Ariel Gore Interviews Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
I wanted to interview Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for my Psychology Today blog not just because she’s penned one of the most important memoirs of the decade (The End of San Francisco, City Lights, 2013), but because it’s my experience that many families in the mental health and healing professions have the hardest time talking about the violence in our own homes.
Maybe it’s that we can’t face ourselves.
Maybe we think it’s “dirty laundry” if we talk about it and we’ve worked so hard to come up in the world in terms of class status or queer normalcy or other assimilations.
Maybe it’s just that we’re jerks.
We’re book smart, sure. We’re journalists of psychology. We’re psychiatrists ourselves. We’re the children of famous abuse-theorists. We’re life-coaches, maybe. We’re all these things we needed so desperately when we were young and vulnerable and we’re all these things we still need now and yet… seriously?
How often do we show up for ourselves and for each other and for our own families and for our chosen families?
No matter what our profession, we all now live in a culture of abuse—so it’s real and important work to do no harm—it’s real and important work to not perpetuate all that.
Ariel Gore: A few years ago when I agreed to take care of my dying mom I found your letter to your father online--I was Googling "abusive parents dying" or something--and that letter was the most honest and open-hearted insistence on accountability that I'd ever read. You begin your memoir, The End of San Francisco, with visiting your dying father and that's such a powerful place to begin. Did you have to think about where to begin the book, or was that the obvious place?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Oh, I love that you found that letter online--sometimes I wonder why the hell I post things online, and that gives me so much hope, thank you! When I was 21 or 22, I confronted my father about sexually abusing me as a kid, and told him I would never speak to him again unless he could acknowledge that abuse. Eleven years later, he was dying of cancer, and even though he hadn’t acknowledged anything, I decided to visit him anyway because I didn’t want to realize 10 or 20 years down the line that I wished I had seen him before he died, because then that would be impossible. I went back to the house where I grew up with his violence, and what was incredible to me was that I was able to be so present in all of my emotions. I was sobbing, I told him that even though he had hurt me more than anyone else in my life I still didn’t want him to die, and I wished we could have a relationship, and then I was sobbing more, there was so much sobbing and the paradox for me was that this felt like strength. It felt like I had actually escaped, that I was someone else than the person my parents wanted me to be, someone so much stronger and more honest and vibrant and I was writing about all of this right in the moment and so when I sat down to write The End of San Francisco, which is about my foundations and their undoing--politically, socially, sexually, emotionally--I wanted to start in this place of vulnerability.
Ariel: You write about your dad having every resource available to him to deal with his own abusiveness--he was a psychiatrist--and yet psychological notions like "false memory syndrome" were used against you to deny abuse. What are some of the most intense ways that lies and denial of abuse compound the injuries of the abused kid?
Mattilda: Perhaps the hardest thing for me is that I never experienced safety, I still don’t even know what it means. You grow up believing that everything is lies, because the people who are supposed to protect you and keep you safe, they’re always violating your safety. And, in those moments when you actually feel safe — oh, those are the worst, because that’s when they betray you the most. So as a kid it’s really hard to imagine that anyone is telling the truth. In some ways this is useful, because you can really see through so many layers of subterfuge, but it’s also so intensely lonely because no one is validating this experience. For me, growing up in an upper-middle-class, liberal, assimilated Jewish family, the veneer of my parents’ ”success” was one of the things that kept me the most vulnerable and trapped, because no one was willing to look past the illusion to acknowledge what was really happening. Or, their own complicity.
Ariel: Your book is a chronicle of loss after loss, and yet--oddly, maybe--it doesn't read like a downer. It's so much more life-affirming than, say, most of the "it gets better" campaign. I guess that's because you refuse to lie. And you never stop sticking up for the abused kids, the queers, the freaks. Ultimately the book is political art.
Mattilda: Yes, in a way each chapter is an ending, that’s the way I’ve structured the book, to lead the reader to these places where now I feel so trapped. It’s heart-wrenching, and yet I keep hearing from people that they find it inspiring. I was drawn to writing about the places where my analysis stops, and of course we all have those places. I think there’s too much positivist rhetoric around, and I think this harms more than helps, because what about when nothing works, when we are thrown against walls, when everything we thought would save us just ends up leaving us trapped?
Ariel: I was particularly moved by the things you wrote about your grandmother and about activist allies. Why is it so much more painful when the people we believe in let us down?
Mattilda: I think when we create our own systems of care, our own ways of challenging the violence of the world around us, we become quite adept at knowing that dominant cultures--straight or gay or whatever--are not on our side--and yes, straight homophobia still hurts us, and the callousness of status-crazed visions of gay normalcy that basically mimic straight homophobia and misogyny and racism, but it’s so much worse when it’s the people with whom we think we are creating new ways of living within taking care of and lusting for and loving one another, it’s so much more heartbreaking because these are the relationships we thought would last, and how could they not, with such gorgeous analysis and potential for instigation? But then, when we see the same patterns of violence taking place, but with more sophisticated rhetoric--oh, the astonishing hypocrisy, the incredible heartbreaking viciousness!
Ariel: You write in a number of different genres. How difficult do you find it to be emotionally honest in memoir writing? And then in publishing--in putting it out into the world? The End of San Francisco is one of the most vulnerable memoirs I've read. I wonder what the price for that is on your side.
Mattilda: I think conventional memoir has the amazing ability to take the most complicated, multilayered, messy, wild and explosive lives, and turn them into laminated timelines. I didn’t want to present my life as a tidy object, a placemat--there are enough placemats in the world! And so I really strove to fight against a linear arrangement--even though I edited the manuscript 15 times, I wanted to maintain a spontaneous feeling, I wanted to keep in contradictions, conversations with other people, the things I can’t quite remember, the things I might remember wrong. In a way the book is structured by emotion rather than plot structure, and what keeps that emotion going is the vulnerability. As an abused queer kid growing up in a world that wanted me to die or disappear, I had to develop ways of appearing invulnerable, that was the only way I could survive. It was the only way that I could find people like me, the only way I could inspire other scared kids not to give up. But now I think it’s vulnerability that will save me, that’s how I can connect to the world--it’s been really exciting to see how people have related to the vulnerability of The End of San Francisco.
Ariel: Do you still believe in San Francisco? Or, rather, in the possibility of communal intimacy and accountability?
Mattilda: One of the things that surprised me in writing the book was to see the ways in which I keep believing in these same values--even when the people and places and cultures I believe in let me down in such brutal ways. I still believe in the possibilities, even if I’ve never seen them truly actualized. People have described this as hopeful, and my hope is that it’s not just delusional.
Ariel: When I teach memoir, a lot of my students worry about their families. Because the standard-issue American family requires so much lying. Sometimes I think my students are almost jealous of me now that the parents who raised me are dead.
Mattilda: You can only worry so much, right? We need to write our truths, no matter how much it hurts.
Ariel: There's a wonderful review of your book in Maximum Rocknroll that says, "This autobiography is a story of the way people fail each other, whether out of malice or exhaustion or just not knowing how to be there." How can we--people who feel or are damaged--begin to learn to be there for each other?
Mattilda: That’s such a good question! I think it starts with honesty. It starts with acknowledging the places where we fail. It starts with acknowledging the damage, the brokenness. It starts with talking about everything that seems impossible to say, the things we think might kill us if we say aloud, those are the things we need to say, we need to say them aloud and write them and discuss them and maybe then we can dream again. Maybe then our dreams won’t just lead to failure.