Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Interview with Author Gayle Greene on Missing Persons

Gayle Greene has just released a new book, a memoir called Missing Persons that delves into her family relationships as she became aware of them after her mother died. 

LH: Gayle, you wrote extensively about feminism in literature and then turned to works that were less critical, more creative in the nonfiction realm.  As you know, my favorite was your book about Dr. Alice Hamilton and her crusade to save babies from damage from in utero x-rays.  Now, you’ve written a memoir, a new genre within nonfiction, in many ways a more painful and challenging endeavor.  Can you tell my blog readers what caused you to turn in this direction?

GG: What catapulted me into writing this book was my mother’s death, and her sister’s, six weeks before, an aunt who’d been a second mother to me.   Only after their deaths did I feel the full force of what it means to be the sole survivor of a family, having never made a family of my own.  These losses forced other losses to surface, long repressed, the suicide of my younger brother, the death of my father, losses I’d rushed through in a state of denial and distraction.  Only after my family was gone did I get it:  this is what family is about, and faith, and other stuff I’d given no thought to;  I was left with none of the consolations people usually turn to at a time like this.  Yet I had to find some way of commemorating these lives, these deaths, of letting go and moving on, in the absence of beliefs that might guide me through this process.  As the professional identity on which I’d based my selfhood began to feel brittle and trivial, I was catapulted into questions of who am I, what have I done with my life?  Classic identity crisis stuff, at age 54 —how’d I get so old, and know so little? 

LH: Was your early life centered around your mother?  Were you quite close to her?

GG: I was blindsided, utterly bereaved.  It’s not that I’d centered on my mother and aunt;  actually, I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to get away from home. I bolted out when I was barely 17;  like many of my generation of women, I was determined not to be my mother;   I put a continent between us.  But in the course of time, I’d found a way back, and my mother and I became like… well, like mother and daughter.   In ways much deeper than I’d realized, I’d counted on her and my aunt;  the men left—my brother committed suicide, my father’s women got younger and younger –but the women stayed, bedrock, always there.  These two extraordinary women had made me feel like the center of the universe.   A bit late in the day to be jolted out of that illusion— but hey, who ever said that growing up is a process reserved for the young. 

LH: Breaking illusions and facing hard truths can be terribly painful.  Do you feel that you had to screw up your courage before you could take on this project?

GG: It wasn’t a matter of gathering the courage—it was that I could not stop myself writing it.  Face it, even the best of friends gets tired of hearing you go on and on, their eyes glaze—I mean, everyone loses a mother, right?   So I began to write, and it sort of poured out;  at first it was writing for my sake, therapeutic, but then I found myself shaping it into memoir.  Writing became a way of grieving, keeping my aunt and mother with me awhile longer while I said a long goodbye.  Writing was also a way of discovering what was left.  These words of Wordsworth haunted me as I write:  we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains.

So the book looks backward to the past, as I try to undo the cathected knot between my mother and me, and forward, as I search for what remains, piecing together from the shards and remnants of our lives a story that can sustain me.   Because that’s a big thing that goes missing when you go through major loss:  you lose the story of your life.  You need a new story.

LH:  A lot of your readers will be people of an age where they are facing issues that resonate with yours, trying to cope with the loss of a parent or other close person in some way that leaves space for continued living with insight and enjoyment.  What will Missing Persons offer to such readers?

GG: Missing Persons tells a story so familiar, so like what so many people go through that I think many readers will find themselves in this book:  the sudden health emergencies, the flailing about in search of help, dealing with medications that make things worse, with doctors who are clueless about death, with a health care “system” so tangled in red tape that it would be comic if it weren’t a nightmare;  the inexorable slide to the end.  Then, figuring out a way to mourn that’s not scripted by belief systems of the past, groping my way toward practices that make emotional sense, patching together ways of grieving and letting go.  Figuring out what to do with the ashes, how to make a memorial,   what to do with the things—so many things!  My mother’s house is loaded to the rafters, there are things on the rafters, too:   as each family member died, their things landed here.  And what to do with the photos, decades of achingly beautiful photos of a family gone missing, a California gone missing.

And I discover, to my surprise, that going through these tasks is strangely healing.  Even what had seemed the most onerous, clearing out the house, having a garage sale, turns out to be a step in the letting go;  sorting out the things becomes a way of sorting myself out.  And the memorials I thought I was making for my mother and aunt, turn out to help me, too, in odd and surprising ways. 

LH:  I’ve sensed in talking with agents and publishers that their ideal memoir today is full of trauma and disaster for the author, a tragic childhood or coming of age that left permanent scars.  Did your memoir offer these aspects?

GG: This is not a sensationalist story.  I was never a gang member or raped by an uncle or anything like that.  There was drama in our family, but it was a closer-to-home kind of drama, suicide, depression, adultery, the kinds of skeletons lots of families have rattling around in closets.  Nor is this a story about a woman who takes off for foreign countries to find a guru or a new man;  the one I had turned out to be just fine.   In fact I found that the supports that had sustained me in the past sustained me now;  they were  right there under my nose, though I hadn’t appreciated.  Friendships, which I began to take less for granted.    My work, which I looked at anew;   I’d been a professor so long that it had become second nature;  only now did I register what a rare and special privilege it is to be a teacher.   I turned to reading, which I always turn to in times of trouble, and it delivered, too.  I read every grief memoir I could find, and then I found myself writing one.   Gratitude is the word I’m looking for.   Seeing my life anew.

LH: When I wrote my memoir, I found surprising insights that I never expected.  Did that happen to you?

GG: Here are some things I learned:  don’t rush away from loss, as I did from my brother’s and father’s deaths.  Sit with it, get quiet, feel what you’re feeling, make a space to mourn, take time for grieving, if you can.   Join a support group.  Talk it out.  Write it out.   Grief, the self-help books tell you, is not a neat, linear process;  it is messy, takes its own time;  it will not be rushed.   Reach inside yourself, find out what’s there, see what’s in your life to love.   My dreams started tossing up amazing things.  I began to have such vivid dreams about my family that that they felt like visitations.   All of this is in the book; but I tried to show these processes working their way through, not just describe them.  I wrote the kind of book I’d been looking for.

I don’t mean to sound all Mary Poppins.  The losses were horrific, not to be talked away.  The dead don’t return, no matter how we long for them, dream about them, write about them;  the losses are absolute.  But we can, even those of us who have no gods, find ways of keeping what we cherish about them, making them part of ourselves, and in that sense, keep them with us.  This, too, I write about in the book.

LH:  What’s special about your book?  Why weren’t the others what you’d “been looking for?”

GG: Most of the grief memoirs I read focused on death and ended with death, which was   kind of a bummer.  But mine begins with the deaths, and asks, what now?  It’s said that the loss of a parent is a rite of passage—but passage to where?  and how? especially in the absence of the consolations people turn to at a time like this, family and faith.  I never found a book that addressed the issues I was struggling with.   Mid-life loss of a parent has a special poignancy:   mortality is closer.   Mine is a story of a career woman, unmarried, without family, who came to feel the cost of her decisions, yet also to realize that teaching as long as I had, I had lots of “kids,” and I was better at this than I’d have been at children.  And my mother.  I read every memoir I could find about mothers;  I found weak mothers, wretched mothers, manipulative   mothers, strong mothers, heroic mothers, but I never found my mother.  I think all mothers in the world are simpler than mine.  A lot of this writing is trying to get her in focus;   I’m not sure I ever did— it’s a work in progress, our relationship.  As it’s said, death ends a life but not a relationship.
And the setting,  Silicon Valley, I never saw written about this way.   These days, all you hear is hype:  the largest generator of wealth in the history of the planet, the high-tech center of the world; if the valley were a nation it would be up there among the world’s dozen richest.  Now it seems every place wants to be Silicon Valley.  Well, careful what you wish for.

LH: You grew up in Silicon Valley when it was still Santa Clara Valley, no computers, no high powered money corporations and venture capitalists, few buildings and cars.  What do you recall about it in the early days?

GG: It was a place so paradisiacal that it was called the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”;  people came from miles around to marvel at its beauty in the spring.   First came the almonds, all in white, then the peaches, pears, cherries, apricots, decked out in gossamer petals of the palest pink.  Last came the plums, their blooms a deep, rosy pink, their scent so strong it came in through closed windows.  I grew up in the years the vast orchards were being dug up and paved over for tract housing, strip malls, freeways;  the sound of bulldozers, backhoes, the sickening thunk of trunk and branches as they hit the ground, the ratatatat of hammers as the housing developments sprang up and spread like fungus—this was the background noise of my youth.

Our house had an orchard in back and an orchard at the end of the block, which I’d walk through on my way to school.  The ranch style house my father bought us when my parents split up in 1953 cost $14,000—that’s $124,000 in today’s dollars.  You’d need three or four million to buy that house today— I kid you not.  Back then, the neighbors were just folks, not zillionaires, a furniture salesman, a car salesman, a pharmacist.   Los Altos was not the high-end boutique community that it is now, but a sleepy semi-suburban, semi-rural town.  This was my world when I was a kid, a world I roamed freely by foot and bike, this and the little downtown a mile to the north, that had Clint’s Ice Cream Parlor, Al’s Barber Shop, a mom and pop hardware store, and Mac’s Tea Room, the bar where my friends’ mothers hung out.

LH:  Wonderful memory details, it really shows me how much was lost when California gained its famous Silicon Valley.   What do you see there today?

GG: There’s so much money in this valley now,  computers, electronics, microelectronics, semiconductors, telecommunications, video games, the internet, biotech, Venture Capitalists so rapacious as to be termed Vulture Capitalists.   But there is also a gap between rich and poor wider than anywhere in the country, and traffic gridlock so colossal it gets reported in the New York Times.  And there are 23 Superfund sites.    You don’t have to grow up in Silicon Valley to have lived through this kind of ruination of a landscape.  The song that haunts me as I’m packing up my mother’s house and saying goodbye to the valley— they paved paradise and put up a parking lot— turns out not to have been written about California, as I’d assumed, but Hawaii.  It’s a theme of our time.   

So the book writes a chapter in the unwritten history of Silicon Valley.   

LH: You’ve said that once you sat down to write this story, it came almost too fast.  Can you describe the process of writing the book?

GG: The pouring-out-of-the story way of writing has its disadvantages.  I had a glut of material to work with.  But how do you decide, when you’re writing about your life—which is intensely interesting and meaningful to you—what parts might have meaning for anyone else?  I spent a lot of time teasing out the story from all that material and shaping it, structuring it, so it could be grasped by readers, a lot of time figuring out what parts might have meaning for others.  I figured the subject, losing a mother, wasn’t about to go out of style, so I took what time I needed.    Memoir has a bad name in some circles, and I see why—there are a lot of bad memoirs.  Celebrities seem to think a memoir has no more craft than a blog or a journal, and even the best of writers throw their memoirs together without the care they’d take with their novels.  But there is a difference between an artful memoir and a thrown-together memoir.   There are not many memoirs I’d put in a college syllabus, that are complex, layered, nuanced interesting enough to spend a literature class’ time on.  I’ve read dozens of memoirs, looking for books I can teach, and keep  coming back to the same half dozen or so, classics like This Boy’s Life, Fierce Attachments.  

LH:  Thank you for letting the blog readers understand the background of your memoir.

GG:  I hope they will read it; it’s available widely in bookstores and online.

Monday, October 16, 2017


Choice is an attractive concept.  Do you choose coffee or expresso?  Do you prefer neutral or primary colors?  Do you read or go for a walk when you aren't busy.  The idea of free will is that you may choose for yourself what to do.  Nadia Boulanger, who came and conducted the Goucher Glee Club in singing Faure's Requiem when I was in college, once said, "The essential conditions of everything you do must be choice,  love, and passion."  She impressed us mightily on her visit to the US, and her mini-lectures made me fall in love with words and see humans as namers of the universe.  But I chose to rehearse long hours instead of working on experiments for my biology senior thesis.  That choose had consequences.  I still love choral music.  My thesis was okay, not spectacular.  I have retired from being a biology professor and now I'm a creative writer.

One aspect of choice that fascinates me is choice when that is the only liberty one has.  This quotation from Vic Vujcic expresses that idea well. "Often people ask me how I manage to be happy despite having no arms and no legs.  The quick answer is I have a choice. I can be angry about not having limbs or I can be thankful that I have a purpose.  I choose gratitude." I resonate to that response because I use a wheelchair a lot these days and can choose to be angry and downhearted about it or grateful I"m alive and can write and even go on hikes or outings using my scooter.  I first noticed this kind of choice when I read a biography of Anwar Sadat many years ago.  Imprisoned for political agitation in Egypt, he chose to feel at liberty to think and plan for his country once he could get free rather than feeling sorry for himself.  Later, reading Nelson Mandela's biography, I found the same concept.

In writing, one's biographical subject or fictional character has to make choices.  The kind of interior monologs  and actions towards others your subject chooses can reveal his or her character as few other actions can.  Showing us the inner conflict and decision to choose positive thoughts can make your writing memorable.


Science Awards for Women: A Sore Point  

I have written a lot over the years on NATURE's blog on Women in Science about major scientific awards and the very few women typically selected for them.  And in Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling and other places, I've written about one possible advantage women might have as scientists: they may select high risk-high reward projects that men have rejected.  

This week, National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced twelve people received Pioneer Awards, intended to recognize people who take on risky projects that pay off big.  Eleven were men, one was a women,  She was Kay The of MIT, whose work clarified the role of neuron plasticity in the amygdala in learning.  The men awarded included Feng Zhang, one of the scientists who has developed the ways to use CRISPR-Cas9 in editing of genes in human cells.  

The list implies I must have been wrong about women's attraction to risk with big rewards if the recipients were fairly selected.  In the previous three years, four, three, and five women were selected, so perhaps this was just an unlucky year for women's grants with high risk.  But somewhere along the line, as described in a semi-anonymous web posting, the process went from nomination to application.  I would argue that women find it a lot easier to gracefully agree to be recognized for risky but rewarding research than to put themselves forward has having done such research.  The imposter syndrome is well documented for women scientists, suggesting that women don't feel sure they've succeeded because of their own skills and intelligence, but feel it's been accidental and they might be found out as an imposter who really doesn't deserve her recognition.  

I recall not being willing to apply to Rockefeller Institute (now University) for graduate school because what they required was an essay basically extolling yourself and your scientific potential.  Not that I lacked confidence back then.  I seemed very confident but underneath, I cringed at the thought I might over-represent my own scientific acumen.  Somehow that never bothered some good friends (male) who applied there and were accepted.  

So it seems possible to me that the mechanism for selection of Pioneers now selects against women when it didn't so much in the past.  The Nobel Prizes (all male in science this year) are a different story!


Monday, October 2, 2017

Wisdom or Catastrophe

I've been watching a TV program called Global Spirit. Jean Shinoda Bowen was a guest there recently,  We are at a crossroads and must choose to pursue wisdom or catastrophe.  So many kinds of catastrophe could await us.  I'm reminded of a Native American concept of evil, in which today's world was started without evil but humans sent back to the previous world, asking their messenger to bring "the way to make money."  That proved to be evil or imbalance or spiritual deficiency.  When people follow that way, they are not on the path of beauty, they lose the ability to empathize with their relatives and others. 

What is wisdom?  Is it the property of gurus or priests or others who spend their entire lives on issues of soul?  I think not.  I notice that from Athena to Sophia, wisdom is often seen as a woman.  Is it motherly insight that breaks through to real understanding and close relationship to others?  Maybe.  It's a mystery, as is the soul itself.  But nourishment is definitely a function of mothers, and true wisdom is thought to satisfy better than any money-based rewards.  

Rational thought, what we seem to glorify in schools, probably has little to do with wisdom.  As a writer, and I think as any creative artist, thinking isn't enough.  Immersion in the stream of deep feeling has to undergird art or it lacks the ability to connect to others.  Wisdom, not reason, leads us to the best human state possible it seems.

Have you ever written out of rationality rather than wisdom?  How?  On what kinds of topics?


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Pandas and Curiosity about Women


Hilary Clinton's new book, What Happened, includes many insights into her campaign for president and its results.  Tucked into it, you'll also find information about what she was asked most frequently when on the political trail: what she had for breakfast, what she likes to read when relaxing, how she feels about Bill Clinton, what color and styles she likes and why. 

Rachel Maddow, in interviewing Hilary Clinton, found it fascinating that these personal details were the most frequently asked about.  Hilary
Clinton said she had once worried about this trend, but she had discussed it with others and finally concluded that the way people watch pandas is similar.  Pandas are exotic and rare but they don't do much, yet people spend hours watching them at zoos and in the wild.  Somehow, despite their repetitive and somewhat boring doings, people expect that they may do anything, and they try to be there to see it.  She thinks now that the personal inquisition she gets is similar.  Women running for president are rara avis beings, and people want to watch to see if they'll do something surprising and different.

Difference is interesting.  As writers we know that and use it in our writing.  There is a lot of emphasis in writing books on conflict as the basis of story.  I like the somewhat newer idea that a story needs conflict but it relies on building or breaking down relationships for the emotional power of the story.  The panda effect is an attempt at connection.  I did wonder why women but not men are asked these questions, but the focus on the unusual, with an anticipation of a coming surprise, makes a lot of sense to me.

Anyone have experiences or ideas about the panda effect?


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Being Another Organism

One fascinating topic for authors is to try to see the world through the eyes of another organism.  Coetzee has written a number of stories with embedded essays about animal perspectives, whether we can ever perceive the world from the eyes of a lion or a bat. 

Recently I've been very interested in sea creatures.  Not necessarily sea anemones like the one  pictured here, but octopus.  I've read haphazardly around the topic of octopus intelligence and perception, and my favorite at present is Soul of an Octopus. The ingenuity and the moods of several individuals of this species surprised me a great deal.  Some are kindly and others aloof, some are Houdinis and can ooze their entire bodies through tiny cracks to escape aquaria. The color changes they undergo can be similar to facial expressions.  In some cases, a red octopus is interested only in sex.  

I imagine that sci fi authors who write about alien shape shifters could be unconsciously modeling them on octopuses.  But how do they feel?  Clearly they'd prefer not to be caged in an aquarium.  Sy Montgomery attributes many human qualities to the individuals she got to know and described in Soul of an Octopus.  I think the choice of the word 'soul' is shocking to some, but to me it seems justified.  But I also see how a human can fool him or herself about what an octopus is thinking or feeling.  There is a barrier that remains, no matter how connected one may feel.  But exploring that barrier is fascinating to write about and to read.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Egrets and Herons at Newport Back Bay

One of my favorite spots to go in the LA area is the bay behind Newport Beach.  There's a paved road along the bay but it's one way and slow speed for cars and mostly for bikes and runners.  The tides affect what kinds of birds you can see there, but usually there are snowy egrets like this one, with golden feet.  They often hang out along the edge of the water, shuffling their feet to stir up small invertebrates to eat.  A snowy egret being still is an unusual sight.  This one was crossing the road at a time of low traffic.  My husband Mike and I discovered that across the road was a small trail through the rushes and tall grasses that from time to time shows glimpses of an egret rookery back in the hidden area.  It's fun to go in there with a spotting scope and see how the young egrets are doing.

Great egrets are a lot bigger and very stately compared to snowy egrets.  They stand and wait for a small fish or large invertebrate or frog to pass in the shallow water, then spear it up with their beaks in a flashing strike.  That behavior is much like the Great Blue Herons from Newport Back Bay.  They stand, often near but not too near other GBHs, and wait for a meal to swim past, then strike.  Both the Great egrets and the GBHs can swallow whole fish of an amazingly large size considering the size of their tiny elongated necks.  The necks bulge as the food travels down them.  Often the birds seem to be shaking their heads and necks or swallowing convulsively to get the too-large food down. 

Here are phcots of a lone great egret and a group of great blue herons at Newport.  Watching these birds changes my sense of time.  They never seem to be stressed, and after I watch them for a hour or two, I am not stressed either.  I breathe in sagebrush, hear red-winged blackbirds, and watch the water ripple, and I gaze at an egret or heron for a long time, imagining how life would feel if I were one of them.  Today's human problems fade away from my consciousness.