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Originally published Friday, November 7, 2014 at 5:05 AM

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‘My Body is a Book of Rules’: a hard upbringing, a fresh start

Elissa Washuta’s memoir “My Body is a Book of Rules” is an inventive and at times punishing book about her difficult upbringing, experienced through the lens of bipolar disorder. Washuta reads Monday, Nov. 10, at Seattle’s University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Elissa Washuta

The author of “My Body is a Book of Rules” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10, at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or


In her first 25 years, Elissa Washuta was taught by nuns, muddled by mental illness, traumatized by a series of sexual encounters and captivated by “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Growing up on the East Coast with a bloodline that is 3/32 Native American (Cascade and Cowlitz), Washuta as a teen felt conflicted about owning up to that part of her heritage, confessing to knowing nothing about “drinking from places of true torment.” But by her senior year in college, she was drinking her way through term papers, exams and eating disorders — though as a “scholarship show pony” she still managed to maintain her 4.0 GPA.

“My body,” Washuta admits, “never a temple, became a haunted house.”

With family in the Pacific Northwest, Washuta decided to get a fresh start by coming to Washington state. She enrolled in graduate school and started to work on her memoir.

“My Body is a Book of Rules” (Red Hen Press, 224 pp., $16.95) is the result.

This is an inventive and often punishing book. You’ll read all about Washuta’s alienation, her 20-something angst and the abuse she endured. She assembles these disturbing misadventures in the increasingly ubiquitous 21st-century style of disjointed narrative. And yet, the format befits the brain that conceived it.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young adult, Washuta describes the dis­order’s “kindling model” in an essay that is itself a model of concision. If the bipolar condition goes untreated, small episodes may begin to occur more frequently or intensely, setting the brain up for something more full-blown, a veritable cephalic shindig that may be resistant to treatment.

“Getting the brain right is the most important thing there is,” Washuta writes. She says that the kindling process that had been gaining traction in her brain has been slowed, if not totally stopped, thanks to the right medication.

But before her diagnosis, before the rounds of doctors and treatments and prescriptions, she had begun her own quest to make sense out of a life that was going awry.

So Washuta kept diaries. On one end of the spectrum, she conducted graphic oral histories with her fellow students about their sex lives; on the other end, she studied the lives of saints. She devised bibliographies, and cataloged her own sexual interactions. She listed things that disgusted her and ways she was cool. She tried to impose order, tried to make sense of things, tried to come up with an identity that fit.

Part of that quest involved examining a family lineage that contained episodes so utterly unjust as to shatter her sense of security in the foundation of her heritage. Undoubtedly this was magnified when she filtered those painful incidents through her roiling brain.

The old saying goes that rules are meant to be broken, but what happens when mental illness defaces the rule book? “My Body is a Book of Rules” is a collection of calamities — bitterly funny, fierce, sometimes crass and sometimes heartbreaking.

Washuta’s memoir is not without hope, but it is a draining read.

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