 3AM in my dorm room after calling a suicide hotline during Spring break. Everyone had been gone. It was the second conversation that got me reading his work. I read that porn story called Big Red Sun while procrastinating over homework. It was, as the freshman had said, moving. It was detailed and exact. Each character was fully realized and fully dimensional. The humor in the work was bitter, biting, but tinged with sympathy. Wallace had my interest, now he had my attention. Pulling an all-nighter in my college’s communal computer lab, I played a recorded version of a short story he wrote called Good Old Neon. It opened with “My whole life I’ve been a fraud…I did well in school. Deep down my whole motive wasn’t to learn, to perform well, to have a good transcript. I didn’t enjoy it, because I was scared I wouldn’t do well enough…”
Cut back to my junior year of high school. I’m in front of a steakhouse. Rob, my stepfather is smiling. He’s a heavier-set man. Round cheeks, glasses, sweater on, with a collared undershirt. Mom still trying to figure out how to open Rob’s new Audi. She’s lost weight and is wearing a blouse for the first time in months. She’s rustling around for a pack of menthols she’s dropped in the front seat. She’s lost a lot of weight over the course of my sophomore year. Her dark brown hair has lost a bit of its shean. Her hands are covered with medical wrappings like a boxer due to psoriasis.
Rob had traded in his old Cadillac for this luxury import car, which he had driven us to this steakhouse in. We hadn’t been out to eat as a family in a while. The recession had scared Rob shitless and he watched every penny. He put his hand on my shoulder and handed my a letter. It was an acceptance letter to a statewide program for academically successful students. It meant scholarships, maybe a full ride to any public school in the state. I didn’t smile. Mom caught this.
“I just don’t feel anything. Like things will change. School sucks.I don’t have many friends.”
“You’ll make some friends there during the summer,” Rob said. “It’s a program for students like you.”
“You will like college. We can’t afford to help out much. This will make your life a lot easier. You did a good job.”
Cut to my freshman year of college. I’ve been through a sexual assault. Alone, on a campus I don’t know. I can’t sleep. I have to keep my scholarship. I have to keep going. I don’t want to go home. My grades are dropping. I’m sleeping in class. I’m not taking my medication.
“Spencer, you can’t get a C in French.”
“Mom, it’s just a C.”
“Do you want to lose your scholarship? We can’t afford to send you to college on our own.”
I remember Rob saying. “Spencer I want the moon for you. You aren’t applying yourself. You can get A’s in college. You did it in high school, but you sleep all day when you are home, in your room like a possum. Like your mom. I don’t know if you are doing the same down there at Western, but you need to apply yourself .”
“‘Dad’ who slowly turning into Rob at this point in my mind, I can’t do this. College is killing me.”
“It’s either college or you get a job. I’m working not just at Fort Knox but at UPS on the weekend shifts lifting packages. Your mom has not found a new teaching job yet. You either go to school or work. You aren’t going to laze about the house in your room. You’re so smart, Spencer. You are, but you don’t get respect just from that. You have to earn respect. You have to work. I will respect you once you have a job. Right now that job is school and it’s what you should be focusing on.”
He meant he wanted me to be a man, to be responsible. To provide for myself. To him I was failing in that regard.
“My whole life I’ve been a fraud…I did well in school. Deep down my whole motivate wasn’t to learn. To perform well. To have a good transcript. I didn’t enjoy it, because I was scared I wouldn’t do well enough. The fear made me work really hard…”
He meant to be me a man
A man. It was a difficult act to keep up after my sexual assault. I was violated by a female student as a freshman. “I feel more like a female than a male,” I remember telling her.
“I always felt more mascuiline,” She replied.
“I don’t understand how this can happen to a man,” I remember mom saying lying in her darkened bedroom eyes half glazed over, only visible from the crack of light from the corridor I was standing in. It was the last summer I went home to Louisville. Summer break of sophomore year. Last time I saw my mother in person.
I just remember feeling like one word “fraud” summarized Spencer Wells, the scholarship winning scholarship student.
“My whole life I’ve been a fraud.”
The biggest fraudulence was my gender and that I had been hiding my entire life. It became harder to hide who I was. Harder to hide behind being just a “sensitive male”. Harder to hide behind grades. Harder to keep living a lie to my parents. Harder to keep wearing that mask they made, with those cracks trauma made exposing my face.
“Dad why did mom say that? Why doesn’t she understand? She’s a feminist right?”
“Don’t you blame your mother for this,” Rob said turning to me, sweating like a pig under a beating sun, face beet red, hands shaking from his beagin trimmers. He turned around from his monitor where he had been playing the same online multiplayer game. The same game of tanks blowing each other to smiterings in the backdrop of the soft green hills of France.
“I warned you. I told you not to go online and hookup with random woman. I told you not to drink. You don’t listen.” My mother’s paternal replacement had ceased to involve myself with my mother and I as we retreated more and more to our rooms over the course of my highschool years. He only involved himself if provoked to do so. Both my parents were frauds.
“Hey Rose.” I typed over Skype in my dorm room the morning after it happened.
“I don’t feel comfortable about what happened last night. I felt a bit pressured. I didn’t want to drink that much or at at all during sex. I felt pressured.”
Bleary eyed I watched the eplisses on the screen bounce up and down. Until the text came back.
“I felt you pressured me. I didn’t even want to have sex.”
I told an RA want happened. As mandatory reporters they had to report to Title IV. I went, asking them if I had hurt her. If I had done something. I asked to drink a little, but no sex. I was worried that would violate boundaries, one of my biggest intrusive thoughts.. She was going to drink until she had her fill and would go and drive home.I felt like I needed to drink some of the wine to calm things down. I just remember us stopping and starting. Me saying to her, “I think we should stop,” but we kept going. I remember her on top of me, saying “Doesn’t this feel nice? Like you don’t feel sad anymore? Like it makes the pain go away. I know how that feels. I know how you feel. I want you to feel good.” I didn’t want to have sex. Titled IV ruled that I had gone through sexual assault. I felt like Rose was right. Like I was a fraud in that situation.
I remember after the assault I wanted to be normal. A normal man. I didn’t want to deal with the anxiety of constant panic of worry; every touch, every gesture, every moment was a possible act violation of autonomy. Normal people just go. They with act. They don’t measure every moment. That’s I thought was the general consensus.
A casual acquaintance told me to just “get laid”. That’s what men do. I wanted to be normal, so I didn’t check in when I was intimate. I didn’t agree with his reasoning. I just wanted to trust myself again and to not be alone. I want to trust I wasn’t ill and wasn’t some monster. Normal people don’t worry about boundaries constantly. Normal people just hookup. Normal people read body cues. Normal people understand how to read others. I wanted to be normal. Not a neurodivergent aspergian motormouth. I wanted to prove to myself I could read others . I just went for it, despite my anxiety screaming to check in. I was manic with panic the entire time, sexual intimacy made my OCD flare and impaired my ability to read body cues or really listen. This was violating my own principles of affirmative consent. I was a fraud.
“Trying to sleep with a different girl each night”This lead to making at least one person feeling coerced. She was explicit she gave consent to sex, and that she feel she had be not raped or assaulted, but since I had not listen when she gave me a cue about not feeling comfortable during PDA, and I looked around saw no one and said “no one’s around” and kissed her neck, it was easier to go along with it out of concern I wouldn’t to her listen if she did express her discomfort. A friend relaid her feeling and explained that I was male presenting and this, combined with being the disregarding of the cue, made her feel like I held the power in that dynamic and made her feel threatened. My friend, a gender-fluid person explained that often woman and femme people often just concede to the desire of men to avoid the risk of physical harm. Something I didn’t consider and this failure to understand, reconfirmed my intrusive thoughts. When I came out as non-binary, I felt that I had manufactured this identity of Jay Wells to try to distance myself from my toxic masculinity. I had created a fraudulent identity. I was an impostor.
“But for the most part these two months made me feel shallow and predatory”
I had to end this series of fraudulence and duplicity. I had to be authentic in one act in my life, even if it were my last. So I thought about killing myself.
“I know this part is boring, and probably boring you by the way, but it gets a lot more interesting once I kill myself”
I felt like the narrator of Good Old Neon. I felt like I had tried everything. Unlike him I didn’t kill myself, but this line of thinking got me to voluntarily hospitalize myself. From the first semester of my freshman year to the first semester of my senior I had thought I was a fraud and thought ending my life would bring myself some honesty into my life. An end to a life of lying. Hospitalization made me healthier. I stopped medication my freshman year after the assault along with therapy. It didn’t make this feel of emptiness lessen. I had been seeing a psychiatrist and therapist since it was five and it was all false to me. I think the narrator of Good Ole Neon, who tried therapy and killed himself despite attending sessions and making some progress summed it up pretty well,”A lot of people had tried it (therapy). It didn’t really work, but it made people more self-aware of their problems and it added some useful vocabulary.” I was self-aware through my freshman year and I still I had planned to kill myself. I was seeing a therapist but I wasn’t taking it supper seriously. I just wanted to end my life, and end the potential of harming others but I did realize there was a chance it was anxiety. A chance it was intrusive thoughts creating a sense of fraudulence of my own actions. So instead of confronting my inner conflict by ending my life I chose hospitalization.
That was October of 2018. I choose to acknowledge I need to confront this idea of suicide as a means of escape as not just a passive thought but the chief opponent of my life, as every mistake, every feeling of guilt led back to it. Voluntary hospitalization was the only was I going to force myself to acknowledge this was not an option. The only way to stop escaping from dealing with my depression, that the suicide, for me, could have be based on fraudulent understanding of my own nature. I don’t think the narrator understood that,. I don’t know, as I had passed out in the computer lab and only heard these snapshot of words leak into my stream of consciousness as I ruminated on my progress. It had been about 6 months. I was back in therapy on campus. My counselor is the sexual assault prevention coordinator on campus, and she helped me through my trauma, and helped me process my intrusive thoughts on fear of committing sexual assault as a part of my of OCD and the guilt was apart of the compulsion. My assault had fed fire into these intrusive thoughts which had been setting my mind ablaze for these years. I was able to admit to myself I made a mistake, not assault, and she had me internalize that I had been using affirmative consent with sexual partners after that. This allowed me accept that I wasn’t an impostor, and truly non-binary, and allowed my to start being active member of the queer community on campus. I had sought psychiatric help, and got diagnosed with depression, and was medicated. I related to Wallace’s narrator but understand I was different.
I got myself up, skipped class, and went to the public library. I wanted to know more about Wallace’s life, to continue this posthumous para-relationship, which I did by reading a biography of his, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. One amusing passage talked about his relationship with a graduate professor during his time as an English major in the graduate school at Arizona University. This professor, challenged Wallace, not liking Wallace’s postmodernist style, to the favored realist style of the academics at the college. Not appreciating this, Wallace pranked this professor, and also submitted works that dealt with the professor’s faith, Judaism. One such story was called Solomon Silverfish, which the biography summarized as being about a Jewish lawyer in his twilight years sleeping with is wife dying of cancer in a cemetery while a drug dealer named “Too Pretty” watches on. The professor found that the story had potential but was “mildly offensive” and felt somewhat targeted due to the nature of the Jewish focus of the piece. Curious to see if the author who enraptured me had written a story that had anti-Semitic tropes, I dug up the early work of Wallace, and was shocked.
First, the story’s Jewish centered focus wasn’t the most offensive part. The faux-Ebonics of the black drug dealer at the end of the work was. The constant uses of Yiddish terms was distracting, but what unsettled me was the real twist of the work. Silverfish,a supposed Southern Jewish lawyer, the lead, goes out of the house early in the morning to allegedly assist his brother-in-law who rears ends the local DA’s parked car while driving under the influence, leaving his wife at home. The twist being, is Silverfish’s brother in laws have setup this as a confrontation to unveil the fact he wasn’t Jewish. A fraud. Something he alleged wasn’t intentional, and never said he wasn’t born Jewish. While he is being confronted by his two brothers-in-law attempting to force his hand into a divorce, his wife is approached by her parents relaying the same message to their daughter. She shames them, and tells them that she and her husband are one in spirit, and despite him never mentioning that he wasn’t Jewish to her, she understood without a word due to their deep connection. This leads into her physical health failing, and going to the hospital and the rest of the what was already mentioned.
My mouth dropped at this. I had a strange similarity to Silverfish. My connection to Judaism to was was miscommunicated, if not inadvertently fraudulent. Mom had always raised me with an understanding we had Jewish heritage. I thought after reading on our background, that our ancestry through our shared maternal line was Jewish. I was hesitant to claim Judaism openly due to my maternal lineage hailing from an area with no record Jewish enclave. Though, during my freshman year of college, mom reaffirmed that we were, according to Jewish law, Jewish. Something I desperate to be true. She went on to say she struggled with the decision to not raise me in the faith due to my father’s conservative Christian relatives. I grilled her for more details, asked to make sure she was sure. It made some sense. Mom had a fixation on the Jewish people that went beyond the fetishizing Zionism of most Southerners. To say she was a Christian is a traditional sense wasn’t accurate. She never taught me the trinity, or emphasized the virgin birth. Mom did not believe in original sin, which meant the crucifixion wasn’t a sacrifice for the soul of mankind. Christ died as martyr against roman occupation. My grandmother wasn’t around to contest this. So I start to believe it. Or wanted too, but there was a nagging doubt in my mind. I still called myself Jewish, and internalized this family mythology which I had been the genesis, despite the seed of doubt.
I started to report on Jewish issues in Kentucky when I started to write for this magazine. More and more evidence that the geographic area my grandmother was from didn’t have any noted Jewish population mounted. My hospitalization made me want to confront any sense of dishonest in my life. I didn’t want to be fraud in any sense of the word. So I called my grandmother, only a day or so after I got out.
She and mom fell out nearly a decade ago, my 7th grade year.
I asked her directly,”Grandy, mom said we are Jewish.”
She laughed. “I’ve never heard that in my life.”
She then proceed to rant about my mother, including a alleged murder attempt, so I decided to politely end that conversation. Mom and my grandmother had attempted to end their lives at various points. Mom was medicated woman with bipolar disorder. Chronic physical health and, I think, mental health issues had driven her into seclusion in that room. Good Ole Neon, the rest of it showed a pretty accurate depiction of mental issues. The narrator like my mother, and myself but went to therapy, but expecting to yield an answer or change a feeling, didn’t stop us from planning to end our lives. My said she had lithium. She could have stopped her heart if she wanted too, but instead said she took some of her Crohn’s’s medication instead. To her it wasn’t a suicide attempt. My grandmother just admitted she tried killing herself. At someone in this fraudulent line of Jews was authentic.
But authenticity as Solomon Silverfish shows is more complicated than one can expect. I told this story of my mother’s fraud to my best friend’s mother who happens to be a psychiatric nurse. She told me that in some cases that folks with bipolar disorder may believe in their own delusions, so mom may have authentically believed her story of semetic struggle. Let me say here publicly, like Solomon Silverfish I was not born Jewish. Unlike him, I don’t want to be a fraud. I don’t want to be Solomon Silverfish. I will convert. I will have authenticity in both my gender and in my religion. And I have to say to that freshman, yes she was indeed right that Wallace does seem to indeed have a tender expression that no other writer I’ve read ever has, and that David Foster Wallace has helped me realize I’m not a Freud. I’m not Solomon Silverfish. I’m on my way to being a Jew.