Month: March 2020

TCR Talks with Rick Moody

BY SCOTT STEVENSON

Rick Moody, the award-winning author of The Ice Storm and Garden State, shares the true story of the first year of his second marriage in The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony. A recovering alcoholic and sexual compulsive with a history of depression, Moody is also a man in love and the divorced father of a beloved little girl.

He emerges from a complicated past into a second marriage. This union is strengthened by confronting new challenges—miscarriages, the deaths of friends, and home invasions.

The Coachella Review: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of The Long Accomplishment?

Rick Moody: It describes, more or less, the first twelve months of my marriage to visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and all of the things that happened to us in that year, many of them rather hard. Infertility treatments, lost pregnancies, suicide among friends, death, dementia among our parents, crimes committed against our persons and our property. It tries to arrive at a celebration of committed-ness, despite all the hardship.

TCR: You describe this year as your “annus horribilis.” Your first memoir, The Black Veil, was published 16 years after the events in that book. The Long Accomplishment was published a few years after the events. Why did you want to talk about this year now?

RM: It was less a question of wanting than I didn’t think I could write anything else. There was so much difficulty happening, and at such a velocity, that it sort of precluded my writing fiction for a while. I just didn’t have room in my head to write a novel, and I thought that writing about what was happening might help me achieve some understanding. Also, I thought that maybe I could help some other people going through similar things. Couples struggling with infertility, people who had gone through divorce (which is where the book starts, with the end of my first marriage), victims of crime, and so on.

TCR: Do your memories evolve through time? I feel memoirists struggle a lot with truth and memory. What truth about marriage in The Long Accomplishment do you feel will be immovable by time?

RM: I think memory is mixed up with desire, with despair, with culture, with history, with other people and their accounts, with photography, with what is written, and so on. It’s anything but pure. It’s like the reverberations that accompany a bell after the initial tolling has already taken place. It’s like what you hear after the applause has died down. Were I to rewrite The Black Veil, my first memoir, now, it would be a lot less heartbroken than it was when I started it in the late nineties. For example, I now look back on my hospitalization, in my twenties, as a great gift. The Long Accomplishment doesn’t need to be a definitive account, the only account, or anything else. It’s just a record of where I was when I wrote it. I hope the result might be a little moving, and perhaps offer an audience the chance to care about the hardship of others, especially couples trying to conceive.

TCR: Do you really think you’ll look back ten or twenty years from now and still see it as an annus horribilis?

RM: I don’t know, really. I’m not the greatest forecaster. (In 2015, I wrote that Donald Trump would never be president.) I feel like forecasting is not a terribly effective use of my observational capacities. But I don’t think it matters what I think of the year in question. I will probably be somewhere quite different (at age 78), and not thinking about 2013-2014 in great detail. But I will say this: home invasion and grand larceny afflicted on one’s property is pretty memorable, pretty traumatic, and pretty hard to shake. I know Laurel, my wife, has not shaken it, and I don’t expect I will shake it too easily. One can go back into the thrall of that particular sequence of our story and still feel the wound as pretty fresh. If that is the anchor store for the mall of our annus horribilis, it is liable to still be anchoring in 2040.

TCR: You write about teaching Heinrich von Kleist at NYU. You write, “In Kleist, it’s more that events take place, disassociatively, and we are at their mercy. We, the readers, impose an interpretation of events, even though their sequence is contestable, and thus it was Kleist, as you can see, all around us.” Can you talk more about Kleist and if he influenced your writing in The Long Accomplishment?

RM: Kleist was not a particular influence, so much as a tonal flavor, because I taught him that year under scrutiny in the book. But the way sequence, order of events, works in Kleist is of great interest to me. He leaves events to happen without the excess plotting that one associates, for example, with the century that followed him. You can imagine Susan Sontag liking the work, because it resists being emblematic, it resists a symbolic field. It sort of wants to say exactly what is says, and no more, in a kind of materialism, and that is maybe what’s Enlightenment about Kleist and his considerable achievements. In The Long Accomplishment, I was trying to make a similar case, that amassing the annus horribilis, making it into some kind of fated-ness, some moral tale (though at various times during the years I felt that that was exactly what it was), was to misunderstand what the present is. The present is a new roll of the dice. A new set of possibilities. And while the past leads to it, the present is also free, in a way. There is a liberation here, and trying to reach that place of liberation is a worthy task.

TCR: Your wife Laurel is a photographer. You write that she has terabytes of pictures. What drives Laurel’s interest in photography? Do you think we take pictures because we’re afraid of forgetting or not getting the details right for a memory?

RM: Laurel’s photographs are a lot bigger than a mnemonic exercise, more complex, more various, more performance-oriented. And what she likes as a person who loves photography is less the documentary, except insofar as the documentary is full of feeling. She is interested in how the photograph speaks to human emotions and consciousness, I think. Like a writer, almost. Laurel’s father and brother are both writers, and she’s married to a writer, and she took a lot of writing classes when younger, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and I think some of what she likes about visual art has to do with a first-rate education as a writer. And while the preservation aspect of photography, the Instagram image culture aspect, is a register that she notes and has worked with and against, it is less about forgetting, and more about getting at what we’re feeling. I’m putting words in her mouth, here, and don’t mean to, but this is, I guess, what she might say about it all.

TCR: The next thing I want to talk about is your relationship with death in this book. Your friends M.J. and Maggie Estep pass away. Your daughter’s friend Stella tragically dies. One of the most affecting moments is when the twin embryos of your sons are “reabsorbed into the first spark of the universe, to be reclaimed at a later date.” You write this year had “a sort of accretion of losses that no one should have in one year,” and it did not seem possible for you and Laurel to move on after her DNC. Does writing about these losses help you grieve?

RM: This is a subject that I think about a lot and have always thought about a lot. For a time I thought about it without having that much experience with it, or only the experience that one has according to the explicable march of time. But then death came calling with greater frequency, and in a more unpredictable and implacable way. It seems to me the knowledge of death, and its influence over who we are and how we are is the greatest question to address in art and literature. The fact of non-being in the midst of being. It is less, I suppose, that writing helps than that writing can be a fact of grief, a thing to do while grieving. For me it is, and maybe this is simply because I am a writer. I don’t see The Long Accomplishment as scripto-therapeutic, in that it has that single confessional purpose, but I do see language as a way, a very beautiful way, to leave behind some accurate impressions. It puts the being in being.

TCR: You are open about your Christian faith. What did you learn about your own life and your relationship with your faith through these losses?

RM: As I say in the book, my practice of faith is mostly about community, and not at all about doctrine, nor about paving some way for the afterlife. Faith is a thing to do here and now to try to describe what being alive is for, and what you might do with it, in the short time you are here. I don’t really care, at all, whether Christ’s body was physically raised from the dead, or if it was his spirit. I think his resurrection can be wholly symbolic and still be immensely powerful. I like all of the possible interpretations, or most of the possible interpretations, and I like the noise of them all at once. I like Christianity as a text, and especially I like those stripes of Protestantism that encourage you to make your own interpretations, and which eliminate layers of hierarchy between you, the faithful person, and the divine. My idea of it right now is sort of Franciscan, that the best thing is to be in touch with what animates, and to feel that closeness, and to live, morally, because that’s what inevitably happens, moral vision, in the becoming-close with the divine. Does this help with loss? What helps, maybe, is the idea that you are not alone in loss, that there is no question of aloneness. This is one reason why I have written at some length about Lazarus of Bethany, and Christ’s part in the story of Lazarus of Bethany. Jesus of Nazareth wept over Lazarus, and felt the loss, and was undone, and then he brought back his friend. He indicates what grief feels like, and is a co-sufferer, and that is an indication of what the community of faith might do for the people who grieve.

TCR: You talk about the Dante reading group with M.J. She’s one of your friends who dies during the year you write about in your memoir. You support her writing, and she appears to be jealous of your success during the course of your relationship. The passage you reference in Purgatorio is where the eyes of the envious are sewn shut, “because they cannot rightly see what is in front of them.” Then, you write, “Was the ’stitched shut‘ quality more an aspect of my character? Or more M.J.’s?” That question surprised me. Can you talk a little about your relationship with M.J. and why either of you may have been blind to what was right in front of you?

RM: My sense, and I am a person with a history of mental illness myself, is that character always has blindness attached to it. You can’t see all of yourself, physically and mentally, and that blindness is important, even essential, to who you are. You are always blind to some aspect of character and consciousness. I know I am. I think of myself as being very fully examined (for example: in twenty-five years of psychotherapy), but part of my examination suggests that low-level delusion is always taking place whether I want it to or not. What I was trying to suggest about M.J. was that even though it seemed obvious that she was suffering with a very serious illness of some kind—the symptoms were pretty classical and not hard to miss—there are also limitations as regards the observation of these things. Subjectivity is a thing not to be ignored in a narration of mental illness. Subjectivity is a thing to be prized, with all of its error messages and low-level delusions inborne. M.J. was a person I cared about, and my caring made me, in some ways, an ineffective helper when she most needed it. Frankly, it’s still painful for me, thinking about it. But at least in talking about her I can try to do what Jesus of Nazareth did for Lazarus—he wept and then raised up his friend from the beyond.

TCR: This is your second marriage, and Hazel is your daughter from your first marriage. What were both wives’ reaction to this book? Do they remember events differently?

RM: I don’t know the reaction of my first wife. I didn’t ask. And I’m not sure she read the book, nor took an interest, and who can blame her for that? Laurel was very fully integrated into the process of The Long Accomplishment, and the book is better for her having participated. Some memories, where I couldn’t remember, are hers. It should be understood that she will perhaps make a book or a project in her own way that touches on some of these events or similar events, and in no way did I imagine my version was comprehensive and stood for us both. Our influence across platforms is pretty significant. She had room to make deletions and amendments and recalibrations in my book, with the implicit agreement being that I did this in words, and then later she could do it in photos, films, performances, or however it appealed to her. This, therefore, is only one part of a larger multi-media grieving act produced by the entire team. (And if you want to see Laurel speak to grief, follow her current “reperformance” of her 2010 performance piece, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, which is happening on Instagram as we speak, one day at a time, at @365_tears.)

TCR: Finally, because you write about music, I can’t resist asking, what new music are you excited about for 2020 and the next decade?

RM: I don’t really listen to much popular music, unless it makes a huge impact. (For some reason I think that song by Sia called “Chandelier” is really, really good.) That said, I really have admired Nick Cave’s recent Ghosteen. I am excited about Mia Doi Todd’s new album. I think Mark Mulcahy’s recent work, The Gus, is a masterpiece. I greatly admire the recent album by The Schramms called Omnidirectional. The new singles by Sparks, “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World,” is perhaps the single best song about climate grief I have heard recently. I love the two recent albums that David Garland, much afflicted with the recent loss of his wife, did with his son under the name The Garlands, Vulneraries I & II. I think Matana Roberts is a genius and can do no wrong. I think Sunn O))) has stealthily become one of the most important serious music ensembles I know of. I really like the 12K label, and just about everything that Taylor Deupree does. I also really like the sort of orthodox minimalism of the Irritable Hedgehog label, and its great collection of performances by R. Andrew Lee.  I also really like Death Grips. Ed Palermo is the greatest contemporary arranger.


Scott Stevenson is pursuing his MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert and spends the rest of his time steeped in the advertising world of Hollywood delivering the commercials and trailers you can’t skip on the internet or on your mobile device. He loves to explore Southern California. There is always an unchartered neighborhood with an interesting history waiting to be discovered in the City of Angels. It helps if there’s a bar or coffee shop or both located there. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, a flyover city for helicopters smuggling cocaine from South America in the 1980s. He recommends watching Cocaine Cowboys to understand his native state. @scotterson on Instagram

Book Review: Untamed Shore

BY MATT ELLIS

In a genre stuffed to the gills with hard-boiled gumshoes and gangsters, serial killers and behavioral shrinks, narcos and narcs, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has cast aside her acclaimed fantasy bona fides to challenge reader expectations by delivering a crime thriller with literary undercurrents.

In her crime thriller debut, Moreno has taken calculated risks in delivering a literary leaning story with a slow crescendo in a genre crowded by over-the-top chases and traumatic brutality.

Untamed Shore is a coming of age story about an eighteen-year-old underemployed guide named Viridiana, who has managed to learn several foreign languages but is uncapable of escaping her isolated Baja California fishing village of Desengaño, a town literally called disillusionment. Rudderless, she feels the growing pressure to follow the Desengañera –tradition—marry young and become the subservient wife.

Looking at him Viridiana had read her future in his eyes: the house they would share with his mother, the long hours behind the counter while Manuel went to play dominoes, the three children. She was saving to move to Mexico City and Manuel was talking of tying the knot and settling down. Worst of all, Viridiana was well aware that he was proposing because his mother wanted him to – and he was plain horny.

Viridiana’s dreams are dying like her town, a place where fishermen hunt ocean predators out of habit, the promise of prosperity having abandoned Desengaño long ago. “Viridiana thought Manuel represented more desire than affection, and knew enough about nets and sharks to picture herself tangled in a certain placid mediocrity which terrified her.”

At the end of the seventies, in a place that might as well be the end of the earth, Viridiana relies on silver screen classics as her sole vehicle to see what life holds beyond the desert and the waves.

. . . Viridiana spent a lot of time reading a myriad of books, yes, and the books promised more, as did the films. Rita Hayworth kissed Glenn Ford. Montgomery Clift embraced Elizabeth Taylor. I can see you. I can hold you next to me, they declaimed in glorious black and white.

Viridiana sees a glimmer of hope when three Americans rent the lone manor at the ocean cliff’s edge, their secrets in tow. She is hired as a live-in assistant to Ambrose, a wealthy man with aspirations of writing his life story in the peaceful isolation of Desengaño. She is quickly swept away by Ambrose’s glamorous wife Daisy and his brother-in-law Gregory—“If the woman looked like she could be a film star, he looked like he might be a model. His features were chiseled, his mouth generous.”

She daydreams of having a life like Daisy’s and the love of a man like Gregory. When Gregory seduces Viridiana, she releases herself to his promises of what they could be and where they could go, hoping it isn’t just afterglow.

As time passes, Viridiana sees blemishes in the glossy veneer of the foreign couple’s marital bliss. “She guessed it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, a local or a foreigner, there were always men wanting to be all-important, making their wives or girlfriend feel like dirt, slapping them around when they got too mouthy.” As more warning signs threaten her fantasy, Viridiana grapples to assuage her fears—“Virdiana told herself that if a man was ever disparaging to her, she would not forget. She wouldn’t sweep it away. She’d hold it in her heart and notch down his cruelties. She’d bite. Hard.”

Like Martin Solares and other Latinx authors who’ve based their stories in the states around the Gulf of California, Moreno brings an authenticity to the cultural pressures and sociological impact of a small Mexican desert town that has outlived its economic usefulness.

When Ambrose dies under suspicious circumstances, Daisy and Gregory ask Viridiana to bend the truth. To keep her fading dreams alive, she takes the bait and ties her fate to theirs. The consequences of her simple lie escalate as more strangers arrive.

Like Martin Solares and other Latinx authors who’ve based their stories in the states around the Gulf of California, Moreno brings an authenticity to the cultural pressures and sociological impact of a small Mexican desert town that has outlived its economic usefulness.  The eyes of Desengaño are on Viridiana as she struggles to free herself from her misplaced trust and still escape the life she never wanted.

Moreno makes excellent use of the harsh coastal desert and a time devoid of technological conveniences to amplify a sense of desperation and confinement. In an environment full of natural predators, the most dangerous are the foreign interlopers.

Several times she’d compared them to sharks, but thinking it better, she decided scorpions were the better animal. Scorpions killed a lot more people than anything else in Baja California, lots more people than snakes and black widows. They’d sneak up on you, sneak into your camping tent or your bed roll, your shoes, and that would be the end of it. … Sharks were clean killers. Scorpions were not. Scorpions were secretive little monsters.

In her crime thriller debut, Moreno has taken calculated risks in delivering a literary leaning story with a slow crescendo in a genre crowded by over-the-top chases and traumatic brutality. This is a story where social issues and the environment play an important role in the plot, placing Moreno’s novel in an esteemed class with the likes of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson and Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne.

Though there were points where the ties that entangle Viridiana to the central crisis seemed to stretch thin to the point of her peril being avoidable, I was compelled to follow the journey to completion to see how she emerged on the other side. Nonetheless, she delivers a compelling character-based novel packed with distressing realism. At the end of it all, I feel the riptide of Moreno’s Untamed Shore pulling me toward her other work, and I’m swimming off to devour her whole fantasy catalog.


Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer currently working as an intelligence and security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he has served as a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence special agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He was the story developer and staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media, and his short fiction has been published at Thought Catalog. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

Mouth Bucket

By Vanessa Mancos

At night, we must remove our mouths. We leave them in the mouth bucket on the front porch until dawn. The new law that dictates this was put into affect effect after the demonstrations.

The demonstrations: ecstatic airing of our grievances, many small globs into one big one. They did not care for that.

When the mouth buckets arrived to our homes, we had to practice taking our mouths off a few times before we really understood how. It’s tricky, you know. A mouth doesn’t just jump off your face because you ask it to. You have to grab your lips with both hands and sort of twist it around a bit before it slides down with a slimy pop. It does hurt at first, but as with all types of pain, after constant repetition, you forget your discomfort.

The discomfort: a searing hot iron held against the outline of your lips, down your throat, to the direct center of your heart. The pain shoots blue light across your eyelids until you come to, standing over the bucket with everybody else, wondering how you all let it get to this point.

And there’s no gaping hole where your mouth used to be, like you’re thinking. Almost instantly the skin smoothes over, like a slick and tender scab. I have taken to holding my fingers across the space like I am about to puff an invisible cigarette then humming loudly, using the vibration to get the feeling that I still exist.

Of course, you worry about your mouth out there all night. Sometimes it snows and you have to place your mouth over the fire to thaw it out for a few minutes before reattachment. Sometimes there are animals: raccoons, coyotes, your neighbors. There have been a few mouth thefts, but they assure us they are looking for them. I am not sure if they mean the mouths or the thieves. At this point we are all getting used to living without our voices.


Vanessa Mancos is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her surrealist fiction and humorous personal essays have appeared in NY Tyrant, Hello Giggles and Memoir Mixtapes. She currently works as a television writer, was a finalist for the 2019 Esalen Emerging Voices Fellowship, and has appeared as a storyteller on the critically acclaimed live show and podcast Mortified! In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, hanging out with her fluffy Calico cat and finding new and inventive ways to destroy the patriarchy.

Book Review: Verge

BY DIANA LOVE

Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch’s aptly-named new collection of short stories, is an exhilarating and disquieting experience. Like the verging border of its title, the collection is peopled by characters who live on the edges—of society, of safety, of sanity. The interests and subject matter of this collection upend normal boundaries and expectations. Outcasts and voiceless figures are placed center-stage. We are able to be a part of their experience, their pain, their rage, and their beauty.

Though Yuknavitch has been writing short stories for most of her literary career, this is her first published book curating a collection of such stories. And they are wonderful stories, clearly in conversation with one another, including that handful which have been published previously. Indeed, readers familiar with Yuknavitch’s other work will recognize themes and topics in this collection which mirror those in her novels and nonfiction—the idea of giving voices to voiceless figures, a concern with war and its collateral damage, a concern with damage and with survival in all forms. Her widely-viewed 2016 TED Talk, On The Beauty of Being a Misfit, and her follow-up book The Misfit’s Manifesto, are celebrations of other voices. She has a vested and specific interest in the people and the places who do not sit at the center of the mainstream in any sense of that term, who live in the borders of things.

The first story in the collection, “The Pull,” serves as a solid manifesto in and of itself toward the nature of the collection which follows, a space I found beautiful and disquieting. This first story features a young girl drawn to swimming and happiest in the water. Beautiful descriptions introduce us to this unnamed main character and her desires: “In the water the swimmer feels weightless. The blue of the pool fills her ears and holds her body and shuts out the world. Swimming is her favorite state of being. On land, the swimmer can barely breathe.” These words promised me a story filled with a certain kind of sensitivity and lyricism, and I was eager to dive in. But this is much more than the story of a girl who loves to swim, more than even the story of a girl drawn more to swimming than to anything else in life. This is the story of a young refugee in a war-torn country, surrounded by danger. One day, the swimmer’s mother forbids her to attend swim practice due to bomb warnings, and:

That afternoon, while her shoulders ache from not swimming, a screeching comes into the sky and then a deafening quiet, and then a bomb obliterates most of the roof and one wall of the swimming pool. Two swimmers who were friends of hers are killed, their bodies limp at the surface of the water, then sinking. They never swim another lap toward their own futures.

Yuknavitch allows the swimmer to tell her story from within the space of her own experience. Those twin elements, the desire to swim and the desire to stay alive, are given equal weight and validity. “Her foreground is cluttered now, with her dead friends and the bombed out training pool, all of it between her and her freedom to swim. She has the same desires as all kids: She wants to swim. Have friends. Go to school. Not to starve. Not to die. She grinds her teeth.” As the story closes, the swimmer and her younger sister are aboard a capsizing raft filled with refugees, shoreline in the distance. The two of them slip into the ocean, each confident that they will be able to cover the distance—but they do not simply swim for shore, instead choosing the seemingly impossible task of pulling the whole raft along with them. Yuknavitch creates a wonderous tension here and then lets it snap back against the reader like a broken guitar string:

With a phenomenal confidence, they swim for it, towing the others behind them. The beautiful bodies of the swimmer and her sister, and the great watery pull underneath, and the pull of the eyes and hearts of the people hoping against hope in the raft, and the pull of the great wrong world raging around them toward –

This story has no ending.

We put children into the ocean.

As that last set of lines snapped back, it hit me hard. And I knew that I was in for quite a collection.

Women and girls make up the bulk of the narrators here, as perhaps fits a collection centered on providing voices to voiceless figures. Five of these stories begin with the words “A Woman”—”A Woman Object (exploding),” “A Woman Signifying,” “A Woman Refusing,” “A Woman Apologizing,” and “A Woman Going Out.” Queer characters take on the lead role in multiple stories. While these voices are distinct and individual, it is nonetheless a collection anchored by certain themes in common. Many of these characters are lonely. Many are trapped in dangerous situations, either by economics or other outside forces. Many feel unheard. This proved to be a collection filled with pain, specific and individual, a place where sex-trafficked teenagers attempt to escape into dreams of Slavic fairytale and where neighbors turn against and cannot help one another. But it is not, for a moment, a dreary or a hopeless place. Nor does it feel exploitative. As in that first story, where the hammer comes down not on the swimmer, but on us, on we who put children into the ocean, judgment is not cast against these narrators as they speak to us.

Indeed, throughout this collection, Yuknavitch honors the truths and perspectives of her narrators by building up worlds in which their individual pains and decisions are given context and sense. A child organ runner, a linchpin in her black market field, approaches her assignments with pride in getting the job done well, knowing the necessity of her excellence toward her own continued survival. A neglected woman deliberately burns herself against the radiator in her apartment, and this act is positioned as a sort of step forward for herself, a triumph over the ache she feels inside. A lonely janitor spends years filling his home with the garbage he collects while cleaning the local planetarium, building with it a sculptural city of found objects which is described as a thing of wonder.

Yuknavitch has an incredible gift for description and a knack for embodying the emotions of her characters. The people of this collection are brave and truthful, even when their truths are frightening. These are misfits celebrated, misfits embraced. Yuknavitch invites us to spend time with them and to dwell with them in their in-between spaces. I invite you to do the same. It is time well spent.


Diana Love is a writer and poet, somewhat working on her first novel. Her work has previously been published in Literary Mama and Kelp Journal. A current MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside, Diana has also spent the last year as the Blog Editor for The Coachella Review. She grew up amidst the inanities, adventures, and mundanities of the greater San Fernando Valley. She lives on the Westside now, where she is a co-lead for the Westside Chapter of Women Who Submit.

TCR Talks with Rene Denfeld

BY FELICITY LANDA

The Butterfly Girl is Rene Denfeld’s second novel in the world of Naomi Cottle, a private investigator who is drawn to cases of missing children. Naomi’s knack for finding these children has earned her the name “The Child Finder,” but her need to pursue them stems from the one cold case in her own life: the missing sister she left behind when she herself escaped captivity as a child. When Naomi sets aside her work to finally find her sister, she meets Celia, a lonely homeless child abandoned to the streets. Celia is running from her abusive stepfather and hiding amongst butterflies, her imagined guardians and the only place she feels safe. Naomi and Celia continue to collide throughout a shocking series of events in Naomi’s search.

Denfeld’s own experience as a homeless teen has led to an incredible life of advocacy, from her career as a public defender helping victims of trafficking, to her life as a foster mother of twenty years. Denfeld is no stranger to the hardships of abandoned children, and she cares for her characters as fiercely as she cares for those off the page who turn to her for aid.

Denfeld has written a tense, page-turning, crime novel that leaves readers feeling connected to her characters and their stories in an intimate way. Naomi and Celia dig through their haunted pasts, even while they uncover the truth of the present. The Butterfly Girl is a book that lingers, alive with hope as much as it is streaked in sorrow. Denfeld and I spoke about the importance of how we fictionalize trauma, the way she discovers her stories, and the beautiful and inspiring life she has led that motivates her writing.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: The honesty with which you write about sexual trauma and childhood pain is beautiful and harrowing. I admire the way it’s extremely clear in your books that even though the pain is in novel form, it echoes a reality that exists all around us. You also mention in your interview with Psychology Today the importance of protecting the dignity of these children by not including anything graphic or modeling the abuse after any real people. How do you find the balance of staying behind that line, while reflecting the honesty and reality of abuse?

RENE DENFELD: Our culture rewards writers who exploit trauma, especially sexual violence. It is more acceptable to make rape into entertainment than to capture the gravity of the offense. Personally, I don’t like graphic work. A single, well-placed line can say more than paragraphs of explicit degradation.

Even fictional victims deserve respect and dignity. My approach is to imagine I am showing the fictional victim the pages of my work and asking how they feel about how I presented their trauma. I want them to feel respected, just like I would want my trauma to be respected. As writers, I think we have to be honest with ourselves about why we are writing about trauma. If you are using rape as a trope, if it is to advance your plot, then perhaps reconsider. Your story doesn’t need my pain to advance.

All too often writers reach for tropes to describe those who commit harm, too. Want a bad guy? Make him an ex-foster kid. Or say he grew up with a single mom. Or paint him as a brilliant sociopath. That’s a common trope that completely ignores rape culture and how such men are made. It may feel easier to write violence as happening outside ourselves, but by othering offenders we other victims too. I think it is more interesting to write about violence in terms of how and why it actually occurs. That means wrestling with some tough stuff. That means looking at our collective responsibility to each other.

 TCR: There has been some debate going on recently about fictionalizing our own trauma, although we know many writers do this. Do you feel that fiction has been a form to express some of what you’ve been through? In doing so, have you been able to see your own experiences in a different way?

RD: I love that these conversations are happening. I am eager to learn more from others, too. I’ve written non-fiction essays about my trauma history, including essays about how my stepdad was a registered predatory sex offender. But I’ve found the most healing through writing fiction. Perhaps for me it is a way of controlling the story. Fiction can give us a power, and the power is in controlling the story. I think that is compelling. As victims we often feel powerless. But writing is a form of power, and for me, at least, fiction is very powerful. I get to create the story I want, with the outcome I want.

TCR: T. Kira Madden speaks about the idea of writing being more than just catharsis for trauma in her essay “Against Catharsis” in Lit Hub. She says, “Art is a superpower that allows creator and consumer to be in dialogue regardless of circumstance or logistics or miles, a shared experience, a third plane found when two people meet by seeing one another through the page.” I’m curious about your thoughts on writing as catharsis, and how that differs between writing essays about your life verses fiction that deals in similar plains.

RD: I grew up feeling I didn’t have a right to exist. Putting words on paper is an act of courage for me, because it says I have the right to exist. In our society we like to vanish people. We disappear them into prisons, into poverty, into foster care, into homelessness and addictions. We tell people like me that we are broken forever.

The power of creativity, too, has been seen as the property of the wealthy. But poor people have the right to create too. We have a right to whimsy, joy, magic, and the power of story. When we write our stories we are creating artifacts. We are creating testimonies that cannot be erased. A story can be a safe place for both writer and reader. It is a place to explore what haunts us. People find themselves in story. Everyone has a book they say saved their lives. So, it is a form of connection with others too.

Also, I’m a bit skeptical at the idea of catharsis. Experiences aren’t things that we can just get rid of. It’s not like getting food poisoning and vomiting and poof you get better. Instead of a catharsis model perhaps we need a greater understanding of how we process experiences, and how writing can play a role in that. Writing about something doesn’t make it go away. What it does is bring it closer, so we can learn from it.

TCR: In your essay in Crime Reads, you say, “Writing The Butterfly Girl felt radical. It shouldn’t feel radical to depict homeless children as existing, or mattering, but few books do. Instead kids like myself are used as plot devices, to be thrown away on the page as we are in real life.” Your books don’t feel as though they are written with an agenda, but they do feel radical in many ways. Do you see your writing as a form of advocacy? In what ways?

RD: It’s sad that it is radical to write homeless people as human beings, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be the case but it is. I was homeless myself. Rarely have I seen realistic depictions of homeless children in novels. I wanted to remedy that.

I think all books are political. If you have a book where everyone is white and racism doesn’t even exist, isn’t that erasure of the truth itself political? There are popular crime books set in these absolute fantasy worlds where police are never racist, false convictions don’t exist, mass incarceration is not a problem, and rape kits never go untested. I mean, what kind of crazy propaganda is that? I’ve worked as a licensed investigator for over ten years, including working death row exonerations, and I can vouch such books are political, too. They are just covert. They want us to believe the system is working.

TCR: You’ve written a fair amount about your experiences as a foster and adoptive mom. What do you want your readers to know about the foster care system, and what advice would you give to anyone considering fostering?

RD: I waited twenty years before writing about my kids, because I wanted them to be grown and give permission. I still try to not share personal details of their history. I run everything by them first. Those are their stories to tell. I choose to foster and adopt because it felt right to me. I am profoundly lucky. Being part of someone else’s healing journey is a big honor.

TCR: The character of Celia is so beautifully contrasted with Naomi, in their fierceness and deep love for their sisters. How did you go about crafting Celia as a counterpart to Naomi, who was already a fully developed character coming into this novel?

RD: I don’t sit down and plot out my characters. I feel my way into them. I get to know them. Both Naomi and Celia did everything they were supposed to and got punished for it. Celia did what girls are supposed to do. She told the truth about her stepdad. But only a tiny percentage of rape reports result in arrest, and of those, even fewer result in convictions. So, Celia ended up homeless, as I did. Naomi escaped, only to lose her sister for her courage. To me her story is symbolic for how women can be scapegoated for telling the truth.

A lot of books deal with trauma. But usually they stop with the arrest of the offender. I want to deal with the after. I want to show how we can heal and recover, and all the challenges of that. We all experience trauma in some form. Life can still be wondrous in the after.

TCR: The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl both have mystery and suspense built into the core of the story. When you wrote them, were you writing to an end that you already knew, or were you discovering the plot as you wrote?

RD: I always know the beginning, middle, and end. The rest of the story is a process of discovery. I find it very exciting. I love writing as much as I love reading. I get to be inside the story, watching it unfold.

TCR: What initially drew you to the symbol of butterflies? What do you interpret in Celia’s obsession and how the butterflies relate to her experiences?

RD: I survived trauma by escaping into a world of imagination. I think a lot of us do. We talk about resiliency, but I think we should talk about imagination. A person with an imagination has hope. They can imagine a different future. Imagination can bring us solace, comfort, and a vision of ourselves. We can tell a new story of who we are.

A homeless child is still, at heart, a child. When I lived on the streets I was still a child. Celia believes in butterflies. For her they represent a path through the darkness, the cocooning of trauma, and the metamorphosis to her future self. Celia wants to believe she can be beautiful too. I am here to tell her she already is. You are, and so I am.

TCR: Do you plan to return to Naomi’s world in the future? Or do you see yourself moving on to other projects?

RD: Right now I am writing something new. I can’t wait to share with you. It is inspired by my work with innocents and in prisons.

TCR: I’m looking forward to reading! What do you hope your readers are finding in the pages of your books, whether they can relate personally to your characters or not? Do you hope to inspire more advocates, raise awareness, or simply to connect on an emotional level to your readers and fans?

RD: I want to share the magic of story. I think readers and writers are part of a whole. Stories are nature’s honesty. They tell us that we are all equals in this world.


Felicity Landa holds an MFA from UC Riverside Palm Desert, and is a graduate of the Cal State Long Beach Creative Writing program, where she earned the Horn Scholarship for her fiction. Her work has appeared in Raising Mothers, The Sunlight Press, Capulet Mag, and elsewhere. She currently serves as a fiction editor for the online literary magazine Literary Mama and was previously nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. To learn more please visit www.felicitylanda.com.

Related Post: Laurie Rockenbeck’s Book Review: The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

Book Review: Cleanness

BY AMY REARDON

In a craft lecture, I once heard Garth Greenwell describe the mission of his writing as: to bring all the resources of literature to the queer body. Having endured so much hatred, who is more deserving of poetry? he asked, passing out a slim handout, three thin white sheets of paper, double-sided, stapled, and aching with words of want from Gustave Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, Kathy Acker, and Mary McCarthy. Because sex, Greenwell said, is as near to and as far as we go from authenticity.

In his new book Cleanness, a series of stories structured in three tidy parts of three chapters each and so tightly linked one could call it a novel, Greenwell applies the unique pressure of sex on scene and character, as he says, to drive the narrative. The book picks up where Greenwell’s debut 2016 novel What Belongs To You left off, featuring the same unnamed narrator, an American teacher grappling with his desires—the pleasure and the angst of them—in anti-gay Sofia, Bulgaria.

But only sort of. Because whereas in What Belongs to You, the consequences of seeking love are mostly straightforward—relief, ecstasy, yes, but also shame, an STD, a devastating Kentucky-style childhood rejection by a homophobic father—in Cleanness, the consequences of engagement now have become winding and complex.

Sex now also requires the holding of his 21-year-old lover’s own unexamined trauma. “I don’t know, he said, that’s the problem, how can I know what I wanted then, before he did it, how can I know what’s me and what’s what he did to me?” Desire now demands the identification of a line between the teacher’s own sexuality and that of his students. “Maybe he thinks it was an accident … or maybe he was so drunk he would forget it and then the only shame would be a private shame, the shame I was accustomed to, the shame that felt like home.” And—in perhaps the book’s most breathtaking scene—vulnerability now requires the slow, painful unpacking of the teacher’s own, long-buried rage and its inescapable role in his shame: “… I would punish him if it was punishment he wanted. I would tan his hide, I thought, which was another thing my father said when he beat us, I’ll tan your hide; he said it with the voice he used only when he was very angry, the voice of his childhood, his country voice.”

The story is all shared mini-bottles of prosecco, making out in public alleys, high arches of ancient churches, ironic street art, hours and hours of walking through cobblestone streets of European villages, shared treats and murmurs with stray dogs, and achingly, gratefully, the placing of row upon row of kisses upon a lover’s body.

The word “cleanness” appears only once, in the center of the book, offering the key to the book’s title. “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” Which brings us to the other difference in Greenwell’s new work: love, at last. The central love story mostly takes place in “The Frog King,” a chapter The New Yorker ran last year. Greenwell then described it as an exercise in capturing the joy of a lover’s escape to Bologna and Venice. The story is all shared mini-bottles of prosecco, making out in public alleys, high arches of ancient churches, ironic street art, hours and hours of walking through cobblestone streets of European villages, shared treats and murmurs with stray dogs, and achingly, gratefully, the placing of row upon row of kisses upon a lover’s body. “It was a kind of blazon of him, of his body, I love you, I whispered again and again to him. And then, when I had laid that last line across his forehead—a garland, I thought, I had garlanded him—You are the most beautiful, I said to him, you are my beautiful boy.”

One could read Greenwell for the intimacies alone, the slowing and dissecting of human connection, the tiny cues between lovers, pet names like “Skupi,” shortened to “Skups.” “We parted after a second or two, but not before I heard R. make a sound I had come to love, a little grunt of happiness, a homecoming sound, and all my irritation drained away.” But more important, I think, one goes to Greenwell to remember that we are not all clean, all dirty, all good, or all bad. He compels us to examine that which is monstrous inside us.  Because if we can’t look at what we hate about ourselves, then how will we ever know intimacy? How can we ever hold space for others in their pain, grief, and failure?

In this moment, as a mother, I want to shake him and scream: What are you doing? But as a woman, reading “The Frog King,” I want to whisper: Love me like that.

It is this ambivalence, the holding of opposing emotions together at the same time, that is the book’s greatest achievement. For example, in “The Little Saint” the teacher intends to use a condom with a stranger—one who purposely eschews HIV testing—but then proceeds without it. In this moment, as a mother, I want to shake him and scream: What are you doing? But as a woman, reading “The Frog King,” I want to whisper: Love me like that.

This is, I think, Greenwell’s point. Because don’t we go to fiction to find empathy and compassion?  Cleanness meets us at our most vulnerable, on the floor with a stray dog named Mama, searching for a humble slice of love and warmth. “We’ll sleep, I said again, and she rolled onto her side, her stomach toward me, and placed one of her paws against my chest. It would leave a mark, I knew, I would have to scrub it out in the morning, but what did it matter, I thought as I closed my eyes, what does it matter, why not let it stay.” In a moment when so many of us are at work negotiating our right to take up space in a world that asks us to make ourselves small, Greenwell gives us a story of desire and shame so very specific as to be universal.


Amy Reardon’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal, Glamour, and The Coachella Review. She is an alumna of Stanford’s OWC in Novel Writing and an MFA candidate at UC Riverside. Follow her @ReardonAmy.

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump

BY JAY ARMSTRONG

Six months after being diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, six months after a neurologist examined an MRI of my brain, leveled his eyes, cleared his throat and said to me, “you should be dead or in a hospital bed,” I’m staring at my physical therapist, Denise, and she’s daring me to jump.

“Jay, I want you to jump.”

“Like up and down?”

“Yes, like jump up and down.”

I smile and look around the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. There are three other patients in the activity center with me. Two women, both walking on a treadmill, and Bill, a former Navy captain, who is the proud owner of a new titanium hip. Bill is pedaling a stationary bike and, according to St. Lawrence lore, Bill has never smiled. Ever.

I’m the youngest one in the activity center by at least twenty years. This is problematic because comparison naturally feeds fiction. Surveying the room, like the true gym class hero I still think I am, I swell with pride believing I’m the most able-bodied person in the room.

“Denise, need I remind you that I’m an athlete? A collegiate soccer player? I’ve been jumping my whole life.”

Denise playfully rolls her eyes.

This is only my third appointment at St. Lawrence, but Denise and I already share a chemistry. It’s December. Football season. I’m an Eagles fan. She’s a Giants fan. In between sets of squats and leg raises, I tell her Eli Manning is overrated. She tells me that the stereotypes regarding the jerkiness of Eagles fans is apparently true.

Denise is a turtleneck conservative. No earrings, no rings, just a silver cross pinned to her sweatshirt. But she is funny and real, and in just our few hours together, I stake her as the most compassionate person I ever met.

During a set of lunges, Denise tells me that Bill just lost his wife of forty years to breast cancer. Her brown eyes swell, and then she tells me she lost her grandmother to the same disease. Denise and I both look at Bill. We watch him slowly pedal. She tells me it’s her goal to make him smile today.

To be honest, I’ve avoided writing this story for some time now. I guess by writing it, by pinning down its facts, I’m forced to accept certain truths. I assume I did what most of us do when we don’t have the energy, courage, conviction to deal with truth. We tuck it away, like a debt, in the darkness of a desk drawer and do our best to forget about it.

But memories, with just the right stimulus, can resurrect without invocation. They sit up, blink, open the drawer and leak into the light and remind you that memories, like debts, can be avoided for only so long before they must be attended to.

The stimulus today was a basketball bouncing off the concrete.

My son, Chase, is in the backyard, dribbling the length of the patio and shooting on a little net he received for his fourth birthday.  He’s six now and he’s getting good at basketball. Dribbling, jump shots, layups. And he’s quickly learning about the earthly battle between the human body and gravity.

Chase makes a jump shot and celebrates. As it often happens with sons, he feels me, his father’s eyes observing, because he looks up with his own blue eyes and finds me framed in the window.

“Come out and play Dad!”

I smile and wave and a trapdoor in my stomach swings open and my heart falls through and keeps falling because I can’t play. Not now. Not today. Because some days my body aches too much. Because some days my brain does weird things. Like some days my brain convinces me I’m trapped on the Tilt-A-Whirl or I’m buckled to the back of a big black bird or I’m a sneaker in the dryer or I’m frat-party drunk. Because some days the fixed world spins, glides, tumbles, and wobbles off its axis at speeds beyond what my eyes, my undamaged brain can comprehend.

And if you want to know the truth, some days, I just don’t play because I simply cannot risk the embarrassment.

For this story, I need you to suspend reality. I need you to believe the unbelievable. But the unbelievable is the truth. Truth that the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the epicenter of rare and novel diseases, couldn’t believe.

Before my diagnosis, I believed that I would do physically heroic dad things, like carrying all three children off to bed like footballs, tucked under my arms, after they’d fallen asleep on the couch. I believed I would be the MVP of father-son baseball games. I believed my children and I would run 5Ks together, and I believed on a perfect summer morning, when the sky was veined with golden light, we would ride bikes along the New Jersey coastline.

But we age and learn that real life always falls incredibly short of the one we imagined, of the one we planned. And yet despite our protests, it’s the unplanned life that teaches more than our fantasies ever will.

“Jay, are you ready?”

“Eagles are always ready to fly.”

“Okay, but I’ll be right here beside you just in case.”

Bill rides a stationary bike. He is straight-faced and staring at me.

“Hey Denise, can you go make Bill smile? He’s freaking me out.”

“Just concentrate on what you’re doing.”

“Denise, I got this. Need I remind you again? I’m an athlete.”

Cerebellar degeneration is exactly as it sounds. There is massive cell loss in the cerebellum, known as the little brain. The little brain controls motor skills: coordination, vision, and balance. After examinations from some of the top neurologists in the country, no one knows if I was born with a gaping hole in my cerebellum and had been able to compensate my whole life (remember, I’m an athlete) or if a civil war erupted in my little brain where cells attacked and killed each other. As I write this, as Chase drills a jump shot, no one knows if the war is over.

In the last few months my coordination, vision, balance and motor skills have all deteriorated. Not at breakneck speed, but slowly, methodically. Little things, things I’ve taken for granted—handwriting, climbing stairs, and carrying a few bags of groceries have become difficult.  The doctors are surprised how well I look, speak and still function given the size of the hole in my brain. For a brief time, doctors thought I had ALS. Then they thought Huntington’s disease. Then MS. Then, after six months of testing, they simply shrugged their collective shoulders and said they didn’t know. They told me, as if they were riding the Tilt-A-Whirl or the giant bird to “just hold on.”

Denise levels her eyes into mine.

“I want you to jump.”

“How high?”

“As high as you can.”

I bend my knees, swing my arms back and forth and try to jump. I try and try and try and try, but I can’t do it. I can’t force my feet to leave the floor. My big brain screams at my little brain, “Jump!” But the message is not delivered, as if some internal chord that transmits important messages has been severed.

To Denise, Bill, and the two ladies on the treadmill, I must have looked ridiculous, like a wide-eyed field mouse stuck in a glue trap.

I shake my head. “Jump!  Jump!”

“It’s okay, Jay. You don’t have to do it.”

“No, Denise. I can jump. I have to jump.”

“Relax. Take a seat. Let me check on Bill.”

Denise returns, tells me she offered Bill her best joke about a priest, a rabbi, and a monk playing Monopoly in Mexico and he didn’t crack. Didn’t even flinch.

“Denise, I’ve had enough for today.”

When you think of your future self, you envision your best self. Happy and unblemished. You’re the hero of your own movie. You convince yourself that you, unlike everyone else, won’t end up a tragedy. And in those great moments of fantasy you believe, with a swollen heart, in your own fiction.

I limp into the locker room, find a folding chair, stare into my lap and began to digest the fact that I had lost the ability to jump. It occurred to me, right there in that empty locker room, on that folding chair, that I would not be the man, the father, I had envisioned I would be. A father running, jumping through life with his children. A father playing basketball in the backyard with his son. A father who is fast and coordinated and who teaches his boy the aerodynamics of a layup as the evening sun vanishes from the suburban sky.

I open the locker room door to find Bill in the hallway, sitting in his wheelchair, as if waiting for me.

I offer a little half-smile, and before I can turn Bill speaks. “Hey.” He still had those steely grey Navy captain eyes, eyes that didn’t look at you, eyes that looked through you. Bill clears his throat, shifts his weight on his God-given hip, and says, “Don’t give up, kid.”

“Thanks.”

And then, in a very subtle, a very unprovoked way, Bill smiles.


Jay Armstrong is high school English teacher, writer, and speaker. He began seriously writing in 2013, after being diagnosed with a degenerative brain illness. Jay believes life favors the brave and in the healing power of stories. You can find more of Jay’s writings at writeonfighton.org.

Book Review: Brother & Sister

By Mary Fensholt Perera

In her new book Brother & Sister, Diane Keaton describes her brother Randy as living on “the other side of normal.”

“The other side,” a comforting phrase used by those struggling to accept the loss of a loved one, harkens back to the myth of the River Styx. In Brother & Sister, Randy’s mental illness runs like a dark river through both her brother’s life and Keaton’s story. This debilitating illness, culminating now in dementia, is the current that continues to take Randy further and further from those who love him. It is a force they are powerless to understand or to stop.

Diane Keaton and her younger brother, Randy grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1950s, with parents determined to live the American dream. Their civil engineer father, Jack Hall, worked diligently to support his family. Their homemaker mother, Dorothy Hall, documented their days with her diaries and cameras. The family grew and prospered. Yet Randy failed to thrive emotionally; his childhood was not a happy one, and his inability to cope with the world around him became more and more apparent as the years passed.

While Keaton studied acting, built her movie career, and traveled, her brother struggled to find his feet. By his early twenties he was divorced, drinking heavily, and working sporadically. As Keaton went on to become a fashion icon, Academy Award winner, real estate developer, designer, and author, Randy became a recluse and an alcoholic, reluctantly supported by his father. Eventually, he wrote to Diane relating his fantasies of violence toward women (something, Keaton states clearly, he never acted upon):  “‘You can’t imagine what it’s like to actually start planning how to get a pretty woman and kill her. I did Diane, I had scenarios of doing just that. I figured I would sneak into a room where a woman was sleeping and stab her to death.’”

Keaton dives deeply into the past, seeking an understanding of how siblings could come to take such different paths. She invites the reader into her own family to explore the nature of mental illness and the complexity of its effects on family members.

Randy’s liver failed, but a well-timed donation helped secure a new liver and a life-saving transplant. The surgery, clearly recognized by Randy as a second chance, gave him and his family hope that his life would change for the better. But even as he recuperated from the operation the dark current pulled him in again.

Working with her own memories, her mother’s substantial trove of documents, and Randy’s own journals, poetry, and artwork, Keaton dives deeply into the past, seeking an understanding of how siblings could come to take such different paths. She invites the reader into her own family to explore the nature of mental illness and the complexity of its effects on family members. In a letter the adult Randy wrote to Keaton, he describes his memory of his relationship with their father: “‘I don’t have a pleasant memory of Dad. I was afraid of him the whole time. … He made me feel like I didn’t know anything. … He wanted precision in the world, and, from me, less meaningless talk.’”

But Keaton never resorts to attributing Randy’s problems to his relationship with their father. Remembering an incident in their shared early childhood, she wonders if she could have done something to prevent Randy’s slide:

In the dark, secured by my pillow, my blankie, and the quiet company of my little brother below, I was ready for sleep.

I remember glancing down from my top-bunk apartment in the sky and seeing Randy’s anxious bobbing head, his fear of the dark, and his sweet if hapless face. Why was he such a chicken? Why couldn’t he stop seeing ghosts that weren’t there lurking in shadows?

Brother & Sister is a story of responsibility, for one’s self and for others. It is a story that explores the complexity of family relationships and the ties that bind a family: siblings together, children to parents, and parents to one another. It is permeated with the joy of closeness, the pain of separation, the struggle to understand one another, and the complexity of expectations.

It is a story of places, of Los Angeles and suburbia, of places where increasing opportunities, choices, and financial prosperity fail to prevent isolation and despair, where the perpetual sunshine fails to shed light on the mysteries of mental illness.

Brother & Sister reminds us that mental illness can strike any family. We know that poor and working-class families often suffer its consequences more immediately and more severely than those with money.

But it is also the story of our times. Brother & Sister reminds us that mental illness can strike any family. We know that poor and working-class families often suffer its consequences more immediately and more severely than those with money. Members of Randy’s family provided enormous resources over the years to keep him visible, keep a roof over his head, and provide him with high-quality medical care. In our time, in our cities and towns, we have only to look up and around to see people suffering from mental illness, addiction, and self-destructive actions in the ways that Randy did. The meanest streets in our cities are crowded with those who do not have a family with the resources Randy’s family did.

Brother & Sister shares Keaton’s life with her brother with only the most necessary departures into her other experiences. We follow them from their early closeness, through years where the circumstances of their lives pulled them apart, and into the present, where her brother’s diminished capacity makes a closer relationship possible. As the book closes, Diane writes: “After a lifetime of self-imposed barriers, I finally gave myself permission to be close, quiet, and intimate with my brother.”

Here I think she sells herself short. Brother & Sister makes clear that no matter how close you give yourself permission to be, there are limits to what intervention can accomplish when a loved one is caught in the dark current of mental illness. Brother & Sister is a book steeped in compassion—an effort to diminish the stigma around mental illness. As with her other books, the multi-talented Keaton gives us a thoughtful and insightful story written with clear prose, frankness, and humility.


Mary Fensholt Perera is a business presentation consultant, speaker, and author. Her book, The Polished Presentation, is a Benjamin Franklin Award winner. She is on the faculty of the UCSD extension program Executive Perspectives for Scientists and Engineers, a Vistage speaker, and a member of the Board of Trustees for the California Botanic Garden. She is also a student in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at UC Riverside. She lives in Claremont, California, one-half block from Pomona College. She thinks of the Claremont College campus as a large, well-manicured park full of interesting creatures.

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