I first read Notice in 2003, sitting at Café Pick Me Up, a couple weeks after moving back to New York. I was adrift. My family was back in San Francisco, and so was my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. I didn’t know anyone in New York anymore, and the one guy I did know (from various coffee shops in San Francisco) was a distinctly bad influence. We would go out drinking on a Thursday night and end up flirting and leaning too close to each other and talking about our respective bad old days, wondering what it would have been like to get high together. So I tried not to see him too often, tried to bury myself in reading. Mostly I read books about drugs, though it wasn’t clear to me if I was trying to psych myself into or out of actually getting high again.
I found The Second Suspect at the library, a big hardcover edition wrapped in cellophane, and I was thrilled to find another book by Heather Lewis, but disturbed by the author photo, where she looked high and miserable, an expression I’d seen way too often on the face of a former boyfriend before he died. And then I found out Lewis was dead, and that there was only one more book.
I had first read House Rules four years before, staying up most of the night to finish it and leaving myself shattered and exhausted the next day. It had been recommended by a friend of a friend, a glamorous, knowing woman who had been introduced to me as Lichtenstein’s mistress, who assured me that, between the fisting and the dilaudid, the book would be right up my alley. And I smiled and tried to be charming and jaded and to not blush at the thought of whatever stories my friend had been telling about me. But when I finally sat down to read it, I did love House Rules. It was so raw and beautiful and so well paced that I had to know what happened to Lee.
But Notice was horrifying. Almost unreadable. I felt like I had to try to stay with the narrator, with the dead author, with the book that had been too terrifying to publish while she was alive. Like the women in the book, I wanted to protect her. And it didn’t even occur to me to distinguish between the author and the narrator. To see the work that went into getting the voice so perfectly right. The bluntness that seems to hold nothing back, but that still leaves so much unsaid. The way the narrator can’t seem to keep her attention focused on things that are physically or emotionally dangerous. The sex scene with her therapist-turned-girlfriend where instead of describing the sex or even what her girlfriend looks like, she slips into a pages-long meditation on all the ways her defense mechanisms are failing her. And I realized I had never read such a good description of dissociation.
Rereading Notice ten years later, at a very different place in my life (married, with a family and a PhD), I can now see how carefully that perfect voice was constructed. The difference between memoir and novel. The way that the narrator’s unwillingness to talk to her therapist mirrors the evasions and gaps when she is talking to us. The way we become so protective of the narrator so quickly, only to see how badly that plays out with Ingrid and Beth, because their mothering gets tied up with sex, with their own inability to set boundaries.
I saw the way that the arc of the story is less about the terrible things that happen to the narrator, and more about the collapse of her defense mechanisms—the bravado, the drugs, the dissociation and the sex. The thing she wants to protect herself from is her emotions, which she describes over and over as roaming through her like some monstrous creature. In the context of rape and assault and involuntary commitment, the thing that actually seems to scare her is losing control, breaking down, crying, loving or being loved. Because when that happens, she is left bereft, awash in all the pain she had been managing before. And we have to see ourselves reflected in the women who want to help her but who make things worse.