Afterword to Heather Lewis's House Rules
In House Rules, Heather Lewis’s first novel, we feel the exquisite vulnerability of an adolescent girl struggling to find a safe place for herself. Lee, fifteen, is kicked out of boarding school for a minor offense and can’t/won’t go home to her sexually abusive father. She runs to Florida and goes deeper into the world of show horses—a world Heather Lewis knew well. Desperate for connection, for comfort, she falls into a world of sex and pain, and methadone and people who seduce you and then punch you in the most private places. Always hanging in the balance is the hope for love, the twisted comfort of the familiar and the numbness now required to contemplate either or both.
At some point Lee can’t bare tenderness; it’s too threatening, The idea that she might let herself go, that she might buy into it only to be knocked out again, is more dangerous than just letting herself be fucked in the roughest manner. With this book, the further in you go, the harder it gets to read. Because you start to feel for Lee, to care for her. And what she goes through is unrelenting. Despite the fact that it’s a novel, it rings true, you know it happens this way, and then some.
Heather had an unblinking desire to tell the truth, to make it known. And she needed something from us—she needed us to believe her. Her writing was about truth, about being honest at all costs. She would look at something awful, and not blink. That determination to see, to feel, to know, was central to her personality. She wrote to relieve the pain, to touch the pain, to come out of the numbness and feel the pain. She wrote hoping to write it out, to exorcize it, to tell us about it. She couldn’t help but dwell in the house of hurt and sometimes it became overwhelming.
But as much as Heather had the skill to comfort herself, she had the same skill to take herself down, to be the one who got there first. If you know someone is going to hurt you, if you know someone is going to reject you, then isn’t it in some flawed logic better if you are the one who hurts yourself, if you are the one who inflicts the damage? After all, you’re the one who knows how to do it most thoroughly. House Rules was actually a warm-up, only the beginning of all that Heather Lewis wanted to tell us. Notice, her second novel, was all the more clear, all the more terrifying, and wasn’t published until after her third book The Second Suspect, and months after her death in 2002. Her writing is incomparable. Her voice became more distinctive, and all the more disturbing for its flatness, its lack of affect. Her style is absent of description, of color, of anything lush, prosaic or extra. It was as though all of that didn’t matter; that wasn’t what was at risk, in danger.
The literary world’s response to Heather was problematic. In House Rules, she artfully laid herself bare. The publishing world welcomed the novel with awe and no small amount of fear. The book was a celebration of the dark, the transgressive; it was exciting and scary and everyone wondered where she would go next. She presented herself, and the world paid attention and said, bring it on. And she did. She wrote Notice, its title perfect, its story even more debilitating, and Heather’s style all the more blunt. There was no way to couch the brutality, the violence in these perverse personalities, with the fullness of tone, the lush language that one might find in, say, John Cheever’s Westchester County characters. And the publishing world pulled back and said, this is too much, this is too strong. Heather read that as a personal rejection. She’d put herself out there and was just picking up speed, only to be told that it was overwhelming, that her one refuge, the world of books, of writers, would no longer embrace her.
Heather hurled herself at life trying to wake up the part that long ago went numb, always trying to numb that part that was in constant pain. It is hard to survive, to rise above all the things that happen to you. When I stop to think about it, I am amazed that she lasted as long as she did. I miss her still and always.