Ellen Miller’s novel, Like Being Killed, was first published in 1998. Ellen Miller died in 2008. She did not release another novel during her lifetime. I first heard about her book from a post Arthur Nersesian made on his website, a tribute to Ellen and her work. He told everyone to read her novel immediately. Like Being Killed was out of print by then and still is. I found a used paperback online and it fucked me up.
Being called a faggot is second nature to me. But because I didn’t come out as trans until later in my 20’s, I grew up in male spaces. This sheltered me from a lot of the violence women experience. Like Being Killed woke up me. The novel takes place between two different points in time. The narrator, Ilyana Meyerovich, is coming off a long run with heroin and a destructive relationship with a sadistic plumber. She is also remembering her old roommate Susie who no longer speaks to her.
I do not want to give spoilers in this review. But the quote from Ilyana featured on the back of the paperback describes the narrative well.
“I could never predict what was going to ruin me and what was going to rescue me.”
This is a romantic notion and romantics are not happy people. This novel is a conceit for the layers, truths and falsehoods of romanticism. Music saves lives but we don’t want to spend our lives in the moments that inspire our favorite songs. But the moments we don’t want to go back to are often what allows us to connect to music and literature in the first place.
Like Being Killed is not shy about mental illness. An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison is thought of as a classic mental illness narrative. But An Unquiet Mind doesn’t show real destruction. Kay is able to travel to Scotland, meet new lovers in new countries and has a great job to help her pay off credit card binge debt. Like Being Killed is more recognizable. Ilyana wakes up one morning, sick from heroin, with her cat bathing her because she can’t get to the shower. Ellen Miller describes how it smells inside an apartment you haven’t left in a month, describes the buildup of tissues, blood, cat shit.
It is just as easy to say, “Oh, romantics are inexperienced jagoffs, fuck them,” while you’re holding your copy of Infinite Jest. It’s also easy to say, “Yeah, I can’t wait to hit the road soon,” clutching your copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and a debit card linked to a bank account filled with 30,000 American dollars. But there is a reason we cry when we read romantic literature.
A major theme of romanticism is survival and what happens next, whether after disaster, collapse, death or sickness. Ishmael survives in a coffin, Nathaniel Hawthorne revisits Salem’s crimes in later generations, romanticism reminds us that there is a morning after. That we cannot escape reckoning and that there is a sunrise after apocalypse. Someone finds the Blair Witch Tapes that Heather, Mike and Josh leave behind.
I also don’t think Romanticism is a movement that began and ended in the 19th century. Authors like Steve Erickson, Grace Krilanovich and Helen Oyeyemi work with many of the same themes as Coleridge, the Shelley’s, Baudelaire. Which is to say they write about losing your mind, getting high and regretting what you’ve done. And they write about it with literary virtuosity.
Ilyana and Susie are both written very well. Every element of this novel is blunt and straightforward. Ilyana is gaunt and hisses. Susie is peach pie thick, peach pie warm. Ilyana gets angry, self-destructs and survives. Susie gets upset and gets hurt.
The novel gets its title from this idea Ilyana has, that listening to a song is, “Like Being Killed.”
We see the complications of romanticism in music every day. Our favorite songs are fucked up and come from fucked up places. They reach the fucked up places inside of us and bring out our fucked up feelings and help us heal. Or help us move forward and be strong. Most of us would probably never want to relive what lets us connect to the music, would never wish these experiences on our friends.
There is a blurb on the back of the paperback from Annie Dillard that reads, “Miller hurls herself, along with her readers, into a world that resonates with moral complexity, startling anecdote, humor, brutality, and compassion.” Annie Dillard has taught and influenced many celebrated contemporary writers. Maggie Nelson openly cites Annie Dillard as a huge influence and Maggie’s work has a lot in common with Like Being Killed. Maggie’s body of work is constantly asking questions about pain and pleasure. She examines the experience of eating and being consumed, engages in theological mediations and more overt examinations of her own attraction to violence in art and the personal psychology of masochism and romance.
Ellen Miller and Maggie Nelson’s work both seems to ask the blunt question, “Why the fuck is this shit happening and why do we enjoy it so much?” There is another blurb from Annie Dillard in the opening pages of Like Being Killed. Dillard says, “Miller’s prose is uncommonly clear, compelling, unaffected, and strong. The range of her narrative concerns — from Primo Levi, Nietzsche, and dead languages to bagels and peach pies — proves that she can make anything interesting.”
I used to see hardcover copies of this book in used bookstores in Iowa City all the time. And while many students of Annie Dillard are celebrated, Ellen Miller and her novel have been largely forgotten. Our current moment continues to see survivors of trauma and abuse search for ways to move forward and make sense our of lives and experiences. Ellen Miller’s novel should be apart of this conversation.
Thursday Simpson is a multimedia artist and a co-founding editor at OUT/CAST, a journal for queer & Midwestern writers. Her first chapbook, Three Gothic Stories, is published with Moonchaps. She composes soundtracks for her writing and maintains a prog, analog synth based aesthetic. She believes in Feline Satan and garlic and onions. Ask her to do an impression of King Diamond or Kevin Steen and she will probably smile. Her Twitter is @JeanBava and her full publication history can be found at www.thursdaysimpson.com