"I'm writing a comedy about domestic violence."
I didn't know what else to say. "I'm writing about lung cancer!" Or "A great project about watching my beautiful, abusive mom die!"
It all sounded so depressing.
People would go all doe-eyed and pat me on the shoulder.
But a comedy? About dying and domestic violence? That didn't go over so well, either.
Because of course death and legacies of abuse aren't laughing matters.
Until they are.
I was ten years old when my mother took me to see Mommie Dearest and then bragged to her friends that I'd laughed through the wire hanger scene.
She riffed on the joke at home, too, applying that thick white facial mask and bursting into the dark of my bedroom with her wire hanger as I slept. I'd wake, terrified, her slim figure a silhouette above me, the hanger in her fist poised to come down on me. But even in interrupted half-sleep I knew my cue: I laughed. And then she wouldn't hit me.
It sounds twisted, even writing it, but here's the truth: I grew up in a violent household. My relationship with my mother always included some level of violence—both when I was a kid depending on her and when I was adult and taking care of her as she got sick. But our relationship also included a lot of humor.
Some days, making my mom laugh was the only way to get her to put her weapons down.
It was the only way to get her to drop the drama.
In her hospice bed at the end of her life—when she was too weak to wield a hanger or a knife—making her laugh became the only way to make her forget—momentarily, anyway—the pain of the tumor that was slowly crushing her spine.
And cracking a joke to crack tension isn't just a quirk of MY family of origin, it's what we do.
Laughter enhances our intake of oxygen, stimulates our heart, lungs, and muscles, increases endorphins.
A good howling laugh fires up and then cools down our stress responses; increases our heart rate and blood pressure so we can chill out.
Laughter stimulates circulation and aids muscle relaxation, reducing the physical symptoms of stress.
Of course we don't want to further piss off an abuser by laughing in the terror of the wrong moment. Those of us who know too much about the violence of life all know that. Self-preservation in the moment comes first.
But I’ve found that a well-placed guffaw can be disarming.
And sometimes absurdist and dark-humor storytelling can become another kind of self-preservation—a tool of resilience; the antidote to the violence of life; that power-preserving implement that keeps us from despair.
When I'd finished a draft of The End of Eve but hadn't shared it with anyone, I had the opportunity to teach at a memoir-writing retreat in Washington state and read an excerpt of the book to an audience of strangers—I wanted to know if they'd have the nerve to laugh in the face of death—if my story could give them that permission. And they did. They were howling. That's when I knew the book was almost done. If I could make strangers cry from laughing in a book about lung cancer and death, I’d succeeded in at least touching on the complexity.
I wrote a book about laughing in the face of terror; all the ways we learn to save ourselves.