Godspeed: a memoir. by Casey Legler. Scribe Publications, 2019. Pp 176. A$27.99
Godspeed: a memoir is former Olympic swimmer Casey Legler’s account of her troubled adolescence. A largely unparented child with prodigious athletic abilities, Legler turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with her emptiness while training and competing at the highest level. Legler evokes her isolation from family, her substance abuse, and the traumatic events of her formative years with a relentless interiority in an experimental work of life writing that can only very loosely be classed as memoir. Why Legler chose to label her work in this way is one of several puzzling things about this book. Nonetheless, the text vividly evokes a colourful slice of Legler’s history.
Since ending her career as an athlete, Legler has become a world-renowned menswear model who has blazed a trail for gender nonconforming fashion models. She has also worked as an artist and manages a café in Paris. In interviews she talks about the long and harrowed process of forging the identity in which she now strides down the runway. She speaks of the difficulty of learning how to live in a body such as hers and of the trauma of being sexually assaulted as a kid. But none of these connections are explored in Godspeed. Instead, Legler offers an impressionistic present tense account of her adolescence, anchored in her young self’s fractured perceptions of her life as a string of meaningless and disconnected events supercharged by alcohol, drugs and promiscuity.
The narrative that results has few of the conventional markers of memoir. We are given no explanation of her parents’ almost total absence from her life, or of how her entry into professional athletics came about. Through Legler’s eyes, we see the cold opportunism of her coach, who has hit the ‘genetic jackpot’ (38), and her own reserved precocity, disparaging her fellow teenagers who ‘didn’t even know who Proust was’ (26). But we are given very few clues as to how she came to be so well-read despite her apparent disengagement with school. One of the most appealing aspects of memoir is surely its polyvocality; the sense of being given access simultaneously to a whole cast of the writer’s past and present selves. This element is entirely absent in Legler’s memoir. Also largely absent is dialogue, an absence that reflects the young Legler’s isolation, but which also limits the text’s capacity to come to life. Her writing is disorientating, non-linear but sometimes strikingly evocative of her subjectivity; ‘we sit on the green grass and pose and I am fat cheeked and all wrong’ (111).
An author’s note at the start of Godspeed reveals that Legler was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder during the period she was writing the book and says she ‘inadvertently’ wrote the story of a young girl on the spectrum. Intriguingly, though it is never addressed in the text, many passages and images suggest a neuro-atypical point of view. ‘I didn’t understand anything but the way the light looked in the sky or that I could see a flower petal breathing’ (26). The prominence of light and sound in her perceptions is something Legler has reflected on elsewhere, a quirk of her character that was often observed in the years her autism remained undiagnosed. In Godspeed, she evokes rather than reflects on this experience in hallucinatory prose that verges on stream of consciousness. An abundance of sensory details eclipses her disengagement with her study and her training. Traumatic events are recalled with chilling casualness ‘I wake up lying on the sidewalk hard grey with Australia’s fingers in my cunt and I push him out with my hand’ and a complete absence of follow up. Sexual violence is normalised and the protagonist in no state to process her experiences. Events unfold numbly around her. Her mother comes to a meeting with her doctor because it is ‘a fancy experience she wants to have’ (72). Legler swims ‘for every chance to get wasted’ (58) and in class, ‘Blah blah goes the teacher and I sit through it unhearing’ (53).
In interviews, Legler has described the ‘loss of self’ that she experienced during the years dealt with in Godspeed. At the end of the book, she enters rehab but is expelled for drinking after one day. Her uncle picks her up and drives her towards an unspecified future. The reader does not get to see how Legler overcame her issues, nor how she achieved the successes of her later life. Instead we are shown the white midday desert sun and the sensation of the seat on the back of her thighs.
It is paradoxical to write a memoir that evokes a loss of self. It’s a genre inextricably bound up with identity. The theorist John Paul Eakin has written extensively on the interconnectedness of narrative and identity. We give narrative accounts of ourselves as a way of constructing a socially acceptable identity in accordance with the ‘obligation to display a normative model of personhood’ (Eakin, 43). It is this impulse to strive towards a unified self that Godspeed most stubbornly resists. In choosing the point of view of the most troubled incarnation of herself and never wavering from it, Legler spurns the conventions of the genre, the historicity of memoir and the specifics of her life achievements, presenting us instead with the grass poking at her thighs, the screaming of cicadas and the midday scorching sun.
Eakin, P J (2008) Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative, Cornell Univeristy Press, Ithaca and London.
Fernanda Dahlstrom is a writer, editor and lawyer based in Brisbane. She has won awards for short stories and flash fiction and has a particular interest in writing about childhood. Find her on Twitter at @FernandaDahlstr.