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.