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Woman is the Loneliest Creature: Growing up with The Virgin Suicides

Kirsten Dunst in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999) | Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

—Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus

All I really remember about going to the psychiatrist is the trees. My mother and I would drive to the city along narrow, winding roads flanked on both sides by deciduous giants. In the summer, these trees formed a mottled green awning which bathed the tarmac in shade, but in winter they wasted away into gnarled brown rib cages. The only constant, then, was the two of us: my mother, driving, and me, slumped in the passenger seat and staring out the window. Sometimes—if it was a good day, and I didn’t want to die—I would be dressed in my school uniform. But the good days were few and far between.

The picturesque weekly drive to the psychiatric unit was the the only thing remotely cinematic about my adolescent spiral into madness. Sofia Coppola would not have shot my agony in soft, dreamy pastels, or set it to a mournful electronic score by a moody, French rock band. At 13, a certain ugliness had begun to grow within me—something voracious and callous that couldn’t have possibly translated onto a screen as poetically as Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel did. On any given day of the week, I was monstrously angry and deathly afraid, inconsolably sad and curiously numb. The constant short-circuits inside my head drove me away from school and deeper into myself.

I convinced myself I liked to be alone, but the truth was more complex: I hated myself, and thought that the world would (and should) hate me, too. This self-immolation as self-preservation kept me in my bedroom. I would stay up all night on the internet, desperately searching for a way out. And there, two years into my struggle with mental illness, I discovered The Virgin Suicides. While a team of psychiatrists struggled to diagnose me, and my school struggled to teach me, a movie was helping me make sense of my mind.

*

At the film’s opening, Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) eats a popsicle and frowns into the distance. It’s no accident that Coppola leads with Lux, the most gregarious of the Lisbon sisters. We see snapshots of the Michigan suburb of Grosse Pointe drenched in sunlight and buzzing gently with life, before suddenly finding ourselves in a cluttered family bathroom, hearing a teenage boy offscreen say, “Cecilia was the first to go.”

Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna Hall) floats in a pool of pink bathwater while sirens blare in the distance, Millais’ Ophelia for the late ‘90s. Seeing this cool, confrontational image of an adolescent suicide attempt barely seconds into Coppola’s film was like looking into a mirror. Cecilia had her bathtub; I had the bandages on my wrists, concealed beneath jumper sleeves, hiding the shame of only being able to find comfort in self-destruction.  

Some of the criticism that surrounds the film stems from its hyper-feminine aesthetic, and the notion that Coppola romanticizes suicide. The film has inspired fashion shoots and perfume adverts (directed by Coppola herself), but these rely purely on The Virgin Suicides’ surface appeal, failing to capture what’s at the heart of it: a desire for freedom at any cost. My body was a wretched thing, so I sought to destroy it. Cutting myself seemed like as good a place as any to start.

I could never really see myself physically in the Lisbon sisters; they were willowy and blonde with perfect skin, while I was short and fat and dark, like my father, who had left the year before. The teenage boys, so infatuated by the Lisbon sisters, say as much: “No one could understand how Mrs. Lisbon and Mr. Lisbon, our math teacher, could produce such beautiful creatures.” Yet, in a way, the differences between us made things easier. The sprawling pastel-painted suburbs of Michigan provided an instant escape, vastly preferable to the grey council estate I lived in in England—everything seemed so much more glamorous in America, especially the America of the past. It was a sense of slowness that I noticed, more than anything else. In The Virgin Suicides, the world seems to move at a different pace, with slow panning shots and Air’s melancholy score evoking the languid fluidity of a creeping fog. The real world seemed to move so fast to me, yet I also felt desperate to grow up and get out of the stifling setting I’d known all my life.

The Lisbon sisters became strange avatars in my isolation, providing some quiet reassurance that there was a world beyond my bedroom door. Sofia Coppola paints the Lisbons’ world in snapshots, a photo album of haunted places, but in the film’s music, characters come to life. Heart’s “Magic Man,” opening with an instantly-recognizable guitar riff, introduces us to teenage heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) in a self-aware and playful way. Later choices, like ELO’s “Strange Magic” and 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” seem equally wry. The Lisbons communicate with the neighborhood boys on the phone by playing records to each other, the auditory equivalent of a love letter, but untraceable. A secret between the Lisbons and their would-be suitors. Yet it’s Air’s score—designed so that it could be listened to separately from the film—that lingers in the mind, reflecting the swirling dissociative nature of depression, but also the overwhelming, suffocating feeling of being trapped in the suburbs: ambient with an underlying sense of dread.

*

How do you live with yourself when you believe you’ve let down the only people in the world who have any moral obligation to love you? At some point, I decided feeling something was better than feeling nothing, so I found new ways to tear myself apart. I never had strict parents in the way the Lisbon sisters did, but I lied all the same, mostly so I could do whatever I wanted. And like most teenage girls, I wanted to be spectacular. I wanted to be liked, I wanted to be cool. I drank and smoked and took drugs. I tried to make boys like me, even if it meant saying yes when I wanted to say no.

None of this made me happier. I never told anyone the truth. By the time I left home for university at 18, I considered myself a worldly creature. Six months later, when I had a breakdown catastrophic enough that I had to quit a job I’d just gotten and be signed off from all my classes, I retreated to the familiar. I remember nothing about those six weeks at home. I suspect this is the brain’s way of healing, but it doesn’t make for particularly gripping prose. Like Lux Lisbon waking up on the football field, I’d never felt so completely, hopelessly alone.

It’s considered cliché to be a teenage girl and to love Sofia Coppola’s films—or the poems of Sylvia Plath, or Lorde’s Melodrama—but these clichés only serve to hem us in and shame us for what we connect with. And I’ve had enough of feeling ashamed. The cyclical nature of my mental illness hasn’t been painted in any other movie as it has been in The Virgin Suicides, which captures the way my brain slips like the seasons between polar ends: light and dark, warm and cold, happy and sad. And Coppola understands, too, how teenage girls are often so beholden to men; to our fathers, our doctors, our teenage fantasies. In Eugenides’ novel, we know everything we know about the Lisbons through the voice of the neighborhood boys trying to unpack the mystery of their deaths. But Coppola’s film reveals the secret lives of these girls in a less voyeuristic manner—we don’t spy on the girls, as the boys do. We become them.

*

It’s only since I’ve become more stable in myself that I can fully appreciate the strange insidiousness of the men at the heart of The Virgin Suicides. The Lisbon sisters are pinned beneath the microscopic gaze of the boys who narrate the story, and the assumptions they’ve made based on stories, rumors, and trinkets they’ve stolen from the Lisbons’ home. “What we have here is a dreamer. Someone completely out of touch with reality,” one of the boys states, after reading from Cecilia’s diary in an attempt to understand what drove her to kill herself. The temptation to make order out of chaos—and there is perhaps no greater chaos than suicide—is understandable, but this monstrous invasion of Cecilia’s privacy also demonstrates something troubling about the boys: they feel entitled to her pain. Shut off from the world, the girls become a mysterious phantom collective, and their loneliness begins to grow.

I have become less alone, in time, but like the Lisbons, I know that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing—it is possible to feel desperately lonely despite surrounding yourself with loved ones. For the Lisbons, there is no chance of escaping this loneliness beyond creating their own mythology—one that has no bearing on the illusions created by their male counterparts, who see them merely as travel companions, possessions rather than people. They never fully realize how very little they actually know about the girls, beyond the records that they like.

In their act of collective suicide, Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia steal themselves away forever, denying anyone else the opportunity to ever truly know them. I have done as much without a permanent solution, making myself hard, closing myself off to avoid any potential harm. I am not as lonely, or as desperately unhappy, but when I am, it seems to matter less. I’m only now beginning to realize—in a big city, far away from the places I associate with so much of my unhappiness—that escape doesn’t have to come in the form of an ending.