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.