The literature, the librarian, and the luck that saved Ben Miller’s life.
Ben Miller, veteran NER author of “The Haunting of Byerly Hall: WC” (NER 40.4) is interviewed by longtime NER fiction reader Andrew Kane.
Andrew Kane: One of my favorite aspects of this piece is the way it evokes an incredibly specific time and place. Could you talk a little about the particular ways the social climate and the landscape—physical, emotional, psychological—helped to shape this narrative?
Ben Miller: Well, there are actually two very specific timeframes here—the one you mentioned enfolded as a flashback into the (for me) unprecedented experience of starting a fellowship year at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge. This layering aspect is often a vital element of the portraits that I work on. It has to do with my experience of memory as a nonlinear rush. One time needs another time to define it. No time can be pulled purely out of the whole. Yet this whole of history hardly behaves as if it is unified. Half blind history, shredded and jagged, teetering and whirring always: a revolving montage of the available details and their old and new associations. I mean, nearsighted and farsighted. In the past of shadows lurk glints of the future. Claw marks of the past mar any shiny present if you look closely. The clashing of surface specificities here—underlaid with intricate (and rather perfect) connections—create what amounts to the grating hum of better understanding the what, the who, the how, the where.
(This layering method is prey to complications and at the start I’d like to say how much a writer is encouraged by the opportunity to work with editors like those at the New England Review. They always put art first, which entails an equivalent of the patience and the care a writer needs to summon.)
And what could 2014 in Cambridge have to do with 1979 in urban Iowa—a rusty city on the Mississippi River? For me both were points of startling transition.
In 1979 I was 110 pounds thinner than I had been in 1978. I had starved myself into a new shape in the aftermath of sexual abuse. This new shape I hoped would be the one that could survive, and integral to the survival was not only vanquishing the obese son who had been preyed upon by a parent, just as vital was my attachment to writing. Art did not fix anything but was the one thing I found I could still believe in because it embodied the hope of transcending a domestic incoherence of lies, terror, numbness that to a point was mirrored by the larger social morass of fear and exhaustion due to the economic recession.
In 2014 for the first time (and maybe only time?), thanks to this fellowship, I will make a living as a writer. It has been a long journey to the plush perch where the essay starts and ends. I am coming off two decades in New York City of holding the same low-paying repetitive day job and writing at night. Before that there were the other dull or zany jobs. On top of this radical twist, my partner of twenty-five years, writer Anne Pierson Wiese, and I were then in the process of executing a cross-country move, a plan that had preceded the surprise of getting the award. She had grown up in Brooklyn but her parents were from Southwest Minnesota. Since childhood she had wanted to live out there and we were finally making it happen. At the end of the year we drove a U-Haul from Cambridge to the Midwest, a lilac seedling in a pot on the dashboard, gift of a botanist at Arnold Arboretum in Boston.
Movement demands agility. It raises stakes. 1979 and 2014–15 pressed me to the limits of my capabilities. They were intense opportunities to progress shaded with dangers: the peril of running out of energy, succumbing to doubts and fears.
AK: Throughout the essay, you bring your fellow members of the Davenport Writers’ Studio to life through assiduous characterizations, and reconstruct their work with what feels like a genuine affection for—if not the cat poems and Boy’s Life submissions themselves—then the act of sharing those works with outside listeners. Later, you write how the group’s president, David Collins, “peered across [you] as if [you] were a lake. . . . Seeing, then, more than [your] disaster, something beyond it, the rest or what else might be.” What are your thoughts on this notion of seeing and being seen in the context of making art?
BM: I’m glad you focus here on the “seeing.” I’m fascinated by the portrait—whether by the painter Goya or essayist Lytton Strachey or composer Virgil Thomson. I define a portrait as a certain face in alignment with a certain time and a certain place. And of course the end result is as much about the seer as the seen.
There was so much to adore about this unique group of writers. I feel there is still much to learn from them. The choices they made. The fortitude they showed. They deserve a book of their own, and “W.C.” is part of that work-in-progress.
It wasn’t just that I was this kid desperate for any connections. I knew another bad connection could be the end of me.
But as soon as I meandered into the first club meeting and chose a folding chair I could feel I was no longer in the city where my educated parents had had no luck, succumbing to a bitterness that by turns paralyzed them and caused them to exploit their sons and daughters in various ways. I was elsewhere.
I mean, these adults—just like teachers and clinic doctors and almost all neighbors—had every reason to be spooked by my rag-tag appearance and office supplies arranged around a copy of Eliot’s The Wasteland—but they were not afraid, I saw. They welcomed me. A group that did not fear me, reject me? That was a first. I had been welcomed often as a child into the sweet warm kitchen of the one nice neighbor, homebound Mr. Hickey in the clip-on bow-tie, but a group?
To cover rental of the stale room there was a dollar attendance fee but the fee did not, I was quickly told, apply in my case. They did not want to take my money either? (Lucky: I had none.) Then, over a few hours, I heard that each club member was so in love with the notion of being a writer that obvious failures did not discourage them. When the whole thing ended the last miracle. I was invited back.
Fearlessness and love are revolutionary forces. In their fearlessness and love I met the best of what it is to be human. Paying attention, then, to every aspect about them was crucial: their writing, faces, cigarettes, plain clothes, compact cars, clichés. And seeing them see me helped me see me because they did see someone of worth there—someone they wanted to work with—someone who had something to add.
AK: The essay begins and ends with meditations on the loss of your sister, Mitzi, who died from heart failure at 44. At one point, you write, “Every elegy I wrote had its own deep tone of mourning without the deepest substance of the matter, my own story, in residence.” Can you unpack a bit the juxtaposition of these elements, the loss of your sister and your own journey of self-actualization?
BM: It is important to point out there were six at-risk kids in the three-bedroom home where I grew up: three boys, three girls. I was the oldest. The “big brother” who was supposed to be strong, be more, but who was soft and scared from the start. There was not enough of anything at 15 Crestwood Terrace. For that reason, everyone stole from everyone else. And everyone erected these dense emotional barricades to endure the daily degradation. Rooms were crawling with roaches. They swarmed out of the heating vents to reach the upstairs. At one point pigeons lived in the basement, flying in and out of a broken window. No litter box: many cats. The reality that both parents possessed law degrees added the crowning aspect of perversity: a story I am still in the process of processing, and which I do want to write soon. They went off to law offices from a house like this. They somehow lived with the schism.
Four of us—my three sisters and I—suffered bouts with eating disorders. Two of us were molested in that home, Mitzi and I. We could not speak of it as kids, but the fact we were the most vulnerable of the vulnerable was evident in the way we were scarred. Everyone could see or hear or even smell the scars. With us it was a public shame. After Mitzi was thrown through a plate glass door by my brother and sexually assaulted by him and a friend in the basement her voice changed. It suddenly assumed a harrowing hollow high-pitched brittleness. Everyone heard it, no one liked it, some mocked it. The bouts with bulimia started. They made her already light complexion paler. She hid the ghost of her face under streaks of bright makeup.
I was publicly groomed for molestation by a mother who’d separate me from the others. We’d go off together to discount stores. She’d dig in her huge purse for dimes to buy me treats. It was a time when a pound bag of Spanish peanuts—the kind with the fly-wing-like husks—might be on sale for 99 cents. If it was, I got that. I ate that in one sitting: a first way of handling anxiety, eating. I ballooned. Teasing was awful in elementary school and junior high. The more I was taunted the more I thought I needed my mother’s version of protection, predatory though it was. Bedwetting went with the eating as a response to her touching. Often I woke up in a wet bed. Sheets were not washed. She hung them over the porch railing to dry. The fluttering could be seen up and down the block. I slept on that same foul mattress until I left that house for elsewhere. When the sheets were stripped an amazing array of stains could be seen. Browns within browns. An abstract atlas of the whole strange trip.
By ten I had writing, though, an invisible refuge amid madness, and later that gave me that club of nurturing individuals. Mitzi had nothing like that. She deserved to have it. But she never found anybody that she needed when she needed them.
She did live into her forties, but by her mid-twenties she had been divorced twice and could not hold any job for long. Her decline forced her to return to live in the very house where she had been brutally victimized. She ended up in a nursing home.
The one that survives has a lifelong question to ask. Why me? An older brother has an additional tormenting question: Why couldn’t I save Mitzi? Help her more? The answer has to do with the most sobering fact of them all. I wasn’t a stronger person than Mitzi. I was, if anything, weaker and more scared. I was just way luckier.
AK: You write that the lack of privacy within your family home “created a comprehensive barrier to authentic interactions.” Meanwhile, the piece seems to suggest that the willful self-exposure in the Writers’ Studio was in fact a useful path to authenticity. What, to your mind, is the utility of memoir in the confrontation of trauma?
BM: Everyone who went in and out of that house lived a double life. There was the stinking life of chaos inside the house that demanded continual denials and compromises, and outside there was a natural tendency to regain prospects by trying to “pass” as being more normal than you were. That did not necessarily mean you appeared normal. It meant some siblings made great sacrifices to get one Izod shirt or Ocean Pacific shirt and then wore it everywhere while talking in the addled intellectual lingo of a home full of New Yorker magazines that cats crapped on. None of us were good at passing. But we could try to get others to re-label our behavior as merely “funny” or better: the yodeling of “brilliance.” I oddly tried to “pass” by looking like I was making no effort at all to “pass.” I donned garish thrift store Hawaiian shirts that made me stand out like a happy go lucky sucker on a perpetual vacation that he can’t afford. Anyhow, bearing of wounds and covering of wounds in shame was always excruciating, and I think all of us were pulled forward by some version of the dream of not having to go through that any longer, scraping together what remained of us that was real, and finding a place where it would be acceptable.
Talk to any specialist in the treatment of trauma victims and you’ll hear about what it does to the overwhelmed brain. Unable to process the experience, only feel its intense pressure, the reality fragments, scatters: different parts of the memory stored in different places. Retrieving those pieces is a key to the retrieving of your stability. Not just memoir, but much art in many different fields—music, painting, film, sculpture—is about just such a fastidious act of retrieval. The work of tweezers. And that finite work of reckoning with infinite losses, is very bound up with the theme of love. You can’t do that work correctly unless you’ve found a way to love yourself and the world regardless of the terrible things done to it and in it.
AK: On a lighter note, one of the great joys reading this piece is the way it’s so lovingly peopled with richly drawn characters. The Davenport librarian, Rochelle Murray, is one such example—can you talk a little more about her?
BM: She put up with so much from my quarter—slight pun there, as I paid my overdue fines one quarter at a time, the layaway plan. I not only demanded the addresses of Aaron Copland and The Scarecrow from her, I had a nasty habit of insisting she order books that were being banned from children’s sections in some cities. I was an avid newspaper reader from seven on. If I read about a controversial book I asked her for it. In the Night Kitchen by Sendak was attacked for its depiction of a nude child. I wanted that. I wanted, too, Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey that was banned due to its black humor. In Indianapolis they don’t like Where the Sidewalk Ends? Get me that, Miss Murray! She did: regardless of my continual overdue fine debt. Her summer reading programs offered the most delicious rewards. One year the theme was something like “Mining the Shelves” and for each book read you got a gold-painted rock to go in the pouch you’d been given when you signed up. I insisted to her that the rocks were real gold, working my way up to offering to pay down my fine debt with the pouch proceeds. I thought I had her. I didn’t think she’d declare that they were fake. But she did. Very cleverly. “Of course they are gold, Ben. Fool’s gold!” Another year she gave out photographs of famous authors. I had all thirty by the end of June. In July I got duplicates. In August I earned triplicates. When I started participating in the writing community as a teenager, I saw Rochelle at events and she saw me and we laughed about it all. This summer when I was in Davenport to deliver a speech, Rochelle attended. She is now 94 years old. She got to meet Anne and tell her about my mistaking gravel for gold. That night I mentioned to Rochelle I was searching for a copy of a prize-winning poem of mine called “Sequel” that had been printed in an arts council magazine in 1980. Three weeks later in the mail came a packet of clippings about me, Teen Writer, she had roused from local archives. One story quoted lines from that lost poem. It is now not totally lost due to her. I was four when she started checking my books out and not getting them back. The man who opened her letter was 55. For all that time she has been my librarian.
AK: In my own experience with writing workshops, I often feel as if many writers approach the process with the telescope turned the wrong way around; there’s always one eye on the query letter or whatever else the goal may be. I get the impression that this piece doesn’t come from that kind of process.
BM: It’s the complete opposite. If you’re prone to this kind of message—and I think instinctually I was, because I came to writing as a way of being in the world and living and breathing—if you come to writing that way, then you’re going to be more prone to just do something because you want to do it.
Certainly there’s been the ascendency of the agent, and all the things that they will say to a writer, and want them to not even write until they’ve discussed with them what they’re doing. It’s so rampant now, and it’s so accepted as if there’s no other way. And there are many other ways; there are endless ways to write. And if you can figure out a way to get your message across then it’s succeeded.
To me, the wide-openness of art is what makes it so beautiful. If you want to write a six-hundred-page book, go ahead, but it’s totally up to you, it’s your responsibility to make it work. I do a lot of collaborations with an artist in Brooklyn, Dale Williams, the painter, because the way I work I have fragments all over the place all the time. Some of the fragments I send to him and we develop some visual works off those. We’ve created three books of those and we’re working on a fourth. And where do you send something like that? But that doesn’t stop me from making them, and frankly I believe in the work and I believe it will prevail eventually. But you’ve got to be incredibly patient and know why you’re doing it and understand that other people have room to do what they want to do.
In this kind of approach I take, instinct is very important. You’ve got to look within, and look within the galaxy of your own experience, to find the answers about what you’re supposed to do. There are no formulas. And although your galaxy is limited, it’s your job to find the limitless in the limited. A lot of the writers I love did things like that. A lot of the transcendentalists could look at their backyard and see a universe. W. G. Sebald, whom I really like a lot, his works take little lives and even if someone’s just in a room, suddenly that room becomes the universe. With that kind of approach, you just try to make the work and make it convincing and give it all your heart, mind, and soul, and then have faith in it and however long it takes.
AK: The spirit of Prufrock is very present in this piece, in the section headers and throughout the prose. The poem was Eliot’s literary debut, and your essay ends with a newspaper excerpt announcing that you had won, at 15, the top prize in a poetry competition. Could you walk me through some of the thinking behind your use of Eliot’s poem?
BM: I had a stern paperback copy of the Harvest Books edition of The Wasteland and Other Poems when I was a teenager. I had found it at the Salvation Army. I carried that book everywhere I went for a few years. It was thin enough that there wasn’t much there to fall apart. It fit perfectly in my back pocket. It held my hand more than me holding it. The gravity of the cover I loved: just all that gray and the title in black under T. S. Eliot in white. My prize-winning poem was six pages long because I had fallen under the sway of the long form via “Prufrock.” It was long enough that it contained something I could get. Very nice of Eliot. I could get that refrain of “women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” I had a mother who was apt during her trips to Target to drop the names of artists into muddled aisle monologues: dancer Isadora Duncan, novelist Marguerite Young, playwright Eugene O’Neill, poet Emily Dickinson, and on, and on. I thought I knew those women that Eliot depicted. I grieved for those women. They could only talk; it did not help.
AK: Despite the many darker aspects, there are some deeply funny moments here. But in a passage about the trauma of your childhood, you talk about laughing “to make sure you did not cry.” What are your thoughts on the uses of humor, both as a coping mechanism and otherwise?
BM: Laughter is as important a survival tool as determination. To distract yourself from your accumulating deficits. To distract others from what you are lacking. Any laugher is rich. The laugher has in that moment access to a fortune in being. We kids strained to be funny to spite our tragic unfunniness. We shrieked when we laughed. My mother cultivated a creepy nervous giggle. My father had difficulty with any expression. But he wanted to laugh. The best memories I have of that house are of all of us gathered around the TV set at 10:30 pm to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus—a scene that is cited in my first book, River Bend Chronicle.
Then we were as alive as we could be in a deadly place. Seeing a tennis player’s limbs flying off, and blood spurting about the grass court, put the dire truth out there in a way that allowed us to embrace it. The relief—the catharsis—was immense. It pried open even my father’s dour mouth. Out poured heaves of laughter that shook the jelly of his torso, rocked the recliner. He had to wipe away tears.
Ben Miller is the author of River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (Lookout Books, 2013). His prose has been featured in Best American Essays, One Story, Southern Review, AGNI, Raritan, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, and elsewhere. Chapter 12 of it all melts down to this: a novel in timelines will appear in Best American Experimental Writing 2020. Miller is the recipient of creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Andrew Kane is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He currently writes for NPR’s Ask Me Another, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Rupture, The Normal School, and elsewhere.