Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Q&A with Elizabeth Kadetsky

Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of the new memoir The Memory Eaters. Her other books include On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World and The Poison That Purifies You, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Guernica. She is an associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and over how long a period did you work on it?

A: I remember the moment I made the decision, weirdly enough. 

It was in 2009, and I was sitting in a giant pod chair in my rented room in Pittsburgh at the end of a one year teaching and writing residency and making plans to move across the state for another writer-in-residence position. 

My primary residence was still in New York City, and I was traveling there several times a month and on semester breaks to help my mother and sister manage things. 

Pennsylvania, for me, was a respite from the chaos and stress of my life in New York. It was also a place to enjoy the quiet and slower pace of things, and to write. 

I say “weirdly” because most of the events of the book hadn’t yet transpired. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about two years earlier, and I knew that the situation in New York was precarious. 

Something about the cocoon-like environment in Pennsylvania led me to want to immerse myself in my memories of the past. That part, of course—the past—had already happened; but this lens on them—of nostalgia and longing—was also new. 

I was aware that the coming months, and as it turned out years, would continually serve up material that I would want and need to process through the frame of this book project. 

It took me 10 years to write and shape the book, though the most dramatic part of the story ended when my mother passed away at the end of 2011, two and a half years after that moment in the pod chair in Pittsburgh. 

I continued to write, though, as I processed the aftermath. I finished the last essay for the book after the manuscript was accepted for publication, in 2019.  

Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book?

A: When I was writing the central material for the book, I was writing through extreme stress, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD (related to an assault that took place in 2005 and that I reckoned with during the writing process). 

Reading over the manuscript now, I see that there’s no way that I could write it from my current vantage. I am, simply put, a lot more sane now than I was then. The mania of that time is stitched in to the fabric of the text. 

I don’t like the idea that the writing of this book was therapy—the endeavour and motivation for me was to create art. 

I do, though, believe in the use of writing as therapy, for artists and non-artists alike, and the writing certainly was therapeutic for me. Processing the grief over my mother’s death in particular has been helped by writing about what led up to it. 

Somehow, finishing an essay, or, more grandly, finishing an actual manuscript and having that text published as a book, puts a certain, if external, end point on things. 

I can’t say that I will ever overcome this grief over my mother’s death, but the feeling of closure, and having had the mental space to find it by writing, has been a help.  

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title “The Memory Eaters” came to me long before the book was fully shaped. I ran it by a friend in the publishing industry, and she liked it. 

It’s funny because that title at that time described a different book from the one that I wrote—something more linear, and which much more specifically referenced Homer’s Odyssey (and in particular the Lotos Eaters chapter) and the myth of Persephone, in which Demeter’s daughter eats the food and drink of forgetting in the underworld and never wants to return. 

The title “The Memory Eaters” was meant to reference both of those archetypal stories, which in themselves are related. 

The focus on different ways of thinking about memory—forgetting, willed amnesia, Alzheimer’s and dementia, nostalgia, repetition compulsion, PTSD, ancestral history—came to me later. 

In a way the project came full circle. Having that title throughout was a kind of touchstone, always bringing me back to the original spark, the idea that sometimes forgetting can be a pleasant, even blissful—and ever-dangerous—escape.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I was definitely telling a personal story, but all along I felt that it had universal implications. 

As quirky and singular as my mother was, and as odd as my upbringing during that strange and exciting time in New York City was, I think that many people facing the loss of parents through Alzheimer’s and dementia will find a version of their own experience. 

I want to connect with those readers and let them know that they are not alone. 

A lot of people find themselves at this crossroads between the opioid and Alzheimer’s epidemics. A dysfunctional adult child finds her- or him- self caretaking aging parents. The more functional sibling whose life is already cluttered with career and/or family suddenly notices the whole thing crashing down and must manage. 

For children of baby boomers, the similarities may be even more striking. Now-aged parents may have even availed themselves of the liberating divorce wave of the 1970s. Like my mother, those parents might find themselves single by choice in their later years, with few resources for care.

On top of that, the social services are just not there at this point for either the opioid or dementia epidemics. I want my book to highlight that shortcoming, and to ask readers to think about better ways to manage this looming crisis for the American economy and family. 

Our culture has ignored the elderly for generations now, unlike in India or other more traditional societies. This, obviously, doesn’t work, but nor is it a solution for daughters to bear the full brunt of caretaking while also financially supporting their own families. 

Meanwhile, how many families have been untouched by addiction—alcoholism or opioids or what have you? Not very many. 

And yet the extreme degree of pain and logistical upheaval wreaked upon family members and loved ones by these conditions are somehow not a part of the grand narrative of what it means to be American. 

Watching ads and considering the expectations of full time employment not to mention child rearing, one might think that all of our lives simply function smoothly within this structure of work and family. 

It’s as if there’s a huge myth out there of how we’re supposed to live that no one can actually live up to. These impossible myths are held up for us, and in the disconnect between the ideal and the reality we can feel very lost and lonely. 

Systemically, there’s a lot that’s not right. My story is just one anecdote revealing the mechanics of this mass dysfunction.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in India as a Fulbright fellow doing exploratory research for a writing project about preservation and looting of antiquities and the role of museums in stealing and/or preserving ancient history. 

It’s a way of exploring a different spin on memory, but definitely connects to what I’ve been thinking about over the last decade and more while writing The Memory Eaters

Right now I’m a little bit obsessed with some 5th century goddess statues that were stolen from a temple in Rajasthan in the 1960s. The cult of the goddess is calling me, as are the ethical and legal issues brought up by this intriguing story.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A lot of readers and aspiring writers probably don’t realize how much research can go into a memoir. 

All told, I probably read about a hundred books on the topics of memory; genetics; New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s; and the art, self-help, and music movements of that era. I also read every edition of New York magazine published between 1975 and 1980. 

Much of the research was serendipitous—I found bound copies of the latter buried on a basement shelf in the library at a college where I was teaching for one semester, so I decided to read them. 

At one point I thought my book would include neuroscience on the nature of memory, so I read Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory, Daniel L. Schacter’s Searching for Memory, and Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens, among other books. 

While I cited very few of these works in the actual text, they did a lot to help me flesh out the scenes set during my youth in New York or to trigger my memories of it, and to give me a more nuanced understanding of some of the esoteric aspects of memory and epigenetics that I needed to reference. 

On the other hand, all this research slowed down the overall timeline for the book. In my view, it was more than worth it. Process is key.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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