LSD and Palestine in the Same Season: An Interview with Ayelet Waldman
By Leah MirakhorJune 26, 2017
Her new memoir A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life relates her 30-day journey microdosing LSD as a cure for her life-long battle with depression and its effects on her marriage and children. The book also incorporates Waldman’s experiences as a federal public defender on the front lines of the War on Drugs, as well as her reflections on psycho-pharmacological history.
Waldman’s other 2017 title, Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, co-edited with her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank following the 1967 Six-Day War. Waldman and Chabon invited a group of international writers, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Colm Tóibín, Assaf Gavron, Geraldine Brooks, and Taiye Selasi, to visit the Palestinian territories and reflect on the cultural, social, and intimate implications of the occupation.
My conversation with Waldman took place in Los Angeles during her book tour for A Really Good Day in February. We discussed writing in the age of Trump, the magic of microdosing and her other strategies for treating depression, her responsibility as a Jew (who lived for some time in Israel) to address the Palestinian occupation, and her working relationship with her husband Michael Chabon. She and Chabon are returning to Israel and Palestine for their book tour in late June. In a recent tweet directed at Netanyahu, she wrote: “Israel banning tourists, like my husband Michael Chabon, who oppose the settlements. Netanyahu: We are due to land on June 17. I dare you.” And when Waldman dares you, she means it.
LEAH MIRAKHOR: What does the current political reality mean for your work?
AYELET WALDMAN: I actually have to start writing a novel that is due in June, which I have yet to begin. Or rather, I’ve begun and thrown away drafts half a dozen times. Part of the problem is that, since November, I feel inspired by a comment of Roxane Gay’s. I don’t want to write another novel about sad white people having sad feelings in their sad marriages. I feel like everything I write has to have import and meaning and — directly or indirectly — be a commentary on the current state of affairs.
I’m not saying there’s a problem with writing fiction. I don’t, for example, want my husband to stop writing fiction. I want him to keep writing fiction. I want Zadie Smith to keep writing fiction. And yet there are certain books that I put down, thinking, “No. Not now.” And then there are other books I’ve read with such voracious ecstasy. Like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Go get that book right now. It is brilliant. It is as if he was able to anticipate what was going to happen in our times and started writing about it years ago. It’s so timely, it’s beautiful, and it makes you think differently about everything. If I could write something like that … well, one always aspires. The next piece of fiction I write has to have loftier goals.
Are you thinking about going back to public defense work?
No, but after the book tours are over, I’m going to reactivate my bar membership and do some volunteer immigration work. I did a bunch of illegal reentry cases back when I was a public defender, so I think I remember the basic law. The inspiration to do this occurred to me as I was standing at SFO with my family, sign in hand and voice raised, screaming about the Muslim travel ban. I had this sudden thought: You know what, I actually have a skill set that is more useful than just my lungs. I don’t think anyone understands what this kind of aggressive immigration enforcement will mean for the country. You cannot round up a million people in a fair, just, and constitutional manner; you can only round them up like the Nazis rounded up the Jews or the Turks rounded up the Armenians or the Serbs rounded up the Bosnian Muslims. That’s the way large-scale deportations happen. We are going to have parents and children ripped from one another’s arms. Every day it seems another historian of the Holocaust is saying, “Here are the direct parallels to the current crisis.”
How has your experimentation with LSD affected your sense of yourself? Has that shifted at all?
Well, I still have that voice in my head that tells me, “Hey! You suck!” But the thing about microdosing is that it really quieted that voice. And I really do believe it’s a neurochemical thing. The evidence shows that LSD acts on your default mode network. Microdosing for me quieted that self-loathing voice. It was still there, I could still access it if I wanted to, if I was feeling like I needed to hate myself a little. But it wasn’t the persistent background noise in my life. I could go to work without hearing it. I did have to gird my loins and ignore my fundamental self-hatred. Unfortunately, without the microdosing, the voice is back. Though of course it’s not a literal voice. I’m not quite that crazy.
And yet, things are better. I’m in a good place right now. I don’t get sucked into the kind of deep depression I was in before I began the experiment. But where I notice the lack is in the way I feel about myself. My kids were so sick of hearing my constant stream of self-belittling comments that they made me something they call the self-loathing jar. Anytime I say anything that smacks of self-loathing, I have to put a dollar in the jar.
Without LSD, it takes so much more effort to maintain my stability. I am in a type of therapy called dialectical behavioral therapy, which is particularly good for people who have impulse control issues. It was designed for people who are borderline, so it focuses on emotional dysregulation. It’s kind of a mallet for my smaller nail, but I think it’s an incredibly useful system and I can make use of many of the skills it teaches. I end up seeing a DBT therapist a few times a week, between therapy and skills training and parenting training.
When I was microdosing, the LSD seemed to do all the work for me. I hate to say, “It’s available for you in a pill,” but it really was available for me in a pill. That’s the medication that has worked for me. I was very purposely vague about the time period this experiment took place because I wanted to protect myself and other people, given the statute of limitations for drug offenses, but I feel like all you need to do is comb through my Twitter feed going back a few years and you’ll be able to figure out what month it was. You’ll say, “Oh look! Here’s a month where Ayelet doesn’t say anything stupid. That must have been when she was microdosing.”
Some people who experience depression resist taking medications because of their side effects, one of which is feeling less like themselves. Did you ever feel like less yourself on LSD?
I’m not as affected by the drugs in that way as I know others are. My father, for example, is really flattened by the medications he takes. Lithium and Seroquel have made it possible for him to function but they have really flattened out his personality. Some people who live with him might argue that that’s all for the good. But I’m not sure what he’d say.
For the longest time when I was being treated with traditional medications, I would say to my psychiatrist, whatever it is that makes me me, I don’t want to lose that. So there were drugs I stayed away from, like lithium 00 because I saw what it did to my father. I stayed away from Depakote, from those harder-core mood-stabilizing drugs. I took mostly SSRIs, drugs that focused on alleviating depression rather than stabilizing mania. Anti-depressants can actually be risky if you have traditional bipolar disorder because they can trigger mania. But that wasn’t my problem, so I never experienced those effects.
However, one of my concerns about people microdosing as a treatment for bipolar disorder is that LSD is activating, so there is at least the possibility that it could trigger a manic episode. I don’t know if there’s any evidence of this yet, but it’s a concern. And that’s why it’s so frustrating that there isn’t research on this. We need research, but of course that’s exactly what we’re not going to get, at least so long as current attitudes prevail.
You did so much research for your memoir on issues like psycho-pharmacology, Nazi-era human testing, the War on Drugs. How did you bring together these historical and political contexts?
The fMRI studies currently being conducted at the Imperial College of London show that one of the things LSD does is allow different parts of your brain to communicate in novel and interesting ways. And my book is about many different things, all of which relate to one another in unusual and interesting ways. So, I suppose you could say that this is the book that LSD wrote. Though it’s not trippy. I’m a very controlled person in many ways. I certainly don’t like being out of control. That’s why I’ve never wanted to take a full-on acid trip. It’s why I don’t like to drink. I don’t like anything that makes me feel like I’ll lose control.
I also kept a journal during my month-long experiment, despite the fact that I have never, ever been a journal keeper. I’m actually disappointed with myself that I’ve never kept a journal before. I recently read an essay that argued that though we think of personality as an immutable thing, the truth is that people’s personalities change throughout their lives. I would love to know what I was like when I was 12 or 30 or what my kids were like when they were small. However, I’m a working writer, and it’s almost like I resent every word I write that I’m not paid for. Perhaps that’s why this experiment turned into a book. I had planned just to keep a record of my mood. But within 10 days, I noticed I had a book.
What struck you the most in terms of what changed in your life during this month?
One of my sons, who is a very emotionally attuned person, noticed a real change in me. I could feel his relief in the lifting of my depression. I had been in such a bad way before. My other kids noticed it less, because they were older, more in their own heads. Adolescents are different; you could put a dead body next to a teenage girl and she would just keep Snapchatting — they’re so self-absorbed. But my younger kids, as my mood plummeted, got more and more anxious. During the month of microdosing, when my depression lifted, I could feel the anxiety lift from my son. I could feel him relaxing.
It was devastating to know that I had been putting him through such pain. I was so locked into my own suffering that I hadn’t even realized the effect of my depression on him. It was so nice to see him just breathe again. One of the things that remains of the experiment is that I now understand that I can never let myself go to that place again; it’s simply too risky for my kids. It’s too hard on them. It’s hard on their father, too, but for them the experience is even more painful.
I used to be firm that I would not consider using LSD again so long as it was illegal, but recently I’ve started to feel a bit less confident. Since Trump got elected, my mood, like the moods of so many, has taken a turn. I’m not going to let myself descend again to that dark place. Not when I know that there exists a solution to my pain. Though I wouldn’t turn immediately to LSD. I would try legal treatments like ketamine, for example. There’s been some interesting new research about ketamine, a legal anesthetic. When infused directly into the bloodstream it seems to be effective at alleviating short-term depression. A bit, I suppose, like electroconvulsive therapy. It doesn’t last very long, but it can get someone out of that suicidal moment, and allow you the mental space to do the work to stabilize your mood. I’d probably try that first before I went to People’s Park and tried to shake down some dealers.
Can you tell us a bit about Kingdom of Olives and Ash?
Michael and I thought it would be a great idea to bring an international contingent of authors to the Israel-occupied territories and let each pursue his or her own interests. We made no demands other than that they write an essay based on what they observed. Geraldine Brooks wrote about two families, Palestinian and Israeli, one of whose children carried out a terrorist attack on the other. Dave Eggers wrote about Gaza. Colm Tóibín wrote about interviewing Yasser Arafat and visiting Jericho. Taiye Selasi wrote about relationships and marriages between Palestinians and Israelis. There are so many wonderful essays in the collection.
I’m not sure what possessed me to publish books about LSD and Palestine in a single season. If people didn’t hate me for one thing, they might for the next!
You lived in Israel in a kibbutz and know the country well. But this was your first time in Hebron. Was there something revealing about being there? And do you have any fears about losing a Jewish readership due to the stances taken in the book?
You can read about a sterile street, but until you see the shuttered shops, see Jewish settlers freely walking on ground where Palestinians — who own the property — are forbidden, it’s hard to imagine. It is absolutely reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. It’s reminiscent of the areas of German cities from which Jews were barred. Those comparisons are inevitable and apt in Hebron.
As far as my Jewish readers are concerned, Jews are progressive, by and large. They voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. There is a complete disconnect between AIPAC and Bibi Netanyahu and the majority of the American Jewish population. J-Street actually represents the typical Jewish perspective. That being said, while I don’t care how readers react to my work, I was worried that there might be some who turned away from Michael’s books. I was nervous about that for him. But we talked about it and he never had a moment where he thought that was an issue. He said that if there were readers who refused to read his books because of his commitment to human rights, then that was their problem, not his. A funny thing happened at a reading. A reader, angry about Michael’s position on the occupation, demanded his money back for all the books of Michael’s he’d purchased. The demand was written on a question card. Michael read it aloud and said, essentially: Sorry, that money’s mine, but feel free not to buy anything else.
You know, I had to listen to a whole rap in Hebrew school about how exceptional we Jews are. I was taught that our history makes us exceptionally devoted to human rights. So, I say, you want to be exceptional? Be exceptional, care about the downtrodden. You want to consider yourself chosen? Choose human rights. Choose justice, choose compassion, choose empathy.
Did you find Israelis who were on board with the project?
I brought a bunch of Israeli reporters and told them they could hang out with us writers in Hebron. Some had never been there. They live an hour from Hebron and they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Interestingly, stuck in my Boston hotel room recently because of a snowstorm, I watched all three seasons of this Israeli TV drama Srugim about national religious Israelis, what we might call “Modern Orthodox.” It was such a strange experience to be immersed in this reality that was so different from the Israeli reality I know. One culture, superimposed on another. I loved the show. I had total empathy for the characters, despite the fact that our beliefs and values couldn’t be more dramatically opposed. The characters talk so casually about the settlements. One even moved to the settlements. It was done subtly, and it was certainly problematic in some ways, but it was also really powerful.
You have talked about the tension involved in having a husband who is a very successful writer. Can you say something about what it was like to collaborate with him?
I never think about this issue when I’m writing. It’s only after the fact. When I look back on my career — I’m 52 years old; I’ve written 13 books — I am occasionally able to fairly and accurately assess my accomplishments. Sometimes, however, I find myself comparing my career to my husband’s. I suppose you could say that my definition of a successful literary career is warped being married to Michael. But on the other hand, I believe he is one of the best American fiction writers living or dead. And, I am a competent working writer who can craft a nice sentence, tell a good story, and make a decent argument. I can’t compete, so I don’t try to. I just do my own work.
But, as you say, we have begun collaborating. And not just on Kingdom of Olives and Ash. Right now, we are adapting a story for Netflix. We have a system for writing together that works well for us. We swap drafts back and forth. I write, he makes it gorgeous, I trim back — it’s like a bonsai tree. It’s so much fun, we love doing it. Though of course sometimes we argue. Once, we had a knock-down-drag-out fight over two lines of dialogue. We yelled for five minutes before we realized we were both saying the same thing. Then we laughed, kissed and made up, and made the change.
Leah Mirakhor is an assistant professor of English at the College of Wooster. Her articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Paste, African American Review, and American Jewish Literature.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Lisa Fetchko on Daphne Merkin's memoir "This Close to Happy" and the literary difficulties of capturing the minutiae of depression....
Leah Mirakhor interviews Riad Sattouf about the award-winning graphic memoir trilogy “The Arab of the Future” and his career in France....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.