Don’t Go Crazy Without Me is partly about being raised by a father who taught you and your brothers to be hypochondriacs. What’s it like living during a pandemic?
At first, I felt like an expert at handling the anxiety because I’d been worried about diseases taking me out all my life. But this is a hypochondriac’s nightmare: a disease that behaves capriciously, that causes no symptoms in some and total organ breakdown in others, a virus that is so tiny it can float in the air for hours or linger on an innocuous looking surface. Just the words CYTOKINE STORM — when your own immune system goes into overdrive and kills you — puts my nervous system into overdrive.
So what helps you get through it?
The only thing that helps is what’s helped all my life: reason, accurate information, and stepping outside myself. This pandemic isn’t about me; we’re all in it together, we all need to help one another get through it.
Speaking of getting through it — Why can’t you get over your childhood instead of writing a whole book about it?
Is that my older brother talking? Some days my childhood is more vivid to me than what’s happened in the years since. I can’t get enough of hearing or reading about other people’s childhoods either. We’re dropped into this world cold and have to learn everything we can about how to be human from direct experience and from what other people — mostly our parents when we’re at our youngest and most vulnerable — tell and show us. At the same time we’re acquiring this knowledge, we’re undergoing monumental development, physical and psychological. I respect the drama that is childhood.
But once it’s over?
Childhood continues to reverberate through our adult lives even when we’re unaware of how and why. My own childhood is still present in the decisions I make, in the way I love, in how I react to grief and loss.
Your book is pretty funny. Was it funny when it was happening?
A lot of it was very painful. We had these screaming family fights where knives were drawn and horrible names called. They would end when my mother grabbed her chest and said she was having a heart attack. Or my father would hit my brother and my mother would hit me and that constituted some kind of final purge. But people in my family also had a sense of humor. My dad was very funny. People who never saw his dark side thought he was a riot. He was warm; he was boisterous; he told jokes; he ate to excess; he laughed so loud in movie theatres he got us thrown out. He upset the status quo everywhere he ventured.
He created this ritual where whenever we opened a can of food we had to listen for the pfft sound of the air rushing in to make sure we wouldn’t die of botulism. Right in the middle of doing it, he would laugh at himself, so he had a sense of humor about even his most neurotic behavior. One way I knew my father had experienced a psychotic break was when he lost his sense of humor. When he came to believe that my mother and uncle were trying to kill him – which sounded outlandish – he saw it as high tragedy. .
You seem to lack a self-censor. Is that something you got from your father?
Uh-oh. I know that voice – Mom? Mom, are you out there? My father tended to keep up a running monologue of whatever he was thinking or feeling or desiring at any particular moment. He lacked a private vs. public self. He lacked impulse control. I have impulse control. But the confessional instinct is very powerful in this little Jewish girl. I feel a tremendous relief in unloading secrets and shaping them into a piece of literary art. That act creates a certain distance. When I was writing my book, I didn’t actually envision the consequences of looking people in the eye who’d read about all the insane stuff —the very intimate bodily stuff — that went on in my childhood. What I’ve learned is that once you confess, you set up this confessional chain. People who’ve read my book have told me things they’ve never told anyone. It’s freed them, and believe me, I’m eager to listen.
You believed a lot of nutty beliefs your father imparted — about the dangers of germs and food and other children. Why were you so suggestible?
My father was charismatic and persuasive. He was a great salesman which is how he supported our family, selling insurance, selling the possibility of catastrophe. The fear was carried by what I call in the book the “infectious agent” of his love. Beliefs that are imparted to us under the guise of love, when we’re very young, are pretty sticky.
There’s also the problem of the stick and the snake. Once you’ve been warned there’s a snake in the woods, if you have a certain kind of anxious temperament, you’ll see every stick you come across as a snake. If you’re too devil-may-care and oblivious, you might really get bitten. How to find the balance? I always had a propensity to imagine catastrophe. I suspect I had an anxious temperament that I inherited from my father, and that he lacked a creative outlet. He should have been writing disaster movies, not talking to his daughter.
Do you think you’d still be an anxious person if you’d have been raised by a different father?
You mean if I’d been adopted at birth by some very calm Protestants? Would I still have suffered from an inherited propensity to anxiety? I suspect my inherited tendency would have been tempered by the way I was raised instead of being fed by my father’s scenarios.
And you wouldn’t have had your father show up at your 10th birthday party dressed like Little Lord Fauntelroy.
No, my alternate calm Protestant dad “Clifford” would have behaved much more appropriately. He would have only shown up at the party at the very end to stand at the sidelines, eat a piece of cake, and take a few home movies. He would have been dressed in a sport shirt with a collar and dress slacks. He might have slipped a shot of scotch into his glass of punch but his public demeanor would have been flawless. Whereas my father just didn’t understand that his private fantasy of crashing a little girls’ birthday party as an ill-behaved little boy of the 19th century might not be entertaining to the very well-behaved Protestant girls of our neighborhood.
How did having fears instilled in you affect what you believe now?
It made me wonder how any of us come to believe what we believe. For example, why can’t I believe in God or an afterlife when so many people I love and respect do? When it would make my life so much happier? Why are some people able to believe what will make them happier even if strict reason or science doesn’t support that belief? How do some people entertain sort of half-beliefs in astrology or psychics or the latest supplement, and then half-believe in something else the next week? My childhood left me hungry for belief in something benevolent and all-encompassing, and a total skeptic at the same time.
Does memoir get a bad rap?
Memoir writers are accused of navel gazing and self-absorption in ways that other writers are not. As long as you’re making up a story presumably about “characters,” then you can be as self-absorbed and narcissistic as you want. I also think that memoir is degraded because a lot of women write it — if you’re a little cagier, have a swashbuckling public persona, and call it autofiction you get more respect.
Have your two living brothers read your book?
We have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy about what I write. One brother doesn’t really read books — he’s the one who says to just get over it — and the other says, “I lived it, why would I want to read about it?” I don’t have to worry about offending anyone still alive. The dead have to fend for themselves.
Why do people write memoir?
I think memoirists share a wish that that if we just write about our past artfully enough, if we can turn our experience into a beautiful literary object, slow it down and describe it fully, we’ll get it all back — only better this time. There’s pleasure in shaping even what was terrible into something with a life of its own on the page.
And what do readers get out of it?
Well, first of all, it’s a good story. I also hope readers get their childhood experiences back by being able to see them through a different lens. Perhaps they’ll feel in a new way how their childhoods reverberate through their adult lives. I hope, as with any experience of art, that by the time they get to the end of my story, they’ll get to share a sense of catharsis.
Deborah A. Lott’s reportage, essays, and memoirs have been published in many places, including the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Quarterly Review, the Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, Psychology Today, the Rumpus, Salon, and the nervous breakdown. Her first book of narrative nonfiction, In Session: the Bond between Women and Their Therapists, was published to wide critical acclaim and continues to be used to train psychotherapists nationwide. Her work has been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. Poet and memoirist Mark Doty said of her new book, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me, “Funny, horrifying, and heartbreaking – and often surprisingly, all three at once. It’s an astonishingly vivid book, and to read it is to be caught up, just as the writer was, in an impossible, crazy, misfit family. Through grace and nerve and will, Deborah learns that you can’t ‘screw nature,’ or ‘stop time,’ as her father tried to do, ‘but you could turn your grief into love.’ This writer’s love for her deeply screwed-up family is unforgettable. As the best memoirs do, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me makes this writer’s story belong to all of us.”