Mental Health, Art, and Advocacy: Talking with Gayle Brandeis

Krista Lukas interviews Gayle Brandeis

APRIL 19, 2018

I FIRSTSAW Gayle Brandeis at a guerilla poetry event in downtown Riverside, California. The September 2013 event was organized with the intention of bringing poetry to unsuspecting passersby. Gayle wore a giant, foam-pink brain hat to draw more attention. Her reading that day doubled as my first—and favorable—impression of her whimsical personal style; along with the brain hat, she had an AHA tattoo on her back and purple highlights in her hair. During the next few years, Gayle and I became better acquainted at writers’ conferences, a retreat, and other literary events.

I read her 2017 memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, because I am a fan of hers, and because I was looking for memoirs similar to the one I am working on: a look at my relationship with my mother, who also suffers from mental illness. We conducted our interview over email.

In addition to The Art of Misdiagnosis (Beacon Press), Gayle Brandeis is the author of the recent poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press), the craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement; Self Storage (Ballantine); Delta Girls (Ballantine); and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles.

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KRISTA LUKAS: On the “Writing” tab of your website, the AHA tattoo on your back is visible. What can you tell us about this tattoo? 

GAYLE BRANDEIS: When my youngest child was three, it occurred to me that my kids’ initials, in birth order — Arin, Hannah, Asher — spelled AHA. I had never imagined getting a tattoo but as soon as I had this revelation about the initials, I thought, “I need to put that on my body!” Of course my kids are already written on my body, in my heart, indelibly, but it felt really good to have their initials written on my skin. And I love the word AHA, the sense of epiphany embedded within it, the joy of discovery and surprise. AHA moments are some of my favorites, in both my writing and my life.

I’m curious about the cover image of The Art of Misdiagnosis. 

The cover still takes my breath away. The art director at Beacon Press, Bob Kosturko, asked me to send him photos of my mom, as well as photos of her paintings, and I pulled together dozens for him. When he sent me the cover image — a photo from my mom’s modeling days as a young woman, melded with one of her later-in-life paintings (Rochelle’s Rhapsody, inspired by her sister’s electroshock therapy at the hands of the married psychiatrist my mom had fallen in love with as a teenager), I couldn’t stop weeping. It’s the perfect weaving of my mom and her art and all the complicated stories woven into both.

Do you know if a mental health professional ever diagnosed your mother and what that diagnosis was?

My mom’s mental illness was never diagnosed; in fact, she was able to convince more than one therapist that her husband was truly hiding a fortune from her. She sadly would never admit to having struggles with mental health and always put the blame for her problems on others.

Mental illness seemed obvious from your descriptions of your mother’s behavior, and my mother’s mental illness seems obvious, too, yet I feel conflicted about “diagnosing” her in the memoir, even though I have a good idea of what her condition is based in part on the opinion of a psychiatrist (mine, at the time) who met her, and a psychologist who has heard about her from me. Did you ever feel ever experience conflicted feelings about this?

I think the bigger conflict I experienced was wishing I had been able to find a way to help her while she was alive. My conjecture about and research into possible diagnoses was part of my journey toward trying to make sense of things; I am not a medical professional, of course, and don’t claim to have a definitive answer, but wanted to share that as part of my quest to come to a place of greater understanding. It was helpful to me to speak to a psychiatrist who specializes in delusional disorders; he told me there really wasn’t much I could have done to help with her particular type of delusion. Still, I wish I had been more compassionate with her in the midst of her delusional episodes.

What memoirs or other books have you found about mentally ill parents and their relationships with their children?

After my mom’s death, I hungrily sought out memoirs about both suicide loss and mentally ill parents — sometimes these books were one and the same, such as Linda Gray Sexton’s two memoirs, Half in Love and Searching for Mercy Street, which both delve into her relationship with her mother, the poet Anne Sexton. Other books that were especially helpful for me include Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba by Jacki Lyden, The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok, and The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. All of these books not only offered a sense of solidarity; they also helped give me courage to write my own story, showed me that it could be done.

You are an advocate for suicide prevention. How would you describe your advocacy efforts?

I very much see sharing my story as advocacy work. When we share our stories, we help others feel less alone; we reduce stigma and shame; we help ignite compassion. Two people have told me that my story being in the world saved their lives, and that means more than I could ever express. It’s also important to me to have resources available for those who need them — in the book itself, on my website, and on my person — and to make efforts to amplify the work of organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that offer support not only for people in crisis but for those grappling with suicide loss. 

In connection with my memoir-in-progress, which includes my mother’s financial exploitation of elderly individuals, I would like to advocate the prevention of elder abuse and exploitation. What advice do you have for me and other writers who hope to advocate causes related to their writing?

It can be a scary thing to put one’s own story into the world and having a cause to advocate can help make the experience feel less personal, more connected to something bigger than ourselves. Partnering with organizations that are doing important work is always a good thing, as is having resources available for those who want further information, as I note above. Of course there are all sorts of creative ways to raise awareness — using readings to raise funds and consciousness, putting together anthologies, and the like. One thing to consider is writing/publishing essays and articles about the issue close to your heart that have a separate life from the book but are tied in to the book.

I’m thinking of the time you called the police back to tell them your mother had returned with your eldest son after three hours missing. They talked you out of requesting an involuntary psychiatric hold, saying, “You wouldn’t do that to your own mother, would you?” I avoid talking about my mother (I’ve learned better), but when I used to speak of her and our conflicted relationship more freely, I found that some people responded supportively while others immediately jumped to her defense. What has your experience been with this type of response? 

I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t experienced much of that kind of response. I know that I censored myself in talking about her while she was alive for fear of such a response, not to mention fear of my words getting back to her. It’s been liberating to be able to speak about her more freely after her death. And if anyone were to jump to her defense now, I know I’ve made peace with what I’ve chosen to reveal and feel grounded in those choices, so that kind of reaction wouldn’t throw me off in the way it might have earlier on.

Your father had a generous and forgiving attitude toward your mother despite her delusional accusations of his hiding money from her and plotting against her. Although the two of them were divorced, they were good friends and often spent time together. I imagine this was comforting given your mother’s fragile mental condition, but at the same time frustrating when you considered your father. 

My dad never stopped loving my mom, never stopped being in love with her, even when she was accusing him of the most awful things, and it both filled and broke my heart to see his unceasing love for her. There were times when I grew a bit frustrated, when I wanted him to be able to let go of her and move on with his life (or, when she attacked him, press charges), but I knew he couldn’t. She was his life. And I’m grateful that he was there for her when she wasn’t in one of her delusional episodes, that they were able to laugh together and split orders of happy hour crab cakes at their favorite San Diego places and go to Met Opera simulcasts and do all the other things they enjoyed together. Those moments made the hard moments worth enduring for him, and as much as I wish he could have broken away from her, and as much as I feared for his safety at times, and felt very protective of him, I love that he had such a big, generous heart. He was the kindest, sweetest, most wonderful man. 

Your memoir was described in the book jacket summary as “formally inventive.”Would you like to talk about the different techniques you used?

Part of the book is epistolary — my therapist had suggested writing a letter to my mom, which was such helpful advice for me personally; as the letter kept getting longer and longer, I realized I could weave it into the book to provide deeper context and insight into my relationship with my mother. I chose to write the narrative around my mom’s suicide in present tense to capture the rush of that time period in an immediate, urgent way, and of course that doesn’t create a lot of space for reflection — the letter provided that.

I had stolen my title, The Art of Misdiagnosis, from the title of the documentary my mom had been working on at the time of her death, but I hadn’t considered incorporating the film itself into the narrative — mostly because I hadn’t even been ready to watch it — until the women’s writing retreat you and I both attended at St. Mary’s Art Center. I realized if I transcribed the film, it could give my mom an opportunity to speak for herself in the text. It felt important to include other ephemera, too — certain emails and letters, photos of her paintings — to give a clearer picture of my mom, as well as our relationship, and I also brought in some of my own research to allow my story to reach beyond itself.

Once I had all these pieces, putting the manuscript together truly felt like piecing together a puzzle — I divided the manuscript into piles and shifted them around until I found the structure that felt right to me. And even after I thought I had found that structure, it morphed — my agent suggested pulling one chapter out of the middle and making it the prologue, and pulling another out of the middle and making it the epilogue and that created a frame for the book that hadn’t occurred to me on my own but that felt so right for the book.

The integration of the different techniques and ephemera fascinated me as I read. I found the present-tense narration the easiest to read. I understand the need for reflection, and how the device of the letters to your mother provided that so well. I found these believable as letters for the first paragraphs, and then, in some cases, the voice seemed to shift to a second-person narration because I was reading information already known by your mother. For example, looking at the letter that begins on page 45, the first two paragraphs are convincing as a letter, but after that comes the story of your father’s first phone call to your mother and then how they first became acquainted. Is this what you intended as you wrote, or is there anything you would like to add about it?

Writing to my mom about things she already knew sometimes felt like, “Let’s reminisce about something in our family history together,” and sometimes felt more like an accusation, like, “Just look what you did!” Often, it was me trying to refresh my own memory, to find words to express what we had shared. As much as these were letters to my mom, they were also letters to myself, a way to clarify what I knew, identify where I still had questions. And I did eventually use them to fill in some blanks for the reader — that was a bit tricky to balance, to bring in awareness of others as I was directly addressing my mom. In the first draft of the letters, the reader wasn’t part of the equation, but eventually I had to make space for someone outside our story, to find ways to invite them in more deeply.

Which of the forms or techniques felt the most natural to you?

The letters certainly had the most freedom to them, the most spaciousness, so I suppose that felt most natural, in a way, but there were times when those parts were deeply painful to write. The present-tense narration sometimes flowed for me but sometimes felt like performing surgery on myself without anesthesia. I would say that once I got to revision of structure, the process started to feel more like play, which was a huge relief. The writing itself pulled from my gut and my heart and my bones, but once I shifted my focus onto quilting all the pieces together, my brain took charge and saw a puzzle it wanted to solve instead of a story that could reduce me to jelly.

How did the memoir evolve as you wrote it and prepared it for publication?

Even after it found a home with Beacon Press, the book changed quite a bit — my editor asked me to cut 3,000–7,000 words, just to make the book less expensive to print, and once I started cutting, I realized how much didn’t actually have to be there. I ended up cutting 20,000 words — a full quarter of the book — words that were important for me to write, but words the reader didn’t need for their own understanding of the story. While I love the description of the book being “formally inventive,” I definitely wasn’t playing with form just for the sake of playing with form; every decision I made felt organic and necessary to the telling of the book. Suicide loss is such a complicated kind of loss, one that resists traditional narrative, that ruptures it, so it makes sense to me that I needed to build a book out of various shards.

I was especially intrigued by your analysis of words, such as the names of diseases, the verb “malinger,” and the single letter difference in spelling between “ashes” and “Asher.” Can you say more about this? 

My dad was a tremendous lover of language — he loved to make up silly words and phrases and took great pleasure in the sounds and meanings of words (some of his favorites were “pithy” and “smarmy”) — and I know I inherited that from him. I’ve had a very visceral relationship with language since I was a little girl (certain words with a short “a” sound like “bladder” would make me want to rip my hair out, while other words, like “luminous,” still relax me), and have always loved to read dictionaries and encyclopedias, to unpack words and their histories, to muse over homonyms and idioms and so forth. Now that I think about it, that may ultimately be the most natural part of the book — I’m a word nerd to the core.

At the end of your acknowledgments, you thank your sister, Elizabeth, including, along with words of appreciation and love for her, “I know how hard my writing of this book has been for you.” It seems that many family members would find it difficult to have family secrets and losses exposed in a memoir. Is there anything you’d like to say about this?

I am so grateful my sister was able to share her discomfort with me, as wrenching as it was for me to hear how painful my writing the book had been for her, and am so grateful she ultimately gave me her blessing. It helped to be able to talk about it, to have those difficult conversations. Any writer of memoir has to make hard choices about what to share about people in their lives, whether to give them veto power, et cetera (I gave my sister and husband and grown children veto power, and, in the end, my sister asked me only to make one sentence a bit more precise and my husband asked me to remove one small thing he was uncomfortable with). I recommend Joy Castro’s book Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family to get a broad perspective of how different writers have navigated writing about the people in their lives. I also recommend writing a first draft as if no one is going to read it so you can write what you really need to write without censoring yourself — then, when you revise, you can start to think about how your words will impact others and edit in the way that feels right for your particular situation. As deeply important and transformative as writing this book was for me, the people I love are all the more important and I had to find that balance between saying what I needed to say and honoring those who hold my heart. Writing a memoir can be such a profound and perilous journey, and I wish anyone who embarks upon it courage and strength and illumination.

What is a question I did not ask you, or perhaps a question no one has asked, that you’d like to answer?

Oooh, what has no one asked me? How about what food do I miss most that my mom used to make? Aside from the noodle kugel I mention in the memoir, one of her signature dishes was a casserole called Tallerine. It was made of egg noodles, ground beef, tomato soup, peas, and black olives with American cheese melted on top. Sort of a quintessential, gooey, satisfying, ’70s casserole. As a kid, I would pick out the olive slices, although I loved when a pea nestled inside of one and looked like a strange black eye with a green pupil. After I became vegetarian, she made it with soy crumbles instead of beef and vegan cheese instead of Kraft slices. I recently had a dream where I realized I would never taste her food again and I woke up sobbing.

Is there anything you’d like to add about The Art of Misdiagnosis?

I want to assure readers the book isn’t relentlessly dark. It has moments of lightness and humor and is very much about hope and healing, even as it explores a lot of painful stuff.

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Krista Lukas is the author of a poetry collection, Fans of My Unconscious. Poems from the collection have appeared in outlets including The Writer’s Almanac and The Best American Poetry.

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