Book Review: Beside Myself, Ann Morgan (2016)

January 11th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Can we make 2016 the year of Creepy Twin Shenanigans? Please please please!?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for rape, including the rape of a child and sibling sexual abuse.)

You stroke his smooth skin. Its softness makes you want to climb inside him, put on what he is, and begin the world again.

Bored and left mostly to their own devices – as they so often are – six-year-old twin sisters Helen and Ellie Sallis decide to play a trick on the adults: swap identities and see if anyone can tell the difference. The prank proves such a smashing success that, by the time anyone catches on, it’s far, far too late to turn back. Having gotten a taste of what it’s like to live as Helen, Ellie refuses to go back to the way things were.

Ellie holds fast to her story, insisting that she is indeed Helen, and their mother Margaret believes her: after all, Helen was always the responsible, mature one, while silly Ellie spins fanciful tales, tells outright lies, and has trouble distinguishing reality from make-believe. When the real Helen speaks up, her claims are brushed off as just another one of Ellie’s phases. The only adults who believe her – Grandmother and Mrs. Dunkerley, their next door neighbor and sometimes-babysitter – both suffer from dementia, making them even less reliable witnesses than Ellie herself.

If you think that stealing your twin’s identity is a drastic measure, well, desperate times. To say that Margaret (and, more generally, life) treats Ellie unfairly is an understatement of epic proportions. Mom is emotionally abusive at best: she frequently neglects Ellie; purposefully leaves her out of mother-daughter activities, like shopping trips; and scolds and mocks her. Ellie is always ‘making their side look bad’ or ‘letting the team down.’ Naturally, this behavior rubbed off Helen: she often bullies Ellie, both verbally and physically.

For twins, their lives couldn’t be more different. Whereas Helen excels in school, Ellie flounders; Helen’s impeccable manners are countered by Ellie’s childish countenance and inappropriate questions (says mom). Helen hangs with the popular girls in school, whereas Ellie’s only friend is shared by Helen – and the two of them delight in tormenting Ellie, under the guise of teaching her a lesson.

Everyone blames Ellie’s so-called “behavioral problems” on her difficult birth: the younger of the two girls, the umbilical cord wrapped itself around her neck before she could take her first breath. The doctor warned that this could cause developmental delays, presumably because her brain was deprived of oxygen. However, what happens post-swap refutes this prediction/theory/excuse: when Ellie is given a taste of the Helen treatment, she flourishes. Her grades improve, she becomes more outgoing, and suddenly Mom can find no fault with her at all. Thus is the power of low expectations, self-fulfilling prophecies, and preconceptions. Despite the swap, Ellie is still Ellie, deep down inside; the only thing that’s changed is how other people regard her.

Helen, on the other hand, finds herself caught in a downward spiral. She experiences anger issues, her grades suffer, and she’s ostracized at school. (Helen’s popular friends were not Ellie’s friends also, you see. Just another way Helen stuck it to her twin.) Helen begins hanging out with older kids, starts experimenting with drugs, and pulls dangerous stunts, just so she can feel…something. The neighborhood sexual predator – Mary’s older brother – rapes her. The first time it happens, she’s just eleven years old. The abuse continues for years.

Eventually Helen is institutionalized. Like her father, who committed suicide when the girls were barely four years old, Helen is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She suffers from hallucinations, delusions, and bouts of mania. Between the mental illness and the damage caused to her brain by huffing glue, she sometimes has trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Some days she wonders if maybe she made the whole thing (the “Unfortunate Decision”) up.

Fast-forward fourteen years. A car accident has left the fake Helen (“Hellie”) – now a semi-famous personality on the daytime television show Coffee Break – in a coma. At his wit’s end, her husband Nick tracks the real Helen (“Smudge”) down in the hopes that her visit might jar his wife into consciousness. Estranged for nearly half their lives, Smudge wants nothing to do with her family or her past – and yet she finds herself becoming enmeshed in Hellie’s life and lies just the same. Past and present come rushing down a collision course as Smudge confronts what really happened all those years ago.

My knee-jerk reaction to Beside Myself was pretty much the same as I had to The Ice Twins, another psychological thriller featuring spooky twin confusion: THIS BOOK IS BONKERS. Can I just say how much I love this sub-genre? Twins can be hella creepy, and the swapping angle really plays with issues of identity, nature vs. nurture, and boundaries of self. If 2015 was the year of badass carnie ladies, can we please make 2016 the year of creepy twin shenanigans? (If the preliminary offerings on Edelweiss are any indication, I predict it’ll be children escaping cults, but I’m okay with that too.)

Though it sometimes reads like an after-school special – what with Smudge’s “that escalated quickly” descent into drugs, sexual abuse, institutionalization, and prostitution – it’s still compulsively readable. The plot kept stringing me along, twists or no; and Smudge’s present-day narration is unreliable enough to keep readers on their toes and guessing.

The rape is a little much, but the prevalence is also sadly believable and true to life. For example, Smudge’s rapist was himself sexually abused by his father. Mary’s brother purposefully targeted Helen because she was marginalized and vulnerable. Margaret initially believed Smudge when she admitted that she’d been acting out because of the ongoing sexual abuse – that is, until she unknowingly referenced her own mother’s rape at the hands of her brother Albert, which went both unpunished and unacknowledged in the family. After that, Margaret shut down. And Helen’s destructive tendencies, which eventually landed her in a juvenile psychiatric facility, speak to the sexual abuse to prison pipeline that the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women reported on in July 2015. (The study found that more than 80% of the girls in some states’ juvenile detention centers suffered sexual or physical abuse prior to their incarceration.)

I began this book fully expecting to hate Ellie; the synopsis makes her sound like some sort of evil mastermind – the villain of the story for sure. She’s not. The swap was actually Helen’s idea; and when the prank continued a little too long, Ellie simply saw her chance and grabbed it. There was no plan, no scheming, no plotting; Ellie just happened upon lifeline and hung on for dear life. After seeing how she was treated by her mother and sister – her twin, no less – I don’t at all blame her for stealing Helen’s life. Adult Helen – Hellie – is a little different, especially considering how she used her celebrity to shame Smudge on air; talk about adding insult. But as a child, she was backed into a corner – by Helen as well as Margaret – and didn’t have much choice.

At first, it was even a little therapeutic to see Helen getting a taste of her own medicine…for the first few weeks or months, until Helen really lost her shit. Right up until the point she accidentally (-on-purpose?) killed Mrs. Dunkerley’s budgie. Then shit got real.

Not that the lesson ever instilled in Helen a sense of empathy, mind you; even as she fantasized about taking her life back, Helen resolved to make Ellie pay, to treat her even more cruelly than before. As an adult, she doubted whether Ellie had ever felt isolated or alone, as the notes hastily scribbled in a paperback of Frankenstein suggested. It wasn’t until the very end of the book – many years later – that Smudge felt any remorse for the terrible way she treated Ellie. And by then it was too late for reconciliations.

Of course, it all got terribly out of hand, and the one person most responsible – Mom – remained mostly untouched by the drama she herself created. It was mom’s preferential treatment of Helen that turned her into a spoiled brat, and when Helen mistreated Ellie, she was simply modeling Mom’s behavior. What makes this story so horrific, for me, is how Mom deprived her daughters of what could have been the deepest and most profound relationship of their lives.

And while it’s true that mom’s struggling with her own demons – trauma from past sexual abuse, depression in the wake of her husband’s suicide – neither of these excuse or justify her treatment of Ellie. She neglected both girls during her bout of depression, yes; but she was only intentionally cruel to Ellie.

In her debut novel, Morgan has created a chilling psychological thriller in which the more believable aspects are among the scariest of them all. She does a masterful job of portraying Helen and Ellie – both of whom could easily devolve into cartoon villains – as complicated individuals with a troubled family life. Mom’s a little more one-dimensional – selfish to a fault – though later revelations do provide needed context for at least some of her behavior.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Helen and Ellie’s grandmother suffers from dementia, as does their elderly neighbor Mrs. Dunkerley. Their uncle Albert sexually abused his sister Margaret when they were kids. Margaret suffered from depression after her husband, Helen and Ellie’s bio dad, committed suicide. He suffered from bipolar disorder, as do his twin girls. After the swap, Smudge/Helen begins hanging out with older kids, experiments with drugs, and is repeatedly raped by her friend Mary’s older brother. Mary’s father sexually abuses both Mary and her brother.

Animal-friendly elements: Helen accidentally kills her neighbor’s budgie, which is when things really starts to go sideways for her.

 

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