Emily Arnason Casey is the author of the essay collection Made Holy (2019). Her writing has appeared in literary journals such as The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus, Mid-American Review, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her essay “Laughing Water” received an notables listing in The Best American Essays series. She is the curator of “The Essay Exhibits: Art + Words,” eight works of art by eight Vermont artists in conversation with her essay “Beneath a Sky of Gunmetal Gray.” The exhibit is on display at a new Vermont library every month this year. Casey teaches at the Community College of Vermont and works independently with writers; she lives in rural Vermont with her family.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
Holiness and death. Everyone has something sacred and something to which they devote themselves, whether it be spiritual or just an iPhone, or self-improvement which I think is just a part of capitalism. But mainly I write about death, indirectly. That we die and our lives are small and insignificant and trivial but we feel them to be immensely important and singular, and so they are and we are. I can’t get over this conundrum and so I write about it because in writing all the weird feelings and thoughts can become significant or they gain voices and lives of their own and I take comfort in this. I take comfort in beauty.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
In my nonfiction writing I grapple with the disease model of alcoholism. What causes this disease and is it really a disease in the traditional western idea of maladies? I can’t drink or drug because I form a compulsion and I can do nothing else but think about it, which makes life miserable. I write about my experiences as a child in an alcoholic family; though my parents are not alcoholic or addicted, one is the child of an alcoholic and the sibling to two alcoholics. Some of my siblings married alcoholic/addicts, my husband is from a child of an alcoholic family, my best friends are children of alcoholics, it’s such a social-emotional disease of behavior. I find this fascinating and frustrating. Made Holy, my essay collection, chronicles a woman’s journey into sober living and the ways she finds to deal with life—her obsessions and compulsions, her intensity.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
My first forays into writing about alcoholism were merely attempts to cope with my new sobriety. I recall a writing workshop in which I submitted a story about a girl who was four months sober. One of the leaders of the workshop called me out a little for making my life into fiction. It’s not that you can’t do it, everyone does. Instead, he was saying that it often leads to flat characters in fiction because you know yourself too well and you forget to fully develop that character. I took this leap into creative nonfiction and just wrote whatever I wanted in the form of essays—mostly lyric essays. Then I started writing about someone I was close to who became addicted to heroin and homeless and it was out of despair. I didn’t think I would publish any of it. But Made Holy combines these two threads with a line of inquiry into the history of trauma and its inheritance. We know that DNA can be changed by trauma, so is this how the disease is passed? Is it actually just a response to trauma? I mean in some ways I wonder if all mental health issues are ways of coping with traumatic experiences.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
I wouldn’t be able to explore my own history or the history of some of my family without the question of drugs and alcohol. So many of my young relationships revolved around abusing alcohol or being in proximity to those who had or did. Honestly, I did not want to write about alcoholism or drug addiction, it became my subject out of frustration and sorrow and it felt unavoidable in my work. When I look back on the creation of the essays in my essay collection, I am surprised by how each essay is deeply seeded in sorrow. Drugs and alcohol become a theme and a force that drives my investigation into human relationships of disease and mental illness. Nostalgia for an imagined idyllic past also seems to function as another layer of addiction in my work. Though the addict knows she can’t go back to a time before—whether that means a time when she used “socially” or going back to using altogether, she keeps longing for it.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
I would like to not write about drugs in the future but that seems unlikely. I think that substance abuse disorder works as a way to investigate humanity. In the title essay of my book, “Made Holy,” I write about the spiritual question of holiness. I was raised in a conservative Christian family and most of what they believe is the exact opposite of what I feel about holiness, the sacred, or devotion to a higher being or purpose. Although, I sense that we just interpret things differently. My exploration of addiction has led me to understand that—I understand that what is holy and sacred to me is deeply seeded in ambiguity. I am not sure if it was due to substance abuse or the Christian upbringing, but I found it very difficult to understand that someone I love can hurt me but still be lovable, still be sacred to me. I found that my own hurt and woundedness could have covered my whole life, could have consumed me if I let it. I had to become fearless in order to write about addiction and I had to let go of what other people were going to think. It was liberating. This experience leads into my future projects in that I understand that I have to touch vulnerability in order to create and that I can be fearless or at least have the courage to be vulnerable in my writing.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Made Holy gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice of titles, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
Oh, it would definitely be “The Blue Room,” which is about me getting sober and going through a difficult break up. The persona of this narrator is so deeply flawed but also beautifully broken. It would be Beyonce’s “Sorry” from Lemonade. “Sorry, I’m not sorry…” It depicts the girl in the blue room so perfectly.