Sustained and heightened
Laura Mullen on 'Complicated Grief'
Note: Laura Mullen’s Complicated Grief was published by Solid Objects in November 2015. Composed of eight sections, these lyrically unsettled and unsettling prose poems take the reader across multiple modalities of romantic/sexual love (or what passes in that guise), prying open the silence and shame of love’s aftermath, or its “complicated grief.” After a preface, “Demonst(e)ration,” Mullen begins in the immediate collapse of a relationship (or several), lovers coming apart, then moves to fairy tale as cultural premise and on to Jane Eyre, archetypal Little Red and Grandma, a harrowing memoir of molestation, the toxic revenge of Ms. Havisham the jilt, and, finally, the virulent grief of another jilt, Terry Barton, who set the Colorado Hayman Fire of 2002 that killed six people and burned 138,000 acres. Mullen bends an unflinching attention toward the brutal and remorseless power of illusion and to the injuries it inflicts upon the fabric of attachment, compassion, and desire. Laura Mullen agreed to chat with me about Complicated Grief and the contexts that animate this book. — Marthe Reed
Marthe Reed: Laura, I would like to start with the form of the collection, both the prose form and the sections. These sections, in order, appear to me as thematic pairs: (1) romantic, sexual love and betrayal, and (2) the fairy-tale mode as a fundamental betrayal in its promises of “happily ever after”; (3) familial betrayal (parents incapable of love), and (4) the loveless family of Jane Eyre as a child; (5) Red Riding Hood and Grandma (and drunk mother as procuress for the wolf) and (6) teacher as betrayer, the wolf/predator; and finally, (7) “the Miss Havisham Effect,” in which the jilted woman’s betrayal becomes internalized, inciting the caustic betrayal of others, a woman “eating” other women’s hopes, a woman become the wolf/betrayer herself, and (8) the violent grief of the jilted woman, in this case a woman who intentionally set a forest fire, this act a “wolfish” betrayal of what she was employed to protect. What were the seeds of these choices and of the collection itself (the thematic pairs as well as the eight distinct narratives) and their relation to the diagnostic terminology from which the book takes its title?
Laura Mullen: Hi Marthe — I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the book with such a good reader (and wonderful friend) … and these questions are so multilayered, I’ll take the answers slow, teasing apart the threads where I can. So … those “pairs” you are seeing, for instance: that’s an interesting vision, but it isn’t mine. Though I do “couple” pieces when I look back at the book (“Spectrograms” and “Trust” as responses to heterosexual passion — attempts to clear the decks for love — for instance), the theme of the failure of protection is all through Complicated Grief (running through it like a red or read thread), and the attention to that theme is part of an effort to achieve a more inclusive version of reality. So I wonder whether coupling pieces (in the kind of neat binary evoked but rejected in “Spectrograms”) might mean missing an overall unity, which is as much political as romantic? I hope that the insistence on fragmentation or on gathering information from more than one angle or perspective, point of view, tradition, point in time, for instance, that fragmentation, or — to use Suzan-Lori Parks’s formulation — the “repetition and revision” in the book might be seen as homeopathic. “Complicated grief” is a condition in which you are stuck, looping, mourning a bad outcome, but there’s a way of working on a loop so that it opens to a spiral, allowing/accounting for ongoing transformation, a shape influenced by Parks, Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and Carol Anshaw’s Aquamarine, as well as the work of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Alvin Lucier, Donald Barthleme, and Robert Coover. This kind of looping or repeating, when done deliberately, can open a door, or more than one door: “the emphasis changes,” as Gertrude Stein says of repetition. I find the fragments to be freeing: narrative is something I like to walk in and out of freely, and, as therapists know, the attempt to repeat can actually open a way toward difference, a shift — though sometimes we can’t see that door immediately.
Reed: Your spiral undoes the idea of “spiraling into collapse,” turns despair inside-out and out the “other side”: gorgeous. “Demonst(e)ration” opens the book, a preface in which Mary Shelley’s challenge to herself to “[w]rite [her] story” becomes your own. Deliberately associating Complicated Grief with Frankenstein, you appear to describe your work as a “collective and artificial creature” that, in its “‘crazy’ quilt of mismatched passages” it becomes a “monstrous text” “mak[ing] audible that which agitates within us.” These qualities — the monstrous, the patched/seamed/joined, and the unsaid — lie at the heart of the book. Would you talk a bit about these qualities and their necessity to you in Complicated Grief?
Mullen: The qualities you focus on here form the basis for Sianne Ngai’s crucial text Ugly Feelings — it’s so important to look at what seems ugly or mismatched or agitated in a way (as Ngai does, as Mary Shelley did) that turns the critical gaze on the judgment itself. But (and I know you are aware that “Demonst(e)ration” enacts monster-making: the text is a patchwork of citations) I’m quoting Edgar Allan Poe here in his strong objection to the novel as a form: do you know that essay? It’s his why-I-wrote-“The-Raven”-like-I-did piece: a hilarious mess of justifications (and spooky sexism). I’m also citing Franco Moretti, whose brilliant essay on Frankenstein (and capitalism) is a guiding light for me — for Poe, anything we can’t read at one sitting is “a collective and artificial creature”! But isn’t every act of reading a stitching together of disparate parts? I’d say yes (following Gertrude Stein’s interest in the way words looked when, having her hair cut and moving her glasses over the sentence on the page, she noted that anything was interesting if you read it one letter at a time), because we are constantly attaching letter to letter, phoneme to phonemes — “from syllable to sound” as Emily Dickinson says (actually she’s running our reading process backwards): from sound to syllable to sentence. And memory is actively involved in this work of making the “‘crazy’ quilt of mismatched” or fragmented experiences into a smooth whole, as William James (Stein’s teacher) pointed out. Our awareness of advances in science and more recent traditions in the arts allows us to acknowledge that the smooth whole is an illusion, while increased exposure to those who’ve been interested in collage and montage (artists, filmmakers, and musicians, as well as writers) bring us up to speed with new understandings of the uneven and unstable substance of our reality and our experience.
Reed: “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling” (!). Having seen the staged reading from the book (Brooklyn, September 2015) in which multiple readers from the audience were assigned parts, including Poet, Ms. Havisham, and Psychologist, among others, I was struck and intrigued by the effect of explicitly identifying these voices active in the book. Could you talk about those voices, the specific choices as well as the decision to efface the shifts between them in the book, and their relation of the figure of the Poet? Their relation to “confessing the self to be a collage repeated interventions momentarily normalize as narrative”?
Mullen: I sort of feel like I answered this above — or the phrase you quote answers the question better than I can here. Narrative doesn’t seem natural to me — it seems to be, rather obviously and often clumsily, a simplifying structure we impose on complex reality. I just saw the movie Hitchcock/Truffaut, where we see Hitchcock worrying about precisely this issue: what have I lost, what has it cost me, to make this shape, this smooth shape (story and genre) I make so very gorgeously? He’s forced to ask that question, in conversation with Truffaut, who says he wants to find out where things can go — that he lets the actors improvise, that he stays up late into the night rewriting the script based on the improvisations … I love Hitchcock, but I can do the math on what our love of genre (and our ongoing worship of the story shape Poe called “the death of a beautiful woman”) costs us. Truffaut’s responsiveness to presence and occasion seems almost holy in contrast (as does the work of Jean Luc Godard, wilder than Truffaut). As I’m a woman, the cost of the narrative intervention, or the fine steel blade of Frege’s triangle, shall we say, is always more apparent as a problem: women, so often, ain’t nuthin but a plot twist in a man’s story. I want to say something like that, here, laughing (but thinking of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work). We can talk about it that way, maybe — or think about how the body shapes experience. I recall a long-ago conversation with my wonderful then-colleague Jenny (then Jim) Boylan when I first had to teach fiction in my year as a visiting assistant professor at Colby College: “Here’s a male orgasm,” Boylan said, drawing the familiar up then down plot graph, and then we, laughing (I had asked what shape I could draw for a Robert Coover or Carole Maso novel) as I drew a scribbly spiral on the board, agreed that that might be the shape of a female orgasm. However you want to put it, it’s crucial to recall that the insistence on what Lyotard called the grand narratives and what others have referred to as the Great Man theory of history (singular event, single point perspective) are imposed shapes rooted in a particular physical experience, informing our sense of not only literature but — for much too long — our ideas about our reality.
Reed: “(Etiology) Dreaming” is the first section of the book after “Demonst(e)ration,” and within it the painful collapse of a love relationship unfolds. Against the emotional weight of the subject matter, you have formally divided this section of the book into paragraphs with headings: “Perspectives,” “Explanation (Easy),” etc. Would you talk about the compositional process for this piece and the origins/occasions for these marked shifts in tone?
Mullen: Here, as with the end piece, “Torch Song,” I was interested in the mad gesture of titles, categories, “Discussion Questions” (!), all the comforting academic gestures, the little handles that make us feel as if something’s under control — you know what I mean? The colon and everything after, as it were. About that piece in particular I can say that I felt so much, in my encounters with men (and seemed always to be learning that it was “too much” — excessive), and I felt very strongly, as well, the way I was regulated to a certain role informed by various images-of-women (“The Lady of Shalott,” for instance). Like everyone I was supposed to be other than I was — and that piece is in part about the way my relation to desire was problematized by context and tradition(s). To speak about it as “a” (singular) relationship (“love”) is to play the innocent, perhaps? I’d say something like: this is a look at the way two normalized genders at a particular time in a particular country came together and apart — as symptoms of a culture. The interactions are informed by the culture. I less and less have the secure sense of private experience that others still seem to, or that I had a lot more of once (when I started out writing). “The painful collapse” is the collapse of some ideas about emotional and physical intimacy post-1981 overlaid on the history of “Romance.” Does that make sense? Here’s a fun prompt: ask students to write into the end of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” (either she isn’t really dead, or she’s a zombie — your choice, but she sits up in the boat and responds to Lancelot’s tepid praise) — what does she say? Also try asking them to rewrite the poem from a contemporary perspective, so the Lady “likes” Sir Lancelot on Tinder, for instance: what happens?
Reed: Laura, Complicated Grief takes up archetypal figures of the girl, the young woman, the mother, the jilt, the older woman/hag against the gauge of marriageable/desirable/hypervisible and unmarriageable/monstrous/invisible in which MOTHER figures as midpoint, simultaneously admirable and monstrous. In “Read,” Grandmother retells the story of Red Riding Hood, unpicking its seams: “Time to find the give in this story and press.” In this version, Red’s mother, among a company of mothers, prepares to send her daughter into the wolf’s jaws, a rite of girlhood to womanhood reenacted generationally, the emblematic coat faded by time, a diseased space of child-sacrifice: “she’s told to don again the frayed and faded cloak, a sort of angry pink by now, much too short, told to stand on the hearthrug, asked to ‘make an exhibition of’ herself, surrounded by her mother’s friends, these more or less polite, and more than slightly plastered adults.” This space of collapse frames not just the female child but the inevitable collapse into “monstrousness” of women “past their prime”:
It’s the story of the woods, in some way: the story of the space between girlhood and old age, the space of a sexuality defined in terms of its social usefulness — fecundity is key, of course (yawn). The tangled edge of the forest she enters defines a space of visibility (and vulnerability) to predatory desires. In this reading, by the time she arrives at grandmother’s house she is her grandmother (loose skin, blasted veins, wrinkles, the whole nine yards, as we say, you know — what’s that flapping, as I move my arm? Oh gawd, it’s my arm itself), horrible (or so the culture is quick to inform her).
As women of a certain age, that is, in our fifties, we have moved across and against these tropes, navigating and circumnavigating them. Your work has vigorously embraced autobiography, mediating its gaps and injuries via satire and irony. This book is perhaps the most ambitious in that regard. Would you speak about the function of the autobiographical in this book, for you as a writer and as a woman compelled to navigate the implicit and explicit violence of these archetypes?
Mullen: I sort of love coming to your “compelled to navigate” here — and I wonder if I could loop back to my prompt above as a partial answer. I’ve been very frank about this elsewhere, but it probably can’t be said too often (as the lives of our young people are rendered more and more difficult and precarious by the choices we have made and are making, and suicide rates climb): I’m a suicide survivor, and writing was what saved and saves me. And an early book (and my blog site/Twitter handle) remarks the site I speak from: After I Was Dead. In that way I suppose I am that zombie Lady of Shalott getting up to spit. But Sylvia Plath did this (“Lady Lazarus” — no doubt alluding to Eliot’s “Prufrock” as well as the Bible), and one can also point to Emily Dickinson (and Alice Notley) — there’s a deep American tradition of someone who survives her own death to speak from the other side of erasure/invisibility. (Poe is part of this, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as well as 2Pac’s “Ghost”: “Even if I die I’m gonna be a motherfuckin’ problem” — and one can’t say enough about our current fascination with zombies). But … as a woman, what the dramatizing of that particular situation makes vivid, perhaps, is the existence of the residual/excessive affect which has been pushed or restricted to and projected onto “the feminine.” What you are no doubt correct in calling “archetypes” I would call patriarchal fantasies. These “figures” are ways of seeing or imagining a body (at various ages) mostly in terms of its usefulness to those who believe it is their right to use it, and to determine how others see (and treat) it. And it’s worth noting that in Paris (where an advertisement in Metro stations was judged as offensively ageist and removed) women are seen as sexy for a much longer time in their lives — not that being seen as sexy is an easy perfect good, obviously! But it is always extremely useful to look at the words and images used by various cultures and to gain perspective on our own. Like James Baldwin (though not half so brilliantly, or painfully) I am “compelled to negotiate” the injustice I experience which is based on a condition (a particular body, a particular culture) I can ameliorate by moving (to France, for instance?) but I cannot change.
Reed: I want to turn to the role of satire and irony in the writing, sources of humor as well as modes of “talking back” to the constraints and functions culture imposes upon girls and women. This back talk, it seems to me, is fundamental to the “monstrousness” of the text, as you describe it in “Demonst(e)ration,” as well as of the female figures in the book: the disobedient daughter a “dearest possession” to be given away; the “overgrown garden” and “rusted gate” of the “spinster”; the “monstrous” desire of Grandma for both huntsman and wolf. The puns and wordplay/word-bending are some of the most delightful manifestations of this edge: (g)host, de-monstrate, rem(a)inder, re(as)semble, “Grave Cites,” re-presented. Would you speak to these elements of the writing and their relationship to monsters and monstrousness at stake in the work, thematically as well as semantically?
Mullen: To find a word within another word or insert (in Derridian play) an extra letter to expose the unstable semantics of reference “gone wild,” as it were, is for me an important mode of resisting from within or making visible the fractures in the wall, the loose bars in the jail window in the prison house of language, as it were. I’m interested in your linkage of this kind of playful exposure of potential to the monstrous, and not sure I can exactly make the same attachment. Is it monstrous to resist? Certainly there is a lot of thinking out there now about the ways in which humor is problematized for women. Does our resistance make monsters of us? Is excess (of meaning) monstrous? Do I look like Frankenstein when I laugh, that is — when I “crack up”? Humor is a key mode of release (laughter is “explosive,” etc.), orgasmic, ecstatic, freeing … and puns and wordplay reveal the rich delight of dwelling in possibility (the “fairer house,” as Dickinson noted). When Harryette Mullen, for instance, turns “status symbol” to “stasis symbol” I roll on the floor chortling with delight at her keen and gorgeous eye for the whole disaster of late twentieth-century American capitalism in action (inaction), and I feel liberated. Does this make me look fat? When I’m asked about my interest in humor at readings (and am I asked because I am a woman? I was asked, last time, by a woman) I go back to a story told to me when I was quite young — a story or anecdote told by my best friend’s mother. She told us that when she was in her early teens, living in the South, she was walking home one day from school and a policeman offered her a ride, and she said yes. He drove her out to a deserted field, she said, and pulled his penis out of his pants … and, she said, “I’d never seen a penis before and I thought it was so ridiculous I just laughed,” and she said he zipped himself up and put her back in the car and drove her home and dropped her off unharmed. That story stays, has stayed, with me as something hopeful — the way a prisoner in a Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka tale might cling to the memory or rumor of a door that once opened in a smooth wall.
Reed: Ha! Though this laugh is at “Does this make me look fat?” The narrative of the girl child is chilling and absurd, absurdly ordinary. And speaking of such, could we talk about shame here? The shame that births or is birthed by these monsters (or perhaps both?), the essential shameful condition of women and love, women and desire, women as embodied vessels of culture’s anxieties and horror? The way women inhabit or wear those anxieties, the self-loathing and shame inflicted upon the burgeoning self as she comes into a sense of her own worth? The way that self-worth is rendered into worthiness or worthlessness, externally conferred, by these means? The ways these dilemmas play out in the book?
Mullen: I’m so glad you brought up the issue of shame. It’s an important aspect of the material, as I think you know (after all, you organized and moderated the panel, at the &Now conference in Boulder, where I began to really talk very directly about how deeply rooted, how formative, that feeling is). I’m lucky to have friends whose work in this area has been very sustaining and encouraging, as well as a sheaf of well-known artists to emulate. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize that the only thing to do with shame is expose it. (Because if you try to hide it you only enable the abusers.) There’s so much pressure to hide what shames, isn’t there? Isn’t that the function of shame: to make us blush and disappear? I’m grateful for the guidance from artists (Sophie Calle, Karen Finlay, Kathy Acker …) and theorists (Julia Kristeva, D. A. Miller, Sianne Ngai …); David Wojnarowicz and Judy Chicago are key figures (I drove down with my mother to Los Angeles to put in a day of volunteer work on The Dinner Party) — and Yoko Ono is also crucial, as you know, as you’ve been so involved in the work I’ve been doing with shame, from the wedding dress project (“White Inc.”) through the Valentine’s Day work (“Him”) and on to the keynote for the Louisville conference. But it’s a long project, discarding the meshes of shame, and acknowledging the precariousness of “self-worth.”
Reed: Fairy tales are, or appear to be, occasions for two sections of Complicated Grief: “The Little Hamster from the Water,” the tale of a princess who cuts off the heads of her suitors unless they are able to hide from her, and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Would you speak to their role in the book? The first tale I mention is a guess on my part: is “The Little Hamster,” in fact, a tale you drew upon for the figures of the brothers and their beheading, and if not, what is their genesis?
Mullen: While fairy tales and dreams haunt the book as a whole (pools of symbol, permission to move associatively), only “Little Red Riding Hood” as a given story is directly cited/addressed. The figures of the brothers in “English / History” are overdetermined but have little to do with fairy tales beyond the basic storyline of princess-rescue (a sort of excuse): it’s just as much about the long history of violence that strikes down one “great man” to put another in his place. (I never forgot my high-school history book with its cover illustration of the disembodied heads of white men, rows of them.) And I think I was reading Mark C. Taylor’s Tears at the time I wrote this piece, but specific references are to the French Revolution (which might be to English literature what the Summer of Love was to American music), and also to King Henry VIII and his wives (so maybe Bluebeard? But reversed …). When, as a child, I found Henry the Eighth in the history books I felt very at home — people in my family married a lot, so there was this “Here’s your new_____, no, s/he’s gone now, now here’s your new________,” thing that went on in my life: people (especially women) were or seemed replaceable. “English / History” opens up this moment of replacement to expose the fact that what seems to be ceaseless change is really stasis. Here the basic narrative structure of the quest (a man sets off to rescue a princess) becomes a kind of “gif” (graphics interchange format): looping endlessly, animated but stuck. The question I hope readers will ask is what does this repeated enactment of replacement have to do with learning to read and speak, with capitalism, with being assimilated, with maybe getting a job in a Franchise … And then, maybe, is the desire to be in the same restaurant and eat the same hamburger no matter where you are in the world a symptom of complicated grief?
Reed: I think you are right about that: a sustained, heightened mourning explains the response to (even the denial of) the weight of the violence (racial, sexual, gender, environmental, sectarian, political) we face wherever we turn. I’d like to continue with fairy tales. You open “Spectrograms / (projected autobiography)” by asserting, “I have no body, the ‘I’ writing this has no body: not in the old way. Zones. Pressures. Here a structural tension there an underlying ache. Vital signs. Phases of disquiet not clearly demarcated from areas of peace … The dream of being perfectly understood coagulating briefly into grainy legibility.” Here, self is configured as digital memory, as data or data set. You write, “In the slippages cited heartaches replace ‘me.’” I am interested in this “two system” model of identity in the face of traumatic memory, the idealized dream and the wound of erasure: “If it went well they were ‘proud’ of me, if it went badly I didn’t exist.” In the Grimms’ treasuries, family and trauma are joined hand and glove, the antithesis of the 1950s television fable of the Cleavers’ happy functionality. Which takes us back the “bad” (disobedient) child, and, with her, the monstrous parents ready to send her into the forest alone to be eaten by wolves or murdered by “witches.” Your writing takes multiple embedded narratives as pretext: can you speak to their potency for you and for the book?
Mullen: The (or “a”) “self” has been a concern in my work for a long time — indeed one way of talking about my project might be to trace the evolution (ongoing) of my understanding of the problematics of that subject. It seems so absolutely crucial to the health of the planet and our human interactions to rethink (and be more honest about) that idea, and how we represent (without simplifying) it. I’m trying to get closer to the real complexity of the experience of being human now, and also to acknowledge how much of the “self” is interactive, emerging and transforming at the borders where representation is shaped by reception. “Spectrograms” embeds its inquiry into the self in a world that is not necessarily binary but is presented as binary in many different ways: one of which would be the use of two scenes as touchstones: the factory/laboratory in which the self is manufactured and or repaired (where we have technicians and workers and a thing that is worked on) and the slide show. Sort of hilariously anachronistic now, but you’ll recall how people used to go on vacation, takes tons of pictures, and then invite friends and family over to see the images projected on the wall? The piece repeatedly glances off that scene: “then a cathedral of light — upside down — and a smiling sunburnt couple apparently falling headfirst into emptiness,” for instance. But “Spectrogram” is an actual term, of course, for the image of a sound — and I’d want to put this section of the book in conversation with science rather than fairy tales, and also with its contemporary influences, chief among them Samuel Beckett’s Not I, Bhanu Kapil’s writing on the Cyborg and the work of Donna Haraway, as well as Deleuze and Guattari … I should probably add superheroes generally and “transformers” (as an image) and then the whole battery of fin-de-siècle American works, especially, in which the body is bionic, mechanized, hard, and our magic powers make us invulnerable (RoboCop, the original, etc). That seductive “fairy tale” (of American invulnerability) informs “Spectrograms,” which I would characterize as at once the starkest confession and also an equally desperate effort to buck myself up. (I’d fallen in love, or so I thought … and my physical reaction to the accompanying fear was so intense I was spending a lot of time having useless tests for an illness whose symptoms were dire and mysterious.)
Tattoo design by Joan Tanner, whose work appears on the cover of Complicated Grief.
Tattoo by Pauly Lingerfelt at Downtown Tattoos Nola.
Reed: Of course — Harraway’s cyborg, “commit[ted] to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity … oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence” and Complicated Grief in its “wholes from parts” “unfaithful to their origins”! Culturally embedded narratives are so much at stake in Complicated Grief, and I took particular pleasure in “Airs,” which chronicles the evolution of the filmic or telegraphic treatment of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre — and not only for the titular pun. The playfulness of this treatment stands in stark contrast to a novel whose feminist protagonist not only falls for, but also eventually marries a guileful and predatory lover. Love heals all wounds, repairs all failings? Culturally, how do we get from “classic period romance” to “dark, scary romance” to “romantic and emotional tearjerker”?
Mullen: I’m glad that you see the trajectory so clearly (what I love about the “uncreative” or “readymade” work is how much it exposes or reveals about our culture) and I think you could draw a good map of the changing vision we have of love and intimacy …
Reed: The shifting descriptions seem profoundly nostalgic, and, frankly, Trumpian. Like fairy tales when “once” everything was different, though unlike fairy tales in that the nostalgic promise idealizes and overwrites the messiness of history, its complicated narratives, and the excisions necessary to get there. The entire collection weaves together its seemingly disparate narrative investigations, drawing the reader into a manifold — many-folded — nexus of longing and betrayal. For me, the most potent experience comes in “Trust / (Corps à corps),” this unflinching, and, significantly, least ironic of the eight pieces that make up Complicated Grief. The nine-year-old child’s attempt to navigate the bargains that poverty, need (inextricable, in this case, from desire for power in the face of powerlessness) thrust upon a self not yet able to parse, let alone make, such bargains. The raw immediacy of this narrative is deeply affecting. Could you speak about the potent contradiction of these lines: “and I wondered if it was something I should tell you … There’s something I want you to know — there’s something I never want you to know”? The impulse you felt to speak the unspoken, the history of so profound a hurt?
Mullen: Ah, yes … “Trust.” But isn’t it worth noting that “the raw immediacy of this narrative” is an illusion? One the text acknowledges, both in its form and the timeframe (which makes it clear that the writing was an extended and self-conscious process)? And aren’t we both aware of how much acceptance there is in place for a) what appears to be straightforward narrative in transparent prose in which b) the speaker mostly appears to be a victim? But surely there’s a reason this text keeps returning to a particular, canonical, text by a famous dead white male writer? (One might want to couple “Trust” and “Read” to talk about relationships — and add “Torch Song”? — to the wilderness?) But “Trust” is the book’s money shot, obviously (though I fear many readers will be less canny than you are about the way it’s so much about money). Still … wouldn’t the best answer to this question come from the medical community, where there is discussion of how the many aspects of representing our experience (finding the words, organizing the material, articulating the experience, and exposing the abuse) can be healing? I highly recommend it! But the “most potent experience” involves, for me, not merely speaking a hurt but shifting my relationship to the event: seeing it again, from another side, breaking it open, repeating and revising, and seeing what happened in the widest possible context. Part of what I’m asking in the book as a whole is, how do the ways we think of and speak about our experience keep us from being able to actually change our condition? And what ways of speaking/thinking obscure the possibility of change? Terry Barton’s imaginary love letter (there’s no evidence it actually existed) reinforces our ideas of how the story (we already understand) goes, as did Bush’s claim that Iraq had “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Stereotype and prejudice lead to our acceptance of those lies that foreclose our ability to think in fresh and productive ways — when we need to mourn and let mourning open, rather than close, us.
Complicated Grief starts in tears (“through borrowed eyes your own tears wept”) and, one might say, ends there — post-disaster, where “What’s left of the mirrors and windows [are] … frozen tears.” But the tears at the end come from house not body, and they are what remains of the “stopped flows” which were the previous means of seeing and reflecting — that’s a shift.
Reed: It is an enormous shift and, for me, the final section, “Torch Song,” is key. Turning shame and guilt inside out, you take apart the language by which perpetrator and witnesses describe the Hayman Fire and all that led up to it. A jilted woman — or was she jilted? you ask — turns pain and shame into fire:
(note the distance of the “I” from that final, failed effort: “I saw the fire and tried to put it out”) alerts us to the speaker’s sense of powerlessness.
Weaving together the language of complicity and excuse with the crafts of writing, literary study, and forestry — complete with “Discussion Topics” and “Questions for Further Study” — the seamed narratives explode like pinecones in fire. Complicated Grief draws us into the illusions of love that, in their ferocity, finally consume their own objects. This is an arresting and deeply satisfying book. Thank you so much for this conversation and for the exquisitely complicated pleasures of Complicated Grief.