…when you hand yourself over to an hour freewrite about numbers and math, and it all adds up to the shape your bones will be when your body goes to the fire. (& instead of scrawling your usual “thank you” at the end of your freewriting, which Laraine Herring taught you in her workshop—thanking yourself and your writer self for showing up—you write “mic drop.”)
Sometimes I encounter a book I know I want to reread again and again, to understand grief, and humanity, and move my psyche toward wholeness. Among these glittering narratives is The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, by my friend Gayle Brandeis. (Gayle Brandeis and I met when we both attended the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program—and then, as now, she seemed an angel in the world, though with the beauty of authenticity shining through.)
In her memoir, Gayle captures the static that is chronic worry about a damaged loved one…when someone close is suffering in an inescapable stew of chaos, the background noise of concern is constant…and Gayle depicts the grim throb that can be brought on by the phone’s ring…she shows how complicated is the very human wish for relief…
As I read her memoir, I imagine I’m sitting alongside the narrator in the patrol car of the heart, witnessing firsthand the human struggle between connection and release, touching the complicated fiber of existence as we intersect with & knock against other broken humans…how we each bend into the shape necessary to survive the life we’re born into…how we try not to drown as we reach (often involuntarily) toward the drowning beloved…
I’ve been obsessed lately with how trauma shapes our bodies: literally, the physical body, and the spirit/psyche. The Art Of Misdiagnosis meditatively walks this terrain, and also somehow inoculates against trauma and grief, or at least wakens antibodies for understanding those parts of a life.
I read Gayle’s memoir for pleasure, allowing myself not to take notes, just to take it all in…and as I’m processing some of my own traumas, the book provides a balm, strangely reassuring. (None of us are alone.) Taking notes sometimes pulls me from the reading experience, but couldn’t I resist this part, near the end, on p. 222, after the narrator has experienced an intense physical release of trauma…
“When I am ready, Celia helps me up and hugs me back into the world.
‘Thank you,’ I tell her, but the words don’t feel strong enough. How can you thank someone for softening the board over your heart? For helping release a burden you’ve carried all your life? For resurfacing just when you need her? For saving you again, almost twenty-four years after she saved you the first time?”
This memoir appears at the perfect time in my life. And as my body types Gayle’s words (above), I notice they echo how I feel about her memoir, and her writing in general: How can you thank someone for softening the board over your heart?
(…which is a line from a Tori Amos song.)
I recently read Roxane Gay’s book, Hunger, which is kind of amazing in many ways, one being its unvarnished truth-telling. Lots of thoughts about the memoir, but today in the words of Roxane Gay (p. 45):
“He said/she said is why so many victims (or survivors, if you prefer that terminology) don’t come forward. All too often, what “he said” matters more, so we just swallow the truth. We swallow it, and more often than not, that truth turns rancid. It spreads through the body like an infection. It becomes depression or addiction or obsession or some other physical manifestation of the silence of what she would have said, needed to say, couldn’t say.”
The Telling, by Zoe Zolbrod, is beautifully-crafted and necessary. Woven with her own elegantly written story of child sexual abuse, Zolbrod includes statistics, achieving balance between narrative and resource. Anyone wanting to understand this complex issue will benefit from reading The Telling. Its journey is a deft navigation through the intricacies of the human psyche. In form, the memoir works as a whole and as a series of exquisite chapter-essays (some stand easily on their own.). As a parent, writer, teacher, and survivor of child sexual abuse, I found Zolbrod’s book inspiring and comforting in each cell of my body. One thing that sets this book apart from the traditional survivor narrative is the space Zolbrod gives to examination of the abuse narrative itself—interrogating the notion that abuse and its aftermath must always have one dominant effect on the soft tissue of the spirit. (Life is never quite that simple, as Zolbrod describes.) Zolbrod is unflinchingly candid, while also paying attention on the page to the nuances and boundaries of her various roles (woman, writer, mother, editor, former child). Sometimes it feels like she is looking through a prism at her past (and the issue of sexual abuse) and she is keenly able to discern from all sides, a kind of cumulative truth. In particular I loved reading about how she steers through her past as a protective but not overprotective mother.
There is oxygen in this book. The fact that there is a writer in the world who is doing this sort of soul investigation (and that we have the privilege of reading her generous work) gives me hope for our future.
As I consider Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father, which we are discussing in a class I’m teaching at Antioch University McGregor, a couple overarching things tug at me. I am going to try to leave current politics, approval ratings, and Nobel peace prizes out of this.
The first thing: Throughout, Obama writes with such candor. Having been elected president four years after the 2004 edition was published, I find it fascinating to read his thoughtful and (I assume) unvarnished critique of the power centers, and the role of president and government. The type of openness Obama presents in these pages is blankly missing in the speech and rhetoric of so many politicians. When he first wrote this book, before 1995, he couldn’t have dreamed how his life would unfold. Something in that is refreshing.
The second thing: There is a poet in the White House. In some ways, Obama seems like a frustrated poet, but so much of his writing is pure poetry, too much to note here. One that sticks out: the end of the passage on p. 315, talking about a waiter in Kenya:
“And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition.
A voice says to him yes, changes have come, the old ways lie broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you.
A voice says no, you will sooner burn the earth to the ground.”
The flow, and construction, to me, it’s simply poetry.
I keep thinking back to a speech I saw on C-SPAN when Obama was first running for president, where he talked about the importance of various subjects in school… “And poetry,” he added. At that moment, my husband (who is also a writer) and I agreed, “He’ll never get elected.” And yet…
In this book, his poetry is in his words, and his focus, the corners where he chooses to shine a light. So often, the book reads like a novel. So I keep thinking: what are the implications for us creative people, many of whom have spent careers feeling marginalized and invisible, to have someone who understands doing the job of the president?