Land of Magic and Darkness
The many iterations of enchantment in Leigh Stein's new memoir
“There was … a Russian folk tale about a rusalka, a mermaid, who loses her beloved to a foreign princess and goes to a witch for advice. The witch tells her to stab her love with a dagger—made perfect sense to me.” So writes Leigh Stein in her memoir, Land of Enchantment. Stein's book is about grief, death, love and yes, violence, too. The heart of the story—the tumultuous relationship between Stein and her then-partner, Jason—plays out in Albuquerque, the powerful desert landscapes providing a foil to the turbulence of their romance. The two meet in the Midwest and shakily push off into the dark waters of their relationship wherein Jason is charming and ambitious as well as “surprisingly, memorably cruel.” Their unpunctuated momentum eventually leads them to New Mexico. The deal is thus: They would live in Albuquerque for six months. Stein would write her first novel while Jason worked, and then they'd continue further west to LA, where Jason had dreams of becoming an actor.
“Land of enchantment … became the perfect metaphor for the relationship because it has taken me a really long time to understand what our relationship was,” Stein reflected.
It was in Albuquerque that the relationship consumed them. “The stakes in our relationship were so high, everything was so dramatic. … We needed this dramatic landscape against which to play out our relationship,” Stein explained over the phone from her current home in New York City. “It informed everything.” Trips to White Sands and El Malpais, cherry cider and green chile are interrupted by violence and manipulation—unhinged qualities in Jason that begin to rule Stein's orbit in New Mexico as she becomes increasingly isolated in the apartment they shared near Kirtland Air Force Base.
“Land of enchantment … became the perfect metaphor for the relationship because it has taken me a really long time to understand what our relationship was,” Stein reflected. “I didn't really know it was abusive until much later, or at least, if I did know, I denied it.” In the book, the relationship is increasingly fraught—Jason is imbalanced and reliant on the highs provided by drugs and alcohol, effectively worsening every aspect of the relationship—and Stein tries to keep pace. After all, Jason is a James Dean lookalike armed with charm and the lure of adventure—and, I mean, of course he has a motorcycle, too. “I thought … this is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me. I won't sacrifice it for anything, no matter that other people see it as dangerous or bad or naïve.” Even when the fights between them escalated to physical violence, Stein remained powerfully enchanted.
Stein and Jason's eventual departure from New Mexico isn't the end of this story. In fact, Stein's book is organized so that practically the first thing we know about Jason is the context of his death. At the age of 23, Jason died in a motorcycle accident near his hometown of Little Rock 11 days after stabbing someone outside of a bar. The details beyond that are hazy—we're left with the suspicion that Jason was in possession of some serious demons— perhaps he was bipolar? Manic depressive? But in the wake of Jason's death what comes into sharper relief is the texture of Stein's own grief. “This was the kind of violent act that I always knew he was capable of,” Stein writes at the close of the first chapter, “that I used to worry I would be the victim of. I didn't know what kind of woman that made me, if I still loved and missed a man like that. If I still wanted him to come back.”
Immediately after his death, as the people who populated Jason's life left flickering candle GIFs on his Facebook page, Stein realized that she didn't have a single picture of them together, and began to feel invisible in the landscape of the tragedy, unseen among the many mourners. “I was having so much trouble navigating the territory of modern mourning,” she writes. “I wish there were more books that talk about how we live online,” Stein told me during our conversation. “I think technology is changing so quickly in our lifetime. We need the stories to catch up.” So with a profound attention to detail and a singular way of layering battling emotions, Stein is able to do just that—to animate the digital sphere with the IRL emotion she experienced as she navigated it—and to breathe life into memories that finally illuminate the years she spent in the relationship.
When I asked her if she found writing Land of Enchantment to be therapeutic or painful, she described holding the first, uncorrected proof of the book in her hands. “I read it front to back and thought, ohhh, that's why I was so in love with him,” she explained. “I had worked so hard on each little piece. I built each tree and [in reading the final product] I finally saw the forest. That was healing.” A long interval passed before she added, “Living it, it didn't make any sense at all. It took a lot of time to put it together.”
But for Stein, New Mexico remains a magic place, despite the turmoil she may have experienced in her first tenure here. She'll be revisiting the state on Wednesday, August 3 for a reading at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) at 6pm, just one day after Land of Enchantment's official release date.
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