TCR Talks with Gayle Brandeis

By: Angela M. giles

I am not sure when I first became aware of Gayle Brandeis and her work. It was a few years ago, and truthfully, it was the story of her mother’s suicide that drew me to her. There is a strange bond between survivors of suicide, a shared understanding of that particular kind of loss and the way in which our kind of grief is often messy. I read a few of her essays online and was hooked. I poured through whatever I could get my hands on by her, and her poetry is amazing, by the way. I knew she was writing a book about her mother’s suicide, and whereas saying I was looking forward to it sounds a bit morose, I was. So, when the opportunity to speak with her about writing the book was presented, I was thrilled. It turns out, Gayle is as brilliant and kind in person as you hope she is, and she has an amazing ability to distill grace from even the most painful moments.

The Art of Misdiagnosis is Gayle Brandeis’ remarkable exploration of her mother’s suicide, which occurred just days after Gayle gave birth to her youngest child. It is a story of mental illness, physical illness, and the ways we tell each other stories to avoid telling each other the truth. The narrative structure allows Gayle to present starkly uncomfortable facts about her mother and herself and gives us an account of the frantic weeks surrounding the suicide. She incorporates, often with chilling effect, segments from a documentary her mother was working on at the time of her death titled The Art of Misdiagnosis. In using the title of her mother’s unfinished work to explore a life finished so abruptly, Gayle underscores how much we do not understand about each other, even those closest to us.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver), Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well as a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems, and short fiction have been widely published and received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable Mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low-residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012 to 2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine.

The Coachella Review: It seems strange to call a book on suicide stunning, but that is the word that immediately comes to mind. Even the visual presentation of the book is striking. Can you explain the choice of the cover photo?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much. Bob Kosturko, the wonderful creative director at Beacon Press, requested I send along several photos of my mother and her paintings to consider for the cover. My mom had been a model when she was a young woman, and I thankfully have much of her portfolio from that time, so I had some great photos to choose from. I sent at least a dozen Bob’s way, along with her own artwork, never guessing he would blend the two. When he first sent me the cover image, my young mother looking directly into my eyes, her face surrounded by one of her paintings (“Rochelle’s Rhapsody,” which refers to the electroshock therapy her sister Rochelle received as a young woman at the hands of my mother’s lover, a married psychiatrist), I started to weep. It literally took my breath away. Such a perfect cover, uniting my mom with her art. When I received the galleys, it was hard for me to look at them at first—each time I saw my mother’s face staring up at me from the little side table in my living room, I would feel an uncomfortable zing through my body. I have since gotten used to having the image around. I am able to meet my mother’s gaze now, which is maybe what writing the memoir was all about for me in the first place.

TCR: The title of your book is the same as the title of your mother’s film. You share a discussion with your mother in which she accuses your father of giving the title to another artist just to spite her. On her best days, how do you think she would feel about you using her title for your book?

GB: That is such a good question! My first impulse is to say she would be pissed, that she would accuse me of stealing her idea, her thunder, that she would never be able to forgive me for such a transgression, but I’m thinking of her at her worst, not her best. Perhaps, at her best, she would be honored; perhaps, she would even see it as a collaboration of sorts (which it did come to feel like). She often accused me of not respecting her and her ideas; I hope she would be pleased by how I came to appreciate her and her creativity freshly through this project.

TCR: When did you know that you would write this book, and when did you realize you needed to include her film? What was that realization like?

GB: I wanted to write about her and her delusions even before her suicide, but she had asked me to not write about her while she was alive, and I had held myself back accordingly. Shortly after her death, one of the things that gave me a modicum of solace was the fact that I knew I was now free to write about her; I knew that writing would be my best way to try to make sense out of everything. It took some time to be able to start to write, though—her command stuck with me even after she was gone (Plus, I was in shock and had just given birth, and it was awhile before I could do much of anything.)

I didn’t think about using “The Art of Misdiagnosis” as my title until 2013, when I was re-diagnosed with an illness my mom had thought was a misdiagnosis when I was a teenager, and I started to think about how that title could work on a couple of different levels as I explored my mom’s life and our history together. I didn’t consider weaving the film itself into the memoir for several months after this epiphany, probably because I didn’t feel ready to watch the film, didn’t feel ready to see her moving around on the screen, to hear her voice. Then, I was invited to a women writers’ retreat and realized the time away could be a good opportunity to sit with her film without any of the usual life distractions getting in the way. Once I started to watch it, I realized I needed to include the film in the book, that it would give my mom a chance to have her own voice in the text, that it would give a window into her world that she had built on her own, not just one I had constructed for her.

TCR: From my own experience, I can comfortably state that writing about a parent’s successful suicide is hard. Getting into that space both intellectually and emotionally and then writing about it can be tricky. Did anything scare you about this project?

GB: Everything scared me about this project! I was scared about the feelings I was going to churn up in myself; I was scared I might not get the writing right; I was scared I might not get my mom right; I was scared about upsetting my family; I was scared of being judged for things I both did and didn’t do. The whole enterprise was terrifying. But ultimately, I was more scared of not writing this book than I was of writing it. I knew if I didn’t dive into this project, I would be denying myself a very necessary part of my own grieving process, denying myself a vital opportunity for reckoning and growth.

TCR: A couple of themes struck me as I read; one was the difference between choice and need. Indeed, your mother remarks in an email “both Gayle and Elizabeth never understood my leaving their father was not a choice but a need.” Everyone seemed to have a need to believe your mother would be ok, that sidestepping her delusions would somehow diffuse them, and your mother had a need to hold onto the delusions; they felt like her framework. Given what you know of her final days and moments, how much of what she did, from seeking sanctuary to taking her life, was choice versus need?

GB: Another really compelling question–and such good insights; thank you! Yes, my family did really have that need—perhaps delusional in our own way, surely steeped in denial—to believe my mother would be okay, and yes, her delusions really did provide a framework for her life (I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before but, oh, that hits home!). It breaks my heart, but I think so many of her final decisions were fueled by fear, by a force that was driving her rather than one she controlled. She sought sanctuary because she was scared people were following her and wanted to harm her; she may have taken her life because she was afraid her family was going to have her locked away. But there is part of me (perhaps, that same part that needed her to be okay) that hopes there was some clarity within her in those moments, some crystalline part in the midst of all the fear that made a conscious decision to leave this world, a final assertion of her own sovereignty.

TCR: The other thing I noticed is the role of women. Not that the men weren’t important or present (and certainly your husband was a strong figure), but men seemed to provide places of sanctuary whereas the women provided comfort and understanding. From you getting treatment from your friend Celia and being able to release negativity from your body to the fact that the description of your mother’s final moments happened to be conveyed by a female, there is such a strong sense of female community in the book. Was that intentional?

GB: I love this observation! This was definitely not intentional, but it makes perfect sense to me. I may have had a complicated relationship with my mom, but I’ve been lucky to have so many women in my life who have provided strength and healing and community and a different kind of nurturing than my mom was able to give. My mom didn’t trust other women—she always felt in competition with other women—which breaks my heart. I am so deeply grateful to all the women who helped midwife me through my journey with grief and am so happy to hear a sense of female community comes through in the book. I should mention I also felt buoyed by women writers whose example of writing bravely also helped carry me along, writers like Lidia Yuknavitch and Roxane Gay and Emily Rapp and so many more; so many women’s hands held me up—literally and metaphorically—through both the lived experience of my mother’s death and the writing of it.

TCR: You talked a lot about how your role as the Sick Girl and your mother’s role as the Mother of the Sick Girl were so linked that it was hard to tell who was sidekick to who. I felt that way while reading your book. At times, it was your story. At times, it was your mother’s story. You do such an amazing job detailing the measures you took to keep the Sick Girl narrative with your mother going, was it hard balancing the two stories while writing the book?

GB: It took a while to figure out that balance. I ended up cutting 20,000 words from the manuscript after it was under contract with Beacon Press—almost a full quarter of the book—because I realized I was spending too much time on my own life outside of my relationship with my mom, and it threw the balance out of whack. I’m glad I wrote those pages for my own understanding, and I’m glad they’re not in the book. I needed to focus more tightly on the two of us, our story together.

My former agent actually wanted me to drop the whole Sick Girl narrative from the memoir—she was concerned it would make readers uncomfortable—but I knew that it, more than anything, captured the complicated dynamic between me and my mom and informed our relationship the rest of her life. Rather than take it out of the book, I amicably took myself out of that agency.

TCR: The way you have chosen to present this story, her story, and your story is very different from other suicide memoirs I have read. You have a few threads going, your letters to her after she died, the narrative timeline, her film, and the four research pieces. What led you to the decision to construct the memoir in this way, and was any thread more challenging than the other?

GB: The different threads came about organically. After my therapist suggested I write a letter to my mom, the letter kept growing and growing, and at some point, I realized it could be a good way to give a deeper context to the present-tense narration I was writing. That present-tense narration was definitely the most challenging thread for me because I had to put myself directly back into those often traumatic moments as they were happening; the letters allowed more time for breath, for reflection—the present-tense story didn’t have that luxury and could be exhausting and painful to write. Other pieces flew to the manuscript like metal shavings to a magnet; as I started going through my mom’s files and our old emails, certain documents jumped out at me, really demanded to be included. The research element didn’t come until a later draft. I was thinking about doing more research to give further context to my family’s story; then, a writer friend suggested something similar, and I was off and running. Research was a welcome break from delving into my own story; plus, it shed new light on my own story (Learning about factitious disorders was so illuminating for me!). With all these moving parts, including the transcription of the film, crafting the manuscript became a bit like putting a puzzle together, as I arranged and rearranged the different pieces to see how they could best fit. That was actually quite a soothing process for me; the writing, itself, was so wrenching, so emotional, and the crafting gave me some distance from it, turned it into something for my mind to play with.

TCR: How did your sister feel about that part of the book and your project, in general?

GB: She has given me her full-hearted blessing, which I am more grateful for than I could ever say, especially because it took a while for her to make peace with the project. I almost stopped writing it for a stretch of time because it was so painful for her—she told me it felt like a kind of violence for me to be revealing things that she wasn’t choosing to reveal, herself, and that was so incredibly hard to hear. But she did a lot of processing around the issue and saw that I was sharing my own story, which was different from hers (even though, of course, our stories overlap), that we each had a different relationship with our mom, that our mom had expected different things from each of us, and she understood I needed to write this for my own well-being. I feel so lucky and thankful to have been able to work through the hard stuff that the memoir stirred up together, so grateful to have this amazing woman as my sister.

TCR: I particularly liked the inclusion of your mother’s film and appreciated the different type-set and her artwork. Toward the end of the book, you state, “I still don’t know what to do with your film. All I can do for now is weave it into my own story, give you a chance to speak for yourself.” Do you have other plans for the film, or will you let this stand as its moment?

GB: I’m still trying to decide what, if anything, to do with the film. It’s not something my family wants to release in its entirety because it has a lot of information that may not be medically sound; I was considering making my own mini-documentary, where I could be in conversation with parts of the film, the way I am in the book, but haven’t had the time to make that happen. I think I may post snippets of it online so readers who are curious can get a taste of it and see my mom in action.

TCR: I know the story exists because your mother committed suicide, but can you imagine, realistically, another ending?

GB: It’s hard to imagine another ending at this point. Her last psychotic break was so much worse than any other before it; I don’t know if she could have climbed out of it. From what I’ve read and from conversations with psychiatrists, I know her kind of delusional disorder, which, of course, was never properly diagnosed, is incredibly hard to treat successfully, and it had reached a new level at the end. Had she lived, it would have been very hard to interact with her; I would have felt unsafe having the baby near her if she had stayed in a similar state. When I think about this alternative, I do feel a sense of relief that she is gone, and then I feel guilty for feeling that way. But that eternally hopeful-to-the-point-of-denial part of me does sometimes wonder if, eventually, she might have gotten to a more lucid place again, if I ever would have gotten my mom back.

TCR: What is the one thing you would like us to be left with after finishing the book—the one thing you want your reader to know?

GB: It’s hard to choose just one thing. Really, I want readers to take from the book whatever they each individually need. I would love for people to put the book down feeling less alone, perhaps, or more open-hearted, more free to tell their own story. But I don’t want to prescribe their journey. I want each reader to find it for themselves.

Angela M. Giles’s work appears online at The Nervous Breakdown, The Coachella Review, Medium: Human Parts, and other journals. She has been featured in print at The Healing Muse and is a contributor to Shades of Blue, an anthology on depression and suicide from Seal Press. She is an editor at The Manifest-Station. Angela lives in Massachusetts, where she conquers the world, one day at a time.