A Q&A with Gayle Brandeis
“After my mom hangs herself, I become Nancy Drew. I am looking for clues, for evidence.” So begins poet and novelist Gayle Brandeis’s wrenching memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. After Brandeis had given birth to her youngest child, the body of her mother, Arlene, was found in the utility closet of a Pasadena parking garage where she had hanged herself. Brandeis’s memoir weaves together the story of her mother’s suicide and her family’s complicated history with mental and physical illness. The title comes from the name of a documentary her mother was producing about the rare illnesses she believed afflicted her family. While investigating her mother’s history mental illness, Brandeis had to manage the conflicting feelings of mourning a parent and becoming a new mother.
We caught up with Brandeis to ask her about the inventive structure of her memoir, her experiences with motherhood and misdiagnosis, and what she hopes readers will gain from reading her book.
Jennifer Canela: The Art of Misdiagnosis is formatted in a documentary style with dates and sections of informational research. Was mimicking a documentary like your mother’s “Art of Misdiagnosis” important to the overall telling of this story? How has telling this story in this way helped you understand your mother’s life and death?
Gayle Brandeis: I hadn’t consciously thought about mimicking a documentary in form, but I love that you saw it that way. It makes sense—the book is very much a conversation with my mother’s film. And it ultimately became a conversation with my mother, herself, a much more satisfying one than I ever had with her when she was alive. I started writing the book from a place of trauma, with a lot of anger toward her, and I ended it with so much love and admiration for her in my heart. It’s a gift I hadn’t anticipated, even though I knew writing about her would be the best way for me to try to make sense of her death (and her life). I am grateful that writing about her helped me see what a remarkable, creative woman she truly was.
JC: The book is also comprised of personal anecdotes including your mother’s paintings, interviews with doctors, poetry, emails, and letters that further let the reader into the dynamic between not only you and your mother but also between her and the world around her. What was your process of choosing these excerpts? How important was it for you to address your mother in letter form as well as in the present tense?
GB: The letter to my mother was suggested by my therapist at the time, and it was such an important and powerful process for me. When I first started writing the letter, I didn’t think about publishing it—I was writing it for myself—but at some point, it became clear to me that this letter could be a way to weave my history with my mom into the present-tense narrative around her death and create a deeper context for the story. The other pieces came into the process in a very intuitive way—as I dug through my mom’s files, old emails, etc., certain pieces jumped out and struck me as being especially illuminating and important to include. Quilting the pieces together—sometimes quite literally, spreading pages on the floor and figuring out what went where—was a way of shifting the process from my heart and gut to my head; it became a puzzle, an intellectual challenge instead of a process that flayed me every time I sat down to write. I was grateful for that shift, but I’m also grateful to have written from those deeper places, as painful as it was.
JC: Your mother did not grow up in an artistic home; her love for the opera, acting, and overall performance went against her “blue collar upbringing.” How much of her drive for the arts do you feel influenced you to become an artist?
GB: I’m sure it influenced me profoundly. I’m so thankful that my mom gave me a childhood full of books and music and art and theater, things she did not grow up with herself. She showed me that art was a way of bringing more beauty and meaning to our lives, a way of allowing our quirky individuality to shine through. I was a very shy kid, but I always felt brave and alive when I wrote or danced or made up creative games with my sister—I knew this was where my truest self lived.
JC: The book beautifully lays out concepts like life, death, and womanhood. Motherhood, however, is one of the larger themes that thread all these together. How has motherhood changed for you after losing your mother? Are there ways in which being a mom has helped you see your mother in a different light?
GB: I felt more grounded in my own authority as a mother after I lost my own mom. I was fairly young—twenty-two—when I had my first baby, and my mom would say diminishing things like “You’re such a cute little mother,” which made me feel as if I wasn’t a “real” mother in her eyes, which made me less confident in my status as a “real” mother in the world (even though I wholeheartedly loved motherhood from the very start). Having a baby at forty-one is very different from having a baby at twenty-two, of course, so I felt more grounded in my own authority in general, but losing my mother really drove home the fact that I was it; I was the mom, and she couldn’t make me feel otherwise.
Some of my mothering has been a sort of protest against aspects of her parenting—I may have under-reacted to some of my kids’ illnesses because I didn’t want to over-react like her, for example—but I also felt surges of great tenderness toward her when I nursed and bathed and read to my youngest baby after she was gone, knowing she had done the same for me. And I understand now, in every cell of my body, that we mothers are human and fallible and trying to figure things out ourselves, and that makes it much easier to be forgiving of her.
JC: You talk about the fact that you played the role of “the sick girl” and your mother the role of “mother of the sick girl.” After you revealed to your mother that you had faked your illness, she refused to believe you. Why do you think she remained convinced that you were ill? What do feel this did to your mother’s sense of “diagnosis”? How has your experience with misdiagnosis allowed you to reconcile with illness?
GB: I think she had a set narrative in her mind about our relationship as “the sick girl” and “mother of the sick girl,” one she didn’t want to disrupt, so she simply refused to hear me. She needed to hold on to her identity as a noble crusader for her daughters much longer than I needed to hold on to my own identity as “the sick girl” (although as you see in the book, it did take a long time for me to let go of that role). My mom was convinced she had all the answers when it came to diagnosis and misdiagnosis, at least for the disorders she covers in her film (which is why she thought I was lying when a very precise test showed I did not in fact have the acute intermittent porphyria she was convinced ran through our family). She really saw herself as the one person who could help others get a correct diagnosis, which is of course a noble goal (it often takes people with rare diseases seven or eight years to get properly diagnosed), but not necessarily a realistic one. No one ever accused my mom of being realistic.
My own journey with illness has been such a complex one. Getting a firm diagnosis a few years ago after years of varying misdiagnoses was such a relief: it helped me feel much clearer about myself and my body (even though it was weird to come to terms with the fact that I do indeed have the disease my mom was so adamant I didn’t). It took me a long time as a young woman to stop letting illness define me—it’s much easier now to know that chronic illness is just another aspect of my life, not the very core of my identity (although during my last hospitalization, I really did have to check in with myself to make sure I was sharing my journey as a way to bear witness, to be honest about my life, not as a way of gaining special attention as “the sick girl” again).
JC: What are you hoping people will take away from reading this real and raw account of mental illness? How do you hope this book will change the stigmas around it?
GB: I don’t want to prescribe a reader’s journey; I want readers to take away whatever speaks to them the most. That said, I very much hope it will help reduce stigma around both mental illness and suicide loss, that it will empower people to share their own stories, break their own silences, release their own shame. That would be the absolute best, if reading the book could help liberate others the way writing it helped liberate me.
About Gayle Brandeis
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver), Self Storage, Delta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well as a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylebrandeis and visit her website.
Jennifer Canela is the Publicity Intern at Beacon Press. Originally from Boston, MA, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing, as well as Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston.