‘Girl in Need of a Tourniquet’ by Merri Lisa Johnson

Though many of the best literary voices, queer or otherwise, have grappled with mental illness at one point or another, the experience remains cloaked in profound silence and shame. With that in mind, I was quite excited about Merri Lisa Johnson’s Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality (Seal Press), as it is explicitly and without shame placing a writer’s mental illness front and center.

Despite my love of memoir, and the potential for this book to break through stigma, most of the time it felt intentionally disjointed. I was repeatedly left wondering what the overarching point of the book was, beyond (I assume) having been cathartic to Johnson.

Girl in Need of a Tourniquet chronicles everything from Johnson’s spiral through her affairs with partnered women and men, to her drinking and eating disorders. The main point becomes her obsessive and dysfunctional relationship with a woman named Emily who cheats on her long-term partner (whom she has a teenage daughter with) in order to have an affair with Johnson.

Chapter after chapter, we watch as their relationship ebbs and flows, and with each ebb Johnson becomes less functional and more obsessive.  A key symptom of her borderline personality disorder is what she comes to call “bleeding out,” where she is unable to determine where she ends and another begins. This results in obsessive and failed relationships that consume her life, rendering her unable to teach or even perform basic self-care.

The pages themselves are accented by printed slashes intended to correspond with the self-cutting Johnson was engaging in throught the book.  As I read, I went back and forth about their inclusion, unable for much of the book to decide if I found them clever, or an irritating gimmick.  Though I think they are a little of both, ultimately I like the way they brought Johnson to life on the page. The printed cuts are an interesting use of space and example of storytelling in their own right.

In some ways, Girl In Need of a Tourniquet read like a mangled and tumultuous panic attack.  Stylistically, I found Johnson’s writing strongest when she gives way to those panicked and obsessive words, the “bleeding out,” as she calls it, instead of punctuating the experience with clinical and textbook quotations about the behaviors of those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

These explanations of the condition, symptoms, and treatment options felt more like a forced public service announcement than part of the book itself. There is a frantic quality of the other text that is more enthralling, and a good deal stronger than the more controlled explanatory passages that surround this more emotional writing.
Girl in Need of a Tourniquet
Memoir of a Borderline Personality
by Merri Lisa Johnson
Seal Press
Paperback, 9781580053051, 247pp.
June 2010