Go Ask Ogre is a compilation of letters written compulsively, over a three-year period, by Jolene Siana—an artistic, sensitive, suicidally-depressed, self-mutilating teenaged girl living on the bum side of Toledo, Ohio—to Kevin Ogilvie, AKA Nivek Ogre, the singer of her favorite mud and fake blood-coated industrial band, Skinny Puppy. Siana was 17 years old when she began.
Skinny Puppy, for the uninitiated, is a seminal industrial band and experimental art project formed in the early 80’s. They released several brilliant albums which are to disco what Norwegian death metal is to rock, and then some.
Many of Siana’s letters are like this one, which was written and illustrated in her own blood:
She took the blade and looked at you. Life isn’t so bad, so they say—but for her she only had you—and even though she didn’t really know you, there was something about you, she thought sincerity, but if extremes won’t do what will? I know that you understand what I’m trying to say—this book means a lot to me. That is why I chose to write in blood for the final page. My pen doesn’t agree with the blood. I hope you see the importance of this book, that is why I cut myself just for you. Sure it’s been done before, but it is for you—especially. For you from me. It’s not something you can buy in a store, it’s mine, and I have chosen you to keep it. Please. I will be upset if you throw it out or something. Keep it and read it whenever. I think you’ll write me back because I’m not dead yet, and when I do die, you can remember me. 419 335 4701, 2550 Greenway #11 TOLEDO OHIO 43607-1380 USA. Though it’s not love, it means something, Believe it all.
Sound pathetic and creepy? I thought so, too.
I was prepared to voyeuristically savor the shadenfreude with cool ironic detachment; and while it’s true that there’s a desperation in this letter, and this book, that no one likes to show, or look too closely at, what with the pleading, the full address and phone number included, and the blood, but the truth is, Go Ask Ogre is anything but pathetic. It’s the very human record of a young girl’s fight against, and victory over a potentially deadly illness of the soul, and secondarily, it’s the genuinely touching account of one person reaching out to another—the unlikeliest other—and being heard.
Siana’s letters and the artwork that accompanied them are full of that aching desire to be seen, known and loved that all of us felt stretched-out upon the rack of, when we were teenagers, but with an extra dose of darkness borne out of real suicidal depression. Siana is unflinching about the depth of her loneliness, and unabashed in her expression of her adolescent suffering. Her artwork is beautiful, and completely communicates the agony of a talented and sensitive young soul in the face of a difficult home life, dreams and aspirations that seem impossible from the vantage point of a job at Burger King, and a really, really boring math class.
The thing I enjoyed most about Siana’s letters, though, is their inherent contradiction. She wonders if she’ll ever be normal, wishes she could be anyone but who she is, wonders what’s wrong with her, hates herself, is a miserable, suicidal, teenaged goth girl who’s lonely enough that she’s hanging onto a mostly one-sided correspondence with the singer in her favorite band for dear life. She elaborately decorated the pages and envelopes, and sent them off to this fantastic creature, Nivek Ogre, in whom she sensed a kindred spirit, and her letters are full of the real hope that he is listening to her, that he wouldn’t judge her, and that just maybe, he might be interested in her; that he might care about her.
Siana’s letters to Ogre are not about him, or what she thinks of him; they are all about her. Despite the fact that she is depressed and wracked with insecurities, Siana invests herself in her emotions, and believes in their essential validity. She has the ego and sense of self to be almost fiercely expressive, and self-righteously certain that her feelings are right and natural, and that they are of interest, and she is right: they are.
Every letter Siana wrote to Ogre is proof of her own elemental strength and creativity, and if writing them saved her, it’s only because of what was in her to begin with—a hunger to know herself, and a will to live truthfully. It’s her absolute surrender to her compulsion to write these letters, along with the unchecked extremity of her acknowledged emotion from which the real force of her letters, and this book, comes. Siana’s unaffected honesty, and the fact that when she had the urge to start writing Ogre letters she did not stifle it, contains the seed of her salvation.
Ogre’s kindness to Siana—as much as he could offer while clearly dealing with a full plate of his own issues—is genuinely moving. The fact that he answered her in the beginning, made a point of seeing her when she came to see his band play, encouraged her to keep writing to him, and never mocked or took advantage of a little girl’s painful love is a somewhat incongruously wonderful human credential for a man who spent years of his life charismatically fronting a terrifying aural apocalypse for a living.
One of my favorite moments in the book is when Siana recounts, in a journal entry, the first time she meets Ogre after a performance in Detroit, and is unsure of how to pronounce his name. The name “Nivek Ogre” is a stroke of performative genius, achieved by simply spelling his decidedly anti-dramatic actual first name backwards to become the sharp, blood-spattered, dangerous creature that fronts Skinny Puppy.
Siana, self-consciously backstage for the first time after writing Ogre several months’ worth of her nakedly emotional letters, writes: “I almost said Ni-vek. Then I almost said Ny-vek then I said ‘Kevin,’ and he turned around.” That’s it in a nutshell, really. Siana calls out to another human being from the absolute purity of her unhappiness, and in the undisguised innocence of her desire to be heard and recognized, she is. It’s especially poetic that Ogre’s first words when he sees her are her name.
Most incredibly, though, I love that Ogre saved her letters and returned them to her 9 years later, in what she rightly calls an act of profound kindness, and fully supported her in collecting them into this book. He hadn’t read every one of them, but he’d kept them safe, and years after she had stopped writing to him, Siana met Ogre by chance in a Los Angeles club. He told her that he’d worried about her, but he’d known she wouldn’t commit suicide, and offered to return them to her.
It’s easy to make fun of little girls and the love they bear their Ogres. Almost all little girls have one. I certainly did. It’s easy to look at a teenager’s over-wrought emotional turmoil, dreams of something finer, and faraway loves, and see only short-sighted pathos. It’s also easy to bill this book as a memoir of teen-aged angst and mental illness; but Go Ask Ogre is so much more, and so much better than that.
Jolene Siana’s story is one of survival, and of rising out of the depths of a personal hell largely through the power of self-expression. It’s also about the vital role that art can play in our lives, both as audience, and through our own practice of it. It’s sad, funny, truthful, good-hearted and genuinely moving.
I loved it, and I recommend it whole-heartedly.