Spelling It Out

In Her New Book White Magic, Elissa Washuta Searches for Healing

The author’s new memoir fuses an array of sources into a dizzying, brilliant piece of writing.

By Stefan Milne April 21, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Seattle Met

Elissa Washuta.

Although it’s explicitly structured in three acts—and around tarot cards—Elissa Washuta’s new book White Magic (out April 27) feels shaped by a system altogether more immense and inconstant: the internet. Here, as online, the principal voice is a nonfictional first person. Here, as online, this “I” quotes from sources as varied as Louise Erdrich, video games, The Catholic Encyclopedia, old tweets, and a Stevie Nicks profile. Here, as online, some facts slip into a liminal space, presumed true but not precisely perceived so. Washuta cites “witch internet” for occult knowledge, one of the book’s subjects. She cites Wikipedia. And here, as online, the whole experience is teeming, harrowing, funny, smart, contradictory, difficult to summarize. Jacket blurbs like to call any book that drifts and ponders “a meditation.” White Magic does drift and ponder but it is not a meditation. It is, in its own language, a portal.

Washuta’s 2014 memoir My Body Is a Book of Rules recounted her struggles with bipolar disorder, anti-psychotic medications, and the aftermath of rape. It was a book, she writes in White Magic, “built…from looping failure cycles. In every essay I turned over the same things, asking new angles for answers. But understanding was not enough to make me whole.” In that sense, White Magic is a sequel, an attempt to break the cycle. “If I don’t exit these time loops, these men echoing men, their cause, my effect, I’ll meet my tragic end.” While passages here confront Washuta’s abuse and alcoholism, much of this book charts the aftermath. Getting sober, dealing with PTSD (bipolar was a misdiagnosis), leaving Seattle for Ohio in 2017, escaping those “time loops.” 

The cover posits that the book is “essays,” which is true in the sense that its sections tend toward themes. The first slices into what she calls the “Instagram-witch lifestyle: black dresses, lavender baths, affirmations about being worthy of things.” In one, Washuta, who’s a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, twines her own experience of moving west from New Jersey to Seattle with The Oregon Trail II video game, in which she plays a settler headed for the Northwest. “The game was part of the project of whiteness: You were expected to colonize, to strive for an arrival into land theft, to see it as a great adventure, to see the Natives as helpers or hindrances or frightening shadows.” Next, she recounts her time as the Fremont Bridge writer-in-residence.

But all the book’s sections are braided together. Its themes and subjects reoccur: colonization, misogyny, storytelling, relationships with men, PTSD, addiction, sobriety, and witchy magic. Reading its sections as discrete essays doesn’t give you a full picture, nor does mentioning each essay’s “subject.” For instance, that Fremont Bridge chapter, “Centerless Universe,” is also about the history of colonization in Seattle, how the land was gouged and pushed to hold the city, and about her waning relationship with a guy named Carl (who appears throughout), and about playing Pokémon Go.

In a lesser writer’s hands, this’d be a mess, but Washuta is thoroughly gifted on the page—imagination, intelligence, candor, wit, precision. (At one point, she describes a “house I still haven’t furnished the echoes from.”) See what she does with her attraction to “Instagram-witch lifestyle,” a thing pieced together from appropriations, often from Indigenous cultures: “I don’t like calling myself a witch. I don’t want to be seen as following a fad, and I don’t want the white witches I resemble to take my presence in their spaces as permission for theft. Really, I just want a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder, but I suspect that if we could excise the stolen pieces, there would be nothing left.”

Only in the book’s longest and penultimate section does she lose her way. For over 100 pages, in “The Spirit Cabinet,” Washuta takes us through multiple years in parallel chronology. So a diary-like segment about April 26, 2016, is followed by one about April 26, 2018, and we witness how they align eerily. This is the book’s most overt attempt to tackle those “time loops.” She then splices in fragments from Twin Peaks and other sources (like the C.G. Jung Foundation Twitter), which underscore the echoes. To her credit, she’s able to keep this compelling for 50 pages or so, but ultimately—when she and Carl (lover, not psychiatrist) are fighting again, and again, and again—the trick loses its magic. But, as on the internet, you keep reading. And the rest of the book has magic to spare.

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