Vampires, Great Men of Letters, and Me
How working as a caretaker for one of literature’s towering figures taught me to think for myself
The year before I went to grad school, I moved in with my former professor and her much-older husband. He’d also been my professor, but — more importantly — he was a Great Man. This is not my subjective opinion but that of the Swedish Academy, which gave him a Nobel Prize in literature.
He was famed for his novels about roguish boys who grew up to be brilliant men, characters that did whatever they wanted in pursuit of their art regardless of other people’s feelings. And they were ultimately rewarded, just like their author, for the world loves a smart, charming, ambitious man.
As a child, I’d mostly read fantasy novels. My favorites featured girls who learn they’re magical and end up saving the world. But by high school, as a “serious” English student, I gravitated toward what was then considered to be “real literature.” These were books mostly by and for white men. My favorite English teacher referred to these authors and those who’d canonized them as “The Pale Penis People” with a slightly defeated smirk.
That said, I would later read the shit out of works like Portnoy’s Complaint and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man not only because they were filthy but also because their heroes, although male, were relatable to me: ravenous for life; barely contained; believing themselves at once too much and too little; and eager to experience everything they could see, touch, feel, and think.
As if to compete with these characters, I’d spent the first semester of freshman year going down the snake hole of nonstop partying and embarking on a side gig as a nightclub promoter. Tottering around on platform heels, I’d flirted, uneasily, with the kinds of men who flock to venues that let in 18-year-old girls. My experiences that semester were a grab bag of excitement and disgust but also a lot of boredom. The dudes weren’t very interesting — that’s why they liked women who couldn’t even buy themselves drinks. When the nights all started to run together, I finally realized I needed a change.
Being a brilliant woman wasn’t an…