By Leslie Lindsay
Propulsive, poetic, and courageous, Elizabeth Garber’s IMPLOSION is the best kind of memoir: you experience right along with her and leave it feeling a sense of renewal.
But that’s not to say everything in IMPLOSION (SWP, June 2018) is glorious; it’s not. This is a subtle, intense exploration of a young woman’s survival through psychological oppression, as she (and her mother and two brothers) are raised in a glass house, a prison, constructed of her father’s mental illness.
Woodie Garber was a famous Modernist architect, designing structures that would rise from the earth resembling glass cubes. He builds the family’s home–a glass house–in a privileged area of Cincinnati in the 1960s. The family leaves behind the 1870s Victorian where the Garber family has resided for many generations. But it’s not all sunshine and mirth in that glass house.
At first, Woodie just seems eccentric. He’s brilliant and bursting with ideas. He loves jazz records and good wine, racing cars, and art. Elizabeth has a connection with her father–they share many of the same interests and she so wants to emulate him–visiting his office and making models of her favorite Modernist house.
Yet, something deeper and dark is brewing. Woodie’s mood becomes destructive, pulling his family into a tight spiral of strange, insidious experiences, which are challenging and confusing on so many levels.
There’s something large and looming in the horizon –I certainly felt the impact as the whole family–and Sander Hall–came tumbling down. It takes years of reflection, therapy, and more to get to the final resolution, but oh–we get there.
The writing is crisp, clear, and wise. Garber shows the shadows and the light of the toll mental illness–specifically bipolar–can take on a family. Well done!
Please join me as I welcome the lovely Elizabeth Garber to the author interview series.
Elizabeth, I am so glad to chat. This book feels so very personal—for many reasons—it’s a memoir of course, but we also sense your vulnerability, your confusion, your loyalty to your father. My editor tells me that all books have to have a ‘why now,’ hook. What was yours?
My “now” is a long one, a decade to complete this book. I had written poetry about my life in Maine for decades and didn’t want to write or remember much about my childhood, until this book demanded to be written. In 2008, in my mid-fifties, I had a heart procedure and as I healed for five weeks, staying still and quiet, a river of memories of my childhood surfaced, and I was compelled to write these vivid moments. For the next 3 years I wrote steadily until I had a big messy confusing first draft. The next seven years I researched, layered, edited, refined, revised through many drafts. I am so glad I took the time to wait until it was a polished full telling of a family’s story. And suddenly when the book was released in the Spring of 2018, it seemed a book that coincided well with the stories surfacing from the #MeToo movement.
I so related to almost everything in IMPLOSION. Of course, our time periods are a little staggered—but my mother was mentally ill. Like your father, one of her diagnoses was bipolar. Also, similar to your father, she was an interior decorator. And well, she died. Do you have any sense of what it is about the creative personality that often goes hand-in-hand with mental illness? I think you say some really wise things about this toward the end of IMPLOSION when you speak of your father’s psychiatrist.
I have come to understand that when someone is in a manic episode that they can be functioning at a kind of internal 220 volts instead of the regular safer 110 voltage we live used for daily life. A mind on high voltage makes connections faster that the rest of us, and the fortunate people who are catapulted into this rapid mind state turn to creative expression. The unfortunate people often move into self-destructive patterns to manage the intensity.
I experienced a mild or hypo-manic state in my forties, and I was often stayed up til 2am every night, painting and writing poetry and creating performances. When the manic state ended, I felt both relief to be back in my ‘normal’ self and also grief to lose that state of rapid brilliant connections. I loved that intensity of feeling and creativity but it was hard to manage in the midst of my daily life as a mother and acupuncturist. I had been in that state the last few years of my dad’s life and it helped me gain so much compassion for the exhausting intensity he lived in, the creative highs and the dark immobile depressions.
Let’s shift gears a minute—kind of—to talk about the cover design. Which is gorgeous. It’s black and white with a tiny bit of red. I am wondering if there are multiple interpretations there—your first love was with an African-American boy. There was a good deal of civil rights going on in the 1960s and 1970s, which you touch on, plus, also the depression and mania you dealt with at home. And the red…oh! What does that represent—rage? Can you talk about this, please?
I wanted the cover to have the feel of 60’s modern, so the black and white photograph of our “modern” living room with the iconic furniture and art was the first step. The room seems so serene and quiet, but the title IMPLOSION shouts a strong contrast to the calm room. Our family looked so good on the outside but was anything but. I wanted the feeling of an *implosion* rocking that world. The red was personal. My father’s and my favorite color and we had a lot of red in the house. If the photo had been in color it would have blared a lot of dramatic red. I also think of the red being the intensity of energy in the house.
The actual glass house we grew up in, is still a beautiful place for the couple who lives in it. Interestingly all the red has been cooled down to a lot of greys and whites.
“I was riveted by this story of an adoring daughter struggling to escape the dominance of her brilliant, charismatic father. Garber writes beautifully about the layered complications of family love.”
–Monica Wood, author of The One-in-a-Million Boy, When We Were the Kennedys, Any Bitter Thing, and Ernie’s Ark.
Here’s another similarity with our stories: you become a healer, an acupuncturist, and I became a child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. We did not become architects or interior decorators like our parents, yet the thoughts once crossed both our minds. People will ask me still (I gave up nursing twelve years ago), if I went into it because I was trying to save myself. No. Not really. I think it was all I knew! Also, I wanted to help. Can you talk about your career path as an acupuncturist?
People have also asked me why I didn’t become an architect or painter. My father devoted to his life to design and aesthetics because that was what was most important to him. What had most affected me in my life was the suffering of my father’s mental illness and for me the depression that settled in over me starting at age 17. It wasn’t until I was 26 and experienced acupuncture treatment that the grey fog of depression lifted. The relief to emerge from depression was the most important thing that had happened to me and changed my life. I decided two months after I started treatment that I wanted to be an acupuncturist to help people emerge from depression and mental illness. Acupuncture treatment continued to help me recover from my history of abuse, and trauma over many years. I’ve been practicing for thirty-five years and still feel such gratitude to have found my work and to be released from depression.
I am so glad to both treat patients and to live my creative life as a writer.
I’m also interested in your writing journey. You’ve written poetry and for literary journals—what was your process like for IMPLOSION? It took a good deal of time, I understand.
I’ve written since I was a kid, writing summer vacation journals, and I continued writing in journals to find myself through my teens to forties! I started writing poetry in my twenties and kept at in for the next forty years. I always thought of myself as a poet and never imagined writing prose until the heart surgery and recovery pushed me onto a new course. Many poets have written fine memoirs know for beautiful lyric prose. Decades of writing poetry hones skills in writing lean well chosen lines, and poetry is also known for zeroing in on particular vivid moments. But when I realized I was writing a memoir in prose I realized I needed to study memoir and learn how to craft a book length story. Fortunately I was in the midst of an MFA, and I switched from poetry to creative non-fiction to study how to structure a narrative arc, create scenes, write dialogue, and discover what was the heart of my story.
In the end, you come to peace with your relationship with your father. Does it stay that way? Do you vacillate between feelings for him even now, nearly twenty five years since he passed?
I continue to feel at peace with my father, and especially since the process of writing this memoir seemed to release me from the history of what we lived through. In my research and on my book tour, I went back to Ohio and reconnected with friends and family from my childhood, people who worked with my dad, I revisited his buildings, and it this process I felt like I got to celebrate what was great about my dad, and also speak the truth out loud about the impact of his madness. Being able to acknowledge both was a tremendously liberating experience.
I understand you have a new grandbaby on the way! How exciting. What can you tell us about this exciting time? And if there’s anything else obsessing you?
I just wrote my first poem about my daughter’s pregnancy! But mostly I am totally immersed in writing a new book about the year I was eighteen when my younger brother and I were sent away to an alternative high school on a square rigged sailing ship, and the ship ended up being held hostage in Panama. I am completely obsessed!! Researching and interviewing classmates and teachers. So much fun to be at the beginning of a big project!
Elizabeth, it’s been such a delight and I am so glad we were able to connect. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I am looking forward to your memoir about a creative mother dealing with the issues of design and mental illness! Thanks for this conversation!!
For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of IMPLOSION, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth W. Garber is the author of three books of poetry, True Affections: Poems from a Small Town (2012), Listening Inside the Dance (2005), and Pierced by the Seasons (2004). Three of her poems have been read on NPR by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, and her poem “Feasting” was included in his Good Poems for Hard Times. She was awarded writing fellowships at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Jentel Artist Residency Program in Wyoming.
Garber studied Greek Epic in the Mythology and Folklore Department at Harvard, received a BA from Johns Hopkins, a MFA in creative non-fiction from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Masters Program, and a master’s in acupuncture from the Traditional Acupuncture Institute. She has maintained a private practice as an acupuncturist for over thirty years in mid-coast Maine, where she raised her family. Visit her at http://www.elizabethgarber.com
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of SWP and E. Garber; used with permission. Photo of Garber home under construction retrieved from author’s website on 3.5.19. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]