Every author I know seeks out places to get their book reviewed and hopes for a positive spin on their work. I was pleasantly surprised when I read Megan Wildhood’s review of Crash on the Mad in America blog in September. Here’s a bot of what she had to say:
Book Review of Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery by Ann Bracken
Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery (Charing Cross Press, 2022) by Ann Bracken
It sneaks up on you—depression, overmedication, and just depressed and overmedicated author of Crash Ann Bracken was by the time she realized that depression was the least of her worries. One minute, the reader is immersed in an isolated world of a terrified child whose mother never “comes back” from “mental illness” and the treatment she endured for decades. The next minute, the reader’s heart pounds, his or her head swims, and breath catches in his or her chest right along with Bracken’s. When did Ann’s migraine start? How many medications is she taking? How long has her husband been speaking to her like that? Why does every one of Bracken’s doctors sound the same?
Why does every one of her doctors sound the same indeed—including the fact that not one of them asked her about her relationships (or anything else about her environment) before they adjusted (usually increased) her medication both in terms of dosage and variety. Bracken weaves together research on the harmful side effects, known since at least the 1970s, of psychotropic medication, especially the interactions of multiple psych meds, with her personal experience of some of these exact harms as well as finally understanding what she as a child witnessed of her mother’s experience of these harms. Her portrayal of herself as a dutiful, compliant patient in order to avoid the harshest treatments but also because she at one point trusted her doctors implicitly (as many do) makes the length of time she was in an abusive marriage all the more heartbreaking.
If you’d like to read the rest of Megan’s review, click here.
Megan recently interviewed me for her podcast, and I’ll provide the link when it’s available.
In my recent book, Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery, I offer a detailed exploration of my journey through the maze of ineffective and often harmful psychiatric “care” that both my mother and I received when we experienced depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Early on, I picked up the notion that depression was due to something difficult you experienced—for my mother, it was the births of her children in close succession. She took copious amounts of pills and saw her psychiatrist fairly regularly, but she never got well for any extended length of time.
And when I had experiences of depression, I took a psych drug for a month or so and then discontinued it, so it didn’t seem like I needed a drug forever to be OK. Until the mid-90s when depression and chronic pain hit me at the same time and nothing at all helped. For many people, my story and my mother’s will be familiar—they try drug after drug and then maybe several ECT shocks and still don’t get well. Maybe your doctor treats you with numerous headache drugs and you still have a migraine. Maybe you’re given opioids as part of a pain management cocktail. What happens then?
I explore those questions and many more in my memoir. And in case you think that something that happened over 30 or 60 years ago—in the case of my mother—can’t be relevant today, here are a few news articles that relate to the experiences I recount in my book and an endorsement from a pharmacology professor at Georgetown.
“I read your book cover to cover tonight; I hadn’t meant to read the whole thing, but it is so well-written,,clear ,and compelling. I would love to have a hard copy to share with students.”
~ Adriane Fugh-Berman, pharmacology professor at Georgetown Medical School
“Converging lines of evidence now suggest that depression—a common comorbidity in the setting of chronic pain—may in some patients represent an unrecognized yet potentially reversible harm of opioid therapy.”
I spoke with my friend and fellow author about his latest book, a work of historical fiction. He had lots of interesting insights to share.
Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your new historical novel, Good Endeavour. Can you talk about what compelled you to write the story as historical fiction rather than nonfiction?
Ned Tillman (NT): When we lost the farm, it was a very emotional time for each of us. I felt this deep family obligation to preserve as much about the farm as I could – especially the stories that I grew up with. I realized I knew more about the farm than anyone else, so I sat down to write as much as I knew about my ancestors and the challenging times they faced.
Once I collected as much memorabilia and writings as I could, I realized that aside from the last three generations, there was little detail as to the personalities of my ancestors and even less insight into on what they did. To try to reflect the reality of each generation, I felt like I needed to create characters who were composites of many people that lived at the same time, and then breathe life into them. So, I placed these characters into scenes reflecting a past epoch and watched how they responded to the major issues of their time. Many of the episodes reflected events that I discovered from the family tree.
AB: Can you talk about your research process? What kinds of family records did you use and what sources did you use to glean the ins and outs of Maryland history?
NT: There were extensive records of the 20th century. There were also books about the family published in the 19th and 18th centuries. Maps showing the original plat are available at the Historical Society in Harford County under the name, Good Endeavour. The family had collected a library full of books, plays, weapons, artifacts, and certificates, and a barn full of farming equipment.
AB: The novel opens with a family of settlers in a place called Joppa Towne. Did you have family artifacts from this far back? How did you go about constructing family life from 1695?
NT: The genealogical records that I have allowed me to trace some branches of the family back at least into the 17th century, when parts of the family landed on the Chesapeake. Other books track different limbs of the family to the Mayflower. I read widely and also followed many of the stories presented by Ric Cottom, PhD, formerly Editor of the scholarly Maryland Historical Magazine.
AB: I think people would be very interested in knowing how you discovered so much about the Native Americans who inhabited the northeastern corner of the Maryland Colony.
NT: I have visited museums in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to learn about the various first people in these areas. The studies reveal how so many of them died from the diseases brought to this country. Many of the remainder had to figure out how to fend for themselves with the continued influx of Europeans. The State of Maryland has published maps showing areas where different groups lived.
AB: You have some interesting facts about the role of oyster shells in the process of making iron. What drew you to that topic?
NT: I like to explore the woods and have found many signs of old limestone kilns and iron manufacturing sites that was widespread in the Chesapeake region. Lime from rock formations and oysters were needed as flux in these smelting operations
AB: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel? How did you overcome that obstacle?
NT: Trying to be true to the composite characters and how they reacted to the settings where I introduced them was challenging. I also struggled to keep the book to a reasonable length. There is so much of our past that is rarely well understood and I wanted to keep the reader actively engaged as we all learned more about our past.
AB: Your novel spans the time from 1695 when Maryland was a colony right up to 2002. What were the most significant pieces of history from your family that helped you tell this fascinating story?
NT: I have the most information from family records starting at the Civil War and progressing through the turn of the 20-th century. Our country boomed during the industrial age and changed dramatically, much like the past 50 years. But so many people don’t know this history well. I believe it is critical to have a historical perspective on today’s challenges and I hope this book will inspire more people to investigate their past to help them navigate the future
AB: Lastly, congratulations again, Ned. Where can people find your book and find out when you are doing an event?
Thank you, Ann. Your questions help me relive the writing experience which was a delightful passion to keep me sane during the pandemic. All my books are available on Amazon.com, Goodreads, and Barnes and Noble.
Visit my website, www.SavingThePlaces.com. Events should be listed. You can also ‘Follow’ me by going to my Homepage and clicking on the gray tab in the upper right corner. By getting on my email list you will receive my newsletters. I have a dozen events coming up in the fall.
I’m thrilled to have my memoir, Crash, reviewed on the Mad in America Blog by the fine reporter, writer, and storyteller Amy Biancolli.
Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery by Ann Bracken (Charing Cross Press)
“Have you ever done everything a doctor told you, only to find yourself sicker than before you began treatment?”
So asks Bracken in the first paragraph of her memoir, a devastatingly honest, ultimately hopeful account of personal and family anguish marked by crashes both literal and figurative. She zips back and forth in time, describing both her mother’s decades in the system and her own long arc of anguish and recovery—and touching on her daughter’s story as well.
The multigenerational saga begins in 1959, with her mother’s hospitalization for depression, and cycles through a decades-long ordeal that led to 37 ECT sessions (with minimal anesthesia) and psych drug upon psych drug upon psych drug. As a kid, Bracken had questions (where’s mom? why are the grownups whispering?); as an adult, she found answers in 30 years’ worth of medical documents meticulously preserved by her father.
The revelations were many. A full list of Helen Dempsey’s meds in the appendix includes barbiturates. Amphetamines. Tranquilizers. Antidepressants. The benzodiazepine Dalmane. The anticonvulsant Dilantin. Beyond all those medications and ECT, Dempsey also received some talk therapy—“but I’m not sure how helpful it was for my mother to talk with her male psychiatrists,” Bracken writes, “especially given the medical establishment and cultural attitudes toward women at the time.”
You can read the rest of Amy’s review here, and check out the other books featured this month as well.
Last week when I opened up the Sunday edition of The Baltimore Sun, I read an op-ed piece written by three psychiatrists entitled “Haunted asylums are a Halloween staple: Does the fictional gore undermine psychiatry’s good?” The authors emphasized the point that rendering psychiatric treatments as horrific and damaging and “demonizing” patients who need treatment could deter those who need it most. But I had to take issue with their point about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a procedure where a doctor administers a current of electricity strong enough to induce a grand mail seizure, is “brief, still, and quiet.”
Because both my mother and I experienced ineffective treatment and overmedication for depression and chronic pain, I have spent the past twenty years trying to figure out what happened to us. Putting those pieces together involved reading research about psychiatric treatments, including the use of antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and ECT. And contrary to what many psychiatrists will tell you, the treatments are largely ineffective at best and can be very harmful at worst.
In response to the three psychiatrists’ letter regarding the demonizing of psychiatry by using old asylums as places to terrorize visitors looking for a Halloween scare, I offer a more skeptical take on the current treatments one is offered by modern psychiatry. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety in the past and watched friends and family members suffer, I am well aware of the serious nature of emotional distress issues, and I am in favor of evidence-based treatment. But for many people, the treatments run counter to the latest research, are ineffective at best, and sometimes even harmful.
One of the main problems plaguing modern psychiatry is its overreliance on the biological model of mental illness, often simply referred to as the chemical imbalance theory. Yet prominent leaders in the field have disavowed this theory, though many in the general public have not gotten the word. For example, Dr. Ronald Pies, psychiatrist, of SUNY Upstate Medical and Tufts Universities, denies the chemical imbalance theory that modern treatment is based on: “In short, the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ was never a real theory, nor was it widely propounded by responsible practitioners in the field of psychiatry.” And lest you think Dr. Pies is exaggerating, you could consult the latest research By Dr. Joanna Moncrieff et al in which shows that there is no serotonin imbalance in the brain.
Despite its leaders disavowing the theory of a chemical imbalance causing emotional distress, psychiatrists routinely prescribe “treatment” consisting of drugs that purport to correct a chemical imbalance—which we now know does not exist. And recent research states that antidepressants only work for 15% of the people who take them. Few, if any, doctors mention the horrors of sexual dysfunction, sometimes permanent, that afflict many people who take psychiatric drugs. Most people who watch TV have heard the litany of the more common side effects of psych drugswhich include insomnia, sedation, constipation, headaches, weight gain, blurred vision, tremors, and seizures.
And if you try two or three drugs and your doctor deems you to be treatment resistant .…meaning the drugs don’t work for you…then your doctor can administer an electrical current strong enough to induce a grand mal seizure. Electroconvulsive therapy [ECT] is a serious and harsh procedure by any measure, despite Drs. Phelps, Mutalik, and Appell’s assurance that ECT is “brief, still, and quiet.” Even so, recent literature reveals that for 50-70% of people who receive ECT relapse within two to four months and some as soon as four weeks. The doctors mentioned above fail to inform readers that harms from ECT can include permanent memory loss, brain trauma, and even brain damage.
We may be removed from the horrors of the “Field of Screams”, but research shows us that many of psychiatry’s current treatments, far from being precise and effective, are often deemed futile at best and potentially very harmful at worst. Given that many recent studies show that exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating most cases of depression, shouldn’t patients be offered the least harmful method of treatment first? And after reviewing many of the harms that are possible with the use of antidepressants and ECT, let’s consider the results of National Institute of Mental Health study concluded about the course of untreated depression: “If as many as 85% of depressed individuals who go without somatic treatment [drugs, ECT, and other treatments] spontaneously recover within one year, it would be extremely difficult for any intervention to demonstrate a superior result to this.”
You may have seen my blog post announcing my new book, Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Healing. Now you’d like to know what the book is about before you consider reading it. Here are a few details:
Crash is about a little girl whose mother disappeared, and no one would tell her where she’d gone.
Crash is about a woman who did everything her doctors told her, and yet she never got well.
Crash is about the woman’s daughter who vowed she’d never be like her mother only to find herself trapped in a similar cycle of overmedication, numerous doctors, and intractable physical and emotional pain.
Crash is a story of one woman’s determination and optimism when it seemed like all of her traditional remedies and supports had failed her.
When all of the other remedies had failed, I looked for another explanation for my pain.
Because I have a deep belief in many forms of healing, I began to embrace a similar path to the one that mythologist and author Michale Meade advocates. Here’s what he as to say about facing your darkness (depression and pain) and healing:
“Wholeness and unity are what all healing seeks, but a genuine transformation requires a descent to the underworld of the soul. There we find that our woundedness is not a static state, but rather a dynamic condition through which we incarnate more fully. In going through the wound the greater self within us is revealed.”
Register here for the book launch on October 13th, 7pm ET on Zoom. Hope to see you there!
I’m pleased to announce that my memoir, Crash,is available for purchase on the following platforms: Bookshop, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, & Ebook Versions, as well as here on my website. Putting this book together was like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle—fitting experiences together with research helped me to develop a deeper understanding of what happened to me when I sought help for a severe depression and chronic migraine. Contrary to many of the upbeat and happy images you see in the commercials for antidepressants, my journey was one of trying one drug after another, yet never finding relief. The research I did for the book revealed that I was far from alone in that experience–only about 15% of the people who take antidepressants experience improvement greater than what’s accounted for beyond the placebo effect.
Part of the reason I’m so interested in the topic is because I grew up in a home with a mother who suffered from chronic, unremitting depression for nearly 40 years. Mom did everything the doctors told her, yet she could never escape the heavy pall of darkness. I kept wondering: Why could I recover and Mom couldn’t? I found the answers buried in an old folder in my sister’s attic. Crash braids my story with my mother’s to explore her journey using Dad’s detailed records from 30 years of her care, interwoven with research and vignettes from my past.
All through my illnesses, “I’ll never be like my mother,” was my fervent mantra. I vowed to escape her fate despite year after year of unsuccessful treatments with numerous drugs and many rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. Crash is the story of what I learned about treating depression and chronic pain and the steps I took to finally recover. My memoir serves as a missive to women struggling to heal, carve their own path, and demand better care.
Here’s what some noted people in the field of psychiatric reform had to say about Crash:
“Ann Bracken’s evocative memoir powerfully tells of how psychiatry’s diagnoses and treatments can lead to loss, illness, and despair, and how escaping from that paradigm of care can be a starting point for a full and robust recovery.”
~Robert Whitaker, Author of Anatomy of an Epidemic
“Ann Bracken artfully braids her path out of chronic pain and major depression, while questioning the system designed to help her, and reaching back into her mother’s history to find a way to help her as well. Bracken gives us permission to ask questions about our current mental health treatment; read and educate ourselves on the risks, benefits, and alternatives to psychiatry’s status quo; and above all, not to quit until we find our own path to a healed life.”
~Angela Peacock, MSW, mental health advocate and featured in award-winning documentary, Medicating Normal
“A fascinating memoir of two generations of medical and psychiatric mismanagement and suffering, and how one brave woman figured out what was happening and successfully took control of her health and well being… and prevented a third generation from following the same path.”
~Stuart Shipko, MD, author of Surviving Panic Disorder and Xanax Withdrawal
I wrote this essay after seeing the film Luna, about a brother and sister who were both medicated for ADHD and now struggle with self image, motivation, and the negative effects of stimulant drugs.
When I graduated from college in 1974, I felt well-prepared to work as a speech and language pathologist in the public schools. I knew how to use an articulation test to screen for speech delays and pronunciation problems. Using a variety of standardized and informal assessments, as well as teacher input, I could determine areas where a child was struggling with language comprehension and expression. I easily performed routine hearing screenings to determine whether a child needed a full audiological workup. But what I wasn’t prepared for was making recommendations to parents for children who were labeled as “hyperactive.”
During my second year of working in the schools, one of my duties was working on a screening committee. The screening committee in my school consisted of the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the reading specialist, the classroom teacher making the referral, and the speech pathologist (me). Children were referred to the committee for a variety of concerns—struggles with reading or math; speech, language, or hearing problems; and “hyperactivity,” which was later renamed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Three aspects of the screening committee’s discussions regarding the children, almost always boys, that either teachers or parents considered to be hyperactive stand out for me. When we surveyed the child’s records, we almost always discovered he had what we euphemistically called a “late birthday” because he was born near the end of the year. That meant that he was usually one of the youngest children in the class. Additionally, when we checked into the child’s home life, we often discovered that his parents had recently divorced or there’d been a death in the family. And lastly, there was always someone on the committee, often the assistant principal or the school psychologist, who recommended that the parent seek a medication consultation for the child.
I met Patricia in the early 2000s when we were both teaching at Howard Community College. We’ve since shared many lovely days together and often share our poems with each other. Hope you enjoy this interview with my dear friend. Contact Patricia through her blog if you’d like to purchase one of her books. https://wrenhousepress.online/books/
Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your lovely new poetry collection, Refuge Heart: A Verse Memoir. I love the way you’ve woven stories together around the themes of loss and family. Tell me how the book came together for you.
Patricia VanAmburg (PVA): Thank you Ann. The book actually came together in a number of ways. One of those was a mention by two of my friends of the Trebus Project—a study of elderly dementia patients in Great Britain. One surprise outcome of this study was that so many patients with short term memory loss retained vivid memories of earlier life on poor farms. This information certainly caught my attention because my mother so often mentioned the American poor house circa 1830-1930.
AB: Those of us who had parents of a certain age will remember them referring to the poor house, but many readers may not be familiar with the history and purpose of poor houses. Tell me about where the idea for your poem, “My Mother Goes to The Poor House”, came from and give a bit of background on the poor house you researched.
PVA: In the last decade of her life, my mother refused to discuss her dwindling finances. She would reply to any of my attempts at such a conversation with an angry “Just send me to the poor house.” Usually, I remained silent in order to avoid further confrontation, but one day I said to her “You know there isn’t any poor house.” She responded “Oh really” in a voice I knew she saved for lunatics and liars. More frustrated than usual, I soon typed “poor house” into a Google search—adding “Berrien County Michigan” because that is where my mother grew up. To my great surprise, I uncovered a treasure trove of information including a roster of poor house residents; several poor house census reports listing nationality/race and occupation; notes from the poor house infirmary; and several local newspaper articles written about the poor house residents who were called “inmates.” How could I ignore such a treasure? I began to write poems—beginning with my mother’s poor house obsession.
AB: “Peaches in Poor Weather” is as much a lament for crop loss as it is a bit of significant history. What was your process in writing that poem?
PVA: Along with all the specific poor house information, I uncovered an early history of Berrien County chronicling European colonization, native American conflict, and agricultural development. I wanted to know more about why the poor house was built because, to this day, Berrien County remains a Michigan fruit basket. I remember well the delicious peaches of my own childhood. I let peaches become emblematic for the agricultural economy of southwestern Michigan and found a helpful article from 1993 by William John Armstrong titled “Berrien County’s Great Peach Boom.” Armstrong’s work helped me understand how Michigan’s fluctuating temperatures combined with peach production in warmer climates, and the rail age, to cause problems for the Michigan peach industry which had previously enjoyed a kind of privileged position in midwestern fruit production. I also understood how a competitive fruit market combined with an influx of European farm labor—caused loss of farm ownership and the necessity for county poor houses throughout Michigan and the rural United States.
AB: “James Hewitt’s Nose” tells the story of cancer that used to be commonplace, but due to modern treatments, rarely happens in our country now. How did you come upon this story?
PVA: “James Hewitt’s Nose” came from two sources— one was my possession of the poor house infirmary notes which gave me a broad perspective on all of the resident health problems and diseases. The second was the trove of period newspaper articles I mentioned earlier. One of them told the story of resident James Hewitt age 63 who had a form of cancer that had eaten away his nose. The story went on to mention that a worker at the poor farm had met a Miss Hewitt who remembered that her father had a spot on his nose years earlier when he disappeared. At the end of the article father and daughter are reunited—my poem takes a bit of poetic license with that reunion.
AB: The second part of your book deals with your family members who came to the United States from Croatia. How were you able to reconstruct their stories in such detail?
PVA: Yes, the second half of my book goes in a new direction at the suggestion of Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri who thought I might want to write about “something a little different than but related to” the poor house and its refugees. About that time through DNA testing, I became aware of and met several new cousins from my father’s side of the family. Eventually, two of my cousins invited me to go to Croatia with them. Their grandmother was a sister to my grandfather, and we were all searching for our grandparents’ journey to the United States during the Croatian diaspora which straddled two World Wars. So, the second half of the book retells my grandparent’s life as refugees and my search to uncover it.
AB: I love the playfulness in the poem “Departure 1950.” You capture so much of the innocence and charm of the two cousins getting into mischief. Say more about the poem and your cousin.
PVA: As refugees, my paternal grandparents had a pretty hard life including my grandpa’s first job as a copper miner in upper Michigan and my grandma’s loss of several children before they reached adulthood. Eventually they had to leave their grape farm in southern Michigan when neither of their adult sons wanted to stay and work. Still, I enjoyed visiting the house they moved to in a small town—especially when my two cousins were there. Departure 1950 recalls one of my earliest memories of my six-year-old cousin and I “driving” my grandpa’s antiquated Chrysler through the wall of my grandma’s chicken coop. We actually popped it into gear and drifted through the wall. Though the memory might have some tragic elements, I remember it as being quite wondrous with light streaming through the gapped wall alive with chicken feathers and dust motes. Even at age three and a half, I knew as soon as we crawled unharmed out of the car through broken glass and timber that we probably weren’t going to get in trouble for our little trip.
AB: Patricia, I really enjoyed reading “Refugee Heart.” Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I think I have a favorite poem from each of the halves.
From the poor house poems, I would have to choose the very simple little poem, “Samuel Ray Steps Out”, which tells the story of an 80-year-old resident who wanders away for a few precious hours. I took most of the poem’s visuals from my own childhood memories of the small southern Michigan town of my mother’s youth, but the voice is purely Samuel Ray. In this poem and the others that I wrote from the articles, I often thought I could hear the featured subjects telling stories in their own words.
From part two, I would have to choose my cousins’ unanimous favorite, “Two Mladens Walk in Lokve”, which describes all that my grandparents left behind: lichen covered rocks in the virgin forests; fish with mottled skin swimming in a river that flows through the bottom of a deep cave; smokey mist rising against dark green mountains; and the beautiful hilltop cemetery full of vigil candles and pine cones.
And thank you for your mention of the title poem, “Refugee Heart”, Ann. Even before I finished it, I knew it had less to do with either poor house refugees or my grandparents than it does with worldwide refugees today. May they find new lives and peace. May we all help. That is the message.
Bio: Patricia Vanamburg retired emerta from Howard Community College where she taught literature and creative writing. She was also affiliated with the Little Patuxent Review literary journal.
Ann Bracken (AB): I’ve enjoyed reading Made of Air, your latest poetry collection. The poems explore many facets and experiences of contemporary women, from motherhood to homelessness, abuse, and even murder. How did this collection come about?
Naomi Thiers (NT): Only half the poems in this book are centered on women’s experiences. The other half of the poems center around the weirdness of getting older, and other types of vulnerability, but mainly the adventure of aging—which, as Bette Davis said, isn’t for sissies! More about those poems later.
To say how the section focused on women came about— I’ll go back to the book I published five years ago, She Was a Cathedral. As I was choosing which poems to gather into a chapbook manuscript, trying to find a theme, I realized I’ve written a lot of poems centered around an individual woman, known or unknown to me—her experience, her life. So, I put about 25 of those together into that chapbook. Years later, I added some new woman-centered poems to the ones in Cathedral to make this section of Made of Air. As you say, they’re about a multitude of different kinds of women— from various countries, diverse situations, some average some extreme.
I think I’m just extremely interested in females and their experiences. I admire women’s resilience, their resourcefulness, their joy in life, their intelligent and sensitive take on the world—and I think I would even if I wasn’t a feminist. So, I write about them! I mean, I tend to write about people and their lives— but I probably write more poems about individual women and their experiences than about men. I love writing about women I know, my friends—to honor them.
AB: The poem “Lions” speaks powerfully about the challenges of standing up to an authoritarian government and being disappeared. What inspired you to write this poem?
NT: That poem came when I encountered a quote from a woman whose daughter had been—as thousands were—“disappeared” by the Argentine military in the 1970’s. She was one of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who marched in the Plaza in Buenos Aires every week holding signs with pictures of their grown children, demanding for them to be released or to know their whereabouts. The quote from this anonymous woman—who probably wasn’t an activist, but who rose up when her child was taken—was on an Amnesty International brochure: “It is as if lions grow inside of me, and I am not afraid.” I started trying to imagine her thoughts, how she might speak to herself, and the poem just unfolded. It needed very little working.
AB: You employ such evocative images in your poems. I was particularly struck by the way you use bread to open and close the poem “Refugee, 15.” Additional strong images are “rockslide of grief” and “face a lace of cuts.” How do those images serve the story of that poem?
NT: I love how you’re asking about very specific images, Ann! I’ll say a bit about how I came to those images. I feel some poems just kind of flow out, they seem to want to be written, and others you have to push out little by little, because you have a line or an idea and really want to write the thing. “Refugee, 15” was one of those I had to push out. I was thinking a lot about Syrian refugees and wanted to challenge myself to write about a person in that situation. I felt led to focus on a teenage girl and write part of it in her voice—likely because it’s such a vulnerable time of life. What came to me first was that idea of having to push yourself to survive, to force yourself even to eat, when you feel in every fiber like giving up, paralyzed by grief or fear – so: “Fear is in your bread/ and you must choke it down.” Then I just kept putting words down, and it was slow going, trying to come up with images of what her experience would be like as well as describe her emotions. And of course, some feeling and questioning—Do I have a right to try to describe the inner life of someone going through something I never will? I tried to imagine what things about her home she’d be thinking of and missing, and looked up some details about Syria, so I could put in the name of the Khabur River, for instance.
Fear is in your bread
and you must choke it down.
To think of home—
the courtyard with its red filigreed rug,
the peel-paint walls, how the breeze with its tang
of the Khabur River touched your just cut hair
as you curled up, writing in your diary—
starts the rockslide of grief, the thundering
that blocks out sound, pulls
a knife across each breath until
you drag across your body like a sack,
walking with others
toward the border.
But something rises up,
wants to live:
I won’t be that man sitting
on his burned porch, face a lace of cuts,
waiting in rain for death.
Shut away now the images of home,
like your diary with its leather straps.
Preserve your young life.
Eat your bread.
To put her emotions into words, I reached for the very physical sensations that come with extreme emotion—feeling like rocks are cutting into your chest and your stomach plummeting. . .not feeling your own body, its vibrance. The image of a man sitting in front of his bombed home, face a lace of cuts just came to me. I was glad the detail of a diary came in at the beginning, because that something many teenage girls do, so it may help the reader feel some connection, that this person—in a situation so more dreadful and fearful than those of us who haven’t had our country ripped apart are likely to know—is like a girl they know, isn’t news copy. Then at the end, locking the diary—she shuts and locks away herself, her previous self, to survive. Back to sheer survival, so back to bread. But by the end, she’s exerted her will to eat no matter what; she’s choosing life.
AB I love the interplay of the young and old women you describe in the poem “Striding.” Can you talk a bit about how those two women in the poem evoked an image of your friend who died at 48 years?
NT: That poem has something special behind it. I had a great friend, Patty Bertheaud Summerhays, whom I met in my MFA program at George Mason in the late 80s. Several friends I made in that program I‘m still in touch with, even still exchanging writing with—like Ramola Dharmaraj, Jane Schapiro, Perry Epes—but Patty I was closest to. She was one of those warm, open people who helps everybody feel relaxed and welcome—and also a stellar poet. We went to grad school together, constantly gave each other feedback on poetry, partied together, gossiped about other poets, went to Mexico together and worked in a shelter. We had our babies the same year, raised our kids together and were very bonded. Then she got colon cancer and they hadn‘t caught it soon enough–she died within two years. I think about Patty every day—she meant so much to my life.
A few years after Patty died, I was waiting in my car at a light. A young woman happened to cross the street and just as she reached the other side, an older, elegant woman crossed behind her. Sitting there I felt I was watching my past younger self go by, then my future older self—I was between them. And I instantly thought of Patty, “frozen in mid stride/ you will never cross/ with dignity to the end of a long life.”
The last lines of that poem are how I think about Patty’s spirit after death:
I see you coaxing
a smile from the legless beggar in Juarez,
standing up to a coach who shamed your son.
I see you stunned, fighting, blasted by chemo.
Your shade towers in the middle of this intersection,
but for you, the wheel will not turn.
Patty, I hope
that wherever you are –
for with your fierceness
I know you are somewhere –
you are striding.
AB: Longing seems to be a theme in several of your poems, particularly “All is Calm.“
Can you talk about how the novel The Giver and the image of a padded world play into that theme?
Loss and longing are so connected—you can’t feel longing if you still have something, if you’re just rocking along with it still jingling in your pocket. So, let’s say that something is youth. It was sneaky, there wasn’t any bright line to it. But recently I realized I really really wasn’t young anymore… I don’t have that youth thing that always carried in my pocket as I went along. This made me think carefully about what experiences do you really have less of after, whatever–50, 55? You lose people (though their spirit can come back so strongly, like Patty), you lose physical capacity, but I’ve also found a big one is I no longer have the intense emotional ups and downs, the storms, the anguish, the day long fizzy highs. I’m so, so emotional, and have been roiling so much of my life that there’s a good side to that. But it is a loss, that evening out as you get your older.
In The Giver, everyone in the speculative society described—except for one or two people whose role is secret—has muted emotions and lives quite a bit in their heads; even the awareness of extreme joyful events or traumatic ones, any overwhelming emotion just isn’t present. So, they live in a padded way. The Giver him/herself, one person, feels everything the rest of the community can’t It’s a fantastic book.
There’s a good side to not being roiled by emotion. But I’ve found I need to find a new way to feel and to keep plunging into experiences, not settling. I wrote “All is Calm” when I was wishing even the awful, hard emotions were still accessible. (Incidentally, I love that I could use the word capsaicin naturally in the poem!). I’ve made peace with that aspect of aging now. I’ve read there’s a correlation between being older and happier, more content–and I believe that is mostly true.
AB: Has the pandemic affected your writing practice? How has it either helped or hindered your creative spark?
NT: Oddly, I don’t feel it has made much difference to how much I want to write, how much I do write, or what I write about, poetry-wise. Like for everyone, it’s made a big difference in my life, 9- 10 months of everything near surreal in 2020, etc.. I’m an introvert who needs to be shaken out of it, so that lockdown period was tough—but I didn’t feel more or less of a spark for poetry. I don’t write every day by ANY means. But if I feel uninspired and am going too long with nothing—I try some kind of form. That always brings back poetry for me.
Naomi Thiers grew up in California and Pittsburgh, but her chosen home is Washington-DC/Northern Virginia. She is author of four poetry collections: Only The Raw Hands Are Heaven (WWPH), In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral (Finishing Line Press) and Made of Air (Kelsay Books). Her poems, book reviews, and essays have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review, Grist, Sojourners, and many other magazines and anthologies. Former editor of the journal Phoebe, she works as a magazine editor and lives on the banks of Four Mile Run in Arlington, Virginia. Her latest book Made of Air can be ordered from Kelsay Press at https://kelsaybooks.com/collections/all. If you’d like access to her earlier books, message her on Facebook.