Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Wilds of Narrative: Emily Fox Gordon On Marriage, Writing, and Therapy

There's nothing like catching a cold in June to make you feel silly about yourself, but I did and I do, and I've basically been recovering from life for half a month now. 

We had visitors over Memorial Day.  We showed them all our favorite spots; basically, we did nothing but shove sugar and/or dairy in their mouths for days.  Now the rains have come to Michigan, ushering in luscious, bee-heavy greenery, making it apparent to everyone in the neighborhood how little education I have in horticulture.

The people who lived in our house before us had extraordinarily green thumbs - not to be confused with Sissy Hankshaw's extraordinarily large thumb, a la Tom Robbins' exquisitely titled Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.  They left behind hydrangeas, hostas, peonies, roses, and a bunch of other beautiful things I'm too ignorant to know the names of.  In fact, I call these plants no names at all as I swing in the hammock and ponder just who is going to pull up the flowering vines that send alarmingly assertive shoots every which way around our fecund property.  It sure isn't going to be me. 

Whenever I get sick and/or stressed, I can usually trace my unhappiness back to a lack of quality narrative.  Either it's been too long since I've watched a good movie or I'm reading too many books at once and can't find a foothold in one.  Worst of all is when I realize I'm not reading anything at all, not even back issues of favorite magazines I keep around, issues Sam has somehow not discovered yet because they hide behind the stroller in the living room - so far, so good. 

This May, I suffered a fit of reading starts.  Nothing quite stuck and I was out of sorts until I got my hands on Book of Days, a collection of personal essays by the divinely registered Emily Fox Gordon. 

Where to begin?  Gordon is a marvel.  I heard her speak on a panel at AWP this year, and I pretty much fell in love on the spot.  As her fellow panelists spoke - including John T. Price who moved half the room to tears - Gordon looked down at the table.  She drummed it occasionally, as if rapping out a rhyme.  Was she okay?  She might have been rehearsing what she had to say, but I couldn't be sure.  I was actually a little nervous for her.  Was she prone to forgetfulness?  Hadn't she prepared?  Would she pull off what she needed to say when it was her time to speak? 

I needn't have worried.  When she spoke on the topic of creating secondary characters in non-fiction, she was candid and full of such fascinating phraseology, I see now why her writing astounds.  What appeared to cause much effort on the part of her brain, her drumming and pondering while waiting to speak, I want to believe may just have been her way.  We all want our artists to be charmingly eccentric, don't we?  Or is that just my wish, my Southerness showing? 

In any case, I wanted to take her home with me. 

Instead I did the far more socially appropriate thing and checked out her book from the library.  The essays in Book of Days spear and turn around the fact that Gordon was institutionalized as a teenager for behavior that was, in essence, symptomatic of deeper rifts happening at home.  Her account of the psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires where she spent several years of her youth is sober and forgiving, wicked and artistic, forthcoming and tactful.  In short: so damn good. 

From an essay called "My Last Therapist":
"My therapeutic education did me harm.  It swallowed up years when I might have been learning, gathering competence and undergoing the toughening by degree that engagement in the world makes possible...I acquired the habit of the analysand, the ruthless stripping away of defenses.  But in my case not much self had yet developed, and surely none of it was expendable...I stayed for three years, years that I would otherwise have spent in college."

Throughout the book, Gordon speaks of the self-identity and self-esteem she finally found in her life through her irascible relationship to her husband, a philosophy professor.  (Her own father was an acclaimed academic, a topic she writes about with a kind of frank restraint in the essay "Faculty Brat," then with her ferocious intelligence in "Faculty Wife.")  She pirouettes through issues of feminism and analyzes the aggression that teemed in her personality for much of her life, aggression that didn't find its proper expression until she started writing after her daughter was born. 

I would never call my marriage irascible, nor use a phrase like "the vehemence of his anxiety" to describe anything about my husband, but I relate wholeheartedly to Gordon's understanding of marriage as an arena for journeying alongside not just another person but - because of that person's particular code of being, and how the two of you relate to each other - a place for discovering your own self, too.  (One of my favorite lines in the book, which of course I can't locate right now, went something like: I wasn't passive-aggressive.  I was passive and aggressive.)  Without dragging you through my own therapeutic garbage, let's just say, I appreciate this aspect of marriage.  I was able to commit to Tim because of the quality of his being, but on an elemental level the alchemy of marriage itself, some days, gives my breath back to me.

Gordon also puts into words the primal healing that occurred for her when she started to write seriously:

"In the years since I left Dr. B's office I've begun to write in earnest, and writing has allowed me - as nothing else, even the wisdom of [revered psychologist] Dr. Farber, ever has or could - to escape the coils of therapy.  I don't mean that writing has been therapeutic, though sometimes it has been.  The kind of writing I do now is associative and self-exploratory - much like the process of therapy, except that the therapist is absent and I've given up all ambition to get well."

She concludes this section about her final therapist with the words: "He was more than competent; he was really good at what he did, and got better as he went along.  Eventually he became a kind of adept.  He learned to vaporize at will like the Cheshire cat, leaving nothing behind but a glow of unconditional positive regard, allowing me spacious arena in which to perform my dance of self.  In resisting his impulse to lure me back into the charted territory of psychoanalytic explanation, he granted me my wish to be released into the wilds of narrative."   

I love that quick leap, in her prose, from the therapist's couch to the "wilds of narrative," and feel it gets at what I'm basically always trying to say: The practice of art is itself a kind of wilderness.  The link between the natural world and creativity is so strong in my life, I become lost without either of them.

I might have first written about this idea in a post I wrote four years ago.  I remember the night I wrote it fondly because my relatives were visiting and were teaching me how to use Facebook (!!).  Four years is not that long ago, in the span of Facebook, so it shows you how slow I was to that game. 

It's also important for me to link to that post because ever since I read this essay by Justin Hocking, I have felt a strange sense of gratitude and schooling, a humbling in the face of what Hocking says about Ken Kesey.  I just re-read the essay to cull some lines, but the language, while brilliant, is maybe stronger than some Sut Nam'ers might prefer.  (My inner Presbyterian is showing herself right now!)  The part I'm talking about, for which I was exceedingly grateful when I first read it, begins: "I don’t think I would have particularly liked Ken Kesey in the 60’s, or any decade, for that matter."  I've written about Kesey a couple of times on this blog, and I want to come clean and say, maybe I should have done a little more research before metaphorically running into the arms of his socio-literary-drinking-the-koolaid circles. 

All right lovelies, we've reached the end.  Check out Emily Fox Gordon and go for a hike, a walk, a seduction of mosquitoes.  And if you're in Michigan anytime soon, please come do my gardening for me. 


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