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Letters About Literature National Winners 2008

Honorable Mentions, Level 3: Gabrielle Sclafani

Dear Wally Lamb,

The intriguing blue cover of your novel, She's Come Undone, dusted with acclamations, sat on my bookshelf for several months before I dared to pick it up. It wasn't that I thought it would be uninteresting, or that I was swamped with other books to read. Rather, I'd heard too many times that it was depressing and deep, "heavy reading," one might say. I'd been struggling with a serious autoimmune disorder, Wegener's Granulomatosis, for over two years. I was, and still am, on corticosteroids and a mild chemotherapy medication. I didn't want a depressing book; I wanted one that would lift my spirits, something funny that didn't require too much thought. And quite honestly, there was something about the girl's face on the cover, peeking out from behind a mask of clouds, that struck a chord in me which I wasn't sure wanted striking. Yet it kept tempting and teasing me, not satisfied to be neglected, and the day my fingers finally wrapped themselves around its silky spine, I began an unbreakable connection.

Despite my reservations, your words engulfed me from the moment I began reading, as the waves of the Atlantic often did when I was younger. It was scary, I'll admit, but simultaneously wonderful and exhilarating. As your novel focuses on Dolores' painful journey through adolescence and into adulthood, it paints a stark picture of the brutality and prejudices of the real world. Reading about her struggles against herself and the humanity, or lack thereof, around her provided me with a telescopic view inside my own mind. After reading how Dolores deals with her rape, I saw that it wasn't all that different from the way I reacted to my diagnosis. We both chose to hide from our circumstances and isolate ourselves from our loved ones. We felt, ultimately, that we had lost control. Dolores's body may have been raped by a man, but I too was raped, at the hands of nature and modern medicine. When he prescribed the steroids, my doctor didn't even look at me. Though I can never get inside his mind, I have a decent idea as to why. He was ashamed. He knew -- as Jack did when he took advantage of Dolores -- that my body would never again be my own. The steroids caused my face to swell and break out in an acne-like rash to the point where people who didn't see me every day often didn't recognize me when they did. The drugs played with my mind so much that I could rarely think straight. The only solace I found from the constant churning of anxieties through my mind were the few cherished hours of sleep I stole each evening. During the day, however, my life was a living hell. I had trouble turning my jumbled thoughts into sentences, and every time I tried to communicate, a flurry of stuttered phrases fell out of my mouth. Even with a daily regimen of antidepressants, there were many times when suicide was more than a fleeting image across my radar screen. Knowing that this lay in store for me, my doctor probably wanted to dissociate himself as much as possible from me. To him, I was just another name -- a check from the insurance company, just like, to Jack, Dolores is just some girl who gave him a few minutes of pleasure.

But the blame I put on my doctor was ultimately a way for me to give my enemy a face -- my true bĂȘte noire was my disease. It was easy for us to turn our hatred for our assailants into a hatred for ourselves, because it provided an outlet for the brutality we wished we could inflict on them. They got to escape, but we live with the memories of our pain each and every day. They made us feel worthless and powerless; to the point where we truly despised ourselves. Just like the cells inside my body were attacking each other, my mind quickly became my own worst enemy. What's the point of fighting, I thought, where there's no guarantee, when the end result might not even be an improvement?

When Dolores attempts to drown herself, she scared me. Is this my fate? I asked myself. Furtively, I flipped through the pages and lived each word, feeling the chill of the ocean against our skin, thinned by the stretch marks we both know too well. I could see our hands, translucent shells bobbing with the waves. And when Dolores finds the courage not to give up, to wade back to shore, she pulls me in, too, with her magnetic charge of empathy. I drew myself back to reality, and took a huge gasp, suddenly realizing that I'd been holding my breath as the events unfurled between the leaves. And I've known, since that instant, that if Dolores can make it, then so can I. We've already been through hell, we can't give up now. Yes, we have battle wounds, but they don't stop us from being vivacious, compelling and undeniably strong.

I'm proud to say since reading your book that I no longer hide in my flannel sheets, waiting for my problems to disappear. I've become proactive. I go to the gym, baby-sit, and do my homework. I've rediscovered hobbies I thought I had lost interest in such as gardening and writing. One of my biggest challenges -- one that Dolores also faced -- has been reengaging with people and making friends. Like Dolores, I have managed to develop new bonds with positive people who make me feel good about myself, as opposed to trying -- with futility -- to meet the standards of critical or demanding friends, a lesson both Dolores and I learned the heard way. And most importantly, I am learning, little by little, to love myself.

Thank you, Mr. Lamb, you have taught me, through Dolores and her painfully empowering journey, the importance of knowing my own value. Dolores finds her beauty through layers of degradation and self-mutilation; I know I can find mine too.


Gabrielle Sclafani