WeekEND Reading: Jessica Teich on her sublime memoir, which is more of a ‘shared autobiography,’ touching on very tragic & real issues of suicide, rape, victimology, & teaching our daughters self-preservation skills

Standard

By Leslie Lindsay 

At once a story of heartache and trauma, interwoven with a bit of mystery following the suicide of a not-quite schoolmate, fellow Rhodes woman, Lacey Cooper-Reynolds, THE FUTURE TENSE OF JOY is an interior memoir at the core with very strong writing.small-cover-image-copy

It was an honor to be awarded the exclusive and prestigious Rhodes scholarship, particularly as a woman. In THE FUTURE TENSE OF JOY, Teich sets out to render those old gender stereotypes outdated, while  simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that she is, indeed, worthy of the award. Meanwhile, things in Jessica’s past bubble to the surface. She suffered horrendous abuse in her youth at the hands of a 30-year old male dancer. Routinely, Joe would sexually and physically assault her, threatening death if she told anyone. Yet, she succumbs, and later, attempts to put the past behind her.

Fast-forward some years and Jessica is married, a mother, and consumed with dread. OCD-like symptoms explode. She can’t sleep; she worries. When she comes across an obituary in the Oxonian, (the Rhodes Scholar bulletin), she glimpses the name of a fellow Rhodes woman, Lacey Cooper-Reynolds, who recently took her life at age 27. Why would this smart, young, and recently married woman take her own life? This thread becomes the pull through Jessica’s life, as she begins to explore Lacey’s death.

Jessica continues to ask, “Why would a woman described as ‘brilliant, beguiling,’ and so widely admired, deeply cherished, commit suicide?” Seeking answers, Jessica hires a private investigator and tracks down Lacey’s survivors: her adoring brother, a wounded sister, the widower. While unraveling Lacey’s life, Jessica learns truths about her own life as a mother, wife, scholar, and survivor.

Join me as I chat with Jessica about this deep and thoughtful book.

Leslie Lindsay: There are so many things going on in THE FUTURE TENSE OF JOY (Seal Press, September 27th, 2016), that it’s hard to determine exactly what genre it falls into. Ultimately, it’s a memoir, but there are themes of abuse, survival, suicide, mystery, mothering, and so much more. Where did you draw your initial inspirations?

Jessica Teich: I was largely inspired by the kinds of memoirs that blur boundaries; that are reflective and lyrical and vivid and visceral.  Frank McCourt’s ANGELA’S ASHES is one.  I also love Lorna Sage’s BAD BLOOD.  It’s wildly funny and poetic, introspective, at the same time.  I do think my book is a memoir, or perhaps, a shared autobiography.  It’s Lacey’s story, and mine, and there is a third thread that’s part of the narrative weave: the story of my older daughter, poised on the brink of adolescence, the moment smart girls can be swallowed whole.  Strangely enough, memoir is a genre I’ve fallen in love with relatively recently.  I tothelighthousewas a big reader as a child—I still am—but it wasn’t until I discovered Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a college student that I began to appreciate how rich and fully dimensional an interior voice can be.

L.L.: As a teenager, you were a ballet dancer. Graceful pirouettes come to mind, pink leotards, delicate steps, but what happened in the attic room of that dance studio was anything BUT graceful and delicate. I know how challenging this must be, but can you talk about that briefly, please?

Jessica Teich: For me that time takes place behind a scrim.  It feels like so many lifetimes ago.  Yet my memories are visceral: lying on Joe’s bed while he molested me, staring at the nails piercing through the ceiling of his attic bedroom. It was like being in a coffin, except a coffin would have been safer. In a coffin, I would have been alone.  Instead, as I say in the book, “there was Joe, lusting, pumping, groaning, rutting like a malevolent machine.”

For me, that passage captures the sense of helplessness I felt as a teenager, and also the confusion: why is this man behaving so brutally?  Why doesn’t anybody help?

Only later did I learn that many victims of violence never tell anyone they’re in trouble.  They don’t think there’s anything anyone can do to help.  If you’re a poised, confident child—at least on the outside—you’re probably pretty good at solving child-sized problems.  But you can’t think of a way out of the violence, the terror, the aloneness, and you’re only 16, so you can’t imagine anyone else would know of a way out, either. And I didn’t grow up in a family where you could talk about how you felt.  You couldn’t say, “I’m afraid.  I need you.”

Looking back now, I see that I was trapped in a perfect storm of susceptibility: distant parents; teachers I didn’t want to disappoint; a sense of myself as inadequate in some way, not truly desirable, not fully female or adult.   I was vulnerable at 16, but the abuse doesn’t stop when the clamor, the chaos, ends.  The experience of violence is a depth charge that continues to detonate.p2-w2-ballerina-a-20140529

L.L.: There was a vague sense of closure with what happened with Joe, but what happened with him, do you know?

Jessica Teich: I don’t know if he’s still alive.  If he’s still married.  If he’s still dancing.  I know he took the dancing away from me, for a very long time.  As I was writing my book, over so many years, I would often imagine some kind of rapprochement: a conversation in which I could ask why he hurt me, and he could explain what happened.  But there was no explanation— there never is— for that kind of brutality, that awfulness.  Or rather, there is no excuse, but there IS an explanation; that he had been abused by his father, and that the cycle of violence, passed down in families for generations, is exceedingly difficult to break.

Experts think that it’s very unwise—for obvious reasons—for survivors to go in search of their abusers.  Not only because of the threat of more violence, but because, on the simplest level, there is no satisfaction in confronting someone so damaged, so depraved.  There isn’t anything Joe could tell me that would make what happened better.  I needed to make it better myself, by freeing myself to feel the love of the people I chose to be vulnerable to, the people I’d embraced.

L.L.: This brings up the urgent call to end violence against women, in their homes, on college campuses, even in the workplace. How can we help victims bring their attackers to justice?

Jessica Teich: There are so many ways to help, legally and logistically.  There’s still so much work to be done.  We can help lift the restrictions on access to DNA rape kits that still exist in some states.  We can ensure the preservation of DNA forensic evidence and expedite its analysis.  But there is an enormous cultural shift that needs to happen as well.  We have to believe people when they say they’ve been molested.  Statistics show that it’s extremely rare for someone to invent a story of abuse, even though those instances have gotten a lot of attention in the press.  What’s more, abusers are serial predators.  It’s not like some college freshman drank too much and lost control.  They say everything in life is about sex EXCEPT sex, which is about power.  This kind of violent abuse is a desperate, broken way for people to exert power.  There’s no romance in it.rsa1

What’s more, it’s often the victim whose life is forever altered. She— and most survivors are women— is forced to flee with her children, or withdraw from college, while the predator carries on unhindered, free to violate someone else.  That’s got to stop.  We’ve got to believe these victims, and arrest their attackers, and give the assailants a punishment befitting the heinousness of their crimes.  These aren’t frat boys, misbehaving.  They are serious serial predators.  It’s quite frightening to send your daughter to college knowing there is a 1 in 4 chance that she will be the victim of assault.  That’s indecent.  It’s unforgivable.  I read recently that some colleges are hosting seminars for women on “how to avoid rape.”  As one young woman pointed out, what we should be teaching, mandating, is an end to rape, not a strategy for avoiding it.

L.L.: When the book opens, you write about “stalking” your own daughter as she goes to ballet class. Were you fearful the same thing would happen to her, and where is she now?

Jessica Teich: Yes, I was terrified. And I came to realize how unfair that was, most especially to her, but also to the world she lived in, which was safe and nurturing.  She wasn’t nearly as vulnerable as I thought she was.  In fact, she’d twice taken a self-defense class—I think every girl should take a class like that— and she feels quite strong.  I hope she won’t be tested.  But she is exceedingly smart and thoughtful and vigilant. I trust her.  And I trust the world more than I ever thought I would.

L.L.: The story of Lacey is intriguing to me, as well. I’m a survivor of death by suicide. My mother, a little over a year ago, took her own life. I can see the grisly intrigue, from someone on the outside, but as an insider, this is raw material. How did your investigation into Lacey Cooper-Reynold’s life begin? And how did it spiral out, going deeper and deeper into your own fears and frustrations?

Jessica Teich: I’m so, so sorry to hear of your loss. I can only imagine how anguishing that is, based on the writing and thinking I’ve done. I’m sorry to say, too, that it can be something one struggles with for a long time.  Not just the final decision, but the feeling of not being able to help.  Not being allowed to help. That’s why I wanted to write about Lacey.  To help.

You know, my investigation into her death began serendipitously.  One night I couldn’t sleep and I wandered downstairs to my living room and stumbled upon the obituary of a stranger.  I was captivated by her story.  Before I knew it, I had become consumed with thoughts of her, and I wanted to know why someone so talented and beloved would choose to end her own life—on the very day her new husband was arriving in Los Angeles.  But I think the real question was: why did she feel she wasn’t enough; would never be enough?  That’s a question I realized I had to ask myself.

L.L.: Did you ever find out what ‘really’ happened to Lacey? What do you suspect now, after your research and writing?

Jessica Teich: There is no “aha!” moment in the book. Nor, I might add, is there always, or even often, a moment like that in life.  I have my own epiphanies—mostly about where I left my sunglasses—but rarely is there a single revelation that explains the arc of heart-love-window-winter-frostsomeone’s life.  For me, there is always a central, impenetrable mystery at the heart of every relationship.  We are all, always, strangers to each other in fundamental ways.  What’s amazing to me is that any two people can be “intimate” for any length of time: lovers; parents and children; colleagues; teacher and student.  It’s so hard to be open and honest, respectful of boundaries but transparent, vulnerable.

Why did Lacey “do it?”   The answer is both too easy to imagine and forever beyond our ken. I think the more important question is: what can we do about it?  How can we reach the next person who feels ragged and desperate and alone?  As Lacey’s closest friend said, “We must keep these things alive. It’s common when these things happen for people to tell each other that no one could have known, but I think it’s fair to ask what more could have been done.”

That’s why I wrote THE FUTURE TENSE OF JOY, to help keep her alive, and to keep alive the questions raised by her tragic death: How do we tell the truth about who we are?  How do we metabolize our pain?

L.L.: Suicide rates among young women have continued to climb, even more alarmingly, among teenage and preteen girls. Since 1999, suicides among girls ages 10-15 have tripled, according to a recent CDC report. These statistics are harrowing. As a mother of girls ages 9 and 11 whose grandmother died by suicide, it’s particularly shocking. Can you speak to that, please?

Jessica Teich: I think our culture places enormous pressure on girls, and women: to be perfect, to need nothing, to give everything, to ask for very little. Even to this day, I think we’re expected not to take up too much space.  I remember reading an article in the New York Times years ago, about a group of girls in a New England town who were like supernovas: bright, accomplished, philanthropic, athletic.  They had everything 17-year-old girls might seem to need, from perfect test scores to a close cohort of friends.  But they said they spent a lot of time wondering if the boys thought they were “hot.”   They calculated their value as people using the most superficial metrics.  I think that’s still the case.01girls-large5

Our culture, with its perpetually revised, homogenized images, exerts pressure on all of us to seem “publically perfect.”  I don’t think perfection of any kind is a value to aspire to.  To be oneself, to fill out the contours of one’s life, to step into one’s own skin; that’s what’s important.  And that’s the best way to make a contribution to the lives of others, which I think is a huge source of self-esteem.

In doing research for THE FUTURE TENSE OF JOY, I discovered that girls who volunteer are less self-focused and self-critical.   Connection, collaboration; these are the ways to help girls shore up their sense of worth, to say nothing of the benefits to others.  Too often schools encourage students to volunteer for the minimum number of hours, to meet their “service” requirement.  But that’s not enough time for the relationships, the benefits, to take root and grow. Realizing that our lives are inextricably entwined with the lives of others; that can be healing, buoying. Engagement is also a great antidote to depression and hopelessness.

I sometimes think of what Robert F. Kennedy said: “We must tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of the world.” Making gentle. I think that’s our job.  “Gentle” is one of those words— like “lovely” or “cozy”— frequently assigned only to women.  But “gentle” can be fierce.  I like it as a verb: to gentle.   The more we do that, the more I think our lives, our hearts, will mend. It turns out the ancient Greeks had a word for people who didn’t perform public service.  Our word “idiot” derives from it.

L.L.:  There’s another statistic I’d like to mention, and while I don’t have definite numbers on this one, it has to do with the ‘middle school girl slump,’ where smart, self-reliant girls are made to ‘dumb-down’ to appear more soft, likable, and more attractive to the opposite sex.  How can we get society to stop sending these messages to our girls? Or, does the message come from elsewhere?

Jessica Teich: The messages are everywhere.  What’s important is for parents and teachers to say to our daughters (and sons): I see who you are.  I see what you’re struggling to achieve.  Maybe it’s to understand Robert Frost’s poetry.  To join the Red Cross team at school.  To get along better with your brother.  To stop saying the word “like.”  We’ve got to help our children achieve a sense of scale, so they can see where they fit in, what they have to contribute, what’s worth achieving and what is just mindless, meaningless, purposeless acquisitiveness. 

My husband and I chose to send our daughters to an all-girls school, but initially, I was very resistant to the idea.  I’d grown up with downloadbrothers.  I kept walking around the school thinking, “Where are all the boys?”  Then we sat in on a science class, and the classroom had been redesigned to accommodate the ways girls like to learn: in groups.  The lab stations were enlarged to make it possible for the girls to work collaboratively. One girl raised her hand and asked, “What’s an autoclave?” She was an eleventh grader and I thought, “How can she not know what an autoclave is?”  (But then, I was a doctor’s daughter.)  The woman giving the tour turned to me and said, very patiently and without judgment, “At least she’s not afraid to ask.” That’s when the penny dropped. I realized that what we want most—for our children, for ourselves— is the courage to take chances, to heed our own instincts, to acknowledge our mistakes, to ask for help.  I think that’s what we all long for: freedom from fear.

L.L.: Is there anything else I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Jessica Teich: No, but I’m very moved by your willingness to talk about your mother’s death.  I’m so sorry for your loss.  Your willingness to be open about it, despite your pain, is very courageous.  The Buddhists say our children choose us, to teach us, to free us.  I think your daughters chose very well.

L.L.: Jessica, it was a pleasure chatting. Thank you!

Jessica Teich:  Thank you so much.

“An honest, compassionate memoir… Teich’s book is not just compelling for the way it plumbs the psyche of an outwardly driven and ambitious woman; it is also provocative in its questioning of what female success really means.”

—Kirkus Reviews

For more information, or to connect with Jessica, please see: 

screen-shot-2016-08-10-at-4-04-02-pmAbout the Author: JESSICA TEICH graduated summa cum laude from Yale and received an M.Phil degree from Oxford, where she was a Rhodes scholar. Her previous book, Trees Make The Best Mobiles: Simple Ways To Raise Your Child In A Complex World, appeared in Vanity Fair, People, Us, and The Chicago Tribune, and was featured on the Today show. For almost a decade, Teich worked as a literary manager at the Mark Taper Forum, commissioning and developing plays. She subsequently received a grant to write and direct a movie for the Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute. Teich served as head of the Biography committee for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two daughters, and dog.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, by clicking on the various links: 

[Cover and author images courtesy of L. Rossi-Totten and used with permission. Girls in science lab retrieved from , rape statistics image retrieved from, Ballerina image from, Virginia Woolf cover image from Wikipedia, all on on 9.23.16] 

Got something to say? Tell us!!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s