Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks
When Tonya Harding is twenty years old she’ll become the first female figure skater to land a triple axel in competition, a jump that requires impossible strength to launch the body into the air from a forward position and spin three and half times before landing. It’s 1991. Tonya is known for her athleticism, not her grace. She glides forward, gathering speed, sequins aglitter. We see something in her coil up and that thing makes us hold our breath, go stiff in our chairs, frozen before the amazing feat only Tonya, our ice cobra, can do.
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat
When we think of Tonya Harding, the first thing that comes to mind is Nancy Kerrigan’s knee; the second is Tonya’s skating; the third is Tonya’s hair. Sometimes it is sprayed up like a Star Trek ensign’s and sometimes it is wet poodle limp, blond as if she’d dyed it too long ago, though she’s a natural. And the set of her jaw, how the skin around her mouth puffed a little when she wasn’t smiling, then stretched into a triumphant grin when she won, a sneer barely hidden behind it—I did it! Take that, fuckers!—her cover girl smile for the cover that came only after she needed, for her own sake, to stop smiling.
When we think of Tonya Harding, the first thing that comes to mind is Nancy Kerrigan’s knee; the second is Tonya’s skating; the third is Tonya’s hair.
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat
Tonya Maxine Harding was born somewhere in Portland, Oregon—she can’t remember where—on November 12, 1970 to LaVona and Al Harding. She started skating at three and competing at five, dropped out of David Douglas High School at fifteen, got a GED, and won enough competitions to make a few enemies. Her problem was her: she had the soul of a goshawk, not a swan. She skated to the wrong music. She wore slutty leotards handmade by LaVona, who supported Tonya, drove her to practices and competitions and cheered her on, but also yelled at her and hit her in skating rink bathrooms and made the other ice skaters uncomfortable.
Select the prince from a row of identical masks
At nineteen Tonya married Jeff Gillooly, pronounced with a hard G. He is, according to her, the first man she ever dated. They met at the skating rink. Which means they met at the mall, Clackamas Town Center, which is wrapped around the skating rink. His favorite coat appears to have been a baggy windbreaker. He had a record of domestic violence. When Tonya writes in 2008 that she didn’t go to the authorities about Nancy’s knee because Jeff put a gun to her head, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told on him, he’ll call her a liar. He’ll change his name to Jeff Stone and disappear.
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks / And snatch its bone
Nancy Kerrigan was working class too, but she looked regal. Made athleticism appear feminine, as though she disliked that it was currency to spend, but she’d spend it as needed. Nancy had great hair too, dark ringlets well trained to hold a bun. She held her emotions at least that tightly. When Jeff’s hired man smashed her landing leg with a police baton, she wailed, “Why?” like a small crushed animal, then clammed up. She wasn’t interested in trauma work, she told her sports psychologist. She wanted to focus. She wanted to win. When reporters dug at her after the assault, she was like a glass hill. She looked at them evenly, said, “I can’t imagine who would do this to me, I’m not that evil,” and they slid right off.
But Tonya, she was dirt. With Nancy out of the picture, she took first place at the 1994 US Championships, a title stripped from her before the end of the following year.
Count dust specks, mote by mote, / Or learn the phone directory by rote
“What a bitch,” Tonya says. It’s 1986 and she’s just taken sixth in her first national competition. In the home movie that records this phone conversation with her mother, we see Tonya puff with pride, then droop like an unwatered azalea. “What a bitch,” she says when she hangs up. She then retells the conversation we witnessed her half of as if we won’t believe what just happened. Her eyes get huge and hard, her neck stiffens. If she could spit instead of speak, it looks like she would. There is no reason for us to doubt her. So why, as she tells her tale, do we doubt her?
In the home movie that records this phone conversation with her mother, we see Tonya puff with pride, then droop like an unwatered azalea.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—You have to fight magic with magic.
That “you won’t believe what just happened to me” posture is the same tone of voice and tilt of chin she’ll take when investigators find a conspiratorial note in the dumpster of the Dockside Tavern in northwest Portland. It appears to be written in her hand. “Did you know?” they’ll ask. “Are you guilty?” No, she’ll say. Absolutely not.
You have to believe / That you have something impossible up your sleeve
Tonya: That’s not my handwriting.
Tonya’s best friend: That’s her handwriting.
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak, / An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke
Of the men involved in the plot to maim Nancy Kerrigan, one died of natural causes at forty, two changed their names, one cannot be found. Only Tonya remained visible. Only Tonya still wore her name. After she was banned from competitive figure skating for life—“a death blow” she deserved, said silver medalist Paul Wylie—she made ends meet with landscaping jobs. She sold a sex tape. She wrestled professionally. She acted in an action movie, guest starred on reality TV, did a car commercial.
The will to do whatever must be done
They can take away her title, but they can’t take away her triple axel.
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.
When Tonya Harding is twenty-one, the year after her record-setting leap, we see her gathering speed, bathed in sequins, that spring inside her coiling like we hoped it would again. But this time she’s out of shape, and when she jumps, it’s like a deer over a log. “I landed a beautiful one in practice,” she’ll tell reporters. That’s our Tonya: raw potential with eruptions of achievement that glow like scars of what was once possible. In the end, believing in what could have been is easier than believing any version of what happened. After 1991, Tonya Harding never landed the triple axel in an ice skating competition again.
Kate Lebo is the author of the cookbook Pie School and co-editor (with Samuel Ligon) of Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. Her writing has been anthologized in Best American Essays, and her first collection of nonfiction, The Book of Difficult Fruit, is forthcoming from FSG.
“Fairy-tale Logic” by A. E. Stallings used by permission of the author.