Last week, writer and local media personality Nelly Arcan (her pseudonym) took her own life, at the age of 36. She was incredibly beautiful, frighteningly intelligent, fragile, brutally frank, tortured, and immensely talented. I was very interested in her books and her career for many reasons, but especially because we went to university together, even though we never exchanged more than a few words during classes. Since I heard the news, I’ve been thinking about her a lot, and thought I should write down what I wanted to say to her.
What struck me the most after your first novel was published and you instantly became the talk of the town is how different you looked compared to your college days. You were always beautiful, but in a more unassuming way: black hair, natural makeup, thin and flat-chested frame, with this slight goth aura (which blended right in for a Literature student), always wearing jeans with laced-up chunky-heeled boots as was the mid-90s fashion. You were studious and hard-working, and I remember your voice more distinctly than anything else: high-pitched and coming through the nose a little, reminiscent of a little girl.
I didn’t know then we had many things in common (and could have become friends), like the fact that we had both just arrived to Montreal from isolated small towns, and both felt exhilarated and overwhelmed by the big city, the big university, everything. One day when you told my friend Elsa you were tired and she asked you why, you said you worked the night shift at a convenience store. Of course, we learned the truth when your first novel, aptly titled Putain (Whore) came out: you had been an escort, and this is where you had drawn your material. Funny how back then you didn’t look the part, but looked it much more as a transformed public person, with bleached hair, prominent silicone boobs, redone nose, too-plump lips… And of course you took people by surprise, because even though it’s a stupid stereotype (and please pardon my lame comparison) no one expects Pamela Anderson to write, let alone be a literary genius, offering an articulate, intellectualized and harsh discourse on this physical pressure women are under (while still seemingly being a slave to it yourself).
Your sublimely written but sad books chronicled your universe of mal de vivre and self-destruction, through the sex worker years (why the hell would a middle-class, clever, educated, small-town girl from a religious family choose to do this?), hard partying, unhealthy relationships, and the impossible standard you subjected yourself to, but apparently never achieved. Physical youth and perfection became your one concern, and in your own words, your one goal was to be able to prove you were once fu**able.
That was your strangest paradox: you played on the sexpot image but then became deeply depressed when people only retained that aspect of you. You hated feeling the need to stay forever young, thin and stunning, but took extreme measures to conform to that anyway. You were completely aware of the profound debility of this mechanism (for instance calling plastic surgery a "burka of flesh"), while still being unable to get over it. But it’s weird, as much as sexuality remained your main theme, you always seemed so troubled, so melancholic, and so cold, that I could never imagine you enjoying yourself in the sack for even a second. How could you be so brainy and not understand that beauty, sexiness, and sorry to be so blunt, fu**ability is at least as much, if not more, in one’s head, in one’s comfort in their own skin, as it is about a plastically perfect body? I’m not judging you, I’m not mad at you, I just wish you would have gotten that, cut yourself some slack and maybe, just maybe, be a little happier.
There were so many urban legends about you: how every night you went out, did drugs and got drunk "to kill the pain", how you attempted suicide many times before and everyone around you knew this was ultimately inevitable, how during this recent dinner honoring a 60-something French fellow female “sex” writer, she positively glowed, charmed everyone and was the life of the party, but you were still paralyzed by sadness, fear and anxiety over growing old and ending up looking like her.
The last time I saw you on TV, you talked about your latest, constant obsession: simply not being able to decide whether or not you wanted children. You said you were tired of this bohème lifestyle (and do I understand, because although I was never a cokehead I did it too during college, I lived for the night and drank and did stupid things that came with it, but after a few months, a year tops, it got so old and depressing and barren that I can’t even imagine how you must have felt if you were still in that same mindset fifteen years later), that some days you were dreaming about moving to the suburbs, buying a house, getting married and raising your kids there (i.e. my life), but couldn’t summon yourself up to do it. And I wanted to tell you, you know, you should. There is a life outside the Plateau (Montreal’s trendiest neighborhood where inhabitants tend to look down on anyone who lives elsewhere), moving out of the city doesn’t equal losing half of your brain, drive, wit and taste, and does not mean you suddenly and solely become preoccupied with mowing your lawn and buying tacky inflatable Christmas eyesores.
I do not mean this in an “only parents know the answers to life” way, but I still think that it’s too bad, as maybe, again just maybe, becoming a mother could have saved you. Because being the emotional, anxious, thin-skinned, always-in-my-head woman that you also were (although at a much, much lesser level of intensity I'm sure), I find there is nothing like it to reduce the noise in your head, to steal away moments during which you’re at total peace with the world, and to take you out of yourself a bit.
May you rest in peace –that very peace you never had during your too brief stay around here. Goodbye, Isabelle. I'm really sorry.