Some things just seem like bad ideas, like they are inevitably going to head south and metastatize into a disaster, and if things go well we have alarm bells in our brain that go off that warn us about these things. Austrian cartoonist Ulli Lust’s How I Tried to Be a Good Person reads like a series of these moments, with alarm after alarm being rationalized aways as the southern trajectory becomes more inevitable.
Though described as memoir of Lust’s experience in a polyamory relationship with two men, it’s really a case study in what happens when your inner alarms are faulty. Lust recounts a time of her life as a struggling artist trying to make something of her life and break into a field that she has no formal schooling in.
The twin oppressors of art world exclusionism and the pressure to take dead end jobs that will stifle her ability to create art and surely seal her fate probably make her more desperate to self-medicate not through drugs or drink, but through love, affection, desire. She craves an over-abundence and gets it through older, gentle but physically inadequate Georg and Kimata, an immigrant from Lagos with unpredictable mood swings that grow wilder and more dangerous as the relationship continues.
The easy question to ask is “Why don’t you just walk away?” especially when there are numerous telling moments that the universe is screaming that question as well. The answer is that not everyone’s alarm works correctly and addiction is a common reason for this. Kimata provides the emotions that Lust craves and each moment where things have gone too far, leading Lust to backtrack and justify the danger to her wellbeing, is a terrified reaction to the prospect of walking away from that addiction.
And Lust does well in illustrating the vehemence of her need in the graphic, crucial sex scenes, often explosive and disorienting, drawing the reader into the intensity of the emotions behind them as much as the raw physical details. These scenes especially provide emotional context for what would lead Lust to sometime become more concerned with her abuser’s well-being than her own, let alone any of his future victims’ when opportunities arise to legally put a stop to his behavior.
Most importantly, the sex scenes explain clearly and distressingly the pull Kimata has over Lust, particularly in context of her other relationships. Georg is more a loving mentor than a lover. Her parents are genial authority figures, but not overly demonstrative, though they’ve helped her out in one major way — they are raising her son Phillip for her, releasing her of the daily parental burden that she makes plain that she is not currently equipped for.
As the relationship with Kimata escalates, and his attitude toward Lust feels more like that of a cult leader attempting to control all aspects of his follower’s life — it doesn’t work, thankfully, since Lust’s great strength is in regard to the preservation of her individuality, even as aspects of it are being usurped — it’s her son Phillip that was most on my mind.
Parentage is a specter that looms over the whole book, including stories about Georg’s complicated lineage and Kimata’s distant relationship with his own child. Phillip, though not a prominent physical presence in the story, is a huge emotional one, in some ways the embodiment of the book’s thematic essence, and his scenes with Lust are revealing. Their interaction is genial and Lust obviously loves him, but it portrays a distance, as if he is interacting with an aunt rather than his mother, and that brings a sadness to the work that I didn’t expect given the overriding subject matter. While intimacy is so powerfully craved by Lust, in context of parent-to-child love as expressed in her own relationship, it’s fumbling. Perhaps that’s a mirror of her relationship with her own parents, just as her intense desires in romance are a reaction against.
In the end, we are a product of our parents, both the good and the bad, and part of our lives are spent trying to come to terms with that and also overcome the aspects that direct us to repeat their mistakes. Just as Lust reacts to her own upbringing, I couldn’t help but worry what future struggles were in store for Phillip. At the very least, he has this testament from his mother that we all have those struggles, and that parents are human and fallible and make mistakes and do our best, and that’s part of the eternal cycle of human life.
The core of Lust’s memoir is within the title itself — How I Tried to Be a Good Person. It’s an apologetic title, also a bit defensive, and it’s probably something we’ve all thought in certain situations. It also suggests that there is a universal “good” way to be a person and that we can actually try to be that. But of course, the guidelines are vague and the properties within them are more complicated than we believe they are, so the title also points to an comfortable truth — trying to be a good person is the best we can really do in this life.
But we are all fumbling at it, and very few of us if any ever achieve it on a wider scale. We all have our own train wrecks that we need to live through, and works like Lust’s provide the opportunity to see through her experience that it’s our weaknesses and flaws that should unite us in peace, love, and understanding. It’s a lesson a lot of people still need to learn.