The Big Idea: Roz Chast

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“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” my mom used to say, quoting Bette Davis. Sometimes I felt like responding, “Yeah, and taking care of your elderly mother isn’t that much fun, either.”

My father and mother, who died in 2004 and 2009, respectively, were nice, smart, funny, considerate people. They saved for retirement. They had Medicare supplements and long term care insurance. We were close. Maybe not power-of-attorney-adult-diapers close, but close. When they reached old age, my brothers and sisters-in-law and my husband and I took turns managing the assorted geriatric calamities that befell them. When they were dying, we sat by their bedsides in rotation. After they died, we all pitched in to sort through two lifetimes’ worth of stuff and an Everest of postmortem paperwork.

It was awful.

There were moments of tenderness and gratitude and even a few laughs, but overall, the last decade or so of my parents’ lives was guilt-inducing, expensive, exhausting, depressing, and alternately boring and terrifying. What I’m trying to say is that even under the best of circumstances—in twenty-first century America at least—caring for elderly parents ain’t no place for sissies.

The ends of Roz Chast’s parents’ lives were not “the best of circumstances.” An only child born when her mother and father were in their forties, the cartoonist researched assisted living facilities, cleaned shit off the floor, answered middle-of-the-night distress calls, and fulfilled countless other filial duties without the help of siblings for years, until her parents died at 95 and 97. Complicating matters, Chast’s relationships with her temperamental mother and anxious father hadn’t always gone smoothly. In old age, when they needed her, she couldn’t simply avoid their Brooklyn apartment, as she had when she—and they—were younger. Her parents’ dependency forced Chast to face at close range her mother’s tantrums (“Chast’s blasts”) and her father’s obsessions with things like the location of expired bank books, not to mention her own guilt, anger, and resentment.

Chast recounts those difficult years in a new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Among the slump-shouldered, bewildered characters inhabiting claustrophobic, excessively upholstered rooms—so familiar to readers of the New Yorker and other publications to which Chast has contributed cartoons since the 1970s—are, in this book, Chast’s mother, her father, and Chast herself. Though the list of memoirs about aging parents is already long (and likely to grow longer as baby boomers require assistance from their Generation X and Millennial kids), Chast’s use of cartoons to depict the ugly emotions, bodily functions, and huge amounts of cash involved in this care-taking is unique.

I spoke with Chast recently about her parents, her new memoir, graphic memoirs in general, and the art of cartooning.

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The Rumpus: Did you imagine your reader as a member of our generation, middle-aged, or have you been hearing from younger or older people who relate to the experiences you depict in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Roz Chast: I’ve been hearing from younger people and older people. People in their forties and people in their eighties. Occasionally someone in their twenties, but I think for them it’s still a little abstract.

Rumpus: I’m fascinated to know what people in their eighties are saying because they’re on the parent end of this equation.

Chast: They really like it. I’ve gotten lots of letters from people who, even if they’re older, went through it with their parents.

Rumpus: Have you had older people say to you, “There’s no way I’m going to inflict this end-of-life burden on my kids?”

Chast: Absolutely.

Rumpus: I find that as people get older they’re less squeamish about death, more willing to talk about it, but that wasn’t true of your parents. When you brought it up, your dad asked, “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” and your mom wasn’t eager to plan for the end of life either.

 

Chast: My parents were extremely reluctant. When my father was clearly dying, my mother refused to acknowledge it. We were all there. We were in the room. He was in hospice, and she was like, “All he needs is some soup.”

Rumpus: Do you think that was because of the closeness of their relationship? You have that wonderful line: “Aside from World War II, work, illness, and going to the bathroom, they did everything together.” Was your mother’s denial a reflection of the fact that she loved him and she didn’t want to lose him?

Chast: I think so. But I hope it comes across that it was complex. She was a very demanding person who really thought that through her will she could triumph over death, but on the other hand, she loved him, and she could not imagine life without him.

Rumpus: Until your parents’ decline, you had kind of kept your distance. You didn’t have the happiest childhood, and you didn’t love going back to Brooklyn, but your parents’ growing infirmity drew you into their little circle and made you more intimate with them in their old age than you had been previously, especially because you were an only child. Was that at all bittersweet, the intimacy that was forged by the fact that they were dying?

Chast: Nah. I wish that were true. Maybe in the TV movie.

Rumpus: I’m sentimentalizing it?

Chast: Yeah. I didn’t want to be doing this, and I’m glad I did because I feel bad enough about the ways that I failed as a daughter already, and I think I would have felt even worse.

Rumpus: Were there times, caring for your parents, when you actually felt, I hate doing this, but it’s a down payment on my mental health for the rest of my life?

Chast: Yes.

Rumpus: You were aware of it at the time?

Chast: To turn my back on them was not an option if I wanted to live with myself. It’s almost selfishness, taking care of, as you said, your mental health. You can’t just not do it.

Rumpus: You begin the book with the death, at one day old, of your parents’ first child. Were there times you wished you’d had a sibling to share your parents’ care? Is that why you included the baby’s death in your memoir?

Chast: I definitely often wanted to have a sibling there to help because I think that your family can do certain things—your husband or your mate—but really it’s the children’s responsibility. On the other hand, I know people where there are siblings and the situation is complicated because there’s often one sibling who feels that they’re doing all the work and the other person is almost not doing any of it. And there’s horrible resentments that come from that. I’ve seen it. It’s awful.

But the inclusion of the “older sibling” is also because one of the reasons my mother was so adamant about not letting me pretty much do anything when I was growing up, why she was so panicky about everything—my playing with other children, my doing anything—was that she had lost a child. For this imperious woman, whose will could be imposed on anything, this was just something unbearable to her, that her will did not triumph over the loss of this child. And so, Goddammit, she wasn’t going to lose another one. Even if that meant putting me in a box with thirty locks on it and chains around it.

Rumpus: Your parents were both very anxious, and you describe becoming a hypochondriac yourself at a very young age. Did entering into the old people’s world of doctors and bodies and incontinence and skin ulcers desensitize you at all to health worries, or was it just torture for you?

Chast: This is going to sound really horrible, but the fact that it wasn’t happening to me or my children made it a little less unbearable. And it hasn’t really changed my feelings about any of this. It’s a terrible thing. I mean, basically, having a body is a disaster.

Rumpus: You’re very honest in this memoir about your own guilt, shame, and anger and also about your parents’ faults and foibles. Do you have any sense of having invaded your parents’ privacy, posthumously? Of outing them in some way?

Chast: Yeah, there is that sense. I don’t know whether it’s possible to write an honest memoir without having those feelings.

Rumpus: If your parents could read the book, do you think they would get it?

Chast: I feel like my father might. I’m not sure about my mother. I think she might focus on the negatives—on the unflattering, on the remaining anger I have towards her—that she would not be able to see it as a whole picture, to step back from it a little bit. She was not a person who stepped back.

Rumpus: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? belongs to a relatively new but growing sub-genre, the graphic memoir of illness. Cartoon images almost always have some element of whimsy or humor and in these memoirs they’re juxtaposed against very serious material. Did you worry that you were making light of something that was serious?

Chast: Yeah, but this is what I do.

Rumpus: This is what cartooning is?

Chast: Yes. I think that these memoirs—David Small’s Stitches, about throat cancer or Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acoccella Marchetto, about breast cancer—they come up against mortality. There’s nothing, really, that’s more frightening. This is the most serious subject there is, at the bottom of everything. I think maybe to survive, I mean to just get through the day—I’m not saying that everything is hilariously funny. I mean, sometimes it is, but you have to get a little distance on it.

Rumpus: Like where you talk about “extreme palliative care” of the elderly, which involves heroin and ice cream. You’re using humor to get at the truth about a big, serious thing.

Chast: I was not completely joking about the heroin and ice cream.

Rumpus: I got that. I wonder if, after going through all this, you had other ideas about how end-of-life care might be improved.

 

Chast: I thought about it, and I still do think about it, but no matter what solution you think about—more communal housing, where the extremely old aren’t sequestered away—ultimately it comes up against this thing where you can’t wipe your own bottom, and somebody has to wipe your bottom for you. So what do you do? Do you kill yourself before that happens? I mean, you could pray all you want that you have a massive stroke while you’re working and die, but possibly that won’t happen, and you’ll be in this bed, and somebody’s going to have to clean you up. To me it’s a terrible thought because either you’re going to be in a place where somebody’s going to be doing this, or maybe on some ideal planet there’s a mixed age community you’re part of, but somebody still is going to have to be wiping your bottom.

Rumpus: So after your parents died, did you make a beeline to the lawyer’s office to sign a healthcare proxy or clear out your garage so your kids won’t have to do it one day after you’re gone or tell your kids, “You’re never going to have to do this for me”? I know I didn’t.

Chast: I didn’t, but we have started to get rid of some stuff. One thing I noticed is that I used to go to second hand shops and flea markets and find funny, cute things, but now I go into those stores, and I think, This is dead people’s stuff. This is all, like, somebody cleaned out their parents’ house, and I don’t want any of it. If I didn’t want it from my parents, I don’t want it from your parents.

Rumpus: And your children aren’t going to want it either.

Chast: A friend of mine gave me a very good piece of advice, which is if you don’t think your kids are going to want it, don’t take it. This was when I was cleaning out my parents’ apartment. If you don’t think your kids are going to be interested, don’t take it.

I wish in some ways I’d had more time, maybe a little more support in going through my parents’ stuff. I just found at a certain point I couldn’t keep going back to Brooklyn to sort through the stuff, and I just said fuck it.

Rumpus: You include photographs in the book of your father’s old electric shavers and your mother’s pocketbooks and shots of the clutter in their apartment. Why did you need to document these things with photography rather than in pen and ink?

Chast: This is going to sound very babyish: I wanted proof. I mean, we all know that photos can lie, be photoshopped, but I wanted people to know I wasn’t lying about the patched potholder, I wasn’t exaggerating about things fixed with masking tape and the grime. This was real.

Rumpus: There are only two places in the book where there are no images at all, drawn or photographed, the pages right after each parent dies. There’s only text. Did it just feel that those moments could not be drawn, could not be represented visually?

Chast: I think it was that. It was just very instinctive.

Rumpus: I wonder about the cartooning process. For example, your most recent New Yorker cover shows Venus De Milo on the beach with everyone taking smartphone pics. Can you tell me how that came to you? Did you conceive it as you were drawing? Or was it fully formed in your head?

Chast: It really varies cartoon to cartoon. There are certain cartoons, like the “Venus on the Beach” cover, where I sort of pictured it, and then when I was drawing it, I had some compositional ideas, a sort of triangular thing going on, where the lifeguard was going to be on the top part of the page. So the covers for me are, I think, a lot about the idea and the composition—it’s less verbal.

And then sometimes with cartoons—like I’m working on one right now, which is the multi-panel story, and I had this idea, but when I was doing the sketch, it just went on forever. And I loved the idea, and I’m so happy because they did take it, but there was a lot of patching and cutting out and rearranging.

Rumpus: Your cartoons are more narrative than many, often with multiple panels. When you started cartooning could you have envisioned something like a graphic novel or memoir?

Chast: Not at all. Not at all. It’s so great, but no. When I was starting out there was underground stuff, and then there was magazine cartoons, the gag cartoons in the New Yorker and Playboy. But there was, in the National Lampoon, something called “The Funny Pages,” and I loved those. Those seemed to be something new to me.

Rumpus: Do you think that the real turning point was Art Spiegelman’s work?

Chast: For graphic memoir, yes, sure.

Rumpus: When you first read Maus did you say, “Wow, someone wrote a memoir about being the son of a Holocaust survivor using cartoons? I didn’t know you were allowed to do that!”

Chast: I didn’t think that. I just thought, This is so great.

Rumpus: It didn’t open up possibilities for you, personally? You didn’t think, I’m going to do that some day?

Chast: No, I really didn’t. This book is really the first time. People have suggested, “Oh, have you ever thought about writing a graphic novel or memoir?” It just seemed very overwhelming, very different from doing jokes, from what I do. The one panel thing or maybe the four panel thing—or even a page, or three pages, four pages. That’s really different from something that’s 230 pages or whatever. I’d never really thought about doing it, so this was different.

Rumpus: On your website you mention that you majored in painting because it “seemed more artistic.” Is cartooning really less artistic than painting?

Chast: I had the impression in art school that cartooning was thought of as a lesser art than painting because cartoons are reproduced, so the “work” is not the single thing like a painting, but instead is the reproduced image. That being said, I love seeing original cartoons. You get to see the artist’s corrections, like erasures or Wite-Out or patches, and you get to see the artist’s line in better detail, and what kind of ink they use—whether they like a cold black or a warm black, and what kind of paper they like, how big or small they like to draw—art nerd stuff like that. But the fact that cartoons are reproduced doesn’t mean anything to me as far as whether they are “real art” or not. Charles Addams! Alison Bechdel! Winsor McCay! Art Spiegelman! Daniel Clowes! George Booth! Waves hands around!

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“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.