What's your background?
I've been a psychologist, professional vocalist, activist, artisan and teacher before becoming a writer, but my most profound lessons have come from learning to cope with my dysfunctional family. I've worked in a state mental hospital, drug treatment center, halfway houses for psychiatric clients, and in private practice. I'm also an award-winning vocalist and songwriter, working in nightclubs, corporate and private parties. As an activist, I worked with environmental and community self-help groups. I've taught junior high school, human potential workshops, and esoteric and meditative techniques. My fiction has been published in Northern Journeys, a literary magazine of the Pacific Northwest, and I've written articles and music reviews for SF Weekly, done business editing, public relations, grant writing. I also co-authored and self-published "Being Yourself: Twenty-Four Ways to See the Light", a self-help book that promotes spiritual awareness and peace of mind. and written two mysteries, as yet unpublished, that got rave rejections from New York publishers. I live with my artist husband, Dan Cooper, near San Francisco.
How did you come to write "Daddy's Girls?"
While I was waiting to hear about my mysteries, although I still wanted to write, I didn't want to try another mystery if those two couldn't sell. I'd read Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones," in which she suggested the exercise of writing in a cafe to occupy the part of your brain that would otherwise interrupt the flow to tell you you stink and will never amount to anything. I invited a friend to try it with me, and once a month we'd meet in cafes for lunch, then choose a theme, write for half an hour. Afterward we'd read our pieces aloud and comment on each other's work. I found myself writing scenes from my childhood, fictionalized into first-person short stories. My friend encouraged me to keep writing them, and I did, because I trust her literary taste. The result was Daddy's Girls. The story is fiction with a dash of magical realism, an allegory that explores the nature of insanity, fear, betrayal, and what it means to love. I feel now that my previous books were lessons in writing fiction, preparation for the personal story I have to tell. Everything I've ever done has come together in this book, which I hope it will be of value or comfort to people in similar situations.
Is the story autobiographical?
"Autobiographical" isn't quite right, since it isn't as much about me as it is about my sister and her plight. The framework is similar, the details are completely invented but emotionally true, although almost nothing actually happened as it appears in the book. Many of the Allison parts reflect my own life, since she's in my position in the family. Some of the Ruth and Cherie scenes are mine as well, and some loosely based on their lives, but most are completely invented to develop the character or atmosphere. My aim was to share the insight and compassion I've gathered from my sister's schizophrenia and my own work as a therapist.
In overlapping vignettes, each of the women tells her own story of coping with their dysfunctional family, revealing the dark forces beneath the family's middle-class veneer as they struggle to love one another. The three first-person perspectives illuminate their differences, similarities and influences on each other, and build in complexity to create compassion for these people, lost in a psychological morass they don't understand. Ruth, the mother, abandons her dream to sing with a band because her parents insisted, and marries for revenge instead of love. Her bitter regret permeates the atmosphere. Allison, her elder daughter, protects herself by withdrawing into books until she develops the courage to escape. Cherie, the younger daughter, has a dimly-understood mission from God, assigned before her birth. But once submerged in the circumstances of family life, her understanding of her purpose is clouded by her frustration and a genetic predisposition for insanity that eventually manifests in schizophrenia. Still, her extremes are exactly proportional to what her family needs to discover their ability to love.
How does "Daddy" fit into all this? Why that title?
Fathers are girls' first and sometimes strongest interaction with the
opposite sex, and the reactions they get shape their self-concept. Not only is
absence or distortion as influential as a loving presence, but women, and
particularly the women in Daddy's Girls, try to use sex as a way to get
attention from men, even their own fathers, because it works, if only
And the pattern of looking for approval/self-esteem through sexuality sets up the patterns of competition with other women (even one's sisters or mother/daughter), and the willing assumption of unnatural standards of beauty that can strangle.
Although Warren (and Jack) are shown only in relation to them, all three women grapple with and define themselves in terms of their father's/husband's strong presences and those ambivalent relationships taint their relationships with other men. It's through the men that the genetic predisposition to mental illness is passed down.
How did you escape your sister's fate?
It's not that I've escaped, but that I have a different mission. Like Allison, I was extremely introverted, fearful and painfully shy. Retreating to a world of fantasy sheltered me from my family's volatile atmosphere, and when I couldn't hide, I tried to do whatever was required to not get noticed. To my mother, that made me a good child, especially in comparison to my sister's outright rejection of the status quo. But it stunted my emotional development so dramatically that I figured I'd major in math in college because I was good at it and it didn't require relating to anyone. Then I discovered psychology, and grew fascinated by the concept that you could understand why people behaved as they did, and how to change.
Did it help?
Absolutely. As I studied and practiced, I began to sense who I was apart from my family, which gave me the courage to break out of our pattern and choose the way I wanted to live. Throughout the variety of things I've done, I've always dedicated myself to self-examination and meditation. I try to use the circumstances of my life as tools for growth, which has given me the courage to confront my obstacles, and to create an interesting life and a long term, mutually nourishing, intimate partnership with a wonderful man. From my dual perspective as a psychologist and sister of a schizophrenic, I've come to consider of insanity as a metaphor for spiritual purpose. In trying to come to terms with my life and my interaction with my sister and her illness, I like to think that her soul is both learning and teaching through living like this. Learning to appreciate her as she is has taught me to go deep enough inside to access an unconditional love.
How did writing this story affect you?
It was cathartic. As I wrote, wave after wave of poignancy, fear, guilt, laughter, rage, sexual arousal, and grief crashed over me. Inventing the points of view of Ruth and Cherie awakened love and compassion in me for my own relatives that I'd never have thought myself capable of. I began to understand that my terribly painful family life laid the groundwork for me to evolve into who I am today, which I enjoy very much. In Daddy's Girls, I expose my dark side, lay my deepest truth on the line, because I feel that coming to terms with the fear and guilt we associate with mental illness can make a difference to us personally, and to society. We alienate the mentally ill because of our fear of how easily it might happen to us, but in doing so we not only shun the most defenseless among us, but forfeit the chance to see how we grow, which can provide comfort and strength. By considering insanity in a spiritual context, we acknowledge both the lesson within it and the person teaching it. We accept it as it is, and afford it dignity. In a broader context, when we search for meaning in the tragic, we tap into deeper levels of existence that transform our vision of life to bring love and peace of mind.
How does your mother feel about the book?
She tells me it's very well written and compelling reading. She hasn't commented about the mother character very much. She gets upset about some of the Cherie vignettes when they portray something she's afraid may actually have happened, which shows me how hard she's still trying to love and protect her real daughter.
What happened to your sister? Where is she now?
She's still in the mental health system, and as I see it, still fulfilling her purpose. Whenever I see, speak to or even think about her, I'm challenged to open my heart wider, to transform my grief and guilt into love, gratitude and compassion for all she's sacrificed for our sakes. In that way, both our mother and I are blessed by our relationship with her.
Tell me more about your spiritual perspective on the nature of mental illness.
On the surface, the specific events in Daddy's Girls may seem unremarkable, belying the incipient psychosis, and in a sense they are. There's a fine line between sanity and insanity, a running monologue (or dialogue or however-many) in everyone's mind constantly. The content is mostly automatic stuff accumulated throughout a lifetime of trying to cope with everybody else's stuff. Judging, interpreting, lusting, plotting, regretting, etc., are only interpretations layered on top of pure living and feeling. In that sense, we're all crazy. But we're all sane too. Because at the core, our idiosyncrasies reflect our spiritual mission, and what we create and learn in our unique lives enriches the ground of being. What drives people crazy is a question that fascinates so many. According to the Surgeon General, one in five Americans will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime. And each has a family affected by their illness, like mine was. People with mental illness are stigmatized, mostly because we're all afraid of how easily it might happen to anyone under the right circumstances. Traditional treatment focuses on causes, which aren't certain, and cures, which aren't reliable. Although mental illness may have a variety of causes-- a combination of heredity, environment, brain chemistry, mixed with the soul's purpose-- I see it not as a qualitatively different state of mind, but as a variation in the degree of repression or expression of qualities we all have. It's part of human nature, which contains and reflects all possibilities. "Sanity" and "madness" are like different points on the same continuum, more a sphere than a straight line, around which our psyches bounce almost imperceptibly in every moment. The difference between "us" and "them" is in how well we stay balanced in stressful situations without denying the truth of our emotional experience. That is life's ultimate challenge. By examining insanity in a spiritual context, we honor the lesson within it and the person teaching it. We accept it as it is, and afford it dignity. In searching for meaning in the tragic, we can tap into deeper levels of perception that transform our vision of life. If we open to our psyches as the ground where spirit and personality meet, we can expand our capacity for love and peace of mind. Those who "drive us crazy" actually show us how to get sane. Whatever attracts or upsets us is a signal as to what direction to explore to clarify our mission. Difficult circumstances force us deep enough to touch spirit and learn what it takes to have a fruitful life. The process of family life touches our hearts and strengthens our resilience like nothing else, as we play out issues we understand at a metaphysical level even as they overwhelm and confuse us in our normal operations. Although everybody in a family (or "karass," as Kurt Vonnegut calls our larger group of significant others) participates in the development of the identified patient's personality and illness, it's nobody's fault. The factors that cause insanity are bigger than individual responsibility. The best we can do is be honest and intend to love. Experience is the teacher, no matter the specifics. Each of us is born with an innate sense of why we're here, and our great challenge is to realize the meaning of our lives, and the circumstances of our lives are tailor-made to reflect it. There are no good or bad experiences. Whatever happens to us is a reflection of the theme of our lives, the area which will teach us the most. When we bring our inner life to light, we can come to terms with and transform it. In the case of mental illness, processing the fear and guilt we associate with it can make a difference to us personally, and to society.
Do you have any other plans for the book?
I've dedicated a portion of the profits to establish a fund in my sister's name providing situational financial assistance to people suffering or recovering from mental illness to help meet specific needs, like tuition for training programs, clothing for job interviews, or medical treatment. I hope to work with service agencies who can recommend candidates and follow-up after grants are made. I'd also like to use it as a platform to mitigate the stigma of mental illness by emphasizing the metaphysical aspects. And I plan to write a sequel, in which Cherie recovers, relapses, and learns to manage her illness and understand her spirit; where Allison begins to explore how to have a meaningful relationship with a man; and to present that man as the third viewpoint in his inquiry into his own damaged psyche and quest to be able to confide in and support a partner.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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