credits: CameraRAW Photography

Do you believe in ghosts?

No, but I believe in being haunted.

You hear words

By Gayle Brandeis


You hear words like burn and drown and freeze and scald and they’re just words to you. You hear stab and strangle and pummel and hack and they’re just words, too. A few letters, easy to say. Easy to move past. Burn. Drown. Freeze. Scald. Compact little sounds. Some may make you flinch. Send a momentary shiver down your body, raise a bit of gooseflesh. But then your nerves settle; your body seals itself again.


When your body knows these words, knows them in every fiber, the words change. They become the smell of your own scorched skin, the taste of your own blood, the sight of your own fingers on the floor, separate as dropped slices of apple. These words have become something more than words. They have become weapons, ready to get under the surface of you, pry you back open.


Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body

(some tender part of you still flinches)

(some immaterial nerves still flare)

Photo credit: Camera RAW photography

How did writing this book change you?

I started to drink coffee and booze for the first time in my adult life during the writing of this book. There isn’t a direct correlation—the book didn’t drive me to drink—but it feels connected. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I never regularly drank coffee or alcohol until I was 45—an age when many friends are cutting back on both—but it’s true. I started when my husband and I were separated for six months in 2013, and I was feeling a little reckless, a little wild. Part of the reason I hadn’t imbibed for most of my adult life is that for many years, I thought I had acute intermittent porphyria, a genetic metabolic disorder with a long list of contraindications, including alcohol, and my mother, who was working on a documentary about porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at the time of her death (a documentary named The Art of Misdiagnosis, whose title I stole for my memoir, a documentary I transcribed and wove in to my memoir) had me convinced a glass of wine could kill me. Coffee isn’t on the forbidden list for porphyria, but when my first cup in college made me feel as if my bones were going to shoot out of my skin, I took this to mean I was too sensitive to enjoy caffeine. I believed this for decades. I had come to see myself as a fragile flower—a label I once took great pains to paste to myself, a label I’ve found challenging but satisfying to peel away. I still don’t consume much of either, but drinking coffee and the occasional glass of wine has helped me see myself as an adult, helped me realize I am far more sturdy than I had imagined. Writing this memoir did the same.

Thirty-seven weeks pregnant and I can’t seem to stop crying. This is unusual for me. I tend to be an optimistic person. Relentlessly so. Probably obnoxiously so. I tend to be not just a glass-half-full kind of person, but a person who may just point out that the rest of the glass is filled with sunlight; an everything’s-going-to-be-okay, go-with-the-flow, isn’t-life-amazing type of person—in the world, at least, if not always in my own head.

Part of the reason my first marriage fell apart two years ago was because I didn’t know how to let my husband know when I was upset. I spent way too much time smiling when I should have been honest with him. I kept so much frustration and anger pent up inside, so many silent things accumulating until they turned toxic under my skin. I’ve told myself I won’t make the same mistake with my new marriage, and it appears my body is holding me to that, at least for now. My habitual smile is starting to fracture; whatever has been hiding behind it is seeping out.


By Gayle Brandeis


It was a big year for jellyfish,
La Niña pulling them
like magnets to the shore.
A fresh translucent mass
was heaped every few feet
along the beach—
edges scalloped
like flamenco skirts,
some hemmed
with thready purple—
the poison ones,
we learned from Chris,
who used to have jellyfish fights
with her friends in Massachusetts.
Didn’t they sting you? I asked,
remembering horror stories
of foot stings, leg stings,
vinegar poultices,
but she said no, they knew
which were safe to lob
at each other,
the creatures smacking
against their bodies
in brief wet flashes
like living artificial breasts.

The beached jellyfish
did look like saline implants—
a vast exodus of implants
on the lam from Tinseltown,
panting their freedom
into the great bosom of sand.
I could almost hear chests deflate
up and down the Sunset Strip,
could almost hear
a chorus of nipples
sigh in soft relief
as one buoyant sack
after another slid
out of its mammary cave
and flopped its way back
to the sea.

Later I saw jellyfish
swimming in the harbor,
their flounces
billowing in and out
like valves of a blowsy heart.
Jellyfish have no heart, no gills,
no brain—they are all undulation,
all open mouth. I wanted to scoop
them out of the water,
plaster them over my breasts,
let them harpoon my areolas
with their stinging cells
the way my nursing children
would clamp their jaws
around my nipples
when they first began to teethe—
La Niña, El Niño, returned to me
as babies, their suckling skulls
all fontanel, bells of milky light.

So, you’ve had a dizzying last few years…

Indeed. My head is still spinning a bit. In the span of about two and a half years, I experienced just about everything on the list of “top stressors”…I got divorced from a man I had been with for 20 years, got laid off, got pregnant, got married, moved to three different rental houses, gave birth at home, lost my mom to suicide one week later, bought and started renovating a house (which of course involved moving yet again), lost my new mother-in-law to a sudden heart attack less than four months after my mom died, plus I had two books published within three months of each other (Delta Girls, a novel, and My Life with the Lincolns, my first novel for young people) and had to try to promote them while the world under my feet was undergoing such seismic shifts.

How are you doing now?

Pretty good, all things considered. The baby, who is now one, is such a joy. I have yet to find the right balance between new motherhood, writing, teaching, and everything else in my life (including sleep), but I’m working on it. With a 20 year old and 17 year old, I had gotten used to having more time to myself, and the lack of autonomy is challenging, but I feel very lucky to hang out with such a funny, adorable little person.

You’re known more for your fiction—how does it feel to be a featured poet?

It feels wonderful…poetry is my first love as a writer and remains at the heart of my writing life. Other than a novel in verse I’ve been tinkering with, I admit I haven’t written much poetry lately, but I recently revamped my poetry manuscript, Lack/Luster, and have started to send it around to publishers, so I’m continuing to engage in the world of poetry (and am always nourished by it.) Lack/Luster is a “collected works” of sorts—it has a couple of poems from my undergraduate days, as well as poems from when my older kids were little, along with more recent work. I feel like once I get it out into the world, it will create space inside of me for a fresh batch of poems to emerge. I am eager to see what form they’ll take.

Who or what are some of your non-writerly writerly inspirations?

I went to Barcelona for the first time this past summer, and developed a huge creative crush on Gaudi. I was moved to tears inside of his unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral—it didn’t seem possible that a human being could conceive such a crazy structure, much less build it. I felt transformed just standing inside the space, my mind utterly blown. It made me want to find a way to write something equally strange and organic, equally grand. I doubt I will ever accomplish this, but it feels like something wonderful to aspire to.

On a much more mundane level, I was recently eating some really good bread with really good butter, and found myself so filled with awe and gratitude for our ancestors who figured out how to make bread, how to make butter, and how they taste doubly good when you put them together. I’ve felt that way, too, when eating fresh mozzarella with fresh basil and a really ripe tomato—whoever figured out that flavor combination is a serious genius. I would love to be able to find words that fit together in such a perfect, elemental way.