Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie An online journal about memoir Tue, 30 Dec 2014 17:53:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.1 Can’t We Talk About Something More PLEASANT? /2014/11/24/cant-talk-something-pleasant/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cant-talk-something-pleasant /2014/11/24/cant-talk-something-pleasant/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 01:08:21 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=2180 The end is a series of gradual and cumulative horrors. At least it was for my parents. Every few months I’d visit my elderly parents in Florida, and although things weren’t great—my dad had dementia, my mother was worn out Continue reading...

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The end is a series of gradual and cumulative horrors. At least it was for my parents. Every few months I’d visit my elderly parents in Florida, and although things weren’t great—my dad had dementia, my mother was worn out taking care of him—the fact that they were getting up everyday and going about their routines made me think things were okay. Then on one of my regular visits, as soon as I walked in the door, I smelled death. Something had died, but neither of my parents seemed to notice. By that age,they had lost their sense of smell. It seemed impossible though: a death stench permeated everything.

I frantically looked for the dead thing for two days, while my parents went blithely about their business. I bought every cleaning supply known to man at the nearby Walmart and spent the next few days scrubbing the place down and washing everything in sight. In the meanwhile, I noticed they had no groceries, no toilet paper, nothing they needed.How were they getting by?

In the small laundry room off the kitchen, the death smell grew increasingly worse. That’s when I thought to look behind the dryer. There I discovered two stiff bloated rat tails sticking out of the laundry vent. When I told my mother, she giggled, and explained she’d put out rat poison the week before. I wondered how long they would have been there, if I hadn’t come by. Things were spiraling out of control.

Perhaps that’s why I so appreciated reading New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s, Can’t We Talk About Something More PLEASANT? Every page of this surprisingly deep and moving memoir, about her parents’ decline into old age and death, was hilariously reassuring. Here was a map of facing the inevitable I could have followed.

For instance, Chast is constantly worried about money, as most of what is needed for her mother’s care is not covered by insurance. As her mother’s time in hospice goes on and on, Chast’s money worries, and her guilt about her money worries, mount. When she thinks her mother is days away from dying, Chast walks in on her mother, sitting with her new caretaker, eating a tuna sandwich. A crazed Roz looks out and speaks to us directly, “I knew that her retreat from the abyss should have filled me with joy or at least relief. However, what I felt when I saw her was closer to: where in the five Stages of Death is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?”

In October, Chast, won the inaugural Kirkus Prize, from the Kirkus Reviews, for a non­fiction book, and was short-listed for the National Book Award for nonfiction. It’s rare that a graphic memoir reaches this kind of status but Chast,who started cartooning professionally at 23, and the next year, starting drawing cartoons for the New Yorker, and has been there ever since, spares us nothing—not her guilt or her black humor, or the horror of death.

I began by asking Chast about her guilt.

CH: You really exposed the bad daughter side of you—admirably, I thought. Do you have any remaining feelings of guilt about this chapter/period of your life, or did writing this book help assuage that, and thus put things in perspective?

RC: I still have a lot of guilt. Guilt that I couldn’t put aside a lot of my negative feelings about my parents, especially about my mother. Guilt about not being a better daughter—­less self-centered, more forgiving. Guilt that I wasn’t, and am not, a better person in general. I did love them, but I could have done better. I wanted to do my best. I didn’t always live up to it.

CH: The introduction isn’t exactly sequential, but it sets the tone and tells us in five pages almost everything we need to know. Can you explain how you chose the order of those disparate stories?

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RC: It took a couple of years at least to organize all the material. I had notes, letters (e-mails) I’d written to various people about stuff that was going on with my parents, cartoons, drawings, photos… My mother died in 2009 and [the book] was finished in 2013. I had a sense of where it started and where it ended. Other than that, it was mostly instinctive. Breaking it into chapters, which was a suggestion of my psychiatrist, was very helpful.

CH: Your trip home after a long absence reminded me so much of the time I visited my parents in Florida and everything, I mean everything, was in disarray. No toilet paper, nothing in the fridge; two dead rats in the laundry vent. I know why I was avoiding my parents, but for you, how did you think you could avoid the run up to the end? What was the mechanism to be in such denial? 

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RC: My parents came up to visit me in Connecticut a few times a year. Also I spoke with them on the phone almost every day. So it wasn’t as if I was totally out of touch. However, during those eleven years, my kids were little and I’m sure I rationalized the hell out of not taking a trip into Brooklyn with them. My husband would have had to do the drive, or I would have had to schlep them on a 2 1/2 hour trip to Brooklyn (car to train station; MetroNorth to Grand Central; long subway ride to mid-Brooklyn; ten-block walk to grandparents’ apartment; then stay in tiny apartment for a couple of hours; then reverse). Not to brag, but I’m good at denial.

CH: I love your group portraits and characters, e.g., the woman with long eyelashes in“they hated their lives,” the guy with the toupee in “surrounded by men,” and Caveman Ook! They are so funny yet so real. Do you make these people up or do you draw them from real life? If the answer is they come from your imagination, did you always do that, even as a young artist, or did you at one time work from real life?

RC: I’ve always loved to draw comics, since I was a kid… I love to observe people, anywhere, anytime. Sometimes I sketch them. I’ve taken life drawing classes. But the people in my cartoons are inventions.

CH: I was totally astonished by the series of line drawings of your mother at the end. Those drawings brought tears to my eyes, they were so beautiful. I know you were sketching all the while, but can you share with us some thoughts you were having as you drew them?

RC: At that point, my mother wasn’t talking much anymore. I wanted to spend time with her and drawing her, observing her closely, was a way of bearing witness, and also of fixing her in my mind.

CH: My favorite part of the book  is the worst: when your dad dies and your mother loses control. It’s so brutally exposed, and then your confession, why you didn’t want her in your house again. It’s all so horrible and sad. But then the redeeming drawing on the next page: the fantasy that death could be more pleasant, something even to look forward to! How did this sequence come about? And what are your feelings about your own old age?

RC: [My mother losing control and the fantasy scene] were kind of connected. One hopes that one never has to endure that kind of indignity, but it’s not like it’s so horribly unusual when a person lives to be a certain age.

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My own old age? Yikes! I hope I avoid a long drawn-out thing. I’d like to be working on a project, go to sleep, and not wake up. No hospitals, no tests, no doctors, no medicines, no dire diagnoses, no remissions, no nothing. Just work, sleep, then dead.

CH: Where did you come up with the word postmortemistically?!?

RC: Made it up!

CH: For everyone we interview, we ask if they have any recommendations for memoirs, or in your case, recommendations for graphic memoirs? Anything you’re reading now that you love?

RC: I’m reading Don De Lillo’s Underworld right now. I’ll be sad when it’s done—I’m liking it so much that I’m stalling on finishing it. Graphic memoirs? Fun Home (Alison Bechdel) and Stitches (David Small).

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Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray /2014/11/24/ghost-dance-berlin-rhapsody-gray/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ghost-dance-berlin-rhapsody-gray /2014/11/24/ghost-dance-berlin-rhapsody-gray/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 01:08:17 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=2195 This past summer, my husband and I traveled to Corsica, where we hiked for a few weeks, and then headed to the maritime Alps in Italy, to visit our German friends Andreas and Rosa in their get-away home. We got Continue reading...

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This past summer, my husband and I traveled to Corsica, where we hiked for a few weeks, and then headed to the maritime Alps in Italy, to visit our German friends Andreas and Rosa in their get-away home. We got to talking about past and future adventures, and Rosa’s excitement about a recent trip to Berlin, a city she knows well, ignited our imagination. Our summer vacation not even over—we’d already begun to form vague ideas for the next summer—and then we started dreaming of another trip that would include Berlin, two summers away! So it was an odd coincidence to get back to Maine and delve into the process of putting together the winter issue of Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie, to realize that one of the books in my bedside tower was a travel memoir of Berlin.

Full disclosure: I went to college with Peter Wortsman, the author of Ghost Dance—or rather, we went to the same college. I did not know Peter in the academic setting, as I had already graduated but was still hanging around the college town, not quite sure what would come next. Peter and two of his friends rented the upstairs apartment of a house where I lived with a friend on the ground floor. I don’t recall much specific about Peter in those days—heck, I don’t recall much at all of those days—but I have a sense of him as a charming and romantic figure. He spoke well, already someone clearly in love with language, and when he did speak, his words were worth listening to. He had an old-world courtliness to him, which might have seemed odd in a person in his young twenties, especially in the 1970s, but this demeanor only enhanced his sly sense of humor. I am beyond pleased to speak with Peter about his most recent travel book, and his foray into the streets of memory and shades of grayness that represent the enigmatic city of Berlin.

SL: Peter, at one point in your book Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray, you mention that years before, in the early 1970s, you had spent a year at the University of Freiburg on a Fulbright, studying German fairytales. When I read that, I had an “aha!” moment, because it helped me understand and appreciate even more the style and mood of this mesmerizing travel memoir. Not a particularly original insight, perhaps, but I think much of the enduring power of fairy tales lies in how well such stories function on two levels–the specific and the symbolic. Would you mind expanding a bit on this thought as it relates to what motivated you to write this book–the specifics of your sojourn in Berlin that prompted this account, and your sense of what other less immediate, more mythic threads were woven through this experience?

PW: You hit the nail on the head, Susan. The child of German-speaking Jewish Immigrants, I grew up reading fairy tales, or rather having them read or retold to me in the original German, and they remain for me the fundamental nuggets of narrative around which I have constructed my take on reality. Wanting to cocoon us in a reconstituted Garden of Eden, my mother would gloss over or filter out the grim and grisly parts, but I always sensed there was something missing and made her reinstate it. Even as a child, I had a vague inkling of the perils from which my parents had fled, and a sense that the oven in Hansel and Grete was not only used for baking bread. Fairy tales ring true because in their seemingly simple narrative constructs they acknowledge a complex and often contradictory reality. They tease and toy with our fear, but in a strangely gratifying way. There are indeed dragons and witches to be contended with in life, but you can hoodwink them, and learn their wiles, using it against them. Thus fairy tales offer a metaphoric vaccination against evil. After graduating college in 1973, I was fortunate to win a Fulbright Fellowship to study folklore at the Albert Ludwig University, in Freiburg, West Germany. I did, admittedly, travel there with a certain degree of trepidation. Though we children had been on family trips to Europe, including Germany and Austria, this was my first time alone in the land and culture that had sent my parents packing, escaping from goose stepping demons in black boots. To my surprise, I spent a glorious year in Freiburg, having hot pretzels for breakfast, living as I did in walking distance of the Black Forest, hiking into it every Sunday. There was a wild honey shop in town run by an old man who buzzed and bumbled around like a human bee, divvying out doses of sweetness. I thought I might become a folklorist, but I soon grew weary of libraries and greedy for experience. At a gathering of Fulbright fellows in West Berlin that spring, I immediately felt at home. Berlin was big and bustling, and gruffly welcoming with plenty of Berliner Schnauze (the approximate equivalent of New York Lip), just like the Big Apple, except that the wise cracks were cracked in German, my private tongue.

I was also fortunate to win a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship after college, which I managed to postpone till the following year, that took me to Vienna and Eastern Europe to interview survivors. I wanted to hear what hell was like. My interviews now comprise the “Peter Wortsman Collection of Oral History” at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and inspired various texts, including several songs, subsequently published in Yes, We Sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps, by Shoshana Kalisch (1985), the only original English language songs in the book written after the War, and my first play “The Tattooed Man Tells All,” which it took me 25 years to write. Returning to Berlin as a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010, I came full-circle, and found that I had made a certain peace with Germany and the German language. More so than many other cities, Berlin is haunted by ghosts and demons. But the remarkable thing about the city and its citizens is that, like fairy tales, it/they make no attempt to hide the unsavory details, thus by a kind of catharsis, clearing the air and making way for a fresh start. I know of no more honest and forthright metropolis. A creative hub in the Twenties, the creative energy is still on the boil.

SL: My husband is a great admirer of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. I was surprised that you had not seen this film—actually it’s a (West) German TV miniseries, from 1980—before your residency at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010. For our readers, I think it may well be interesting to hear what it was like for you to watch Berlin Alexanderplatz, as you reported, one episode a night, while you were visiting Berlin. Did you find it a dissonant or affirming work of art, in that setting?

PW: First, as to why, given my avowed, albeit prickly, affinity for things German, I had not previously seen Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: much as I revere his artistic audacity and adore many (but not all) of his films, I have a limited attention span and a phobia when it comes to long works of any artistic genre, novels, poems, movies, operas, et al. I want to make sure beforehand that I can rush off to the bathroom, literally and metaphorically. Greedy also about my time, I refuse to squander it on the work of any single artist. Consequently I have never sat through Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Syberberg’s “Our Hitler,” Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” or read through all of Alfred Döblin’s novel, on which the Fassbinder movie is based. And so, when I picked the first episode of Fassbinder’s made-for-TV miniseries off the shelf in the library at the American Academy in Berlin, I did not expect to sit through all 13 episodes. But from the collage of images set to vintage cabaret music and the opening scene of Franz Biberkopf, a genial pimp and murderer newly released from jail, stumbling out to discover, or rather re-discover his hometown, Berlin, I was hooked.  He and I discovered Berlin together. And just as the movie grew on me, so the city seduced me with its gritty charms. I literally gobbled up every episode, along with a square of bittersweet chocolate covered marzipan and a shot of Kirsch, and subsequently stumbled on Biberkopf’s doubles, one of whom, a derelict with style, sang a German version of Sinatra’s “I Did it My Way” at a public karaoke performance in a park. It may sound a bit odd, but my fondness for Günter Lamprecht’s powerful portrayal of Franz Biberkopf is coupled in my mind with Jackie Gleason’s irrepressible portrayal of Ralph Kramden in “The Honeymooners,” the 1950s TV sitcom ode to my native New York. So, yes, the movie moved me and moved with me, and yes, I saw Berlin through its lens. But not exclusively. The ghost of Marlene Dietrich, whom my father adored, was another occasional companion, as was the writer Heinrich von Kleist, a neighbor, buried just around the corner from where I lived, whose prose I had translated.

SL: My one complaint, if you can call it that, is that Ghost Dance as a memoir is not more broadly revealing of your childhood, and what it was like for you to grow up in Queens, New York, as the child of Austrian-Jewish refugees. I do understand that a travel memoir has, by definition, a different format from many of the other memoirs I’ve read and that your goal in writing it differs from that of other writers I’ve interviewed here. Still, the few glimpses through the keyhole into the Wortsman household that the reader is offered aroused my curiosity. Is there a more personal memoir in the works? Do we ever get to see what it was like for young Peter to venture out on the streets of Jackson Heights, as prequel to the man who explores Berlin with such an eye for aesthetics, sensuality, and cultural sensitivity? If so, I am wondering if the primary organizing theme of your growing up years was that your parents were German-speaking immigrants–or, if that was just one of several critical influences. What are your thoughts on this?

PW: You’re quite right, Susan. Language is a fundamental organizing factor in my life. In my case, reality is divided between a German and an English flavored take, and since I’ve been married for more than a quarter century to my French wife, Claudie, and have spent considerable time in France, French comes a close third. (One of the next books on the drawing board is a travel memoir on Paris.) It’s a funny thing about travel writing. It was a genre my father loved, and which I long reviled, until I found myself writing it. The I figure—the ego—is a great embarrassment and a great burden in most writing. Vanity threatens to creep in at any moment in the telling. But the literature of place is endlessly interesting, precisely because it is a construct of multiple points of view. In the past I wrote primarily short fiction, and suffered extended writer’s blocks when my words refused to find closure. But by following the magnetic metaphor of “elsewhere” as a guiding principle I managed somehow to elude the fangs and gullies of ego. I have generally reserved any revelations about self for my fiction. It seemed to me from as far back as I can remember as if I’d been born in the shadow of the flames that engulfed my parents’ world, as if everything meaningful and significant had already happened before my birth, and that I had no rightful claim to my own experience, because it would always be inconsequential in comparison to what they lived through. On September 11, 2001, when the peril drew near, witnessing the great towers tumble outside my window, hearing that the Pentagon had also been hit and the White House targeted, I became convinced I was living the outbreak of World War III. Ironically, only then was I freed from the phantoms of the past.

SL: Finally, as I usually do, I would like to ask if there are other memoirs that you’ve read that you would like to recommend to readers of Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie? 

PW: As to the classics, there’s Rousseau’s Confessions, first read back in college, that knocked my socks off with its painful bluntness, and Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, a thoroughly delicious and delirious reading of a river. Shortly after completing Ghost Dance in Berlin, and describing it to various people, I began to hear about The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, an illustrious British potter. De Waal, a scion of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking dynasty with branches in Odessa, Paris and Vienna, sometime peers and competitors of the Rothschild clan, skillfully constructs his family memoir around the fate of a collection of Japanese netsuke miniature sculptures passed down from generation to generation and city to city. The focus on these inanimate objects as a kind of Mac Guffin takes the onus off protagonists in the narrative to perform like dancing ponies, and so they can just “be,” much like animated objects, as history sweeps them along. For a similar reason, I prefer Percy Adlon’s subdued magnificent film “Céleste” (1980) about Marcel Proust’s housekeeper, a sort of cinematic memoir shot in the shadow of greatness, to any number of films spun off A la recherche du temps perdu. Pocket mirrors often reveal more than spotlights.

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Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival /2014/11/24/figuring-shit-love-laughter-suicide-survival/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=figuring-shit-love-laughter-suicide-survival /2014/11/24/figuring-shit-love-laughter-suicide-survival/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 01:08:11 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=2163 Roughly fourteen years ago, an old friend and former colleague of mine, Robert Whitaker, asked me if I‘d like to start a print literary journal with him. He was already a well-known science journalist back then, but he had gotten Continue reading...

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Roughly fourteen years ago, an old friend and former colleague of mine, Robert Whitaker, asked me if I‘d like to start a print literary journal with him. He was already a well-known science journalist back then, but he had gotten his start as a published author via what used to be called ‘little magazines.’ He wanted to give back to the vehicle that had helped him hone his literary skills. Bob said he’d function as publisher if I would be the managing editor; he knew that I was particularly interested in memoir writing, and he believed that memoir was poised to take off in a big way.

We put together an editorial board, and Lifeboat: a Journal of Memoir was born. Amy Biancolli, a former coworker of Bob’s at the Albany Times Union, joined us as one of our board members.

We published 2 years of biannual issues. We were just starting to try and figure out how to cope with the thousands of submissions we were receiving, when Bob got a contract to write a book about the history of mental illness and the pharmaceutical industry. Our Lifeboat—a volunteer project—had to go. Bob is now running the phenomenally successful online hub for research and reporting on mental illness and treatment that evolved from his book, Mad in America; I was hired at the New England Journal of Medicine as a manuscript editor, and Amy: well, she’s he’s back at the Times Union following a stint with the Houston Chronicle, and she has just published her third book. I got in touch with her as soon as I heard what the focus of her new memoir was.

SL: First off, Amy, I don’t usually reveal too much about the narrative arc when I interview authors about their memoirs, but in the case of Figuring Shit Out, I don’t think there’s any point in evading the central fact of the book, which is that your husband committed suicide. What was revelatory in reading your book for me is that although the loss of your husband/best friend was earth shaking, you somehow managed to hang onto your own personhood. I think for some people who lose a partner, the loss itself, the vacuum, becomes a new partner … and the survivor becomes the ‘after’ in the ‘before & after’ picture. Do you know what I mean? I think this is hard to express … but I was so aware of your strength—and I don’t mean the stiff-upper-lip, noble kind of strength. You were profoundly shattered emotionally, and yet you were always Amy: smart, funny, warm, authentic. I kept getting the image of the kind of glass they use in car windshields, where the glass completely shatters, but never forgets its windshield shape. Do you understand where that remarkable groundedness and wholeness in you comes from?

AB: I love that image. The shattered windshield is a perfect metaphor. Thank you. 

More and more, I’ve come to believe that my only real “strength” (I put quotes around it because it’s a word I resist) comes from accepting I’m broken. I regard myself, and always have, as a total screw-up. But I seem to be a screw-up who gets through shit, and it’s liberating to accept that I don’t need to be perfect to survive. In fact, as I often say to my kids, if we were perfect, we wouldn’t be here at all: being human means being broken. Our humanity and individuality aren’t diminished by trauma— or, to use your image, we don’t lose our shape when we’re shattered. Because in some sense we already are. 

My sister killed herself 18 years before Chris, so I knew what to expect in terms of guilt, grief, questioning. Losing my husband brought with it whole new categories of pain, and it was terrifying to look ahead and try to envision some future without him. But I knew there’d be a future, because there had to be. I’m a mom; I had to show my kids that we can still live and love and laugh, although the life ahead was now incomprehensibly altered. Also, I had to show myself this was true. I like being alive! And I’m a stubborn broad. I was determined to plow ahead regardless. 

SL:  You have a wonderful way of encapsulating certain rituals, experiences in language that we all can identify with. How about “crisis ziti”—would you like to define that for our readers, and perhaps tell about the casserole club?  Although I come from a less exuberant, more repressed New England background, when I was growing up I was familiar with the syndrome of neighbors delivering food as a way to signify sympathy. It just wasn’t very yummy food, and I remember dreading the moment when the tinfoil was removed.

AB: Ah, yes! “Crisis ziti”: that’s the dish most likely to land on your porch in the wake of tragedy. But two quick points to clarify: 1. The term was not my coinage. My friend Alicia invented that phrase, so she gets the credit. (She’s also the one who said: “Do not ask for whom the ziti is baked. It’s baked for thee.”) 2. The food dropped on our porch was consistently yummy, ziti included. 

We were just so grateful for the support. The very first day, Alicia and her husband set out a sign-up sheet for meals, and within a week she had a whole online calendar running on our behalf. It was extraordinary, to be on the receiving end of such generosity. This is how community is supposed to work; but to witness it firsthand, to be the beneficiary of it, felt nothing short of miraculous. 

So we never got tired of the ziti or anything else. And anyway, I love pasta. 

SL: With utmost respect, I would like to confess that I have rarely found myself so admiring of someone for whom organized religion was such an inspiring force. The only other writer I can think of off-hand who has been so open about her faith, and who like you has a gift for being very funny, is Anne Lamott.  It takes serious guts to be so revealing about such a private part of one’s life. I found myself almost envious of your faith, and I thought, wow, this is an incredible accomplishment for a writer: to make me, cynical, snarky, and judgmental as I am, understand how a belief in God could be a refuge. Would you mind talking a bit about the role religion has played for you and for your family. Was it always there for you, or was faith something you sought out as an adult? 

AB: I’m a convert. Long story. Prepare yourself. 

As a kid I was a non-believer, growing up with a devoutly atheistic father and agnostic mother. But then my mother almost died of heart failure and, drowning in her own lungs, shot up in the hospital bed and blurted: “I haven’t been good to God!” Which surprised her, because she didn’t think she believed in God. A few months after she recovered, my father attempted suicide and spent nine days in a coma—he swallowed so many sleeping pills, he should have died—and after that, six months in a pure-talk-therapy psych hospital. I was 11. Our life as a family was transformed, thereafter, by three things: my father’s mental decline; my mother’s loving, faithful, pragmatic response to it; and her gradual conversion to belief in God, then Christianity, then Catholicism. She became friends with an entire convent full of Benedictine nuns.

That was the start. It was hard not to see some inscrutable but compassionate force behind all that happened to us, and the conversions just kept coming. My sister Lucy became Catholic during her years at Harvard. I wound up converting shortly before I met my husband, Chris (a lifelong Catholic), although I had flirted with faith for years. In college the works of Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor fascinated me with their complex depictions of grace and the God who deploys it. Theirs wasn’t an easy God, but the kind of God I’d seen in action in my own family.

My father was the last. He held out until his deathbed, when Lucy, who had committed suicide only weeks before, visited him and talked him over to the other side. I wrote about this in my last memoir, and it’s a strange thing to recount so matter-of-factly, but it was matter-of-fact when it happened. I was there. I heard his half of the conversation. He learned from her that she’d died (he had no short-term memory, so we hadn’t told him). He spoke to her about God, made his peace and left us. 

SL: How are you feeling about the book now? It has just been published (official publication date is October 21, 2014), and a lot of people are going to be reading about you and your life. Any regrets? Or has this been just one more part of the getting on with life—the figuring-shit-out process?

AB: It’s all ongoing. I don’t think I’ll ever be done figuring out any of my shit, in any realm. I realize my personal life is now out there for public consumption, and it’s possible that hasn’t sunk in fully. Maybe it never will. But at the same time, I’m convinced that the best way to heal in the wake of any loss is to share our humanity—that brokenness—with others. After Chris died, holing up was not the answer. From the start, I found solace in talking openly about his suicide with family, friends and anyone else, really, who was brave and loving enough to approach me. 

After I took the leap into writing about it, the need and urge to share took on another dimension: I hoped that the book, if it ever found a publisher, would help others in a similar boat, suffering similar losses, to feel less alone. That compelled me to be honest. Will I ever regret that honesty? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Already I’ve had a few responses that touched and humbled me, making me think maybe the book had actually helped a reader or two in some small way. And how can I regret that? 

SL: Finally, if you have read other memoirs that you’ve especially admired, please feel free to make some recommendations to our readers. 

AB: I’ll never forget the first contemporary memoir that stuck with me, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez—a beautiful work, encompassing family, identity, growth. Around the same time I read The Education of Henry Adams, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I suppose I’ll always hold them up as standards of the form. They’re books that matter beyond the memoir. 

Otherwise, it’s an eclectic list. C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, which I first read long before suffering my own losses. Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten—I’m a huge Sacks fan. Mary Karr’s Lit. The works of Primo Levi. The Tina Fey memoir, Bossy Pants. Yeah, it’s a celebrity memoir, but it’s hilarious. Also, graphic memoirs: Art Spiegelman’s Maus books, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books and, just recently, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? There’s a richness, nuance, and depth to those books that move me. 

I feel as though I’m forgetting whole shelves full of memoirs. I probably am. 

 

 

 

 

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The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA /2014/11/24/wolf-watchman-father-son-cia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=wolf-watchman-father-son-cia /2014/11/24/wolf-watchman-father-son-cia/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 01:08:06 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=2194 My father loved mysteries and espionage and after I zoomed through the usual kid stuff—the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—he was eager to help me move up a level. I quickly devoured the long rows of Perry Mason mysteries at Continue reading...

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My father loved mysteries and espionage and after I zoomed through the usual kid stuff—the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—he was eager to help me move up a level. I quickly devoured the long rows of Perry Mason mysteries at the library, and I spent some wonderful after-school hours in the company of Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, but soon I was ready for some darker material. My dad turned me on to Len Deighton’s spy novels and soon after, the brilliant The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I discovered the murkier world of real-life spies Guy Burgess and Kim Philby on my own.

I’ve moved on in my taste in literature, allowing for the occasional late-career Le Carré novel, but I had seen some reviews of the memoir, The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA, and was drawn to the book by the praise the author Scott C. Johnson was receiving for his elegant writing. Here’s a quick sketch:

”I remember my father standing in the yard during the hot summer, gazing up curiously at a tree full of black crows. He wore a beige khaki suit with pockets on the breasts and hips. He had a wide and angular face, with brown eyes and a full mouth. The crows screamed at him, a deafening caw. Their wings were dry. The world smelled of lemon and dust. Behind them the sky shone white, a color that erased distances. My father carried a slingshot and took aim at the birds. He wanted to calm their ruckus. Every now and again he fired, a rock slung through the air., and the tumult of many hundreds of wings stirred, fluttered, and then hammered to flee, their cries lingering as they hauled out over the rooftops.”

SL: First of all, I must say how much I admire your writing. You are deftly lyrical and poetic at times, yet you have the ability to cut to the chase. In fact, we can begin to approach the subject matter of The Wolf and The Watchman with the suggestion that you are uncommonly familiar with how language can be used to both obscure and reveal truth. Before you became a journalist, what—if any—experience did you have with creative writing or story telling? Was that what drew you to journalism—or, perhaps it was your childhood exposure to other countries, other cultures?

SJ: Thank you very much for the kind words, and for the opportunity to do this interview.  

In college I became very interested in poetry, first in reading it—I read voraciously, everything from the Greeks to Shelley to Paul Celan and Eugenio Montale—and later in trying to write it.  I had two professors who were very encouraging and who urged me to consider pursuing it more seriously.

Your question reminds me of two encounters from that time.  The first was when one of those professors, in a summary letter he gave to each of his students at the end of the term, offered me a sort of backhanded compliment and told me that my poems were “sometimes too beautiful,” by which he meant that I could be overwrought, and had a tendency to be overly lyrical and baroque, to the point of heavy-handedness. I needed to scale that back, he said. I think this is a common habit with young writers, but it deserves repeating. He praised my “ear,” which was a critical piece of the puzzle for me because it highlighted the importance of the sound of words, as well as the meaning, the context, the tone.  One had to hear one’s way into a poem, an idea I loved, and I think it applies to all writing. The other memorable encounter occurred with an ex-girlfriend. We had both taken a personality test, at the end of which each of us was given a motto. Mine was “All words are lies.”  My girlfriend told me I would do well to remember this. I thought her advice was suspect at the time, but since then I’ve come to see its wisdom, not because all words are lies of course, it’s not as simple as that, but because language does have an incredible power to both reveal and obscure. I’ve thought about it often. The simplest, most unassuming sentences can be the most revelatory, while a knack for lyricism can wind up being frustrating and maddening to a reader who wants to connect with an author and who feels the language is only getting in the way.  And there’s a responsibility in parsing out how to use those tools, and for what purposes.

My first attempts at prose were with short stories and an aborted attempt at a novel. None of these were very good, for the reasons my professors had outlined: I was too focused on writing beautiful, but ultimately probably deceitful, sentences. The words need to be in the service of something bigger. I wasn’t a good enough writer or thinker to know how to do that in fiction yet. Journalism was attractive for many reasons. It made sense for my life, for one. I had grown up in several countries, and spent much of my life trying to understand different cultures and languages, and journalism of the kind I was starting to do (foreign correspondence) was an extension of that world and I understood it.  I enjoyed doing it and found I wasn’t too bad at it either. From a language and writing perspective it offered tremendous gifts. There was a constant rhythm of daily writing and feedback from editors and bosses.  This helped instill a writing work ethic in me, and I learned not to become too attached to any one thing I wrote, for it could almost always be improved on, changed, or simply cut.  Deadlines taught me how to write and think quicker than I might otherwise have been inclined to do.  I learned how to strive for spareness and efficiency, which is an effective way to communicate information, but has the added benefit of creating a kind of musculature wherein more beautiful phrases or sentences stand out. And finally, journalism plunges you into life—the lives of other people, of course, but also your own, because every story is, in its own way, a patterned reflection of one’s own life.  I think it’s impossible to do good journalism without involving yourself in the human drama that each story entails. And for a writer of any kind, this is gold. It makes us more human, more engaged, more fully aware of the variety of the human experience.    

SL: At the heart of your memoir is your relationship with your father. My husband and I often talk about how difficult it is in contemporary times, in sophisticated societies, to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. There are no longer any established rites of passage: leaving home, becoming financially independent, having your own partner and/or children. Economic insecurity and poorly defined adult roles in the world seem to make growing up much harder. For many of us, separating from our parents, coming to understand how we are like them, how we are different, is a lifelong process. Would you mind talking a bit about your own maturation and your sense of how it was complicated by the fact that you learned as a teenager that your father was a spy?

SJ: I’ve always been a late bloomer. So my maturation, such as it was, came in fits and starts. But it was always accompanied by a sense of fragmentation.  That’s in part because I was constantly moving around, changing schools, making and losing friends, learning the customs and cultures of a new country or American state. All of that flux fostered in me a sense of adaptability, probably an ability to very quickly see what I needed to do to survive, which is itself a kind of maturity, I suppose.  But that transient life did not provide the structures for the kind of steady progress through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood that I think most people have.

I remember feeling very out of place as a child, adrift, unsure of my place vis à vis other children or adults. I spent a lot of time by myself.  I equated maturity with adapting, being a kind of chameleon.  It allowed me to “pass” in uncertain or unfamiliar situations. But it prevented or perhaps just delayed the true expression of a personality that comes with feeling grounded in a community of people with a common history. And my father’s disclosure that he was a spy made that sense of alienation more acute because suddenly I was privy to a very big and important secret that I was allowed, and encouraged, to lie about. So in one way I grew up very quickly; I had to be an adult about a very adult kind of thing.  But the other processes of maturation that come with being a regular kid, in a community with sustained and consistent pressures, was delayed or never occurred at all.  And so I had to find my own way to it.   

SL: There is a point in your life when you had a psychological break, what seemed to me to be a spinning out of control, spinning out of your orbit as though you had slipped beyond whatever forces had held you together. What is your take on that—now that you have moved beyond that period? How do you think you were able to find your way back to yourself?

SJ: It started very abruptly when I was still in my final year of college. I began to have very intense and repeated obsessive thoughts, accompanied by pretty severe depressions.  It took many years before I got any kind of official diagnosis, and I can honestly say that there was quite a bit of suffering for a period of several years. I masked it well and told very few people. But that was also a period where I used writing as a source of healing. I wrote constantly, about this suffering, but also about anything and everything else because it was a kind of distraction.  It may sound silly or strange, but as much as anything, I used writing as a tool to take my mind away from itself, away from me.  And perhaps because of what I explained in the previous answer, that I had lived for a long time with a great sense of fragmentation, I think I also used it as a way to make sense of things, to tell a story to myself, about myself, which is where the book originated, and how it continued to grow over a period of many years.  The process of writing the book, editing it, finishing it — all of that dovetailed with the slow process of coming out the back end of that psychological or spiritual crisis that began so precipitously in college. I would like to say I’ve moved beyond that period, I guess I have in many important ways, but one of the things I’ve learned is that one moves into other challenging mental spaces, with new rules, new parameters, new goals and limitations.  We discover unknown parts of ourselves and they present their own questions that require answers. 

SL: Despite profound complexities, there was and continues to be great love between you and your father. This strong love, coupled with the thread of an international adventure story, make your memoir anything but predictable. As someone said in one of the promotional blurbs: this book is a real page turner! I certainly could not put it down, and I think what you have done is a major accomplishment. When you first began to formulate how to write this book, were you aware of how complicated and perhaps antithetical the roles of journalist and son might be?

SJ:  Thank you, again.  When I began the book, I had no idea how the various themes would grow and develop:  journalism, espionage, fathers and sons, love and betrayal, and so forth. It really began with a memory of being a boy on a secretive base, wondering what my father did, who he was, and how my burgeoning life as a journalist compared with that. I was fascinated by the memory of that place, by being a boy who had so many questions, and by the rather stunning revelations that came so soon after that period. It was just thinking about those couple of years that I first began formulating the book.  But as I continued to develop as a journalist, and as my questions to my father gained more weight and heft, it was as if a curtain began to rise.  The questions became thornier, more difficult for me to ask and for him to answer. How did I reconcile his humanity with his profession?  Was I okay knowing that he might have done things that would scare or shame me?  Would I ever know him completely and was that even an acceptable thing to expect?  And what had I imbibed as a son without even knowing I’d done so?  And on and on, the questions kept pouring forth, all having originated in these very innocent childhood memories. And as they did the shape of the book began to emerge, and it became incredibly interesting to me objectively, journalistically, as well as personally. I began to think of it as a fascinating story, and started to approach it as such.  And I had endless resources to call upon—my own memories, his, our lives became the subject and the process both.   

SL: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. To keep the momentum flowing, as a final question, we ask all our authors if there other memoirs by other writers they’ve enjoyed. Are there any you would like to recommend?

SJ: Yes.  These come to mind: This Boy’s Life; Another Bullshit Day in Suck City; A Stone Boat (not exactly a memoir, but close); The Glass Castle; and The Duke of Deception.

 

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Study From a Memoir Regarding an Afternoon Walk in Africa (a book art project) /2014/06/27/study-memoir-regarding-afternoon-walk-africa-book-art-project/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=study-memoir-regarding-afternoon-walk-africa-book-art-project /2014/06/27/study-memoir-regarding-afternoon-walk-africa-book-art-project/#comments Fri, 27 Jun 2014 23:47:50 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=1985 SL: In our first e-mail exchange, after I saw your delightful exploration of memoir in book art (at the University of Maine Book Art Bazaar, April 2014), you said that the genesis of this art work was that your family wanted Continue reading...

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SL: In our first e-mail exchange, after I saw your delightful exploration of memoir in book art (at the University of Maine Book Art Bazaar, April 2014), you said that the genesis of this art work was that your family wanted you to write about what you remembered of the time and your family spent in Africa, when you were about 15. You told me:

 ”I wrote my recollection of an afternoon walk which for me also included a transcendent moment of introspection. So the experience was many layered… and more than an outward perception… Sort of one of my deepest moments… This is my second “Book Arts” attempt to represent it. I will very likely do another… and maybe even another…” 

I am curious about why your family was in Africa, where you came from before then, and how long you stayed. If you wouldn’t mind, please fill me in on a few details, so we’ll have a broader picture of how this lovely book came to be. 

Malawi Composite 1

RB: My family went to Africa in 1962 because my parents (two physicians working in New Canaan, CT) were investigating the possibility of a career change. Plenty of doctors work overseas but they were looking for something really different, perhaps for the rest of their lives. It did widen the scope of their pursuits in numerous countries… Haiti, Africa, and elsewhere ,but not full-time. However, this was to be the “big trip” and they worked and offered their services in numerous places in Africa. Of course, they brought my two sisters (Katherine and Isabel) and me. The location of the event represented in the book was a small town called Ekwindeni, Nyasaland… a country in Southern Africa now called Malawi.

SL:  I find it interesting also that you define it as a work in progress…and that the experience in Africa will serve as genesis for likely more than one artful book. Have you returned to Africa as an adult? Or, is it only the time you spent there as a teenager that is the force behind this desire to represent what it meant to you?

RB: I define this particular book as a work in progress because there are as yet more drawings/paintings and a written narrative that I want to include. So I plan to make another book that includes these elements. I will add this “written” component at the end of the interview… I am no great writer so you can look at it and perhaps in your editor’s capacity, help it out… so to speak. (Editor’s note: I changed nothing, preferring to keep and enjoy Rush’s own language, his sense of wonder.)

While I have travelled extensively in Europe and North America, I have not been back to Africa. However, as kids my sister and I really wanted to stay. At the time we found it liberating compared to our lives in the suburbs of New York. 

My narrative attempts to describe how the whole experience changed my perception of the world… I mean, when we got home I gave slide shows to kids at Sunday school and social studies classes. Showing pictures of African game and such things that people expect, but really, the day-to-day life of being on the ground, playing with kids. Doing ordinary things in the context of Africa (not home) changed me. 

Anyway, I have not been back. My sister, an anthropologist, has returned several times. Somehow I don’t seem to know how I could contribute much by returning.

 I have painted extensively in France because of its influence regarding modern painting. You can view images of these pursuits on my website, rushbrown.com.

SL: This interview with you, featuring this book, is a departure from our usual format in this journal, of presenting memoirs that are easily available to the reading audience. But your book for me satisfies several criteria that I had in mind when I started Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie. I wanted to feature memoirs that were of exceptional quality and that might slip through the cracks for various reasons, or books that I or another contributing editor fell in love with, and which we wanted to celebrate. So, I thought it might be fun to have a purely visual book, a one-of-a-kind work of art, to whet the appetite for people who may not have considered extending the genre of memoir into book arts. Thank you for sharing your artwork with us.

That said, I am curious if you read memoirs, and if so, are there any you’d like to recommend?

RB: I do read some memoirs. The most recent one was Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller. Parts of it resonated with things that I remembered, such as smells… But maybe I’ll start reading more.

Thank you so much.

An Obscure Memory of a Sunday Promenade in Nyasaland, by Rush Brown

We, my family and our Scottish neighbors, took a walk on a Sunday afternoon to a nearby village.  I asked the group if this was the village where Isabel went with Grace for the weekend but never got a clear answer.  This is a point that I’ll refer to later… In any case, it was a nearby village.  So after more or less an hour of strolling through the countryside (“the bush”), we arrived at a cluster of houses, corrals and people. There were no roads to this place and there was really no indication that any motor vehicles or other “wheeled” conveyance had been there.  The “road” was a footpath for people and animals.

Curious to know what the interior of the houses looked like, it was suggested I look inside. I approached a structure that looked like this drawing. There was this twiggy little fence around it. I walked through an opening that led to the door and encountered this goat… a big old thing, tied to a stake in the ground. 

house and goat drawing

My first reaction was to wonder where he came from? And I wondered at my ability to really see this world. He didn’t look very friendly but he was tied up so I proceeded to look into the structure. This house was made entirely of twigs (sticks, tied and woven together) with a grassy thatched roof just like all houses in the area. The woven stick wall was often used to support mud and then whitewash was put over it; but this particular building was just made of sticks. The interior was arranged with platforms and partitions, all made the same way with woven sticks. When catching up to my group I thought about what it must be like to live in the house.  Certainly it must be much different than what I was used to. 

House and Goat

Isabel made friends with a little girl named Grace, who was the daughter of the cook for our next-door neighbors. It was my understanding that the cook and Grace were from a nearby village, yet stayed next door during the week and returned to their village on the weekend.  At one point Isabel accompanied Grace and her mother when they went back to their village. Isabel’s experience was on my mind that day during our walk.

Grace and Isabel

Back with my group of walkers, I was directed to the edge of a corral where a calf was being born. I was mesmerized it seems. Other people may have stayed to watch but I was unaware of other people, watching the whole procedure. There was actually a great deal going on. The cow having the calf was consumed with the birth and she was surrounded by other cows who were sort of guarding the proceedings from a couple of other calves who, just hours older, were capering all over the corral. My view of the scene revealed the birth up close, the capering youngsters, mature cows milling around and the grand, African tableau, beyond the fence on the other side of the coral. At one point I was shaking hands with the local chief but I was seemingly transfixed with my own thoughts and people just flaked off.

My head was filled with thoughts. I marveled at the idea that there was almost nothing there that was machine made. I mean, I made an inventory: one white, enameled, metal bowl, on the ground, as part of what seemed to be the kitchen area of one of the houses near the coral.  Clothing did appear to have been manufactured. Someone seemed to have gotten some wire to lash things together but there was no barbed wire in the coral fence. So, no cars, trucks, tractors or wagons… no scraps of 2x4s or plywood… nails… tin cans… bottles!? Everything was constructed of the scruffy wood that grew in the area… lashed together…  No light posts! No electricity!

Women Carrying things on their heads

I thought about Isabelle, on her over-night stay with Grace and how it must have looked from a little girl’s perspective. It seemed to me that the awkward niceties required of a 15-year-old would muddle my perception of life in an African village.  I remember thinking that a young kid like Isabel could go into this situation and perhaps it would not appear so completely different. She doesn’t remember it now but when she got home with Grace, I asked her how it went, she said “fine”… a little girl goes to her friend’s house for the night. They play… they have dinner, go to bed, get up have breakfast and go home. At home in America they’d have probably watched a little TV… In the African village they obviously would not. A big boy of 15 spending the night in an African village… That’s interesting. But a child young enough might have the benefit of a less remote view of the 2 worlds.

Frolicking Calves

Another reflection had to do with home in New Canaan CT.  What many kids would think about this scene in front of me…I decided they were clueless! Oh, I had to temper my view. Some inner, cautionary voice told me I wasn’t being fair (after all, not all kids). But really, this was different. Based on popular reaction when told that we were going to Africa (“What are you going there for?!” and that was the most innocent response), kids at home… wouldn’t get this. The setting before me became transcendent. And I was liberated!

 

 

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Young Man from the Provinces, A Gay Life before Stonewall /2014/06/26/young-man-provinces-gay-life-stonewall/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=young-man-provinces-gay-life-stonewall /2014/06/26/young-man-provinces-gay-life-stonewall/#comments Thu, 26 Jun 2014 15:26:00 +0000 Melissa Shook /?p=2013 When I was thinking about which memoir to introduce in this issue of Run, Nellie, I remembered Alan Helms’s Young Man from the Provinces, A Gay Life before Stonewall, which was published almost twenty years ago. A mutual friend had mentioned Continue reading...

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When I was thinking about which memoir to introduce in this issue of Run, Nellie, I remembered Alan Helms’s Young Man from the Provinces, A Gay Life before Stonewall, which was published almost twenty years ago. A mutual friend had mentioned that he was writing it, and I’m sure she added, “It’s going to be an important book.” Here is a sample of the reason for that importance:

 “The summer after my junior year [at Columbia, on scholarship] in 1958, I remained in New York doing test shots & putting together a modeling portfolio; otherwise, I spent my time exploring the gay world. It was such a different world, & now such a vanished one, that it’s not easy to explain. Intensely secretive & hidden, it went on mostly at night behind unmarked doors of bars & in apartments where the shades were always drawn. The 415 Bar on Amsterdam Avenue was typical; you walked in, saw a few locals talking with the bartender, & figured you’d made a mistake. But through an unmarked door in the back & down a flight of stairs, you entered a cavernous basement teeming with hundreds of gay men who were dancing & laughing & cruising & kissing & drinking & passing out in the johns…I’d not had the slightest suspicion such a world existed. It was determined to remain as hidden as possible.

The men were too. Everyone I knew was more or less closeted & spent a lot of time in the workaday world passing for straight. Save for a few artists & hairdressers & decorators & dancers, we were all terrified of being found out. Gay men regularly married for the sake of appearances or inheritances & just as regularly committed suicide. If you heard that a gay man was seeing a shrink, it meant only one thing: he was trying desperately to “go straight” which sounded more like a road sign than a way of life…”

Fortunately, Young Man from the Provinces was re-issued by the University of Minnesota Press in 2002, in paperback with an added Afterward that I think is especially informative. I urge you to borrow or buy it to understand something about the tenor of those not-all-that-long-before-Stonewall times and how Alan Helms was a player, a desirable, desired golden boy-man, during those heady years.

But I think this book has an additional importance in chronicling an era thankfully bygone. Because I am what is now referred to as an adult child of an alcoholic family, and because Alanon meetings allowed me to realize that I am not ‘terminally unique,’ something 8 therapists had failed to mention, I search for writing that gives what I consider an authentic sense of the struggle to overcome the effects of such childhoods. And Alan Helms does this with an expert touch. His writing has a fine pace and clarity, his story is clear, painful and funny, without a shadow of self-pity. (Believe me, I’m not an easy sell in these matters.)

In Part One, you’ll read an extraordinary explanation of Helms’s childhood dominated by a brutal father (raised by an energetic, dominating mother, Bead), and a mother who, as a child, had been locked in the closet to save her mother the cost of a babysitter and how this family life created a level of confusion and fear that helped to mold the way Helms thought and felt about himself. (He would be the first to add that many such childhoods were/are far worse than his.)

So, Alan Helms was a kid from Indianapolis, eating uninspired dinners set on a kitchen table covered with oil cloth, never certain whether his father would arrive home drunk and pass out, or drunk and raging, or, occasionally, not drunk, who, as a boy, “worked part-time jobs from the age of six”, was a “four-eyed, brown-nosed teacher’s pet liar,” and a sissy who liked to work in his garden.

Though his parents weren’t much help in engendering a sense of self-worth in Helms, his grandmother, who adored and praised him, helped in many ways except that “Bead got me listening to God. She explained that there were voices inside my head who knew what God wanted because He told them what to say, & she said I should listen to the voices very carefully whenever I was confused about anything at all.”

And boyohboy, as Helms often writes, was he confused and did those voices offer advice, in the form of instructions, warnings and severe criticism, laced with occasional praise.

Follow these voices as Helms heads to Columbia where they will mumble that he’ll inevitably fail since he has no idea how to think critically and can’t possibly compete with all those wealthy, prep-school students.

I find the way he manages his perceived inadequacy quite amazing:

“One morning during my Contemporary Civilization class, I made a list of everyone cited or quoted by the other students. Of twenty-one names, I recognized three: Eisenhower, Einstein, & Christ. I took my list to the professor & explained my plight. Perhaps Columbia had made a mistake? Perhaps I should go back to Indiana? Professor Webb got out my record (What did it say? Who had written it?”) and said he thought things would probably improve if I gave it more time. Could I hang on until Thanksgiving? Yes, I thought I could, though I didn’t tell him I was so miserable I was crying myself to sleep every night…”

He hangs on, things get better and then this gorgeous fellow, aptly named Dick, seduces him. Later they share a dorm room. “Terrific,” the voices said. However…

“I knew there were men who wore makeup & carried purses, and I too thought they were unnatural & pathetic, completely “queer.” But I wasn’t that kind of man, nor was Dick. As far as I knew at the time (& it would take two years before I knew otherwise), Dick & I were the only two men in the world the way we were – masculine men who loved men. Dick knew differently, but he never told me, thinking perhaps that my ignorance of the gay world would somehow keep me “pure” & “innocent”…

By Part Three, Helms has discovered the underground world of gay men, become gorgeous and sublime, who checks himself in the mirror constantly, rushes to the gym, to the bathhouses in New York (yes, he heard Bette Midler sing), is constantly noticed and approached by one handsome fellow or another, works as a model and, briefly, as an actor, flies off with some friend or lover. He crosses paths, and often dallies, with rich and famous closeted gay men and develops friendships with Luchino Visconti, William Inge and Noel Coward, who lived in the apartment below him and called,

“‘Alan Upstairs? You must drop everything & come down im-meed-yut-ly. There’s someone I want you to meet.” The someones turned out to be Gielgud, the Lunts, Garland, Olivier, Dietrich— people known by a single name like Noel himself, the most celebrated denizens of the world I longed to inhabit. I served mostly as decoration & appreciative audience on those occasions, but I didn’t care, for such times were always a guaranteed thrill…”

Have I nudged you into reading Young Man from the Provinces, A Gay Life before Stonewall? It’s brilliantly insightful about Alan Helms’s personal history and more than fulfills the task he set himself of describing

“the gay worlds of New York & Europe from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, a dozen years of dinners with dukes, affairs with movie stars, things like that. …Many have urged me to write of that life, thinking (I think) that it was some sort of picaresque adventure with the rich & famous. That it was, certainly, but it was much more besides.

My years of self-absorption as a gay celebrity went on in a world that’s not only vanished, it’s a world whose historians have been dying untimely deaths before they could tell their own stories…”

MS: In the Afterward of the reissued Young Man from the Provinces, A Gay Life before Stonewall, you mention having done readings starting in 1996. I’m really curious about what experiences you had doing that and if there might have been differences between predominantly gay or straight audiences.

AH: This is a hard question to answer, Melissa, since most of those readings took place 19 years ago and I don’t recall much about them except that I enjoyed them because for the most part the audiences were large and appreciative. 

I don’t now remember any difference between gay and straight questions, partly I think because although I’m writing as a gay man, it turns out that my experiences resonate in a culture where so many people have low self-esteem and also come from dysfunctional families. Americans aren’t especially good at self-esteem and healthy families.

At an early SRO reading in New York in a now vanished gay bookstore, I’ll never forget the first question because it totally threw me.  “Didn’t it bother you,” asked a guy in the front row,”knowing that you were creating a narrator who was so totally unattractive, vain, self-absorbed, even repellent?”  I should have said “Personally, I don’t find reading in order to judge narrators especially helpful. It tends to rupture any possibility of sympathy, which is of course necessary for understanding. One can say that Hamlet is a procrastinating wimp and Lear a doddering old fool, but those observations won’t take you very far into the plays.” Instead, I mumbled something feeble and quickly called on someone else.

I do now recall that during Q&A I often found myself discussing the dynamics of growing up in an alcoholic home since many in the audience had had the same experience without ever having understood much about it. And fortunately it’s easy to talk about that in a way people find easy to understand.

MS: I’m hoping that the voices didn’t attack you after you finished writing Young Man from the Provinces.

AH: No, the voices had stopped shortly before I finished the book, just at the time I began attending Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings. And yes, I got to enjoy a sense of success and achievement. The book got raves in the Sunday New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and many other major publications. In all, it got something like 50 reviews, all but three extremely positive. When, however, a reviewer didn’t like the book, s/he hated every comma, semi-colon, and period. I considered that a great compliment.  I’ll take a strong over a tepid response any day. “Because thou wast neither hot nor cold, I spit thee out of my mouth.”

MS: Some of the details about sex in Young Man from the Provinces, A Gay Life before Stonewall might seem titillating to some. How did you deal with that?

AH: I dealt with it by ignoring it.  That is to say that the entire time I was working on the book (2-3 years?), I always imagined I was writing to my five best friends.  Since they all love me and forgive me my sins and transgressions, I felt free to talk about anything, no matter how titillating or scandalous or shocking or in bad taste.

But two weeks before the book appeared in book stores, I left my apartment one afternoon and halfway down the block I had a revelation: that total strangers would soon be buying the book and reading about my sexual exploits and obsessions with drugs and booze and shooting up with needles, and in short learning more about me than they knew about their best friends.  I so totally freaked out that I turned around, went right back home, and didn’t leave the apartment for two days.  A dear friend who’s a brilliant psychotherapist assured me that my shock and embarrassment would soon pass, and they did. 

MS: Our mutual friend mentioned that you are now writing blogs or contributing to blogs about the ballet, something else and sex. A bit more about now, please.

AH: I’ve been reviewing dance, mostly ballet but also modern (Mark Morris, Paul Taylor et al) for over 15 years now. These days I review for two Boston weeklies (South End News and Bay Windows) and also the world’s largest dance web site (DanceTabs.com out of London). I keep thinking I’ll retire, but I continue partly because of a lifelong love of ballet and partly because of the challenge: writing about dance is in my experience the most difficult kind of writing I’ve ever known. I like to think it helps keep me nimble. 

I published a long essay about my experiences with pornography many years ago in Out Magazine (January 2003). I’m not writing anything about sex right now, though I think the two most interesting subjects for a person like me are sex and aging. Both are largely hidden and verboten in American culture, and both need to be exposed and discussed if we’re ever to grow out of our perpetual infancy.

MS: Eons ago, a student we shared said that you were an extremely good teacher and also that you’d mentioned coming from an alcoholic home in class. I decided that you and I were the only faculty willing to occasionally insert this fact in the hope that someone in class might think, “He (she) survived. Maybe there’s a chance for me.” If I am correct, would you write more about what you think our students might have needed in terms of examples? And if I was wrong, skip this question, since I need my illusion. 

AH: Our shared student was right. The first time I mentioned coming from an alcoholic home in class was probably prompted by discussing a poem like Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” in which the narrator recalls his conflicted feelings about an alcoholic father. The response was so strong (students began visiting during office hours to discuss their own alcoholic childhoods) that I decided to make it a regular part of my teaching. Thereafter, in every class I ever taught from Freshman Composition to graduate seminars, I created some pretext in which I could tell my students that I’d grown up in an alcoholic home, that doing so had almost destroyed me, but that to my great surprise I was now an amazingly contented man.

In a nutshell, life is inherently difficult (it’s tragic for one thing) and everyone needs help in getting through it. Anyone willing to stand up and be counted as one of the wounded but surviving and even thriving among us can spread not just hope but also knowledge. You see this happening with people like Betty Ford who many years ago fessed up to substance abuse and then recently Angelina Jolie who went public with her double mastectomy. Even more recently there’s a trickle of gay athletes coming out that will soon turn into a flood.  The latest guy I’ve heard about was reported last week in The Huffington Post: a basketball player named Derrick Gordon, a sophomore at U Mass/Amherst. In his published statement, he says “I am telling my story so that athletes never feel like they have to hide.”  Right on, man!  It’s a truism in 12 Step Programs to say that our secrets can kill us, but it is true.  Everything that’s lethal in our secrets—shame, embarrassment, guilt, the tendency toward self-destruction—can be dissipated in the clear light of day.  And there’s definitely strength in numbers.

MS: I was very moved by the diary entries at the end of the book, when your mother is dying, and by the phrase she used that seems to encapsulate something very important about her: “It’s a great life, ain’t it?” 

AH: Yes, Mom said that probably every day of her life.  And though she was a simple and uneducated woman not given to abstruse philosophical musings, on the whole she was right. It IS a great life. Nietzsche said that if we could live a thousand lives, we wouldn’t even begin to exhaust the miracle that is life itself.  It leaves me speechless whenever anybody says “I’m bored,” and Americans tend to say that a lot. My mother became an extremely admirable person for me because despite a horrendous childhood and a lifetime of pain and suffering, she welcomed life in a robust, hearty fashion, very rarely complained, and had a large capacity for gratitude.  For me, those qualities beat intelligence and knowledge any day of the week.  I’m very drawn to Buddhism for the simple reason that its fundamental teaching is to treat everything with compassion. What more does one need to know in the effort to make a meaningful, satisfying life?

Memoirs that Alan recommends:

By far my favorite memoir is The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe, a 19th century Swedish doctor.  Here’s a quotation from a blurb on my paperback: “Munthe was said to be ‘the most fascinating man in Europe’: realist and mystic, scientist and poet, pupil of Charcot [the French doctor who popularized hypnotism], physician to nobility, endowed with an uncanny power over people and animals, fighter of diphtheria in a Parisian slum and cholera at Naples, friend to Somerset Maugham, Henry James and Guy de Maupassant.”  Also the King of Sweden, Eleanor Duse, and the Empress of Austria.  The latter wanted to buy the villa he built at Anacapri (now a museum) which was said to be “the most beautiful house in the world.”  He turned her down.  During the course of the book, he converses with an elf and a dead Roman emperor, makes love to a nun in a Neapolitan convent during the cholera epidemic of 1884, and enters the lion’s cage in the Paris zoo to remove a thorn from the lion’s paw.  “Fascinating” doesn’t even begin to describe him.I’ve read the book three times and no doubt will read it once or twice more before I croak.  (If you’re intrigued, make sure you read an illustrated edition.)

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Another Bullshit Night in Suck City & The Ticking is The Bomb & The Reenactments /2014/06/25/another-bullshit-night-suck-city-ticking-bomb-reenactments/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=another-bullshit-night-suck-city-ticking-bomb-reenactments /2014/06/25/another-bullshit-night-suck-city-ticking-bomb-reenactments/#comments Wed, 25 Jun 2014 18:10:11 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=2026 I had heard about Nick Flynn’s first memoir for years. It was pretty hard not to, given the title, which was a refreshing blast of irreverence. People sat up, paid some notice to the genre. I think younger folks realized Continue reading...

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I had heard about Nick Flynn’s first memoir for years. It was pretty hard not to, given the title, which was a refreshing blast of irreverence. People sat up, paid some notice to the genre. I think younger folks realized that reading a memoir, or better yet writing one, could exorcise some of the same kind of demons that a rollicking piece of fiction might. But I didn’t get around to reading Flynn’s memoir until recently, when I found out that he grew up in the town next to where I came from. I’m not sure why that mattered so much to me, except that I’ve been in a complicated relationship with my hometown for much of my life. I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a teenager; lived in New York City for 25 years; returned to Massachusetts for a 10-year revisit in my late 40s—then finally left for good in 2006. I knew that Flynn had a large reader fanbase, and several authors I’ve interviewed have cited his books as must-reads. I liked that he now has written three memoirs. That makes a whole lot of sense to me; life just keeps happening. So I read his books, and I got in touch with Nick.

SL: As I told you when I first contacted you, I grew up in Marshfield, Massachusetts, the town adjacent to Scituate, where you grew up. As such, and because of our age difference, I read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City as though it were written by a long-lost kid brother. I recognized many places, family surnames, I know the terrain well…it was hard keeping my own childhood ghosts at bay. Sometimes I really wanted to reach into your childhood and save you; other times, I wanted to shake your bad-boyness right out of you. Tell you that a smart kid like you didn’t have to be a loser. I probably reacted this way because for me, the critical figure in this book is your mother. Your father is far less mysterious and his presence in the book has heft and resonance, at whatever cost to you. Can you talk a bit about your mother, place her in the frame of your story?  Do you recognize her in yourself?

NF:  My mother is a ghost presence in ABNISC, simply because that book focuses on how the trajectory of my life and the trajectory of my father’s life led us both into a homeless shelter for a few overlapping years. Yet my mother is the question behind everything we both do, hovering, both in her presence and in her absence, over us. Maybe there was no other place my father and I could have wrestled with the ghost of her but in that shelter, on those streets. And the question of how much of my mother I see in myself, I imagine we all hope that only the positive genes are passed on, but I don’t think it works that way. And as for your mothering instincts toward me, very sweet, but I do believe that all my fuck ups led me to where I am now.

SL: What part does place play in your life? I ask this because I think a person’s aesthetics and sense of self are often rooted in the physical landscape he or she grew up in. As a young man you were drawn to Provincetown, and returned for months at a time to live on a boat moored there. For those of us from the South Shore, P-town was right across the bay, an attainable, alluring ‘other,’,and yet similar enough to where we came from so perhaps it offered comfort, as well as a kind of anonymity.

NF: I am, for better or worse, deeply rooted in the northeast of the United States, seemingly by the circumstances of birth, just as my mother and father were, who grew up in the same town as I did—Scituate—and didn’t get so very far from it. My father moved up and down the east coast, but it doesn’t seem he strayed too far from the Atlantic, which is also the ocean that defines water for me. For someone like me—growing up on the south shore, going to UMass-Amherst, moving to the big city of Boston—Provincetown was a mythical town that could absorb those who couldn’t fit in anywhere else, which is what I often felt. Both my mother and father spent time there, separately, and it is now one of my homes, whatever that means—though maybe it has become simply a place of memory.

SL: I particularly like that you cycle around to some of the same material in each of your three books, revisiting your history from a different angle. Perhaps the angle changed because of time: Another Bullshit Night was published in 2004; The Ticking is The Bomb in 2010; and The Reenactments in 2013. I’d also like to add that when you revisit scenes or events in each book, the telling reveals new information.  

What do you think are the primary forces that come to bear on your perception of past events?

NF: Time is certainly one of the primary forces, this wonderful and terrifying ether we are carried along by, briefly. When I started ABNISC I think I had some biblical fervor that I could actually embody my mother through language, that if I got it right she would rise from the page—the word made flesh. Or that I could somehow understand the deep mystery of my father through words—I know you find him not so mysterious but he is still an utter enigma to me (as I write those words I wonder if it is still true, or if time has actually given me some insights into my father, if only for the fact that I am approaching the age he was when he ended up on the streets…)

In the following memoir, The Ticking is The Bomb, I was wrestling with becoming a father myself, and found that the central mysteries of fatherhood only deepened—what could I learn from my own father beyond what not to do? Yet without him I wouldn’t exist. It is a more interior book, which means it is less determined (what kind of father will I be?), where ABNISC is a journey, where the outcome is already known at the outset (the father will make it off the streets alive). In The Reenactments the mother and father are now played by actors, for a film, so the hope of them rising from the page, embodied, is replaced with light. They are now projections on a screen, which is perhaps closer to our experience of memory, which is all I’ve ever been working with.  

SL: It is a bit simplistic to say that The Ticking is The Bomb centers on two huge events: Abu Ghraib and the birth of your daughter. Nonetheless, in terms of the emotional force fields of the book, those are the currents that affected me the most. I wondered how conscious that was when you started the book … or if the writing seemed to find its own way toward these two poles?

NF:  It began with an obsession over the effects of the Abu Ghraib photographs on the American psyche and what they revealed, yet I really hoped to finish that project before my daughter arrived—I didn’t want to be wrestling with shadows still when I first held her, but there I was. The thing about the Abu Ghraib photographs that surprised me wasn’t the fact that W. had sanctioned torture—as governor he’d overseen the most executions in Texas history—but how quickly the majority of Americans went along with it. It was that shadow that interested me, and it only seemed honest to examine my own shadows. 

SL: The Reenactments seems to me to be the most philosophical of the three books, focusing on identity, ego, and the peculiarities of contemporary life, in which if you write a successful memoir, you may find yourself in the position of seeing actors portray you and your family members. I think this phenomenon may be specifically American; other cultures seem to prefer a historical view in films when centered on real peoples’ lives. Also, snide aside: only in America could you make a film of your memoir and have to change the title because it has a bad word in it! (if that’s the reason the movie was called Being Flynn?)

I read somewhere that broadly, writing a memoir should be like writing a movie of your life, because the goal is to make sure the language the writer uses is imagistic enough to allow readers to imagine that life; that language places readers in the memoir writer’s shoes, and the writer takes pains to remain at arm’s length. To reduce the film-making experience to a manageable discussion, would you address some of your reactions to seeing yourself portrayed, at different ages? 

NF: ABNISC seemed nearly unfilmable, so I admire what Paul Weitz was able to do with the script. I didn’t write it with any sense of it being turned into a film, and the subsequent memoirs are even less likely to ever be filmed, which is fine by me. As for seeing myself portrayed, I have almost no insights—Paul Dano is an amazing actor, but I have no sense if what he did is anything like who I am. As for what the general experience of seeing my life portrayed by these great actors I can only say that it is a complicated question, which is why it took an entire book (The Reenactments) to attempt to capture it.

SL: Finally, and please let me know if this is territory you are not comfortable talking about, there has been a paradigm shift in your family life. You are the patriarch now—your father recently died, and you have a young daughter. As happens for all of us who lose our parents and assume parenthood, this shift does a number on who we think we are … and were. Can you reflect a bit on where you are now, and your thoughts as to how you got there? My guess—my projection—is that despite the rough journey, you would change very little, ultimately.

NF: I feel quite lucky that I got to resolve nearly everything with my father before he died—I wrote three memoirs that touch on him and on our relationship, I have written several poems, and then there’s the film, which I got to watch with him. I think it all helped to prepare me for being a father myself, and I imagine we all imagine we will do it better than our own parents did, but I guess that will be for my daughter to decide.  

 

 

 

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The Memory Palace /2014/06/25/memory-palace/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=memory-palace /2014/06/25/memory-palace/#comments Wed, 25 Jun 2014 13:34:30 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=1966 Once again, as has happened several times in the course of discovering memoirs and writers, I picked up Mira Bartók’s book purely by chance. I was waiting for a friend—we’d chosen a bookstore as the meeting point, in case one Continue reading...

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Once again, as has happened several times in the course of discovering memoirs and writers, I picked up Mira Bartók’s book purely by chance. I was waiting for a friend—we’d chosen a bookstore as the meeting point, in case one of us hit traffic—and I spotted The Memory Palace. I read a book called The Memory Palace quite a few years ago, and loved it, but that one was by Jonathan Spence (Mira alludes to it in her book). I picked up Bartók’s out of curiosity, held onto it because it was a memoir, because it had an unusual structure, and, bonus points, had compelling artwork. And then, over Thanksgiving, I read it.

Her memoir is stunning. We accept that everyone’s life is different, and that everyone has his or her singular story to tell. Still, Mira’s story is a revelation on so many levels. What good fortune my friend was running late that day last fall, and I had a few minutes to poke around in RiverRun! (RiverRun is a wonderful independent bookstore in Portsmouth, NH.)

SL: There are so many layers of story embedded in your beautifully crafted memoir, The Memory Palace, that it’s difficult to figure out how to tease them apart so I can ask coherent questions. But, first of all, I have to tell you how much I love the artwork that accompanies the beginning of each new chapter. The illustrations, which are all your own, are extraordinary, and I would like to know a bit about your background as an artist. I am always interested in people who seem to have half of their heart in the art world and the other half in the world of words. How has that worked out for you?

MB: Thanks for asking about that, Susan. I am always torn between the two, to tell you the truth. I probably always will be. I started out as a visual artist—went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied painting and multimedia arts. Even though I have an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I also have a graduate degree in painting from the University of Illinois, Chicago. I went to U. of I. right after art school but by that time (age 23), I was already deeply entrenched in Chicago’s gallery scene. I eventually found a gallery in New York as well, which closed in the late 80s or early 90s. Anyway, the funny thing is that I always got most excited whenever I saw my work reproduced in exhibition catalogs. There is something so intimate about holding a book of pictures. Eventually, as my work became more and more narrative and I became more and more disenchanted with the gallery world, I moved closer to illustration. Now I only seem to do artwork that goes with my stories. And I just did my second book cover—a portrait of Kafka for the Spring 2014 issue of the Massachusetts Review. I have a couple illustrated stories in there as well. (The drawing below is from the introduction to Part Two [The New World].

part2-The New World

SL: Still thinking about the structure of the book, in addition to the artwork you have inserted segments from your mother’s diary between the chapters. These are crucial, I think, for the reader, because they allow us direct access to your mother. Despite her many complex and exhausting manifestations of mental illness, there is something so endearing about her, and much to admire: her curiosity, her passion for art, her humor, her insights into the human condition. Here is an excerpt: 

“In Chinese astrology, this is the Year of the Horse: a year for self-reliance, independence and travel. As for me, when I don’t have fits of blanking out, which are numerous in this city, I try to be productive. I am working now on covering an old quilt with an abstract sheet. I had sent one to my cousin and would send one to my oldest daughter if i knew where she lived. I decided I needed one for myself to keep warm. They are called ‘comforters.’ From now on, I look after Number One.”

It seems to me that to include your mother’s own words in this book was a profoundly loving act. Were you conscious of that?

MB: Oh, definitely. I actually feel like my mother could have been a writer if she hadn’t been so ill. Her writing was so poetic and strange and luminous, much more than mine, my sister’s, or my father’s. And I wanted the book to honor her in a way and what better way than to have her own beautiful words inside it.

SL: You and your sister reacted differently in how you dealt with your mother’s illness and her persistent attempts to invade your lives and sow endless chaos. Would you mind talking about that difference a little, for readers of this interview who have not read your book? And also comment on what I thought was an amazing bond that you and your sister had, in which you allowed each other to set boundaries for your mother to whatever degree was necessary for each of you–essentially without judgment.

MB: Well, I wouldn’t say we negotiated this difference totally without judgment. But I think that I had much more compassion for her decision (to not have contact with our mom) after writing my book. I agree with Annie Dillard who said, referring to writing about family (if I’m remembering correctly): “Writing should be an art, not a martial art.” While I understood my sister’s decision, I had trouble with our unspoken rule of silence. I felt like it was too painful for my sister to discuss our mother, and by not talking about her this, our mother became the elephant in the room. But when our mother was dying, my sister did show up and we had a lovely bond—all three of us—that last month together. It was very moving and my sister and I are both very grateful for having had that time together with our mother who we hadn’t seen in seventeen years. I think we both felt like we got the best of her in the end and that drew us closer. It hasn’t always been easy between us, as my sister and I are so very different, but at the end of our mother’s life, we could both finally come together for her and it was very healing.

SL: Reading the last 50 or so pages of The Memory Palace was so intense that I felt myself zooming through it. I was so invested in discovering how your mother’s story resolves—and then, you, the author who has been my trusted and steady guide throughout, is herself felled by frightening medical problems. How was it to write those final pages? How were you physically able to? What are your thoughts looking back on those days when it must have seemed as though the accumulation of stressors was just too much? And, finally, how is your health now?

MB: Forgive me if I don’t answer all your questions—because of my TBI (traumatic brain injury), I tend to have problems with following too many questions in a row. I should have told you that before. Sorry! Anyway, to answer one of your questions—my health is a bit better now but I still have many cognitive problems and always will, since I am way past the time when you see any major changes in improvement. As far as writing those last pages—I don’t actually remember how it was to write them as I have very poor memory now. But I do recall it being extremely difficult to write the entire book—not just because it was a memoir that dealt with difficult issues and painful past events—but because every time I wrote something, the next day or the day after I would forget that I had written anything at all. So I built a cabinet with slots for papers/chapters/notes, etc. and every time I worked on something, either on the computer or by hand, I stuck the document for that day in that particular chapter slot. And every morning I made sure that I checked my cabinet. And after I had a pretty good first draft, I recited the chapter titles before I went to bed to see if I could remember them. I couldn’t recall all of them (all seventeen) until the day before I sent the final draft off to my agent, but for some reason, that day I could and I was very proud of myself!

As an aside, in the first draft of The Memory Palace, I never even mention the fact that I had a brain injury. Because I have such an aversion to ‘misery’ memoirs, I was worried about coming across as too whiny. But I’m glad I finally put the TBI material in there. It was one of those “DUH!” moments. Of course it had to be included! And I still get letters from readers with TBI or who have loved ones with TBI.

SL: Thank you so much!  And…if you would like to recommend a few memoirs, that would be great.

MB: While these days I mostly read fiction, I have a few favorite memoirs on my list, some new, some old. I recently wrote a blurb for a remarkable debut memoir, just out this month (June) from Simon & Schuster, called Let the Tornado Come, by award-winning poet, Rita Zoey Chin. It’s about love, loss, runaways, horses, and the power of love and compassion to heal. Look for it at your local indie bookstore. I also love anything and everything by poet Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Ticking is the Bomb and more), and my all time favorites are graphic memoirs by the brilliant comics artist Alison Bechdel (Fun Home and Are You My Mother?), Epileptic by David B. and Stitches by David Small. Words and pictures—you can’t beat that combo! My sister, Natalia Rachel Singer, also has a terrific memoir from about ten years ago called Scraping By in the Big Eighties. It’s a hilarious, heartbreaking and riveting read (but of course, I am a bit biased!)

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Palestine /2014/02/20/palestine/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=palestine /2014/02/20/palestine/#comments Fri, 21 Feb 2014 02:20:39 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=1784 When the opportunity arose to see Joe Sacco at ALOUD, the author program at the Los Angeles Central Public Library, I jumped at the chance. I had recently gotten into cartooning myself, and for someone who is new to the Continue reading...

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When the opportunity arose to see Joe Sacco at ALOUD, the author program at the Los Angeles Central Public Library, I jumped at the chance. I had recently gotten into cartooning myself, and for someone who is new to the genre, Joe Sacco is a sort of rock star in alternative comics. He started out with an autobiographic series called Yahoo, which brings to mind the comics of R. Crumb during the 60s. In his book, Notes From a Defeatist, you find some of the most experimental, stream-of­-consciousness black and white comics of the time [‘88-‘92]. In the same series, Sacco started moving towards comic journalism, with a story about his mother’s war-time experiences in Malta. You notice how he captures the reality of the situation with journalistic accuracy, while the drawing is meticulous and beautiful. He followed with his first published book, Palestine, which won the American Book Award in 1996. Same devotion to story and drawing, but now not so beautiful, now more ruthless and brutal, about war and occupation. From there Sacco traveled the world, gathering stories of the dispossessed, with his own character, Joe Sacco, taking us into unknown territory to see what he sees. So one must ask, is what Sacco does, by inserting himself in the story, his story too? And if so, is this work memoir too?

We talked by phone in December. I must admit I was nervous, but more than curious about how he went about his craft.

 CH: So I guess the first question I want to ask is why do you draw yourself the way you do? The other night, when I saw you read, I thought Gene Yang [the graphic novelist who shared the program] was you because of the way you portray yourself on the page [thinner and taller, behind opaque glasses.]

 JS :That’s good, because he’s much better looking than me! [laughs]

 CH: Well that’s the thing. You appear almost hapless in Palestine, but in reality you’re ready to go into Jenin [West Bank] right after three Israeli soldiers are killed. My thought was, he knows what he’s doing: he’s on it!

JS: Well not always, in that case I had to push myself; I was actually pretty scared. Part of the reason I draw myself in the way I do is because I started out drawing in a pretty cartoony fashion. I never studied figure drawing or anything like that. When I started drawing the comic series that became the book Palestine, I was drawing in that fashion, especially in the beginning. At some point I realized if this has any pretense to being a journalistic work I had to draw things more realistically, which isn’t natural for me. I put a lot of effort into it. If you look at the series as it progresses, it becomes more realistic as far as the people go. Look at the first 24 pages; there’s a big difference between [those pages] and the last 24. I tried to lose the cartoony thing as time went on, and tried to draw people more realistically.

Later I was asked, why did you draw yourself that way. My own character was the last thing I was thinking about changing. I never even thought about it, but in some ways, the way that character looks is how I was feeling about myself at the time. It’s not literally true, but more essentially true. That bumbling character was really afraid, not knowing what was going on. If you look at later work of mine, I’m still kind of cartoony, but much less so. In Footnotes in Gaza, I don’t show myself as befuddled in that same way, because I wasn’t feeling that way. I was more seasoned as a journalist and understood what I was doing a lot more. So there’s a difference that’s reflected in how I draw myself, subtle as it may be.

CH: In Palestine you say, “No one who knows what he comes here looking for leaves here without having found it.” I wondered if that was your experience in covering conflict, and the reverse, if you don’t find the story you’re looking for, what do you do?

JS: What I meant by that phrase is if you come looking for signs of brutality in the occupation you’ll find it. If you come looking for the beautiful Israel, the country that grew very quickly in a very modern way, that you relate to as a Westerner, you’ll find that too. If you come to find the religious experience of the Holy Land, you’ll find that. It’s very possible to find what you’re inclined to find.

In Palestine I had some idea of what the occupation was going to be like. A lot was confirmed by my reading and study, but it was still exploratory. In Footnotes in Gaza, I was very much honing in on two incidents. I made three trips to the area, so I knew what I was going to get at the end of it.

CH: Do you consider your writing and art equally, and how do you separate them when you’re doing a book?

JS: I used to think of them as separate things. I used to think of myself as a writer trapped in a cartoonist’s body [laughs].

CH: Well, you have the perfect body for it! (Did I just say that out loud?)

JS: Thank you. [laughs]

CH: (Oops. I guess I did.)

JS: (continuing)… But as far as separation, what I do is write a script beforehand. My work is nonfiction so I know where it needs to go and I know what I need to cover. I don’t want to lose anything. Then after the research, the travel, the transcribing, I start drawing.

When you’re drawing, something else kicks in. That’s when you start weaving writing and drawing together. Because you’re incorporating the words, the two get melded in a way where you can no longer separate them. Often you’ve written something and you realize while you’re drawing, I don’t need to write that—I can draw that. You try to edit out words when pictures can suffice, or rely on words when it’s more important to flesh things out than to make the reader guess from a drawing what’s going on.

CH: You started out as a cartoonist but you’re an artist….

JS: Well, I prefer cartoonist, because when I think of artist I think of fine art. I think of a very stodgy world where you’re writing statements, you have a gallery, it’s just a different kind of air you’re breathing. Cartoonist always seems looser and funnier, it sounds like you’re not taking yourself so seriously [laughs] … but I do want to emphasize, at this point in my life, I don’t think I would be a good writer. I think of everything in terms of drawings and words together.

CH: So, you couldn’t be just a writer if you were to attempt, say, a memoir?

JS: I’d think about it in a different way. There are so many things that come with cartooning and words. Even where I’m placing the words on the page has meaning to me. It’s not just a matter of putting a block of text on an illustration. You’re thinking of the movement of the reader’s eye when you’re doing something like that: how this thought-bubble or this balloon with words in it will lead to this other balloon. What’s that going to do to the reader’s sweep of the eyes? What’s going to be drawn on that sweep, and what’s going to add to it or be a counterpoint to it? In other words, text and drawing really are melded.

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CH: You place yourself in your stories behind other people, or as the observer, but you’re not the center of attention. And I suppose that’s purposeful.

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 JS: With my journalistic work I put myself in the story. That happened almost accidentally. I started out doing autobiography in the Yahoo series, so when I started doing my journalistic work I didn’t really think of it strictly as journalism. In fact, that word wasn’t so much in my mind. I was thinking of what I was doing was more like a travelogue or just my experiences in the Middle East. I thought I would basically show myself and the people I met and what I found out there. But because I had studied journalism years before [Sacco has a degree in journalism], that kicked in, and I began treating the work itself more journalistically. I wasn’t just talking to people, I was talking notes, I was interviewing them.

Because I thought of it as my experiences in the Middle East I drew myself naturally. When it became clear [Palestine] was going to be more of a serious journalistic piece, I kept my character in. In a way that was good. It was an accidental thing, but it clued in the reader that this was a subjective work. That if this was journalism, it was journalism as seen through my eyes. I wasn’t going to pretend to be objective.

Obviously in Palestine, I’m more of a character. I’m the main thread, the only real character, throughout. In my other work, from Bosnia [Safe Area Gorazde] and Gaza, [Footnotes from Gaza] I’m still a character, but the people around me are such strong characters and much more important to the story. I’m there to receive. If I use myself, it’s more to say something about their lives. What I’m not afraid of doing is being part of the story— but not much of me is revealed in the story. It’s more about telling something about these other characters’ lives.

For instance, in Gorazde, I was in an enclave [in Bosnia] and being used to take packages and letters between people. Now I didn’t put that in there to be the center of the story. It tells something about the lives of people when I’m being used to deliver letters between husbands and wives who haven’t seen each other in years because of war. It’s a way of telling their story. In other words, I don’t cut myself out to spite my face. A lot of objective reporters won’t even report on that stuff.

My main objective is if someone sits down to dinner with me and asks what’s it like to be in Bosnia, I tell them. I use myself to tell those stories. Those are the best stories. Journalist don’t do that. They cut out the best [parts], and I wonder why? You’re a foreigner negotiating in a strange place where they don’t know who you are, and that interaction between community and a foreigner is always the most interesting. So why cut that out? That’s what people want to know.

CH: It seems you’ve made your mark doing those kinds of stories…

JS: Well, it’s not traditional journalism.

CH: But what makes you do that kind of work, going into such deep waters?

JS: What makes me go to these places? It’s a kind of compulsion, because there are things wrong in this world and it matters what happens on the other side of the world. It matters what happens down the street. It’s all part of one thing to me. It’s a matter of social justice and outrage. I’m usually outraged by what’s going on. I’m not going for the sound of gunfire. In fact, I’m usually turned off by that kind of thing. There’s an attraction to being a journalist. You want to see everything and you want to be where everything’s going on. And I do feel that when I’m there. But mostly, what I feel is I just want to get these people’s stories across. Most of my work is about after-effect, after-effect and memory, and people just telling their stories.

CH: What’s in you that drives you there in the first place?

JS: Honestly, it’s partly from studying journalism. Its partly feeling that at some point that the objective style of journalism [I studied] had made me see the world in the wrong way.

I grew up thinking that all Palestinians were terrorists. That wasn’t through any particular study, but by osmosis through the news media. I was out of college, and [the first time it hit me] was the Shatila Massacre in Lebanon, in ‘82. Do you remember? It was done by Christian allies of the Israelis. [Up to 2000 Palestinian refugees were killed in the Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps]. The Palestinians were supposed to be terrorists, but why were [refugees] killed? I began to think, well, what is going on in the Middle East that I don’t understand? I began to study the issue and read about it. Then I realized you can tell facts about a situation—a bus was attacked by Palestinian guerrillas, an airplane hit, a car hijacked—you can tell these things that are objective facts, and not give context. Not give other facts, and not present a complete picture. That was a real shock to me because I thought journalism was one of the great professions. One where you were getting at the truth.

But the truth was, that way of studying journalism had led me down the wrong way. These people, ostensibly my peers, had given me wrong information. And maybe they didn’t even know they were giving the wrong picture, all they’re doing is reporting, and maybe not reporting on everything; maybe their editors are quashing [their stories]. You realize objective facts alone do not tell the story. Or do not necessarily tell the story. And it pissed me off. I was just angry when I put it altogether.

After this epiphany [in ‘82], it took years of researching and living in Europe where people were telling me things I had never heard before. So little by little I began to understand. It took a long time before I got to the point where I said I need to see it for myself.

CH: So you went [to the Middle East] by yourself with this urge…

JS: With the urge to talk to Palestinians. I thought I’ll try to find out what’s what, and write or draw about my experiences, but it became much more. It became about getting their voices across.

CH: Did you think it would change people’s opinions?

JS: That never was part of it. It was something I had to do. I had to see for myself. I had to learn for myself. I had to confirm for myself what I thought from what I had been studying. Then I began to think I should tell the story this way so more people would understand it. Ultimately, though, all my work is about what I need to do for myself.

CH: But, you try to make it accessible.

JS: As accessible as possible. Whether it changes one person’s mind or one million, I don’t know. I don’t have any great hopes for changing the world with my books. But you realize it’s part of a popular front, not just my work, but filmmakers, photographers, other artists, other journalists with a head on their shoulders. You’re part of something that’s trying to make sense of what’s going on. Not everyone is paying attention, but you can’t think of that, you can’t think of what impact this is going to have. That’s outside your control.

I don’t think of myself as a war correspondent. I know some of those people and they’re really brave, but they’re on a treadmill. I’ve had enough [of reporting conflict]; it’s actually harder drawing conflict than reporting it.

CH: What are your plans then? Any new directions?

JS: The Great War [Sacco’s most recent book, consisting of 24 consecutive scenes of the WWI Battle of the Somme] signals some new direction. It’s more along artistic lines. It was a way of freeing myself up to explore things I hadn’t explored in a long time. But I’ll still be doing journalism. I love that, but it will be journalism about other things: indigenous peoples’ rights, climate change, extraction of resources from the earth. I’m also working on a political satire, some things that are downright humorous!

CH: You do have a really good sense of humor.

JS: Well, I hope so.

CH: Thank you, Joe!

 I did get around to asking Joe about graphic novelists he likes: He cited Chris Ware’s Building Stories, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi. 

 

The Interviewer: Charlotte Hildebrand is a writer and illustrator living in Los Angeles. In the past few years, her work has turned (for better or worse, depending on where you’re coming from) towards street art, featuring her signature wheatpastes, as seen on walls around northeast LA. In 2013 she took part in exhibits at Occidental College, Cypress Village Tunnel Art Walk, and at pehrspace.  Recently she took part in her first zine festival, at the Eastside Zine Market, showing work that featured her stories, comics and visual art. (She sold 5 zines!) Charlotte’s work can be found at: charlottehildebrand.blogspot.com and ratsnestcomics.blogspot.com

 

 

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Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History /2014/02/20/brothers-brothers-brothers-history/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=brothers-brothers-brothers-history /2014/02/20/brothers-brothers-brothers-history/#comments Fri, 21 Feb 2014 02:18:16 +0000 Susan T. Landry /?p=1797 I met George Howe Colt at a conference on suicide in the 1980s. At the time, we were both doing research on suicide. We talked about interviewing people who were too intimately acquainted with the repercussions of suicide, and the Continue reading...

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I met George Howe Colt at a conference on suicide in the 1980s. At the time, we were both doing research on suicide. We talked about interviewing people who were too intimately acquainted with the repercussions of suicide, and the challenges of writing about it. I remember how generous he was in sharing his insights and ruminations with me. George’s work culminated in his first book, November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide. I was blown away by this wide-ranging, profound, exquisitely sensitive account of a topic that makes every one of us cringe in some deeply interior place. November of the Soul remains the best book on suicide that I’ve ever read. I saw George once or twice after his book came out, in 1991, but then lost touch with him. Some years later, I read the glowing reviews of his second book, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer House, a finalist for the National Book Award, and made a mental note to myself to read it.

Fast forward twenty years or so, to last August, when George was at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, to talk about his new book, Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History. His readings and remarks were funny, poignant, compelling, and I was intrigued by the approach he took in this book: a personal exploration of brotherly identity interwoven with vibrant accounts of well-known brothers in history—including the Kellogg brothers (of cereal fame), Vincent and Theo van Gogh, John Wilkes Booth and his brothers, Henry and William James, and, of course, the Marx brothers.

VA: One of the things I find striking about your three books is the transition from history and interviews (other people’s stories) in November of the Soul to family history in The Big House to your own story in Brothers, with the historical frame an important part of all three. As you explain in November of the Soul, that book grew from an article on suicide that you were asked to write for Harvard Magazine. And I gather that the impending sale of the Cape Cod house that had been in your family for four generations was the trigger for the research that culminated in The Big House. What led you to Brothers?

GHC: It may be only a slight exaggeration to say that I was inspired to write the book while lying on a gurney in a church in Deerfield, Massachusetts, with a needle in my arm. I was donating blood at an American Red Cross drive, and while squeezing the little rubber bulb the nurse had given me to make my blood flow, I happened to glance over at the gurney across from me and I realized that the man who lay on it, a man who looked several years younger than me, had been hooked up a few minutes before me. I found myself squeezing that rubber bulb a little faster. A little harder. And faster. And harder. I suddenly understood, to my horror, that I, an ostensibly rational middle-aged man, was consumed with a desire to donate my pint of blood faster than this complete stranger could donate his pint. Where did this urge come from? Why was I so competitive? At home, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it came back—as most things do—to childhood, and to the fact that I spent my childhood as one of four brothers, each of us struggling for parental attention. I began to acknowledge to myself that inside the “good boy” I had spent my life trying to be, there was—and had always been—an extraordinarily (disturbingly?) competitive person.

The more I thought about that, the more I realized how much my life had been shaped by my being a brother. So I decided to write about it. (By the way, I want to make it clear that I did finish donating my pint of blood before the other man.)

VA: You alternate between the personal and the historical so seamlessly in Brothers. How did you go about negotiating between these two quite different spheres of exploration as you were researching and writing the book?

GHC: When I first considered writing about brothers, I assumed that I would write only about my own brothers. Writing The Big House had given me a taste for writing memoir, and I believed that there was more than enough material in our fraternal relationships to fill a book. Two considerations persuaded me to go in another direction.

The first was literary. As I delved into the literature on siblings, I was surprised to see how little had been written about brothers. (By contrast, there have been numerous books about sisters and an even greater number of books about brotherhood—in war, on sports teams, among close friends.) At the same time, in those books about siblings, I came across fascinating snippets of information about famous brothers in history: about the effect of his older brother’s death on the future playwright James Barrie (Barrie dressed up in his brother’s clothes and whistled his brother’s favorite tunes in an effort to get his grief-stricken mother to acknowledge him); about the subtle but persistent rivalry between William and Henry James (in their letters, they continually tried to one-up each other by reciting their medical symptoms); about favoritism in the Whitman family (after their mother’s death, Walt and his siblings came across a scrap of paper on which she had written, “don’t mourn for me my beloved sons and daughters, farewell my dear beloved walter”). The more I read, the more I wanted to write about some of these brothers. I read hundreds of biographies of well-known men who had brothers, trying to tease out the influence of the fraternal relationship. In their stories, I began to see reflected some of the experiences and issues I’d had with my own brothers.

The second consideration was personal. I had written extensively about my family in The Big House, and although they had been extraordinarily understanding and supportive throughout the process of writing and publishing that book, I was loathe to make my brothers the sole focus of my next book. I thought that interleaving our personal story with the story of well-known brothers in history might take some of the pressure, so to speak, off my brothers. Plus, I love doing research. So I ended up with something of a hybrid—part memoir, part research. I sometimes thought of the project as a combination of my first two books—the research of November of the Soul combined with the memoir of The Big House. My hope was that the personal chapters would inform and enhance the “research” chapters, and vice-versa.

That structure had an unforeseen practical benefit. I often spent the morning writing about my brothers and me. In the afternoon, just as I was getting a little fatigued with self-involvement, I could switch over and write about the Booths, the Marxes, or another set of well-known brothers. Then I’d spend the evening reading about the Bohrs, the Oppenheimers, the Wildes, or some other brothers I was considering for the book. One of the most vexing aspects of this book was choosing which famous brothers to include. There were so many fascinating fraternal pairs (and trios and quartets and quintets) that I had to leave out a great many (including the Bohrs, the Wildes, and the Oppenheimers) for space considerations.

I am the second of four children—a middle child—and as I finished writing Brothers, it occurred to me that I’d written the book a middle child might write. Middle children tend to have trouble making decisions. They like to keep their options open. As a combination of memoir and research, Brothers reflects both those traits. Furthermore, second children are typically smaller and less physically powerful than their older siblings, and thus more likely to use their words to get attention or to solve arguments. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I was the brother who ended up writing a book about brothers.

VA: As you portray it, life among the Colt brothers from childhood to young adulthood was full of rivalry and conflict but short on intimacy—“it seemed the only intimacy we shared was when, figuratively and sometimes literally, we had our hands around each other’s throats.” But now, in middle age, you characterize the four of you as treasured “witnesses to one another’s rapidly receding pasts,” communicating in “a language in which only four people are fluent.” The contrast between then and now in the tenor of your relationships is dramatic. Have you come to understand how it was that all four of you were able to make that 180-degree transformation?

GHC: That transformation was long and gradual. I spent the first eight years of my life worshipping my older brother and doing my best to be just like him. But when he became a teenager, Harry began to pull away from the family and, in the process, from me. That’s natural; it is the psychological task of being a teenager to separate. At the same time, rather than continue to imitate my older brother, I began to compete with him. When I realized it wasn’t much of a competition—Harry was stronger, faster, and smarter—I tried to be different from him. The psychologist Frances Schachter calls this “sibling de-identification” —the process by which, as we get a little older, we try to carve out our own space in the family by defining ourselves in opposition to our siblings. (The psychologist Frank Sulloway likens siblings who de-identify to Darwin’s finches, which solved the problem of competing for food in the Galapagos by evolving, over the course of centuries, into different groups with differently shaped beaks; each group adapted to take advantage of a different food source. Sibling de-identification is Darwinism at warp speed.) So as I saw Harry become the high-achieving, hyper-responsible eldest brother, I gravitated toward poetry, music, literature. Third-brother Ned, finding it hard to compete with Harry and me in academics and athletics, would find his own niche as a risk-taker, a funny guy, an actor, while fourth-brother Mark, born six years after Ned, found his niche as a people-pleaser and all-around good guy. In any case, during our teenage years all of us began to pull away from each other—a family diaspora reinforced by the fact that we came of age during the highly fractious, do-your-own thing sixties. The extent of that separation is illustrated by the fact that though my older brother and I attended the same college at the same time for three years in the early seventies, I can count the number of times we got together (at school) on one hand.

Most siblings go through a period, usually in their teens and early twenties, in which they pull away from each other. Most, over time, resume their former closeness. How did my brothers and I reconcile? Geography played a vital part. While researching my book, I came across a letter Ned sent me in 1976. I had graduated from college and was working in Paris; he was taking his sophomore year off to work in Buenos Aires. I was desperately lonely, and Ned, bless his 20-year-old heart, sensed this in something I wrote. (I’m sure he had to read between the lines; I would never have admitted to my younger brother that I was anything other than perfect.) Ned wrote me a letter in which he urged me to give it time; moving to a foreign country could be rough at first, he said, but things would get better. My younger brother, in short, was reaching out—although he could do so only when we were seven thousand miles from each other. I responded, and after our years abroad were over, we began the slow, halting process of becoming friends. During my research I also found a letter my older brother had written to me while I was in Paris (and he was at medical school in Ohio), in which, to my shock, he told me that despite his years of silent withdrawal from the family, he had always cared deeply about me. Without being too corny, I think I can say that my brothers and I gradually (unwittingly) learned to respect the many ways in which we were different from each other, and, especially as we grew older, to realize the many ways in which we were alike. Our initial, tentative reconciliation (although we never would have used this word at the time) was accelerated when we started marrying and having families of our own; in becoming spouses and parents we instantly had a greater appreciation of the forces that shape families, and of the difficulties that even the most well-adjusted parents and children can face. We began to forgive ourselves and each other for what we hadn’t been or meant to each other in the past.

Sorry, I’m beginning to sound a little like Dr. Phil. Let me close by saying that I feel unbelievably fortunate to have had such a close relationship with my three brothers over the last three decades. From my research—and from the stories people tell me when I give readings—I know that a surprising number of siblings never find their way back to each other. They become estranged. They don’t talk to each other. Or—I find this almost sadder—they have distant, tepid relationships in which they are, at best, polite. It seems like such a waste of an extraordinarily rich resource. These days I often find myself thinking of something my mother used to say in those long-ago days when my brothers and I manifested our intimacy only in hand-to-hand combat. “Someday your father and I will be gone and you’ll only have each other.” How right she was, and how lucky we are to have each other.

As for my favorite memoirs, here are nine:

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr
Townie, Andre Dubus III
Half the Way Home, Adam Hochschild
A Likely Story, Rosemary Mahoney
Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick
Father and Son, Edmund Gosse
And the Crowd Sounds Happy, Nicholas Dawidoff
Looking for the Klondike Stone, Elizabeth Arthur

Many (or all) may be familiar to you, though Mahoney’s (a nightmarish summer spent working as a teenage helper to Lillian Hellman on Martha’s Vineyard), Dawidoff’s (baseball, a father’s mental illness, and coming of age in New Haven), and Arthur’s (exquisitely rendered memories of summer camp) may be less well known.

 

The Interviewer: Victoria Alexander is a medical editor living in South Portland, Maine, who loves storytelling in many forms–memoir, oral history, personal essay–and spends entirely too much time reading cooking blogs and plotting the next meal. She is the author of In the Wake of Suicide: Stories of the People Left Behind and, with her daughter, recently launched a blog about her mother’s recipe box: cookingwithlois.blogspot.com.
 

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