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.