Book Review: Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch

A Declaration: Lidia Yuknavitch has done more for “the body as art form” than anyone in recent memory. (Maybe that’s not accurate, but I feel that way, so let’s roll with it.) Her memoir, The Chronology of Water, is all about her own body, the brutal beauty in what can happen to a body, and her novel, Dora: A Headcase, explores similar sensations. She dedicates the book to “every teen who ever got treated like something was wrong with them when really they were opening the portal for all of us.” What we need, this books seems to say, is to feel like we are heard.

Cover of Dora: A Headcase by Lidia YuknavitchDora is the story of Ida, a modern version of Sigmund Freud’s case study of a teenage girl. Ida Bauer was her real name, and Dora, her pseudonym. The controversial study was published in 1905. Yuknavitch takes the character of Ida/Dora and tells the story from her point-of-view. She wears a Dora the Explorer backpack, wishes her mother wasn’t so pharmacologically distant, that her father wasn’t sleeping with the neighbor, Mrs. K, and that Mr. K hadn’t hit on her when she was 14. Or maybe does like that he did, for the power she felt she had over him. She’s not entirely sure. But probably, she wishes he hadn’t.

You know what? Seventeen is no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like an old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock. You pierce your face or tattoo your skin – anything to feel something beyond the numb of home. You invent clothes other people think are garbage. You get high. You meddle with sexuality. You stuff your ears with earbuds blasting music so loud it’s beyond hearing, it’s just the throb and heat and slam and pound and scream of bodies on the edge of adult. You text your head off. You guerrilla film. We live through sound and light – through our technologies. With our parents’ zombie life dope arsenal at our fingertips.

I’m not a criminal.

I’m just a daughter. I’m not sick.





Sometimes, Ida/Dora loses her voice. Even if she wanted it to, no sound comes. Her father sends her to a psychologist – “Sig” or “Siggy,” she calls him. “If anyone ever tells you that going to see a shrink is therapy? Tell them to suck a fart out of your sweet asshole. It’s not therapy,” she says. “It’s epic Greek drama. You gotta study up. You got to bring game.” She says a lot of things that are exaggerated, just to get him riled and scribbling more notes.

She has a group of close friends, and she’s constantly recording sounds (including Sig) and making video footage. She and her friends always have some project going, and they always have drugs to share. They are kind and steadfast to one another. “We share bodies. We make art attacks.” Mostly, she is face-hot-brain-melt-in-love with her friend Obsidian.

Obsidian with the blackest long hair in ever falling in lines over her right eye. My desire. I vibrate, but it isn’t my cellphone.

Oh, and yours truly. Dora the Explorer. Pathetic virgin with a hot hard one for a girl with the name of a black glass stone.

Her main mother-figure in life, outside of her blood-related one, is Marlene, a woman who only works as a biological man, a TSA agent at the airport. Marlene has old books, knows four languages, and calls her “Lambskotelet.” “She laughs and laughs – a deep throaty Rwandan one,” Dora says. “If you’ve never heard a Rwandan laugh, you are missing something mega-cool.”

When Lidia Yuknavitch writes about women, queer characters, and other minorities and fringe people, I never feel like she’s doing it in a “Look how diverse I am!” self-congratulatory way. Dora and her friends, I know these people. They are of this world and stunning and interesting. They have so many plans, and they find their limiting circumstances irritating. They make do – they try to find the cracks in those “normal” foundations. They are also builders, and I love that.

I also love how Dora’s body is not skirted from view just because she is 17. Think about when you were 17. Your own desire, your roughness and your secrets were not hidden from your own view. And this, being Dora’s story, is not going to try and make that realness more palatable for your so-far-from-17 sensibilities. And it’s okay. Just because this is a young person and a real body that knows the relief of a good piss does not mean it’s all about sex. In fact, that’s part of the point. Sig tries to bring sexuality into everything, and Dora says to him, “Jeez Sig, can you even make a sentence without your own cock in it?”

I imagine that there are many references to Freud and Jung (yes, he makes an appearance too), the real ones, if I already knew more about them. I’m sure this book is quite fun for the psych student. However, with my basic knowledge of the two and very little about the real case itself, I absolutely loved this book. It’s one of those that I wanted to gobble up, and I read it quickly while on vacation in, of all places, Disney World. What would Freud and Jung make of that?

Read Dora, and if you haven’t already, read The Chronology of Water. Your brain and your heart will thank you.

Full Disclosure: Hawthorne Books provided this e-book for review. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews. This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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