INTERVIEWS October 2, 2020

A Conversation with Eula Biss

Eula Biss is the author of four books variously labeled as poetry, essay, and criticism. Her second book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The New York Times Book Review called her book On Immunity one of the ten best books of 2014. Her latest book, Having and Being Had, debuted in September. She is known for tackling controversial subject matter, and Parul Sehgal of the New York Times wrote that Biss excels at handling our twitchiest, most combustible metaphors. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and other prizes. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa. In April 2019, Biss sat down with Booth to discuss many topics, including racial appropriation, anti-vaxxing as a stance against capitalism, and the danger of white fantasies.

Susan Lerner: In an essay you published in the Seneca Review, “It Is What It Is,” you wrote, “Naming something is a way of giving it permission to exist,” which led me to ponder how the literary community has named your books. The Balloonists has been called prose poetry, essay, and memoir.  On Immunity employs history, science, myth, metaphor, social commentary, and personal experience and perhaps defies classification. What are your feelings about naming when it comes to classifying your writing, and how do you feel about the labels others apply to it?

Eula Biss: One of the things that shows up in that essay is my mixed feelings. On the one hand I recognize there is some benefit to having a name for what you’re doing that you recognize and that other people recognize. For years, when I was first starting out as a writer, I was in what felt like an unnamed space. The Balloonists got reviewed as fiction a couple of times. It also got reviewed as autobiography, which was not how it was intended. Its shelving designation is poetry, and there are certain conventions in poetry that are not the same as the conventions of autobiography. One of them is, in poetry there isn’t the expectation that everything will be true. The Balloonists is autobiographical, but not everything in it is true. I was using the expectations of the genre of poetry, that one can move freely between life experienced and imagined situations. So that book is shelved in poetry. I intended it as poetry. But if it’s read and understood as memoir/autobiography, then there’s a little trouble in terms of genre expectations.

I experienced a sense of coming home when I found this term “lyric essay,” which emerged in the late nineties, early aughts. I thought, this is what I’ve been doing all along, and now it has a name. It did seem more appropriate than prose poetry. The tradition of the prose poem is a distinct tradition, and what I’m doing falls outside of that. It felt relieving to know that there was a home for what I was doing and that other people were doing it. To me, that term was a way to put myself in contact with people who were doing what I was doing, who were interested in what I was doing, and who had similar sensibilities, maybe similar aesthetics. There seemed to be all this possibility in the term. But this category that felt so necessary and, in some ways, freeing to me is also confining in that it’s being imagined in a certain restrictive way. I know this is particularly true for writers of color, who feel like the lyric essay has been published and curated as a very white space and a white genre. When that term emerged, the collections and anthologies were being curated in a particularly restrictive way that was not expansive, was not drawing on all the possibilities essays might manifest. That’s a very long and messy way of answering your question.

SL: I love that. The memoirist Alexandra Fuller wrote a review of three new memoirs for the New York Times and titled her piece “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Reading About It Is Another Matter.” She used the terms “glorified journal” and “sleepy musings.” She wrote that poorly conceived memoirs, like these, serve up material that is better dealt with in therapy, and that these books are not worthy of publication. Aminatta Forna also wrote about this in the New York Review of Books, saying that she begins her classes on memoir by telling the students, “This is not therapy. If you want therapy, go and see a therapist.” What are your thoughts on this specific criticism about some memoirs, and do you think a writer’s exploration of her emotional landscape can be valid literary material?

EB: Absolutely. I think anything can be valid literary material. This has been happening with memoir for many years. The idea is that if a memoir is bad, there’s something wrong with the whole genre. We don’t do that with fiction. When a novel is bad, we don’t say, “The whole novel project is awful and it shouldn’t be done.” There’s lots of bad poetry out there. Maybe the majority of poetry is bad poetry. But that’s rarely used as an inroad for saying that poetry shouldn’t be written, or that the entire project of poetry is flawed. I think we all understand that it’s difficult to write a good poem, and not many people can do it. I think it’s difficult to write a good memoir. There are going to be a lot of failed attempts, a lot of boring memoirs. For my part, I pick up a lot of fiction that I don’t like, that I’m not interested in, that is boring and sleepy. But I would never write off the entire genre just because I don’t like quite a bit of what I read in that genre. 

In my practice, I’m always writing through my life, not about my life. I’m using my life to get at questions or problems that I want to discuss. My life is not actually the subject, it’s my way in. It’s the same thing that is done with a character in fiction. The book is not about that character; you’re writing through the character to get at an idea or question. The same thing is done with information. When I write from information I’m also not writing about that information, I’m writing through it to get to other questions. I wrote a lot about vaccination in On Immunity. But in my mind, that book isn’t about vaccination, it’s about all the questions that vaccination raises, many of them ethical, moral questions. It’s about, what do we owe to the people around us? What’s our responsibility toward our children? How do you care for someone who can’t care for themselves? Those questions transcend information. In the same way that book is not about the information it contains, good memoirs are usually not about the details in the life. Most of what’s practiced in memoir now is what’s called New Memoir. The New Memoir is the memoir that uses a person’s life to talk about something. The Old Memoir—which we never call Old Memoir, just memoir—usually is written by a man who recalls the details of his life. In that manifestation of memoir, you don’t need to have a project, or a question, or a problem. That kind of memoir is about its subject, and I tend to find them flatter.

SL: Gulf Coast published a transcript of a roundtable discussion you took part in about the futility of genre classification within nonfiction. In this discussion, both you and Maggie Nelson spoke about the word “meretricious.” You said you came across this word, for the most part, in writing that referenced women’s memoirs. I first came across that word in an interview Joyce Carol Oates gave to Booth a few years ago. When talking about personal writing, Oates said she was not a fan of confession, and that “to confess for other people, it is really morally questionable.” We asked if she would still feel this way if the facts about other people impacted the writer’s life, and she said, “It’s not illuminating. It’s sort of morbid and meretricious.” I wonder how you consider confessional writing. Is there a line of privacy—for the writer and the people she writes about—beyond which you see the material becoming meretricious? And also, how do you see gender factoring into this issue?

EB: The stigma around life-writing and around memoir is loaded with sexism. And there’s anxiety around gender hierarchy. It’s not unusual to find a woman writer who primarily writes outside of memoir, for example in fiction, and is really attached to her position on the gender hierarchy as a woman who writes fiction, and therefore feels the need to disparage women who are writing in a feminized space such as confessional writing. My connection with what is called confessional is from the confessional poets. Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich are important poets to me—important thinkers and important twentieth-century feminists. Part of the insistence in their work and the insistence behind a lot of life-writing or personal writing is the insistence that women’s lives matter. The everyday, the domestic, the feminine, can be, and should be, elevated in our internal hierarchy of importance. I really do believe in that. All my work is highly personal, and there are definitely political reasons behind that. For me, there’s a feminist project. It’s this idea that there’s life, and then there’s art. And they’re at two ends of a spectrum. That if you’re making art, you can’t be writing about your life. Other binaries are woman/man or art/science. It’s interesting that things can change their gender when you change their binary. In the life/art binary, art is masculine. But in the art/science binary, art is feminine. This is one of the things that reveals that these gender designations have to do with power and hierarchy more than they have to do with what’s really happening in the work or on the page.

SL: I was pondering women’s writing. When I listen for writing about the many issues surrounding motherhood, I hear silence. What books have you found that thoughtfully address the concerns of motherhood?

EB: Just in the last five years there’s been a whole bunch of books. Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts was one. Rachel Cusk wrote about motherhood. Recently, the silence you’ve been aware of has been talked into a fair amount. Not that there isn’t more work to do there. Women are talking into that and rallying themselves to treat it as a “serious subject.” Getting back to the idea of what’s valid and invalid, I feel very drawn to any space that has been excluded from conversation for any reason, either because it’s not considered serious enough or it’s too personal, too private. A lot of what I write into is often considered too controversial to be polite conversation. Writing into the space that’s a little bit forbidden or not considered safe or appropriate—these taboos are, for me, productive and creative.

I’m going to answer this question in a long answer because it’s so important to me. You’ve gotten to something that’s a little thorn in my side—the sexism that hovers around memoir and life-writing. For research I was reading Angela Davis’s book about the blues, which is called Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. She writes about how the blues have sometimes been misunderstood as not being political. This is because it’s typical for blues lyrics to be highly personal—along the lines of “My man left me,” “My man has done me wrong,” or “I’m getting on a train and riding.” These lyrics are often following a single person’s experience, and Davis said that it’s a grave misunderstanding to not recognize the blues as political. The politics is that someone is saying, “My experience matters.” That is a political insistence. Especially if you’re a Black woman. Davis wrote this book long before the Black Lives Matter movement, but she uses a sentence that says something like this, that the message behind these lyrics is that Black lives matter. We now have a movement that is using this phrase intentionally, but it’s already embedded in the history of Black resistance in this country. Black feminism is very aware of the importance of insisting that all of what you’re experiencing is validated. Not diminished. There is political power behind that.

SL: That’s a fascinating parallel, between the literary and the genre of music coming from a marginalized people.

EB: I’m interested in the blues for that reason. There’s great writing in the blues, too. I started looking into it because I was thinking, where is our literature of resistance? And the first thing I thought of was the blues.

SL: In an interview in Bookforum with Miranda Trimmier, you spoke about the trouble that comes with approaching medicine, specifically a public health initiative, with a consumerist, “What’s in it for me?” mindset. I’ve been thinking about how the culture of medicine has changed over the past few decades. It seems to me that for reasons too complex to wrap my head around, medicine has repositioned itself as a consumer market. We shop for cheaper prescriptions, for physicians who charge less for office visits or procedures. What ideas did you glean from your conversations with other mothers and with health professionals that might have given you optimism that one day we might see ourselves, especially when it comes to public health initiatives, less like individual consumers and more like part of a community where we feel responsible for one another?

EB: I remember crossing paths with a neighbor of mine. I knew from a previous conversation that she hadn’t vaccinated her children, and when I ran into her again, she said, “I found out that one of our neighbors has a child who is being treated for cancer. I marched my kids right to the doctor and had them vaccinated.” She confessed to me, “It just never occurred to me to think of my two little girls as dangerous to other people.” For someone who already has cancer, the last thing they need is chicken pox while their treatment is depressing their immune system. She recognized that. All it took was the knowledge that there was one child who was particularly vulnerable and whom she needed to protect. What a lot of people miss is that we’ve got vulnerable people among us everywhere. The whole public health strategy is about protecting vulnerable people. It’s just that some of that vulnerability is invisible. There are HIV-positive children all over the place, and you are not necessarily aware of their status. There are children whose parents don’t have access to medical care for various reasons. There’s a realm of reasons why people might not be protected against disease, and this neighbor just happened to bump into one of them directly in her community. She had a real desire to do right by the people in her community. I see that all the time in the people I interact with, this desire to be good community members. That desire doesn’t always translate into action, or into the action that would be the most productive. But the desire is there. And the desire is at cross purposes with consumerism, and with the consumerist mentality. For the desire to be effective, the consumerist mentality has to be shaken off a little bit, or disrupted, or abandoned in some way.

I just read a great piece by Barbara Ehrenreich. She’s in her late seventies, and she’s been through a round of cancer at least once, and she’s in remission. But she was describing being really turned off by a consumer mentality around her own medical care. She was announcing that she was not going to do preventative medicine anymore. She’s reached an age where she feels like she’s not going to do all these screenings, all these tests. What prompted this is that she’d been given this screening for bone density. She’d been told there was something wrong with her, and it had a name. But then she was told that 100 percent of women at her age have this problem, so it’s not a pathology, it’s what happens to women as they age. She said, “You’re telling me what I already know, that I’m an aging woman.”

SL: The flip side is that there are expensive and potentially problematic medicines that can treat osteoporosis, but there’s a whole other book in that.

EB: It is so interesting. But what she noticed is that her doctor had committed himself to a new model where he wasn’t going to take patients who didn’t have insurance. He was going to see only the wealthiest patients, and he was going to promise them all the tests they wanted. And she said, “I want nothing to do with it. It doesn’t feel ethical, and I don’t think it’s going to better my experience as a human being. I don’t think I’m going to live a more fruitful, happier late-life if I have every test that’s available for me.”

SL: Do you have a sense that there’s still this autism question causing fear about vaccination?

EB: I think it’s more diffuse than that. The autism question is still there. But it is other fears, some of them very diffuse, like “something could go wrong.” Sometimes it’s more specific; it’s about toxicity in general. It doesn’t help that one of our vaccines comes from a class of vaccines called toxoids. It’s not because they’re toxic that they’re called toxoids. Tetanus is a toxoid vaccine. What that tetanus bacteria releases in your body is a nerve toxin. Just recently there was one of the first cases of tetanus in this country in a really long time. This boy was in the hospital for a very long time. He lived, but with incredible interventions. So I think one of the fears is of ambient toxicity that isn’t entirely rational. Yes, our environment is toxic in various ways, but our exposure to toxins is so much greater from other sources than it is from vaccinations. That’s the least of our worries.

SL: I recently read Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, and he writes about how the agendas of the super wealthy and their corporate concerns dictate what happens in our world, and that this pushes government to the back seat. We’ve seen this phenomenon play out in Big Pharma, with Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers’ aggressive and misleading marketing of OxyContin that led to the opioid crisis. I used to practice as a pharmacist, and I remember my discomfort when drug companies sent representatives to me, hoping I would influence physicians to prescribe certain drugs. Now, as a citizen, I still have that sense of helplessness and maybe even paranoia about marketing drugs. All of this made me wonder if one reason mothers might withhold inoculations is that they discern a decline in the power of government along with a rise in the power of everything corporate. I wonder if, for these mothers, it feels like there is no longer any sector of the medical establishment that has the power to ensure that the best interests of their children come first. What are your thoughts about this?

EB: Absolutely. This is how I ended up writing about capitalism, actually. It was as a direct result of having written about vaccination. This is one of the ways capitalism is damaging our society. It’s seeding a kind of paranoia that’s not unjustified. A woman who was interviewing me on the radio was suggesting that it was totally irrational and unreasonable for people to fear the products of big pharmaceutical companies. I said, “You really can’t say that. In the same breath that you end this conversation with me, you’re going to cover the opioid crisis.” We’re all aware that big pharmaceutical companies are doing things that are unethical, and at the same time everyone is saying but trust them when it comes to vaccines. That doesn’t feel rational, that we should trust them when it comes to protecting our infants, but when it comes to marketing drugs that they know to be addictive and dangerous, we’ll be suspicious. Once you lose someone’s trust, you lose it. In Europe, where there are other kinds of health care systems, governments produce vaccines, not large pharmaceutical companies. The state has control over vaccine production. We have a very poor regulatory system, so people feel highly suspicious of any product that’s being sold or marketed. It is anxiety-provoking to think that you can’t be really sure of anything—that the product you’re having injected into your child’s body is what you’re told it is, and it’s going to do what you’re told it’s going to do. Lies have been told about other substances. Vaccination is one example of the price we’re paying for our economic system. We’re essentially paying in children’s lives for damaged trust in our economic system. For a great number of people in my circle who don’t vaccinate, it’s an anti-capitalist stance.

SL: I do have a question about fear, because it’s such a major player in the vaccine debate. In On Immunity you wrote about fear being accepted, even among the best-educated people in this country, as a kind of intelligence. In an interview for Barnes and Noble with Mark Athitakis, he christened you the “lyrical epistemologist of dread.”

EB: That’s great.

SL: I know! I’m curious if you think we have, even compared to the time when you grew up, in the ’80s and ’90s, become a more fear-centered culture. I grew up in the ’70s, which was the start, as I see it, of the fearful parenting culture. There were kidnappings, the Son of Sam, the Zodiac killer, all kinds of chaos. And now there are new social forces at work, like the super-billionaires guiding social policy. I’m curious to know how you feel about fear and how you see this shifting our culture over time.

EB: A number of people have looked at how fear around parenting has gone up. Just based on my casual interactions with people, I can see that parents are in a different psychological state than my parents were in. But we live in a time that is, by far, statistically safer for children than in your childhood or mine. There’s a disconnect between people’s emotional lives and what’s statistically true. There will always be, here or there, a child kidnapped, but these stories are used as metaphors. They’re used to say, “See, see, it isn’t safe. Our world isn’t safe.” Over and over again that’s the story parents tell each other: “It’s not like it was when we were kids.” There’s that sensibility that I think does have something to do with capitalism where we feel there’s no one protecting us. But it’s also cultural. We live in a culture that nurtures fear. I don’t believe fear was nurtured in that way for my mother the way that it is for me. And also enforced.

I had this big experience with my son. I do move slightly outside of the parenting culture, and I do give him more autonomy than most of the parents around me. I’m trying to make his childhood look a little more like my ’70s childhood than these over-managed, over-protected childhoods. But it’s hard when you’re working within a culture, because cultures have a way of enforcing their own rules. My son loves independence and asks for it. He was asking, in first grade, to walk home from school alone. The school is a ten-minute walk from our house. I made a deal with him that I would walk behind him by a block, and that was acceptable to him. One of the first times my son did this, he turned the corner onto the block that our house is on and a police car pulled over. By the time I got around the corner, the policeman was talking to my son. My son pointed at me, but the policeman was mad by the time I got there. We were standing nearly on my front lawn, and the policeman was berserk. He was pointing his finger in my face, and he was telling me that this was neglect, and I should be ashamed of myself, and my child was much too young to be walking alone. It escalated to the point where I had to ask whether I was under arrest. My son was crying, and it was a whole terrible scene. The police officer drove away and that was it. But it rattled me, and it rattled my child. So the anxiety that people feel isn’t just in our heads, it’s being actively, culturally enforced. I went outside the norm for a little bit, and I had a threat of punishment: We’ll take your kid away from you if you aren’t holding his hand. I then looked up the law in Illinois. Would that be neglect? Could I actually be punished for letting him walk to school alone? In Illinois, until the age of fourteen, your child has to be under your direct supervision at all times. That just isn’t going to be true up until the age of fourteen. You’re not going to have your child under your direct supervision at all times. The message is that if something goes wrong, it’s your fault. You can be held criminally negligent.

SL: I can’t imagine how this impacts mothers of color. That culture of fear must be an even heavier burden.

EB: I still wonder what would have happened if I had been a teenage Black mother who came around that corner rather than a white mother who is a little bit older, very self-possessed, and very sure of herself in this conversation. When he said this was neglect, I said, “Not in the state of California where I used to cover neglect. I’m not sure of the laws here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.”

SL: I want to ask you about appropriation. There are long-standing debates in the writing community about writing about race. One is whether writers who are not people of color should write stories about people of color. Some writers of color have taken the stand that narratives about people of color should not be written by white writers. They say that the writing may not be authentic, may not position people of color at the center of their own stories, and that by writing these stories the white writers are potentially taking away the opportunity for a writer of color to sell a similar book. Other writers insist that no matter the color of the writer’s skin, they should be allowed to write whatever it is they want to write. I’m curious, because you’re a writer with white skin who writes about race, about your thoughts on cultural appropriation as it pertains to literature.

EB: It’s a complicated subject. As an artist, I will always be in favor of artists taking risks. Any time you take a risk as an artist, there’s a potential for failure. The stakes are high if you’re writing about the experience of somebody who is far outside your subject position. If you get it wrong, you do damage. I think the way to do it is to understand that the stakes are high and that it needs to be done with care and responsibility. I was talking with Roger Reeves, the poet. He came to speak to a class of mine, and the class was asking him this question. He’s an African American poet, playwright, he does all kinds of things. He’s in the middle of writing a work of prose from the point of view of a woman. And he talked about what he was doing to ensure that he did that responsibly, how he was having a number of women close to him talk to him about this character, read this character, and tell him how they felt about the character. Basically he was using his resources in the community to be responsible in the way he created this character, so that he didn’t project all his feelings or beliefs about women onto this woman that he was making on the page. As a woman who has read a lot of literature by men, in which women characters are imagined by men, I know that sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t.

This happens with race, too. There are ways to do it responsibly. I’ll personalize this. Recently I did a reading at Sarah Lawrence from the piece that was in the New York Times, “White Debt.” One of the students asked me why I felt that it was appropriate to write about Black women who had been killed by the police or had suffered police brutality when that wasn’t my story. I’m a nonfiction writer who frequently writes about other people’s experiences. I write from research all the time. If somebody is killed by the police in the country where I live, I believe that that is my story too. It might not be my story in the same way that it is a woman of color’s story. In that piece I was writing about Sandra Bland in part to look at my own culpability and complicity. I don’t think it’s going to be productive for anyone if white writers like me don’t engage with the stories of Black people in any way. If I couldn’t or didn’t write about Sandra Bland, then I wouldn’t be able to think into how I might be dangerous to someone like Sandra Bland, which is what I was up to in that essay. The danger in this conversation is that white writers might avoid the subject matter, but it’s necessary for us to have productive conversations around the racial divisions in our country.

SL: That brings to mind a movie I haven’t seen but that won an Academy Award, The Green Book

EB: I didn’t see it either, but I read about it.

SL: There was a lot of racial debate about that movie. People were saying that the white people who spearheaded that movie shouldn’t have been the ones to make that movie. Maybe people were saying what you just said, that if you are a person with a skin color different from the people you are writing that you should take that extra care, and they didn’t feel that this care was taken.

EB: What I’ve heard—and I might be getting this wrong—is that one of the places where the filmmaker went wrong is that he asked permission of the family, and the family said no. If you ask, you have to be willing to hear the answer no and work with that.

SL: Are you saying it’s better not to ask?

EB: No! Well, it’s better not to ask if you don’t plan to listen to the answer. Whenever I write about people, I show it to them and say, “Is it all right if I publish this?” But I show it with the knowledge that they might say no and I might not be able to publish it. If I plan to publish it anyway, there’s no reason to go through that process. If you’re going to ask, let it be a real question, not an “I want your stamp of approval.” The other problem with that movie, which I have not seen, so I’m speculating into it, is it sounds like it’s a bit of a white fantasy. A white fantasy of a kind of friendship that could have, and might have, but probably did not exist between these two men. In the end, that’s what probably makes it a less effective piece of art than the art that could have been made from the actual relationship. Was it just transactional? Was it distant? Was it complicated by the racial difference? Or was it complicated by class difference? That would have been a more interesting story to tell, rather than telling the white fantasy of a deep friendship. 

SL: Right. But then that might not have been the movie that sold the most tickets.

EB: Yes, that’s Hollywood making money off of fantasies. White fantasies are dangerous. They do real harm. If I was a writer of fiction, I would really want to self-examine around the fantasies I was putting on the page, especially if they were racialized fantasies. What am I getting out of it? What are other people getting out of it? But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wade into the terrain. It just means it’s tricky terrain, and you have to go into it with self-awareness and cultural awareness. And the knowledge that we’re in a time period in which narratives are being treated like property, which I don’t believe they are. What I mean by that is, there was a case recently about Amélie Wen Zhao, a Chinese writer who immigrated to the United States and wrote a young adult novel—

SL: She took that book off the market.

EB: Yes, I never read the work because it never made it to the market. The early galleys were read and critiqued. It was science fiction, and it imagined a world in which there’s something that looks like slavery. A bunch of people took issue with her because she was “appropriating” the story of African American slavery. She was very surprised by this because she was basing the future world on a world she knew to exist, indentured labor in China, which is coming very close to slavery. That story illustrates the danger in treating narratives, storylines, as if they’re the property of a particular group. Slavery might take a number of different forms in different societies and times, but they have some resemblance to each other. What the story illustrates for me is that we think slavery has been eradicated and it hasn’t. Something that looks enough like it to be called appropriation is happening in China. This is why we need a more expansive dialogue around appropriation. A poet friend of mine, Robyn Schiff, points out that the word “property” is embedded in the word “appropriation.” What we’re really talking about when we’re talking about appropriation is property. I do think it’s dangerous, and I’m speaking of capitalism, to make private property out of things that have traditionally been communal resources. Narrative and storytelling have traditionally been communal resources that are not privatized. To me it looks like an encroachment of privatization into the creative space when we start talking about and treating things as if they were private property. That is not to say it’s totally OK for white writers to go out there and write any old character they—

SL: But there’s already a long history of that happening. It’s such a concern. And a wound.

EB: There is a real wound, but it’s an inappropriate correction to say, “Let’s just not ever try to imagine into anyone else’s experience.” That’s a potential loss for everyone who participates in art-making. Not just white people. A collective loss.

SL: In the notes to “All Apologies” you wrote about your guilt over all the impossible apologies you owe your parents. In an interview in Numéro Cinq with Adam Segal, you said, “Becoming a mother has changed my understanding of impossible apologies.” What do you mean by an impossible apology, and how has becoming a parent changed your understanding of these?

EB: What I was thinking about when I was writing about impossible apologies was all the foolish things I did, especially when I was a teenager. Foolish and in retrospect cruel things I did to my parents. Out of youth, and naivete, and a sense of wanting to break away—all the reasons a teenager might act out. And I didn’t even act out as much as some teenagers do. I remember a couple of hard arguments with my father. I think the impossible apology is that I thought, If only I could have just felt the gratitude that I feel now. But growing up is coming into knowledge. That’s what makes it impossible. I had to come into the knowledge before I felt the gratitude. I can still live out my relationship with my parents with gratitude and express gratitude to them, but I can’t go back in time. That’s impossible. The other thing I realized, as a parent, is that I would never want or ask for an apology from my child. I fully expect that he too will do things as a teenager that will be really distressing to me. I just hope they don’t cost him his life. My stepfather is Chinese, and in Chinese culture family members don’t apologize to each other because it’s something formal you would do with a stranger. To apologize to a family member is treating them like a stranger, pushing them away. It’s a way of distancing yourself. This is my rough understanding from what my stepfather has told me. You don’t say please and thank you within families because those niceties are public niceties, and this is a private space and it plays by different rules. That makes sense to me now that I have a child. I think it’s culturally important that we teach our children to say please and thank you, to apologize, but I don’t feel like I need that gesture from my child, that I need him to apologize for being who he is . . . for not understanding something, or for being young.

SL: I didn’t want to end the interview without saying how touched I was when I read that your son asked you if he’d be able to remember his life when he died, and you asked him what part of his life he wanted to remember. His answer was “loving you.” 

EB: So amazing, isn’t it? He was about four when he said that. It is the most heartbreaking thing he’s ever said to me.

SL: I know! I wanted to talk about this with you but felt it should take the form of a question, so I wonder if you have had any other heartbreakingly tender conversations with your son?

EB: Yeah, a handful. He has the capacity to occasionally be really profound and emotive. What really amazed me about that moment was, I thought so much about expressing my love for him, that it never occurred to me that his primary experience was the experience of loving me. I was so concerned with making sure he felt loved. What he enjoyed feeling was his love for another person, not the sense of being loved. That’s what was so profound to me.

Susan Lerner received her MFA in Creative Writing from Butler University. She serves as assistant memoir editor for Split Lip Magazine, assistant editor for Brevity, and reads for Creative NonfictionRiver TeethTriQuarterlyBellevue Literary Review, and Fourth Genre. Her work has appeared in The RumpusThe Believer LoggerPainted Bride QuarterlyBooth, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @susanlitelerner and online at