Wednesdays with Writers: Jeannie Vanasco talks about the stigma around mental illness, her obsession with her father, why memoir is important, and so much more in her debut, THE GLASS EYE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A dark and gripping memoir about the intricacies of grief, obsession, madness, and more. 

The Glass Eye_cover
When I came across a write-up of THE GLASS EYE: A Memoir, in a recent issue of POETS & WRITERS, I knew I had to read it. And I’m so glad I did.

Jeannie Vanasco’s father died when she was an 18-year old college freshman. It’s this catastrophic event that sends her into a spiraling tailspin, triggering her mental illness. Jeannie becomes obsessed with her father’s death, but also a dead half-sister who shares her name. Years ago, Jeannie’s father was married to someone else. They had four daughters, one of those daughters died in a horrific car accident when she was only 16.

All along, Jeannie has made a promise to someday write a book for her father. This wasn’t exactly the book she had in mind, but it’s the one she wrote to better understand herself, her mental illness, her relationship with her dad. Told in a slightly fragmented series of vignettes, THE GLASS EYE reminded me a lot of the style and download (1)structure used in Rachel Khong’s GOODBYE VITAMIN (Henry Holt, 2017).

I loved Jeannie’s forays into mental illness, not because I wish it on anyone, but because Vanasco handles it with such raw authenticity. It’s not anyone who could bare their soul as eloquently as Vanasco.

THE GLASS EYE also incorporates many aspects of the writing life, home, mothers, and memory that makes it a truly unique read.

I am so honored to welcome Jeannie to the blog coach.

Leslie Lindsay: Jeannie, I pretty much devoured THE GLASS EYE, for a multitude of reasons. My own mother struggled with mental illness most of her life. She died by suicide two years ago. Like you, I’m a writer. And also I used to work in mental health. It seems our paths were meant to cross. I know you promised your dad a book, and I know this wasn’t the one you had in mind. Can you tell us more about what you *did* have in mind and what really prompted THE GLASS EYE?

Jeannie Vanasco: Whenever readers like yourself share personal stories with me, it reaffirms why memoirs are important. At the genre’s core is empathy. But for a long time, I felt self-indulgent and, as a result, guilty for writing a memoir—partly given my age, partly because I’d heard the clichéd argument that “there are enough grief and mental illness memoirs out there,” and partly because there’s this temptation to interact with one’s writing more than with other people. But now that THE GLASS EYE is published, I’ve been getting a lot of “me too” responses from readers, and those mean a lot to me. Breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness and grief, that wasn’t initially my goal. But to answer your question, I’m not sure what my goal was, or what I had in mind for the book. My best guess: I was interested in the process more than the product. I wanted to keep spending time with my dad. The writing process allowed for that.

typewriterforweb

L.L.: I loved how you incorporated things about the writing life into THE GLASS EYE. In fact, I think Chapter 13 opens with a line like, “My editor calls to discuss chapter 12.” I love that the writing feels present, but not present. Was this intentional? And what steps, if any, did you do in determining the overall structure?

Jeannie Vanasco: I like how you worded that: “present, but not present.” That’s what I was after. I wanted the reader to feel the immediacy. That’s why I broke apart the chronological narrative—stretching back to my childhood—with present-tense sections about the struggle to write. A lot of those passages I lifted verbatim from my notebooks. Masie Cochran, my editor at Tin House, is the one who encouraged me to weave those meta passages throughout the book. She’s a brilliant editor. She could see that my struggle to keep the promise was the plot, and those meta passages foreground the promise. It’s what inspired THE GLASS EYE.images (22)

L.L.: I want to talk about the title, THE GLASS EYE, a bit. Which I love. There are a myriad of metaphors here. Your father had a glass eye. You had a mathematical formula representing it. Tell me if I get it wrong, but it was something like, i + I = Eye. There’s also something about fragility and seeing the world differently. In all of your earlier writing (essays, poems, etc.), you always titled this work, THE GLASS EYE. Can you tell us more?

Jeannie Vanasco: The equation was actually eye + i = I. But I like how your formula shifts the emphasis to my dad’s perception, as opposed to my perception of myself.

One of the main reasons behind the title: my dad’s loss of his left eye was my first experience with loss. I was four years old when he lost his eye to a rare disease, and that was when I first understood his vulnerability. To me, the metaphor of the glass eye could hold multiple meanings, and that seemed to me the sign of a good metaphor: one that can’t be easily summarized.

L.L.: I just finished writing a memoir myself. I found it challenging in all the ways that writing is challenging, but writing a memoir is so unique. There’s a lot more emotion. Memories can be fickle. And then you think, ‘who on earth is going to read this drivel?’ What has the experience been like for you? Are you glad you did it?father_daughter_tips

Jeannie Vanasco: Writing the memoir was hard, of course. A lot of my doctors—in and out of the hospital—pressed me to stop working on it. But not-writing was harder. Not-writing didn’t feel like an option. I’d promised my dad a book. I couldn’t not keep my promise.

I feel better now THE GLASS EYE is done. I’m no longer obsessed with my dad. I still miss him. I’m still sad he’s dead. But I’m more comfortable with the sadness.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit to mental health. Your father fell into a deep depression after his daughter Jeanne died at age sixteen. Do you suspect that perhaps you share the same genetic make-up when it comes to mental illness? Could it have also been her death that sent him into a downward spiral triggering his depression? Does anyone else in your family suffer from mental illness (full disclosure: it runs rampant in mine). And how are you doing now?

Jeannie Vanasco: Losing Jeanne was the worst moment of his life. And then to be blamed for it. I think most people in his situation would lose their minds. That’s why I’m hesitant to assign a posthumous diagnosis to my dad. When I first
received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I made detailed lists of why I thought he also had it.
But that’s because I wanted to be like him.

list-making

I suspect that mental illness runs in my family. But ultimately, I can’t say for certain. I’m not really in contact with anyone in my family except for my mom. Three of my four grandparents were dead when I was born. I didn’t really get to know either side of my family very well. My dad’s side mostly lived in New York, and I grew up in Ohio. My mom’s family was poor and didn’t have access to good medical care. And the stigma surrounding psychiatry and therapy—especially in the Midwest back then—was especially strong. The stigma is still there. That’s why books about mental illness are important.

I wish I hadn’t been so embarrassed about my illness in my twenties. Keeping it a secret was hard. But I’m doing a lot better now. That’s thanks to having great doctors and a great therapist.

L.L.: Now that THE GLASS EYE is published, what’s obsessing you? What keeps you awake at night?

Jeannie Vanasco: Just this month, I started working on the next book, a collection of essays cohering around what it means to have a psychiatric diagnosis. I’m interested in the history of the insanity plea, cultural portrayals of mental illness, the lack of political clout that people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have. I’m excited to be working on something new.

L.L.: What might have I forgotten to ask, but should have?

Jeannie Vanasco: A lot of readers wonder what it’s like to have published a book about my history with mental illness. But I don’t feel shame about it. To talk about it so openly feels liberating. That’s why I appreciate your questions.

L.L.: Jeannie, it’s been such a pleasure! Thank you for chatting with us.

Jeannie Vanasco: Thank you for reading THE GLASS EYE—and for your great questions. I look forward to reading your memoir!

For more information, to connect with Jeannie via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE GLASS EYE, please see: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeannie Vanasco is the author of The Glass Eye. Her writing has Jeannie Vanasco_colorappeared in The New York TimesThe Believer, NewYorker.com, Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, she now lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Tin House Books and used with permission. Glass eyes from Pinterest, no source noted. Father and daughter shoes/feet from Making list from, writing/typewriter image from; collection of books from L. Lindsay’s archives.] 

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About leslie1218

Author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) frantically working on a novel that should be ready for submission this fall. Mom of two spritely redheads & one chubby basset hound whose stories & images appear in my writing from time-to-time.

2 responses »

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It is encouraging to see that writers are talking about mental illness and bringing attention to it. I will definitely have to check out this book.

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