Amy Herzog and Brenda Shaughnessy

Two writers on art and motherhood

Meghan O’Rourke
Leaves on a geometric pattern
Illustration by Bianca Ibarlucea

The poet Brenda Shaughnessy and the playwright Amy Herzog are two of the contemporary writers I admire most, for their uncompromising but often witty insights into what, for lack of another term, we call “the human condition.” In collections like Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda (2012), which was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts prize, or Herzog’s play Mary Jane, which was produced off Broadway in 2017 and won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, their voices are remarkably alive and strange, turning objects, events, and language over and over until they find the bumpy parts, the weirdness that makes us laugh—and then startle to pained attention. When I found out that they had begun exchanging emails about one another’s work, I invited them to interview each other for The Yale Review. It was my hope that they might speak about their work, of course, but also about being working mothers, and working mothers who have children with special needs—an often sidelined reality in the heated contemporary discourse of work-life balance. Like many other subjects that make Americans uncomfortable, the reality of having a sick or disabled child—and the very lives of those children—is often sugarcoated or simply ignored.

And so the work that Shaughnessy and Herzog have produced around the subject is all the more necessary—as testimony to a lived experience that many look away from, yes; but also as a site of wild imaginative engagement with the most profound facets of being human: the utter vulnerability of embodiment, and the full range of feelings that come with living up close with that vulnerability. We can’t turn life off, even when we want to; instead we must try to find language to speak what the culture so often resists speaking. We wanted a chance to listen to them talk frankly with each other about all this. Amy and Brenda spoke over two sessions this past fall.

Meghan O'Rourke, editor

Scene One
The first session took place over tea in a nearly empty, light-filled Prospect Heights apartment. Meghan, Amy, and Brenda spoke as the sun set behind the East River and Manhattan.

Meghan O’Rourke Brenda, you sent us an email about wanting this conversation to “get past the work-life balance notion of work and life, past lean-in feminism, past the have-it-all mentality. I want a dialogue deeper than that.” Do you mean you have a hunger for a discussion of the more radicalizing effects of motherhood?

Brenda Shaughnessy The real work of motherhood in life and art seems never to be fully addressed, never given enough weight or consideration. It’s not simply the lack of time or energy for all the roles, but that the roles exist in vexed and paradoxical relation to each other. I have a sense of doubling, of living two simultaneous lives, as if the multiverse is not a far-off astronomical concept but a daily negotiation. It seems to me that the patriarchy is determined to keep motherhood siloed. Not to let it be a shaping, foundational, formative piece of how life gets thought about and created—for that would require cultural consideration of the workability of mothers’ lives. Parenthood obviously changes everything about everybody’s life: the whole existence of the next generation coming up. So why does our culture seem to shrug evasively about how moms are doing?

MO Reading your email, I was thinking about your poem “Family on the Run,” about searching for safety with your family in a dystopian future. Does that poem come out of a more radical experience of humanity born of motherhood?

BS Yes, absolutely. That’s happening to people now; it’s just not happening to me at the moment. That picture of that Syrian father holding his baby, by the rafts, and crying? That’s why I wrote the poem. I really saw it for the first time: “Oh shit. That’s what I’d be doing. I’d be in blow-up rafts with my tiny children, and I wouldn’t be able to take my son’s wheelchair. It would be impossible.”

You can’t separate motherhood from the imagination, or from reality. You have to actually try to put yourself in someone else’s position, to really imagine the world as it is, and try not to say, “Well that’s them, that’s their situation. That’s not here.” We have to stop doing that, and that’s the political point of that poem.

Amy Herzog I was just rereading that poem. I was struck by how the end is so loving, how it is this image of your daughter Simone’s strength.

BS And burden. I’m so moved by what Greta Thunberg is doing. She’s saying, “I have this burden.” In this poem, the parents can only do what they can do. They only have themselves to work with, and one child in that scenario isn’t going to get what he needs. He’s not going to get to the next place, because there’s not going to be a path for a disabled kid. So, Simone has this otherworldly burden: she really does have to carry everybody. Her generation will have to carry everybody. The able-bodied little kids are going to have to carry all the rest of us because they’re the only ones who might possibly have that miraculous strength. Or that’s what we hope.

Amy, how do you decide what’s important to put on the page? What matters at the moment that you’re doing it? How do you either incorporate or block out your family, your fears, your cares?

AH I used to take it for granted that I would find my next play from somewhere, anywhere, and write it. That feels different now. I don’t assume that I have another play in me. And when I think I am with play, it’s after several years, and it’s because something is really troubling me. I don’t know how much of that is age, versus motherhood, versus the distractions of the permanent crisis state we seem to be living in now.

Meghan, when you asked, “Does motherhood radicalize you?” I’d like to think so, but I often feel incapacitated by worry and love. I have a real—maybe totally irrational—fear about being dulled and tamed by love for my children.

MO I’m interested to hear that. So much of the conversation around motherhood and being an artist is about “How do you get your work done?” And yet, perhaps like you, my primary experience of becoming a mother has been a shift in my orientation that opened up things artistically for me, but, I also fear, may have sentimentalized me, because there is so much fear involved and often I want to not engage with that fear. Can you say more?

AH I feel I’m a better judge of what’s important now than I was ten years ago, and that has to be an artistic asset.

But…I haven’t talked about this that much in print, but I think I’m prepared to now. I have a sick child, and my motherhood has been really different from most women’s motherhood. That’s been painful and alienating.… And often the insights that allow me to love my life, to pay attention, to appreciate and get through my days, are pretty basic and not incredibly subtle insights. I feel a constant anxiety about the banality of my thoughts.

MO Can you give an example?

After my daughter was born, self-help language came into my life in a way that was necessary, but it scared me.

AH After my daughter was born, self-help language came into my life in a way that was necessary, but it scared me. People would say, “Live in the present.” I thought I knew what that meant, but I learned that it doesn’t matter if you believe it until it’s completely necessary. The reason you start to live in the present, I realized, is that you can’t bear to live in the past or the future. Being an artist at age 34 and having the thought, “Wow, I really need to live in the present,” feels terrifying. Like, who am I? Where is my sharpness? Where is my irony? Where is my point of view? All I’m doing is surviving.

BS The defenses you’ve built up have completely failed you at the point where you’re ready to live in the present, I think.

MO Amy, you’ve written a very beautiful play, Mary Jane, about a mother dealing with an ill child. Can you talk about the process of writing that play? Has your experience of motherhood changed your writing in any way?

AH The way I finally found my way into that play, after a few years of writer’s block (which by the way I think is a misnomer and a misunderstood phenomenon—to me, writer’s “block” is simply having nothing to say), was that I started to think that the story I wanted to tell about having a sick child was a story of strangeness. That gave me a way around the sentimental traps of the genre, so I knew for sure I wasn’t writing Lorenzo’s Oil.

But I knew it would be an uphill battle getting an audience to experience the play the way I intended it, rather than as weepy because of the subject. I thought the production, which was directed by Anne Kauffman, was successful in doing this other thing, which was telling this story of a mother caring for her sick child in a granular way that’s weird and pedestrian and often maddening and sometimes a lot of fun. I intended the experience to be more contemplative than cathartically emotional.

A dear friend of mine who has schizophrenia was a great comfort to me after my daughter was born. She came to see the play, and afterward she wrote me, “You put thoughts in other people’s thoughts.” That was maybe my favorite response to the play. And not surprisingly it came from someone who knows her way around illness and disability and so wasn’t very impressed by the pathos of the situation.

BS So many people aren’t willing to go into that space. It’s much easier to gather it all up in an easy little pile and say, “Well that must be very difficult and unpleasant. And just really sad.” And then put it up in one place because it’s easier than thinking about what it actually means.

AH Brenda, you get around this by being so funny, and I wonder if that’s a conscious choice on your part?

BS Don’t you think that the way that your main character and the nurse banter, isn’t that the same? I do it because, on one hand, I am trying to say to any reader, “Please like this. Please don’t just assume this is all one note.” It’s a naked plea: “Don’t dismiss all of this because it’s about something that you find so hard.”

It’s the same reason that humor is always there. It’s like trying to be the person at a party people want to talk to, instead of the person whom everyone’s walking away from rolling their eyes. Also when it gets to be too much, when it’s too hard, too much for you, you have to flip something—a switch, a table over, somebody off, the script.

AH I identify with your description of that, but I don’t find the humor in your poems ingratiating at all. I find it challenging. Like, “Can you laugh with me about this?”

MO Is the humor connected to survival? Or disarming and opening up that audience member or reader who might otherwise experience the work in one note, do you think?

BS The words “absurd” and “absurdism” come to mind. “Oh, that’s what the use of that is for.” Do you know the Kay Ryan poem “Why Isn’t It All More Marked”? Why isn’t it all more marked? Why is there only that much graffiti? Why not more? Why not even maybe less? It’s that kind of absurdity. Why is my child this badly brain damaged and why not all the way? Why not just a bit less?

AH I feel like there’s a little pride in that dark humor too, like, “I’ve seen it all. Give me more.” There’s a tiny bit of a boast or something. I’m thinking of the way my husband and I tell these horrific stories about medical trauma like they’re hilarious. It’s a license we’ve earned: to have any feeling we want about that story.

BS Craig and I need to get there. Right now we’re stuck in this moment of our son Cal being pubescent and dealing with the kind of horror that that is. In another situation, my 12-year-old would not be letting me see his privates because he would insist on his privacy. But he doesn’t get to have that privacy, and so here we are, with the occasional wry comment. We can’t laugh about it. I don’t think it’s funny yet. And now I’m like, “This is now a new goal.” Hashtag, goals. Not being able to come up with anything to manage this new development really has been devastating. I feel without my beloved tools to make this manageable emotionally.

AH What are your beloved tools?

BS Being able to make a joke about something or have some kind of wordplay or whatever. To be able to manipulate tone on a page or in person—to be able to get that distance from the pain, or find the jocular, wise old perspective that says, “I’ve got this.” But I don’t. I really don’t got this. Craig and I are bummed that our kid is going through puberty with no freedom. I feel very tender and protective of Cal with this puberty thing. I don’t feel like it’s my place to write about it. But here I’m talking about it, in print.

MO Because something about puberty, in a typically developing child, would be about hiding?

BS Yeah. It’s a whole new world of fear. We thought the biggest fear was his health and his safety. And now there’s this other fear of, “Oh, what happens when he’s not a child anymore?” I don’t even know how to talk about it. I’m only bringing it up because…it’s just this new thing that’s got stuck in my throat and it is silencing almost everything else.

But one thing I have learned about being a writer is that things often just stick in my throat like that, because they’re unresolved. I’ll do anything to avoid having to deal with it—I really will do almost anything; I’ll even go to Whole Foods—but eventually I have to write about it.

Right now I can feel it pulling in the back of my head right here. It’s going to lodge right back here and give me a headache. Because I now know that I have to write something about it—probably only for myself, in a journal, because it’s horrible; I can’t write this. But there’s this feeling. I can’t get past it. Can’t go under it, can’t go over it, can’t go around it, you have to go through it….

The other thing about humor is that it is really fun to write a funny thing. I resent when I have to write anguish and fear. Maybe I should write something else, but it wouldn’t be genuine.

MO Do both of you get questions about whether it is cathartic—therapeutic—to write about your children’s disabilities? When you say you have to write it: Is it partly that this is what’s troubling you and so that’s the material? Or is it also that there’s something helpful about the illusion of order that comes with the act of naming?

AH I was insistent throughout the process of Mary Jane that there’s no catharsis in that play. I was trying to arrive at a new framework of thought, not a new feeling, and I didn’t want the audience to cry and leave cleansed and renewed—why should they? To the extent that the play is about suffering, that means both experiencing hardship, and also, more basically, just enduring.

I also resist the idea of writing being therapeutic, but why I do is hard to untangle. Do I resist it because I think plays by women are associated with catharsis or therapy, whereas plays by men are associated with ideas? Am I just having a formal quarrel with conventional play structure and my earlier work? Is it because I’m resistant to the exact kind of writing-as-therapy that maybe I could benefit from?

MO Is it also that caring for a child who is ill doesn’t have an end in the classical cathartic sense?

BS Of course.

MO The end is an end you don’t necessarily want to think about or there’s not an end in a cathartic sense. So then it must become a formal question, I would think. How do you create that sense of—

BS Ongoingness.

AH Ongoingness.

MO And yet the piece that you’ve made feels finished.

AH I’m always told that my plays feel unfinished.

BS I wonder if a woman playwright gets told her plays feel unfinished where a male playwright might get told that the plays mimic life in its ongoingness.

I wonder too, what is the negative quality of therapy that leads us to say, “I’m not doing that.” My students are very determined that workshop not be like therapy. But there could be worse things in the world! Because what is therapy? It could be lifesaving expression. It can be a weekly ritual or biweekly ritual in which you revisit the site of your trauma or get to a place where you can start to manage it because you’ve re-envisioned it and you can get past the stuck place.

But women’s writing is framed in terms of all kinds of feminized roles. Every woman in a position of authority (therapist, teacher, writer) gets hit with the transference transformer and turned into someone’s mom. Of course we want to get away from that! No wonder we’re like, “I don’t want this to be therapy because I don’t want to be the fucking therapist again. I’m the patient. This is my fucking trauma and I need to talk about something else besides this. I want to get past it.”

What I feel like I do in some of the poems is either pure escapism or “Let’s go back and re-say this, re-experience this, so that maybe I can find more to live on this time.” That’s when this feeling comes back to me and says: “You need to revisit me. You need to think about me because I’m going to make your life hell if you don’t.” That was the genesis of “Blueberries for Cal.” It would not let me write anything else until I wrote that one. What wanted that? I didn’t want to write that poem. I thought, “This is a little…”

AH A little what?

BS It’s sentimental.

MO No.

BS No it is! It’s totally sentimental. It’s the most sentimental thing. I let myself write the most sentimental poem. That ending, I don’t write endings like that. It’s just not right.

AH I sent you a compliment specifically about that poem when I first read your manuscript, and I remember you said something like, “I wanted to scratch all those lines out and that’s why I knew I had to publish them.” I’ve heard you say something similar to that a few times: that embarrassment is a signal of something that needs to be read.

BS Yes, there’s just this thing that will come to me and say this is what you’re writing next.

AH And that thing is a poem, or sometimes it’s a book of poems?

BS It’s just what is going to go on the page at that moment. It never dictates, “This is a book that you’re writing.” It doesn’t ever do anything bigger than that moment.

For example, I was at MacDowell, the artists’ colony, and it was my fifth day of not being able to do anything. I had just hosted Simone’s birthday party back at home. My head was filled with that; it seemed insistent. I was remembering the party, thinking of how it was, time passing and the funny kids. And then I had the image of Henry, such a little gorgeous imp. So great. Just the image of him scooping the blueberries and it’s one of those moments, an objective correlative, where you realize, “Oh that kid means all of this stuff,” and all these thoughts and feelings about typically developing kids like Simone and Henry suddenly came up, and also thoughts about Cal, and it all seemed to swirl around this one moment—an objective correlative. That was why it was telling me to write it.

MO Amy, what started you off being a playwright?

AH I grew up around the theater; I acted through college and for a little while after. I wasn’t terrible, but I was never going to be a successful actor, and at the time I started writing I was on tour acting in a children’s play, miserable. Leaving acting was painful; I was really disappointed in myself. But writing plays was a way of feeling like what I had been doing was working toward something. As an actor, I’d always had a kind of attention to the dialogue that was literary and possibly the problem with my acting. I knew everybody’s lines.

BS You’re thinking so deeply about the play you can’t play your role the way an actor should be playing a role—that seems like the ideal reason to become a playwright.

AH I wish I had arrived at the conclusion more thoughtfully. I’m glad I’m a playwright, but I don’t think I had great reasons for becoming one. In a way, Meghan, I just answered the question, “Why be a playwright?” but not “Why be a writer?” Because back then I didn’t ask myself, “Am I someone who wants to spend the rest of my life offering my thoughts to the world?” I spent a lot of years with my head down, learning the craft, before I confronted the most essential aspects of why to write.

MO Can you tell us about becoming a poet or a writer, Brenda?

BS I used to love books, and we went to the library and I would read tons of books, but it was always stories that I loved.

AH When did you start writing poetry?

BS I was doing these “memory laps” a while ago when I was swimming a lot, and I couldn’t keep track of how many laps I was at, so I decided to live a year of my life each lap. So, for one full pool length: “I am one.” Next length: “I am two.” And on and on. Being in water, trying to relive past years in an open-ended way (that is, not trying to retrieve anything in particular), my memory was jogged in a totally different way. Memories were coming up that I had forgotten about completely.

And one of them—which stopped me in the middle of the pool—was when I was 17, and my speech and debate teacher, Mrs. Solarez, took us to a speech tournament at Berkeley, and took us Cody’s Books, which is a big, famous bookstore up there. And I saw the Berkeley Poetry Review, which is an anthology, and the Berkeley Fiction Review. Those were the first anthologies I’d ever seen.

And I remember looking at that Berkeley Poetry Review, and just being like, “You can write a poem and then send it to them, and then it’s in the book with all these other poets? And people could just go to the bookstore, and buy it, and they could read your poem?” It seemed crazy. I’d never seen a literary magazine. The Berkeley Poetry Review had so many amazing things in it. And I remember that years later I was at a party in 2001, and I met Cort Day, and I was like, “Cort Day? Did you write a poem called ‘…’ in the Berkeley Poetry Review in 1987?” He was like, “How do you remember that?” And I’m like, “I remember everyone who was in that issue because I memorized that issue.” Well, that’s when I knew I wanted to be a poet.

MO Do you have a “Cort Day” in your past, Amy? Was there a play that lodged with you?

AH The plays I read in ninth and tenth grade English were formative for me. The biggest one was probably The Glass Menagerie.

MO And what was it about it? If you could cast back and do the memory lap?

AH I was astonished by how much I understood about those people just based on what they said. I think that’s what it was. I remember having these discussions in English class, and getting so heated, having such concrete ideas about why Laura did certain things, and realizing that I had gotten all of that from the dialogue. I mean, Tennessee Williams writes incredible stage directions, but basically, it’s what the people are saying that reveals everything about who they are, and what that world is. I don’t think I would’ve been able to articulate anything close to that then. But I had this profound feeling of, “I get it. I get it. I’m in it.”

BS That’s incredible. It’s also so weird, because then The Glass Menagerie ended up being this big part of your life.

AH I know. It’s really weird.

BS I don’t want to get too woo-woo, but sometimes I think there have to be parts of us that participate in other moments in our lives. It’s not necessarily like your future self went back to your high-school self and said, “Pay attention to this. This is an important text.” But I do think that the crenellation of time, instead of it being a line, might be possible. You love that play; you got that play. And then somehow you fell in love with Sam [Gold], who would eventually direct that play, and so it becomes a part of your life for that new period of time. You know what I mean?

AH Right. Sam and I went together to see a production of The Glass Menagerie a couple of years before he directed his own production, and seeing it after so many years made me realize both how well I knew the play and how much I’d unconsciously stolen from it! But it somehow didn’t occur to us until we were sitting in that audience how much the play related to our new lives as parents.

MO This was after your daughter was born?

AH Yes, this was a year or two after she was born. When we fell in love with the play as teenagers we identified with Laura and Tom, so it was a shock to see ourselves in Amanda. As we left, we said to each other in astonishment: That play is about raising a child with a disability. Of course, it’s about a lot of other things, too. But that led to Sam directing the play in 2017 and totally rethinking the role of Laura, who is traditionally played by an ingénue faking
a limp.

MO That brings me to something I was curious about: You two met, and became friends corresponding by email; you’re both writing in some ways about children who have disabilities, but also not, and resisting that. I’m wondering if you might talk about what each other’s work has meant to you. I think it might be important.

Nobody tells you how your new mom role isn’t going to fit you—it doesn’t fit anyone.

AH I’d love to. I found Brenda’s work when I was at the MacDowell Colony in 2015. My daughter was about three and a half. And I just had another child, and was stealing some time away. And speaking of woo-woo, someone who was there with me, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, was telling me one night that he was psychic, and in the same conversation he put Our Andromeda in my hands, and I read the whole book that night.

BS He said he was psychic and gave it to you?

AH I mean, it was two different threads of our conversation. He was talking about how he was psychic, how all week he had been intuiting things about other artists at the colony. And I was listening, thinking he was very charming, but not persuaded that he was psychic. And then, he mentioned that he loved your work and he took Our Andromeda out of his bag and handed it to me.

I read it all that night. And I got to the final poem, the title poem, which is about Cal’s birth and first year, and it was like…I don’t even know how to describe it to this day. It was…I felt like…I might start crying. I felt like I had written it. Which is an insane thing to say to you. You’re a brilliant poet and I don’t write poetry. But I felt this bizarre recognition that crossed over from admiration and connection into something almost like embarrassment? It reached so deeply into me.

And then I read the acknowledgments and saw that you had thanked Franny’s speech therapist and Franny’s pulmonologist, and I realized, This isn’t my imagination. We’d actually had the same experience—we lived near each other, and a few years before me (because Cal is older than Franny), you’d been going through what I’d been going through raising a similar kid. The next morning, I accosted Jeremy and said “Did you know about my daughter?” and he looked at me shocked and bewildered. I haven’t doubted his psychic powers since then.

It was lucky he put those poems in my hands because I was writing Mary Jane, but I was struggling. With feeling exposed, with feeling embarrassed, with feeling like any way of writing about the subject was going to be sentimental. Your poems gave me a kind of permission. I’ve said that to you before. It was like a portal. It was like, “I can enter into a space that Brenda Shaughnessy has cleared for women having this profoundly painful experience of motherhood and writing about it in a way that is clear-eyed and strange.”

BS This is so amazing. I wrote that poem because I felt so alone. But I wasn’t alone, and even then a part of me knew it. Another woman who’d gone through something unbearable as a mother gave me permission to write that poem. Ann Hood had written a book about her daughter dying. Her daughter, Grace, died when she was five. Meningitis; just one day didn’t feel good. And suddenly she was dead. I read Ann’s memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, in which she writes about this harrowing time of loss. This was in 2008, Ann’s book was new, and Cal was about a year old. I was at a weeklong writers’ conference and was staying in a faculty house with Ann.

I read Comfort the first day of the conference and ended up holed in my room sobbing the whole day. I was a couple years from writing that poem; I was in a state of shocked silence. In general, regarding my son, I didn’t know what to say because I knew that I had this terrible grief, but was so grateful to have my living child. I felt like I didn’t have any right to say anything about it…. I was embarrassed about everything. I couldn’t get deeper, couldn’t find any nuance. Everything was just so obvious or just so buried. Talking to Ann Hood really helped. I could ask her: how do you get over this loss? How do you go on? And she said, “Oh you don’t get over it. You just go on. And your life is ruined. And you fucking laugh, and you drink wine, and you have fun, and you try to write your stuff.”

And then she told me the most amazing story. I said to her, I’m so angry. “Why him? My baby? He didn’t do anything.” The thing she told me that was so amazing, that gave me permission to write “Our Andromeda,” was about a little classmate of her daughter’s, who had treated Gracie rudely and hurt her feelings badly. Then, a few years after her daughter died, Ann saw this child in the grocery store shopping with her mom and felt the rage of injustice—how a mean kid, a child who was cruel and remorseless, got to go on living when her own kindhearted daughter didn’t. That idea really hit me like a thunderbolt. I was stunned: “Oh, you’re allowed to feel like that? You’re allowed to feel rage at another person’s kid? You can allow yourself to, inside your own head, wish some kid ill because that’s what your loss does to you, and you can own it?” I could fathom that Ann Hood was entitled to her feelings—it was a revelation that I could entitle myself to mine.

Nobody tells you how your new mom role isn’t going to fit you—it doesn’t fit anyone. I’m reminded of what I packed in my suitcase for the hospital to give birth to Cal: all these little nightgowns for afterwards…little, cute, sort of sexy nightgowns. That’s what I thought I could wear after giving birth. I read all the books and somehow nobody told me: You’ll be bleeding like a pig. You’ll be crawling to the bathroom. You’re gonna want some more coverage. Ann Hood was that person who, in my post-trauma facing the next stage of motherhood, could tell me, metaphorically—maybe pack some sweatpants.

MO Brenda, I know how much Mary Jane meant to you from listening to you talk about the play; can you tell us about encountering it for the first time?

BS Oh yes. Reading Mary Jane felt like an out-of-body experience. The nurse in the play was a parallel nurse to the nurses I knew, or something. Did that make me a parallel mother to Mary Jane? No. Right? I was a weird ghost in the life of these people. “But this is my house.” And then the people go, “But we’re the Adlers. We live here.” It was so eerie. The way that beeping kept happening; I know that beeping. The very same. A few weeks ago, I heard a fly buzz, and I thought, “I heard a fly buzz.” Just like Emily Dickinson. I heard a fly buzz, and she heard a fly buzz. It is the same sound, the same experience. We heard the same thing. But how does this playwright hear that same buzz/beep I have always heard?

It felt like I’d been spied on. The beeping, and the nurse, and…I never thought that would be externalized. That felt very private to me. I was embarrassed. I thought, “Oh, now people are going to know what that was like for me.”

MO It is interesting that both of you have talked about embarrassment. Is it that there’s something so private about your experiences, or that you’ve gotten so used to being alone with it? Or that the feelings are so wild?

BS Yeah. I feel like we talk about vulnerability as something that is positive, something you can choose. This doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like…having a stranger walk in on you when you’re in the bathroom, or something. It feels embarrassing. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, technically, but has something to do with the exposure.

AH In terms of my reading your poem “Our Andromeda,” because you were talking about Ann Hood having the courage to be petty and angry as a mother.… I think the thing I responded to the most powerfully was the bitterness about the treatment by friends. Which was so…I had so much shame about that. About my resentment of my friends, my resentment of my friends with healthy children.

BS Yeah.

AH My disappointment in the people who hadn’t come through for me. I think because to acknowledge how painful that was would have been to acknowledge my tremendous need, which I wasn’t prepared to do. And your poem was so…You weren’t making it any more beautiful than it was. And I was terrified to be that honest.

BS That feeling of…it’s not shame. It’s embarrassment. I know that it’s not my fault, but it’s an embarrassment at having the feelings. This is a feeling that you’re not supposed to have, that no one talks about. So instead it feels like something must be wrong with you.

There is such a bad moment in that poem, “Our Andromeda,” which I still feel terrible about, where I’m so mad at my friends that I wish poverty on them. I’m deeply ashamed of that line. That’s so mean. You know? Jealousy’s stupid. I remember another part where I made an actual edit. Because Hilton Als read the poem in draft form. It has a section in which I’m watching a woman push her stroller out into the street, and check for traffic. And then a car comes by fast, real close to her stroller, and she looks at me and says, “That guy almost hit me.” And I want to say, “Why is your stroller in the middle of the street? You’re on the sidewalk, but your baby’s in the street.” I remember being like, You just earned your child’s death.

Hilton said something along the lines of “I don’t know. Is that the point you really want to make there? Is it that the baby should die because that makes more sense?” He was saying, “I don’t think that’s going to hold up after this anger passes.” Which is true. I don’t really want to say that the baby should suffer the mother’s momentary lapse. It was right to change it a little.

AH That is a fear I have all the time. I’m constantly asking myself if I’m through the experience enough to write about it, or if I’m still…I’m like, “How blinkered can I tolerate being while writing this?” And when I look back, am I going to think, “Well, I’m glad I was brave enough to express those things.” Or will I think, “If I had waited six months, I wouldn’t have humiliated myself.”

MO I see that. But on the flip side, if you wait six months until you feel calmer, are you prettifying an emotion and experience in a way that does disservice to it? Is there a rawness and a discomfort that is valuable?

AH Ideally, there are two consciousnesses in the piece. There’s the raw, ugly part that you’re allowing to be exposed, but there’s something in the form, in the deep structure, that makes it clear that that’s not the actual answer to the question, or something.

MO Or the only response?

AH Right, or the only reality. I worried when I was writing Mary Jane about the opposite problem.… I was afraid she would seem a little saintly. I firmly believe in representing motherhood in its less picturesque aspects.

MO Why is that important?

AH Many stories out there about special needs parenting have this lie at the core, something like, “You have power. You can fight for your kid, and in some meaningful way, you’ll prevail.” But for me this is finally a story of failure. It’s a story of a mother who’s doing everything, and she can’t save this child. All she can do is be there through it and pay attention. It’s a different version of the not picturesque thing because on the level of plot, there’s no achievement.

MO I have been thinking a lot about this question from a different perspective. For a few years, when I was ill, but no one knew what was wrong, and it just seemed to be that would be the rest of my life, I remember thinking, “Everyone else has gotten used to it, but I am not. I’m never used to it.” It became an aesthetic problem when I started writing about chronic illness, because if you’re trying to write about something ongoing, what shape can you make of it without falsifying or sentimentalizing it? How do you think about this story as a kind of artistic problem, and a life problem?

AH When I was at MacDowell, I also met Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, who became a good friend. And she said this thing that stayed with me, which was that she feels that women have many different lives. She was talking specifically about Dorothy Day, whose memoir I read at her suggestion; it also influenced Mary Jane. We know Dorothy Day as the nun who founded Catholic Workers, but before that she was a Marxist and a Bohemian journalist and a nurse and a housewife and mother in Staten Island, and that’s an incomplete list.

Mary Jane has a cast of all women, and each actor (other than the lead) plays two different roles. So the play offers a formal answer to the question of what happens to Mary Jane at the end: she’s going to go be someone else now. Like this child may not live, and then she won’t be the mother of a sick child anymore; she will be someone else. And, you know, that doesn’t mean that it’s a happy ending.

BS That’s so deep. I think that that’s what I’ve been searching for since I wrote Our Andromeda. What other worlds are there available to me, and to a mother? If you have typically developing kids, maybe you don’t feel that desire as acutely. Maybe you don’t feel the need as much. Maybe the standard narrative of, “And then I had the children; and it was hard, with time pressure and juggling; and work life; and then they went off and were happy, productive adults; and I did my parenting job and then I fashioned and wore the next hat in this life.”

That narrative works for them. It’s not ever going to be my narrative, and so I want to blow it up and find multiple narratives to happen at the same time. I can only get a series of daily rituals; and sometimes I get to go be someone else.

AH That’s even in the structure of Our Andromeda…. I remember reading “Liquid Flesh,” for the first time and being blown away by it , but also assuming you were one of the “other mothers” as I read the book. Because it’s not until the last poem or the last section that you reveal…

BS You thought that I was writing as a mother of a neuro-typ?

AH Yeah. So I was loving the poems, but still experiencing the longing and alienation I felt reading any motherhood literature. And so then, it was this revelation. And then also in The Octopus Museum, Cal makes a delayed entrance. Like you are writing maybe as someone else, until you write as Cal’s mother.

Franny just had spine surgery three weeks ago. And there’s all this new strict security at the hospital, because there was a shooting at another city hospital recently, so Sam and I had to wear these photo ID tags to enter the building. Sam spent the second night after the surgery in the hospital with Franny, and I was home with our other child. The next morning I got on the subway for the long trip back to the hospital. I got lost in a podcast. And around 145th Street, I unconsciously reached into my bag, pulled out my ID tag and put it on while I waited for the last couple stops. And then I realized, Who was I for that whole subway ride until I put on that name tag?

BS Wow.

AH At some point my unconscious was like, time to be Franny’s mom. You just had a break. Time to be this again.

Scene Two
Meghan had the flu, so Amy and Brenda met alone at Amy’s house two days before Thanksgiving. They talked as Amy’s husband, Sam Gold, prepared parts of Thanksgiving dinner.

BS Joan Didion once said that writers are bullies. That leads to the question: What do we think we have to say and why is it important to us? It could so easily tip over to, “You have to understand that I’m very special and I have these very special things to say. People should all listen to me.” As a writer, is that bullying? But then we always do this thing as women writers: “I feel guilty about doing it because I should be taking care of my kids, or I shouldn’t be…” We’ve been socialized not to think that we have something important to say. Can it be both bullying and just sticking up for yourself?

AH And does bullying imply some kind of power, as opposed to being scrappy or fighting back from a position of less power?

What good can a female mentor do if everyone’s so fucking damaged by the patriarchy on their way to becoming themselves?

BS I’m really interested in this idea that giving oneself permission to be an artist is essential. But I don’t know who gives it, if not these institutions that feel corrupt to me. Is it the women mentors? I just finished reading Ben Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag. She mentored me when I was younger, but I still learned about her through that book, because the way that Susan mentored people was sadomasochistic and cyclical. She was a very seductive older woman, mentor, friend. She would collect younger women, because she’d burn through all of her friends. Ben Moser interviewed me for this book, and it was weird to read it. My story in the book is the same one I told him, but I didn’t realize there were so many other people who had very similar stories, almost to the letter. She would take us all out to the same places, like Joe Shanghai for soup dumplings, or St. Mark’s books, and buy you a book. But she was also extremely critical; that’s the thing. She would start to berate you very quickly.

AH How old were you when you met Sontag?

BS My first book came out when I was 29, with FSG, and we had the same editor, Jonathan Galassi. She picked up the book at the office, and liked it. This was her way of reaching out to a new person: she would find a mutual friend and have them call whoever she wanted to meet. So Richard Howard called me and said, “Susan Sontag wants to meet you; here’s her phone number. Give her a call.” So, then you are expected to pursue her. I loved her. I just totally adored her. But she was really mean—famously mean. She was very cruel to all of her women lovers. And she was weirdly not cruel at all to most of her men friends or male assistants. But her women friends wouldn’t stick around very long because they would just get sick of it. I went into therapy during this friendship because I couldn’t figure it out; why am I in this abusive platonic relationship with this marvelous famous thrilling woman? Why is this happening?

She had a nickname for me. She called me Miss Mouse. And she regularly called me stupid. Like, “You’re such an idiot. You’re so stupid. How could you say that?” To everything I said. She would ask me a question, I would answer it, and then she would say, “That was a stupid answer.” So, then I wouldn’t talk.

I just wonder, what good can a female mentor do if everyone’s so fucking damaged by the patriarchy on their way to becoming themselves? I see a woman like her, who was so singular and who worked so hard to become this person and who did not wait for anyone to give her permission. She was firmly controlled by patriarchal terms and rules: she married her professor at 17 and had his child to prove that she was heterosexual; then she had to be closeted, so that her husband wouldn’t take the baby away. She went through hell, at a time when to be a queer woman of ambition and intellect was unheard of. How the hell was she supposed to make it intact into the place she wanted to be? How am I going to make sure that I’m a good mentor when I have these women as my model?

AH I wonder what your training was like? I don’t think I ever really learned a way to write a play. How did they teach you to write poetry?

BS I did my MFA at Columbia, where there was a cult of personality. Lucie Brock-Broido was amazing but also had terrible pedagogical flaws. I learned how to become a poet from her; that was crucial. If you wanted to really understand how to think about poetry, how to read poetry, how to write poetry, what poetry was about, you had to step into her realm of magic and suspend your disbelief and think, “Okay, I believe in magic now, because Lucie’s here.” What she was able to teach was that you can make a totally magical world and it will be real somehow. She unlocked this idea that you could make scenes through good description—but then the reader would come up with the rest. I realized that it was my job to provide enough color, texture, sound, to make it come alive in someone else’s mind.

But I also learned how not to be the kind of teacher she was. She was competitive, picked favorites who were always cute boys. She could easily, completely ignore women, but I thought I was an exception. I wasn’t really. She called me Planet. That was her nickname for me, Planet Brenda.

AH You do use a lot of interstellar metaphors in your work.

BS Now it’s Lucie who is a planet—she died about two years ago. And Susan’s been dead 15 years? Maybe remembering and lamenting their weaknesses is my way of continuing a conversation, an argument, with these women. My world, imaginary or otherwise, isn’t the same without them. I miss them awfully. Do you have a female mentor?

AH Paula Vogel, who ran the Brown playwriting program for many years and has tons of acolytes out there. She makes everyone feel like they’re on a grand formal adventure together. She wasn’t exactly my mentor, but her teaching style is legendary. She took over the Yale Playwriting MFA program a couple years after I left, and she invited me to a weeklong workshop which she calls “boot camp,” so I got to know her a little then. I’d just started teaching at Bryn-Mawr, and I was a really, really petrified teacher for the first couple of years. I told Paula that I got so nervous before teaching that I had gotten a prescription for beta blockers. And she was like, “I still get nervous. It’s terrifying.” And I remember her saying that that’s what keeps you honest. I also remember a conversation where I asked her who her role models were, and she named several of her former students. She’s incredibly devoted to her students without requiring devotion back from them.

BS Wow. How did she get that way?

AH I don’t know. She had this huge success with her play How I Learned to Drive. But I also think she—this is me speculating—I think she identified teaching the next generation of writers as something productive she could do with her frustration with the kind of work that was being written and produced. Maybe she didn’t have the voice or authority she knew she deserved within the industry. As a result, she made an empire. Not because she was power hungry, but because she wanted people to talk to.

BS So, she taught the culture that she wanted to live in.

AH I think so.

BS Do you feel like you have a privileged position in the theater world? Do you feel you know it when you write something that everyone’s going to like, that people see your name and assume it’s great?

AH No, no, no, I don’t feel like that. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, but lately I’ve been hankering to write essays. I had a critical, analytical mind until I started writing plays. And then there was this process of undoing where I had to stop thinking so cerebrally about what someone writing a paper would say about the play. I took it far, and at some point convinced myself that I’m a completely intuitive writer, which is not the whole truth either. Now I’m feeling the desire to write essays, criticism.

BS That’s a good feeling: I have authority on this. I’m building knowledge, I’m adding to my understanding of what is to be a writer/person/teacher/reader in general.

AH To me, so much of that is about decreasing the anxiety that distracts from those things.

BS What do you think that anxiety is?

AH In me, it’s just stupid white girl perfectionism. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I have to do things incredibly well instead of incredibly whole-heartedly.

BS Meaning that because there are certain privileges, it’s up to you to be perfect.

AH The privilege is a big part of it, and also how the privilege expresses itself in a perfectionism that is very self-centered. I am obsessed with doing things well and getting the good marks, as though that matters. The big misconception is that that matters, right?

BS That kind of self-referentiality makes perfect psychological sense to me. I have a kind of perfectionism which is related to that, but as a person of color, it is tweaked. It’s like, if I’m not perfect, it’ll be totally clear. Because I’m inferior. And it’s not just race: as a woman, as a person of color, and as somebody who was not raised in an elite educational system. All of those things come together; all that shit is going to show if I don’t make it perfect. I can’t let a mistake clue anybody in to how marginalized I have been or felt, because then they win, because then it proves that I’m actually not as good as I need to be in order to be the exception.

AH Is that a much more corrosive type of perfectionism?

BS I don’t think it’s more. I think each experience is its own and valid in itself. I imagine that the perfectionism that comes from your experience feels really painful and hyper-vigilant, in ways more similar than not to my experience.

AH It’s very tiring. It’s just taken an extraordinary amount of energy throughout my whole life.

BS Parenting a disabled child uses, or is produced by, or has some relation to that energy, too. It’s like there’s no room for error. My neuroses, hyper-vigilance, perfectionism in my post-childbirth parenthood fits very neatly with my artistic anxiety, in that I’m never good enough.

I think that there is a deep harboring of the notion that this level of disability in a child happens to people who have somehow not been taking the proper amount of care. I’ve absorbed that. I read this notion into everything. No matter how I do it or how much I tell myself, “I didn’t cause my child’s disability,” I’ll never really believe it. Because otherwise I have no control at all. In many ways, the perfectionism or the hyper-vigilance is a way of saying: “I do have control. I have some say over what goes on. I can cause and prevent things.”

AH I wish there would be some kind of study about the ways sick kids’ parents’ confidence gets eroded systematically from the get-go—specifically, about the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit]. Institutionally, there are things that are just so wrongheaded. Like the fact that there are six babies per room and the parents don’t have beds and the lights are on all the time, it’s as though they tried to design it to make the traumatized parents feel even more helpless and out of control.

I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but I sometimes would start hysterically crying in the NICU. And the people who worked there reacted to it with some surprise. I thought, “This must happen all the time!” But they must have to be so defensive. They must have to think, “This is a good environment to come to work every day. And we’re giving these people essentially what they need. So what’s wrong?”

BS Right. No one’s ever going to reform the NICU. Because all parents want is to get out of there and never, ever think about it again.

My experience, the three weeks in the NICU, I feel like it was hell. I went to hell. And then I went home, which was suddenly a new kind of hell. And that whole period just feels suspended in this, as if I had died and went to hell. And then came back and just lived the next half of my life. Like Persephone.

AH Do you remember those blankets that they have in the NICU that are standard in all Labor and Delivery and Kids’ hospitals everywhere—white with a blue stripe and a kind of pinkish red stripe?

BS Yeah.

AH So we were in the NICU for three awful weeks and then got to take Franny home, and we hoped that we were done with hospitals forever. But then three months later she had her first respiratory crisis and she was hospitalized in the PICU this time—same blankets! We were horrified to see those blankets again. My husband must have stolen one because when we got her home again we went out—we had a back patio space then, and we had a little hibachi grill—and we had a ceremonial burning of that blanket. Which as it turns out is insanely fire proofed. Of course! So we couldn’t get it to burn!

BS No way.

AH We were just holding matches and a lighter under it and it took us twenty minutes to burn that fucking blanket. And we should have known better: we were back in the PICU again with those blankets two months later. But we were so desperate for a ritual to mark the end of that time.

BS I can’t even look at people’s pictures of newborns on social media with that blanket.

AH I know. I know.

BS Because I’m just like, ugh, that blanket. I hate it.

AH What are the things that people say who don’t have familiarity with our kind of situation, when you talk about Cal?

BS “You’re amazing. I could never do what you do. I can’t imagine.” What do they think? That being unable to imagine it is a kind of solidarity? That makes me feel like…

AH Well, I know, because I’ve said it, horribly, to other people in other contexts. It’s an attempt at humility. It’s like, “I want to honor the enormity of your experience.”

BS But that’s not what they say, is it? They don’t say, “I want to honor the enormity of your experience.” I wish that my anger at how people are did something for me. But it doesn’t; it’s a useless emotion.

AH I think my anger is actually at myself when I am mad at those people. I’m recognizing that I am an idiot who would have made all the same mistakes before being destined to this life. And that’s why the anger is so corrosive.

BS I wrote the poem about Cal in a state. First of all, there was a gag order. There was a hospital lawsuit because they let me be in labor for four days, and Cal lost oxygen; that’s why he has CP. But during our deposition, the hospital insurance lawyers subpoenaed my journals and my lawyer said I wasn’t allowed to write anything about Cal or the birth or anything. For years—

Sam Gold Your lawyers said that?

BS Our lawyer told us that the hospital’s insurance lawyer was going to argue: “These parents are untrustworthy complainants because they can and will profit from their child’s injury because they’re professional writers.”

AH That’s just so disgusting and true.

BS At the deposition, they asked me, “Have you written about this?” I said, “Yeah, I’m a writer.” But then the hospital where Cal was born ran out of money. So the lawsuit was a bust as far as my lawyer was concerned. There was going to be no multi-million dollar settlement. When I asked him if we were now free to write, he goes, “Sure, whatever, who cares?”

AH Wait. Is that part of why so much of the book Our Andromeda doesn’t mention the disability?

BS The title poem was written in 2009 or 2010, right after Cal was diagnosed. There was still a gag on any of my own writing, by my own lawyer. So this was all secret, private writing, just for me. This was me trying to organize the experience. It was a secret; I meant for nobody else to see the poem. And that’s why I had the freedom to write whatever I wanted to write. I knew no one would ever know my terrible thoughts about my friends and how much I hated everybody and how much I was blaming everybody. How deeply I blamed myself and how devastated I was. No one would ever have to see that because it was just for me to organize the chaos, because my hatred, my anger was too overwhelming. I didn’t know that the lawsuit would be dismissed and that I’d be allowed to write about this. If I had, would I have written it?

SG I hesitate to be caught on your recording, but I find the idea that your writing was in a legal battle incredibly powerful.

BS They do anything to discredit. They knew that we were going to find the hospital negligent because there was a fetal heart monitor recording that showed negligence.

SG So, any profits from writing about this would be leveraged against whatever damages they caused you. But that idea, it’s so beautiful to me: the idea of monetizing that experience and talking about it in a positive way. And then they’re like, “Actually we’ve provided you with something monetizable and so you shouldn’t get something from us for what we did to your child.”

BS It’s so radically and obviously a way of shifting the blame. “Whatever we did is nothing. We didn’t do anything. But if we did, it worked out to your benefit, right, since you’re a writer?”

SG Amy, did you tell Brenda about the, what is it called, sentinel event? It’s so bizarre to be put in this kind of legal stance with the people who are supposed to be trying to help save your child.

AH Yes. We loved the phrase “sentinel event.” A week after Franny got her trach, we both left the hospital to go to a funeral—a friend we had both worked with, someone we loved, had just died. We left Sam’s parents at the hospital with Franny and just as the funeral was starting, Sam’s dad texted us said, “One of you get back here, stat. Franny’s trach came out.” We sprinted out of the funeral and got in a cab during rush hour. It took forever to get to the hospital.

We were on the phone with the charge nurse who was saying that Franny was in cardiac arrest because her trach had become dislodged. For some reason, they couldn’t get it back in, and though they eventually resuscitated her, it was a ten-minute event and they weren’t sure if there would be brain damage. This was all coming to us over the phone as we crawled up 10th Avenue in rush-hour traffic. It was horrible. When we got there it was still chaos, they were putting in an arterial line. She was gray and completely unconscious.

Once she was stabilized, they called a meeting for all the staff who had been present at the crisis, and we learned later what that is called. A sentinel event is when something happens that really shouldn’t happen and might indicate other future negative events in the hospital. They could call it an “adverse event” or simply “crisis” or something, but they gave it a name that conjures the sense of warning. Warning: this could happen again! Warning: we could be sued for this!

BS That’s unbelievable.

AH Yeah. The other phrase I obsessed over: “Insensible losses.” The fluids that are lost that you can’t measure—you can weigh diapers to find out how much a kid has peed or whatever, but you don’t know how much they’ve lost in sweat, mucous, drool, etc., and they call that “insensible losses.” As in, “She’s positive, 200 milliliters but I suspect there are a lot of insensible losses.” In my sleepless delirium and anguish during long hospital stays “insensible” sounded like a more emphatic version of “senseless” and I felt like that phrase described my daughter’s life—all the things she can’t have and do! All the stolen time in hospitals!

Damn right, there are a lot of insensible losses.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
April 1, 2020


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