Beating Back Grief: Darin Strauss

September 15, 2010

 "... grief, (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability) if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back."

Last week I had a challenging conversation with my chronically troubled mother. After she lectured me on how to vanquish the grief of my disturbing childhood by finally apologizing to her for my failures as a daughter, I explained that my grief can never be completely vanquished, only beaten back and put in its proper place.

She didn't get it.

Maybe you can understand.  I'm quite certain that my guest today, Darin Strauss, will get it.  In fact, I wish I'd had his interview answers in mind during that frustrating conversation with my mother.

I would have explained to her that during my childhood, she and I were headed in opposite directions. As I innocently drove toward some kind of magical future, she swerved time and time again, trying to escape the present. She crossed established boundaries, crashing into me. Each time I saw it coming, I desperately tried to miss her--to save her--but it was impossible. I did the best I humanly could to end her unhappiness and pain, the repetitive death of her spirit.

I do not owe her an apology.

Instead, I explained that because I was so young, because my body and soul were evolving at a cellular level, those experiences contributed to the core of who I am, bit by bit.  To reach into myself and yank all that out now would cripple me. I'm stronger with them than without them.

To quote Darin, "... of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat--in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it--I wouldn't."

As Darin and I both know, some folks have it much worse than the two of us.  Everyone has their own aberrations and crosses to bear.  On Aberration Nation we've read about a woman who lost her entire family to war, a man who was stabbed 39 times as a child, people who were physically abused, etc.  Realistically, we'll never know who feels pain the deepest, who cries the most tears, or who has the most regret.  We all live in our own self-contained emotional jungles. Even when we're blessed to have visitors who share our internal world, they must still see it through their own eyes.

I suspect my mother's view has always been distorted by all that constant swerving and crashing.  When I was a child, she used to inform me with a harsh tone, "This is not your life, Penelope."  That always bothered me, as if she were belittling my very existence, turning me into some sort of ghost revolving around her.  I remember standing there, thinking, but I'm here, aren't I? I'm living. I desperately wanted to be in my own life; I wanted to be the hero of the story.

Darin has gifted me with the notion that perhaps in a way, my mother was right.  As he so simply phrases it below, "It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living."


What's your story as a writer, and how does your new memoir HALF A LIFE factor in?

I always loved books, and first attempted a novel as a 4th grader (Army of Frankensteins, a young American general, shockingly bad writing). But I didn't think of becoming a writer professionally until college. I didn't know anyone who'd tried it. But PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT changed my life. I thought: I can write about this?

HALF A LIFE is a big part of my story.  I was a normal high school kid who had a car accident. A girl cut across two lanes of a busy highway and crashed right into my car. She died. I was changed by this in ways I only fully understood 20 years later. The book is an attempt not just to tell the story and make sense of it, but to also show that grief (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability), if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back.

With regard to HALF A LIFE, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My new book is all about ah-ha moments. I thought I would never write about this. (I published three novels before this book, and assumed I'd just go on writing fiction.) I found myself feeling better about the accident than I ever had before. I didn't know why, but dealing with it as a writing project--something you tinker with, shape, and turn off at night--helped. I felt some guilt about that--the fact that it was getting easier.

Then I learned that the way psychologists now deal with Complicated Grief Disorder (a disease of people much more floored even than I was) is that they have sufferers speak into a tape recorder about what is the most painful thing for them. And then the patients have to play that tape for themselves every night. This sounds like mental torture. But the transformation of personal grief into an object that can be turned off is the best path to healing. And I stumbled into it.

But when you write a memoir (something as a fiction writer I was sure, again, that I'd never do) you learn things all the time. If you're doing your job, anyway. Oh, yeah--I forgot that this happened. That was a notion I had daily.

Aberration Nation currently focuses on creativity, but it's also about how life's aberrations (whether physical, emotional, or situational) can become the kernel of our strength. In Half a Life, you write about a tragic event that shaped your life. No one wants to believe that someone's

This is kind of the nexus of the book's questions. Someone died. So of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat -- in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it -- I wouldn't.

That's something I never would have believed in the years and years I was agonizing. But it made me who I am. The accident happened when I was 18. It wasn't my fault that she died; she swerved in front of me, and I tried my best to avoid her. Going over that one-tenth of a second for decades was an act of futility. I tried my human best to miss her, and I didn't miss her, but that was all I could do. And so I realized it wasn't even a story about me. It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living.

But yes, it made me stronger, I hope. And I also hope more thoughtful (in every sense).

When tragedy strikes, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty, and undeserving of happiness. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

I was both wallowing (I felt terrible guilt).  I was also deeply, heart-hurtingly aware that people had it worse than I did (the girl who died's parents).  After they told me they knew for sure that it wasn't my fault--and that they expected me to live twice as successfully and well now, because I was living for two people--and then followed that up by suing me for millions of dollars, I was very wallow-y. That was heavy for an 18-year-old. (If the court case went terribly wrong for me, I could have had my wages garnished forever.) Plus I kept wondering if I could have swerved differently, or done something. So those thoughts did diminish my happiness. Which seemed fitting; again, even though it wasn't my fault, a girl died because my car hit her. That will change you. The key was not letting it define who I was.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I think my career has caused aberrations for my wife. As a writer you're never 100 percent off-duty. So sometimes I'm not as present with her as I should be; I'm thinking of a character, a plot turn, a metaphor. But that sounds pretentious. I think it's also been great. And as Philip Roth wrote -- a character who was a writer was at his brother's funeral, and deciding how he would stage the scene in a novel -- this job even fucks up grief. (But that's probably to the good.)

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I think writing is all expression. Expressing a detail, an idea, a half-formed idea. But expression is creation, right? I mean, for a writer -- expression equals creation.

In general, is writing therapeutic for you? How was writing HALF A LIFE therapeutic?

I used to subscribe to something that the writer William Gass said. (And I'm going to misquote it, probably.) "If writing is cathartic, you're not doing it right, because it's so hard--getting the prose and the form right--you can't have time to think about yourself."

But that is what makes it cathartic, I now realize. Losing yourself in the "craft" aspects of it, finding the write punctuation mark, deciding if this paragraph should follow that one, this is the kind of thing that takes you out of your grief.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I had girlfriends who didn't get it. I once told a woman that I'd had a hard day, and she laughed. "How hard can it be? You're just making stuff up." That kind of thing.

My wife is very understanding. But it bothers her, even now, how much I work. I wrote for a few hours yesterday (Labor Day), and that drove her nuts. It's something we always have to deal with--manging each other's expectations.     

Was there ever a time when you just felt like giving up? On yourself? On writing? If so, how were you able to cross that bridge?

Sure. You feel that all the time. To quote Roth again, "The difference between an Olympic swimmer and a professional writer is that the swimmer doesn't feel like she's drowning every time she goes in."  So we all feel it--even the Philip Roths of the world.  But the key is: keep getting in the pool.

If you could tell the world one thing about overcoming tragedy, what would that be?

Too hard to answer. I guess, try to face it. Do the Complicated Grief Disorder therapy that I mentioned above. When you're ready--and only then--force yourself to play the tape over and again.

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