Juliet the Maniac by Juliet Escoria
Melville House, May 2019
336 pages / pre-order: Amazon
Unlike a hyper-fictionalized coming-of-age tale where the narrator discovers they have some magical power or prophesized destiny, Juliet, in Juliet the Maniac, discovers that with her adolescence comes the terror of unchecked mental illness. Juliet Escoria describes a youth spent among palm trees and burnt foil pipes, where sunshine and misery exist side-by-side.
In a wealthy Southern California community in the late 90’s, fifteen year old Juliet’s freshman year in high school is interrupted by uncontrollable feelings and vivid hallucinations. She reacts as any young person would do – with fear – and she retreats inward, driving a wedge between herself and those around her. When she attempts to reach out and seek help, she is met with confused indifference from her friends, and well-intentioned (however clumsy) reactions from her parents. This leads to a series of firsts for her: her first suicide attempt, her first emergency hospital visit, her first stay in a mental facility. Afterward, she begins a course of medication and a new high school – which starts a pattern she will struggle to break for a large part of her adult life.
Narrating between the experiences of Juliet’s past self and the hindsight of her future self, Escoria weaves a story that isn’t just relatable to those with mental illness, but really illustrates what it’s like for those readers who don’t have it. “I watched as skulls erupted from the walls, wild in psychedelic rainbows. I tried to shut out the shapes by closing my eyes, but the colors flickered brighter across my eyelids. The shuffling rumbled into thunder, laughter filling in the gaps.” It’s difficult to imagine not just going through the daily pain of high school, but coupled with breaks from reality that come and go at will. Juliet, already scared and paranoid, attempts to ignore what’s happening. “I no longer slept. It was so loud all the time. Each day I was assaulted by ringings and whispers, my heart pounding at the center of the chaos like a metronome, the order of the days splintering, popping apart, the ropes that once tethered me to the rest of the world had snapped and I had floated too far away to find my way back.”
If what she’s describing – a normal teenage girl suddenly haunted by visions of ghosts, spiders, skulls, and hellfire that only she can see – sounds like a horror movie, it’s because living with mental illness can be like being in a horror movie. Coupled with the fact that being a teenager is such a volatile process already, and add in horrible things that no one else believes are real? The result is a devastating life, fraught with confusion and betrayal from the people you trusted most. Even with therapy and medication, Juliet still delves into drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain, the pain that everyone else can’t understand, the pain she needs to hide just to make it through the day.
Juliet re-visits her experiences from that time without judgement. To accomplish this, “future” Juliet includes excerpts from scientific studies to give context to the medications “past” Juliet takes, the treatment she receives, and the behaviors she exhibits. But it’s still difficult for her, watching those events replay, knowing now just how scared and vulnerable she is, and how much the system failed her or encouraged her worst habits. Juliet was dealt the bad cards at the worst possible time, and the collateral damage she goes on to live with are her scars. Escoria’s writing traces the scars in this book with a gentle fingertip, capturing the moments with a dream-like clarity, watching them unfold, knowing what the consequences will be. “The world was falling away like bombs, leaving only me, the darkest war in it.” Juliet’s terrifying hallucinations and cutting moments of despair are interspersed with memories of teenage nostalgia: in one scene, a coke-fueled make-out session at a party is interrupted by Kurt Loader reporting on Columbine.
Though the references to places have been re-named, they are easily discernible for anyone familiar enough with the area. All of this lends an alternative portrait to growing up in Southern California, where despite the beaches and visible wealth, darkness of the soul can still permeate inside you. The juxtaposition of smiling elite alongside the “Palms Trash” (as her group of friends comes to be known) is both striking and refreshing. Through her journey among high school, hospitals, and rehab camps, Juliet carves a path toward a life of her own, a place where she can exist on her own terms in something resembling normal.