Leigh Stein met Jason in an audition for a Greek tragedy when she was 22. He was so handsome and charming that she, a non-smoker, bummed a cigarette from him just to keep talking to him after their scene together. Soon they’re dating, but it takes her some time to realize that he was only 18. It took her even longer to come to grips with the fact that he was also unstable, abusive and very, very broken. By then they had moved to New Mexico from Chicago to chase their dreams–hers of writing, his of acting–and she was in way over her head.
Land of Enchantment is not a straightforward survivor’s memoir of abuse, escape and triumph. The bookend to their start with Medea is that four-and-a-half years later Jason dies in a motorcycle accident. He and Leigh are no longer dating, she has moved to Brooklyn and is beginning to find her way, but the loss is stunning and overwhelming.
The narrative cuts in between their terrible time in New Mexico, scenes from the aftermath of his death, including his funeral near Little Rock, Arkansas, and her own analysis of her interior life. Land of Enchantment grapples with what draws us to difficult people, what keeps us in the thrall of relationships that make us miserable. She writes, “For a long time I saw only two possible endings to our story: either Jason had to die or we had to get married. In my imagination, both ending seemed equally as likely, equally as horrifying…If he died I was sure I would lose the most exciting part of my life.”
By the time Jason dies, those two choices were no longer the only ones Leigh could see–she was in the process of learning to live without his madness, and much of her grieving seems to reflect a hope that maybe one day should could have helped him learn to live without it as well. She speaks at his funeral. “‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m one of Jason’s ex-girlfriends.’ At this everyone laughed, including a row of Hell’s Angels up front, there to mourn the death of a rider. Their laughter made my hands shake, and it would be months before I realized that everyone was laughing at the words, one of.”
Aside from one interlude toward the end of her tale, Leigh declines to write much in detail about her sex life with Jason, which is something of a relief in our tell-all culture, but also leaves you wondering how dark that realm of their relationship got, and what else she has left out.
Unlike the lurid tell-all memoir we’ve come to expect from survivors of every imaginable bit of human ugliness, Land of Enchantment is careful, reflective–it resists easy categorization of victim and abuser. Leigh, who is a founder and co-director of Out of the Binders, also worked on the editorial staff at The New Yorker and has published a novel and a collection of poetry. All that is to say, she’s trying to accomplish something specific here, with words. Rather than hiding this hugely complex part of her emotional foundation away behind a happy and successful life (we meet the kind, stable man who becomes her husband toward the end of the book), she holds it up to the New Mexico sun, but on her own terms this time.