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It’s always a joy to sit down and talk with Michael Kimball. He’s into his cats, he plays softball (and is quite competitive!), he likes music, and he wears interesting T-shirts that make you want to scoot your chair back so you can get a good look. BIG RAY is Michael’s fourth book and, I think, his most intimate and moving. Whereas his other novels (Us, The Way the Family Got Away, Dear Everybody) all deal with loss of some sort, and are touching and powerful, BIG RAY emotionally dives down to a whole new level. You can’t help but be somewhat changed after reading this book.

Here’s what Michael Kimball has to say about BIG RAY:

I’m thinking I need to start thinking so I can write a piece called, “What I Think About When I Should be Thinking About Nothing While I’m Doing Yoga.” I’m thinking I need to write this because while I should be thinking about nothing during yoga, while I should be focusing on the present, focusing on my breathing, I inevitably start thinking. I think writing about it will help me stop. Thinking that is.

There is a story I like to gloss over but rarely really tell. The short version goes like this. Soon after my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, was published (while I was almost 9 months pregnant with my son, Giovanni), my mother-in-law stopped speaking to me because she was so appalled by the graphic sexual content of the book. As the story goes—in the glib, cocktail-party version—she refused to even visit Giovanni after his birth.  Although it’s not a “nice” anecdote, this story frequently gets laughs from those who hear it, especially the part about how, every time her ire began to wear off, my mother-in-law would apparently reread my book so as to outrage herself anew. She studied it as if for a test, it seems. My closest reader may well have been my novel’s biggest detractor.

We only started speaking again because she was diagnosed with cancer six months later. “Then I had to suck it up and contact her, or I would not just be pervy but also heartless,” I might finish the story, though that part would be more likely to be greeted with awkward silence than laughter.

***

The cocktail party version of the story leaves out rather a lot, of course. It leaves out the way my mother-in-law screamed at my husband on the telephone almost daily in the weeks leading up to our son’s birth, and even in the hospital hours after my C-section, then two days later, when we’d first brought Giovanni home. It leaves out the way our stomachs lurched every time the phone rang. It leaves out that she insinuated that—because of the sexual abuse themes in the novel—I could be abusing our five-year-old twin daughters: an allegation made as though this were a reasonable conclusion, as though Agatha Christie must be a murderer and Stephen King a kidnapper of injured writers or the owner of a possessed car. When finally pried from the notion that I was a sexual predator, my mother-in-law then deduced that my parents must have abused me, and pronounced them “evil people,” turning her attention to railing against them on the telephone whenever my husband actually took her calls. It leaves out the fact that our daughters had previously been close to their grandmother, and had no explanation for why she did not call or see them for half a year. It leaves out the part about how little I thought, during those months, of the joys of giving birth, so consumed was I with a sense of toxic outrage like battery acid spilling everywhere into my life.

So tormented by this internal rage and anxiety were my husband and I that we actually talked to a local pastor about our feelings (separately, I should add; I think we were both mildly embarrassed to be seeking “spiritual help,” which is not generally our collective or individual bag.)  I remember talking with a close woman friend about how toxic the anger felt to me, how I didn’t know how people lived with grudges because of the way they eat away at the soul.  My friend, more practiced in the fine art of anger and grudge-holding than I, rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, what you’re describing is just a typical day for me at work, or having to deal with the cashiers at Best Buy.”

Maybe she was right.  All around me, people seemed not to be speaking to family members or ex-spouses, seemed to be carrying out private wars with the members of their academic departments or a nemesis from their office.  Perhaps I was just not cut out for this anger thing.  And though my mother-in-law had not asked for my “forgiveness” (or contacted me at all), eventually I resolved to forgive her, for my own mental health.  I had come to the realization that Stephen Elliott talks about in The Adderall Diaries, wherein even if anger is utterly justified, who is it hurting?  It may, in fact, have been hurting my mother-in-law.  But I became unwilling to suffer great pain myself just to ensure that she suffer it too.

Before I could call her and essentially offer forgiveness for something she may not have wished forgiven, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Stage IV, inoperable breast cancer.  Is it absurd, then, to admit that I rarely told anyone that I had already decided to reapproach her before she took ill?  Perhaps I was a bit shamed by the fact.  Perhaps I feared it would have made me look simpering or weak.  Swallowing all that hurt, all that rage, all that sense of being misunderstood and attacked, simply because I couldn’t cope with conflict did not seem like something a “strong” person would do.  But once she was sick, everyone seemed to realize that of course I needed to make nice for the sake of the family, and so I contacted her, and she meekly apologized for her “extreme behavior about the book,” and that was the last we ever spoke of the matter.

***

This is not an essay about forgiveness.  Others with more at stake than a vitriolic mother-in-law have written more eloquently on that matter than I could here.

This is not an essay about the grave risks of writing.  Imprisoned writers in China, in Nigeria, would like to have to field my mother-in-law’s scandalized phone calls.

What I know a little something about could only be called the interpersonal consequences of trying to write with emotional honesty.  The way we writers stretch ourselves out on the line, inviting grudges, inviting a fight.  The way I discovered I hated to fight (how had this happened?  I’d kicked my share of little-girl-ass back in the hood when I was a kid.  But my temper, it seemed, had been “gentrified,” and I realized, more than anything else, that I had left the environment of my youth not for a bigger house or even an advanced degree, but because I wanted to be able to live without violence) . . . yet even this being true, I would continue to put my neck out to the blade of others’ criticism or anger when writing.  I would continue to write as if everyone I had ever known was already dead, even though they were not, and even knowing there could be reckoning.

Everything that matters burns.

I believe that.  On the page and in life.

I resist, too, a limited definition of risk, of emotional intensity, that implies a “domesticated” life is a bland life–that marriage and motherhood is equivalent to giving up the burn.  Because there is no greater risk than loving something more than you love yourself, be it a political cause or a child.  I can promise all the young, wild people out there that living a life of intensity does not end when you stop going home with strange men, stop snorting coke in the bathroom of the club, stop starving or cutting yourself, stop sleeping on the floor of the overnight train or ferry on which nobody speaks English, stop living in the squat, stop letting somebody tie you up who probably shouldn’t be trusted to drive a golf cart.  I can promise that self-destruction or partying or adventure is but the surface of risk, and that bigger risks happen later, when you have more than your own body on the line and still dare not to numb out and cloister yourself inward to maintain the illusion of safety.

But I digress.

Writing is risk.  If you don’t feel that when you’re writing, for god’s sake stop.  It’s a shitty job.  Give it up if you can.

It takes a hell of a lot more than risk to be a good and relevant writer, and I’m not sure writers can judge whether our own work has merit in any way other than what it does for us emotionally.  How “good” we are is for others to decide.  But I know from the inside out that risk is the basic, lowest-common-denominator prerequisite.  If you aren’t offending anybody, may I suggest you aren’t doing it right?

***

Still, it is perhaps understandable that when my second book, the collection Slut Lullabies, was accepted for publication, David and I did not mention it to his family. This, you see, is one of the perks of being an underpaid independent press writer: I could rest assured that my mother-in-law was not likely to hap upon my book while watching The Today Show or strolling around her local Target. I knew I was going to have a few other people to answer to when the collection came out, but this time, I planned for my mother-in-law not to be among them.  Planning a multi-city book tour and Facebooking and Tweeting about Slut Lullabies within an inch of my life (while ignoring FB friend requests from David’s father and uncle), I planned to simply never let my husband’s side of the family know the book even existed.

As it turns out, my cocktail party story gets progressively less funny from here.

Almost 4 years to the day of her cancer diagnosis, my mother-in-law died, just days prior to my Chicago release party for Slut Lullabies. To the best of my knowledge, she indeed never knew of its existence.

Uh. Mission accomplished?

***

One task of fiction writers is to get inside the heads of their characters. We are the analysts of imaginary people. Writers approach this in different ways. Some, of the organized, Type A variety, may hang bulletin boards on the walls of their offices, with index cards, magazine pictures, notes or diagrams tacked up: things that remind them of their characters like the type of car X drives and the names of Q’s childhood pets, in sequence. Other writers approach the invasion of their characters’ psyches with less deliberation, hearing dialogue in their heads or simply obsessing about a character so endlessly that every drive, every trip to a store, every song on the radio “reminds” the writer of her new imaginary friends. Some of us are all but method actors. But however we approach our characters, in the end we must know them better than we know our closest friends—better than we know our longtime lovers. Our characters are permitted no secrets from us. If they secretly fantasize about someone else while in bed with their spouses, we know every nuance—certainly more than we can possibly say about the people in our real lives. If a character has some quirky way of slicing an apple, some phobia of driving on the highway, we understand this tic to the last detail, even if not all these revelations make it to the page.

We know what haunts them. What drives them. What they believe about themselves and don’t want anyone else to know. Risk entails writing what scares you most—pushing beyond the perimeters of just telling a story via plot and pretty words, and instead reaching something deeper, more frightening and profound. Write until it hurts, and if you don’t bleed a little, it isn’t worth much.

Of course, as Ann Beattie once wrote, “Pain is relative.” For some writers, exploring social anxiety at a party or the threat of parental disapproval can feel like walking straight into a war zone.

Others have to push a little harder to get to the blood.

***

What was it in my novel that terrified my mother-in-law? What disturbed her so profoundly that she could not bring herself to meet her new grandson and made her husband drive six hours alone to see us?

My Sister’s Continent is a work of fiction, not a memoir that revealed our “family secrets.” Further, it was a contemporary retelling of a Freud case study, not likely to be read as “autobiographical” even to the extent that some fiction is, due to its confinement to the perimeters of certain details of that original Freud case.

So no. Although it might be the easiest and cleanest explanation, I do not believe my mother-in-law despised and feared My Sister’s Continent because she thought it reflected poorly on the family—because I had embarrassed them or made them “look bad.” I do not even think it was because she believed (truly, deep down) that I was either a violent person or the damaged victim of some evil perpetrator. For a number of years, I wanted to believe she was that narrow, that literal (incapable of understanding the concept of fiction, or art in general) because I was angry. But my mother-in-law had a master’s degree in psychology. She was a professional woman, and though not “artsy,” reasonably well-read. So while it would be satisfying on one level to reduce her this way, in the end it would be facile.

My mother-in-law read my novel like a woman haunted. When the fever of her rage began to ebb, she would turn to the pages again, poring over them to re-open the wound. Something on those pages had cut her, and deeply. Her outrage was her shell of armor: her defense.

My novel’s greatest detractor may also have been the person impacted by it most deeply—so deeply that she was unable to look at it as merely “fiction.” And ironically, isn’t this what writers are striving for: to transport the reader so completely into the world of the book that its dangers are real and the reader at risk?

***

When somebody dies, a dialogue becomes a monologue. Upon my mother-in-law’s death, I was left with more questions than answers.  Yet, paradoxically, what once seemed the most devastating behavior ever directed at me by another woman now seems a strange kind of compliment . . . if not a compliment I sought or wanted. And so, I am left with pieces of a whole—stories I’ve heard about her childhood and early married life from my husband’s father; what I know of her parents—with which to reconstruct the possibilities for that volatile combustion. The real woman who was my husband’s mother becomes elusive, unquantifiable, now that she no longer draws breath. She becomes a character I try to decipher.

I see her reading my novel a second time, knowing the blood the first read drew. Why?

I will never know.

But I can imagine. Because this is what writers do. And in the same way we must seek to find something with which to identify in the most dangerous of our characters—something, even, to love—so imagining the things that cut me and the things that cut her, my frightened and relentless reader, as two sides of the same knife brings a strange sort of closure.

And forgiveness.

 

Ego is a funny thing.  It can buoy you in times of need but it can also raise you to dangerous heights from which to fall.  Deadly, even.

I’ve had an interesting life or at least I think I have.  I’ve learned over the past weeks to question most all of my self-perception and the colors of my memories.  I had thought myself a self-made – and therefore heavily scarred – survivor.  A man who started life as a violent borderline sociopath, emotionless and cruel, manipulative and opportunistic.  A man who then found love, turned his efforts to good and heroically carried himself and his bride to redemption.  Over the past month, I have found that I was, in fact, little more than a terrified, sensitive and brilliant child who became what he did to avoid the physical and psychological abuse that surrounded him and that preyed on such displays of weakness.  Who saved no one but was, in fact, saved by the woman he married.  And who, in fact, then victimized that woman, making her into a sacrificial lamb for his insecurities and fears.  My insecurities and fears.  My self-hatred and self-loathing.  My own Dorian Grey portrait.

I know, I know, we’ve had our differences.

Jesus, I know.

You have no idea the number of times when I thought it was over. For real, you know? You have no idea the number of times I tried to force myself to swallow that knowledge, pushing it past my teeth with my bare hands, like a cold lump of congealed lard, until I nearly choked on it. Because I just couldn’t accept the gulf between what I wanted and the undeniable truth.

I am not who you told me I was, every time I looked into your eyes and saw reflected back to me the image of who you told me that I am. That is not who I am. You have never known who I am. If there is anything that I know, and there is so much that I don’t, it is that I am not what I have felt: my depressions, or hungers, my compulsions, despairs: they are not who I am, though they are wells I fall down into, for long times knowing nothing but their dark, cavernous mouths swallowing me up whole. Rage is also what I’m not, and there is so much rage. Days where all I do is swim through it, oceans of fire, praying one day it will end, that I’ll have strength to face what came before, before the rage. Neither am I the thoughts I think that tell me who I am. More often I’m the dreamer forgetting he’s asleep. My body’s mostly what I think I am, but I am not; this body that I’ve pierced and tattooed, raped and drugged, tried to kill, snuff out like a candle, or sell for sex because by then cash seemed like the only thing of value men could give. I am not that sex, though sex is what I found when I, abandoned, went looking for myself. I am not my scars, the scars that you, and I, and they, we all razored into me, even though for years that’s all I saw: not the house I was before the storm, but the ruins, the brokenness left standing, that’s left me wanting just to tear down all that’s left and start anew because there’s no way I’ll be whole again, not this time ‘round. I am not my story, even though I tell, or want to tell, almost everyone I meet “who I am.” I do not know who I am, have no idea, and grow weary of the language that I use in place of being me. Words like “victim,” and “survivor”: I am not a survivor, not of you, not of anyone. Or maybe if I am it is of me that I’ve survived. Funny, all these words I’ve used and thought were me—sooner or later they all become like boxes, and I am not a box. If I am anything I am bigger than all the boxes that I’m stuffed inside, or stuff myself, a marionette, inside. Boxes, no matter how immense, cannot contain the size of who I am, because I am immeasurable. That is all I know I am: immeasurable, even though I, daily, measure who I am by what I make, do, see, think, touch, taste, feel. I am none of what I make, do, see, think, touch, taste, feel. Perhaps if I am anything, then I am everything you did not want me to become, that you did not show me I could be, you did not allow me to explore, did not permit me to discuss, think. If there is sin in forgetting, perhaps then that is what I am: a sleeper, having sinned from choosing to forget. If I am anything, anything at all, I fear that I am much of what is coming to me now, a visitor I called forth. Today, if I am anyone’s house I am my own, and no one, not anyone, enters me, not even during sex, but myself.

SACRAMENTO, CA

It wasn’t until I was about 23 years old that I was able to face my family with the fact that I no longer believed in the Mormon religion. And even then I didn’t really face them. They found out in bits and pieces. The most obvious sign was the divorce, which I never told my parents about directly. They heard about it from my younger siblings. Through my siblings they also learned of my tattoo (oh my!) and my drinking (this hasn’t been verified, but I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about it by now). And of course the whole living in sin with my boyfriend for the past two years probably tipped them off as well.

At first they would try to get me to come back around. They’d question me about my beliefs and ask when I had been to church last. When I avoided their questioning or outright changed the subject they’d get upset, angry even.

But then they just backed off. I don’t know what it was that made them stop asking – perhaps the realization that I wasn’t going to change my mind based on their prompting – but they did. And now they’ve taken on a new tack: Acceptance. Well, sort of.

When I see them now, which isn’t often, my parents will gingerly ask me about my boyfriend and whether we have plans to get married. We don’t. Conversation over. If my tattoo is showing, my mom will complement me on it, even though I know she doesn’t approve of it. I’m always tempted to remind her of what she used to tell me when I was a teenager and I’d ask to get a tattoo or a belly button ring, which was, “You can do whatever you want when you turn 18, but not until then.” I never do say this. Instead, I just reach back and pull down my t-shirt so it’s covered again, and try to act as though she hasn’t said anything at all.

I often wish I had a better relationship with my parents (and my siblings for that matter), but when the opportunity to forgive presents itself, I find myself acting like a bratty teenager. I’ve spent many of the past ten years trapped among guilt, self-loathing and regret as I worked my way out of a religion in which I’m not sure I ever believed. My parents seem to have forgiven me, or at least are willing to look past my breach of trust, for leaving the church. But somehow I still haven’t been able to forgive them for judging me so harshly in the first place.

I’ve begun trying to make amends, but years of bitterness and hateful words have made it a difficult path. I find myself constantly having to bite my tongue when I’m with my parents so there won’t be any flare ups. In the past I’ve been able to spend no more than a few hours among my family members without a huge fight breaking out. But my last visit with them was actually somewhat pleasant, aside from the constant praise from my dad, and one particular sibling, that I’ve really grown up. Apparently acting civil toward people you can barely stand is a sign of maturity.

I don’t know how long the civility will last though. Each perceived wrong brings back the bitterness. Things like when my sister Katijona calls me to ask if I’ll be visiting this weekend for Peter’s baptism. I told her I didn’t even know about it so, no, I wouldn’t be there. Four days really isn’t enough time to plan for a trip to Utah. I couldn’t stop myself wondering if my parents didn’t invite me for fear that I’d turn another child against the church. After all, Katijona, of whom I’ve written before, remains unbaptized (which, of course, is my fault) and shows no signs of accepting Mormonism. When we spoke yesterday, she told me that the bishop asked her if she’d like to get baptized along with Peter this weekend. Her response? “I barely even come to this church, why would I want to get baptized?” Ha!

But I shouldn’t be laughing. I shouldn’t be proud that this 13-year-old girl has more gumption and resolve than I did at age 23. This is the thing that drives a wedge between my parents and I. But how can I not want to give her a big hug and tell her I’m OK with her decision?

I fear my parents (and some of my siblings) will be at odds with me for many years to come.