“You insisted your daughters were stars, too, although I think you saw us more as moons, objects that orbited around you, reflecting shards of your brilliance.”—Gayle Brandeis, The Art of Misdiagnosis
In The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, her new, acclaimed memoir, Gayle Brandeis probes the mysteries surrounding her mother’s suicide, artfully weaving letters, research and documentary transcripts throughout the narrative. By playing detective and examining artifacts from her mother’s life, Brandeis peels back layers of her own personal history—what was real, imagined, what is intrinsically hers, and what she can now leave behind.
We are honored to feature an excerpt from the book and a Q&A with the author and our creative nonfiction editor, Marnie Goodfriend, who spoke with Brandeis about letters never sent, truth-seeking, and loving our parents, flaws and all.
November 23, 2009
My sister Elizabeth and mom arrive in the morning. I am in bed with my one day old baby when I hear my husband Michael answer the door; the bedroom is dim even though it is sunny outside—there is only one sliver of window high on the wall, which the owner has shaded with cloth napkins clothes-pinned to a dowel. I didn’t sleep much—even when Asher slept, I couldn’t stop staring at him, couldn’t stop thinking that if I did stop looking at him, something horrible would happen. We have two co-sleepers so we can sleep with Asher safely—one that attaches to the side of the mattress, the other a little foam bassinet wedged between our pillows on the bed—but even so, and even after years of sharing a bed with my older kids when they were little, I worry that somehow I will roll on top of him if I let myself nod off.
My mom and sister both have their hands over their hearts as they enter the room. They walk toward me and Asher slowly, reverently, like they are walking down the aisle at a wedding. Both of them have tears in their eyes. In the picture Michael snaps as they reach the bed, I am beaming up at my mom, unguarded, unafraid, and she is beaming back at me. I feel her love and it feels sweet; this moment feels sweet, all of us shifting to gaze at this brand new person breathing on my chest, his gray eyes gazing right back at us.
“Do you want to hold him?” I ask my mom.
“Of course,” she says softly. My sister scoops him out of my arms and puts him in my mom’s.
“Oh!” she gasps, her face alight, as she receives him. She coos and bounces and sways her body so he won’t cry, and I imagine her looking at me the same way when I was a baby, comforting me with the same movements. I let myself be comforted by this all over again. I think back to my baby shower—more of a mother’s blessing—at my friends Nancy and Jenn’s house a couple of months earlier. My collected friends had massaged my feet, rubbed fragrant oils into my hands. My mom had brushed my hair, the first time she had done so in years, and it felt so sweet and loving, so motherly when I was no longer used to her being motherly, it melted my heart. My heart melts again now as I watch her cradle my new baby.
Then Asher closes his eyes and something shifts in my mom’s face.
“Why did he fall asleep?” she asks, panicky, and shoves the baby back into Elizabeth’s arms.
“I have to take a shower,” my mom says. “I have to wash my clothes. There is stuff on me a baby should never be near.”
After she leaves to clean up, I whisper “She thinks she poisoned him, didn’t she?” to my sister. Elizabeth hands Asher back to me; I pull the neckline of my shirt down beneath my breast and he settles in to nurse. Even though I know my mom is delusional, I lean down and smell Asher’s head, just to make sure I don’t detect any weird chemical scent.
“Oh, Gayley,” Elizabeth says. “I know you said it was bad, but I wasn’t ready for this.”
Elizabeth tells me that when our mom pulled up to the curb at the airport, she had a flannel nightgown wrapped around her nose and mouth to avoid breathing in fumes pumped through the air conditioning vents. A Jack in the Box cup full of urine sat in the cup holder of her car; she wanted to have it tested to see what sort of poison she was being subjected to. She had actually gone to a hospital in North Hollywood during the night because she thought she was having a heart attack; she told Elizabeth she wasn’t sure how she got to the ER—it was as if she had driven in a fugue state. Apparently they didn’t do a urine test—she was looking for someplace else to take her pee.
I put my hand over my mouth. “What do we do?” I ask. Why hadn’t the hospital realized she needed psychiatric help? Why hadn’t they kept her there?
“I don’t know.” My sister sinks onto the bed beside me. “I don’t know.”
We all have a restless night. My mom sleeps on the hardwood in the living room—she has forgotten her cushion, tells us the floor is good for her back—and the motion sensor lights outside, triggered by cats and raccoons, keep startling her, make her think she’s about to be interrogated; she keeps waking up Elizabeth, who is sleeping on the couch. I, half asleep, think Asher’s ear is his mouth, that it’s frozen open in some sort of tortured rictus, and wake Michael up with my gasp. Asher keeps waking us up with his sweet kitten cries. All of us are exhausted and edgy in the morning. Michael wanders bleary eyed into the shower.
Elizabeth takes Asher from my arms and walks around the house, singing softly to him.
My mom suddenly turns frantic. “What’s that?” Her head darts back and forth like a cartoon spy’s.
“What is what?” I ask her. That could be anything.
“It sounds like an Islamic chant!” She looks ready to bolt.
I listen for a moment. “Oh,” I laugh. “That’s Michael.” He’s singing in the shower. If I Were a Rich Man. I sing a bit of the “Ya da da da da da dum” part along with him, which I suppose sounds a bit like a muezzin’s call to prayer. Michael and I met doing a musical, but he’s not the best singer; he can be a bit nasal, a bit droney.
My mom laughs lightly, too, but she still looks haunted—whether by the Middle Eastern men she thinks are following her, or by If I Were a Rich Man, itself, by what a rich man she thinks my dad is, by what a rich woman she knows she’d be if only he wasn’t hiding his fortune from her, I can’t say.
“I know this sounds fanciful,” she starts, and I wish it did, I wish her stories sounded fanciful. Fanciful stories would involve things like unicorns, not poison, although the unicorns she collected in the 80s weren’t really fanciful, either. The schnauser-sized one that still sits on her coffee table is wooden, muscular, with a lethal brass horn.
Marnie Goodfriend: There is an unsettling paradox between your mother inspiring women to have a voice and her stifling yours. Do you think that is why you gravitated to the written word?
Gayle Brandeis: Wow, that’s a really great question; I haven’t thought about it in quite that way before—a paradox, indeed. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, and I think it’s always been the place where I could most be myself, the place where I could feel most brave and free. I often had trouble speaking out loud as a girl, especially around my mom, and perhaps I turned to writing as a space where I could feel safe to use my voice.
MG: After writing several books of poetry and fiction, how did you find writing memoir? Was there a freedom in separating fact from fiction in your personal history?
GB: Writing memoir was intensely freeing. I had an epiphany a while back that I started writing novels around the time my mom’s delusions began, and I realized I may have turned to fiction because I wasn’t sure how to even begin to process what was happening in my life. Being able to face my own story head-on was terrifying but deeply liberating. Breaking silences and giving shape to what had felt so chaotic and confusing, helped me release shame and helped me feel so much lighter inside.
MG: When, after your mother’s passing, did you feel like you were ready to write this story?
GB: My mom had asked me not to write about her while she was alive, and I respected that, even thought I was aching to write about her. After she died, I thought, well, now I can finally write about her, but it wasn’t that easy. Grief and shock and taking care of a newborn made it hard to do much of anything, much less write about something so painful. I started leaning into the writing about a year and a half after her death, but even then, I wasn’t ready to write certain scenes. It took about five years to be able to face the hardest parts of our story.
MG: While the book centers around your mother’s suicide, thematically it isn’t as much about grief as it is a dissection of identity. Did you have concerns about the book being miscategorized—or in your mother’s terms—being “misdiagnosed” as a grief memoir?
GB: When my wonderful publisher wanted me to add a subtitle to the memoir, I was a bit concerned it would make the book sound more like self-help than a literary memoir, but I came to understand, and have made peace with the fact, that a subtitle was needed to give readers more info about the contents of the book. I do have to admit, there is still part of me that would have preferred the simplicity and literariness and openness to interpretation of “A Memoir”—the book is definitely about so much more than grief—but I am grateful to have the book in the world in its current form.
MG: There are several passages where you contemplate double meanings in language or words that appear as signs of things to come. In a way, it parallels the different ways we read people, how there are always multiple interpretations. Is that something you consciously notice in life or emerge while writing?
GB: My dad had a great love of words and wordplay, which I’m sure I picked up by osmosis; I have always loved looking at words from lots of different angles, how they sound, their etymology and layers of meaning. I love your insight about the parallels about reading people (who have always been trickier for me to read than words!); there is always more than we can see on the surface of both.
MG: Whatever became of your mother’s documentary project? At times I wanted to see the images of her paintings in color, but then I thought that it would give them too much real estate.
GB: I posted two one minute snippets on YouTube so curious readers could have a chance to see my mom in action, but will never release the full film. My mom wasn’t the most reliable narrator, and I don’t know whether her medical advice is sound.
MG: Your mother was fixated on illness and misdiagnosis, and your early identity revolved around sickness. The character Cecila not only removes the heavy weight that you carried with you, but is an introduction to alternative healing where there are no diagnoses. How do you view eastern and western medicine?
GB: I think they can compliment each other well. There is much great, life-saving, technology and treatment available via western medicine, but I don’t like the pull of Big Pharma, and prefer to treat things more holistically whenever I can. I am grateful to have a family doctor in an office that offers herbal supplements and acupuncture and the like, but also can prescribe antibiotics and so forth if you really need them. I like medicine that sees the whole person, not just the symptom, whatever tradition the practitioner may come from.
MG: Much of the book is written in epistolary format. What I love about these sections is that readers may help close some of those circles for you. Have you had that experience?
GB: I have! I’m so grateful to have received many messages from readers already, to know my story is empowering others to tell theirs, to see my own story in fresh way through their insights. We really can save each other by telling our stories.
MG: What are some differences for you in writing memoir versus fiction? Will you return to fiction or do you have another memoir to write?
GB: After I finished writing my memoir, I felt adrift creatively. I had poured every ounce of myself into that book and wondered if I’d ever write anything with such urgency again. It was hard to imagine any other writing project feeling even a sliver as meaningful. And then I remembered this weird little novel in poems I had started when I was pregnant with Asher and had set aside because it was a pretty dark project, told in the voices of the victims of Erzebet Bathory, the 16th century Hungarian “Blood Countess”—I picked it up again and felt so much life in it (even though it is narrated by ghosts) and dove back in. It felt really good to spend time with lives not my own, to try to give voice to the hundreds of girls and young women who had been silenced for centuries; it felt like an act of justice. The resulting book, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony), will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2019. Fiction feels like such a luxury to me these days, and I am excited to spend time swimming around a new novel and letting my imagination run wild, but a creative non-fiction project is also calling me now, something that would be part memoir, part not. I just try to stay open to whatever writing wants to come through me and am eager to see what other projects will come knocking.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide and Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver), Self Storage, Delta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well the upcoming Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony) and a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award and a Notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. She served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine. She was recently featured at the relaunch of our monthly salon series at The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A.
A 2016 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, Marnie Goodfriend is an author, writer and editor whose words have appeared in Jezebel, Variety, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast, Entropy, Popularium and Cosmopolitan UK. The creative nonfiction editor for Angels Flight • literary west, she also is a co-founder of the women’s writing group The Dimes. She recently completed a memoir, Birth Marks, about her experience as an adoptee illegally sold to a family by a baby broker. Recently selected as a 2018 VCCA Fellow, she is at work on her second memoir and a book of fiction.
Photo of Gayle Brandeis by Rachael Warecki/CameraRAW Photography