Bookforum talks with Meghan Daum

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion BY Meghan Daum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

Meghan Daum published her first collection of essays, My Misspent Youth (2001), to wide praise. In the title essay, originally written for the New Yorker, Daum described living in Manhattan as a writer in her mid-twenties, and the difficulty of discerning truth from fantasy in a city that lends itself to easy mythologizing. Can't we all have lives like Mia Farrow’s, filled with intelligent conversation and ample gin? To Daum, an oak-floored apartment on Riverside Drive represented an urbane and “authentic” way of living, not financial prosperity. But though a flat on the Upper West Side doesn't much resemble a sprawling mansion, both are built by wealth. As a struggling graduate student, Daum admired a lifestyle that seemed perpetually beyond her reach.

Thirteen years later, Daum’s new collection of essays, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, revisits the theme of authenticity. Daum’s financial anxiety has abated, but she is no longer interested in living like Mia Farrow. She wants to live like Meghan Daum. As the title suggests, the collection raises provocative questions: Do we love our parents enough? Do women need to be mothers to lead fulfilling lives? How do we know we are making the right life decisions? It is also about accepting the choices that have made us who we are, even if, as Daum suggests, “acceptance is itself a loss.”

I spoke with Daum by telephone this November.

In your introduction, you write that you originally conceived this collection on the theme of sentimentality. How did that idea evolve?

The book started with “Matricide,” the first essay in the collection. That essay is about my mother’s death, and it describes various complications in our relationship and my experience of taking care of her. The last piece is about my own brush with death. While I was recovering from that illness, people asked me if I emerged from the experience somehow different or better. I wasn’t able to answer their questions, but I realized I had asked my mother something similar when she was dying. It occurred to me that it wasn’t just sentimentality that influenced people’s responses to illness and death, but a cultural need to have an arc to our experiences, a sense that we triumph over adversity or become a better person through crisis. The idea that we’re supposed to change or be better guided a lot of the pieces as I began to write and put them together. Often we don’t change, we just are the way we are.

How did you go about choosing the title?

The title emerged when I realized the essays were all about taboo subjects, or not necessarily taboo, but topics I considered from a counterintuitive perspective. The Unspeakable seemed like a natural title, because it’s not only metaphorical, it’s also literal. As my mother got sicker she became confused and lost her ability to express herself clearly. Later, when I got sick, one of my late onset symptoms was aphasia [a condition that impairs the ability to comprehend or express language]. So in some places in the collection, “the unspeakable” means quite literally what can’t be spoken.

So many of the questions in The Unspeakable are really challenging: What if we didn’t love our parents enough? What if it’s easier to love animals than other human beings? Which subject was the most difficult for you to write about?

“Matricide” was definitely the most difficult piece to write. It is the most difficult piece I’ve ever written. I abandoned the essay many times. I started writing it at the beginning of 2011, but I thought, “Even if I were to finish this essay I couldn’t ever publish it. It might just be a piece that goes into the drawer.” Eight or nine months later, I was finally able to thread the needle and complete it (though of course it went through several subsequent revisions). If I had gotten the tone of “Matricide” wrong in any way, the essay could very easily be seen as even more brutal than it is. Obviously, it’s still ruthless in a lot of ways, but that tone had to be tempered with a kind of affection, as opaque as the affection is. I like to think of the piece, in its own way, as very much honoring my mother and recognizing the struggles she faced.

What changed your mind about publishing it?

I showed “Matricide” to some dear friends who are really smart readers and they said, “You have to publish this. It’s exactly the kind of thing that you should be publishing.” At that point, I said, “Well, OK, why don’t I write some more essays to go along with it?” I wanted to write a collection of pieces that were not conceived for specific publications. I didn’t want the writing to reflect word-length or subject-matter restrictions. I wanted the essays to exist on their own terms. As soon as I felt like “Matricide” was something to keep and potentially publish, I started writing the other pieces.

You write that “human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.” Was it difficult to remember how you actually felt in situations like your mother’s illness, instead of remembering merely what you were supposed to feel?

I definitely remember what I was supposed to feel. And I don't think it was so difficult to remember how I actually felt, either. Mostly I wanted the whole thing to be over with. I felt angry on her behalf, I felt very, very sorry that this was happening to her. On the other hand, memory is selective. I remember how I felt in particular moments. I think there are moments that stay with us, and those were relatively easy to tap in to. There’s a scene in “Matricide” where my mother has become confused and agitated and she’s waving around a cane. She’s rubbing it in my hair and kind of poking me with it. I remember just feeling so devastated in that moment, so sad, because she was clearly gone. Her mind was gone from that moment on. She was still alive but she was no longer there. There was no turning back. I will never forget that feeling.

When your mother was a teenager, she refused to speak at home, in rebellion against her parents. Do you think women tend to silence negative emotions more than men?

There are families who want everyone to tamp down their negative emotions and behave as if everything is perfect. It may be that women bear the brunt of that attitude, but I think men have other expectations foisted upon them. Men are not allowed to admit that they failed at something or are frightened. The silencing may simply manifest differently.

You suggest that we accept conventional platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” or “suffering leads to wisdom” in order to give our lives meaning. What do you think the rejection of such platitudes leads to?

I think it leads to thinking harder about what’s actually going on, and looking honestly at yourself and your reactions to things. People rely on platitudes because they’re proxies for emotions. When you take those away, you’re allowed to examine your own feelings and maybe even communicate to others something they might be feeling themselves. Once you express those emotions, you’re less alone and others are less alone. So many people have written to me and said, “Oh, thank you for saying this, I thought I was the only person who felt this way, and I was afraid if I said so, I would be judged.” That’s been satisfying. Certainly, some people will judge me for going down some of these roads, but part of putting anything out in the world is that some people aren’t going to like it or relate to it. You focus on those who do.

Authenticity has been an important interest of yours for a long time. You write, at one point, that it’s what you’re “about.” What does living authentically mean to you?

I think it means feeling like you’re in the right life, that you’re not just making choices because you think you’re supposed to make those choices, that you’re not pretending to have a good time when you’re not, that you’re not doing things that you enjoy just because you’re supposed to do those things. A major example of living authentically, for me, is the choice not to have children. It’s something that I have thought about a lot, and even though I’ve always felt deep down that being a parent is not right for me, there have been moments where I doubted that, where I waffled. Ultimately, I reached the realization that if I were to have children, I would obviously love them more than I can imagine, but I don’t think I would feel I was living the life I was supposed to lead. I’m supposed to be doing different things.

“The Best Possible Experience” contrasts the impulse toward authenticity with the impulse toward romanticism. What makes an authentic life more appealing to you than a romantic one?

A romantic life is pretty hard to sustain, insofar as we can even define what a romantic life is. For me, it often manifests in having my life look a certain way. I joke in the piece that I have this shabby-chic chandelier. That’s the way I express romanticism. In a sense, authenticity is a romantic notion. You can’t be true to yourself every second of the day, because you would probably not be very productive and you’d surely cause pain to others. I don’t want to overstate this idea of authentic living. I’m not an evangelist for authenticity so much as I’m somebody who’s interested in it. I’m sort of allergic to affectation and phoniness, so that’s why I write about it. Would I rather live authentically or romantically? I don’t know. Obviously those things intersect sometimes.

In “Invisible City,” you say that your “ability to see is sometimes only as good as your willingness to go unseen.” It strikes me that writing about an experience often shifts the focus from what is happening to the writer’s perception of what is happening. Is it possible to remain unseen as the author of personal essays?

You choose what parts you reveal. The notion that writing a personal essay is an act of confession is something I don’t agree with. For every detail I reveal, there are hundreds of details I’ve chosen to leave out. The craft is in deciding what to include and presenting that in an artful way that engages the reader. You’re being seen of course. You’re inviting the reader into your world and your mind. But you’re not “exposing” yourself. You may give the reader the impression that you’re showing everything, but you can’t do that. It would be anarchy if you included every single thought that you have, that you’ve ever had. That would be really difficult to read, I would imagine. Not to mention overwhelming and ultimately boring.

Do you tend to shape essays around an idea or around an experience?

I usually start with an experience, but then I very quickly move on to talking about larger ideas. I’m not a natural storyteller; I’m somebody who thinks more in terms of ideas. That’s why I’m inclined to move away from the anecdote fairly quickly and visit other lines of inquiry, because I’m not someone who’s going to tell some incredible yarn. I always want to talk about something larger and more abstract. The last thing I would do is say, “This happened to me and here you go.” That approach does not interest me as a writer.

In “Difference Maker,” which is about the choice not to have kids, you identify what you call a “Central Sadness” to life. Is that sadness specific to childless adults or is it a more general, existential problem?

So many people tell me that they have a central sadness. It doesn’t matter if they have no kids, if they have ten kids, if they’re happy in their careers, if they’re miserable in their careers. It is a universal affliction. The piece, ultimately, is not about the child question as much as it’s about the existential questions of aging and getting older and what it means to be an adult, and how you feel about that, and how you know when you’re in the right life. Often we never know that.

Did you feel the need to be involved with children in part because of how people reacted to your decision not to have children yourself?

I wanted to do something useful. When you don’t have kids, you have a lot of time freed up that most parents don’t. Instead of using it to do more of the same, I thought, why don’t I do something that’s very much outside of my usual experience? I wanted to help kids in a way that is different from the way a parent would help them. I think it’s important that children grow up knowing adults that are not people’s parents. It’s important to see there’s more than one way to be an adult, and adults that don’t have kids can also care about kids and help and influence them. I had so many teachers and mentors growing up who didn’t have kids, or didn’t have kids at the time. They made huge impressions on me and affected who I am in a positive way. I wanted to be that for other kids.

You recently edited an anthology of essays on the decision not to have children, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, which will come out next spring. What inspired the project?

I’d wanted to do the book for many years. One thing I was adamant about was that people not talk about the decision in a glib way, saying things like, “I’d rather go on an expensive vacation than have kids” or “I forgot to have children.” The subject is often couched in superficial terms that are not only annoying, they’re just not true. Nobody on earth decided not to have kids because they opted, after careful consideration, to take expensive vacations instead. They didn’t have kids because they didn’t want to have kids. Going on vacations may be a side benefit, but I find it hard to believe it’s the deciding factor. Still, admitting that you just don’t want to be a parent is somehow more taboo than saying something that suggests you’re just shallow and materialistic. The discussion has to be reframed. I hope the anthology represesents a step in that direction.