Following the Shame: A Conversation with Deborah A. Lott

How did this change you? Isn’t that what sends many of us into therapy, to be seen that way, finally? 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. That’s a big part of what seek in human relationships, isn’t it? Lott teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles, where she serves as editor and faculty advisor to Two Hawks Quarterly. 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. If you write the truth will your family and friends disown you? You were a volunteer in Robert F. 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. 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. 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. I hate loss and have a really hard time letting go. That dual perspective generated a torrent of narrative. Did you ever feel seen by your mother? Please talk about memory in memoir, how details can come back. 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. No matter how you go about it, there’s an element of exploitation in it — even if it’s only of your own pain. … 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. I’m not sure they ever left! That’s something else we write memoir for, those little revelations. The chapter about Moby-Dick turning you on is hilarious. Same thing. 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. A lot of work, sometimes years of it — rewriting, thinking, trying to gaze outward, being aware of a bigger picture. Get the therapy draft out of you first, the one that’s crying why me why me or goddamn them. Do your own early childhood memories surface a lot? When did you realize you were a writer? He also serves as the local Jewish community’s lay rabbi. Being alive is such a complex and confounding thing. The secrets, the complicated family dynamics of parents and siblings, the town I didn’t feel I belonged in. I think every artist is ultimately engaged in the futile attempt to control time. For someone else to see us for who we really are, in all our contradictions. 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. Both my parents are dead, so I didn’t have to worry about their reactions. She had worked at shutting herself down. And for me, probably for many of us, childhood’s never really over. Of anything. Longing for whatever is lost — which will ultimately be everything for all of us — is part of the motive that drives me to write. I thought a lot about King Lear when I was writing the last part of the book where my father is losing his mind. They were just in the moment. 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. And to “wash the terror out of the bad parts, to get it all back…” And did you? I suspect her Russian immigrant mother had pretty relentlessly shut her down. I feel like I could write five more books about the same period in my life, and they would be five different books. Yes, the truth for me is that I still want it back. 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. My dad and I — for all the mishegoss and grief and trauma — saw each other. The multi-orgasmic approach to writers’ block. That particular bittersweet, ironic shtetl Jewish humor was very much a part of our family’s perspective on the world. If told well enough, the singular does become universal. 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. They have been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. At the same time, I was a teenage girl who had crushes on boys who ignored me, so no real-life sexual outlet. 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. My mom regarded me as some foreign creature that had fallen into her lap from outer space. We also wound up talking a lot about the courage it took to write the story. The town, La Crescenta, your house, all become characters in the story. When his mother dies, Ira plunges into psychosis, and nearly takes his impressionable daughter into madness with him. The book started out as a straight coming-of-age story. the writer holds on to singular and specific details and feelings. Your grief — expressing deep emotion — made you sane. National Book Award–winning poet and memoirist Mark Doty called it “astonishingly vivid … funny, horrifying, and heartbreaking — and often surprisingly, all three at once. Or anyone. That showed me a path between my father’s version of emotion and my mother’s emotionlessness. I have a lot of random memories floating up all the time. 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? 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! 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. One of the things my students worry about is: What will people think? They cried and they comforted one another without shame or self-consciousness. I don’t know if it did. There are present-day interludes woven throughout the main narrative. 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. I remember more about my first five years probably than what happened last week. 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. 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. Amen. Acknowledging the universality of loss and the normalcy of the associated grief shocked me into sanity. I’m not sure why that is — some cross in my neural wiring? Her family’s legacy of hypochondria was featured on This American Life. I always want everything back. I’d show those other kids on the playground who wouldn’t play with me; I’d write about everything that was happening. I call that Why Me draft the WTF draft. She teaches a master class in memoir at UCLA Extension. The present-day episodes show how childhood shaped me both day-to-day and in my larger choices and life decisions. How did you barrel, or inch, your way past those concerns to write so honestly? 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. You use a lot of specific details, the sensory details of your childhood. I got who he was, I felt gotten. I think that’s probably the secret of all memoir writers. 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. 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. Oh, so that’s what it was about. There is a present-day episode in the book where he gets his say on the past. What did it mean to you? While at the same time. Mothers are still expected to be selfless, and fathers strong, and everyone is supposed to subjugate their needs to the needs of the group.   What did you get out of writing this? 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. I didn’t find being a child very interesting. She called me the Princess and the Pea. I always wonder what’s left out when I read de-sexed memoirs of childhood. You cried for Bobby in a way that you couldn’t cry for your father. No comment on whether that method has borne out. 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. I choose to do it anyway. 
Another reason I’m a fan of your book is the tone of your writing. Until the night of Bobby’s assassination, I’d never really seen adults cry together over a communal, public loss. The perfect motive to write memoir — whether it’s our childhood, or marriage — or whatever we went through. 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. 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. Writing had become incredibly fraught. Yes. Sue you? 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. 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 can’t justify writing memoir on an absolute moral basis. I tried to write the book with empathy for all involved and not to reveal secrets that weren’t mine to reveal. 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 love the idea that the best memoirs belong to all of us. 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. Do you think one of the reasons we write memoir is also to feel seen that way? FEBRUARY 28, 2021

DEBORAH A. I had lots of little Aha! 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. Care to comment on that? This interview was conducted by email. She didn’t get how I could have such extreme emotional reactions to events. 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. Very early on, I thought of myself as a writer. And accept us. You became the observer of your family and your community. Neither of my two brothers reads my work. What’s the most important thing you tell your students about writing memoir? She valued stoicism and I was drama drama drama, at a pretty high pitch, all the time. moments along the way, for sure. ¤
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. 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. Despite the trauma, my family shared a lot of humor and a sense of the absurd. When fully imagined, the singular becomes universal. 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. Then put it away and write a book someone else will want to read. The first story I “wrote” was before I could actually write and I had to dictate it to my mother. Couldn’t we all write five different books about any single day of our lives if we fully examined it from multiple perspectives? That is what memoir is about: you’re outside from a later perspective reinhabiting an earlier self. I struggled over saying that in the book because my early readers wondered why I wasn’t more enraged at my dad. You write that you felt seen by your father — feeling seen by someone is such a profound part of real love. Not really. Sometimes I remember something from age three or four that I haven’t thought about for years. 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. The present-day episodes were a relatively late-in-the-game addition. And then I projected myself imaginatively into those girls. It’s turning one’s life into a performance on the page. Follow the shame. And it needs to be written out to get to the story. I was trapped between the dichotomy of my father’s hysteria — overblown, disproportionate, performative emotion — and my mother’s repression. (But finding your natural voice can be hard for writer sometimes.)
The tone of the book is my native sensibility. But as I was writing, I was always obsessing about the ways one’s past reverberates in the present. 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. I also discovered early on the power of writing. You learned that grieving could be healthy. The contagiousness of irrationality, a subject much on our minds these days, is one of the notable themes of the book. You’re in two places at once, and there’s something heady about that. Those moments with the Fool and Lear trudging over the heath while Lear becomes progressively undone are so deeply sad and also intermittently funny. 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. Is this what drove you to write your book? 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. A certain ruthlessness is required to write memoir. Society holds up unrealistic ideals for family life. Emotion and hysteria are not the same thing. It’s how I get through life. LOTT is the author of the newly released Don’t Go Crazy Without Me: A Tragicomic Memoir. Did you start with this structure, or did it evolve as you wrote? I was a sexual kid and a sexual adolescent and a sexual adult. Or is that your natural voice? Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and your description of him on stage is incredibly moving. How they came back to you. Though it’s a dark book, really painful in places, the tone is often edgy and funny. I was in it, and outside it, and appraising it, and shaping it in language. What do you think moves a memoir from the singular to the universal? ¤
BARBARA ABERCROMBIE: Deborah, what a book you’ve written!