Published on October 19th, 2017 | by Mutha Magazine1
Peculiar Mothers: A Correspondence between Ariel Gore and Gayle Brandeis
Mama-writers Ariel Gore and Gayle Brandeis have new and wildly complementary books out this fall: Ariel’s We Were Witches (The Feminist Press) is an exhilarating, genre-exploding, memory-based experimental memoir that explores shame and the experience of the artist as a young mom. Gayle’s The Art of Misdiagnosis (Beacon Press) is a raw and inventive soul-map about surviving her mother’s suicide just after her son was born.
Longtime fellow weirdo mothers, the two first connected when Gayle contributed to an early issue of Ariel’s zine, Hip Mama, in the 1990s. Some 25 years later, their lists—19 books between them—represent eclectic approaches to the feminist narrative—charting transformations from passivity to action, and from shame to creative expression.
They’ve written about their complicated relationships with their own mothers—who would have ripped each other apart—and their hope and work to break the cycles of abuse as mothers themselves.
Ariel: In parenting circles there’s always a lot of talk about the conflict between being an artist and being a mother, and I wonder about the other side of that—how has the conflict between being a daughter and being an artist affected your life and stories? And do you think your mother’s “otherness” contributed to making you an artist?
Gayle: In many ways, my mom intentionally raised me to be an artist. She grew up in a house without art—although there was one of those hula dancer lamps where the skirt moved when you turned the light on!—and when she was nineteen or so, her lover (the married psychiatrist who administered electroshock therapy to her sister) took her to the opera and it was a life-changing experience that created a real hunger in her for the arts. She took me and my sister to concerts and plays and museums and read to us a lot—as complicated as my relationship was with my mom, I’m grateful for that. She was involved with various arty things from the sidelines over the years—she was a docent at museums and a supernumerary in the opera—and then she became a painter and attempted to become a filmmaker toward the end of her life. She modeled how to live a creative life in many ways, for better or for worse, and she was supportive of my writing from the time I was very young. Unless I wrote about her. She ordered me to not write about her, and the times I dared to do so, she freaked out hard. And her support could be kind of intense—she tried to bully the New York Times into reviewing my books (it didn’t work), badgered Steven Spielberg about making movies of my books (that didn’t work, either)—and when I wasn’t a bestseller, she made me feel as if it was some kind of moral failure on my part.
So, yeah, she molded me to be an artist but at the same time, she instilled all these silences in me, along with a lot of shame, and I think my truest art comes from those places, the stuff that got trapped inside, the stuff I didn’t think I could say out loud. Writing this memoir was so hard. Even though she was dead, I could still hear her telling me not to write about her and it blocked me for a while (as did the grief after her suicide that made it hard to do much of anything other than nurse my baby and cry). Once I started chipping away at the memoir, it was truly like taking Kafka’s axe to the frozen sea inside me. So painful and liberating.
How about you? You write so powerfully about shame in We Were Witches, so much of it handed to you by your mother. How has that aspect of your daughterhood figured into your own life as an artist?
Ariel: I haven’t thought of it in those words before, but I relate to the idea that my mom intentionally raised me to be an artist. She was very abusive in some ways, but at the same time I think she intentionally left me a breadcrumb path out. She would have these odd bits of advice, like “abuse needs a witness” and she very much explored the idea of transmuting shame into art in her own work as a visual artist. She thought Henry Miller was the bees knees and she was a big show off about their relationship, but all that to say, too, that arts and writing were where her values were. Artists and writers were the important people. She had this idea that you should tear down your kids’ artwork, which mostly felt harmful and shitty to me when I was 4 or 5, being critiqued like I was in grad school, when my friends’ moms were all “Oh, honey, that’s great,” but I think the other side of where she was coming from was a studied idea that praise would stifle artistic ambition.
For me, and it sounds like for you, there is a lot of new creative territory—all this pain and liberation—that comes mixed up with the grief over their deaths.
I never understood when my students used to talk about waiting to write things after people died. I never felt like I was saving anything. But then death opened all the underground stuff. It felt like the generative side of grief.
I wrote specifically about my relationship with my mom in The End of Eve, but then when I was working on We Were Witches I could feel and see that I had learned something. That something new had opened up. That I had new tools and new freedom and new fearlessness.
And, OMG, it has got to be easier to work when you know your MOTHER isn’t going to be bullying the Times! How embarrassing. My mom used to write the craziest letters to my publishers and others on my behalf. She did get a book cover of mine changed once by pretending to be a huge distributor who was going to order thousands more. I didn’t find out until after it was too late. Beyond mortifying.
I wonder if our mothers would have loved each other or hated each other. Seems unlikely that it would have been anything in between.
Gayle: I think our mothers would have torn each other to bits. Or maybe they would have spontaneously combusted in each other’s presence! How wild that your mom pulled publishing-related shenanigans, too!
Ariel: I saw a great review of The Art of Misdiagnosis today that said all the gushing stuff and also mentioned that the book is peculiar. I appreciate so much that so much about the book—that it is peculiar. Do you feel like it’s more experimental than your previous work? How were you able to let that unfold?
Gayle: I love how that review said the book was “even peculiar at times.” Just like me! I absolutely love experimental writing and I’ve played quite a bit with form in short pieces of prose, but this memoir is definitely my most experimental book to date. I didn’t consciously set out to make it that way—all the formal choices came about very organically. I had stolen the title, The Art of Misdiagnosis, from the documentary my mom was working on at the time of her death, but didn’t think to transcribe the film and include it until I finally had the guts to watch the documentary and realized it gave my mom a chance to speak for herself through the text. My therapist suggested writing a letter to my mom (such great advice!) and that became a thread of the book. The time around her suicide begged to be told in present tense. And as I dug through our old emails and files and the like, certain pieces jumped out at me as needing to be part of the narrative. It took a lot of time and finessing to fit the puzzle pieces together, but the pieces revealed themselves to me with bells on.
Having my mother gone definitely helped me feel more brave on the page (and in the world); part of that was the fact that I didn’t have to worry about her being upset by my work or doing embarrassing things to promote it, but another part of that was just being forced to face mortality in general. We have so little time on this planet—why hold anything back? Why not do our deepest, most risky and important work now?
I loved seeing how you wielded your new tools and freedom and fearlessness in We Were Witches—I can’t tell you how much I love that book, how much it lit me up. It really gave me permission to be more playful with my own story in the future, to be more wild and free—I’m excited to see what will come of that new creative wiggle room! And I know you’re going to give many other writers that same permission and freedom with this book. I absolutely adore the way you inverted Freytag’s pyramid, placing potential space at the center of a narrative; your book as a whole creates so much potential for fresh, magical narrative in the world.
Please allow me to fan girl a bit here—you have inspired me for years, Ms. Ariel Gore. Decades! If Hip Mama wasn’t around when I was a young mama, my mothering experience would have been vastly different, that I would have felt so much more isolated, and I know that’s the case for so many mamas out there (and I love thatHip Mama is still around all this time later, along with other mags like Mutha, that you’re continuing to create space for marginalized mothers’ voices and change the larger narrative about motherhood). I am so grateful. It’s awesome that a whole new generation of mothers gets to enjoy Hip Mama now and of course we’re part of this new generation of mothers, too, since we both had a long gap before our youngest children (my kids were born in 1990, 1993 and 2009). How is parenting and writing different for you with Max than it had been when Maia was young?
Ariel: Thank you for your kind words! YOU have inspired me. Since Fruitflesh: Inspiration for Women Writers—what a gift that book. And before Fruitflesh. I love that your work has felt at times eclectic, and then I’ll read something a few years later and think, aha!, I see the connection to Gayle’s previous work. And in some ways I think The Art of Misdiagnosis, by going deep in new ways, brings even more together.
Yes—my kids were born in 1990 and 2007. And everything is easier now except that I need to sleep. Motherhood has always been incredibly inspiring to me as a writer, but it’s tough when you’re young and broke and everyone is giving you a hard time about how you have to get a real job and be a normal PTA-type conservative “MOTHER” now. The pressure is still here. Mothering culture has always been hard for me—there’s something in me that just doesn’t seem to fit in. I didn’t fit in in middle school or high school, ether. But when I was a young mom, I assumed it was my youth that created this gulf between me and mothering culture. This time through I can see that my inability to adapt to mainstream mothering culture is deeper than that. It’s my queerness, my writer-self, my hatred of capitalism, my general inability to engage in appropriate small talk—and probably more. But this time I am more confident, more established as an awkward writer, less vulnerable to that cultural bullying that says there is a conflict between art and motherhood. My experience mothering my first child showed me that the things that were hard in her life had nothing to do with what the world told me about my shortcomings as a mother. So now I am free to be myself without as much struggle and fight-for-it. I still have a lot of creative anxiety, but I feel it’s richness. I feel more comfortable with my awkwardness and need for artistic experimentation. But I do need to sleep, too. So there are fewer hours in which to make everything happen.
Gayle: You made me blush—thank you! I love that you can find connective tissue through my work, which I’m not sure I always see myself, other than the fact that it all came out of me! A student once introduced me at a reading, and she said that she saw a common thread in all my books of a woman moving from passivity to action, and it blew my mind because I didn’t realize I kept writing that same story over and over. It makes sense because I think that’s been my own story too. I very much feel more like the writer of my own life than I did when I was first a mother.
One thing that feels different this time around is that I know on a visceral level how quickly it all goes. I know that children don’t stay children forever, the way it had felt when my older kids were little. I know that Asher is going to keep growing, that he will grow up and move into his own life. I couldn’t quite visualize that the first time around. Still, it is going way too fast. Maybe that’s part of why I write—to slow time down, to unpack it a little instead of getting completely swept up in its current.
I resonate so much with everything that you said—can I just put ditto marks below it? I remember when my eldest son was in second grade. I was standing outside his classroom waiting for him at the end of the school day, and the room mother was there with a clipboard for people to sign up for something or other; she glanced over at me and said under her breath “Where are all the normal mothers?” I remember feeling a momentary stab of shame that I was not a “normal mother,” that I didn’t fit this woman’s image of what a mother should be. I don’t feel that way now. I am fine with not being a “normal mother,” or a normal writer, whatever that means; I still grapple with self-doubt from time to time, of course, but mostly I’m fine with just being my weirdo self.
Ditto… MUTHA loves these writers, and we hope you’ll go right from reading this to buying (both) their books, then let us know your reviews in the comments…
Ariel Gore is a journalist, memoirist, novelist, nonfiction author, and teacher. She is a graduate of Mills College and the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is the founding editor/publisher of Hip Mama, an Alternative Press Award-winning publication covering the culture and politics of motherhood. Her memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart, was a 2004 finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Her anthology Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City won a LAMBDA Literary Award in 2010. She has taught at The Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon, at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011. 2017 brings the release of two new books: in June, a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press) and in November, a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press.)
Winner of several other awards for writing, Gayle currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence 2014-2015. She served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014, acting as literary ambassador to and for the Inland Empire region of Southern California. During her tenure, she worked extensively with the community, including at-risk youth, and edited the anthology ORANGELANDIA: The Literature of Inland Citrus. Gayle is currently editor in chief of Tiferet Journal and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit. She is also mom to kids born in 1990, 1993 and 2009.