Being in a body

Samantha Giles and Lauren Levin

Picture of a house under construction.
Photo by Julia Bloch.

Note:Lauren Levin and Samantha Giles live and work in a loosely affiliated social, political, and aesthetic scene in the Bay Area. Nether Giles or Levin has any academic affiliation, but both have continued to participate in the professionalization of poetry as curators, as publishers, and as people who write books. Perhaps in spite of (or because of) this relationship to the professionalization of poetry, Levin and Giles have sat in the same university halls, bookstores, private living rooms, and poorly heated art spaces listening to a diverse range of poets work out the various aesthetic and political entrenchments in poetry today. They have gone to the same parties and have had the same consternation over what is to be done with sexual violence and also the whiteness of rooms in their community. They have been on the same listservs talking about these parties and this consternation. They have shared the same anxieties about the parties and the consternation, though of course these are different anxieties.

In addition to this shared engagement with Bay Area Poetry, Levin and Giles are both parents to only children, relationships which have impacted their writing in numerous visible and invisible ways. They have talked about the mundanity of parenting (the birthday parties, the equipment, the sleep training), the physical toll of parenting (the birthday parties, rearranging all the equipment, the elusiveness of sleep), and the existential questions of parenting (being a body in service to another body, the ethics of consumption, the ramifications of writing on no sleep). They spent one recent morning over Gchat, Lauren drinking tea to fight an oncoming cold and Samantha guzzling coffee to combat being awake, to talk about their new books and the intricate mess of feelings and reckoning behind each of them. That conversation appears slightly edited below.

Samantha Giles’s new book, Total Recall, melds autobiography, poetry, ethnography, philosophical inquiry, and testimony to create a splintered account of what it means to remember a body in trauma. The book — part essay, part poem — is a perseveration on how the body holds and discards the banality and sustainability of trauma, in which Giles questions how to know what you know when everything (including your brain) conspires to doubt you. As Daniel Borzutzky writes, “Samantha Giles manages to make Total Recall a page-turner, a psychological thriller whose tension is constructed adroitly and painfully from what Georges Perec, in W: Or the Memory of Childhood, refers to as gaps, lapses, doubts, guesses and meagre anecdotes. Like Perec, Giles constructs a childhood narrative by fusing memoiristic writing with otherworldly narratives, and the truth emerges from the intermingling of these stories, from the silences that form between them. 

Lauren Levin’s new book, Justice Piece//Transmission, is a perverse and anxious attack on the concept of justice. It asks: “If I am the symptom, what is the cause?” The book’s poems explore a range of topics from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to feminist sci-fi; white supremacy to the Berkeley Parents Network; gendered violence to Led Zeppelin; disciplinary heterosexuality to hypochondria. They tackle the question of how personal history and pop culture both build us up and tear us to shreds. Levin’s writing lives in a space of contradiction, and is a call to “Make everything ugly / No aesthetics left / no mysteries / only problems.” Juliana Spahr writes: “Lauren Levin wrestles with the impossible in Justice Piece // Transmission: white supremacy, gender, the medical establishment, anxiety, ethnicity, mothering, sexuality, family, revolution … It’s all there. And Levin manages to win this match against the impossible, writing a new form of confessionalism that is at moments shocking, at other moments moving, and yet always attentive to the responsibilities of care for the world larger than the self.” 

Lauren Levin: One thing I really notice about Total Recall is that you are committed to both remembering and forgetting. Or, another way to say it would be that you are thinking carefully about what you will say and what you’ll withhold. How did you work that out? Do different versions of the book exist with different proportions of content that’s explicit versus implicit? 

Samantha Giles: Hmmm. Well, this book might be the only thing I’ve ever written that’s almost exclusively from my own subjectivity. I mean, I definitely researched things — I actually knew very little about the science of memory or the False Memory Syndrome Foundation before I started this book (and one could very easily make the argument that I still know very little) — but the orientation of the looking was always pretty much from inside my own experience. To be honest, I can’t be sure that I even knew that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation existed before I began writing this book. 

This is an entire organization that was founded by the parents of a woman who confronted her her father about her own sexual abuse perpetrated by him when she was a child. Her parents refused her story so completely they convinced themselves she had false memory and then built a whole movement around that denial. But before I started really paying attention to writing this book, I can’t even be sure if I knew that the term “false memory” was largely brought into modern vernacular by the parents’ efforts at doing everything possible to discount their child’s account of her father’s predation. Its popularity as a term grew as I was myself growing. So the truth, I guess, is that I, as a person, am both committed to remembering and forgetting, but it is also important to me to acknowledge the tension in that commitment. It was, by extension, important for me to retain ambiguity and distortion in this (probably too) personal book. In terms of what I would say and what I would withhold … there are numerous intentional erasures. I definitely have versions of the manuscript where I give more detail and include more anecdotes of my lived experience. Ultimately, I made the choice not to give everything away to the reader as both an act of self-preservation and as a way to make the text more itself. 

But I know I tried to push myself into saying things. I have spent a good deal of my poetic practice enjoying the obfuscation of the unsaid, and I consciously tried to see if I could un-make that a little in this book. Does that make sense?

Levin: Yes, definitely. How did you decide to write a book that resides (mostly) in your own subjectivity? As you mention, it exists in a different proportion, compared to your previous work.

Giles: I suppose I could ask you the same thing. I probably should! What do you mean proportion?

Levin: Well, I mean that all your books involve your subjectivity. But this one feels more biographical, or is more directly about your subjectivity looking at its own formation, while in other books you explicitly chose other “outer” fields of inquiry. In your first book, hurdis addo,you’re looking at the issue of homicide in Oakland, a city in which you live. In that book, both you and your direct relation to the prevalence of murder are largely absent. Similarly, in your previous book, deadfalls and snares, you’re negotiating various subjectivities in order to address questions of complicity in the Abu Ghraib photo scandal, but “you” the author remain absent.

Giles: Ah, yes, I see what you mean. Honestly, this book came out of a space where I was annoyed with the ways in which sexual violence and trauma are both articulated in the larger culture and also in the kinds of books I was reading at the time. Maybe “annoyed” is the wrong word. I guess, more specifically, this book came out of a space of being angry that trauma, particularly sexual trauma, is often rendered obliquely or as a joke or not rendered at all. That it’s always kind of ducked around and under. And in that space of being angry about that rendering, I realized that I had, almost exclusively, done the same thing in my own writing. I recognized that there was a purposeful ducking and weakened referent to any exposition on traumatic events. And I wanted to try to see what would happen if I didn’t duck or weaken the referent. I never really thought to write about myself before because … I don’t know … (insert patriarchy here)? There still is a lot missing in the narrative of text, but that isn’t because I was afraid to say it. I also have a lot of feelings about how people who have experienced sexual assault are forced to re-perform the details of the worst things that ever happened to them over and over for public consumption and derision. So, the negotiation of testimony was important to me too. 

Levin: Yes. It did/does strike me that your answer (about ducking and refusing to do that) seems related to the collective reckoning we’ve been going through. Or trying to go through. I’m thinking not only about Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement but also about specific attempts in the Bay Area to deal with the prevalence of misogyny and racism in the poetry community. 

Giles: Absolutely. It’s hard to know what volume to say things at.

Levin: I relate to that.

Giles: Your work, particularly Justice Piece//Transmission,is so extremely personal. It really allows everything to exist at once: shitting, anxiety, curiosity, arm hair, pleasure, shame. Can you talk a little bit about how you made the choice to render this everything-all-at-once so acutely?

Levin: It feels like a multitude of decisions, really. One answer is that when I wrote The Braid (my first book) I was going through a mental health crisis of ante- and postpartum anxiety and depression that was acute enough to render me fairly impervious to shame. Whereas I had been really sensitive to it, prior to becoming a parent. Things were bad enough that I wasn’t monitoring myself or fearful about making them worse. So I just went for it. The other piece would be that this book, Justice Piece // Transmission, literally started based on three questions that Jennifer Tamayo asked on Facebook. “What does it mean to you to be a white? How does it show up or not in your work? And what is justice?” So, JT did some of that work of connecting the abstract with the acutely personal and (for white writers) quasi-taboo, and I’m very grateful to them for that. JT’s questions sent me off on a forensic and genealogical quest for myself and everything else.

The phrasing of JT’s question as “What does it mean to you to be a white?” rather than “white” was particularly useful, in that it caused me to look at myself, my whiteness, as an object, and to see myself with a double consciousness, through the questioner’s eyes. JT flipping the script with ‘a white’ instructed me in the way I needed to conduct my investigations — mindful of how whiteness has historically constructed the ‘Other’ through objectification, and how we are all racialized and constructed through racism, including our own. 

Giles: In reference to the first part: I definitely felt a loosening of shame’s stronghold, pre-and-post childbirth. Like, you could never even talk to me about shitting or any other corporeal reality before I had a baby, and now I am most definitely here for it. In terms of the second, it sounds like maybe, too, Tamayo’s questions showed up at the right time in your development? That is, you were ready for the questions. Maybe these two things are related. The weakening of shame from the corporeal and psychological chaos of having a baby allowed for the protection from shame that is inculcated in being “a white”?

Levin: LOL. Brandon Brown asked me why there was so much pee in Justice Piece // Transmission and I was like, “There’s pee in it?” With a young child I’m just so steeped in pee I barely notice. It’s the landscape. I think it’s true: I must have been ready for the questions and where they would lead me. The book definitely changed me, or uncovered things for me.

Giles: One review of Justice Piece//Transmission placed it in conversation with The Braid, or rather the next phase in the timeline, and I like the idea that you’re just writing one long book of yourself.

Levin: I’ve been grappling with questions of gender identity in my work and life for a while now, so I sometimes joke that The Braid, Justice Piece//Transmission, and the book I’m writing now are my coming-out trilogy. Maybe I’m just Karl Ove Knausgaard (author of My Struggle)in disguise. 

Giles: It’s a good framework for a trilogy! I admire the way it has all the different kinds of reckoning and rendering of a living body in motion. I like how it doesn’t work to prove anything. It’s just a series of questions and lived embodiment. Full disclosure: I never read Knausgaard. I tried when I was writing Total Recall,wanting to learn about autobiography or something. But truthfully (and I say this with love to those that deserve it) I might have exhausted my interest in men’s stories for a while.

Levin: Yes — I was joking! I suppose because writing about oneself on the scale of a trilogy, a Song of Myself–like Walt Whitman, has been a masculine enterprise. The unpacking of my joke about Karl Ove is “I feel bad about being a narcissist and writing about myself … so I will make a joke to deflect that feeling by pretending I am a culturally celebrated or at least sanctioned male narcissist.” 

This makes me think of a question about your book. There’s this interpersonal feeling that you call “electricity” in your book. The father is described as having an electricity that other characters seek or are charged by. There’s also a moment in which the locus of electricity shifts to the mother-daughter pairing.

Giles: Yes, this was a way to gesture toward that unsayable thing about human connection and desire. Like we could talk about the physical embodiment of our relation (e.g., your umbilical connection to your daughter A in Justice Piece//Transmission) or about the material construction of our interactions in terms of power dynamics or how we care for one another. But there’s something (and perhaps this exists in every relationship) like a specific manifestation in a relationship forged in trauma — something that is invisible, but we both know it’s there?

I don’t know why that ended in a question mark.

Perhaps the concept of electricity in Total Recall is pointing to this charged invisibility. Though, honestly, I couldn’t have said that when I was writing the book. I wanted the narrative to surrender to the frequency of charged particles that we have no choice but to react to, but we can’t actually provide evidence of them happening. This happens a lot in just regular interactions, of course, but in relationships in which there has been some kind of unresolved violation, with which the mysteries of power continue to interact but never name, it is both maddeningly palpable and absolutely unsayable within the dynamics of the relationship.

You are working with something similar when you talk about being “a white” in Justice Piece//Transmission Like .… sure, we can point to systems, anecdotes, family history, material privilege, but … there’s also something a little bit phenomenological about being “a white.”

Levin: So interesting! I was connecting the electricity (specifically in reference to the father in Total Recall) with power, desire, and sadism. The political situation (i.e., Trump’s giant rallies, or Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil) has made me think about the pleasure that is felt by a collective around the leader’s willingness to transgress, to bully, to lie. I am interested in the freedom felt in or caused by a leader’s sadism, and am curious about how it passes into the group, in the phenomenology of how that affect disseminates. 

How to acknowledge and think about the libidinal pieces of civil life that go really deep? How is it possible to take pleasure in identifying with someone powerful and abusive, even if they are harming you? These questions seem related to whiteness, particularly where it interfaces with gender, and the rewards and punishments white women receive from the system. How white women invest in, support, and reproduce whiteness despite their less-than position under white patriarchy. Do you want me to talk about whiteness in Justice Piece//Transmission?

Giles: I would love to hear you talk about being “a white,” which is so striking in its specificity of the singular and also collective experience of whiteness. I’m also curious about these two things:

1) the negotiation of talking about real people in your life: T, your parents, your uncle, etc., but almost more interestingly A, who is maybe too young to ask if it’s OK to talk about her? How do you make the decision to let your experience of real people into your work in problematic ways? (I’m thinking too of the conversation with the mother figure in Justice Piece//Transmission who concedes they already assumed they were in the hypochondriacal material.)

And 2) (Which we sort of already touched on) the negotiation of being so intimate in your work and then having to walk around being a public person. I have, at the time of this conversation, only read from Total Recall once, at an alumni reading at Mills College, and I remember surprising myself midway through with the realization that I just told a roomful of strangers about the time my father stabbed me in the hand with a fork. Like … I hadn’t put together the ways in which this writing would become public? And now that it is a book in the world … well, to say I have feelings about it would be an understatement.

It’s such a vulnerability, anyway: writing a book, asking for people to hear and read it, put it in the world. Writing is such a private thing. We are working out our thoughts and language in isolation, but are also negotiating with an eventual and unseen public consumption. The anticipation of an unseen public reception has silenced me in a certain way, and I tried so hard to quiet that worry when I was writing Total Recall thatI guess I forgot I was telling my own secrets. This work ramps vulnerability up into some kind of exponential for me, and I don’t know why I didn’t really consider the impact of that when I agreed to publish it.

How is this going for you now that everyone knows how you taught yourself to masturbate?

Levin: I want to correct the record and say that I did not teach myself how to masturbate; my friend Katie taught me. My family was very secretive about sexuality. While being open in my book feels vulnerable, I like writing about Katie teaching me that you could use the faucet to get yourself off. It feels like friendship as a proto-experience of queer family: the way that queer family is an alternate system of transmission, of getting the information you need to find pleasure. I see friendship and queer family as the same thing, which is something I learned about myself while writing this book.

Through our mutual interview, I’ve felt close to you because we both have to reckon with writing books that involve painful or potentially embarrassing personal and family material. The question of the family has been a very tough piece of the writing process. There are definitely many things in the book that my family would not or will not like to see. For example, Transmission addresses family histories of racism as well as the hypochondria I share with my mother. I don’t want to hurt people, as individuals. 

At the same time, whiteness. Whiteness in the sense of hoarding resources, of privileges, feels like a devil’s bargain. One way it propagates itself is by being in us — people who are seen or see themselves as white — and many or some of the people we care about, our families. (In Frank Wilderson’s memoir Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid,he writes this about his white lover and her comfort with the authorities: “They were all family: the dancer, the poet, the cop.”)If you want to try to see how you were shaped by whiteness, how you are “a white” in your particularity, it drags other people in. And that means if I want to betray whiteness, it has to be a personal betrayal. I would say the same thing about heterosexuality — that a betrayal of heterosexuality is personal, when you grow up within a normative family structure. Transmission (the second half of the book) deals with the way families and cultures (and in particular the way I grew up) enforce straightness. For young humans, formative experiences and relationships are tangled up with terrible forces even if they are not terrible in and of themselves. And understanding how constructions like whiteness (and straightness) work means learning about these entanglements which are both historical and intimate. 

When I discussed this with our mutual friend Stephanie Young, wondering if I could actually publish this book, I remember her saying something like, “What families do is enforce narratives.” Telling a different story, one’s own story, is going to be destructive, right? It’s at some level an act of opposition to the family narrative. That seems very related to your book. I will say that I was very close to my grandmother I called Ganee, who is a character in the book, and I don’t think I could’ve written it before she died.

Giles: Yes, absolutely. MG Roberts said something once about how some stories can’t be told until almost everyone in them is dead. Which: ugh. It’s so true and I so wish it wasn’t. How information has to be held. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. About the violence of silence. This is part of the annoyance/word for something that is different than “annoyed” that was the impetus of writing Total Recall that I talked about earlier. How people who have been subjected to sexual (and other forms) of trauma are excoriated and also forced into a silence that invisiblizes the perpetrator of that violence. How the conversation around sexual violence always seems to exclude perpetrators publicly acknowledging their acts unless it comes in the form of a forced half-apology that the world rushes in to thank them for making. How these half-apologies do nothing to combat the exclusivity of shame that seems to fall only on the shoulders of the transgressed. How the perpetrator is never asked or expected to account for the shame of this violence.

Levin: Yes. And how silence is enforced constantly. It’s not only about the past. My family is Jewish on both sides, and I’ve been reading a history of Jewish people in the US that is basically about how Jews have negotiated whiteness. Historically, Jewish people have gone back and forth. We have had a tendency to assimilate as much as we can, taking the advantages we can get from whiteness. We have also had the opposing tendency not to want to blend into a general whiteness, whether because of a sense of ethical scruple or ethnic particularity. It is important for me to remember that racism and anti-racism don’t replace each other; they have always existed at the same time. They strand together. Jewish people have done anti-racist work and they’ve also exploited the black-white divide in the US to become whiter, to get away from the othered status they had in (in my family’s case) Poland and Russia. 

In Total Recall I’m interested in how the family members aren’t exactly ‘characters.’ We learn more about their actions and responses than about their personalities. Total Recall offers a combination of very specific details about the father and a lot of intentional elision. Some of the stories he tells and how they change are detailed, but he’s not given as a traditional novelistic, “rounded,” character. While reading your book, I thought about you making these choices so as not to allow the book to become the father’s story, a man’s story. The details of someone’s life can be overpowering and can lead to what Kate Manne (in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny) calls “himpathy” … our cultural desire to empathize with male figures. In Transmission, I was tempted to write about how my family “wasn’t really” racist. I wanted to give empathetic, humanizing details about family members. But I wondered what would happen if I just said what I was going to say instead, and didn’t temper and soften it. 

Giles: Our impulses are similar. We were both negotiating what to include and what to leave out, which is necessary in any text, but the implications of that elision felt particularly charged in this book. I suppose that I tried very hard not just to leave out what would have felt too revealing to say. I mean, I’m a lot more public than I’d like to be in terms of my job with Small Press Traffic (a longtime artist-run literary organization in San Francisco), and some of that personal/professional collision is problematized for me, as there are ways I like to present myself as a public arts administrator for this writing community we both share and ways I like to present myself as a just a participating writing member of this community. It has perhaps been a fool’s errand to think I could do this effectively or if I even should.

But then of course there’s the personal personal. I tried not to think about my mother reading this book almost as much as I absolutely thought about my mother reading this book. I tried to not think/had no way not to think about my child reading this book. Much of the very personal content that is made available for everyone includes things that I’ve never once talked about with my mother or my child. So … yeah. What the heck am I doing?

But your question is about how the father feels both rendered and smudged. The reason for that is that my actual father, upon whom this literary avatar is based, felt both acutely rendered and smudged in my actual lived life. My memory of him is similar to the way scientists describe trauma memories: I can tell you extremely specific details of what I remember of him, and there is an enormous amount of blurring. There are a lot of things I can’t put together about him, about our relationship. I just won’t ever be able to do that; he died before I started writing this book. This is the limited picture I have. So while I have, of course, chosen to leave out a lot for the purposes of this book, some of who he was as a character would necessarily be a little hobbled together anyway. I also experienced a very strong desire just to stay within my complicated subjectivity, if that’s even a thing that’s possible. I keep saying that Total Recall is a memoir about memory. That’s exactly what it is to me. So I tried to stay within that parameter. It would have been disingenuous to describe anyone outside of that, which is perhaps why they show up as their actions.

Levin: Yes. It’s interesting on lots of levels. The choices you made have political meaning, but it sounds like they also have a certain kind of verisimilitude. They keep close to the ambiguities of your actual memory.

Giles: Yes. I agree with you about the political ramifications. I just saw Judy Grahn read last night. Her poem A Woman Is Talking to Death was described as “whole political enterprise of feminism was subsumed by poetic means into an understanding of the complexity of the stark power relations that involve gender, race, and sexuality” and her entire project is to make women’s bodies and desires visible. I resonated with this for sure, and this desire is absolutely one of the accelerants of Total Recall.

Levin: I mean, the impetus behind your book can be various and complicated and still be political. Making women’s bodies and desires visible is certainly political, but jut trying to be honest about your uncertainty is political.

I thought a lot about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization created to discount survivors’ memories, and how it felt like you were saying that memory is unreliable, is false, is all those things, but in a very different way than what they want to suggest or believe.

Giles: Well yes, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation takes these ambiguities and exploits them. I wasn’t raised with nor do I adhere to any real religious ideology, but it’s hard for me not to articulate their work as just “evil.” I mean, I don’t say this in the book explicitly, but I suppose it’s impossible perhaps not to see my feelings about this organization that seems entirely built on something more diabolical than just regular meanness. To find the exact tender spot in the identity of a person who has experienced trauma (a tender spot backed by scientific studies of the brain which indicate its reformation in relation to trauma) and stick a knife in it. It’s just beyond cruelty. It’s evil.

Levin: The Kavanaugh hearings were definitely in my mind when I re-read your book.

Giles: Ah, yes. Me, too. I mean, obviously. Well, I wasn’t thinking of my book, particularly, but the forces that created it. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation and the people that support it, much like the Kavanaugh hearings, generate a complex narrative that memories of sexual assault are always fabricated while simultaneously conceding that sexual assault exists. It’s a philosophical fuckery. There is never a recognition that ways in which the recounting of sexual violence is always problematic for the one who experienced it, not least of which because of the way trauma affects memory. The damage it does is the exact reason used to enforce the fantasy that the violence never happened. There is the way that courts are set up to accept evidence of sexual violence, the way that we as a society are set up to accept evidence of sexual violence (this idea of a perfect victim who was able to collect witness testimony, DNA evidence, and an exact documented chain of events) that makes it nearly impossible to reckon with the way that sexual violence actually happens. 

Levin: The idea of the perfect victim is part of the apparatus for enforcing silence. And the idea of being perfect, being good, is also part of those forces we were talking about that say you’re going to hurt your family if you speak up. Especially because “family” seems to extend pretty far, metaphorically. As though anyone who’s been assaulted has actually failed to shelter, protect, and care for their attacker. I’m thinking of the way that people who have been harmed are warned, “You’re going to ruin his life,” whether “he” is a gross boss or the predatory professor students warn each other about or Brock Turner, whose father said he was “paying a steep price for twenty minutes of action.” The woman Turner raped was portrayed as the aggressor, because he was so promising and she destroyed his life over something (we are supposed to view as) minor. This reminds me of an early moment in Total Recall, when the narrator’s refusal to forget what the father insists she never knew is a major transgression. Not colluding with that silence is a big deal.

Giles: Yes. It’s funny the ways that conversation within my family was read as a confrontation when it really was just a lack of collusion. It’s similar to the notion of being “a white,” of course. I mean, there are obvious ways in which these things are different, but the motivation behind the silencing is related: to keep the power intact. One occupies an impossible space that both acknowledges that sexual assault exists and also insists that there is never ever a specific person responsible for it. The “I believe something happened to her but she’s too confused to know it wasn’t me” echoes “I know that whiteness has historically been a problem, but I/we am/are good people.” The blame for any harm or the rewards of any reward are always offset to some nebulous other. Sure, racism is a real problem, but racism is for other people who are not me/my friend/my fave.

Levin: Yes. Also the “He was nice to me, so he couldn’t have sexually assaulted someone/been a domestic abuser” argument.

Giles: “White people are also helpful sometimes.”

Levin: “I marched for civil rights.”

Giles: “This cop helped this one kid.”

Levin: “The cop and the kid were hugging.” “Not all men.” Sigh. It makes me want to say that we are both trying to write against denial.

Giles: OH! Yes, I would agree with that. I realize that we are sort of conflating a bunch of different realities (racism, sexual trauma, being in a body, being exposed), but I like that both of us as people and as writers try to negotiate this complexity even if we fail at successfully articulating the nuance of each facet of this complexity. Maybe I like that your writing feels like a lived experience of this impossibility, and maybe this is what I hope my writing feels like, too. I wonder if there’s a way in which parenting informs that failed negotiation. The exhaustion of keeping it all together. Or of having to explain everything. That Maggie Smith poem “Good Bones,” about trying to convince your child the world has enough merit to work on making it better. That keeping up that marketing speech gets to be too much and it’s leaked out in our writing. 

Levin: As a parent, you really grasp how you are in this position of socializing a person. And you begin to understand how it’s exactly what you don’t tell them that they are learning. Meaning, if you don’t throw your body in the way of certain ideas, they are just transmitted straight to your child from the world. The classic example being white parents thinking that if they don’t talk about race and racism, their child won’t “see color.” When really your child then just gets all the racism from the world that the world is talking about, plus all the racism from you that you’re not talking about. I wind up thinking all the time about the idea-toxins that are being funneled into my kid by me and others and how I can mitigate them. Superfund site cleanup.

Giles: Hello Kitty’s gotta Hello Kitty. Do you think about A reading your books when she’s older?

Levin: No. I also don’t think about people knowing about how I learned to masturbate.

Giles: That’s probably for the best.

Levin: But I don’t think in some ways my books would surprise her. I mean, she knows I’m very silly, I’m very earnest, and I talk too much. Do you think about that with your kid? He’s closer to the moment in which he might pick up your work and read it.

Giles: I’ve thought a lot about my child reading Total Recall. When I learned that Krupskaya wanted to publish it, I went into overdrive about this question. I asked everyone I knew about how they learned about their parent’s trauma. If there was some right way to talk about it. And, not surprisingly, there really isn’t. In the end, I told him very generally what it was about and that while he was welcome to read it (or not), I didn’t want him to accidentally read it. That he was always welcome to ask me any questions. I mostly didn’t want to create some situation where he felt responsible for taking care of the things that happened to me. It’s an imperfect solution but, then again, what isn’t?

Levin: Was that exercise helpful in deciding to publish it?

Giles: I owed it to the book to publish it. I owed it to myself. It was the easiest book to write in a lot of ways, but maybe the hardest to publish, for exactly all the reasons we talked about. The spilling out of the entrails. I have a real problem with people getting me wrong, of misreading my intentions. That’s an inevitability with work that we’re both trying to make, because both these books asked us to create an imperfect shape out of difficult questions. But maybe it’s the only thing we can do? To keep trying to get the angles right.