Thursday, November 16, 2017

The luminous Gayle Brandeis talks about her profound memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS: SURVIVING MY MOTHER'S SUICIDE, which is gorgeous, important, healing, astonishing, and every other great adjective I can think of

THIS  book. This book. This book.

Portrait of the artist as a gorgeous person

Gayle was wearing this jacket the first time we met at BEA

Some people you just know you have a bond with. I first met Gayle Brandeis on Readerville, and I felt that bond. That I got to meet her at BEA, and as soon as I saw her walk in in a green leather jacket, I felt this flood of warmth. Over the years, we've deepened our connection, in person, by phone, by email, by every bit of our cells.  I've watched all the amazing changes in her life--and in her writing. When she sent me THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS  to read, I was gobsmacked. I had never read anything so profound, so powerful, so brave and so gorgeously written. About love, about the mother/daughter relationship, about mental illness, about the things we do to ourselves to protect ourselves--it's an extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary person.

Gayle is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage and Delta Girls, and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns  which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin, and the e-book, .The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence 2014-2015.  Gayle is currently editor in chief of Tiferet Journal and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit.

I love you Gayle. Thanks for being here. Now let's have dinner together.

How did you manage the courage to write this extraordinary memoir?

Theres a moment in Brene Browns TED Talk on vulnerability where she says that the original meaning of courage was to tell ones story with all ones heart. I love this. This definition resonates with me so much. It did take every ounce of my heart (and my gut and my head) to write this story. There were definitely times I had to back away, times I didnt feel capable of going to those painful places, but then I eventually regrouped and threw all of myself back into the endeavor.

What was the why now moment when you realized that you had to write it right now?

Really, as soon as my mom began to exhibit delusional behavior 16 years before her death, I knew that I would have to write about her. Writing is how I best make sense of things, and I couldnt make any sense out of these delusionsthey came out of the blue and turned my world upside down. She explicitly asked me not to write about her while she was alive, and I didnther words held great power over me. Even after she died, when I realized I was free to write about her, when I knew I HAD to write about her, it took me a while to unknot the gag order she had placed upon me (plus I was grieving and post-partum, so it was hard to do much of anything), but I could feel the words gathering steam inside of me and eventually they started to pour out.

What did you expect to heal by writing this--and what happened instead or besides, that was healing?

I wanted to write my way toward understanding my mom and her suicide, even though I knew total understanding wasnt ever going to be possible. I think I wanted to write my way toward a sense of peace. I wanted to build a container for my pain, to give shape to what felt so big and chaotic in my life, to gain some power over a story that had held so much power over me. What ended up being most healing, and was really unexpected to me, is how much compassion I gained by writing thisI started out really quite angry with my mom and ended it with my heart cracked wide open.

Our mothers are almost always a loaded subject. Especially when you are a mother yourself, as you are. How did writing this memoir change your mothering?

I think that as I started to feel more compassion toward my mom, I started to feel more compassion toward myself, as a mother and a human being, as well, started to be a bit more forgiving of both of us, to acknowledge that we each tried to do our best to our capabilities at any given time (and some times were more capable than we are at others). I definitely feel very conscious about wanting to avoid certain aspects of my moms parentingthe way she made everything about her, for exampleand wanting to emulate othersthe way she exposed me to the arts, the way she encouraged my creativity, the way she made me feel limitless (at least in certain ways.)

What is obsessing you now and why?

The thing I really wish I wasnt obsessed with is the news. I feel like I have to stay on top of it, have to know whats happening in the world so I can respond to it, so I can resist in the most effective way possible, and its exhausting. I dont step away from it enough and I know Im risking burn out. But voices like Roxane Gays and Rebecca Solnits and Lindy Wests keep me going, writers who respond to current events with such intelligence and fearlessness. Im definitely obsessed with reading good smart takes like theirs on whats happening in the world. And jellyfish. Im obsessed with jellyfishI love how beautiful and graceful they are, and am fascinated by how they can exist without a brain or heart. I was stung by one twenty or so years agoIm still waiting for my jellyfish superpowers.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Who is one of the most generous and amazing writers you know? Why, Caroline Leavitt, of course! I am so very grateful to know you and thank you for all you do of promote books and writers. You give so much and I hope you know how deeply it is appreciated, and how beloved you and your books are. 

If your mother had been able to read this book, what do you think her reaction would have been?

She would either never speak to me again or we would finally have the relationship I had always hoped to have with her, one in which we could speak openly to one another, one in which we didnt have to be on guard around each other. I very much would like to think it would be the latter. I know I feel close to her now in a way I wish I had when she was alive; Id like to think that feeling would be mutual. 

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