from and in its place: An Ode to Frankenstein
1. The beauty of the dream vanished, and in its place—
There was Frankenstein. There was Mary Shelley. There was Claire Clairmont and Percy Shelley and William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. There was male hysteria and twinning and narcissistic abandonment and willful refusal of accountability and gendered narratives and monster storytelling. It wasn’t just Frankenstein. Frankenstein was like a point on the map, a point that, when you travel to the physical terrain that the map represented, opened out to a landscape, to a world of landscapes. Frankenstein was like a friend who alighted your imagination, and at each landmark—let’s call the landmark a particular time in your psyche’s life, your life’s psyche—the friend changed into whatever it needed to be for you to understand the outside as it intersected with the inside. I know. Frankenstein means and meant something to a lot of someones. Mary Shelley’s sordid tales we’re privileged enough to dig into like a tabloid fascinates a lot of psyches, too. But not like mine. Never like mine.
It is approximately 2008. I am lying on my stomach on a mattress in Houston. On Vermont Street. I live in the upstairs level of a duplex. I have been re-reading Frankenstein and writing prose poems in the voices of the various figures the novel inhabits. The Creature. Then the Monster version of the Creature. The Captain. The Captain’s Sister. Justine. Victor. Elizabeth. Victor’s mother. Victor’s father. Henry. Mary Shelly. And so on. Several of the poems are titled the first half of my favorite sentence in the novel: “The beauty of the dream vanished, and in its place—.” This opening of a sentence arrives at the pivotal moment in the novel. It is the moment that the original 1931 Frankenstein film replaced it with “It’s alive!” It is the thing that the scientist says to himself and also to the Captain who retells the story in a letter to his sister Margaret. There is the dream, which is his most perfected image in his mind of what the thing he has created will look like, fully formed, made animate through the charge of electricity that Victor will surge into this new body that he has made with his own hands. And then there is the vanishing of that dream, replaced with the hideousness he sees before him, which is both real and also imagined. It is the defining image of American horror.
I am lying on my stomach on my mattress, which is supported not by box springs but by eight uneven tatami mats that I bought on Craigslist. It represents my need for a simplistic life, my need to feel tenuously connected to my father’s Asian heritage, and also my inability to afford box springs. It also represents my marginally sloppy life in my late twenties—a life that, at the time, I only slightly judged myself for. I decide to go back in the book to search for my favorite line, only after I look in my Frankenstein notebook, and can’t find what exactly comes after “and in its place.” Of all the many quotes that I’ve scrawled into the notebook’s pages, the ending of this sentence doesn’t seem to be one of them. I love that phrase deeply at this time—and in its place—so much so that I’ve made it the title of my working manuscript of Frankenstein poems, and it rolls over and over in my head throughout the day. When I’m teaching, when I’m falling asleep, when I’m watching a movie in the theater, when I’m having a coffee with friends, when I’m dancing tango, when I’m showering.
When I can’t find the end of the line in my notebook, I flip vigorously through the pages of the Frankenstein I’m working with—I have several different versions, but this is my favorite when I’m feeling thinky about the novel. It’s a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of a series of classic paperbacks that each feature a different illustrator. Daniel Clowes, the creator of the graphic novel, Ghost World, illustrates the thick paperback with a graphic novel version of the story. The cover is worn from overuse but still intact; the pages are thick and roughly cut, which I love. I finally find it. Nowhere in that line, or any other in the novel for that matter, is my little phrase, the phrase I love the most. I’m confused and insistent that it’s from somewhere in the voice of Shelley, and most definitely not from me. I grab my laptop that is ambivalently tossed on the corner of my mattress, and type in the website for Google Books. Once I reach the Google Books entry for Frankenstein, I hit CTRL + F and type “in its place.” Hit ENTER. Nothing. It bothers me for days. It bothers me that I tainted my favorite novel with my own words, a tiny, little prepositional phrase that is littered throughout my new manuscript of poems. Even now, when I think back to that frenzied moment of trying to find the true line, I want it to be Shelley’s, not mine. I want it to come from her, but be stamped into my skin like a fresh tattoo, red and with a deserving burn. Because, in fact, I am the one that put something in its place. Frankenstein is the “it,” and I am the one to put something else there, in its stead. My eyes sting from the hard scouring, and then from the burn of my own narcissistic need to fill in blanks where they’re not needed. I scold myself for not knowing Frankenstein well enough. I scold my audacious brain for the cognitive filling. It is my intimate, and I didn’t treat it in kind. I imagine that the 19-year-old Shelley is looking over me, and shaking her head at my self-righteous revision of her masterpiece. My cheeks redden with shame.
But now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
2. After the world has rejected him, Shelley makes a point to only refer to the Creature as the Monster for the duration of the novel.
It is an embarrassing fact, yet true nonetheless, that the day that our class discussed Frankenstein, I was out sick. I’m sure I wasn’t actually sick that day, but I had skipped class. The reason escapes my memory. It is not the part of that day that sticks. I was a sophomore in college and hadn’t yet—I don’t think—changed majors from Business to English so that I could study Creative Writing. But I do remember I had found Creative Writing at this point, because I vaguely recall sending my professor for the class, The Romantic Movement, poems I had written. I’m not sure when we became informal enough for me to send him my poems. But at that time, I was an 18-year-old girl who’d barely escaped the clutches of her father’s death-like hold, and I often reached out to writers and teachers I admired, whether I knew them well or not. I still cringe to think of the many graduate students in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program that I practically begged to read my work, that were generous enough to have coffee with me, and take my little poems seriously. And sometimes, they even shared some of their own in kind. Some of those writers I would still consider my friends today, which I find almost achingly impossible to believe.
I wrote my professor that I wouldn’t be able to make it to class, and that I’d like some way to get the notes for that day’s lecture. Had I even bothered to read the novel all the way through? I did love this class, but I was still an 18-year-old barely aware of herself or how to navigate the strangely alien world of young adulthood, having been incubated and rigidly coddled by my father for most of my life. I don’t think I was familiar with the book by the time I met with my professor. He expected more of me, and so he also spoke with me as though I was quite familiar with the novel’s contents. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth, to watch his high impression of me unwrite itself into the air between us. And so I did what I always did when I felt I was supposed to know something I didn’t—I nodded with understanding; I said definitely, a lot. I used the gravity of his declarations to bounce off of in order to utter my own. It almost always worked. And here, in front of my favorite English professor, who had no understanding of personal space but whom I admired too much to make that clear to him, it worked too.
I don’t remember much of what he told me about Frankenstein. I remember feeling claustrophobic in his small cramped office. I remember that the wooden chair he gave me to sit on squeaked like my mother’s husband’s rusted-out 1973 Monte Carlo when I shifted positions, which was often in order to offset the self-consciousness I felt being so close to a professor, behind the closed door of his office. I remember peeking many sly looks at the volumes of Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth squeezed into his wobbly wooden shelves against the wall. I remember hoping that this meeting wouldn’t become one of those meetings with a professor that you hear about on Lifetime Television. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Not then. But I do remember this: my professor telling me that Shelley refers to the being with which Victor injected with life as the Creature until the world turns against him. Once the world rejects the Creature, he quite literally transforms into the Monster, both on the page and in the world of the story. This is the only thing I remember. I tell everyone this. I tell friends, I tell an artist I almost collaborate with on a project of Frankenstein ten years later. And ten years later, on that same mattress on Vermont Street, on an impulse from a random meditation about the novel, I decide while I am re-reading Frankenstein and writing my own dramatic monologues that I needed to prove that this is also true, that this is as true for Shelley as it is for my understanding of her novel. So I go back into the novel. It’s one of my favorite things about the novel. It has to be true. Otherwise, what is it I am attached to? What is being created out of the ether from my own mind as it interacts with this world?
It is almost true. It is truer than “and in its place,” but not by much. He is, in fact, referred to as the Creature, but the book has no true narrator, as it is an epistolary novel—the Captain Robert Walton is telling his sister, Margaret Saville, about Victor Frankenstein’s story, and the Creature’s story, which is delivered by the Creature to Victor halfway through the novel, is being told through Victor’s reframing, and for Victor, he is already a monster, an ogre, a daemon, a wretch. For years after this class, my professor and I meet for lunch every so often. He makes me laugh in his emails, and he listens to me for hours on end wail and rant about my father. In some versions of this story, it sounds like therapy—a young girl processing her feelings about her father to another authority figure with whom she feels safe. That safety, though, is an illusion. An illusion that didn’t break for many years. Years after that day in his office, I ask him about this thing I remember him telling me about Shelley’s conscious choice to change the Creature’s name to the Monster halfway through the novel. He looks puzzled and has a quizzical smile on his face as though he wants his pupil to continue to believe in this moment’s existence, as though this moment has struck such a chord with this young ingénue; to admit it never happened would also be to admit his own unmemorable self as that teacher in the room. It is true that the Creature does become changed by his own reflection of his monstrosity, projected outward onto the world after the world spurns him. But Shelley is not quite so explicit in the novel, no.
It is clear that I am crushed. We try to go on with other subjects. Or I should say, he tries to continue with other conversation topics while I spiral downward into the belly of my mind, to understand where I conjured this very exact mechanism in a novel that has meant so much to me and that didn’t quite happen. Some days I think I will write my own Frankenstein, that I’ll recast it in the extrapolations my mind has concocted. But then, that seems audacious and arrogant. I don’t want my embrace of Frankenstein to feel like that. I want it, instead, to be like the end of Children of a Lesser God, where the lover and beloved walk toward one another at the end of a pier, and embrace one another with their words, shorn of expectation or of need.
3. Okay, okay. We know that your twin is not evil.
That is what Dr. P— said in response to the first thing that I ever said in class. I was 18 and I was shy. Painfully shy is too overused a descriptor to reflect accurately my persona, to myself or to others. Because I was also the same 18-year-old that had “found” poetry, and that, due to this discovery, had gone to reading after reading, had slinked, lizard-like, across the wall of whatever venue at which that particular reading was being held, until I landed on a graduate student, and had somehow struck a conversation. My memory is the convincer because that person is unrecognizable to my older self, even as my future self would be unrecognizable to my introverted, younger body.
I remember that we were discussing Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We were discussing the mariner’s doppelgänger, perhaps the passage that most often comes up when you Google Coleridge + Mariner + doppelgänger:
Like one, that on a lonesome road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
It is, as well, what Frankenstein thinks to himself when he rushed out of the room, once he saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open:
He might have spoken but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.
Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.
I passed the night wretchedly. Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness. Mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!
Morning, dismal and wet, at length dawned and discovered to my sleepless and aching eyes the church of Ingolstadt, its white steeple and clock, which indicated the sixth hour. The porter opened the gates of the court, which had that night been my asylum, and I issued into the streets, pacing them with quick steps, as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view. I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited, but felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky.
I continued walking in this manner for some time, endeavouring by bodily exercise to ease the load that weighed upon my mind. I traversed the streets without any clear conception of where I was or what I was doing. My heart palpitated in the sickness of fear, and I hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me:
Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
[Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.”]
But, at this moment, discussing doppelgängers in class, I had not yet met Frankenstein or his allusion to Coleridge. And as my professor looked around the room, I waited for what I knew would be said about doppelgängers. For it is always said. In fact, I am most certain that I was preparing for it to be said. My dormant scales were getting ready to spike, my tongue flip-flopped inside my mouth. Some student in the back, I couldn’t describe him for you if I tried: “Well, they’re basically identical twins.” Ironically, it would be years before I would put my myriad thoughts on what it has meant to be an identical twin to paper. Not even when I began to truly uncover my connection to Frankenstein, a connection so visceral, so truly felt, because of the unconscious objectification I had faced as a mirror twin. Not even when I understood the mirroring and doubling that Shelley cast onto her scientist and his creation. Not even then. In fact, the first time I wrote about my own twinning happened on accident, at graduate school, when a member of the fiction faculty prompted us to participate in a writing exercise inspired by the work of Lydia Davis. It was the summer before I began to write my thesis, a thesis largely about my traumatic relationship with my father. At that point, there wasn’t a single poem about being an identical twin. By the time I finished my thesis, there were over 25.
they she sat in the car watching the wi blades of the wind farm bleed to white, the girl wondered how long it would take for her sister to find the gum and saliva caught in her ponytail. They had the same memory of their father winding slicing the part down the middle, winding each half into pig tails in perfect symmetry. Like them. The girl imagined their hair, her sister’s free of spit, the wind cutting through the strands in the same direction. If Baba found the piece of gum solidified in the black space between the twho halves of her head, She wound up telling him. Really it was her mouth that did it. It wasn’t enough it had let loose the pink ball with teeth marks, like little knives, but when it fell, wedged in her bl there, sticking so fast, her mouth let out an Aiya! of surprise. That expression was only saved for extreme situations. The girl’s sister was aware of this fact. How did the girl know that Baba would wind up taking the blade to both of them to cut it out?
When the boy in my class made the ridiculous comment about doppelgängers and identical twins, the entire class erupted in snickers and laughter. At least that’s how I experienced it, like some dream sequence in a television show, as though twin were written in all caps across my forehead in black magic marker, the same marker that my father used when he wrote notes for us in college while we still lived at home, the marker that demanded: “HOW WAS THE SCHOOL. I NEED TO KNOW.” on printer paper and taped across the monitor of the computer that lived downstairs in the study, where we obsessively checked our email every evening before we went to sleep. I had never spoken a word in the class nor spoken a word to any of my classmates. It was impossible for them to know my dark secret, that the one who walks twice was me, that the one who walks twice could be her. If I never uttered a word about my singular doubled birth, then maybe my twin could be the same fluttering phantom following the mariner, always a symbol and never a figure.
Before I thought long enough to regret it, one hand shot up, one hand held down my thigh, which was trembling. Dr. P— was clearly amused to see me react so vehemently, quizzically smiling at my straight-laced expression while the others were gradually calming their giggling faces. I said something as obvious as “I am a twin. That’s not how it is. An identical twin is an entirely different person. She is not a mirage, she is not a shadow.” Why is there never a trap door underneath you when you need one? My knees knocked against my desk, my hands shook with violence, my heart revealed its anger through the way in which it rattled the bars of its cage. I had spoken before I had given much thought to what Dr. P— would say in response. He was at times jocular—when he taught Byron, he loved to perform his favorite childhood memory of staring into his own reflection and wishing with all his boyhood might that he could become Mick Jagger, his pop culture equivalent of the flamboyant bard—but mostly, when it came to wise cuts from the class, he immediately brought it back to a grave discussion of literary theory and text. It was not to be the case this time. “Okay, okay, we’ll give you this one. But, what I can say is that I know your twin is not evil.”
I’d like to say that my brimming schoolgirl admiration for Dr. P— evaporated into the air conditioning vent in that moment. I’d like to say that I visibly rolled my eyes in his face, that I engaged with him in a swift and energetic debate regarding the evil twin trope in literature. At the very least, I wish I could say that I no longer gave him my attention. But, in fact, it was the opposite. From that point on, he started to send me one-liner emails, and I’m sure it wasn’t long before he began to request we have breakfasts and lunches together outside of class. That seems wrong, that seems like something too inappropriate for my willing compliance. These lunch dates went on for years. They began as conferences about my poetry even though he had never taught a single creative writing class in his career, even though there were plenty of graduate students far more talented than I was, and even though I had creative writing mentors of my own to request such time with who would gladly oblige. These poetry conferences—in which he would mostly sing my praises back to me—became therapy sessions, in which I attempted to psychoanalyze the choices of my father and my reactions to them. It will become clear later the true reason for my naiveté, just as I was unable to see that Dr. P— was grooming me in a role far beyond poetry and childhood, far darker than the noose of an albatross.
Regardless of how it ended up, that was how it began. With a mariner, an identical twin, and the one who “doth close behind him tread.”
4. The beauty of the dream vanished, and in its place—
There is another dream, but this dream doesn’t belong to the scientist, and it doesn’t belong to the Creature birthed from the scientist’s foolishly knowing hands. This dream doesn’t belong to Shelley, and it doesn’t belong to her mother, and it doesn’t belong to even the Creature who had his own dream, which still quakes and convulses in the ocean he slipped into in the abyss of the novel’s ending. No, this dream belongs to me.
I lived a number of dreams in my tiny, little body, and those dreams had bodies too, and those bodies slept inside my little form, growing moist as they tucked themselves into a little curlicue so as not to bother me. I wanted those bodies to grow up. I suppose in that way I was like Peter Pan’s Wendy, longing for dreams to last even as time etched its lines into my face with a permanent fine tip marker, and even after I could no longer call my body tiny, could no longer tuck my own legs into my belly so as not to be a burden to anyone. And I suppose I was like Peter too, wanting so much for a sewn-on shadow to be enough to hold on to. Those dreams, they held on with all their might as long as they could. They tried and tried to become real. Their sleep felt so real inside me, velvety and with the potential of mothers in love with warm, little furry faces. But how could I tell them that I wasn’t in control of my dreams? And my mother—well, she just never fell in love with my infant form. It couldn’t be helped. Not all mothers fall in love with their infants. As my father liked to say often, “Most mothers cannot break bond with child. Your mother always could.”
Yes, I had a dream that my mother and my father would love me the way that mothers and fathers love when choice isn’t possible. For my mother and father, choice was always there, like a ghost that only comes out when the winds turn before the beginning of a storm just dangerous enough to fear. But that is not the dream of which I speak. I could live with that dream turning into a sadness. Sadnesses are inevitable. One can live with sadness much more than one thinks they can. No, this was a different dream. It was a dream about my twin, who I did love the way you love the abandon of a little thing you knew you were responsible for creating, for who you had endeavored to form. I didn’t make her. But I loved her as if I had. And that dream—it vanished, it vanished, it was always in the process of vanishing.
There she was, my twin, my darling, or at least, that’s what I used to call her in secret, in the shut closet of my room away from her. Like I said, there she was, my twin sister in another hospital bed, but not in a hospital this time, in a room where the bed floated, suspended in the air. She was dying. Her entire face was red as a rash, her body small as a child that doesn’t make it long into the night. I’m not sure if it was a dream or a fantasy. There were fantasies within the dream that made it so—I had a thought and then millions of hand-sized teddy bears appeared out of nowhere—in her two small closets, underneath her blankets, next to her ears—so many on the floor that I fell to the ground. I had another dream and made it so again—watched her hand as it reached for my cheek like applesauce. But it wasn’t my cheek that was soft and pink like baby food but her own. My little twin, my little darling of a duplicate, she was back in that bed again although I hadn’t recalled her leaving, suddenly complaining of the way she had to limp on crutches the length of a stage to accept an award, her long lost hip fastened together with a metal plate. But I have to tell the truth now. I have to tell you how it smelled like rotten fruit in there, an untreated gash. And the teddy bears, they were real, but their ears had curled inwards, turning yellow. And my sister, my darling little second edition, she was just an idea, a dream I left tied to the doorknob of my closet.
What made me the scientist responsible for my twin’s wretchedness? What made her the Monster whose demons she would never be faulted for? The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. In my dreams, I stood tall above her, but imprinted with the same physiognomy, the same tender expression of need. I thought I saw her, in the bloom of health, her cheeks red as mulberries, her eyes untainted with violation. But as soon as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death, her features appeared to change, and I thought I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of my flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. Except I wasn’t responsible for her. I was merely put in the place of the ones who were, as though my parents were convinced that I could do more for her than they.
Once a year, I make my way to the cardboard boxes that hold the family photos, the ones that tell the story I’m most interested in uncovering. They are not the photos that hold the smiles we were conditioned to give to the camera’s lens. They are the photos in which my twin cries, and my brother puts an arm around her with a worrying eye. They are the photos in which our faces empty, zombifying the square of world the photograph puts out. They are the photos in which my twin is as I remember her in the moments before the camera snaps us in place—her eyes fluttering back to make it difficult to focus on her, her body, shadowy yet heavy with tension, trying to erase itself from the frame. What I remember is my twin blinking too much, and my father’s reprimanding. What I remember is my twin trying to turn herself into a shadow, a scrim of a thing that might be stitched onto my back, so that she would never have to make—or account for—another decision again. Her body becoming bodiless, while mine takes on the meaning of two bodies.
Addie Tsai holds a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. She has collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater as a co-conceiver of a balletic theater production and adaptation of Frankenstein, called Victor Frankenstein, and then as a narrative collaborator on Camille Claudel, a dance production about the sculptor’s fraught life and fusion with Auguste Rodin. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Dance at Texas Woman’s University. Addie currently teaches literature, dance, humanities, and creative writing at Houston Community College. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published in such journals as Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Volta, The Offing, The Feminist Wire, and The Collagist, among others.