“Embracing the struggle.” An interview with Eugenia Smith

Posted on July 31, 2012 by

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Eugenia Smith writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She lives in Minneapolis and works in communications. In her essay “The Deep Truth,” Smith reflects on the suicide of her terminally ill 74-year-old mother, Ruth. Interview conducted by Jasmine Turner.

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What sort of difficulties did you face while writing about such personal events?

I have been working intermittently on a memoir for many years, so I’ve become pretty comfortable writing deeply personal stories, even when both content and process are painful. I guess that for me, to ache is to write, and vice versa. Maybe that’s my version of writer’s cramp.

The good news is that writing about personal experience helps me make sense of and come to terms with my family and my life. My biggest challenge is to wrap a meaningful narrative around my memories and reflections—to “translate” my inner truths in a way that makes sense to readers and, in some fashion, brings them willingly into my world.

My worst fear? That when I write, I am alone in a windowless room talking to myself.

That said, I do live in the world, not just in my head. I do my research. I read widely. I amble and ramble, tune in, listen, and learn. And I take pains to make my writing connect and communicate. If I can’t do that, I suppose I may as well just keep a journal.

You use a fantastic amount of detail in this piece. How did you go about reconstructing scenes that happened a long time ago?

My memory for details is spotty and impressionistic and thus, to some extent, unreliable, so I make no claim to objectivity or to the verifiable factual truth of my account—that is to say, truth that would pass muster as evidence in a court of law.

Many of the scenes as written are composites. They’ve been pieced together from decades of blurry memories refracted through a cloudy lens smudged with messy emotions. The dialogue captures the gist, if not always the exact words, of the conversations. The scenes on the page are perhaps not so much reconstructed as they are constructed around a core of truth from the muddled raw materials of memory. They are rendered “to the best of my recollection,” in a manner of speaking.

The kind of truth I’m talking about is a function of the way I think and write. It’s not easy to describe, but here goes: I begin with loose bundles of half-formed memories, feelings, reflections, and impressions. As I “externalize” them, they take shape as scenes that are more fully realized and objectified versions of my interior life. I fill in the gaps with details that “feel” right (true) and that provide narrative glue. The end result reflects something like the deep structure of my life, the life that I know from the inside.

As a kind of reality check, I have often read scenes to my sister, who was present for many of them. If she said something like “That’s not exactly how I remember it, but it feels right,” I felt confident that it could stand as a true account. Where her memories and mine diverged, the scenes sometimes became hybrids of her memories and mine. But this is still my story, not hers. She has her own story, her own reality.

As I have written elsewhere, “What my story may lack in literal and objective truth it makes up for with a kind of deeply felt authenticity. It’s my heart’s truth.” Or maybe I could say it’s the deep truth.

In this piece, you move back and forth in time, experimenting with chronology. Why did you structure this piece the way you did?

For me, the contours of time are very blurry. I think about life more thematically than strictly sequentially. So I wouldn’t say the structure of my story is deliberately experimental; rather, I think of it as organic and improvisational, like the structure of memory (as I see and experience it).

If the structure seems disorderly, well, I suppose that’s how I write. I think of those sculptors and potters who say they don’t know what they’re making until it’s made; they find the shape in the stone or clay, allow it to reveal itself. That doesn’t mean I put my mind to sleep before I write or that I have no notion of what I’m about. What it does mean is that I don’t outline stories or envision a narrative arc before I begin. As I write, I see where the story takes me. The words come (or they don’t!) and the scenes unfold of their own volition, in a way, outside of time.

And yet I do, in the end, try to create some deliberate semblance of order out of the jumble. Once I have a very rough draft, I fix my editorial eye on the unfinished piece to impose a structure that will (I hope) make it coherent. That’s where the real toil—the crafting—begins. I edit and rewrite obsessively.

While writing about your family, were you worried about what they might think about the way you describe them, or the events you recount?

Of my family of origin, only one person survives besides me, and that’s my sister, who is part of the story. She fully understands that my memories differ from or even may collide with hers, and that her memories and mine taken together are part of the unfinished 100,000-piece puzzle of our mother’s life. Twenty-five years after her death, our mother remains a collaborative work in progress. Some pieces might never fit.

In many ways, of course, Ruth/Mother was really two mothers—my sister’s and mine—and we have been left to negotiate our way through our different perceptions to find our shared truths. Fortunately, those differences have never been an issue. (Of course, if Ruth herself were alive today, she would very probably question my account. I can hear her now: “Is that how you see me?!”)

How do you feel about the medical care your mother received before her death? Do you think the situation was handled appropriately, or would you choose now to have anything done differently?

My mother had such a long and complex history of medical and psychological problems (many of them not detailed in the story) that her doctors were often baffled, I think. Mostly, I believe they did the best they could under the circumstances. But they were unable to fully gauge—and some did not take seriously—the depth and severity of her pain. And they were not very inventive, nor were they very open to “alternative” medical practices. They simply followed standard pain relief protocols of the time. They prescribed pills—then withdrew them when they became aware of her addiction.

As for her addiction to painkillers, that was to some extent a by-product of her own history; her doctors were accessories. It was also, in a way, a matter of housekeeping. If medical records in those days had been more centralized and accessible across clinics and systems (as they are now), her many different doctors might have monitored her medications more effectively and realized earlier the full extent of the toxic drug interactions and her multiple addictions.

Would I do anything differently now? That’s a very difficult question. Even with all that I now know, I am still the person I was, and she would be, still and always, my formidable, larger-than-life mother. If she walked into the room at this very moment, I’d probably regress (once I got over the shock!). I do have to say, though, I would give anything for a “Mom hug.”

You touch briefly on the idea of physician-assisted suicide in your essay. What’s your opinion on the legality and/or morality of that issue?

In a nutshell: I unequivocally support everyone’s “right to die”—that is, everyone’s right to choose to end his or her life, perhaps also to choose the means of that end (with the support of a healthcare professional), especially in the face of terminal illness and excruciating and debilitating chronic pain. That said, I also fully appreciate the formidable moral and legal (and political) complexities of writing the “right to die” into law, not to mention the heavy burden of responsibility placed on loved ones who must consent and bear witness.

Here’s the rub: As I say in the story, I intervened on several occasions to thwart my mother’s suicide attempts. I chose life for her—became her counter-agent, in a sense. Clearly, conviction is one thing in the abstract, another in the doing.

I really like the quote that you pulled the title from: “The deep truth is imageless.” Can you talk a bit more about the significance of that quote?

I first stumbled across this line in a 19th-century poetry class in my second year of college. (It’s from a play, “Prometheus Unbound,” by Percy Bysshe Shelly.) I was too young then to fully understand what it meant, but it struck me even then as profoundly true, and it has stayed with me all these years.

In a way, it’s become a mantra for my life. I was always solitary and introverted, and as I struggled for human connection over the decades, I came to realize more and more how inexpressible and isolating are our most profound private truths and realities. However much we “share”—talk, write, draw, paint, and act out our thoughts and feelings with others—it seems to me that no language, no gesture, no form of artistic expression can convey who we truly are at our core. True connection is elusive, maybe even impossible.

I especially understood that sense of isolation when my sister and I were grieving after our mother’s death. We had both lost the same person, Ruth/Mother, but we experienced and grieved the loss very differently. Our mother’s death made us closer, but it also estranged us. Even as we comforted each other, each of us grieved alone. Too much static on the line, and faulty connections.

So in the end, I believe that our deepest selves are unknowable, even to ourselves; and we can only try, over time, to achieve incrementally some degree of self-knowledge that will allow us to create facsimiles of who we are—personas—to carry and project into the world. In doing that, we take small steps toward creating a proximate shared reality, a world of shadows and doppelgangers that we call relationships and community.

I am a writer as much by temperament as by aptitude. Writing suits me in part because it’s a solitary and self-reflective activity. And yet it also helps me move beyond solitude. It’s my way of embracing the struggle, however imperfectly. It’s how I coped with my mother, how I came to understand her, and how I brought her back to me after she died.

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Jasmine Turner, an editorial assistant for Creative Nonfiction, is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying English nonfiction writing, political science and French.

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