Now in 2021, Rapp Black is back with two new books — Sanctuary, published on January 19 by Random House, and Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg, forthcoming in the United States on June 15, 2021. In both texts, Rapp Black expands her candor and fierce intellectual fire, with few of the concerns the publishing industry often pushes upon female creative nonfiction writers, such as being “inspirational” or offering a so-called happy ending. For starters, Rapp Black does not believe in “endings” in any conventional sense, as one of the greatest assertions in her work is that nothing is permanent and that the only constant is change. As someone who has lived with both a visible disability and as the mother of a child whose life was often deemed “unimaginable” by others, Rapp Black pushes back hard on the idea that those who endure crucible losses are “brave,” “resilient,” or “special,” which, she argues, are beliefs that ultimately serve to Other those facing hardships that make people uncomfortable. When we say to a grieving parent, I would die if I were you, or when we tell someone with a disability that she is “brave” for going to the gym, we essentially invalidate not only the inescapable reality of these people’s lives, but somehow inoculate ourselves from the knowledge that illness and loss can — and does — happen to everyone eventually. The fiction that someone is superhuman for surviving — and thriving — through physical challenges and psychic grief, Rapp Black often asserts, ignores that not only are such events inevitable and not rarefied, but that they are somehow avoidable if one makes all the “right” choices, or that they happen only to the fiendishly strong who are somehow singularly wired to cope with … well, as Manguso indicated, the price of mortality. Rather, humanity is wired to survive, to seek joy, and ultimately it is the human condition to live carrying sadness and loss, anger and confusion, and also love, hope, and reinvention with us everywhere.
I first encountered Rapp Black when I wrote her fan mail after reading Little Seal. First, we became email friends, then IRL friends, and eventually colleagues at the University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert low residency MFA, where Rapp Black teaches part-time (she is tenured on the main campus). In 2014, Rapp Black taught at the writing residency in the Central Highlands of Mexico that I then ran, and that same year I published her essay, “Casa Azul Cripple,” that would become the kernel of Frida Kahlo and My Left Foot. Last year, Rapp Black and I embarked on a new business venture, Circe Consulting, where we now teach online courses, run retreats, and collaborate on developmental editing and ghostwriting. As such — although she is the busiest person I have ever known — I was easily able to catch up with her for this interview. From her home in Redlands, California, where she is now parenting a healthy seven-year-old daughter and living in what she calls the “both/and,” Rapp Black was gracious enough to answer questions about Sanctuary, which Lidia Yuknavitch says “opens up the space between life and death” and Bret Anthony Johnston calls “an absolute marvel.”
GINA FRANGELLO: Sanctuary opens with a scene nearly a decade ago now of your leaning over the rail of a bridge intending to kill yourself, while your son Ronan was in the process of gruelingly dying of Tay-Sachs. Obviously, and thankfully, you chose — or in some ways your body chose for you — not to jump, not to die. You write, “I don’t want to live my life, this life,” speaking of the necessity of watching your son’s suffering and awaiting his inevitable death, and then in the following sentence write, “I don’t want to end my life, this life,” speaking of the fact that even in the lowest and most hopeless moments of your life there was a drive inside you to still experience love, meaningful work, connections, happiness. You write, “It was not either/or; it was both/and. The two stories were the same story.” In many ways, both/and is the dominant philosophy driving Sanctuary — the fact that we must live multiple lives simultaneously, that our pasts stamp on us realities that cannot be eradicated by our presents or futures and that we exist at all times in overlapping states. You write of being the mother of both a dead child and a living one — of the schism of having been two different men’s wives in the process of mothering these two children. In our culture, which focuses so heavily on the concept of “healing” and “reinvention” and new beginnings as though these are singular destinations beyond which point past selves and baggage cannot enter, can you please talk more about the philosophy of both/and, and the ways popular American thought may work against accepting overlapping identities?
EMILY RAPP BLACK: You are absolutely right that both/and is the driving philosophical framework, the true engine of thought in this book. It’s absolutely true that in the most extreme moments of sadness, we might suddenly find something inexplicably funny, and in the midst of laughing, we might remember something acutely sad. Happiness and sadness work dialectically, and they are two emotions held, trembling, if you will, side by side. In fact, you don’t know the beauty of joy or the brutality of grief if you’ve only experienced one. They deepen together.
Another image that is central to the book is one of thresholds, doorways, with the understanding that we are crossing into one story of our lives to another story, almost all the time, without truly closing the door on the past, present, or future. The power and possibility in liminal space is an underrepresented space in our culture — of course it is, because it’s tricky, and there’s no one “right” way to be or to think or to feel.
American culture kicks against that with the violent insistence on “the American Dream,” which is a myth. Absolutely our cultural training leads to expectations that we should “rise above” or practice “grit” in order to struggle through a hard time and leave it behind, as if we haven’t been scarred, or as if those scars, if we choose to acknowledge them, are ugly and hideous and should be hidden, never shown. In other words, shut up. Acknowledging the brutality of an experience is to admit that you are weak and shameful. You should have chosen better (if you had a brutal marriage, as I did); you should have worked harder (I can tell you that this has never been my problem); you should have been smarter, prettier, thinner. Of course, when we have this kneejerk reaction to stories, the Oh, I just can’t hear that story; it’s too unseemly and scary, then we are closing off the path to empathy. To say something shouldn’t be told is to say you are not willing even to attempt to listen. You have burned the bridge of empathy. Now there is no place to walk between those two people, those two lives, those two experiences. To me, to burn that bridge in that way, by suggesting that. A woman should be “silent,” is unethical, bordering on immoral.
How can we enjoy moments of happiness, how can we truly experience their depth and texture, if we haven’t had the opposite experience? Joy and grief go together, they are inextricably linked, and to deny this or kick against it only creates more guilt and suffering, and a kind of grief that is truly tyrannical. It can destroy people, make them feel like they’re not doing enough, not trying hard enough, not grieving the right way (women especially are saddled with this horrifying expectation of grieving “correctly” or “cleanly,” or as Jackie O. with the straight face and blood on her suit). We’re told not to be hysterical (a term lobbed at women, usually by men, when they are expressing emotion), but if we’re not crying enough then we’re not sad enough and must be horrible humans. Any grieving person is working so hard to meet the brutal and unnecessary rules of “what expression of grief is allowed so that nobody will be uncomfortable.” Nobody would dare say that’s what they’re doing, damaging another person, when they say, “Why aren’t you crying?” or “You can’t say that, it’s too upsetting,” but that’s what it is: it’s damaging. I, for one, do not want to be muzzled, but I do know that I will need to keep insisting that however difficult my story might be, if I tell it, and it emboldens another writer to tell the truth about her life, then I have done my job. Not just as a writer, but on the planet.
To say “I won’t say this,” is to become, the way I see it, the paper cut-out of a person, or someone who is so intent on preserving an illusion of “the perfect life,” or the “solved problem,” or “the happy ending,” as to not be living in a meaningful way at all. What I believe is that people, when they understand the value of life cleaned from these expectations, will move relentlessly toward joy, and bring with them all the pain that makes that joy even richer and more sustaining.
You have a chapter titled, fabulously, “Against Bravery.” In the text, you look extensively at words like bravery and resilience and deconstruct deeply the mythologies — and cop-outs — surrounding these words as they are often used in popular jargon. And I’m going to for just a second play Devil’s Advocate even though you and I talk about the bogus nature of words like this all the time and the way they serve to “Other” those whose experiences make some people uncomfortable. You also talk, elsewhere in the book, about Gloria Steinem’s “myth of the fearless choice” adage that people do what they must. Yet at the same time, it’s also true that people cope with loss and pain and illness and every manner of suffering in radically different ways. Some people allow these crucible experiences to halt them in their tracks — they may not just feel bitter and angry and depressed, which is normal, but allow those emotions to become the totality of who they are and in a sense do not live in the both/and but instead remain static in one state of suffering. In your extensive readings about grief and resilience, and interactions with others who have lost children or faced other enormous losses, have you noticed any kinds of commonalities among those whose drive to keep living — which you point out is, for most people, a biological drive — also includes a drive to thrive and to grow toward the light and continue to seek joy? If bravery and resilience don’t mean the things they’re often assumed to mean, which can include anything from being “cold-hearted” to having some kind of superhuman strength, what do these words mean, and how are some people able to tap into the both/and while others cannot?
Yeah, bravery. Like resilience, I’ve had a bug in my brain about this word for most of my life as well. This is mainly because it is applied to disabled people, as if we’re “brave” for being out in the world, for being athletic, or for, I don’t know, just existing. It’s ludicrous. We live in the bodies we were given, because they are the only bodies we have; we truly are not given another choice. We can choose, of course, to despair, but to choose not to is, in my view, not bravery, but a survival instinct. I don’t think writers are brave for telling their stories; I think they’re doing their jobs, which is to trouble the waters, to question what they have been told is true. I think it can be brave to sit in contradiction, to dwell in the space of not knowing, but it’s not a forceful, Viking-like bravery (and you know I love my Vikings). Instead, it’s a refusal to allow a culture, a person, a relationship, to box a person’s unique experience and seek to define it as only one thing. Nothing is ever just one thing. And while it’s true that under pressure, the best and worst of people will rise to the top, so often our abilities to keep going, to keep seeking joy, have to do with how much we continue to value the world, not necessarily our place in it, not our happiness or lack thereof, and not even our individual goals and desires. This isn’t what makes our lives or the living world valuable. It’s the fact of their existence. And I think if people look closely at the world, they will find solace in it — not in a, Oh wow, look at that sunset, it’s so amazing way, but in a way that is cleaned of emotional content. Here are all of these landscapes and creatures and processes — if we invite wonder and awe — these are the antidotes to despair. I also think there’s no singular way to make people do this; in fact, the reverse is true. It must be a choice, and I think there’s no way to determine what choice someone will make until they are given one, and even that, the fact of a choice, is a privilege.
Do you think that the world of nonfiction and nonfiction writers is gendered? Are women’s stories — or women’s right to tell their stories — approached differently than men’s by the critical community or the reading public?
Writing nonfiction — particularly memoir — often feels like you’ve attended a party at which everyone expects you to pull down your pants, but when you do this, you’re told that nobody actually wanted to see your vagina. Whoa! The group gasps, we wanted all of the detail, but only as much as makes us comfortable. Please don’t disturb us with your smelly or overly hairy or hairless or sagging or too old or weirdly shaped vagina! That yucky mess we certainly don’t want to see, even if it’s yours to show and we specifically asked to see it. Yes, I say vagina, because men are never asked to take down their pants in this extended metaphor. They can, in this case as in many others, do whatever they want and often without consequence. One in 10 women in the United States will be raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime, many women are financially gutted by a divorce, and the gender pay gap means that women make 78 percent to 82 percent of the salary of an average man. So, within this systemic misogyny, we write.
Most writers of memoir are women, and for this reason, we are often accused of “writing our silly stories,” or having “champagne problems.” When other writers say this, no matter their gender identification, they are speaking of the majority of writers everywhere. Most of the stories that would be the most difficult — indeed brutal — to read or hear are lived by people who don’t have the means or privilege to write or tell them. Being a writer is a rarefied existence, even if, like most writers, you are not rich and famous (unless you started that way) and didn’t get into writing books for that reason anyway, and if you did, it’s still possible to course correct. That is not the goal.
What is the goal? I believe that writing is an act of service and memoirs should be written to light the way for someone who might be experiencing something similar, and by reading another person’s story, this reader, who is also a person, will feel less alone and maybe not want to die that day. I believe that the best memoirs have an origin story that goes something like this: when I looked for a book to help me through [Insert Difficult Time], there was nothing, or what was there didn’t resonate and I felt even worse, even more lonely. Writing is an invitation to another person’s singular experience that may shed light on your own, cause you to reflect, teach you something, open a gateway of empathy. But for stories to be read or told, we need readers and listeners. And we need them to be willing to hear the truth, which is very rarely pretty, although it has its good days.
Just as memoirists make a pact with the reader that the story is steeped in emotional truth, readers make a pact to be willing to travel the road set out for them, no matter what beasts or shadows or nasty weather may materialize. Art, and in particular writing, is to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled. That does not change the writer’s right to tell their version of the story, no matter how outrageously cruel or unfortunate, no matter how many “I can’t believe that happened to you” responses it evokes. That is a privilege that no writer should avoid.
And, of course, there’s the other side of the silly story, and that’s the suffering story, which is intimately linked to the silly one. Laugh or die is a phrase for a reason. I have been told time and time again that my life is tragic and sad and it’s amazing that I’m still here and I’m brave and Wow, I’d die if I were you, and I weep that your life has been overtaken by suffering. It has not. I have weathered unhappy marriages, the horrifying loss of a child from a disease that is the stuff of medieval horror stories, and I had a foot cut off when I was four. It’s a lot, but I am still an overly educated white woman living far above the poverty line. I have never experienced food insecurity, and I have health insurance through my job. Many people lose limbs to war or disease or even tyrannical regimes, women have lost children every day since the beginning of time and continue to lose them to preventable diseases, and plenty of women withstand financial, emotional, and physical abuse from their intimate partners. This does not make my suffering exceptionally bad; it makes it suffering. Despite these experiences, and in part perhaps because of them, I am a generally happy person. I laugh every day. I have joy and meaning and purpose in my life. I have not been overtaken by suffering and sadness and grief, although I have come close. I’m still here. I don’t write about these experiences to hurt people; I write them to try and understand how to live with them in the hopes that someone else suffering might read what is there and see a way out, a bit of possibility.
The fact that you say you’re generally a happy person — which is true — makes me think about your parents, whom I’ve met a number of times and who are fairly prominent characters in the book. One thing that you and I have talked about is having parents who have been our “ride or die” — your parents, not only during Ronan’s illness but also throughout Charlie’s childhood, have been incredibly available to you and always allies in your corner. Like my parents, who are now both gone, your parents are also super eccentric and quirky people — they aren’t “perfect,” whatever that even means, but they have an unwavering and unconditional love for you and an ongoing investment in your life that many, many people don’t have from their parents. You have, to put it mildly, not had an easy life — but you have had a life that’s been very full of love, friendships, profound connections. Can you talk about what it is like to grow up with the kind of unshakable certainty of your parents’ love and support, and the impact that has had on you as a person as well as the way you parent?
Yes, my parents are very much unshockable, and I’ve given them plenty of cause to be so. I think, in many ways, my parents, both raised by single mothers in a time when that wasn’t a common experience, understood that they wanted to engage in the parenting project together, as a team. I think they simply loved their kids, and understood — for reasons I think it’s really hard to drill down to — that telling a child that you love them, no matter what, allows for everything. It’s the bedrock around which all other drama essentially becomes meaningless, and that this should be the primal drive of any parent. We would die in place of our children if it meant they could live. I honestly think you should reconsider parenthood if that’s not how you view it, although obviously that’s one opinion, although it’s certainly what I believe. And they were never those crappy people who were like, “Oh, don’t spoil a child with attention and love.” And I am a bit of a nightmare with them, it’s true, and when I experience my daughter acting out or getting angry, I always want her to know that even if she brings all of that to me, it’s okay. I am the ultimate home base, the ultimate safe space. But I also want to honor her boundaries when she sets them.
It also helps that we all eventually went to therapy, which I highly recommend.
Building on the question of family, one of the things that has always struck me about your writing, your online presence, and your lived life is an incredible emphasis on female friendships. In a culture where so much focus is put on work and the nuclear family, I would say that you have inordinately intimate and vibrant friendships with an exceptional number of women, and I know first had that you are a deeply devoted friend. Too often in media, films, series, and even books that are ostensibly about female friendships really end up only barely passing the Bechdel test and actually centering men and romantic relationships. Can you share some of your favorite books or films prominently featuring female friendships, and maybe talk about a formative relationship in your life that taught you about the value of having women friends?
Julia is my favorite movie about friendship, with Jane Fonda and (eventually one-legged!) Vanessa Redgrave. So gorgeous and complicated and sad and moving. A great love affair, if you will.
I think my mother was my first model — in part because she wanted to talk to me and know me, and also because she modeled the power of friendships. When her best friend from nursing school called, she’d stretch the phone card away and be in another room for hours. She was and is the first person making casseroles or helping out. My parents should have been born in a socialist country — it would have suited them (as it suits everyone, but that’s another topic). My mom has kept her circle of friends for decades and decades, so I suppose that modeling was a bit part of my own love of friendship. Also, I’ve always felt safe in my friendships, in part because there is no sex involved, and I’ve always had such conflicted, strange (still) to me, and powerful feelings of rage and disgust about my body, which have been deepened by a patriarchal, misogynist culture that weaponizes sex and sexuality, and finds a way to shame and/or pathologize women for every part of their body, or every choice they make that veers from the “good girl” narrative of be good, be loyal, be kind, be generous. Men are not saddled with the same expectations. And frankly, that might be part of the reason why so many men (this is, of course, a generalization) don’t have the kind of network that women do. We have trench-like relationships; when the world is designed to support and advance you, you don’t need as much help. Women are stronger for having to seek that out, but they shouldn’t need to do it because the men they know or work with or love and marry won’t support them in a practical sense (although many like to say they do), or abuse them, or diminish them, or demand their loyalty and respect when they’ve done nothing to earn it.
I do remember a friend I had in grade school, and we made up a secret language, and we would speak it to one another, and at school, we literally could exist in a bubble of our own making. It was like an instant protection against bullies on the playground — we were in our own world. I suppose that each friendship I have is its own world, but without the difficulties of sharing a bank account, or juggling schedules, or living together in close quarters, or trying to make one relationship so much more important than any other, or bringing in sex. It’s an open circle — my friends are your friends, etc., and everyone kind of maintains their independence in that configuration, which I’ve realized is incredibly important to me (although I have been accused of, and rightfully so, at times) of being clingy. I love it when two of my friends develop their own friendship independent of the one that I might have with each of them. Women are often accused of being jealous, but that’s another lie we’re told — that every girl is, at heart, a mean girl. Not true. Men are the ones doing battle with one another, most of the time, at least in my experience. There’s that annoying saying that hell hath no fury as a woman scorned, and I would say, the real truth is this: Hell hath no fury like a man whose ego has been bruised.
You quote Louise Glück’s incredible line: at the end of my suffering / there was a door. And yet Sanctuary also resists ideas such as the “end” of suffering. How has time changed your experience of grief, and what have been some of the most recent doors that have revealed themselves to you in ways that continue to transform your suffering, even though grief will always be a part of you?
A few years ago, I brought together a group of women who were writing through child loss. We’re still meeting and writing about our children, and we’ve added additional members. Working with people to write through and about their experiences of grief has been transformational for me. There’s so much power in allowing someone to speak that story on the page, and to bear witness to it, and then push it out into the world where others can bear witness too. Also, when I was working with Lucy Kalanithi on her husband’s book after he died, the two of us were sitting at her kitchen table, nursing our babies, who are quite close in age, and talking about Paul and Ronan and grief and expectation and we laughed and drank beer and looked at videos and emails and visited Paul’s gravesite. It was one of those moments when I thought, this is one of the most profound and meaningful experiences of my life, and it has remained so. And I remember having baby Charlie in the bed with me, and waking up with ideas and images and thinking, I want to bear witness to this woman’s story; I want everyone to know the true power of love and companionship and trust and steadfastness. That empowered me to create this writing through child loss group years later. I am not afraid of sadness, or rage, or anger, or confusion, or any of it. Being unshockable might be the quality about myself of which I am the most proud. In some ways, I believe that this is the work of my life: to create a space where these stories are invited and encouraged; nobody needs anyone’s permission to tell their story, but it can feel like we do, and if being a part of a group feels permissive in some way, and that helps to the story to come out, and for the truth to be told, then I want to create and nurture that group.
You were in Divinity school, training as a theological philosopher, at one time. You no longer believe in God, yet your work is heavily influenced by both theology and philosophy. In what ways do certain tenets of theology continue to speak profoundly to you even though you are not a person of faith? Are there theological works you continue to use as a touchstone?
Theology and the study of religion has always combined my love of history, literature, and philosophy — it’s like a three for one! I fell into a class about Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche and those three dudes have become touchstones for me, for better or for worse! Especially Kierkegaard, whose “leap” of faith can apply to so much about life, not just spiritual belief; Hegel’s appreciation of how we come to know what we think we know, and how that is always changing, and Nietzsche’s constant, grumpy questioning of why do we believe that this is bad and this is good? I was also a part of a classics program in college called the Great Conversation, reading the Greeks, the Bible, the Romans, the Enlightenment thinkers, etc. That image — being part of a great conversation — has stayed with me and influenced the way I view literature as a whole. We are in conversation with anyone, ever, known or unknown, who has endeavored to carve order out of chaos in a narrative.
You tell a story in Sanctuary in which you have bought a dress by mail as a teenager, and you put on the dress and makeup and do your hair, feeling for one of the first times in your life confident in your appearance amid growing up in a small Midwestern town where the fact that you have a prosthetic leg was often treated with intense insensitivity. On that day, in your new dress, you go down to the kitchen and your grandmother proceeds to make a derisive noise and tells you, “It’s a good thing you’re smart.” In many ways, it seems, the experiences of women with disabilities is like shoving steroids down the throat of the experience of being a woman in the world, period, where others are constantly assessing, judging, commenting on, and making assumptions about female bodies. How do you talk to your daughter about living inside a female body in this world, and also how have people’s responses to you as a woman with a prosthetic limb changed over time as you have moved to larger cities, as time has passed and there is more awareness of ableism, as you have been able to more self-select your communities, as you have embraced fashion as empowerment, and as you have become a pretty serious athlete? Or is it totally incorrect to assume they have changed much at all?
I do think that an increasing awareness about the ways in which people with disabilities have been misunderstood and mischaracterized, pioneered of course by the disability rights movement, has shifted the perspective … sort of. Words like “crippling” and “lame” are common words in our culture, used to describe or amplify all kinds of things, and we rarely question them. It’s common to say “the disabled,” whereas we would never say “the gays” or “the blacks” without rightful repercussions. I think my lifelong commitment to athleticism has helped me embrace my body; I’ve learned to enjoy the challenge of attempting to find a way to do something differently. It’s true that we will all have, if we live long enough, a disability of some kind. I don’t necessarily feel the urge to bend everyone’s ear to the fact, as I once did, but that truth remains. I also think my relationship with my body has changed as I’ve gotten older — I expect less, value more, and am happier about what I can do, and less concerned about what I cannot do or will never do. And yes, I live in California for a reason.
You and I have had quite a few conversations about … well, for lack of a more tactful way of putting it, male rage. In fact, it’s fair to say during these past four years, women all over the United States have started talking about male rage more openly, and its impact not only on interpersonal heterosexual relationships but on the political stage, the environment, and in every corner of life. Rage, however, is also a powerful tool in writing — you often tell students that you love a good “rage essay,” and that your own rage can be an impetus toward creativity. Women are often afraid of and punished for own rage swallow it in an attempt to “manage” the rage of men for our own protection and our children’s protection — and I use our here meaning not you or me individually but women throughout all of human history. When do you think rage is constructive and generative and when is it toxic, and how can we tell the difference?
Women are told their rage is toxic, unseemly, hysterical, weak, crazy, stupid, misplaced, ugly, unfeminine, unattractive, disallowed.
Men are told their rage is righteous, appropriate, brave, badass, deserved, expected, supported, never without cause, and their absolute birth right.
The inequity of the way rage is understood in this way is staggering.
That’s my answer.
Gina Frangello is the author of the novels A Life in Men and Every Kind of Wanting. Her memoir, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, will be out on Counterpoint in April 2021.