A Review of Julia Koets’ The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays
December 19, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Magin LaSov Gregg
At nineteen, Julia Koets falls in love with her best friend Kate, a college roommate, and a lover who denies her own desires. At the heart of this denial is a dominant cultural narrative that understands same sex attraction in what Koets terms “The queer creation myth (of ) born this way,” often considered “The only queer creation story.”
Ultimately, Kate cannot acknowledge her feelings for Koets because the former does not have a born this way origin story of same-sex attraction. The former lovers attempt a tenuous friendship but drift apart, and ultimately lose one another to a limbo “where queer lives are erased.”
In The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays, Koets artfully examines her own experiences of queer erasure alongside larger cultural erasures, at times symbolized by enduring figures such as astronaut Sally Ride or D.C. Comics’ Gay Ghost.
The lyric essay form, reliant on gaps and fragmentation, beautifully aligns with Koets’ own experience of compression and expansion, as her narrator moves from a closeted existence to one of self-acceptance and personal liberation. Her memoir demonstrates the profound costs of rejection, silencing, and exclusion within powerful social systems, where love and inclusion often hinge on self-denial.
The Rib Joint won the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Book Award judged by Mark Doty, and was released in November 2019. Natural elements of the coastal south—azaleas, the ocean, beaches, and even sharks’ teeth—offer organic entry points for storytelling. Nautical imagery reinforces the tension between self-liberation and self-submergence that drives Koets’ narrator.
Her memoir’s title chapter begins with the controlling image of an octopus who lacks a skeleton, and so “protects itself by hiding in plain sight.” Readers might recognize this essay, which first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Creative Nonfiction (Let’s Talk About Sex).
In order to survive, Kate and Koets hide their relationship at the small college where they meet, and where a stifling conservative Christian ethos pervades the student experience. Only years later, will Kate confess her true feelings, a moment in which the possibility of who the lovers may have been together expands to offer a new story of liberation.
“I felt our story bend, the way ribs curve to hold the lungs, the heart,” Koets writes. “In one story, we lived in a jar. In another story, we opened the lid and swam out into the darkness of the ocean.”
The rib signifies the power of origin stories to shape human experience and identity, and recalls one creation myth in Genesis, where Adam’s rib generates a subordinate Eve. However, Koets references an older and often overlooked companion myth, which envisions man and woman originating at the same time, neither owing existence or allegiance to the other.
“In the first myth, after the great whales, the cattle, every herb-bearing seed, God created Adam and Eve as equals, Eve’s body all her own,” Koets ruminates, demonstrating the power of interpreters, and not texts, to oppress or free.
Her memoir additionally interweaves experiences of sexuality with symbols associated with Christian worship, such as praise houses and pipe organs, to reveal the formative influences of religion. Koets’ resistance of heavy-handedness and refusal to condemn those Christians who ironically condemned her, are admirable.
I found myself equally struck by Koets’ choice to dedicate her book to her grandmother who died without knowing Koets was gay. The memoir, in a larger sense, voices an authentic selfhood Koets was unable to share with her grandmother, due to fears of judgment and rejection.
In her chapter “Spectrum,” Koets examines the linked etymology of “spectrum” and “spectre”—words she’d once conflated—to question binary categories of sexuality and reveal their limitations. “Spectrum” also includes a true ghost story, as ghosts are, perhaps, ultimate symbols of erasure.
“If there’s no record of a relationship, did it ever really exist?” Koets asks. “For a long time only Kate and I knew we had been together—and for years Kate said she wouldn’t name it that way—being together.”
The character of Kate becomes a living ghost who haunts Koets’ narrator. Yet, a later-in-life reconnection between the former couple offers greater friendship and a healing perspective on the past.
Perhaps to echo the hopeful promise of new possibilities, The Rib Joint ends with a stunning image of regeneration—a mature tooth growing in the place of a lost baby tooth—reminding readers of our lifelong capacity to recreate our stories and ourselves.
Magin LaSov Gregg’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Full Grown People, Solstice Literary Magazine, Bellingham Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s working on a memoir about love, loss, and going forth.