The Sunday Rumpus Interview with Claire Bidwell Smith

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I first heard of Claire Bidwell Smith several years ago through the online literary collective The Nervous Breakdown, where Claire is something of a folkloric figure.  One of the earliest TNB contributors, she met her now-husband, Greg Boose, through the small group then populating the site, and they have since had what was known to me as “the first TNB baby.”  So when I met Claire in person, at the apartment along the river in Chicago—which appears in her debut memoir, The Rules of Inheritance—I did not yet know of her powerful writing about her mother’s death, and the recognition she’d already received for that on her own award-winning blog.  Just a month ago, I saw Claire again for the first time since she moved to Los Angeles, and heard her read from this stunningly honest, poetically sparse and aching memoir.  I knew immediately that I wanted to read the whole book, but as sometimes happens, the timing turned out to be more prophetic than I recognized: only four days later, I unexpectedly lost a dear friend and surrogate-sister (since the age of sixteen) while I was half a continent away in California.  And so, reading The Rules of Inheritance—the very first book I was able to focus on after my friend’s death—took on a special and unexpected significance for me that made me value this conversation with Claire all the more.

[Note: Claire and I discuss, in this interview, some “back cover copy” on her book galley, but (pertinently to our discussion), her publisher, Penguin, ended up changing this copy/wording prior to the final version of the book.  After some deliberating, Claire and I decided to allow our discussion to stand as-is, even though it is no longer accurate to Penguin’s marketing campaign for her book, because we both felt it raised interesting issues of how women’s memoirs are often presented or perceived in the marketplace.  GF]

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The Rumpus: One of the themes in The Rules of Inheritance is the idea of being “no one’s special person,” and the safety net that most younger adults have–without even being aware of it necessarily–when there is someone in the world who cares more about you than about anyone else.  This really resonated with me, because while some of that safety net is logistical, like having somebody to help financially or share the burden of caring for a sick relative, most of what you’re speaking of is, in fact, emotional.  You were left with reasonable financial security by your father, yet after his death–even more so than after your mother’s when you were 18–you were truly emotionally adrift in the world.  At one point, while on a remote island in the Philippines, you note that if you were kidnapped or killed while diving, nobody would even quite notice you missing for some time.  Can you talk more about that, and how this emotional isolation/independence shaped your identity, in both negative and positive ways?

Claire Bidwell Smith: This is a great question. It cuts right to the root of what I experienced. Losing my parents stripped me of anchors to the world. While terrifying and desperately sad, it was also wildly freeing. Suddenly, I was accountable to no one, something most twenty-year olds could only dream of. I could do anything, be anything, go anywhere I wanted to. While this strange gift wasn’t lost on me, the irony was that all I wanted was for someone to give a shit about where and how I was. For years I struggled between the two – venturing out into the world on reckless adventures and then diving into oppressive relationships.

Ultimately, I think I became a very independent person. I found a confidence and a brassiness that wasn’t shared by a lot of my peers. But on the flip side I also tend towards self-indulgence. Basing every decision on fuck-it-we-could-die-tomorrow-let’s-do-the-fun-thing isn’t a practical way to live. It took me years to take things like bills and insurance and future planning seriously. Finding a balance between the two is something I’m always working on. My husband will be the first to tell you that I’m the last person anyone should consult when pondering things like taking an impulsive trip or buying something expensive and frivolous. I will always say yes.

Rumpus: In a related vein, actually: this is a memoir that’s simply bursting with beautiful, poetic lines–I was constantly underlining passages.  But one of the passages that struck me most is the following: “Her death leaves me both depleted and emboldened.  That’s what tragedy does to you, I am learning.  The sadness and the wild freedom of it all impart a strange durability.  I feel weathered and detached, tucking my head against the winds and trudging forward into life.”  As you know (since it happened right after I had just seen you in Los Angeles), I recently lost one of my oldest friends–a surrogate sister to me–very suddenly, and this passage described much of how I was feeling in terms of a certain recklessness that comes with grief.  And I think of the writer Emily Rapp, who describes losing old fears when facing her overwhelming grief as she watches her son die of Tay-Sachs.  If death and loss are an inescapable and essential part of life, to what extent is grief necessary, almost, before people can learn to live most fully and boldly?

Bidwell Smith: I think experiencing a certain amount of grief is a really healthy way to learn to live more fully. I once, foolishly, complained to my father that death seemed cruel and unnecessary. He was quick to point out that if there were no death we would never appreciate life. He was right, of course. Can you imagine if there was no end in sight? Nothing would really matter. There would be no consequences, no weight to anything.

The thing is that I believe mortality is something pretty impossible to comprehend until you experience the loss of someone close to you. It’s only too bad that you have to go through something so painful to attain such awareness.

I remember about a year after my mother died, realizing one day that I was so grateful for who I had become. It was as though her death had opened my eyes to the world around me. It taught me empathy and made me so much more aware of the depth of living going on in other people’s lives.

I do feel that it’s been an incredible gift to experience so much loss at such a young age – while profoundly hard, it’s also given me an appreciation for daily life and relationships that most people my age just don’t have. I find myself able to better savor ordinary moments and have gratitude for all the things that I do have.

Rumpus: You write several times, lucidly and poignantly, about “marveling at the power we have to unlock a person.”  At several points in the narrative, you encounter young men who have suffered similar losses to yours, and have intense but short-lived encounters with them that permit more honesty than the interactions of your daily life offered, despite your greater ostensible intimacy with your close friends or relatives.  Talk about this more–about what it means to “unlock” someone and the barriers to this we often find in our ordinary lives.

Bidwell Smith: I think ordinary people spend a lot of time presenting versions of themselves to the world around them. When a big tragedy happens all of that stuff falls away and there are these windows of time in which you almost have no choice but to live a very raw version of yourself.

Again, I think this goes back to the kind of awareness you can develop after experiencing such deep sadness and grief. For a long time, and perhaps even now, I had trouble relating to people on a surface level. I couldn’t bring myself to chit-chat, to talk about trivial things. Perhaps it was a self-centered and juvenile thing, but I couldn’t let people know me unless they knew who I really was and what I was going through. But living in this kind of raw, authentic way caused a lot of people around me to open up as well. In that way I was always “unlocking” people. I also think I have a kind of magnetism for damaged people, or people who have been through big life experiences. And like magnets, people like that have a lot of energy between them. I’m so grateful for every one of those encounters I’ve had.

Rumpus: Okay, here I will not earn any points with your publisher (Penguin), but I want to point out a discrepancy between your actual book vs. the way your story is being portrayed on your cover copy . . . you take great pains in your memoir to talk about the ways you worked to heal yourself alone, through yoga and baths and writing letters to your mother and numerous other methods, so that you could finally become a “whole” person and feel happiness without having to rely on a relationship with a man to define you.  In the book, you were already a happy and healthy person at the time you finally consent to go meet Greg, your now-husband, in Chicago for the first time.  Yet your book jacket describes your story as, “It is only when Claire eventually falls in love, marries, and becomes a mother that she emerges from the fog of grief.”  So (sorry, Penguin marketing folks!) that really got on my nerves.  It seemed to me that you had worked hard to tell an unconventional story–of a woman achieving wholeness without the labels of identity that society usually tells her are her only routes to completion–but that the jacket of your own book seems to be trying to make the story more of a traditional Cinderella story, in which the narrator is “healed by love.”  I don’t even know if I have a question here, but I guess I’m curious whether you think, from a marketing perspective, there is still very much a belief that women can only achieve wholeness through the roles of wife/mother, and whether there’s a conception within publishing that this is the story the public wants, and that said public will buy more books if they believe they’re going to be told that story . . .

Bidwell Smith: This is a really nuanced issue. To begin with, I approved that copy so if there is blame to place it should lie with me. You are right in that it isn’t really true – it wasn’t when I fell in love, married and became a mother that I was finally emerged from my grief. The emergence and the healing very much came before those events. I truly don’t believe that I could have attained those things – a healthy relationship and the desire to become a mother – had I not gone through the healing I did. I think the discrepancy – or perhaps what the copy is trying to say – is that it wasn’t until I became those things that was I able to have perspective about my journey of grief.

Not only that, but those things provided an end to that time in my life. When I married and became a mother and found myself in a place strong enough to be helping others who had gone before me, one period in my life closed (the one in which the book takes place) and another began. So in a sense, those events did indeed have a big impact on my grief journey, as they essentially ended it.

I definitely don’t want to send the message that the path to wholeness ends with getting married. I don’t believe that at all. I was whole when I met Greg, when I became a mom. I believe everyone has the ability to achieve wholeness and peace without such concrete relationships.

I suppose there is a marketing angle to it all, although, being a first-time author that stuff is really new to me! I’ve just been trying to keep my head above water through this process. There have been many times when I haven’t understood the implications or long-term meaning of things I’ve agreed to or signed off on. Would be nice to have some kind of coach or doula when you’re giving birth to your first book!

Maybe I can have it changed for the paperback version…

Rumpus: You write very honestly–unflinchingly so–about your own selfishness in the face of your mother’s cancer, and at times your physical revulsion to her disease.  You write “This creature is not my mother” of her cracked lips and scaly feet, and describe her as rotting from the inside out, like bruised and swollen fruit.  I found this incredibly brave.  I thought the fact that you went to the house of a guy you had a crush on, instead of going to the hospital, the night your mother died was one of the most honest things I’ve ever read.  I guess what I mean to say is that I profoundly related to your own conflicts on this front, and while you–Claire at eighteen–blamed yourself terribly and were full of self-torment for years about those behaviors, the truth is that they seemed powerfully human and young to me.  How did you come to forgive yourself enough that you could write so honestly about these moments?  And has becoming a mother–and realizing how very, very young you really were at the time your mother got sick (14)–changed the way you view the “Claire” of that part of your story?

Bidwell Smith: This is a hard one to answer. In part I think I’m just a very honest person. For as long as I can remember I’ve had an inability to pretend to be anything other than who I am. I’m the kind of person who says things out loud that other people would probably keep quiet. I’m the mom who will admit that she hates the playground or that my brownies were made from a mix.  Or that my mother repulsed me when she was sick.

I wrote about those feelings – about my mother and her last days – for the first time a couple of years after she died. It was incredibly difficult, but also cathartic. I remember beginning that particular essay with the sentence “I am a hateful person.”

I also sought out others (through memoirs mostly) who had been through something similar and what I uncovered is that everyone has terrible thoughts, makes stupid mistakes, and carries around deep pain and regret and hate for themselves – and that those are the things that make us human. The more we can admit to those feelings, the better chance we have at forgiving ourselves and moving forward.

As for becoming a mother myself – that experience utterly shattered everything I had ever thought and believed about my relationship with my mother. It completely blew the whole thing wide open. I could finally see it from both sides, from all sides. It was like going from a two-dimensional image to a three-dimensional one. When I first understood what it was to be a mother I immediately had an incredible amount of compassion for myself – of course I was an absolute wreck when I lost her – she was the very thing I came from. She was my home.

At the same time, I felt this great gift of knowing exactly how very much she loved me for the first time in my life. Not until I had my own daughter and loved her as fiercely as I do, did I understand how deep and irrevocable the love my mother had for me was… and still is.

Rumpus: You now work as a grief counselor, and the book ends with some of your experiences with your work.  While most of us don’t work directly with dying people and their families, I’ve recently been confronted with the very harsh truth that–even if you were lucky up to a certain age–beyond whatever “certain age” that is, everyone’s life becomes populated with dying friends and family members.  What advice do you tend to give people who have a close friend or relative who is dying, in terms of how to support that person and how to care for yourself through the experience, too?

Bidwell Smith: I get asked this a lot and there is no formulaic answer to give. In terms of supporting a friend or relative who is dying, just the simple act of being there can be so much more powerful than you may realize. Listening is key. I think a lot of people have the tendency to hear a dying person’s fears or emotions and try to soften them. But allowing a dying person to really own how they feel is vital. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to admit that you’re unsure of what to do. Don’t be afraid to simply hold someone’s hand and be in the room with them.

Being present is powerful. And by that I mean, being present to the good and the bad. Dying is hard. It’s scaring and ugly and strange. All sorts of feelings come up. Don’t punish yourself for feeling or thinking something unexpected or even dark. Let the questions and fears and sadness wash over you. Trying to push it away or pretend it’s not there will only make it worse. Let yourself be human. Let your loved ones be human.

Lastly, reach out for support. Talk about it to people who understand. Write about it. Cry about it. Be kind to yourself. Life isn’t easy. Neither is death.

Rumpus: An interesting segment of the book concerns your experiences working at an unnamed (but Very Important) glossy magazine in Los Angeles, and the celebrity-party culture there.  Now, after a number of years in Chicago, you’re back in LA.  What are your feelings about Los Angeles as a city, and the difference between raising kids there as opposed to a city like Chicago or the cities/towns where you were raised, which don’t have the same sort of decadent or celebrity glam contingent?  Do you have mixed feelings about LA culture, or does that aspect of the city, from your twenties, seem very far away and separate to you now?

Bidwell Smith: I love Los Angeles. The strange desert plants, warm winds, insane overlapping of cultures, and the weirdness of celebrity culture all mix together to form something impossible to find anywhere else in the world. The Hollywood aspect is surprisingly easy to avoid. During my tenure at the glossy magazine I was immersed in an undiluted version of it, but now I live a pretty sweet and simple life with my husband and daughter in Santa Monica. We go to the beach a lot, ride our bikes everywhere and have a circle of friends filled with neurotic writers and down-to-earth families.

What I like about Los Angeles (and New York), that I missed in Chicago and never had growing up in Atlanta, is that it’s a city full of dreamers. People come here from all over the world to pursue some crazy version of themselves that simply isn’t possible to attain in a smaller city. People here believe in seemingly impossible things, or at least they strive for them. As heartbreaking as it can sometimes be, I can’t help but find it inspiring. I love thinking about my daughter growing up in a place where anything seems possible.

Rumpus: You attended AA meetings for a period of time, and explore your relationship with alcohol fairly extensively in the book, but ultimately you didn’t remain involved in twelve-step programs or stay in any kind of abstinence-based “recovery.”  I’m interested in this in part because another memoir I read recently, Lidia Yuknavitch’s THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER, involved some very similar processing of alcohol abuse, wherein once the “emotional” source of the trouble was removed, the relationship with alcohol was seen as being able to normalize without requiring lifelong abstinence.  As a therapist, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know in saying that this view stands in fairly stark opposition to many people’s beliefs about “alcoholism.”  I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on this.

Bidwell Smith: Ah, this is a tricky one. I did indeed attend a few AA meetings and ultimately decided that the program wasn’t for me. I believe it works very well for certain people but that AA isn’t the end-all answer to solving problems with alcohol. You’re right – like, Lidia, what worked for me was addressing the emotional source of my drinking. I worked long and hard on that and it was painful and scary to move through. Ultimately, I learned new methods for soothing myself – ones that weren’t so destructive and hurtful to those around me. And eventually I was able to drink alcohol in moderation, something I’d struggled with in the past.

This method worked really well for who I am, for my personality and my emotional issues, but it doesn’t work for everyone. The structure and abstinence-based recovering system AA offers really is sometimes the only thing that works for certain people. As a therapist though, I believe that there are alternatives to this treatment approach. In America we love to talk about diseases, and labeling things as such gives them a sort of permanence they don’t always deserve.

Rumpus: You discuss a kind of sexual awakening when you were quite young–I believe sixth grade–wherein you suddenly found boys to be achingly beautiful, more beautiful, you say, than you–or presumably other girls–could ever be.  In fact, one of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the very loving, tender and sexy portrayals of the many male characters–those you were with for a long time and those you encountered only briefly.  Even Colin, with whom you were in a relationship that was at least borderline abusive, is never painted in a black-and-white or villainous way, which I appreciated–men, in this book, are never treated as Other or used as easy foils.  I wonder about how you went about accomplishing that, and not reducing your characters, and if you have anything further to say about your views of male beauty or approaching your male characters on the page.

Bidwell Smith: The simple truth is that I love men. And loving them has always been something that has come easily to me. I’ve known many women in my life who struggle with their sexual identities, who struggle to let themselves love and be loved in a romantic way. I’ve never experienced that. I think in part this has to do with my mother. She was also a passionate woman who was very open about embracing her sexuality and sensuality and the things that gave her pleasure. I think being around that attitude gave me a lot of freedom to feel the same way. So many women are born into shame and taught shame and it just breaks my heart every time I see it.

I’m glad you enjoyed this aspect of the book. I loved writing about men in these chapters. I relished revisiting those relationships, those encounters and moments, and fell in love with all of them all over again. In fact, it was when I gave myself permission to include that aspect of my journey – all the various men – that the book truly came into being. For a long time I felt that I had to separate that angle from my story, but I finally realized that they were as much as a part of my journey as anything else.


Gina Frangello is the Sunday Editor of The Rumpus. She is also the Fiction Editor of The Nervous Breakdown and the co-founder and Executive Editor of Other Voices Books, an imprint of Dzanc Books. Her third book of fiction, A Life in Men, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in February 2014. She is also the author Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She lives in Chicago and can be found at www.ginafrangello.com. More from this author →