Trying to Build the World from Ash: Chris Rush on the Art of Memoir




FOR MOST OF HIS LIFE, artist Chris Rush kept a safe distance from the events he chronicles in his new memoir, The Light Years. Forty years out of adolescence, he realized his neglected memories had the makings of a book. The reader witnesses as Rush revisits his former life, remembering and recounting his history in vivid detail.

Growing up gay in an Irish Catholic family in suburban New Jersey, Rush is a somewhat familiar troubled protagonist. The fraught dynamics of his midcentury family are also well known: the drunk, abusive, philandering father; the docile housewife; and the pressure of conventionalism towering over all. But Rush adds dimension to these characters and situations that are often depicted with uninspired flatness. He resists the urge toward nostalgia, to look back on the culture wars of the ’60s as more free and exciting than those we are living in now. Rather, Rush recounts the events of his tumultuous childhood almost as an objective third party, allowing him to focus his attention on the sensual details of these events. The book gains its color and meaning from these rich particularities, operating just like one’s memory might — recalling the smells or colors that surrounded an experience, but forgetting the date that it happened.

In the book’s introduction, Rush writes:

When I think back on my childhood, there’s always a speeding car. Sometimes it’s a white pickup, sometimes a red Jeep. As the world rushes by outside the window, I can feel the old familiar sick. From one of these cars I jump; from one I am pushed. But they’re connected somehow, and I try to understand the line from one to the other.

The reader can feel Rush drawing that line, trying to make sense of its path and origin, to understand how he made it through this life — whether he jumped or was pushed.

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GRACE HADLAND: Was writing The Light Years something you always wanted to do, or was it born out of years of reflection on your childhood?

CHRIS RUSH: I didn’t write about these events for 40 years, and though in the course of my life as a human being, as an artist, I had written poetry and love letters, grant proposals, I never took my writing seriously and never did much with it. Strangely the very last section of the book, the epilogue, is the first thing I wrote. My father died and we had had a very strange relationship our whole lives — the last time I saw him I showed him my portfolio. At this point, I was doing portraits of children with disabilities. He told me how much he liked the work, and I was surprised to hear this — he had said so little to me in my life about being an artist. My reaction on the spot was to do his portrait. It was the last time I saw him, and the portrait is quite haunted. Some bit of time later, I decided to write about doing that portrait. It was sort of a history of an image. Once that door opened I decided to write a little more about him. Before I knew it, I was filling notebooks and the work sprawled for years. I filled 100 notebooks, and the stories went in every possible direction. Finally, the last to know, I realized: “Oh, I’m writing a book.” I think every writer knows, you only pretend to be the author. Suddenly you are in the middle of a book that you feel like someone else wrote. It was that kind of thing. I waited four decades to write about the material so I came to it without any sense of anger or resentment or regret. I was actually just fascinated as to how on earth all this happened.

You had an almost objective perspective on your own life.

Yeah. The funny part is, I had never needed to remember any of that detail because I had made a choice to move on; I had had a rather wonderful life. When I finally sat down and gave myself the space, I discovered I really remembered what happened 40 years earlier with great clarity. It was almost holographic. I found I could turn my memories in any number of different ways and learn things from them that I had never imagined were still in my mind. So the first few years were mostly spent just going through my memories as if it was this crazy mansion full of rooms and attics and junk. It was a long time before I understood the nature of the story. The organizing principle only came years later. But because I was a painter I knew I should expect the arrival of the unexpected. And I wrote what I saw.

You often paint self-portraits. Have you always been interested in yourself as a subject or character? This book could be viewed as a kind of self-portrait.

I think one of the reasons I was able to sneak into the writing of this book is that I already understood the rigors of studio life. One of the things about my life in the studio — which is very solitary, though I’m never lonely — is that when I’m alone it’s sort of like the past is coming through. I had always been looking at the past and the people I knew, after a certain time I ended up really focusing on portraits. Self-portraits were something I felt I had to visit because of classicism, this is a sort of subject artists have always looked at. I found self-portraits really amusing, and the model was cheap; there were many things about it I liked. What surprised me was that the self-portraits were always the first thing that sold in a show; people had a real fascination with the artist’s relationship with himself. So I suppose when I started to write about myself, I understood that it was a valid subject, not some kind of crazy indulgence.

Was it difficult to revisit and dwell on these perhaps painful events? Was it bizarre to make those experiences into narrative, to structure them in a linear form?

I would say generally no, because I had waited so long that in some ways I had already processed the material sufficiently to live a life. Now there are exceptions; there are passages I still can’t read without crying. It isn’t tragic; it’s just very emotional. The reason I worked 10 years on this book was to find the language that could not only reveal but really communicate the complexities of the situations I was in, especially regarding the use of psychedelic drugs, homelessness, and my dangerous estrangement from other people. I needed to find the language that would bear all that, and really give it the life it had when I was young, when all of it was new and intense. In a lot of ways, I can say all of it was exquisite and beautiful and incredible — I tried to be inside the kid’s mind and honor what the kid was feeling and also what he knew then.

A few people have asked me if writing this book was therapeutic. I would say it was revealing, but I was in pretty good shape when I started it. The big revelation was the way my attitude toward my so-called villains changed. The more I wrote about them, the more I loved them. I loved them because they were great characters. I suddenly started to understand what their motives were, their complexities and contradictions. People who I rather hated as a child in some ways became the most dimensional in the writing of the book. You know, we need our villains! And I ended up madly in love with them by the end of the process, but that’s the magic of literature.

It’s an experience of empathy for sure.

Yes. I was glad to have the time to study certain passages of life I never had before, and I’m sure it did me good, but mostly I was trying to report on a life.

Did you ever consider any other form for this project? Short stories or poems or a film? Were there any other media you thought could fit this material?

I’ve been supporting myself as an artist since about the age of 25 and I worked as a commercial artist in various ways so I did a lot of things that other people told me to do. By the time I got into the studio, I was reckless. I wanted to do everything possible. Some of this material I tapped into in paintings. I thought novelizing it would give me a certain amount of freedom — but I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Fiction is for the unimaginative.” So I decided to write it as it happened. I certainly see this in some ways as a film. I write in a relatively visual form with very short scenes, and I could easily see a filmmaker having a ball with this material. I’ve always hung around writers and poets and I’ve always had a great deal of sympathy for how fluid writing can be. The particular advantage with writing, unlike painting, is that it can deeply discuss and really use the invisible — even as a central theme. The unknowable, the uncertain, the unresolved, and these are very difficult things to work with in a painting because a painting is so concerned with the visible. I’m more convinced than ever that at this stage in my life the mystery and the uncertain are a central subject. I wrote this book and didn’t really get an answer but I felt a lot of things and I am back to the centrality of love.

Your book is set in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a time of major cultural shift. This period often gets colored with a lot of nostalgia, the romanticization of free love, drugs, music … Was that something you were conscious of avoiding, or wary of? To me, it doesn’t read as nostalgic.

Yes, that was a very central motive. I have a friend, a historian, whose name is Steve Johnstone, and we’ve had a lot of discussion about histories of this period. He heard me talk as I was working my way through this book and he said, “It sounds to me like you are writing an alternative history. The most important thing you can do in this case is to really focus on the details. They are the most valuable part of the story, for historians.” He said the details would describe everything and give it life. Which is really sort of poetic.

I really made an attempt to read everything on the period and the more I read the more I shook my head and said, why isn’t my story in here? I wasn’t alone for all of it — there were a lot of other freaked-out kids like me, and yet it seemed never to make it into print. Now I have some theories about this. If you were born in 1956 and you were a gay boy who liked drugs, the chances that you were going to live long enough to write your memoir were pretty slim. There are a lot of my compatriots who are simply missing. It’s funny you brought up the cliché of free sex — that was an exaggeration of the Nixon press. I was this gay boy not living in one of the big cities, and queer culture and hippie culture didn’t comfortably overlap for some reason. I wandered America, looking for a lot of things, and one of them was connection to other boys like me. The hippie underground, the hippie culture as we know it — they were great, but they were not a bunch of queer people. So I was trying very much to come in and write about my tenuous position as a gay boy in the middle of LSD days when LSD dealers considered themselves the wildest people in the world and in some ways they were much like their parents.

One other major theme in the book is the intergenerational conflict and that crucial moment of the culture wars between the baby boomers and their Depression-era parents. Do you feel that intergenerational tension is as intense today? Do you think it has changed?

Well, I have many brothers and sisters with children, and I would say they are less estranged from their children. A few of them are really close to their children in a wonderful way. However, the legacy of the Depression-era parents still affects my siblings; I see the shadow it has cast on the next generation. All the kids I knew had fathers from World War II and they came back not as heroes, like the press said, but pretty messed up. All the fathers were silent, drunk, and had guns. When you went to a kid’s house, you did not talk to the father. You went right to the kitchen to announce yourself to the mother. But the fathers were really haunted characters and mothers were enablers, it was a very dark bunch of people who came back from World War II by the time we ended up having them as parents. There was a really toxic silence that filled most homes in America.

In their defense, the parents changed too, the social and sexual mores that colored that period very much affected the parents. They started to dress differently; American culture became casual. The kitchen table became a place of very frank discussion. Even my own father, who was incredibly difficult, softened. My parents were really rabid Republicans, but by the end of the war they were against the Vietnam War.

Has your mother read the book?

Oh yes, and I would say that it was a very tough read for her, and she definitely had mixed feelings. We disagreed on a couple things, but I think now that we both had a little time with it she’s very proud of this book. My mother is now 92, and she is hysterical. I couldn’t have done this book without her incredibly candid interviews. She corroborated much of my memories, but because she was an adult at that time she had a depth of understanding with things I couldn’t figure out. Over the 10 years I wrote this book I’m sure I interviewed her 100 times. She was wonderful, and I owe her a great debt.

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Grace Hadland is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @disgraciee.


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