Bunny, the middle-aged protagonist of Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, is a snarky contrarian with a seductive, sarcastic streak. She’s a cynical and opinionated middle child (the dumb spot, she reminds us) sandwiched between two sisters who don’t like her very much. When Bunny’s sister and her “Wiccan princess” announce that they are having a baby, Bunny asks which “one of you is going to grow fat and lactate?” Bunny riffs on the fascist overtones of the girl scouts. Since high school, Bunny has also been to nine different counsellors because she suffers from severe depression. She tells herself that she’s worthy of love and affection, although admits that she’s hard to like.
She often has another thought: “I do not want to be in this world.”
The first half of Kirshenbaum’s novel slowly boils toward a devastatingly sad, macabre episode that results in Bunny’s institutionalisation on New Year’s Eve. Her backstory is unfolded in short chapters that illuminate specific occurrences and layers a mosaic of mordant self-deprecation among all of the pain.
Although Bunny knows she’s suffering from depression, she wants to avoid that specific verb to describe her problems because its connotations cheapen the pain of those who are actually suffering: “To refer to herself as suffering would mean that, on top of everything else, she’s also be an asshole.” Despite often expressing that she wants out of this life, that doesn’t mean she is suicidal. The issue is much more nuanced:
“Bunny does not want to kill herself. She does not want to die. It’s that she no longer wants to live. . . . Bunny would prefer to die of natural causes, but she’s not sure she can wait it out.”
The second half of the novel, which takes place in an institution, is comprised of a dizzying array of hilarious, poignant vignettes that capture life as a new “loon”: learning the rules, arguing with staff about which activity to join, being scolded by doctors for refusing drug therapy. These vignettes highlight the absurdity of her situation; she’s not crazy or psychotic or delusional. But the reality of her plight is that she’s so sad and depressed that she is unable to function in “polite” society without hurting herself.
The medical issue revolves around whether her treatment will consist of different doses/combinations of drugs or electro shock therapy. Bunny tells her husband that the doctors “want to electrocute me”; they compare the procedure to “rebooting a computer.”
Kirshenbaum’s characterization of Bunny dispelled so many of my misconceptions about clinical depression. She refuses to whitewash the disease or rationalize it off the page. Throughout the novel every naked edge of Bunny’s pain is displayed. In the following long, devastatingly honest explanation, she justifies why she hurts herself to those of us who might be tempted to dismiss such extreme actions:
“It is counterintuitive to inflict pain, tangible pain, as a way of relieving pain, but pain you can point to, pain that has a place, is pain that can be relieved. Bunny’s pain has no place. She hurts everywhere. She hurts nowhere. Everywhere and nowhere, hers is a ghostly pain, like that of a phantom limb. Where there is nothing, there can be no relief. . . . Only when she hits herself or pulls her hair or bends her finger back or bites the inside of her mouth can she experience the pleasure of pain found and pain released. It is the only way to be rid of the pain that is Bunny. She is the point of the pain.”
Any Cop?: The book’s portrayal of Bunny’s is so convincing because it has the immediacy, depth, and honesty of memoir. Its prose is so personal that I suspect that Ms. Kirshenbaum is describing personal demons or perhaps those that haunted a loved one. I had to keep reminding myself that it in fact wasn’t a memoir.