Jillian Lauren first caught my eye at a book launch party in Downtown Los Angeles. A mutual acquaintance introduced us, and the next thing I knew, we were in deep conversation about living and writing in LA, adoption, marriage and interfaith families. I felt an immediate kinship. Raised Jewish by a mother who had converted, I resonated with her story of adoption into a Jewish family and then marrying a Christian guy. The next day I told my sister in Chicago about our talk. She sensed my affinity for Jillian’s story and sent me her memoir.
When Some Girls: My Life in a Harem arrived on my doorstep, I read it in a couple hours. The story wasn’t anything I’d expected but was completely captivating. Jillian wrote openly about her time as a paid party girl to the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei. As a teenager, she spent 18 months in Prince Jefri Bolkiah’s harem, which involved sex, shopping sprees, and infighting with the 40 other women. She got out and eventually conquered a heroin addiction too. She’s now the devoted wife to Weezer’s lead bassist Scott Shriner and proud mother to their adopted Ethiopian son, Tariku.
You can read about their adoption journey in her second memoir Everything You Ever Wanted. She is capable of overcoming all odds, yet her voice is humble, full of compassion and a powerful encouragement to anyone struggling through fertility, marriage or parenthood. I shed tears over her pages, so I was eager for this opportunity to see Jillian again to discuss Everything You Ever Wanted and learn more about how she became a successful writer, wife and mother.
I came from a radically nontraditional background, from the perspective of most. I have a history with drugs and ill-advised intimacies and stripping. Not stuff that makes me, at least on paper, necessarily the best candidate for motherhood. I put a lot of pressure on myself in the beginning to be good and virtuous and uber-competent at this mothering thing, because this was my redemption story. I felt like my past indiscretions would be redeemed by my role as a mother. What I found instead is that it wasn’t so much about transcending my past but rather about drawing from my entire range of experiences and learning to embrace the imperfections. I think that as a result of where I come from, I’m certainly less judgmental than many of the parents I encounter here in LA.
In the memoir you never sound bitter. Frustrated, yes, but never woe is me. How do you maintain so much strength and compassion, especially for the people who made life a little harder?
I’m not a bitter person but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend plenty of time wallowing in self-pity. It’s not like I’m some spiritually enlightened monk who’s above it all. But in terms of the writing process, I think the least you have to bring to a character is compassion. If you don’t have compassion for a character you have no business writing about him. You’re talking about my father, right? I love and relate to my father a lot. We’re very much alike. When I write about him in a loving and compassionate way, I get to give those things to myself as well.
Life has handed you copious challenges, some you created yourself, some that were handed to you, and yet you’ve become this successful writer, wife and mother. How did you accomplish everything despite these challenges?
I have this life not in spite of those challenges but because of them. Adversity has shaped me more than anything else, and shown me that I’m strong.
What is the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome?
I still grapple with my most challenging obstacles on a daily basis– my own self-criticism and self-doubt. I haven’t overcome them yet. I’m a work-in-progress.
You said, “I have the habit of making plucky, spur-of-the-moment decisions I regret later. It’s one of my best/worst traits.” What was the best thing you ever did spur-of-the-moment? The worst?
[Laughs] That’s a tough a question. I have so many that were both at once. It’s hard to make those qualitative judgments. Dropping out of high school and going to New York was sort of stupid in retrospect, but it gave me a grand adventure. Now that I live my nice little boring existence, those early screw-ups are fodder for my life on the page. My best plucky spur-of-the-moment decision is, well, I’m in the middle of it right now. I want another baby! I’m crazy about another baby! It’s already easier and faster and more fun because we know what we’re doing. I have a lot more faith now. It all worked out so beautifully the last time. I know it will again.
I had to research my own life when I wrote that book because it had been 18 years. This experience, writing this memoir, was so different. I didn’t even know where to end it because the story of my relationship with my son is ongoing. But that other, younger girl – I’ve brokered an accord with her. Writing my first memoir was the way that I did that. It wasn’t my intention when I started, but crafting that narrative gave me a feeling of control. And it empowered me. I hate that word but it did. We have the power to tell our own stories. Whatever may or may not happen to us, the story is ours to tell. I was able to write about that girl who was so unwise, and to love her.
I think your work helps a lot of girls.
I hope so. I get a lot of emails saying as much. As I approach the book release, which is always a time of great anxiety, it means a lot to me to hear that. It reminds me of why I keep writing these ridiculously exposing stories! [Laughs]
Judaism is important to you. What does your faith give you?
I’m deeply engaged with my faith. Judaism was very important to me growing up. I have a strong and daily relationship with God through prayer, my writing, and how I put a frame around my world. It looks like a confused patchwork quilt in terms of how it manifests in our life. I’m Jewish. My husband is Christian. My son is in a Christian school. I move very fluidly between the two communities.
Was it hard for you to send him to a Christian school?
It was the first school that didn’t kick us out. [Laughs] That was absolutely the most important quality we were looking for in a school! But seriously, it’s turned out to be a wonderful fit for him. It’s a precious community for us. I feel very comfortable in church. I love going to chapel with him. It’s really important to me that he has religion in his life, and it’s not as important what the operating metaphors are. I can easily talk about Jesus with him and I don’t find it confusing.
I grew up in an interfaith house. My fiancé, too. We feel like we can fit in anywhere and it’s kind of nice.
My son has such a wealth of possibilities in this world open to him. He is an immigrant. He’s Ethiopian. He is a black kid with white parents. He’s Jewish. He’s Christian. He says to me, “Am I Irish?” I say, “Sure, you’re Irish.” It’s extra-layered, because I was also adopted. I have birth parents and my parents. And so I tell him, “Through my birth mother you’re Scottish. Through my mother you’re Eastern European Jewish.” He rolls with it!
So you feel you are from the parts of the world that your parents who adopted you are from?
I do. It took me a minute though. I had always identified so strongly with my Easter European Jewish family. It’s a strong culture- very East Coast, tight-knit, intellectual, sarcastic. That’s how I think. That’s how I talk. That’s how I always saw myself. My birth mother’s family comes from these salt-of-the-earth Scottish immigrant farmers in Nebraska. [Laughs] Now it’s awesome and I can hold both at the same time, but it took me a while to get my mind around it.
I read the book so I know the answer to this, but can you explain to readers why it was so difficult to find the perfect school for Tariku?
When Tariku was little he had a lot of challenging behaviors related to early childhood trauma and sensory processing disorder. These are slippery and hard to understand diagnoses and they can look very different in each individual child, but in our case, he was aggressive and constantly terrified. He didn’t sleep much, had violent tantrums ten times a day, and he wouldn’t eat. It took us a long time and a lot of searching to figure out what was going on. A lot of schools and therapies didn’t work out before we landed on the things that did. Once we found our path, it brought us healing both as a family and to Tariku as an individual. I would tell anyone facing daunting challenges with their child to just keep trying. Keep trying and asking and looking and don’t give up, until you find whatever modality resonates for your individual situation. I don’t believe there’s any one cure-all.
How can other parents spot similar issues and do you have any specific advice?
The advice I would give is to seek help that focuses on relationships, and on the needs behind your child’s behaviors, not on diagnoses and medication. It’s easier to be black and white, and that tends to be the stance of most traditional therapeutic professionals. Can’t sit still? Your kid has ADHD, so here’s some Adderall. That kind of thinking may appear to help in the short term, and may even ultimately be the right avenue for some people, but I think too often it’s the first recourse and it shouldn’t be.
Can you talk about the concept of “pushing back” at a child with trauma?
It’s interesting you see it as a metaphor, but in the book I was describing a physical exercise I learned from Heather Forbes, who wrote Beyond Consequences. When he was ramping up to a tantrum– this exercise works best if you can catch the child before he’s in full-scale tantrum mode –Tariku and I would interlace our fingers, push on each other, and he would roar like a tiger. It was very important that I was able to provide him with a stable force to push against. He could give me the brunt of his pain, anger and frustration, and I was able to take it and support him. So that’s both the metaphor and the reality.
What do you want people to know most about adopting overseas?
With international adoption, you need an agency that’s transparent, that you can trust, and that’s respectful of the children and their histories. The agency should be willing to walk you through their entire process, from beginning to end. It’s also important to understand that adoption isn’t an act of charity. You’re not saving a disadvantaged child, who should then reward you with eternal gratitude. These children are suffering tremendous loss. In the case of international adoption, they’re losing an entire culture. Adoption is a beautiful, amazing thing, but it’s important to be respectful of the trauma the child goes through, and the loss and grief that follow.
I’d want to know what to watch out for. What makes an agency a waste of time?
The agency should have philanthropic activities in the countries in which it operates. The agency we adopted through had founded schools and hospitals, and was working toward family preservation throughout Ethiopia. You should also definitely talk to other people who have adopted through the agency. They should be willing to give you as many references as it takes for you to feel comfortable.
Why does Jennifer become such a big part of this story? Why did you decide to include her in this memoir?
First of all, Jennifer would haunt me from the grave for the rest of my life if I didn’t write about her! [Laughs]. She was such a huge part of that time in my life. — SPOILER ALERT!! — Jennifer is my friend who died of a drug overdose. As parents, we’re not just our relationships with out children. We’re whole beings, and all parts of our lives are interrelated. The story of my friend dying and the one about adopting my son are one and the same.
When telling Jennifer about Tariku you wrote: “He’s like us. He’s hurt and on fire and furious. I’m scared for him and I don’t know how to help him and I’m worried he’s going to turn out as wild and unwise as we did.” Are you still afraid of that?
Everyday. I think it’s the double-edged sword of being a parent with a checkered past. I have all that experience to draw from, should my son run into trouble. But also, I know all too vividly what can happen. Jennifer was the kindest and best and brightest of us. I wouldn’t wish the pain she went through on my worst enemy. I live constantly with the fear that my child will suffer, and he will, because that’s what life is. I don’t know how you manage that fear, or if it will ever stop.
He’ll probably end up being a super conservative Republican just to rebel against you guys.
[Laughs] He is really into math and science. Which I think is terrific, but I already can’t help him with his homework and he’s seven.
Your husband is probably mathematical because you have to know math to play an instrument, right?
More so than I am, but we’re not exactly the math/science house. That’s for sure.
I have several friends who kicked heroin and went on to live regular lives with great careers, solid marriages and kids. One friend didn’t. He went back to drinking and drugs and died last year. Why is it easier for some people like you to kick it versus Jennifer? What do you tell people?
I don’t know why some of us make it and some of us don’t. I do think it’s important that you find a purpose in life– something that you’re living for that’s bigger than yourself.
I cried so many times while reading Everything You Ever Wanted. My fiancé finally laughed at me because it was happening so frequently. I cried when you talked about your first date with Scott, when you met your son, and again while reading the letter you wrote to yourself on heroin. How do you create emotion on the page without being overly sentimental or cheesy?
I think it’s the reader’s call whether or not it’s overly sentimental or cheesy. I’m a hugely sentimental person, so when I write I try to be exacting about craft and conscious of presenting an authentic and true moment without editorializing and without telling the reader what she is supposed to feel. Not, like: you’re supposed to feel sad when you read this. But I’m glad that you felt stuff!
I love that you called yourself an “obsessive dweller” and said, “That’s why I’m a memoirist.” But you also wrote a novel. What is the difference in thinking between a novelist and a memoirist? Are novelists obsessive dwellers too or is that a different hat you wear?
Writers are all obsessive dwellers! For me, writing fiction and writing memoir is pretty much the same process. They do involve different kinds of research, and you’re beholden to different ethical questions when you write a memoir. I try to protect the anonymity of people or institutions by changing names or characteristics and creating composite characters. With memoir, I constantly examine intention and repercussions. I wasn’t worried about that so much with my novel.
Do you keep a journal or how to do remember all the details of your experiences?
I do. And when I don’t, it’s a giant rebellion. When I don’t take notes about every little thing, I feel like I’m being so wild! It becomes an experiment- what’s it like to just live and not document all the time. In the end it always drives me crazy and I go back to compulsively documenting.
How do you know what to leave out of a memoir?
You leave out what doesn’t serve the story. The biggest mistake people make with writing memoir writing is thinking that the story is already there, just because you lived it. That’s not true. The story is always a construction. A narrative arc is always a choice. The first draft of Everything You Ever Wanted was about 600 pages long and the final product is not quite 300.
You are bold and courageous on the page. What do you struggle with in writing?
Nothing. It’s super easy. I love it. [Laughs]. I’m just kidding! What don’t I struggle with in writing? I find writing so hard. I wonder if that’s why it’s so gratifying. There are rare moments of that spark and flow, when ideas are coming like crazy and your brain is on fire, but that’s such a small percentage of my writing life. Mostly, it’s about routine and grit. It’s about saying I don’t want to do this and doing it anyway.
What is it like publishing memoir versus publishing a novel? Is that a different process?
Not for me. But that’s going to be different for everybody. I had a two-book deal, so I sold my novel and my memoir together.
Did you encounter any issues with the publishing world? What should a first-time memoirist know?
It’s a relationship. I’ve been very fortunate to have a good relationship with my publishing house. I have a phenomenal editor who has seen me through three separate books. That’s a rare, wonderful thing to have nowadays. I think the publishing industry can be frustrating now, because it’s not as career-oriented as it once was. It’s more about what this one book has to offer them right now. But the back and forth, being forced to contend with a vision that’s not identical to yours, can also be beneficial to the work.
You got your MFA from Antioch. What did getting an MFA do for you?
I loved getting my MFA. It was one of the best times in my life. I worked hard to get there, and it felt like such a gift to be able to write all the time. The most valuable thing for me was that I met some of my early readers. I call them my Board of Directors. We’re each other’s greatest support system.
What are you working on next?
It’s hard to talk about projects that are tiny babies. Or not even babies yet. My next project is just an embryo. It has to do with faith.
So you have two possible embryos brewing, a baby and a book!
Yes! Which is how I like to do things – everything all at once!