Memoir 'Scratched' Seeks Beauty in the Flawed

Photo of Elizabeth Tallent by ©Gabriel Tallent (courtesy of HarperCollins)

Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism is a staggering depiction of the impact of psychological trauma written with breathless intensity.

Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism
Elizabeth Tallent


February 2020


Acclaimed fiction writer and essayist Elizabeth Tallent fell silent for 20 years. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Tallent's short stories and writings were at the forefront of the literary movement, and then her outflow trickled, and eventually ceased altogether. What happened?

In her memoir, Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism, Tallent uses her history and psychology to provide the context for her two-decade absence. During this time, Tallent submitted to and wrestled with her perfectionism all the while wanting to undertake writing and other creative labors. Scratched finds the author arriving at an emotional space where she is ready to fit perfectionism within a narrative.

As Tallent clarifies, Scratched is "breached by slim greens shoots of a story... finally wanting to tell" (46). The text itself is more of a snapshot of an era than a comprehensive analysis: she recounts significant moments and details without constructing a thorough timeline. Tallent's narrative flits and floats in a quasi-chronological order, moving from her birth through her third marriage and professorship. Her struggle with perfectionism is the constant.

The memoir lacks chapters, with the author organizing Scratched into three parts: childhood, young adulthood, middle-aged parent and professional. The memoir is organized formulaically, a recollection followed by the author's retrospective analysis. At times her writing becomes a convoluted stream-of-consciousness.

For some readers, the style might be frustrating, but it's an indelible reflection of her inner turmoil. Tallent often threads in the work of prominent psychoanalysts such as Freud and D.W. Winnicott in addition to demarcating instances of perfectionism in the work of Virginia Wolfe, Sylvia Plath, and Henry James. By positioning her perfectionism along a continuum, she fortifies her unique experiences.

She begins by detailing her upbringing in a Washington D.C. suburb during the '50s and '60s. Her parents, an emotionally uninvested mother and disapproving father, personify proscribed gender norms while striving towards achieving the American dream. Tallent's mother, for example, is obviously battling her own mental health challenges; she reminds of a prototype for Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. After her labor, Tallent's mother refuses to hold her newborn because of her messy black hair and the scratch above her eye. Instead, she calls for her red lipstick.

To contemporary readers, the rejection of the newborn is a clear indicator of postpartum anxiety and depression. For Tallent the rejection was a result of her transgressions, thereby directly informing her feelings of shame: "I repudiated myself... I understood another, more beautiful child could have had a hold on them" (68).

The fault is not limited to the physical: Tallent is later criticized for subverting class expectations and is eventually shunned by her family for her relationship with her boyfriend, a roofer. Tallent never analyzes her parents or defines them as narcissists verging on abusers. Instead, she accepts their histories are irrevocable and authentically communicates their flawed identities.

Tallent blames herself instead. She believes she is not beautiful enough, she makes mistakes because she does not pay attention, or she forgets to say she is sorry. Tallent's self-blame bolsters perfectionism and prevents her from accepting affirmation. She is shocked when her college roommate responds with sweetness and humor. Tallent believes the roommate is naïve, and here a piece of the tragedy reveals itself. She is unable to accept empathy since she is so accustomed to disparaging relationships. She contends, "often I feel like a spy sent to figure out how they manage such non-hurtfulness" (102). Scratched is a staggering depiction of the impact of psychological trauma written with breathless intensity.

Tallent contends perfectionism is not an absolute, it manifests differently for each individual. Tallent's "perfectionism can be done two ways: flawlessly, or not at all -- perfectionist (il)logic" (116). Not at all includes procrastination, avoidance, self-sabotage: all leading to chaos. Her acceptance to a prestigious graduate program in archaeology triggers the 'perfectionist (il)logic' and despite arriving in Albuquerque the day before classes begin, she doesn't turn up for classes. She never explains her absences or opts out of the classes. Instead, she stays in her bed, countering her depression by reading John Updike's The Centaur and Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd: apt subtexts as both concentrate on psychological interrelationships.

Tallent sees perfectionism "offer[ing] self-sufficiency within affliction". Unlike other addictions, perfectionism remains hidden and causes the stricken to struggle silently. Hence, Scratched is essential for vocalizing the narratives of the oppressed and constructing community among the afflicted.

Tallent's memoir is honest, the lack of self-pity elucidates perfectionism's viciousness. "Try to love this incarnation" (222) is a mantra Tallent attempts to apply to her life, and a clear directive to her readers to do the same. In doing so, Tallent refuses to condemn the imperfect, she identifies value in the damage while Scratched locates beauty in the flawed.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.