can you ever forgive me? writer's block, finding your own voice, and a critic in your head

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Writer’s Block? Can’t Find Your Own Voice?
It’s That Critic In Your Head

Lee Israel has talent; she just doesn’t believe she does. We can see it in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me. In the creative way she impersonates the letters of great writers, adding her own writerly wit; but, hiding behind their names. (In fact, the NY Times called her book: Can You Ever Forgive Me: Memoirs Of A Literary Forger, “a sordid and pretty damned fabulous book.”) That is, after she came out of hiding. Yet, if Lee doesn’t hide; she’s sure all she’ll get is criticism; and she can’t stand that. The real culprit, though, is that horrid critic in her head.

That’s what convinces her she’ll be unloved if she exposes her real voice. So she doesn’t. She lies. Drinks. Steals the identities of others. Quite well, thank you very much. She lost her own voice long ago. Because she never felt she had anything to offer that anyone would want. So, Lee Israel pushes people away. And she pays for it in more ways than one.

No One’s Ever Loved Me

I think it’s clear that Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) wasn’t a curmudgeon for nothing.  But, it it’s not, let me tell you why. It happened a long time ago; these things always do. But the only clue is what she says to the Judge (Mary B. McCann). That her cat was “probably the only soul that ever truly loved me.”  Ever?  That means she didn’t grow up with love.  And, so, what else can she think?  That no one will ever love her.

And, her cat is dead.  Was it Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) that killed the cat? We never really know. Jersey was 12 and sick. But, it doesn’t matter. Lee lost her cat; the only living thing she could allow to be close.

Did she have a choice? Lee crusted over her fear of people by hiding in many ways. She’s rude; uses people; won’t get close; won’t accept help; and doesn’t trust people at all. Trust is the crux of the problem. Yet, maybe even more so; some old seething anger at people who didn’t give her what she was entitled to early in life. Maybe people abused her; made her feel worthless and unlovable; and no good at all.

So, now; Lee appears to need no one. She convinces herself of that. All she needs is Jersey, her cat. Cats are loyal. They don’t hurt you. Who needs anyone else? Yet, in the beginning of the film, strangely, I Thought Of You Last Night, plays the whole way through: “Oh my darling, my darling, I can’t live without you. I’m lonely, so lonely when you’re out of sight. I’ll wait for you and long to hold you tight. Bring your love to me tonight.” But, Lee very likely has a voice in her head that tells her she won’t be loved; so why even bother?

That Critic In Her Head

If you don’t have love early in life; or are treated as rudely and indifferently as Lee Israel now treats others; where would you find any reason to trust? And, here’s what happens. With all that lack of love; neglect or abuse; criticism; or certainty that there must be something wrong with you, it all takes shape in your mind and becomes an internal saboteur. A critic in your head. One that has nothing good to say about you no matter what you do.

Living with that kind of voice is impossible. Especially when it poses as a friend: “No, don’t open yourself up. Don’t look for love. Don’t turn to anyone at all. If you do, they’ll fail you too. You’re blocked by your agent? Blame her; don’t listen. Don’t take her advice. Just go your own way; use your own wiles.  You’re better off that way.”

So what else can Lee do, but turn her back on people; keep her distance; and put walls up against any emotional need? Sure, we see her anger and frustration about her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin). Thinking it is Marjorie who has failed her. Not Lee’s own irascible ways and rude entitlement.

And, we wonder about the song; whether Lee Israel has any longings hidden deep down inside. Especially, we wonder, did someone leave her? Stimulating that critic’s harsh voice. Someone, she let herself love; at least a little; not so long ago.

Walls Against Needing

That someone was Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith). We find, later, when she calls Elaine in crisis, that she could never really let Elaine in:“No, Lee, there was always a wall between us; something I couldn’t penetrate … you did everything you could to keep your distance. Lied. Drank constantly. You were self-involved. I tried to get you to trust me. At a certain point, I stopped trying.”

We’d never suspect Lee is lonely, to look at her. She seems to have no use for anyone except, maybe, Jack Hock. If anyone shows real interest; or especially vulnerability; or a desire for something real; she turns her back faster than they can turn their backs on her. Take Anna (Dolly Wells), the owner of TwelveTrees Bookstore, for example. Since Elaine left her; Lee won’t let that happen again.

Yes, as Marjorie says in frustration at her demands: “You’ve destroyed every bridge I’ve built for you.” These are the spoils of convincing yourself it’s best to go it alone; that your own methods; however devious; or just plain self-destructive; will have to suffice. 

No, the only one Lee has any use for at all is Jack; he’s like her; a scoundrel; a thief too; a man who has his own walls up and can practically drink her under the table. At least they both stay in similarly-intentioned inebriated states; to not be vulnerable; happier to escape from reality at all costs.

Stealing Due To Starvation

And, so, they are easy comrades and incorrigible partners in crime. Getting what they “need” in illicit ways; not caring they are taking what isn’t theirs; feeling entitled to it. Because, I think we can probably surmise; they will do what it takes to get back at all those who have betrayed them along the way. And, they never have to know that, in fact, they are both in a state of emotional starvation.

Yes, convincing yourself you need no one doesn’t really make emotional hungers go away. Not loneliness either. Lee says something very telling when her cat, Jersey dies:  “I got too attached to her.” Attachment is dangerous. The people you love leave; criticize; hurt you; don’t love you back. But, when you can’t get attached; you go hungry. You’re starving for love. And, there is nowhere to find it.

Because that critic in your head is always warning you to stay away. Love is dangerous. Trust no one. Being vulnerable; taking down those walls will lead you to no good. No one can know you want anything. No one can see the real you. That is subject to criticism and rejection; so you’d better stay in hiding. That’s the safest way to go.  And, if you do; you think you are protected. 

But, you get nothing. You can’t expose yourself. And, of course, you can’t write. All that you see in front of you is a blank page. Or the luring possibility of impersonating someone else instead.  At least there’s  money in that.  Food. Shelter.  Even if not love.

Writer’s Block Isn’t Laziness

So, no. Writer’s block is not about laziness. It’s about fear. It’s about terror of being “found out.” Lee hides. Behind the voices of others; to be any kind of success. And, she’s quite talented at it; because covertly her real voice peeks through. As her lawyer, Lloyd (Mark Evan Jackson) later says after he tells her she’ll probably serve time behind bars: “That said, these letters are pretty incredible.”

Writer’s block is that horrible anxiety; imposed by your internal-constantly-criticizing saboteur. We see her at Marjorie’s party, as Tom Clancy (Kevin Carolan) holds court: “[Writer’s block] is a term invented by the writing community to justify their laziness. My success is nothing more than I have the determination and stamina to sit and get the work done.”

Clearly, he knows nothing about trauma; or a critic in your head. Writer’s block isn’t about laziness. It’s about constant self-judgment. Never feeling good enough. Guarding against these feelings with alcohol. Or a “fuck off, I could give a shit;” kind of bravado.”  It’s about never feeling loved.

Yes, writer’s block is because you’re afraid to show your real self. Even though, ironically, when Lee forges her letters, she is writing in her own ballsy and witty voice. The voice she is sure will be rejected if she claims it as her own.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Lee Israel is caught for her brazen crimes, of course; as hard as she tries to hide. She’s impersonated Fanny Brice; Dorothy Parker; Noel Coward; Louise Brooks; Lillian Hellman; to name a few. She lives with what she calls “guilt,” but it isn’t guilt at all. It’s fear of being “found out,” judged; criticized; and stopped from the only way she thinks she can write now; since her biography days are over. 

Does Lee actually want forgiveness? We don’t see it in the film. She never asks for it (I expected her to go to Anna). No, she doesn’t regret what she did. In court, she tells the Judge: “In many ways, this has been the best time of my life. It’s the only time recently I can remember being proud of my work. But it wasn’t really my work. Because if I’d put in my work, I would have opened myself up to criticism. And, I’m too much of a coward to do that.”

Because to Lee Israel, criticism isn’t constructive; it’s scathing and personal; and shows how unlovable and unworthy you are.“So, I think I have realized I’m not a real writer and, in the end, I would say, it was not worth it.” No, it’s not. The only way to be a real writer is to come out of fear and hiding; and to expose your own voice.

Finding Her Own Voice

Well, Lee Israel does finally find her own voice; writing in a necessarily hardened way; having recovered from any sentimentality (“I’m not a sentimental gal, she told Anna, at the beginning of the film). She’s with Jack, and his obvious illness; their fractured friendship, softens her momentarily and she cries. But that’s too vulnerable and she must turn instead to a cruel urge to trip him.

Lee cannot be anything but a curmudgeon (although she does end up with a new kitten; one that looks much like Jersey). You see, it’s not safe to open up too much, Yet, she does a bit; by being honest. In this way; Lee writes her own “biography of crime;” her memoirs about a life of lies and forgery. Not only letters and memorabilia; but the fraudulent life she created for herself. No, she’s not really “a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.” She can only be the best Lee Israel she can.

And, to find her voice; Lee has to speak her own truth. She uses the ballsy wit and sordid humor she gave away to the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker (even though of course they had their own.) Now, she reclaims her personal edition of clever witticism and tawdry one-liners for just Lee Israel; their rightful owner. No forgery. No more playing charades.

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychologist and psychoanalyst. I work with creative people of all ages struggling with writer’s or creative blocks. Often these stem from underlying problems of  childhood trauma, poor self-esteem, and a critic in your head that make it difficult to find your own voice. You don’t have to live this way. 

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