Ellen Miller’s “Like Being Killed”

I remember her hands: fingers red, raw, bleeding through layers of skin, all the way from her nails to below her knuckles. A curtain of black hair covered most of her face as she tilted her head forward and lifted her fingers to her mouth.  Chewing, biting, quietly gnawing.  This was something far beyond a nervous habit.  From the moment I saw those hands I wanted to encase them in white cotton so that they—so that she—could heal.   I wanted to believe that healing was possible.

Those hands and the woman attached to them followed me around for years.  From a table in the dingy basement of a YMCA on the Upper West Side, where she was a student in the first writing class I ever taught, to my apartment where those hands rested on the piano bench where she always sat during private workshops, to yet another workshop table high above University Place in the graduate writing program at NYU.  If we see people in impressionistic bits and pieces—eyes, lips, the small of a back—those hands have come to represent everything I ever knew or felt about Ellen Miller.  They were elegant, artistic, with long tapered fingers and delicate wrists.  They spoke of promise, beauty, potential, self-destruction, agony, despair, decay.

Later, in Like Being Killed, the novel Ellen was working on during all of the years I knew her, her narrator Ilyana Meyerovich had this to say: “I folded my fingers into fists to hide them.  From the age of six, I’d had a habit of tearing skin off my fingers.  I didn’t bite my nails.  Nails lacked pain receptors.  Using my teeth or my fingernails from the opposite hand, I’d shred skin off my fingers until they bled.  Then I’d wash  my hands with hot, stinging, soapy water.  I’d pour alcohol on the open cuts, which made the cuts heal faster.  Then, to complete the ritual, I’d rub my mother’s moisturizing hand cream which contained searing menthol, into the cuts I’d made.”

I run the risk of offending many of my former students by what I am about to write here: Ellen Miller was probably the most talented writer I have ever worked with.  She just was.  There are writers who are great storytellers, writers who have lyric gifts, writers who are smart as hell; writers who are fearless, and writers who are wise.  But Ellen had a blazing gift, combining a poet’s ear for language with an encyclopedaic mind, insatiable curiosity and a complete and utter lack of fear.  Her work was a high-wire act. Watching her teeter was its own kind of thrll.

Consider this passage, in which Ilyana—heroin addict grand-daughter of a Lower East Side bagel baking dynasty—wanders that neighborhood ostensibly in search of bagels:  “It was dark.  Shops with signs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish…closed for the night…The paint on the blue-and-white sign for Zelig Guttman’s Paper and Twine—which boasted, “Formerly Isadore Birnbaum’s”—was fading and chipping and flaking…. Birnbaum’s old sign was enduring, holding up, piercing through Guttman’s as if the present was more ephermeral than the past, as if attempts to paint synthetically over the past fade faster than the past fades organically.  Almost pentimento, a word suggesting big mistakes, derived from the Italian for repentance, from the Latin poena, for penaltyPoena had been reconstituted, just as Birnbaum’s old sign had  integrated itself into the bastardized, vulgarized sign for Guttman’s.  Pentimento, via poena, was related early on to penance, to pentinence, to punish, to penal, and in later associations, to pain, and to the infinitive, to pine: to suffer intense yearning, or, in archaic use, to waste away with grief or mourning.  I wanted to leave this place, but I was afraid that if I left, I’d lose the chance of ever wanting to stay.”

This (and trust me when I say I am quoting only a very small piece of it) from a walk to buy bagels.   The whole novel is full of such passages.  References from Aeschylus to Nietzsche, definitions of obscure phobias (catagelophobia: the fear of ridicule, real or imagined), the archaic German adjective for homelessness (obdachlos), scattered like treasures on a treasure hunt through a stark and moving narrative of a friendship between two women.

Ellen got a book deal for Like Being Killed while still a graduate student at NYU.  In my class, envy entered the room.  It swooshed in and took a seat at the table.  Word spread that the advance had been high—very high.  The contract wasn’t for one book, but two.  She had hit the jackpot—or so people thought.  She was well-liked, oh sure, everyone liked her, but in the hothouse environment of an MFA Program, she had somehow broken away from the pack, leaving everyone else behind.  If you sat quietly and listened, the sound you would have heard was that of gnashing teeth.  This was quiet, literary despair.  I had weeping students in my office every single afternoon, envious of the young woman with the bleeding fingers and a voice that had a built-in quaver when she spoke.

Fast-forward past the petty jealousies and literary back-biting that now seems like an eighth-note pause in a piece of music.  The novel was published to the sound of…not very much.  Some reviews were glowing, but there weren’t many of them.  The talent was evident but…unharnessed.  Undisciplined.  The Times didn’t like it.  Like Being Killed moved from the front tables of bookstores to the purgatory of the shelves where one or two copies could be found for a while, spine out.  Finally it disappeared altogether—as did its author.  Everyone moved on.  Several of the students in that NYU class kept at it, and eventually published acclaimed novels and story collections of their own.  Quite a while later, I asked a mutual friend what had ever happened to Ellen’s second novel.  She had never written it.  Her publisher asked for her to return the advance.  She went from being a broke East Village writer to an overnight sensation and back to being an even-broker East Village writer, all in the span of five years.

Last winter, I received an email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize.  The subject line read: ELLEN MILLER: URGENT.  As soon as I saw it, I knew that Ellen was dead.  It had been years since I’d seen her.  She’d fallen out of touch with most of her old friends and colleagues.  At forty, she had collapsed in a bodega in the same East Village neighborhood where she had spent most her life.  Her heart—that enormous heart of hers—had simply given out.

In the first chapter of Like Being Killed, Ilyana and her drug addict friends are sitting around a kitchen table getting high, and discussing how each of them is eventually going to die.  “I already know how I’m going to die,’” Ilyana says… “I’m just going to…disappear.  I’ll dissipate.  I’ll evaporate, in increments, molecule by molecule, until I’m not there.’  Deadness had discrete gradations and was easy to calibrate…everything I did on any given day would desiccate, scatter, like soft cigarette ash, by the end of that day, leaving nothing behind.  Fugere sine vestigio.  The Latin struck me as funny.  The phrases—to flee or disappear without leaving behind a footprint or trace—was impregnanted by its own opposite.  Fugere sine vestigio was its own footprint, a trace of a dead language, pervading the present.  ‘There’s this vanishing point,’ I said, ‘and I can’t see anything ahead of it.’”

Ellen Miller left a footprint.  Just as Isadore Birnbaum’s old sign made itself seen—a pentimento revealing itself, asserting its own relevance—Like Being Killed stands as a testament to a singular young woman’s talent, which burned too fast, too blindingly bright.