I saw my mother for her birthday. I was with my aunt, her sister, and we worriedly drove to her care facility because the on-site nurse had called saying that my mother has been complaining about her mouth and doesn’t look good and Mom refuses to get medical attention.

I was driving, talking to my aunt about what we might say, how best to handle my mother’s fears about dentists, their scrapers, their metal hooks, their drills. My mother doesn’t want to go to the dentist because she doesn’t want false teeth. But she never brushes.

If she is suffering from an infection in her mouth, my aunt says, the infection can get into her bloodstream and kill her. I do not say, “Good, this is what she wants; to die,” but I think my aunt and I are both choosing not to say it out loud. I think about how if my mother was a dog, I could have said goodbye to her years ago, the vets agreeing she was in pain, ready to go, and that this was for the best.

Maybe if I talk about how pain meds numb you completely, how you don’t even feel the tooth being pulled, maybe she’ll believe me and go.

The facts are as they are. They are in black and white; they can’t be changed. As a baby, I lived with my mother and father in Sunrise, a suburban city just east of Fort Lauderdale. The romance of the city’s name is not lost on me.

When it happened, blue and white Hanukkah lights were strung in windows all around our neighborhood and plastic Santas on sleighs sat on the roofs. It was December, 1978. While I was toddling around the family home in diapers, my father, Paul, died in circumstances that can best be described as tragic: he took his own life.

Tragedy begets change, sometimes reinvention. My mother and I left Florida for England when I was 9 and she remarried when I was 11. A few years later, I was legally adopted by her new husband, Steve, who raised me as his own. While I love my stepfather deeply, the biology of paternity is a halachic matter when you are planning a Jewish wedding, as I was, a couple of years ago. In the process of preparing to marry in the faith, I had to dig into some family history.

Congrats on publishing your first book, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death Defying Acts. How exciting! It must be wild to walk down the street and have people recognize you and take pictures with you and stuff!

That’s never happened.

 

Hm. Even when you stand in a bookstore and hold the book up in front of your head so a passerby can see that your face matches the face on the back of the jacket?

Right. Not then either.

 

Cover_NarrowRiverWideSkyThe Minnesota relatives visited. Our grandfather had visited us. He walked among the thistles and goats and chickens while we showed him where the events of our lives happened – the place where I fell off the horse, the place where Brian found a big frog. The goats sniffed his shiny shoes.

Uncle John lived in a cottage behind the house for several months after he returned from Vietnam. He needed some time alone, Mom said. He’d gone to “Dog Lab,” become a medic, and served two tours. He left again to Minnesota, married aunt Barb and adopted the little boy she’d had from her first marriage, and they visited the farm. I remembered he said he wanted to spank his little boy one hundred times. After he spanked the child and joined us outside by the livestock gate, he said he’d counted pretty high, but didn’t get to a hundred. We’d heard a cry per strike. Mom told me not to speak about it as I stood beside her counting heart beats, blocking out the crying. I don’t know how many smacks I heard.

 

AuthorPhoto_JennyForrester

 

Who do you think you are? I mean, what makes you so special?

I ask myself these questions all the time. I imagine people asking these questions about me behind my back. So, I wanted to include them at the beginning of this Self Interview. They’re actually important questions. Even though some people would say we shouldn’t be this hard on ourselves, I think we should. I think we should come to the page, whether we’re writing the page or reading it, with a sense of urgency.

Mike_Edison_You_Are_a_Complete_Disappointment

Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast: Mike Edison, former publisher of High Times magazine and former editor-in-chief of Screw magazine. He is also a musician and a professional wrestler. His new memoir, You Are a Complete Disappointment, is available now from Sterling Books.

 

Get the free Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

skythecolorofchaosAfter the guests left, Soeur came clomping in the scraggly grass across the yard, making the bugs fly, yelling about a book I’d borrowed without permission. She who never yelled. She who was small and skinny with dark, soft eyes that avidly studied the world around her. A quiet child who concentrated intensely, her fingers trapped in some science book. Sometimes she read detective novels, sometimes the lacquered glamour ads in magazines. She read books thoroughly from beginning to end, as she did not believe in skimming or jumping pages. She studied hard in the evening, doing her homework, one subject after another, one, two, three hours straight.

In photos of Soeur and me, I was always much bigger: heavier, thicker boned, thoughtless in the way I claimed space. She was skinny but filled the air with her presence.

M.J. Fievre’s memoir A Sky the Color of Chaos (Beating Windward Press, 2015) chronicles Fievre’s childhood during the turbulent rise and fall of Haiti’s President-Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a time of nightly shootings, home invasions, robberies, and the burning of former regime members in neighborhood streets. During the late 1980s and 90s, from when Fievre was eight-years-old to 18, Haiti’s government changed forms eight times; the Haitian people endured fraudulent elections, three military coups, a crippling embargo, and a United Nations occupation. A Sky the Color of Chaos will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.

In connection to the release of the book, Fievre had a conversation with writer Jan Becker. They addressed some of the themes explored in the book, including domestic violence, father-daughter relationship, and PTSD.

bookcoverNotes on My Sister, the Fox

Around Maple Shade, people still refer to me as “Meri Nester’s brother.” Meredith Ann Nester’s look perfectly suited the early-1980s: long, blonde hair (enhanced by Sun-In), Bongo jeans from Merry-Go-Round, cut sweat shirts, and jelly pumps. I wore husky Wranglers, tube socks, and glasses that remained tinted indoors. Meri made varsity cheerleading by eighth grade. I played trombone and sent away for free pamphlets from the Consumer Information Catalog. Meri was the barefoot girl in Bruce Springteen’s “Jungleland” who sat on the hood of a Dodge and drank warm beer in the soft summer rain. I’m the misfit who listened to Rush’s “Subdivisions,” and wondered how a Canadian band knew that the suburbs had no charms to soothe the restless dreams of my youth.

If Meri Nester reacted to Maple Shade like I did, I might not have gone crazy. But she didn’t react to Maple Shade like I did. And so I did go crazy.

AuthorPhoto_JanetSternburg

Were you concerned that people would be put off by the story you were telling? It’s difficult material, your family with its two lobotomies.

I was worried all the time. I knew that life had given me an incredible story to tell—six siblings, two lobotomies: one third of my mother’s family.

 

Incredible, yes. But who would want to read that?

I’d tell people what I was writing and watch as they turned green when they heard the word lobotomy. But it turned out that there was a story behind the story. People have since come forward to tell me they too come from families with mental illness. Allen Ginsberg, whose mother was lobotomized, wrote: “It would seem odd to others…that is to say, familiar—everybody has crazy cousins and aunts and brothers.’ What I first thought was strange turned out to be a universal story.

Cover_WhiteMatterThe Family

IDA SMALL

(b. unknown, Byelorussia; Smalnitsky changed to Small at Ellis Island)

marries

PHILIP GOLDSTEIN (b. unknown, Poland)

Their children (b. Boston), in order of birth starting from eldest

MINNA b. 1904

marries SAM Son DAN b. 1930

JEN b. 1905

Unmarried

BENNIE b. 1909

Unmarried

HELEN b. 1911

marries Lou Daughter JANET b. 1943

PAULINE b. 1914

marries GEORGE Son PHIL b. 1939

FRANCIE b. 1920

marries HARRY

This is the story of a family who made mistakes. Who made choices based on imperfect knowledge—of the world, and of themselves—and had to live with their consequences, as did I, the next generation of that family.

The words “prefrontal lobotomy” were spoken often, common currency growing up in my family. Sometimes I’d hear the term shortened to “frontal” lobotomy. I had no idea what premeant, but it seemed to confer authority, as though the speaker knew what he was talking about. This childhood recognition of distinctions made me—a Jewish, lower-middle-class child—a true citizen of Boston, a city that prided itself on being correct. I really should not have heard any of those words.

Marian Lindberg

So you found out you’re really Brazilian?

Not exactly. Brazil is where the book’s central character disappeared, and where I went to understand why.

 

Every family has its dirty laundry. Why was it necessary to write about yours?

Some of the most personal passages were the last to be added. The writing brought me there, and they were integral to the story. In some ways, they were the story, explaining (to myself and others) why I was so driven to investigate the disappearance of the man who raised my father. While there are some unflattering aspects of family members on display, I don’t believe any of it is gratuitous. Patti Smith and Philip Schultz were two of my guides: their beautiful memoirs are revealing and discreet at the same time. Ultimately, I hope that my message will help others to communicate better within their families. In the short term, truth can seem like the more difficult choice, but my story shows that secrets can have far worse consequences for generations.  

End of the Rainy Season_FINALI had never thought our last name strange until a few elementary school classmates came to my birthday party and chased me from the yew hedge to the back-door steps shouting “limburger cheese, limburger cheese.” That’s what I was named after, they claimed, a really smelly cheese.

“Am not,” I retorted, before seeking protection inside the house. In truth, I didn’t know where our name came from. Other than Mommy and Daddy, I had never met another Lindberg.

I stood inside the door leading from the garage to the kitchen, listening for the sound of Daddy’s car pulling in from the train station. I often did that as a girl, waiting for the life Daddy brought into our quiet house—at 6’3” a lot of life. He set his briefcase down and hugged me, and I told him what the mean girls had said. After dinner, in the safety of our wood-paneled den, he assured me that we weren’t named after an odiferous dairy product. Quite to the contrary, the name “Lindberg” came directly from a hero.

PhotoMarinSardy4In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, a plethora of articles and blogs have been published on the topic of mental illness and depression. As a writer whose work often directly or indirectly addresses mental illness, do you think this sort of mass response is helpful?

In some ways, yes, absolutely, the mass response is very helpful. The cultural silence around mental illness, without a doubt, made my experience as a child of someone with schizophrenia far worse than it needed to be. I had no one to talk to about it and no vocabulary for it even, and so that silence stunted my ability to even do my own thinking about it. In a culture without open conversation around mental illness, I was cut off from social support that could have helped enormously. So I’m pretty much glad across the board whenever anyone is openly discussing it. But with this I’ve also been glad that most of it seems to be aimed at educating people and fighting stigma.

chokecherriesAt Easter, in the early years when my mother was still sane, she cut lengths of pussy willow branches and brought them inside. Not yet budded, they came laden with soft silver pods like rabbits’ feet. She took colored powders and dusted the fur pods. Pale yellow, pink, lavender, blue.

My mother told my father, They’re trying to kill us. She said, They’re coming after us.  She said, They are a band of assassins hired by the CIA to kill the families of Green Berets. He said to her, that doesn’t make any god damn sense.

Reality is slippery. If someone tells you something often enough for long enough, regardless of whether it’s true, you begin to believe it. Or at least you might begin to doubt your own perceptions, think, maybe she knows something I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s something here that I don’t understand.