Fiction Points: Elizabeth Kadetsky

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and two Best American Short Stories notable citations, and her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review, Post Road, Agni, and elsewhere. She has written for the Village VoiceThe Nation, and more. She has traveled to Malta as a creative writing fellow at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, to France as a fellow in the arts at Camargo Foundation, and to India as a two-time Fulbright fellow. She is the author of the memoir FIRST THERE IS A MOUNTAIN (Dzanc Books rEprint series, 2019; and Little Brown, 2004), the novella ON THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE CENTER OF THE WORLD (Nouvella, 2015), and the short story collection THE POISON THAT PURIFIES YOU (C&R Press, 2014). She discusses her newest book, THE MEMORY EATERS, below. It will be released on March 31, 2020, from the University of Massachusetts Press. She is an associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State University and a nonfiction editor at New England Review.

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?

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 2.00.56 PMThat is so fittingly surreal. I’d want them to know that they are definitely a part of my target audience for my memoir about addiction, homelessness, Alzheimer’s, and those heady days in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The penguin, with its affinity for cold climates, will also be drawn to my portrayal of my French Canadian family and the frigid landscape endured by my ancestors in Quebec. Also, the penguin—as a bird that can’t fly—will be drawn to the disability angle of my book, which treats not only Alzheimer’s, addiction, and mental health problems across my family, but a hidden disability.  My mother’s sister was institutionalized for epilepsy and mental development issues and died at age eleven in the institution, though the family didn’t talk about this to outsiders. My book explores the way that the stigma surrounding her disability reverberates for future generations of my family. 

And the nuns! With due respect (what are they doing in a bar anyway?) my mother’s disaffection from her Catholic upbringing and her conversion to first Judaism and then to a kind of pan-religious mysticism might disturb them, but, as rebels who patronize bars, they may find her story alluring. My mother had many staunchly Catholic aunts. The nuns may have avuncular, protective feelings toward my mother if they dig in to the book. 

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

My memoir not only describes drugged experience, but also portrays a family where drugs were a part of everyday life. For instance in the story that I tell in my essay “Bombing the Ghost,” I come home from a graffiti expedition to find my mother tripping on LSD. I narrate events like this without judgment or remorse. 

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Elizabeth Kadetsky

On the other hand, my book treats family cycles of addiction. My understanding is that the genetic component of addiction is far from proved. I’d be interested to see what could be extrapolated from a story like mine about the research question, Is addiction “passed down” genetically, or are family habits and attitudes a bigger influence in determining whether a family member eventually struggles with addiction. If the latter, How much damage is done by the idea within a family that the addiction of ancestors passes down? Does it become a kind of self fulfilling prophecy? I suspect this may have been the case in my family. 

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

It came about organically. My book started with the idea that my mother’s Alzheimer’s had some relationship, a sort of natural evolution if not an actual causality, to her dissociated manner all my life. She’d always had a quality of absence, and had had many amnesias. Investigating family history, I discovered reasons that she might have had a traumatic mindset. While complicated, these essentially stemmed from her having grown up with an emotionally abusive, alcoholic mother. Writing about my grandmother’s alcoholism opened the door to my writing about my sister’s lifelong struggle with addiction. That in turn caused me to reflect upon the open-minded attitude toward drugs that I grew up with, and to recollect some of my own experiences with them. 

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?

Drugs is absolutely an integral tool in my writing arsenal. While telling my story, I look upon my experiences with drugs when I was younger without regret. Those experiences helped me to later achieve a dissociated mind state when needed and to understand what was happening when I experienced traumatic dissociation after an assault and PTSD. 

Thematically, the book portrays drugs as one expression of dissociative coping. The Memory Eaters is about different aspects of not just memory but forgetting. I attempt to explore those topics while describing several extremely difficult life experiences in a frank and not self-pitying manner. Some people in the story used drugs, alcohol, or other means of forgetting as a means to cope. A non-judgmental tone is central to the voice for the book as I too, as the writer of the story, seek escape. In the book, I accomplish that escape differently—through nostalgia, and even through the act of writing. 

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?

My writing has always been enhanced by what I discovered when I was younger about how the mind’s perception of reality can shift radically on psychedelic drugs and even on marijuana or opiates. Psychedelics seem especially cerebral. They can remind one that life is evanescent, that one’s view of the circumstances around oneself is limited and might change, that everything one thought was true might not be—or, more mind-breakingly and transformatively, what one thought to be real is utterly false. 

The paradigm shift aspect of a drug experience is directly applicable to writing especially in terms of structure. Illusion, disillusion, re-integration is a perfect three act structure. In fact this is exactly why I chose First There is a Mountain as the title for my first book. It’s from a zen koan (or the Donovan song): First there is a mountain / then there is no mountain / then there is

The idea that one’s reality can be broken down and reconstructed is so deeply embedded in who I am as a person and as a writer that I see it only developing further in my future work. In this book, I myself break down my family and pick myself out of it through a process of renewal and redefinition. I hope to apply that idea to my life and work going forward. The aspect of transformation is also key to structuring any narrative work, in which, ideally, either the narrator or protagonist goes through a profound shifting of selfhood over the course of eye opening events along the course of the adventure.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that THE MEMORY EATERS gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

When I was codependently trying to help my mother and sister manage my sister’s heroin crisis in the early 1990s, I listened to the Afghan Whigs album Gentlemen on repeat at high volume. The entire album is plain and simple about Greg Dulli’s heroin addiction. And to give you a sense of how codependent my situation was, my sister actually made a cassette tape of the album for me and mailed it off in a jiffy envelope to where I was living at the time, in Los Angeles. I felt real, physical pain imagining what my sister was going through and also just experiencing my fear that she would die. Greg Dulli’s searing, agony-filled,  angry singing perfectly expressed my distress, especially the song “Fountain and Fairfax,” named for the renowned drug buying corner in Los Angeles. I would pass that corner in my car on the way to work every day, my sister’s cassette tape blaring from the stereo: 

Let me drink 

Let me tie off 

I’m really slobbering now 

Let it stink 

Let it dry up 

It’s impossible 

How?