Monday, November 13, 2023

Q&A with Susannah Kennedy



Susannah Kennedy is the author of the new book Reading Jane: A Daughter's Memoir. It focuses on her relationship with her late mother. Also an anthropologist, Kennedy lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how would you describe the dynamic between you and your mother?


A: The memoir developed out of a decision to finally read the 45 years of diaries my mother left me after her suicide. For three years I had ignored them, abandoning them to their new home in boxes in the basement, afraid to even look in their direction.


It was only at the end of a Grief and Writing workshop with Laura Davis that I accepted those diaries were part of my life journey. I needed to find out what was in them. Why had my mother really killed herself?


As I began to read, it quickly became apparent that the diaries described a time in my life about which I had no memories. It had always been a bit of a party gag that I couldn’t remember anything before age 6.


As I read, I began to remember. I wrote down my reactions and associations. I joined a writing group. The book began to take shape.


The dynamic between my mother and me was idyllic and bonded when I was young and fraught as I became an adult.


As a child, I was my mother’s perfect companion. I fell asleep under the coats in spare bedrooms at parties, I sat through adult conversations at dinners, I read the tourist guides to her when we traveled in Europe. I told her everything about my life. I adored her.


But when I became a teenager, I began to meet boys and later men who captured my attention. Education sparked a curiosity in me. I wanted to discover the answers to the thousand questions I had always shared with her.


It became apparent that we were very different kinds of women and the difference was not a good thing in her eyes. Though we shared many companionable moments, especially as she became a grandmother, she always managed to make me feel “lesser than” in my difference.


That is one of the key hallmarks of a child of a narcissist: the yearning for closeness means entering into a symbiosis with the parent that permits no difference.


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


A: The title Reading Jane signifies the act of physically reading the diaries and the psychological activity of “reading” my mother, which had been a survival mechanism since childhood. I love the title. It is just right.


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

A: The year of writing the book was very difficult. I reacted with physical symptoms and panic. Not only did I develop tension in my neck and back from the labor of sitting and writing/typing for hours, but anxiety made that tension the source for fantastical worries.


Fears enveloped me: I was going to have a stroke, develop cancer, muscular-skeletal injuries would worsen so that I’d have to have my joints replaced like my mother-in-law, a passing toothache would mean getting false teeth like my father. The list went on and on.


I had already had enough psychotherapy to be aware that this was all psychosomatic. But as anyone will tell you, psychosomatic does not mean “made up.” It means the symptoms are real but the mind is developing crazy stories about the symptoms. The amygdala and the nervous system are powerful!


To help myself, I started personal training so that I could intervene before repetitive strain injuries became permanent. I did yoga. I walked on the beach. I tried to be mindful and present with my children, which helped ground me. I talked to my husband and other writers.


As the book took form, I began to calm down. I got resonant feedback from my writing group, which supported my foray into trusting my own voice to tell the story. My voice and conviction became stronger.


I began to feel comfortable instead of terrified by explorations into the topics of suicide and death. I took my health seriously, building up a practice of yoga, functional movement training and swimming.


Now, six years after those first diary readings, I feel better than I have in 20 years -- fitter, calmer and happier.


Q: The writer Zoe FitzGerald Carter said of the book, “Reading Jane is a triumph both as a literary memoir and as a contribution to the ongoing right-to-die debate in this country.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m flattered that she views it as a literary memoir triumph. In the few weeks that the book has been out, I have already had many encounters with emotional readers who thank me for daring to talk about family silences, for addressing and giving words to how childhood trauma shows itself in our bodies. …


I think the “right-to-die debate” is a volatile and intimate one. And yes, Reading Jane, by relating the narrative of a woman who chose voluntary suicide later in life and its effects on her family, also draws its readers into proximity with this taboo topic.


First of all, I think that the idea of suicide is core to the very nature of being human, of getting up each morning after sleep to start a new day. Do we keep going? Do we say yes to life?


Second, then, comes the idea of when life has become unbearable and we no longer have a will to live, do we have a right to say no? My mother’s “Better off Deads” were a crass way to further this necessary debate in this country.


On its own, medically-assisted suicide has been shown to be compassionate and doable within the mainstream hospice system. The twist in my mother’s case was that she was not in awful pain. She was not in the end stages of a terminal illness.


Therefore, her suicide had more in common with a young person’s choice than a medical end-of-life decision. And that is what the book explores.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working with Sibylline Press on the publicity and marketing for my book tours. This includes writing op-ed pieces and pitching media and bookstores from Boston to Savannah.


Next summer, the tour will be going from Salt Lake City to the Midwest and back around through Montana to the Pacific Northwest. It’s a lot to organize. But I love road trips.


Once the book tour is over, I will return to book writing. I have two half-finished books, one about raising children in Europe as a questioning American, and the other is about returning to the United States after 30 years abroad.


Both deal with the cultural lens, what we learn about truth when we go somewhere else. As an anthropologist, the idea of “home” and
“abroad” has always fascinated me.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The themes in Reading Jane are vital ones. Do we have the right to decide when we wish to die? How does childhood influence our adult lives? How do physical symptoms and mental processes interact? How can we as parents avoid passing down any traumatic material to the next generation?


The key, I believe, is finding the words to describe what has happened in our lives. Humans are amazing creatures and the thing that makes us unique is our ability to remember and to imagine. We should celebrate that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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