Dora: A Headcase

By Lidia Yuknavitch

Hawthorne Books
August 2012

Reviewed by Renée E. D'Aoust


Dear Dr. Sigmund Freud:

Please read Lidia Yuknavitch's Dora: A Headcase. It will make you come.

Listen. I worked for a Freudian trained psychiatrist and wrote several oral-and-anal inspired papers for her. I read your book Dora in too many undergraduate courses, and I listened to Freudian literary criticism in too many graduate school courses. As if—as if—mapping Freudian theories onto literature actually conveys the meaning of literature.

"Isn't Freud out of date?" I wanted to scream.

Yet I nodded when that white-haired-lady English professor insisted that what I called your prurient interest in Dora was really Dr. Freud expressing his concern for Dora. I wrote an essay about Dora. I wanted to tell you to suck it. Oh, and let me also mention that Ph.D. student named Harry who told me I wasn't smart enough to understand you but maybe I could handle Jung. Harry can suck it, too.

Turns out you aren't out of date, Dr. Freud. With Yuknavitch's svelte hand, you're just coming back to life. Welcome to our world. Women speak here.

And teenager girls speak it straight here. As Yuknavitch writes, Ida—our heroine—describes things just as they are in your contemporary office:

Uh huh, I'm saying the Sigster is into booger sugar.

Well all righty then. He knows things about me, but two can play at that game. I turn slowly around, and in the middle of his gloriously word smarty guy sentences, I notice something he has not. With my finger still in my mouth, I say, looking at the clock on the wall just behind his head with its stuck cuckoo, "Um, Sig? I'm afraid our time is up."

That's right. Knockout walking out the door.

Just like Dora walked out your door, Dr. Freud.


Renée E. D'Aoust


Dear Ms. Yuknavitch:

I've always wanted to tell Freud to suck it, but you beat me to it. Thank you for making his dick spurt blood. I love your pink book Dora: A Headcase.


A reader

P.s. "Herr Doktor! [You] smoked him speechless"!
P.p.s. "Like punks let loose"—we gotta "story it"!


Dear Book Review Reader:

I may be part of the hysteria choir who thinks that Freud erased Dora's voice, wanted to do the nasty with her, and because he couldn't, or she wouldn't, then stole Dora's narrative, but. But this: read Lidia Yuknavitch's Dora: A Headcase. As Yuknavitch's "manwoman" character Marlene announces to our heroine Ida, "I have the perfect books for you today!"

With absurdly grotesque language, Yuknavitch engages our curiosity: "Just when you think things are as clusterfucked as they can get, they fuckgasm straight out of orbit." Yuknavitch discredits the dismissal of teenage voices—of other voices—and uses her own form of erasure to create strong voices, a girl heroine, authentic identities, and a thriller plot: "There's no father here. No mother. It's like you can erase your origins and be anybody else."

Our main character Ida becomes anybody else—Dora—but she also becomes herself in a passage that makes me cringe because of its compassion for Freud. It's empathy I couldn't show for this man icon. It's empathy that Yuknavitch shows because she has what the best writers have: compassion blended with honesty to make things real.

We talked about my story. About how my father had betrayed me, how my mother had neglected me, how I needed to pass through a psychosexual crucible of sorts to work things through. The sentences seemed effortless and without drama.

"Thank you for believing me," I remember saying to him. "I think it was important, that you never called me a liar," I said.

"Your lies located themselves in deeper places. No doubt part of the reason you are an artist," he said. "Though I always felt our time together had resulted in…"

I waited.

"Failure," he said. "On my part."

Ida shows acceptance of her contemporary Freudian analyst while the author Yuknavitch accepts the role of our historical Freud. Yuknavitch transmits words spoken by the vaginas of young women—most notably by Ida, the rambunctious star of the novel. In Ida, we see an arc of acceptance both unexpected and surprising.

At the start, Ida has a problem. She loses her voice. She gets all sexy and excited, and she goes mum. You might say she's phasic and stuck in some oral phase. Heck, maybe she's stuck in the anal phase because of the amount of bullshit Freud spewed out about his Dora. The easy out would be to describe her as hysterical. But Ida is one tough young lady, and she wraps her analyst, the Sig, and all her readers right around her little toe. Ida reflects:

Do I masturbate. You know what? Siggy can suck it. You have to watch out for these little booby traps. You have to stay one step ahead of the game. He's got my father's money on his side. The purse strings. He's got the power to make a story of me that will make or break me. Think about it. If you can't outsmart a middle aged shrink by the time you are eighteen, how the hell are you going to get through a life?

In the book, Freud is "the Sig." Yet the Sig is not a total ass wipe (turns out, Jung is a total ass wipe). The Sig listens to Ida, especially when her loser parents do not. Her dad is a cheating bozo. Her mom is a social X-ray. But with her Zoom H4N audio recorder and all her recording paraphernalia, not to mention some drugs, Ida/Dora is an explorer. Heck, Ida is a teenaged Dora the Explorer!

Rain falls on my head. I walk downtown admiring Seattle's gritty little grime holes—the alleys between galleries. The backs of brick buildings where the dumpsters live. Parking garages of high-rise businesses. I record sound. If you listen, you can hear metal on concrete. Or water dripping. Or wind in the urban.

Dr. Freud silenced Dora and stole her narrative. Yuknavitch brings her back to life. The plot zooms along like a roller coaster. But it doesn't make you roller coaster upchuck sick because the tale is satisfying. It's satisfying in a satirical, farcical, fuckoffical kind of way. Totally bloody amazing. On par with Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." In Dora: A Headcase, no one is eating anyone, although Ida really wants to eat Obsidian and be her girlfriend. But those sexy vibrations are exactly what make Ida lose her voice.

And the Sig helps Ida find her voice again. Except, not exactly. It's not that easy. It's as if Ida's voice has been missing since the publication of the original Dora, and now, as Ida comes fighting back to life, she races through those grimy Seattle streets with her buddies looking for herself.

Lidia Yuknavitch's Dora: A Headcase is a fight for our time. Read it.

Humbly yours,

Renée E. D'Aoust