Following the Shame: A Conversation with Deborah A. Lott




DEBORAH A. LOTT is the author of the newly released Don’t Go Crazy Without Me: A Tragicomic Memoir. Lott writes of growing up in a family of leftist Jews, surrounded by Republican gentiles in 1950s and ’60s La Crescenta, a then-isolated suburb of Los Angeles. The family is dominated by Lott’s “lovably neurotic” father, “Ira,” who, among his eccentricities, likes to dress up as Little Lord Fauntleroy, and, for Purim, in drag. He also serves as the local Jewish community’s lay rabbi. When his mother dies, Ira plunges into psychosis, and nearly takes his impressionable daughter into madness with him. The contagiousness of irrationality, a subject much on our minds these days, is one of the notable themes of the book.

National Book Award–winning poet and memoirist Mark Doty called it “astonishingly vivid … funny, horrifying, and heartbreaking — and often surprisingly, all three at once. … As the best memoirs do, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me makes this writer’s story belong to all of us.” Acclaimed memoirist Abigail Thomas deemed it “brilliantly written with grace, generosity, and a highly refined sense of the absurd.” In a review in The Adroit Journal, Jody Keisner wrote, “Don’t Go Crazy Without Me truly showcases the memoir as an art form.”

Lott’s memoirs, essays, and reportage have been published in the Rumpus, Salon, the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, the Los Angeles Times, StoryQuarterly, the Good Men Project, Scoundrel Times, and many other places. They have been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. Her family’s legacy of hypochondria was featured on This American Life. Lott teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles, where she serves as editor and faculty advisor to Two Hawks Quarterly.

I first interviewed Deborah during a bookstore event and then invited her to come to my UCLA Writers’ Program class via Zoom to talk to my memoir students. Her memoir about her deeply dysfunctional family is both heartbreaking and funny, and her theme of turning one’s grief into love struck a particular chord with me. One of the topics we were to address was the interesting structure of Don’t Go Crazy Without Me, which begins in the present with Lott writing about child trauma with a group of psychiatrists at UCLA, then flashes back to 1968 when she is a patient at the same institution, and then to her early childhood in the 1950s. There are present-day interludes woven throughout the main narrative. One student said that the structure had the psychological effect of grounding and reassuring the reader that Deborah was okay and had survived into the future. We also wound up talking a lot about the courage it took to write the story. About that, another student said, with awe and envy, “She’s so honest.”

I appreciated the chance to interview Deborah again and to delve even deeper into her book. This interview was conducted by email.

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BARBARA ABERCROMBIE: Deborah, what a book you’ve written! I love the idea that the best memoirs belong to all of us. I grew up on the other side of the country more than a decade earlier than you, with a mildly crazy family, but I had such a sense of recognition reading your story. The secrets, the complicated family dynamics of parents and siblings, the town I didn’t feel I belonged in. Do you think all crazy families are alike in certain ways and maybe all families are crazy — so that to some degree, your book is both singular and universal?

DEBORAH LOTT: Since the book came out, readers have been confessing stories to me of a lot more family disharmony than I might have suspected. That’s one of the wonderful things about memoir — it frees readers to talk about their own histories and see them through a different lens. If told well enough, the singular does become universal.

When I was about 12, perhaps after a more than usually rancorous family fight, I wrote this sentence: “Families force people to live together who might otherwise hate one another.” It’s really the luck of the genetic draw whether people in a family are enough alike to understand one another. Society holds up unrealistic ideals for family life. Mothers are still expected to be selfless, and fathers strong, and everyone is supposed to subjugate their needs to the needs of the group. Of course, that’s not the way it is at all: everyone wants what they want — which is pretty much everything ­­­­­­— all the time, and other family members are easy to blame for whatever one’s not getting.

What do you think moves a memoir from the singular to the universal?

A lot of work, sometimes years of it — rewriting, thinking, trying to gaze outward, being aware of a bigger picture. While at the same time. the writer holds on to singular and specific details and feelings. When fully imagined, the singular becomes universal.

I love to teach Don’t Go Crazy Without Me in my classes for many reasons, but one of the most important is the structure. In the prologue, you start out in the present then two pages later go back to age 16, then chapter one begins when you’re age four, and the book moves forward chronologically, but with pop-ups into the present, which anchor the reader. Did you start with this structure, or did it evolve as you wrote?

The present-day episodes were a relatively late-in-the-game addition. The book started out as a straight coming-of-age story. Then I shifted that scene at age 16 to the beginning because it represented the time when the narrator’s sanity was most at peril. But as I was writing, I was always obsessing about the ways one’s past reverberates in the present. The present-day episodes show how childhood shaped me both day-to-day and in my larger choices and life decisions. And for me, probably for many of us, childhood’s never really over.

I also use your book in class because it’s so brutally honest not only about family secrets (which we do expect in a memoir) but also the sexual details. The chapter about Moby-Dick turning you on is hilarious. Care to comment on that?

I was a sexual kid and a sexual adolescent and a sexual adult. I always wonder what’s left out when I read de-sexed memoirs of childhood. I was assigned to write a paper on Moby-Dick at a time when I had created this obsessive-compulsive ritual that required me to negate words as soon as I’d written them. Writing had become incredibly fraught. At the same time, I was a teenage girl who had crushes on boys who ignored me, so no real-life sexual outlet. There was so much repressed erotic energy that I perceived in the Pequod sailors’ driven, obsessive, hunt for the white whale, and that energy somehow converged with the repressed erotic energy of my adolescence and my frustration over the way I was restricting my own writing, and it all culminated in my masturbating my way through that paper.

A few days later, my high school English teacher announced that it was the best paper he’d ever received from a high school student about Moby-Dick. The multi-orgasmic approach to writers’ block. No comment on whether that method has borne out.

One of the things my students worry about is: What will people think? If you write the truth will your family and friends disown you? Sue you? How did you barrel, or inch, your way past those concerns to write so honestly?

Both my parents are dead, so I didn’t have to worry about their reactions. Neither of my two brothers reads my work. They’re not big readers of literature, and they’ve made a decision that if what I write might cause conflict, they’d prefer not to know. I tried to write the book with empathy for all involved and not to reveal secrets that weren’t mine to reveal. My brother (Paul in the book) and I have already resurrected, dissected, and analyzed to the hills and back most of the events of our childhood. There is a present-day episode in the book where he gets his say on the past.

A certain ruthlessness is required to write memoir. I can’t justify writing memoir on an absolute moral basis. No matter how you go about it, there’s an element of exploitation in it — even if it’s only of your own pain. It’s turning one’s life into a performance on the page. I choose to do it anyway. 

Another reason I’m a fan of your book is the tone of your writing. Though it’s a dark book, really painful in places, the tone is often edgy and funny. Or is that your natural voice? (But finding your natural voice can be hard for writer sometimes.)

The tone of the book is my native sensibility. It’s how I get through life. Despite the trauma, my family shared a lot of humor and a sense of the absurd. That particular bittersweet, ironic shtetl Jewish humor was very much a part of our family’s perspective on the world. And here’s the truth: sometimes I write something that feels incredibly sad, verging on the melodramatic, and I don’t know if I’m being funny till someone else reads it and laughs.

I thought a lot about King Lear when I was writing the last part of the book where my father is losing his mind. Those moments with the Fool and Lear trudging over the heath while Lear becomes progressively undone are so deeply sad and also intermittently funny. Until the play takes that final tragic turn with Lear sobbing over the body of his daughter Cordelia — and you find yourself sobbing along — until then, the full register of human emotions is engaged.

You use a lot of specific details, the sensory details of your childhood. Please talk about memory in memoir, how details can come back. How they came back to you.

I’m not sure they ever left! I remember more about my first five years probably than what happened last week. I’m not sure why that is — some cross in my neural wiring? What I tell my students is that if you start to write about an event, a time period, and immerse yourself in the sensory substrates of the experiences, a lot that you don’t know you remember will come back. I have a lot of random memories floating up all the time. Sometimes I remember something from age three or four that I haven’t thought about for years. Do your own early childhood memories surface a lot?

Not really. I didn’t find being a child very interesting. I just wanted to grow up and be independent. 

And you really became a model for so many of us of how to be a grown-up — and a grown-up writer. 

Thank you! You write that you felt seen by your father — feeling seen by someone is such a profound part of real love. What did it mean to you? Did you ever feel seen by your mother?

That’s a big part of what seek in human relationships, isn’t it? For someone else to see us for who we really are, in all our contradictions. And accept us. Isn’t that what sends many of us into therapy, to be seen that way, finally? My dad and I — for all the mishegoss and grief and trauma — saw each other. I got who he was, I felt gotten. I struggled over saying that in the book because my early readers wondered why I wasn’t more enraged at my dad. I was very angry in adolescence and my early 20s, when I first started to regard myself as a feminist, but the fundamental fact of our interaction was that we got each other. My mom regarded me as some foreign creature that had fallen into her lap from outer space. She didn’t get how I could have such extreme emotional reactions to events. She had worked at shutting herself down. I suspect her Russian immigrant mother had pretty relentlessly shut her down. She valued stoicism and I was drama drama drama, at a pretty high pitch, all the time. She called me the Princess and the Pea.

Do you think one of the reasons we write memoir is also to feel seen that way?

Yes. I think that’s probably the secret of all memoir writers.

The scene early on when you’re five years old and your brother is watching the neighbors through binoculars, you write that he was coaching you in the art of spying, the two of you making yourselves observers rather than members of your community — seems a wonderful metaphor for becoming a writer. You became the observer of your family and your community. The town, La Crescenta, your house, all become characters in the story. When did you realize you were a writer?

Very early on, I thought of myself as a writer. The first story I “wrote” was before I could actually write and I had to dictate it to my mother. I was with my dad on the way to the library, and as we drove through the crosswalk near my elementary school, I saw these two girls walking there where I had previously walked. I felt as if I were observing them from the separate vantage point of our big, elevated car, while also remembering how it felt to walk in that crosswalk. And then I projected myself imaginatively into those girls. That dual perspective generated a torrent of narrative. That is what memoir is about: you’re outside from a later perspective reinhabiting an earlier self. You’re in two places at once, and there’s something heady about that.

I also discovered early on the power of writing. I’d show those other kids on the playground who wouldn’t play with me; I’d write about everything that was happening. They were just in the moment. I was in it, and outside it, and appraising it, and shaping it in language.

You were a volunteer in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and your description of him on stage is incredibly moving. You write how you fell in love with a cause bigger than your family, and that when Bobby was assassinated (you were in the Ambassador Hotel at the time) you realized that crying wasn’t crazy. Your grief — expressing deep emotion — made you sane. Emotion and hysteria are not the same thing. You cried for Bobby in a way that you couldn’t cry for your father. You learned that grieving could be healthy.

I was trapped between the dichotomy of my father’s hysteria — overblown, disproportionate, performative emotion — and my mother’s repression. He had been grieving my grandmother for about three years at that point and it was very unhealthy — a I just refuse to go on without her — form of grief. Until the night of Bobby’s assassination, I’d never really seen adults cry together over a communal, public loss. They cried and they comforted one another without shame or self-consciousness. That showed me a path between my father’s version of emotion and my mother’s emotionlessness. Acknowledging the universality of loss and the normalcy of the associated grief shocked me into sanity.

What’s the most important thing you tell your students about writing memoir?

Follow the shame. Go the place where you least want to go and feel the most embarrassment and think no one will be able to relate and you’ll probably find the most universal experience. Get the therapy draft out of you first, the one that’s crying why me why me or goddamn them. Then put it away and write a book someone else will want to read. Write with compassion but if you’re too worried about how the other people in your book are going to react, or even how readers are going to react, maybe you should be working in another genre.

I call that Why Me draft the WTF draft. Same thing. And it needs to be written out to get to the story.

In the prologue, you write: “As if I could still get it right … As if I could fix my childhood … As if I could achieve clarity…” This is beautiful and true. The perfect motive to write memoir — whether it’s our childhood, or marriage — or whatever we went through. Is this what drove you to write your book? And to “wash the terror out of the bad parts, to get it all back…” And did you? What did you get out of writing this?

Yes, the truth for me is that I still want it back. I always want everything back. I hate loss and have a really hard time letting go. Of anything. Or anyone. Longing for whatever is lost — which will ultimately be everything for all of us — is part of the motive that drives me to write. With memoir, you get to slow experience down and hold it in your hand like an object you can turn over and examine from all angles. I think every artist is ultimately engaged in the futile attempt to control time. When you’re crafting a piece of art, you create the illusion of lifting your subject matter, and yourself, out of the flow of time.

How did this change you?

I don’t know if it did. I had lots of little Aha! moments along the way, for sure. That’s something else we write memoir for, those little revelations. Oh, so that’s what it was about. I feel like I could write five more books about the same period in my life, and they would be five different books. Couldn’t we all write five different books about any single day of our lives if we fully examined it from multiple perspectives? Being alive is such a complex and confounding thing.

Amen.

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Barbara Abercrombie’s latest book is The Language of Loss, an anthology of poetry and prose for grieving and celebrating the love of one’s life. She teaches a master class in memoir at UCLA Extension.

 

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