The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Sarah Einstein

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Soon after I became acquainted with Sarah Einstein, I read the beginning of her essay “Shelter” in The Sun magazine online. I was so taken by the thousand words The Sun let beyond its paywall, which describe the conditions at the homeless shelter where Einstein worked on the night of a massive blizzard, that I immediately renewed my subscription to the magazine and ordered the back copy in which the essay appeared (October 2014). I also I pre-ordered Mot, Einstein’s memoir about her friendship with a mentally ill homeless man she met at another, later job where she was assisting people living in the margins, in a drop-in center in Morgantown, West Virginia. (A version of “Shelter” appears as a chapter in Mot.)

The winner of the 2015 AWP award for creative nonfiction, Mot recounts Sarah’s trips to visit her friend once he moved west, as well as the difficulties with her job and marriage that she was facing in her own life. Beautifully written, Mot vividly evokes quotidian parking lots, campgrounds, and scenery and explores complicated, omnipresent moral questions about what it means to give, take, offer, need, and befriend in a way that will make it a reference point for me for years to come. “That reminds me of Mot,” I keep thinking, whether I’m reading about the refugee crisis or the Illinois budget impasse or a friend’s interpersonal conflicts. Einstein and I conducted this interview by email.

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The Rumpus: Please tell me about where you were in your writing life when you began to write Mot. Was memoir a new form for you? What kind of writing had you done previously? When did you decide you would write about your relationship with Mot?

Sarah Einstein: I began Mot shortly after I decided that I wanted to explore the possibility of writing. I’d taken a class in creative nonfiction with Kevin Oderman that I had loved as an undergraduate at WVU. I was casting about for what to do after leaving my job at Friendship Room, and graduate school seemed like a good place to recover from that experience. I knew by then that I didn’t want to get an advanced degree in social work, and so I applied to the MFA program, and I was very lucky to get in. So the decision to turn to writing, and my friendship with Mot, are tangled up in very real and inextricable ways. I’d have never gone to graduate school, I don’t think, if the events in this book had never happened, and I would never have managed to write this book without Oderman’s mentorship and the time to write afforded me by the program. And that Mot’s chosen name means “word” in French is not lost on me. There are ways in which the magic of these convergences still kind of astounds me.

Rumpus: Mot knew you were writing about your friendship and gave his permission, yet the act of writing doesn’t play a large role in the book. Were you taking notes as you went? Did you spend any time in Amarillo or Oklahoma City writing?

Einstein: I took very careful notes while we were travelling, and sometimes Mot even read over them, mostly to correct mistakes I’d made in recalling his part of conversations. But it was always in the early mornings, or the late evenings, and it didn’t have much impact on our time together. Most often, I wrote while Mot tinkered with his car, which he did quite a lot.

It’s also true that relationship to my friendship with Mot and the writing of the book were part of a complicated tension between what I was saying I was doing and what I really thought I was doing: I told friends I was visiting Mot in order to write the book, but in truth, I never thought it would get written. It was just a thing to say so that the visits made sense to other people. And so, although I was taking careful notes, I was doing it primarily so that I could show the notebooks to Scotti, to friends, and say, “See, it’s research.” It felt, at the time, about as important as doing the laundry or gassing up the car, and hardly worth mentioning in the book itself. Even the early chapters, the act of writing the first draft, felt more like an exercise in justifying my friendship with Mot and less like actually working towards a publishable manuscript.

Rumpus: You were about forty at the time of the events in this book, yes? You were on your third marriage, had tried on a career or two, lived through some challenges—in other words, you had some decent life experience. And there’s hardly any flashback. You’re writing almost exclusively from the perspective of the middle-aged self who started hanging out with Mot, someone who seemed to know herself pretty well. Or am I wrong about how well you knew yourself? To what extent did you gain the self-awareness about why you were drawn to the friendship with Mot in the process of writing, and to what extent were you conscious of your own motives in the moment?

Einstein: I feel like I did know myself well, maybe too well to do a good job of exploring my own motives or past in the context of my friendship with Mot. Early on, an agent who didn’t take my book said of it, “We need to, and don’t, understand why you would befriend a homeless, mentally ill man,” and my genuine response was that I didn’t understand what she meant. I befriended Mot for all the reasons we make friends with anyone: I found him smart, charming, interesting, and kind. I enjoyed his company. And that he was homeless, or mentally ill, didn’t seem relevant to whether or not we would be friends, only to the shape that friendship would take. And, oh, what a wonderful friendship it was, while it lasted. Really. It did what all good friendships do: it lifted me out of my own limited perspective and made a difficult time in my life easier. It provided us both with companionship, affection, and joy. And what motives, beyond the universal desire for happiness, are required to want such things for ourselves?

Rumpus: One of the things I love about this book is the way your unabashed activist streak—the desire to aid homeless and mentally ill people and educate and agitate on their behalf—exists alongside a complex story with no clear moral. You were not able to “save” Mot, and the roots of his problems are shown to be complicated in ways that defy an easy solution. The clientele at the Friendship Room, the homeless drop-in center where you worked, are not portrayed as innocent victims; they are developed as distinct people, plenty of whom hold grudges, have bad habits, watch bad TV, argue, and in some cases, endanger others, including yourself. In the epilogue, you directly address the possibility that someone could read the book and throw up their hands with regard to helping the marginalized, which you state is not your intention. To me, that you felt the need to write this note speaks to a tension between your truth-teller, writerly instincts and your activist ones. How did you navigate this?

Einstein: I made mScreenshot 2015-10-27 10.56.21y activist self sit in a chair and stay quiet during the writing of this book, and I only accomplished that by promising her the afterword. I don’t think it could be any other way. I hate books—and I mean the word hate with all the passion and anger that implies, I really do—that try to erase the complexities of social issues in order to advance a particular activist agenda, even one in which I wholeheartedly believe. We are, and pardon me for saying this, at a moment when almost all the stories we tell each other about the way the world works have been simplified to the point of ridiculousness. The Internet certainly isn’t helping, but neither are books that suggest individual heroics are an adequate response to systemic problems. Political issues need political solutions.

Even if I had “saved” Mot, nothing would have really changed… life would still be just as difficult, the system just as broken, for the thousands upon thousands of people living similarly difficult lives. This is the problem with what I’ve recently learned is often called “the White Savior Complex.” We believe that our activism, our individual acts of intervention, are what is needed to right the world’s wrongs, and this belief is in and of itself one of those wrongs. This book is, in many many ways, about the failure of that model to produce any real or meaningful change, in fact.

That said, of course we are responsible for being active citizens who work toward a more just and equitable world. We need to work in coalition with those whose lives are impacted by injustice and inequality to correct those social ills in a way that corrects them for everyone, and not just for those to whom we choose to turn out attention.

Rumpus: Speaking of not valorizing your subjects. There’s a very powerful scene early on where you’re trying to get a better handle of Mot’s family of origin, and you ask what his sister might say about why she won’t talk to him. He replies that she’d probably say it was because he molested her when they were kids. By this point you know that Mot himself suffered abuse as a child, and you do the complicated work of putting his confession in context, neither absolving him nor immediately labeling him as a monster and casting him out. Your own emotions are tracked carefully as the day unfolds and you ask more about his sexuality, and are faced with new doubts and fears. What decisions did you make in the rendering of this scene?

Einstein: There was, in the very first draft, a version of this chapter that didn’t include the information that he’d molested his sister. I knew that there would be readers who couldn’t get past this information, and that for them the rest of the book would be lost. And I was right. Shortly after it was published, I received an email from a reader who said she was horrified by what she felt was a book about my devotion to a rapist, and she wondered how I imagined his sister would feel if she knew that I was aiding and sheltering her abuser. I wish I could say that I was surprised by her reading, but I wasn’t.

The promise of creative nonfiction is, however, that it will be nonfiction. To me, that means both that nothing in the book is made up, but also that no important information has been intentionally left out. The version of the chapter that didn’t include this information was a violation of that promise. This doesn’t mean that I’ve left nothing out of the book for the sake of someone else’s privacy. But I only allowed myself to gloss over things that were genuinely not germane to the story I was telling.

Rumpus: Right after you learn Mot had abused his sister, you describe gazing at yourself in a bathroom mirror. You look tired and dirty. You have a stain on your shirt. You think to yourself that maybe you don’t just look crazy—by which I took you to mean like a mentally ill homeless person—maybe you are crazy. Was there some level of attraction to this idea? Some part of you that felt an affinity for Mot in particular and homeless people in general, even though you were raised in comfortable circumstances where you were well-loved?

Einstein: Are there women my age who don’t worry about becoming homeless? This feels like a part of our generational angst… that we came up aware of the sudden rise in homelessness, and of the number of formerly middle class women who ended up on the streets because they left bad marriages without the skills or resources to fend for themselves financially. And I was in a bad marriage, and leaving a job that, even if I had stayed, would not have paid enough for me to live successfully on my own. Mot was living my own fear, and somehow, he was surviving it. That was very attractive to me. I wanted to learn from him how I might survive, if I too ended up without a home, without the resources to live what I thought of as a minimally decent life.

But of course I didn’t learn those things, because I couldn’t have survived it, and he was surviving it only just barely. He certainly wasn’t thriving, and he certainly wasn’t at peace with his life. If he had been, he would never have agreed to try and see if together we could change it. But, in the beginning, the truth of that was lost on me. We imagined that we were helping each other. He thought he was helping me to see that I could survive even if my life fell into the kind of chaos he endured, and I thought I was helping him to reduce that chaos. And for a while, we did help each other, but not in the way we thought. We helped each other because, at the time, we each needed to feel useful to someone else, and we were useful to one another.

Rumpus: I read Mot as I was becoming more aware of the refugee crisis in Europe. I followed the accounts of the people who upending their lives to volunteer, especially the families who were offering up their homes to refugees. It seemed such a natural, kind, and human gesture, and it made me ask myself questions about what I would be willing to do to help those who’d lost everything. But even as I was getting teary eyed over the beauty of the offering and the vastness of the need, I was wondering if the families offering their homes had an exit strategy, thinking about all the ways in which their generosity could turn sour, or forever alter their lives with their children. About what it would really mean for middle class people around the world to truly share.

Relatedly, in the book, you position yourself as fortunate in so many ways—even in cases where you have clearly been the victim. You compare your sexual assault to what Mot’s sister underwent, the safety of your world to that of the homeless people in Morgantown… Where do we draw the line in terms how much of ourselves to give, what to give? You and Scotti both seem to be exploring that line in Mot, and sometimes crossing it. How do we recognize when we need or are allowed nurturing or assistance, or even just pleasure, when we have so much relative privilege?

Einstein: This is hard for me, still. I used to talk about “the sin of empty rooms.” As it says in the book, Mot isn’t the first homeless person who I’ve allowed to live in my house, and in fact there was another homeless man living with us during the time that I knew Mot. For a long time, it was right and necessary for me to share what I had with people who needed it, even when that came with significant costs.

I’m older now, and some of the costs—particularly to my marriage—are ones that I’m no longer willing to shoulder to live this way, but I recognize that as a kind of selfishness. More, though, I recognize now that with the exception of Wilbur, who lived in my house when I was a college student while he died of cancer, I hadn’t really done anyone any lasting good. I hadn’t changed anything in the lives of these other people for the better, and I had done some real damage to my relationships with partners and loved ones through my actions.

That said, I also haven’t given up on the idea that there is something wrong with living in relative comfort without being aware of the way that obligates us to those who don’t. My husband Dominik and I are in the early stages of becoming foster parents, because this feels to us both like the natural evolution of this impulse to fill our empty rooms with folk who need a place to stay, and perhaps also like a way to finally do something that will have a lasting, positive impact on someone else’s life.

Rumpus: Can you please talk about this book’s journey to publication? How did you end up submitting and winning the AWP nonfiction award?

Einstein: I worked with an agent for a while, and he was a wonderful and encouraging agent, but his vision for the book—and probably what the book needed to sell to a large publishing house and to be a mass-market work—and mine were just too divergent for us to find common ground. I didn’t want this to be the story of me, or my failing marriage, and I most particularly didn’t want it to be a story of a middle class white woman who learns about her own life through her interactions with the “magical other,” as such a book would surely have cast Mot. There are all sorts of stories that I think can be written well with the demands of the market in mind… but this was not one of them. So the agent and I parted ways, amicably, and I started sending the book out to prizes and small presses.

I won the AWP Prize because I was very, very lucky. I sent the book in the year that John Phillip Santos was the judge, and he is a generous reader for whom this particular story had resonance. In other years, with different judges, I know that I would not have won. So much about how our books fare after we write them has to do with just this kind of luck, and so little of it is under our control. There are stunningly beautiful books sitting on the hard drives of very talented writers that will never make it out into the world, and there are other, less wonderful books—mine might be one of them—that will for no reason other than that they found the right reader at the right time. I wish, for all our sakes, that the process were less of a crapshoot, but it’s not, and so I’m grateful that the dice rolled well for me.


Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the award-winning memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor. More from this author →