Part 2: Nin Andrews Interviews Joan Cusack Handler

Joan Cusack Handler

Nin Andrews
What were the biggest challenges to writing your story?  Were there parts you didn’t want to put down on paper?

Joan Cusack Handler
The interesting thing about this writing experience which was unlike any     I’ve ever had was that once she opened up, it was clear that Joan wanted to talk, and she didn’t stop; she had something to say about everything. This book was twice its current length at one time. The girl who wrote that book HAD to tell it all, so I, like an instrument, complied. I didn’t have difficulty putting down the truth; the difficulty came when the book moved towards publication, and I had to face the reader with the truth of my shame—fearing I was a Giant, wetting the bed and my pants in 7th or was it 6th grade, having boils and colitis. The whole time that Joan was talking, she was not aware of or concerned about who was listening (after all she was in Confession); only after she finished and decided to turn her life over to readers, did I/the adult Joan worry about being judged.

The greatest challenge was not in the writing—that was a lark—I wrote sun up to sun down, and I was delirious—crazy about this girl and about everything she had to say; the challenge came in the cutting and shaping, in the ordering of the chapters—what stayed, what had to go, what new chapter had to be written, where to place each incident in relation to what came before and after. How to tell the story. I probably have about 10–15 different orders of chapters, and in the end, I went with an order that unfolded according to Joan’s psychology–given who this girl was and what her fears and anxieties were, what her guilt and shame were, which ‘secrets’ she’d reveal and in what order. Obviously, her betrayal of her sister around the corsage incident was the hardest to reveal—she tried so hard not to be the kind of person who would bring down pain on her sister. Even on Sonny, her torturer.

Nin Andrews
Was it emotionally healing to confess? Both in the church and on the page?

Joan Cusack Handler
Yes, confession was always a healing experience—no matter what you did, the priest, standing in for God, forgave you, provided that you were sorry. And Joan was always sorry; she tried so hard to be good, so she was very grateful that she had the solace of confession to, as she would say, clean up her soul. In a strange way, confessing on the page, seemed to give that Joan back to me; it closed the circle. Once ‘it’ (whatever she was hiding) was ‘out’, it receded in its power to torment. The writing brings the experience to closure. It heals.

Nin Andrews
Your brother, Sonny, was violent, and you had bladder control issues.  I wondered if these were reactions to being in a repressive school, household, and religion?  One had to lose control at some point?

Joan Cusack Handler
Unquestionably, Sonny’s violence and Joan’s lack of bladder control can be explained by the rigidity we all lived with. As one shrink said to me, I was helpless to control any part of my environment, so I expressed my anger by “pissing on ‘em”. And I did. One could say the same about the colitis and the boils—Joan’s body was constantly erupting/breaking out/exploding. Sonny’s explosions were violent and directed towards others (me and Jerry in particular) while Joan’s explosions, equally violent were directed towards herself. It was virtually impossible psychologically to live with the extremes of emotional pain that she did and not let them out anywhere. She had to explode. Keep in mind that the real Joan didn’t have a notebook and refused to think about all that hurt and shamed her.
Sonny and Joan can be seen as the two sides of anger—that which is turned outward (Sonny) and depression—anger turned inward/ on the self (Joan).

Nin Andrews
When you are writing, do you envision a reader?  An ideal audience?

Joan Cusack Handler
Not really. I assume an interested listener. Open minded. Like myself actually. My ideal audience is interested in the emotional and psychological underpinnings of human experience and relationships—In short, why we do what we do; what we feel and why.

Nin Andrews
Eudora Welty said that all writers are essentially assembled by the time they are fifteen.  While I balk at any generalization about “all writers,” I think this might be true of you?

Joan Cusack Handler
To a certain extent, that’s true. Certainly when it comes to character and personality, it is—and a strong interest in and understanding of people and their stories. I’ve often thought that though I didn’t get my psychology PhD till I was forty, I was a shrink at twelve. But it took till well into adulthood for me to develop intellectually—to think. One of the liabilities of being raised in orthodoxy (as traditional Catholicism is) is that one is taught to accept what authority, particularly Church authority, says– without pause or question. That’s the faith we aspired to—believing what we were told to believe. As Joan would say, “Faith’s the thing you can’t be a Catholic without.” Consequently, because I went to parochial school straight through college, I was not ‘schooled’ in thinking openly and for myself. There was very little discussion in any class. Certain topics were never raised; with others, the truth was set down, and we accepted it. Where dissonance crept in, I stifled my doubts and questions because they were signs of ‘pride’ and a lack of faith –a serious flaw in a devout Catholic. The one beacon of actual thought that I remember was my Literary Criticism class in which I had to take a stand and defend my position with examples from the work rather than from what the professor said. It was taught by none other than Dr. Johnson, tall and lanky complete with silver tufts of hair flying like wings as he moved and gesticulated his love affair with literature. It stands out as my favorite class though anxiety had to have been part of that initiation as well.

The other part of my development that was delayed was my emotional growth. For me and for my whole family, Irish and Catholic, emotions were not confronted—not spoken about—they were hidden, repressed, acted out. So, for all practical purposes they did not exist. Once again, it took till well into adulthood and many many years in therapy (about 30) for me to learn to identify and eventually integrate what I felt into my life.

Nin Andrews
In my interview with Michael Miller, he said, “Poetry is poetry and not truth, it’s an art, and very little of art is a true depiction of what has occurred.”  Memoir, I think, is also an art.  But can it also be a true depiction of what has occurred?  How do you navigate between art and truth?

Joan Cusack Handler
I’d disagree with Michael’s use of the word truth/true –I’d substitute ‘accurate depiction’ for his ‘true depiction’.  The truth of poetry is part of
what makes it art, but that truth is about essence rather than particulars
and about universality—the artist’s subliminal connection with the world
that unifies experience. It doesn’t matter what particulars we focus on, include or leave out, as long as we are creating a wholeness, an honest wholeness, we are depicting truth.

That said, I feel ridiculous speaking about the Big A (ART) and Truth in
this way. The terms become fuzzy and intellectual and seemingly full of
hot air. My son (a composer and a violinist) and I abhor these discussions.
Maybe I would feel less awkward if we changed the term from Truth to Life
(looks like Joan just jumped in here with her penchant for caps). Yes, Life
works. Poetry is life. Memoir is life. Art is life. And, as far as I’m concerned, if we manage to recreate life, we’ve expressed truth.

Nin Andrews
Did you use fictional names at all?

Joan Cusack Handler
Only once when I referred to a family in what may be considered negative terms.

Nin Andrews
You read a lot as a girl.  Who did you read then?  And who are your major    literary influences now?

Joan Cusack Handler
I read nurse books mostly—the Sue Barton series; I’d have preferred doctor books because doctors were bosses over the nurses, but they were few and far between—and of course Gone with the Wind. In high school I was mad about Eugene O’Neil’s plays, the Bronte  sisters, Hawthorne. In college, my interest in strong women focused on Anna Karenina, the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy along with Shakespeare of course, the American greats–Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Hemingway. Currently, I am rereading the Russians—the greatest delineators of character that I’ve encountered (next to Shakespeare of course)—Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. I never tire of them. They continue to teach me so much about the possibilities of language and character, and I read them over and over. Just like I haven’t heard enough after listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony once, I can’t take in what a literary master offers me with one reading. My interest through the years has been on character development, and I am consistently moved and humbled at how much these writers knew about psychology—they were actually medical doctors as well as writers. In poetry, I go to Whitman for expansion/freedom and for permission when I fear that I may be saying too much or breaking the poetry ‘rules’ and to Hopkins for cadence and language. Once again, my interest in poetry is in that which explores the emotional/psychological terrain of human experience and relationships. People centered poems as opposed to intellectual poems. Molly Peacock and Louise Gluck are two that I admire.

Nin Andrews
Have your siblings seen Confessions?  If so, what do they think?

Joan Cusack Handler
The only one of my siblings who has read Confessions is my sister, Catherine. Though she finds some of what’s recounted in it painful to recall, she loves the book and values it as a history of our family.
Nin Andrews

Catholicism, it seems, informed almost every aspect of your childhood.   It feels like a presence on every page of the book.   Does it still shape you?  As a writer?  A person?  Are you still Catholic?

Joan Cusack Handler
I used to think that I would one day be free of Catholicism and its dictates.
Not surprisingly, I realize of late that that will never be the case. And I’m finally not angry about it; in fact I like what remains. And it follows from my upbringing–God was a member of our family—the Supreme Father, as was Jesus, the Blessed Mother and the saints, and one does not get rid of family whether one wills to or not. Even when one does not see them. They are woven permanently into the tapestry of who we are. I can no more separate out Catholicism from who I am, than I can being Irish and Tall and emotionally very sensitive. Though I haven’t gone to Mass for many many years—40 or so—except with my Dad during his summer visits with me and my family in East Hampton– I still get tearful when I hear the hymns we sung—particularly the Latin—and automatically start praying when I’m fearful or anxious. At the same time, however, as sure as I was as a girl about the right and wrong/ black and white of so much in life—God exists, He created all life, Satan thrives, heaven is reward, hell, our just punishment, I am that unsure today. I don’t even know what I believe. I was never able to make the transition from Catholicism to freedom and independent thought without wiping out most of what I believed as a girl. I regret that. I would like to have a belief system that worked for me at this point in my life—though I’ve felt this way when I was a younger woman as well—there is great solace in knowing that a Supreme Being exists and is watching over us; likewise, it’s lonely being an orphan.

Nin Andrews
I read Mary Karr’s memoirs a while ago, and she was wild as a girl, and so were her parents.  In her last memoir, Lit, Karr turns to Catholicism to heal her alcoholism and her soul.  Reading her work, I wondered if Catholicism, complete with all its formality, history, and liturgy, offered what her childhood had lacked.  When I read Confessions, I wondered, how does one navigate in the opposite direction?

Joan Cusack Handler
It’s very difficult as I explain above. Though a friend of mine once said that she loves Fallen Away Catholics –the orthodoxy is gone, but the scaffolding, the values, remain. And that’s true. I remain an intensely spiritual person committed to Loving My Neighbor as Myself as the second great commandment directed. But unlike the young Joan who suffered over each decision/move she made for fear that she wasn’t doing a good enough job as a person/Catholic/sister/daughter/girl, I don’t suffer from those doubts any more. I don’t struggle constantly with guilt and shame—my two greatest torturers during the better part of my life. There is no end to the peace of that freedom. I trust my intentions. I know I’m a good person—that I am devoted to being the best person that I can be, and live as authentic a life as I can. I love days like today, Yom Kippur, which calls for our assessment of our efforts over the past year and, like the Jewish form of Confession, a plea for forgiveness. I tell myself that who or what we turn to for that –God, or life, or our own conscience is really immaterial—sometimes I believe that. ‘So the scaffolding remains…’ as I say in one of my poems. Thank God for the scaffolding. Thank the Church for the scaffolding. Thank my father. Thank me.

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