I have read Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water which is ostensibly about her career as a competitive swimmer but is even more about the physical and sexual abuse she suffered from her father. I haven’t read her three highly acclaimed novels (which are often described as “transgressive”) although they have long been on my reading list.
Yuknavitch’s latest book is The Misfit’s Manifesto, which has its genesis in her TED Talk “The Beauty of Being a Misfit” which was ranked as one of the top ten TED Talks of 2016.
Yuknavitch is now a tenured professor of creative writing with a Phd in English Literature. As she shows in The Misfit’s Manifesto, she had a rough road to get to where she is today.
Apart from the sexual abuse in her family she has also endured heroin addiction, alcohol abuse, a stillborn child, being homeless and living under a bridge, two terms in jail, two divorces and involvement in sexually debasing activities including BDSM.
Okay, so that’s a lot to unpack in a relatively short book. Yuknavitch’s thesis is that there is a certain percentage of the population who are considered to be weirdos, eccentrics, failures, fuck-ups, who are really just “misfits” – people who can’t fit into any of the slots that normal society has constructed.
Yuknavitch self-identifies as a misfit and the book includes testimony from nine other “misfits, heart and art warriors” that add to what Yuknavitch proclaimed in her TED Talk.
She believes (and as a “misfit” myself it resonates for me) that some people just don’t or can’t live by the normal metrics of success or productivity in capitalist society.
But, for me she goes too far in sanctifying addicts, the homeless and the mentally ill as heroic misfits. “Misfits” is her own far from scientific terminology and it seems a bit too broad. People fall through the cracks of society for lots of different reasons.
There are, of course, people who don’t fit into society’s carefully calibrated categories. There are people who are intelligent and sensitive and who self-destruct and make horrible life choices. There are people, and again I speak for myself, who are compassionate of others but are also overly self-critical and who make self-defeating choices.
But, does this make all of us misfits squeeze into another category, “Misfits” with a capital M and a broad tent? Yuknavitch isn’t very clear on this. She shoehorns all kinds of principled nonconformists and addicted streetpersons into the same camp.
There are some common characteristics. It is true that a lot of “misfits” are born survivors, able to re-invent and re-imagine themselves after each calamity. I agree with Yuknavitch that there is value, even beauty in those of us who live on the margins of society. We may not fit in but we have the gift of adapting ourselves to adverse circumstances. We persevere.
“I am the daughter of an abusive father whose house I had narrowly escaped with my life,” she writes. “I have two epically failed marriages under my belt. I’ve flunked out of college not once, but twice, and maybe even a third time. I’ve been through one episode of drug rehab and two brief stints incarcerated. I’ve also been homeless. I’m not a deviant. Or a loser. Or a criminal. I’m someone who ‘missed’ fitting in.”
Ultimately, Yuknavitch hopes for a world where the “misfits,” the “eccentrics” and the “failures” will beome object lessons for the blind conformists that their’s is is not the path to be valued above all others, that there can be lessons learned from those on the margins. I hope she is right.
The Misfit’s Manifesto by Lidia Yuknavitch Ted Books (Simon & Shuster)
Here is Lidia Yuknavitch’s original TED Talk, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit”: