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Book Review: DORA: A HEADCASE by Lidia Yuknavitch


Lidia Yuknavitch {lives here}
Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, 2012

Gut response: good book.

I think I say this aloud after closing it and staring at my wife’s art hanging quietly on the wall, a chevron piece she made one sunny Saturday.

“Good book,” I remind myself.

I look at my netbook and have an “urge” to write one of my book reviews, which I like doing because it gives me some direction.

A little direction doesn’t hurt anyone, usually.



Ida, aka Dora, is an angst-y teenage girl. The story/conflict stems from her absolute dedication to using technology to capture audio and visual recordings, digital recordings not just of the quotidian as it turns out, but also of her and her friend’s calculated mayhem.

While often extreme, their mayhem, or at least the motives behind it, always makes sense.

In this way, Ida is noble/heroic. Her stance regarding everyday matters is up worthy and sympathetic. But the ways she goes about combating the people who psychologically/physically abuse her or her friends is really pretty psychotic. Only she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care that she isn’t in control of her emotions or the ways she exacts her revenge. Her complete disregard is what gives her her razor’s edge. Instinctively she does things that most people, imo, would not do either because of societal pressures.

But there’s always a black swan, always an Ida – hopefully. Nothing about her is tempered. She’s the irrational variable no algorithm is complete without. We need people like Ida to keep us/society healthy.

Ida makes me feel old. I read about her adventures then wonder about the last adventure I had. When was it?

I also wonder, “Do I have a cause?”

Compared to Ida almost everyone is rusty like Sig, her psychotherapist, her primary target, the embodiment of male power which she revolts against and wins, making him the failure.

And the fact that she doesn’t have any hair for most of the book because at the beginning she shaves it all off using her father’s straight razor, nicking her scalp obviously, bleeding, not caring, makes Ida Bauer fit for a Diane Arbus study. Imagine Ida’s face under the revelatory bulb of Arbus’s flash camera.

Timeless, her protean expression. Her mood shifts with the tides, the ambient lighting. She’s a rabid hyena, salivating and staring at you with quivering eyes, eating the $1.7 million check made out to her. Then she saves you.


You know in the movie “The Good Girl” when Jake Gyllenhaal asks Jennifer Aniston if he’s too intensified for her – “Am I too intensified for you?” – and he’s screaming into her face as she’s driving? You know that movie? Well, Jake Gyllenhaal, who reads The Catcher in the Rye on his lunch break, wasn’t too intensified for anyone, not at that point or at any other point, but Ida, throughout the entire book, manages to vibrate at an intensified frequency that doesn’t slacken, even when her vocal chords lose their flap and her voice enters the silence of aphonia the book continues its high pitched ring.

She’s the real deal.

Yes, the whole book’s a climax, like a crescendo that doesn’t get gradually loud but immediately loud, and stays that way sentence after sentence.

For me, being inside Ida’s world – or Ida’s world being inside me, depends on which way I look at it – gives me visceral responses, like the jarringly brief and detailed surgical descriptions of the three types of “sex reassignment procedures.”

Pained facial expression.

Or that time when Ida spikes her psychotherapist’s tea with coke and Viagra and covertly records what happens, following Sig from his office to the ER room, where, despite the engaged privacy curtains, we watch his extreme erection experience massive discomfort.

A different pained facial expression.

Or when Ida uses lighter fluid to set her bedroom on fire while her mother, father, and father’s mistress are on the other side of the door with a shotgun.

Incredulous facial expression.

Yes, Ida is an arsonist who loves Obsidian. And she smells like sour apples.


Although I read Dora (case study) in college, the only thing I remember is the title and something ridiculous about a jewel case, so I experienced DORA: A HEADCASE starting with a blank slate, not reading into anything, taking the whole story in for the first time, which, if given the choice, is the way I like it.

But, after randomly reading the Wikipedia for Dora (case study) during the composition of this book review, I’m closer to the source of Lidia Yuknovitch’s book about Ida in Seattle than ever before, we’re pseudo connected.

I also realize her book, on a certain level, totally went over my head.

Here is the real Ida Bauer, christened Dora by Freud for the sake of anonymity. Lot of good that did.

Ida Bauer (Dora)

Not to be presumptuous, but I think I can see into the way this book was built, behind the scenes. I float in Lidia Yuknovitch’s writerly synapses, where I like it, where I learn quite a bit, but never enough to be as good as I want to be.

She draws a lot of material directly from Freud’s controversial case study, modernizing it with high tech gadgetry, I’m talking about the Zoom H4N.

“Go-Go-Gadget Microphone!”

Without this “Handy Portable Digital Recorder” always hidden inside her “Dora the Explorer” purse, Ida (Dora) wouldn’t be so “intensified.” This recorder works like an extension, and, in terms of narrative devices, is a stroke of genius.

Thanks to Ida’s adeptness at recording audio and visual, although the book is written in the first-person “limited,” it is omniscient whenever it wants, like when the reader is privy to what’s said between Sig and his agent, or behind the privacy curtains in Sig’s ER room, it’s all because of Ida’s recordings.

But I digress.

The parallels are numerous between Freud’s Dora and Yuknovitch’s Dora, the list exhaustive. In DORA: A HEADCASE, Sig actually gives the same reason for giving Ida the pseudonym “Dora” as the real life Sigmund Freud did, per Wikipedia. And Ida’s accounts of her dreams are also the same as the real life Ida’ Bauer’s accounts, according to Freud’s records, per Wikipedia.

Lidia Yuknovitch finished reading Dora and understood the girl who Dora was between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, namely, a teenage girl with a dysfunctional family on an old man’s couch, listening to him blabber on about her jewel case, hoping to get her voice back. She arms Dora with a set of tools powerful enough to sniff out and expose Sig’s psychobabble and carve an exciting story while she’s at it. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet then Baz Luhrmann directed “Romeo + Juliet.” Freud wrote Dora (case study) then Lidia Yuknovitch wrote DORA: A HEADCASE, a book that has forever magnified and corrupted my image of the real life Ida Bauer.



May 13, 2014 4:20 pm

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