picture ted bundy with a whisk and a head of red hair

When you ask me what influenced the creation of a novel about intergenerational mental illness and abuse, our sexist perception of the “good girl”, and the lengths children will go to forge a family, I offer this…influence doesn’t have a single point of origin.

 

1.

Listening to Ted Bundy for two days in a cold room in Southern California does things to you. You play the interviews over and over until Bundy’s slow, assured drawl beings to disturb you because it’s oddly comforting. You’re surprised by his voice, the ease, and coolness of it. The patrician charm of it. How he considers his words before he says them, how he hits his consonants like a melody. For a moment, divorce yourself from the man who took meticulous care of the skulls he collected, how he witnessed the skin pale and crack. If you can forget the monster that is Ted Bundy, you might think to yourself that this is the sort of man you’d want to meet. Remember, Bundy was a man who once studied law. Bundy saved countless lives as a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline.

There exists no binary. Watch him. He’s witty, self-deprecating, and beguiling.

Let’s just get a map out, he says when asked to recall where he buried the remains of the women he murdered. Let’s see what we have. We have to get down to business here. I want to be as specific as I can be. Was it a burial, an officer asks. Yes, yes, a burial, Bundy affirms. I gave them a burial.

This is the savagery of the psychopath: the ease in which they assimilate and shift masks based on whom they need to manipulate. They’re brilliant at mimicry. Studies suggest they have the capacity for empathy; it’s just a muscle they willfully allow to atrophy. It’s easier to feel nothing that bears the weight of guilt, sorrow, remorse, compassion, and empathy. It’s easier to be cruel and it’s work to be kind.

When I write I start from the place of a character. I build out an entire person, the complexities of their world, and I follow what they do on the page. For my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark, I knew almost all of my characters before I got to the page. When I created Kate, the educated, genteel, soft-spoken baker, she was only fully realized after I locked myself in a room with Ted Bundy. Because it’s horrifying when the kind person you’ve known for years, the blushing girl behind the counter serving your muffin, is actually callous and calculating; she’s someone who takes inordinate pleasure in the depraved, feels joy when others are suffering. It’s scarier when you don’t see your villain coming.

This is what all those women must have thought. When Bundy feigned broken limbs and disability to lure women to his car, they probably thought this is someone who is in pain rather than a monster who delights in inflicting it. Imagine the space between Bundy, the charming, handsome man on crutches pleading for help and the man who takes a lead pipe to your head. That’s the terror.

It was only when I met Ted Bundy through a computer screen did I see Kate, a woman who uses a veneer of innocence and society’s sexism to navigate through monstrous acts, relatively unscathed.

2.

Who didn’t fall in love with Alice Morgan, a prodigy who studied dark matter distribution and murdered her parents and dog just to see if she could get away with it? A brilliant woman, a player of games, although I imagine that Vegas would fail to challenge and amuse her because she’s someone who would usurp the adage the house always wins. Alice Morgan would’ve torched the joint before the first hand was even dealt.

I struggled with sex in my book. How much of it do my characters use to get what they want? Basic Instinct bored me because it was all sex and no intrigue. There are four women in my book, all in various stages of beauty and undress, and while some of the characters use sex as an obvious weapon and as bait, some, like Alice, simply offer a suggestion of it. Sex is not on the table but it’s not entirely off, either. It’s one of many weapons in her arsenal that she’d use if and when the occasion called. At first glance, perhaps you wouldn’t think Alice to be conventionally hot (personally, I’d disagree) and maybe her body wouldn’t put you on pause, but there’s something about her that sucks you in. Like a black hole. Her ferocity and intellect are bewitching. However, it’s that ease — like Bundy and fly tape: a seemingly harmless object that will seduce, trap, and kill you — that excites you. There’s something sexually thrilling in that dichotomy (the harmless and the murderous), which made Alice an easy model for two of my characters, doppelgangers Kate and Gillian.

3.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the old deaf artist who painted savagery on his walls. There was a need to correct the serene and sublime, to undo the harm that portraits of refined gentry had done, and the artist was something of a fakir drawing out the barbaric. A still-beating heart held in one hand and a scissor in the other. The artist made a mural of the macabre, replete with Viejas conjuring, a Sabbath, and a mad Greek devouring the limbs of his newborn. The child is rendered in a chilling white, but all I can remember is the cavern that was the father’s mouth. — From Chapter 1 of my novel.

Years ago I visited the Prado during a storm. All because I wanted to see Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings. Late in life, Goya painted 14 paintings of madness and the macabre on the walls of his home. They represented his fear of insanity, his bleak view of humanity, and the fulfillment of our darkest urges. Imagine being greeted with the barbaric and terrifying when you stepped into someone’s dining or living room.

Possibly the most iconic of the Black Paintings is a portrait of Saturn devouring his son. I remember standing in front of the canvas for nearly an hour, mesmerized by something so utterly horrifying, but at the same time I thought of something different. What if Saturn was protecting his son from the evil and treachery of mankind?

It’s the dual nature of murder as hate and murder as sacrificial love that drove me to write some of the horrible things the mothers in my novel do to their children. Many of the characters in Follow Me Into the Dark suffer from mental illness. When Ellie is temporarily institutionalized for trying to bathe an infant Kate in bleach, she rationalizes her heinous act as one of love:

In the morning, I tell the doctors that they’ve got it all wrong; I don’t hate my daughter. There will come a day when I will have to hand her over, when she will emigrate from my husband’s house to her husband’s house, and her name will change and her body will breed, and on it goes. The incident with the bleach was my attempt to scrub the man out of her. Wipe the slate clean.

“Don’t you see,” I say. “The thing with the bleach. What I’m trying to tell you. What you need to know is this: I’m trying to get my daughter back to zero, but I ended up burning her. No one gets it; no one wants to.”

They are wrong, of course, unimaginably so, but it was only until I saw what a parent can do to a child (see also Euripides’ Medea) through the lens of illness and insanity did I conceive of the dual acts of hate and love the mothers in my book inflict on their progeny.

4.

What happens to children who are isolated from parental love, locked away in an isolated boarding school in South Africa with nothing other than books and a vivid imagination to give them shelter? Sheila Kohler, in her exceptional novel, Cracks, balances a landscape of ethereal beauty with cold, cruel violence.

One hot summer, a beautiful aristocrat, Fiamma, vanishes into the veld. Decades later, at a reunion, thirteen members of tightly-knit swim team gather to reminisce on the weeks leading up to Fiamma’s disappearance. As the memories and secrets unravel, we learn the horrific, violent lengths adolescents will go to when faced with obsession, jealousy, sex, and maternal longing. I loved this book primarily because the children are lost, rudderless, their sense of what it means to be a woman and a mother comes from the books they read. Their barnacle-level attachment to their swim coach, Miss G., demonstrates how desperately children need familial love. The characters in my look don’t understand love because they’ve lived in homes robbed of it. So they try (and fail) to create a home and this failure is their ultimate devastation.


I’m never quite sure whether people are interested in what goes into the creation of a book, so perhaps this is merely an exercise in me documenting what drove me to write my second book and debut novel, Follow Me Into the Dark.

Upcoming Events: I’ll be in New York next week for some readings. Come on down!

book buff

the flaw of love

driving in carsLast year, I sent my father a text: I think, I just might, end my life. I sent another: I’m sad. All the time. I can’t go outside because the sun hurts my eyes. The winter sun was an assault, I longed for New York and its palette of stormy greys, because the act of moving, crawling, from one room to another had become something of a victory. The days repeated themselves with minor variations. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think. I watched torture films and considered them comedies. I wondered why everyone made such a fuss over Pasolini’s Salò because I’d seen worse play out online. My body was a house and it was in the throes of a four-alarm fire, yet I slept through the sirens and the flames. I played normal when a friend from New York visited, and when she left I spiraled downward. I wrote a story about ending my life, published it here and immediately deleted it, but I woke the next morning to a text message from my friend that if I didn’t call her right this second she would call the police. Another friend called me from work whispering through tears that she was scared. I was scaring her. Could I please…get help? I could hear the hurt in her throat and I said I was fine, just fine, because weren’t we built this way? Wear the happy mask until it smothers us, yet still we smile all the way to the grave? Our practice of fake glee is our own private torment. This was a time when I ordered razor blades off Amazon because I was nothing if not efficient.

My father never responded to my texts. That was February 2016. But this isn’t a story of getting better, it’s about the heartbreak that comes as a result of it.

My father is not my biological father. I learned last year, via a Facebook message from a relative, that my real father was black and kind and excised from my mother’s life. But this isn’t a story about biology, rather it’s one about the people for whom you were once grateful that they didn’t share your chemistry. The people you loved who did the unthinkable — break your fucking heart.

I met the man whom I’ve come to call my father when I was twelve and my first memories were of him hunched over a stove, making me braciole steaks and boxed macaroni and cheese. He worked at Belmont with the horses and met my mother, who waitressed in the diner across the street. Theirs was an affair of love letters, his giant script falling out of the lines as he professed his love to her. He called her “Brooke” after Brooke Shields, and sometimes I laugh because I will always be known to him as Lisa, a nickname given to me by my mother because her first husband found Felicia too difficult to pronounce. But this story isn’t about names given and taken back, erased, crossed out or written over. This is the story about a man who stuck around for longer than he should, and everyone thought he did it for me.

War binds you. Once more into the breach, and like that. Tim O’Brien wrote: They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

There was no platoon or armaments of battle. The war we endured was a private one, on a quiet block in Valley Stream, New York, and my father and I clung to one another, desperately, because the woman we loved had morphed into a terrifying, violent stranger. She was no longer Brooke or mom, she had become something…else. But this isn’t a story about my mother — I wrote about that, and was stalked and called a liar by my mother’s second child, as a result of it — for she is a dark country to which I never want to return. No, this is about me and my father, barnacles, unhealthy attachments, and to this day I’m not sure which one of us is the barnacle and the host. Is it possible for two clingers to affix themselves to one another? Is it conceivable to be tethered to that which you soon seek to escape? I think about that now. Often.

Our memories were built on minor escapes. I’d close my eyes while he drove a Jeep, a Cadillac, another Jeep. We left our home when things got too dark. We were children making a break for it! We were running away! We stayed late at Wendy’s and picked over the salad bar. I ordered two double cheeseburgers, plain, and a biggie fry at McDonald’s. We shared packs of chicken nuggets from Roy Rogers on Sunrise Highway. Isn’t it strange when one’s fondest memories are of fleeing? I think about that too. Sometimes. Not as much.

He grew older and I grew into a role I assumed for much of my adult life — a difficult woman who never fully recovered from her first and only true hurt. I drank hard in my 20s. Always with the wine lips, he said, shaking his head, worried I’d be a repeat of the woman who had come before because hadn’t I learned? No, not really. You repeat that which you love, even if that love makes you believe that love and loss are the flipside of the same coin.

There was a time we didn’t speak for five years. My father and I had cultivated a way of conflict avoidance. We knew bad things happened, we just didn’t talk about them. We never really talked about my mother, we talked around her, obsessed over her as if she was at a remove, like a painting you would occasionally visit in a museum but weren’t permitted to touch. We would abide by our way of coping for the greater part of three decades.

When I told my father I was moving to Los Angeles, he was displeased. I joked: I’ll probably see you more than I do now. But still, he was unnerved. He didn’t believe I would move until I did. Until we spent a winter morning in Cold Spring Harbor where we passed the hours watching men bait and catch fish. Did he think proximity protected us?

Five years ago, my best friend of nearly a decade excised me from her life. No emails, no phone calls — it was as if I had ceased to exist to her. We spent nearly every waking hour in each other’s company, so much so that our mutual friends talked about how unhealthy our relationship had become. Two broken women cleaving to one another in hopes of finding a whole. It occurred to me, years later, that she likely ended our friendship because we had run our course. Our friendship was based on what we didn’t have rather than a becoming. How do you tell someone that the foundation of your decade-long friendship was built on co-dependence, a fear of being alone with ourselves and our most disquieting thoughts? That we sustained on nostalgia because we were getting better and realized we didn’t have much in common and little to say? Ending a friendship because you realized you lacked one is infinitely more painful than breaking a love that was real and persistent.

I think about this because what if my relationship with my father — three decades in the making — was based on dressing our mutual wounds? What happens when the wounds finally heal? What then?

With my mother, I expected everything. There were no surprises. When she resurfaced in my life after a fourteen year absence, I was hopeful and cautious but not surprised to discover that she was a dressed-up version of the woman I used to know. But this silence from my father was shocking, deafening. I told my therapist: I didn’t see that coming. Acquaintances, strangers on the fucking internet, showed more compassion, I said. How do I forgive him this? Would I consider calling him, my therapist asked. Replaying our history even the question exhausted me. I can’t always be the adult in the relationship, I said. I did all this work and he’s never met me halfway, and I don’t want to talk around, above or below this. I need to say I wanted to die and you weren’t there for me when I needed you most without him changing the subject. Because that’s what we always did — changed the subject, drove around in cars, ate fast food — we had grown masterful in escaping, except this time I wanted us to stay put because I had endured the hurt and lived through it. He read that I wanted to die but he never read how I desperately want to live. Every moment of every day until my heart gives out.

What happens when the fortress we so assiduously built to protect us comes crashing down? What happens when the fortress is gone and there’s no pain to bind us, no lines to draw in the sand, no us against them? What happens if we learn that our relationship was built on fear, fear of being alone, fear of being vulnerable, fear of getting hurt, fear of being lesser than, instead of love? What becomes of us then?

Uncategorized

simple coconut cake

coconut cake

It’s been a while since I’ve made a cake.

Yesterday, I spoke with my agent about a new book I’ve been working on. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a suicidal teenager and travels across the country to witness the girl take her own life. But that wasn’t always the story. I gave my agent a collection of stories about women in various states of unraveling–women in cults, women who have been raped, and women who have the arcane ability to speak from the grave. I started the book last year when I first moved to California and I was surprised how quickly I finished a draft. I sent it to my agent and I could practically feel the trepidation in his response. Unbeknownst to me, I was rapidly unraveling and documenting that decent in a new book. I’d soon fall into a depression–a dark country to which I’m frightened to ever return–and my agent told me to take a break, think about the book and come back to him with something other.

It took nearly nine months for me to look at my work and cringe. What I’d been writing was relentlessly dark, I couldn’t bear to read it. I actually had to physically put the manuscript away and breathe. For years, it was easy for me to access that place, to sit in pain and discomfort, to know there would likely be an escape from it. How do you write about light? How do you write happy endings when darkness is the one thing you know. The only thing that’s never abandoned you.

Yesterday my agent wondered aloud about me as a writer before meds and after meds. Am I different, he wondered. Is it harder to write? I said meds gave me perspective, that not being on them made it dangerously easy to access the darker recesses of myself. But reading all of that now, I’m not sure I even want that imbued in my work. I told Matthew that I wanted to write a book that ended with hope. He laughed. Well, that’s a switch.

I’ve got a gut renovation ahead of me, but I’m excited to write my first book with a clearer head.

But back to the cake.

If you’ve been following me along on Instagram, you’ve seen that I moved apartments this week. I left the beach and the apartment that felt like the in-betweens, a place that held some of my most painful memories, and I’m in a home that finally feels like home. I’ve never lived in a space this big. I’ve never had a home office (I’m typing this in my new office!). Counter space was always precarious, something of which I had to artfully negotiate.

I have a new friend coming over tonight and I’m making her a 4-hour bolognese sauce. But this morning I woke and had the urge to bake a cake. I don’t know if it’s the desire for meditation because this week has been painful and stressful beyond measure. I won’t bother talking about the election on this space because I’m too angry to articulate how and what I feel. Baking worked. I pulled together this simple cake and it is INSANELY moist. I will say that since I don’t have a lot of sugar in my diet the frosting was A LOT. I had to scrape it all off to enjoy the cake. But if you love your sugar rush, this piece of heaven will not disappoint.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Molly on the Range
For the cake
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour (I used gluten-free)
1/2 cup cake flour
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 large egg
1 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract (I used almond as that’s what I had on hand)
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted but not hot

For the frosting
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup powdered sugar
1 pinch of kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp full-fat coconut milk

For assembly
4 oz unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut
fresh berries, for garnish

DIRECTIONS
This cake is insanely simple. Pre-heat the oven to 350 and grease/line an 8-inch cake pan. Add the first 6 dry ingredients to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. In a medium bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add the wet to the dry with the mix speed on medium. Add the batter to the pan and bake for 25-28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the cake onto a rack and cool completely.

Now on to the frosting. Clean out that stand mixer and beat the butter on medium until creamy (you’re using the paddle attachment, fyi). Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the sugar and beat until combined. Slowly, because you don’t want to get sugar all over your face. Beat in the salt, vanilla, and coconut milk. Frost the cake like a rock star and add that shredded coconut like it’s the last time you’ll ever eat a coconut.

cake + sweet loaf recipes

hello, home

There was a time when I believed that home was simply a place where my mail was forwarded, and the only thing I loved about a house was leaving it. It’s depressing when you think about it–the feeling of not belonging to any one place, of closing a door and still not feeling relief, safe. I used to take pictures of the front doors of my apartment buildings and I’d rattle off a seemingly endless list of addresses. Sometimes I’d confuse the zip codes. Other times I strained to remember what the insides looked like. Did we have carpet? Was there a window in my room? What was the view? In some spaces, I didn’t have a bedroom door, while in others, I didn’t have a bedroom at all. And although I knew being rootless and uncommitted to a zip code was odd, the discomfort I experienced, the feeling of being displaced, is what felt normal. What kept me going was hope, the possibility that this new place could be a home. That I could erase all that had come before.

Yesterday, I asked my leasing agent: Are there trust-funders in this building? People who haven’t worked for what they have?

For most of my twenties, I moved. I lived in Riverdale, the Upper West Side, Little Italy, Battery Park, Chelsea, and two apartments in Park Slope. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with an actor turned psychologist and lived briefly with a man whom I once thought I’d marry. One of my movers was drunk and missing two fingers from his left hand and another broke my bed in four places. A move of 20 blocks in Brooklyn cost me nearly a thousand dollars, to which I responded, are you fucking kidding me? 

Rarely do I host housewarming parties because my homes have always felt so cold, where the possibility of warmth existed if they were torched and burned to the ground.

In earnest, I tried to make a home. I committed to a building in Park Slope for the better part of five years. In this building, I rented an apartment with a spacious deck I rarely used and endured a winter where I wore a coat indoors and used space heaters because the boiler kept breaking. Through all of this, I joked that you’d have to carry me out in a body bag I’d never leave. Who knew I’d swallow my words when a kind doctor swathed my Sophie in two towels and carried her lifeless body down three flights of stairs. The emptiness I felt in what I thought was my home was palpable. I felt the specter of her death and how I contributed to it in every room. I wrapped myself in blankets one night in August and slept on my deck with a bottle of wine because I couldn’t bear the insides. That winter I moved to another apartment one flight down with a new cat and the hope of a new life.

But…I felt unease, a disquiet that loomed larger than the space I’d been occupying. I grew irritated on the subway. I felt smothered in midtown. My home of 39 years had increasingly become a stranger. I no longer felt New York was home. But…keep moving.

It took another mammoth loss to make me realize I wanted something demonstrably different and new. Although I knew it was false comfort, I became tethered to the idea of a new place as a salve–much like what I believed in my childhood. It took moving across the country and away from my comfortable discomfort for me to wake up. The silence was deafening. The noise and maelstrom of New York were no longer a convenient distraction. And after 39 years of perpetual velocity, I collapsed in that quiet. I dealt with old losses and new. I confronted aspects of my character that made me wince. I took a lot of my life offline, reclaiming it. I did the daily work that was sometimes hard and more often rewarding.

I live in a place where I once contemplated taking my own life. I live in a place where my furniture took nearly two months to arrive. I live in a place where I never felt rooted. Ever since I moved in I felt in the betweens. It took me 40 years to realize that I have to be at home with myself before I stretch outward.

But I wanted to move, still. My apartment is highway robbery and it’s not conducive to a home office environment (I sometimes work for seven hours straight and typing on my couch is becoming a problem). Also, there’s too much memory. I wanted a place that reflected where I’m at in my life, not a constant reminder of that which I’ve endured. So I started looking at apartments. I toured a building where it became apparent that someone was shooting an adult film (the Yelp reviews confirmed this). I visited another where it felt I’d have to send out proof of life photos I was so far from life.

Then I found my home in an area of which I’m not familiar–Hancock Park. I looked at four apartments, and while the property was GORGEOUS and perfect, I felt meh about the spaces I’d seen. But before I left, my leasing agent became aware of an available space he hadn’t shown me. We rode the elevator to the top floor and we walked into the space that next month will be my new home.

I fell in love. The apartment is perfect for a true home office. It’s at the corner end of the building so it’s extremely quiet (a necessity for me since I’ve lived in buildings where people mistook an apartment complex for a drug-fueled rave). There are spaces I can use as a defacto office or lounge, and the location was walking distance (1/4 mile) to supermarkets, drug stores, dry cleaners and all the necessities.

I went through a lot this year, more than I wanted to bear. This wasn’t what I expected from turning 40. This wasn’t what I expected when I moved to Los Angeles. But for the first time in a long time, I feel at home with myself, flaws and all. Someone asked me recently what being on anti-depressants was like, and I said, it’s the difference between waking up and thinking this is all too much to waking up and thinking, okay, this is tough but it’s manageable. It’s the difference between succumbing and conquering. Most importantly, it’s the difference between hopelessness and hope, the feeling that your body is no longer a home you want to torch and burn to the ground.

People use the phrase of wanting to match their insides to their outsides, and I understand this now to an extent. I look at myself and that new space and realize both need work, but at least we’re starting from common, hopeful ground.

lovely living

finally!

fucking finally

You better believe I’ve posted a picture of a pineapple perched on top of an ocean rock. It’s been that kind of week.

The past six months have been nothing short of horrible, and I finally feel as if I’m climbing out from under the rubble. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had no idea that I’d have to confront all of my losses, which had been slowly mounting. I hadn’t realized that I was approaching the middle of my life and I needed a change, a new course of direction. Instead, I spent the past year myopic, driven toward a single goal: leave New York, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d arrive here and have to sit with my losses spread out in front me, alone, confused, in complete quiet. It’s kind of like sitting naked in a room surrounded by mirrors and you’re forced to confront your most raw, unattractive, and frightened self. And you look at the person rising up in front you and the one behind and beside you, and for the first time you look around and haven’t a clue as to what to do.

And then depression. And then the realization that some friendships can’t survive geography. And then the fear that I will always, in some way, define myself in the context of my mother.

Last week a friend warned me about what I choose to share online. He came from a kind and concerned place and said that some hands are worth holding close simply for the reason that people don’t know how to handle discomfort. They don’t want the burden of one’s sadness. And I considered what my friend said and told him that while it appears that I share a great deal online, I don’t. I’m surgical about what I share and do so because if words have the propensity to make someone feel less alone, then I’ll keep writing them until all the pens run out. I don’t care if people don’t like me or what I say, rather I care more about people who’ve been forced to suffer privately or feel the stigma that accompanies addiction or mental illness. Over the past six months, I’ve been a voyeur in other people’s lives–reading blog posts documenting their constant struggle or scrolling through their photos as they try to survive their day without screaming into pillows. I drew comfort from this because it reminded me that there are others. And while this is captain obvious, you’d be surprised how swiftly and often we forget. How we believe that our pain is an anomaly, that our suffering is singular and acute.

One night last month I wrote a post that I subsequently deleted–one where I shared that I no longer feared death, and wouldn’t it be easier if I took my own life? I then went to bed, oblivious to the panic I’d created amongst my closest friends, and I woke the next morning to a slew of messages. My oldest friend called me from work and I could hear the pain in her voice and the difficulty she had in assembling her words. Listening to her, I tried to arrange my face in the shape of fine but the shape wouldn’t take and my voice shook, and I promised to return to therapy because I loved her and it killed me that I was hurting her. When I hung up I wanted the love I had for her to eventually become a love I would reserve for myself.

Whenever you think life doesn’t get better, it does. Eventually. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Last night I spent an evening with old and new friends and I was comforted by how freely we spoke about politics, mental illness, familial anguish and discord, and addiction. There was no shame, only laughter between people who had gone through war and sometimes knew they’d have to dress their wounds. We are the bandages that we wrap around our hurt selves. We are our urgent care.

Then I thought about my friend who told me to play my cards close and now I shake my head. No. Fuck no. If someone reads what I write here and judges me for being human, for trying to take my life back and live it–that’s not someone whom I want to know. I’m finally, slowly (snail’s pace, people) getting back on track. I’m in the contract phase for a new project, with a list of good leads coming in. I’m hosting my first dinner party next week for old and new friends in Los Angeles. I’m volunteering at Kitty Bungalow, helping feral kittens get adopted. I’m reading and writing. I’m more present for my new friends, and I’m doing everything I can to help those who are struggling since I’ve been humbled by those (strangers and close friends) who’ve extended me their heart, compassion, and care.

And when have I ever played a straight hand? I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I feel good. I have hope.

If your words have the capacity to shake someone, to comfort someone, use them. Keep writing, keep talking, keep texting, keep caring because we all walk quietly through this world bearing varying degrees of struggle. Why not be empathetic? Why not pause and care and not immediately judge or dismiss? Why not say: What can I do? How can I help?

Because I’ve been there. Or simply, because I care.

 

depression

the masks we wear, the lies we tell, and the secrets we keep

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

I spent the past year a walking wound, but you’d never know it. Maybe you read a handful of sad stories I’d written or scrolled through a few Facebook status updates, but if you saw me in person you’d see someone who was assembled, stitched neatly together. Nevermind the gashes beneath the surface, the cuts that failed to heal. I was fine, just fine, but let’s not talk about me. Tell me about you. I’d arrange my face in different shapes; I’d smile and nod and stare intently, and everyone would leave with the comfort that I was going to be okay. In forty years I’d survived so much, surely I would endure this. Surely the girl was going to be just fine.

The girl slouches home. The girl unravels. The girl is far from fine.

When I was small I was taught the worst thing one could be was weak. Never cry, never be vulnerable, never let anyone all the way in. So my heart was a bolted door and I lived on the side with all the mothballs desperate to flutter out. Throughout college and during the first fifteen years of my career, I was repeatedly told that it was verboten to bring your full self to work. The office wasn’t the place for your sob stories or crumbled tissues in clammy hands. Leave that six-piece luggage set at home. No one wants or needs to know. Deal with your life privately, behind closed doors. Even as a child growing up in Brooklyn, everyone lived by the axiom: mind your own.

So we become editors of ourselves, preservationists of our suffering. We become architects of our masks; we reframe our true stories in work and in life. We become vague on the level of a CIA operative. We’re just going through a tough time. We use phrases like a rough patch, a temporary setback, and a minor blip. But we’re fine, really.

We consistently pass on that glass of wine because we’re not in the mood or we don’t particularly like drinking instead of saying I’m an alcoholic. We talk up our partner’s attributes or the memories you once shared that were photographs worth taking instead of saying I’m going through a divorce. We post terrific photographs of our best selves while we binge-watch “House of Cards”, refreshing our phones, waiting for the Likes. We live for that validation in the moments when we feel sonnet-small when the space between you and the photograph you’ve taken becomes a chasm that widens with the passing of each day. We wonder: how do I get that to person? When can I feel that expression? That face?

This week, I was formally diagnosed with severe depression, and my financial situation is dire to the point where I’ve had to borrow money from close friends to pay for my twice-weekly therapy visits. I tell my therapist how much this bothers me, how it annoys me that I’ve become a burden. I look weak. I’m a failure. And he interrupts and reminds me of something I’d said when we first met — it was an off-hand comment, something to the effect that if he saw me on the street I would be unrecognizable. What did I mean by that, he wanted to know. Had I been wearing a mask all this time? I said, yes, of course, because when you spend your whole life on guard, you can’t just fling open all the doors, throw open all the windows. It didn’t occur to me that I was laughing during the first half hour of my visit. I couldn’t stop laughing. I hate that I had to publicly ask people for money — ha! ha! ha! I hated how it felt when my friends read an essay I published and subsequently deleted because it caused them insurmountable fear and anguish to the point where I received frantic voicemails in the middle of the night— ha! ha! ha! I hate this feeling now, of being here, of telling you these things; I’ve always come back, I’ve always survived, and now I’m certain if I can get past this. He tells me that vulnerability isn’t a mark of failure; it’s the trait of someone who’s human.

Why are you laughing, he asks, to which I respond, it’s easier than crying.

I spent so much of my career not bringing any of my whole self to work that it must have appeared like I wasn’t human. I wasn’t capable of feeling, and this alienated me. This red pen that I took to myself, this scalpel I used to excise parts of my life that I could have shared with others, made it hard for me to form attachments, made me seem less real to the people who worked for me. I regret the mask I wore and wish I would have been a little more vulnerable, or at least, honest.

When I tell my friends that things are bad, really bad, that I’m seeing a psychiatrist twice a week and taking Wellbutrin, I receive dozens of emails from people whom I least suspect, people whom I’ve known for years who suffer from depression or another form of mental illness. They tell me they’ve been there and they know exactly what I’m going through and that it gets better. They assure me it does even on the days when I can’t see my hand in front of my face it’s that dark. And then I ask why they never told me this, what they’ve gone through, some replied that I seemed so put together, so stoic, warm but at a remove, that they didn’t want to ripple the surface. Others said that their depression (or mental illness) is not something they offer up for a variety of reasons, one of which is stigma and fear of how others would perceive them. They trust me with their secrets and I want to write back and say I wish we wouldn’t have to lie, or tell secrets, or spend our lives presenting our edited selves to the world.

I wish I would have made my wounds visible sooner because I know some would be there at the ready with bandages. Perhaps I would’ve healed sooner.


I originally published this post on Medium
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massive moment of pride: my new novel (we're getting ready for submission!)

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This is how I write. I write in my home on my couch with feet up on this table, with the doors locked and a single song on repeat. The song is deliberately chosen–it gets me in a headspace to move (right now, I’m listening to this as I type this post). I read dialogue out loud as I write because I need to hear the words to see if they’re right. The cadence of the prose needs to follow the rhythm and logic I’ve defined for it. I need to know my characters, bury myself all the way in. If I’m skipping paragraphs that means I need to delete them. Every line has to work on multiple levels.

Someone asked me the other day about the kind of man I’m looking for, to which I responded, I want someone who’s been through war, still has some of the bruises, but isn’t still changing the bandages. Dressing the wound. And then I thought about my work, and this logic fits there, too. I write about broken people dressing their own wounds and people who pretend the wounds that are blistering and raw, pain the rest of us can so easily see, don’t exist. I’m best in the dark.

After I published my first book, I was exhausted. Writers tend to write out their obsessions, the things that seize them when they wake, and for years my mother was my singular subject. So after the book was published I knew I couldn’t go back to that dark country. I’d made sense of our history (or so I thought), and I needed something new in which to fixate.

I started stories that I deleted. I read 23 books about Jim Jones and typed one chapter I hated. I took a job that would occupy me for nearly four years. And soon I stopped writing. However, my friend Sarah will tell me that just because you’re not typing doesn’t mean you’re not writing. Who knew that after those four years I will sit in a hotel room in Biarritz and write. The story felt like it had come from nowhere, but it came like a torrent. The story swiftly took shape with a command of language and structure that frankly surprised me. I’d always had the problem of filling a white page with type, now the issue was: what do I do with 80 pages of insanity? It was good madness, the stuff one keeps, but it was madness nonetheless.

I mean, my first chapter is about a woman who sets her father’s mistress’s hair on fire. That should tell you everything.

A year and a half later, multiple drafts, early and late readers, and my novel, FOLLOW ME INTO THE DARK, is finally ready for submission to publishers. In retrospect, I didn’t love my memoir. I wish I would have waited until I was older. While some of the chapters are quite good, I cringe at others. It’s weird being in the present tense and reading what you’ve written when you were another version of yourself. I guess it’s like re-reading your childhood diaries as an adult. CRINGE! MAKE IT STOP!

But I love this book. Every page of it. And I’ve also learned to love the version of myself (an extremely flawed woman waging her own private war against addiction) who wrote that first book.

My agent asked me to write a paragraph on what my book is about, and naturally, I’m struggling. I could say that the story is about two adults, step-siblings, who are bearing the weight of their families’ mental illness and cruelty, and how broken children keep breaking even when they desperately try to dress their wounds and stitch themselves up again. It’s about trying to understand the pathology of sociopaths, and finding the humanness in a person even after they’ve committed inhuman acts. I’ve three main characters: Kate, an obsessive-compulsive baker, who we think has a psychotic break after her mother dies and she seeks revenge against her step-father’s mistress by setting her hair on fire, although we’ll learn that her pathology is infinitely more savage. There’s Gillian, the oversexed, hyperintellectual woman who’s engaging in an affair with Kate’s father. Finally, there’s Jonah, Gillian’s sociopathic, yet loving, brother who is actually ‘The Doll Collector’, a hunted serial killer who’s committed gruesome acts against women across the country. Jonah is the key link between the two characters and how the story unfolds. We learn about these three characters by understanding their familial history–2 generations of emotional and sexual abuse–and how the weight of their history bears on the choices they make now.

In all candor, it was initially challenging to show that one’s actions don’t define one’s character. We have a tendency to ascribe mistakes people make, or, in this case, the horrific acts that one does, to one’s person. We’re binary in our reactions: The person who commits murder is pure evil! The person who attacks someone else is crazy! And I’m trying to detangle act from person, and somehow show the complexity of mental illness. There’s this wall we put up when we hear that someone is ill, an “otherness” is created, and do we ever make a true attempt to understand those who are ill. Do we see the complexity in them, their ability to love amidst their propensity to hate?

So, we’re ready for prime-time, I guess. And I’m glad that this time around I don’t have the same ego and ambition as I did with my first book. My novel need not be hardcover. I don’t need the fanfare and confetti and bananas advance, I just want to be able to share this story with people–regardless of form.

If you’re interested in checking out my first chapter, click here.

Wish us luck!

book buff

cue the chariots of fire theme song: a woman has written a novel!

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I can’t write or think about anything else except for the fact that I’ve finished a draft of my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark. Words cannot express how proud I am of this book, which took four years to develop and over a year to write. What started out as a strange story about a woman setting another woman’s hair on fire morphed into a book about familial love, physical and emotional hurt, mental illness, feminism, identity and loss. The story centers around two broken children, Kate and Jonah, and how they bear the weight of two generations of mental illness and abuse (and I’d say collapse as a result of it). While the story and characters are important, I’m excited about the novel’s form. I’ve created a nesting doll, triptych structure, where I’ve employed alternating voices and allusions to speeches (think: Jim Jones, the cult leader, not the rapper; Ophelia’s final soliloquy to Hamlet, among others), poetry (think: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nick Flynn, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, etc) and lines from novels that serve to provide a deeper cultural, moralistic and sociological context for the reader.

I sent the draft to my agent, so here’s hoping for good news. However, I have to keep reminding myself that the achievement is in finishing a book of which I’m proud, not the industry that happens as a result of it.

book buff

a year in passing: a novel update

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Last year I sat in a hotel in Biarritz, France and started a story about a woman who set another woman’s hair on fire. The opening scene reveals a woman who has a penchant for torching things, reporting the incident, talking about the smell of hair, the blaze of it. A few pages later, I took an image of a barnacle and devoted two pages to untangling its meaning to be one of a metaphor for this woman’s unhealthy attachment to her step-father and his adulterous affair, all the while her mother lay dying. At the time, I literally said out loud, What is this? What am I doing? but I pressed on for forty more pages, and when I came back to New York, I wrote forty more. After a four-year drought, the writing was a torrent and I was thrilled with the fact that I was writing something, even if I didn’t know what it was.

However, in the midst of all of this something had changed. When I think about when I wrote my first book, Sky, and now, everything is different. The words command and voice immediately come to mind, meaning I feel confident in what I lay down on paper. I know what works, what doesn’t work, and I’m focused on the rhythm and cadence of a line and how it connects to the flow of the story. My voice is strong, pronounced, and I’m finding that I’ve created a suite of characters that are bombastic, nuanced, and powerful as individuals, but they form some sort of chaotic, beautiful symphony when they interact on the page. To be candid, I was shocked by all of this at first because I always questioned an image, always endlessly deliberated over a piece of dialogue, but felt assuaged when a friend told me, just because you’re not actually writing doesn’t mean you haven’t been writing. It doesn’t mean you haven’t been working all this time.

That simple sentence served as a tremendous breakthrough for me, because it finally occurred to me that I had been writing all this time. I’d been reading. I’d been developing these characters in various forms for the past few years — in my head, but regardless — so when it came time to write that first scene, I already knew my character. I knew how she moved, the tone and sound of her voice, and it would be over the course of a year where I would finally get inside her head and lay there.

What started out as a novel about two families unraveling as a result of an affair has dovetailed into a meditation on mental illness, familial love, history and the repetition of it, and all the ways in which we can experience love and hurt. I’ve also learned this: a book is never what you intend it to be. Once you think you’ve defined it, it changes shape and form and becomes something else. For over a year my novel has been this elusive thing that has been hard to describe to people until now. I’ve got 170 great pages, and if you asked me a year ago I would have never predicted that I’ve gone to places I’d never thought I’d go. I broke all my rules — I wrote about sex and an attempt at parental love.

And I made myself try an outline.

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After I delivered 100 pages to my agent and two key readers, they all agreed something magical was here, but the story, in its structure, was entirely too complicated to render a verdict. All of them pressed pokers on my back and told me to keep going. My agent told me to draft an outline and timeline, much to my violent chagrin. I hate outlines. While the rest of my life is structured and defined, I like a certain itinerant quality to my work. I like being a nomad. I like creating people and seeing what they do and how they surprise me. Yet, that’s all well and good, but when you’ve got a book that doesn’t have a linear narrative, when you’ve got a story that moves through forty years of time, you need a damn timeline.

While in Fiji last year, I drafted something loose, and spent the bulk of the winter working on Part II, which takes place in the 1960s-1980s.

And that’s when magic started to happen. When you’re in the thick of a novel, in the meat of it, all sorts of strange and mythical things start happening. I created new characters out of nowhere. I started to create links between the parts of the book and I can finally see Part III on the horizon. I also changed the title of the book from Mammoth to Follow Me Into the Dark because the latter felt right for what I’m having my characters do.

What has surprised me most is that I’ve remained with these people all this time. I tend to get bored with characters relatively quickly — this is why I love the compact nature and completeness of a short story. I write my story and my characters do what they need to do and then we shake hands and part ways and I’m on to the next looney tune. Yet, I’m sticking with these characters, creating all of these layers I never saw a year ago, and I’ll actually be sad when I finish Part III, because I know my affair with them, the longest I’ve had, will be over.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of giving you a novel update. But, if you have any questions about writing + publishing, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments. I’d be more than happy to help!

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book buff