I first heard of Lisa Carver in the late 1980s, when we were both about 19 or 20. Performing under the name Lisa Suckdog in shows that involved screeching, screaming, pissing, and violence, she was often spoken of in the same breath with notorious scum-rocker G.G. Allin, and I was impressed that a girl my age was making herself a legend in the punk underground. But I didn’t become a bonafide fan until I stumbled upon her zine Rollerderby a few years later. At first I was disbelieving: Who would have guessed that the hurricane Lisa Suckdog could write so well? Her voice was perky and zinging, irreverent but commonsensical, unabashedly feminine as well as manifestly horn-doggish. I wasn’t the only one who was charmed; she had fans galore. In 1995 the Utne Reader listed her as one of “100 Visionaries Who Will Change Your Life,” and 1996 saw the publication of Rollerderby: (the Book) and a collection of essays called Dancing Queen. By the early 2000s, I would occasionally stumble upon her hosting an episode of HBO’s Real Sex or on MTV. Her byline appeared in glossy magazines. She also published another book, The Lisa Diaries, that drew from her weekly sex column at Nerve.com. When I learned she had a memoir, Drugs Are Nice, published by Soft Skull Press in 2005, I gobbled it up.
Drugs Are Nice fills in some of the blanks left in her earlier relentlessly upbeat (if also gory and obscene) work. She sketches a chaotic upbringing split between a sickly, pill-addicted mother and drug-dealer father who went to prison when she was six. She talks about escaping an abusive relationship with the father of her first child and the reality of raising alone a son born with a chromosomal deletion. But as it turns out, Drugs Are Nice, for all its stripped-back honesty, presents only a fraction of Lisa’s life story. In January, she self-published _________, an untitled book that collects around 80 paintings she created intuitively in late 2010 and early 2011 as part of the effort to recover memories from an early childhood so horrific it’s hard to look at squarely. Through painting and through therapy, Lisa came to recall being abused, molested, and prostituted by her father as a very young girl, and she began to understand the process of disassociating by which she had coped and functioned. In the text accompanying the images, Lisa writes about her diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder and gives interpretations of the paintings.
Lisa and I spoke for nearly two hours on the phone about the book, childhood sexual assault, memory, truth, and disassociation, among other things. At the end of the conversation, Lisa said, “I think when you write about things that are really deep and personal and important to people and when they give you feedback from a deep important place inside themselves, that’s so similar to sex. I feel like we just had sex.” And I did too. Really good sex.
Rumpus: When I saw you have a new book coming out, it sent me back into your catalogue. I noticed that in Rollerderby your parents are quite present—you interview them, talk about them, they’re totally part of your life. Dancing Queen is dedicated to them. In Drugs Are Nice, you’re more critical. By the end of the book, you had cut your dad out of your life, because you recognized he wasn’t being responsible in the way he was dealing with Wolf, your son, and he was sort of stalking you. I always had a picture of your dad as a strange, off-the-wall, dangerous character, but there’s no mention in Drugs are Nice of any molestation or child prostitution or anything like that, and I wonder when you started suspecting you had these memories that you weren’t able to find.
Carver: Certainly not when I was writing Drugs are Nice, because as I was telling that I was telling the most truth that I could. I was not trying to hide anything. So, it was hidden from me. I had no idea at all.
Rumpus: You were starting to see these fucked up dynamics and analyzing them more closely, but you hadn’t gotten to the bottom of them.
Carver: Well, I knew that I presented as somebody who had been molested, that was obvious. But I thought it was just coincidence. Or maybe I thought that cool people are like this. I didn’t know. You can’t know what you don’t know.
Rumpus: What let you or compelled you or forced you—I don’t know how you look at it—to try to locate those memories.
Carver: I didn’t try. I certainly didn’t go looking. There was actually something involving one of my children, that I won’t talk about, that was an impetus. I had to protect one of them from something, and that brought up these feelings that… I felt very scared, and the fear was far out of proportion to what was actually happening to my child. I’ve always been very proud of my normal parenting, my healthy parenting. I felt like it was OK that I was so destructive in my personal life and my sex life and my career because I kept it together with my kids. So when I reacted that irrationally, I realized that my unhealthiness was affecting my life with my kids.
Rumpus: What role did painting play in discovering you were dissociative? Were you already starting to explore some of this stuff in therapy when you started the painting, and was the painting part of the therapy? Or did what you were painting send you to therapy?
Carver: I think the painting was first. I mean, I was already in therapy. My therapist had been, for probably about five years, trying to get me to recover memories, because my childhood was a blank. But I always refused, saying there was no reason for it. I didn’t want to. Then when this happened with my child and I was painting these scenes that looked like something had really happened that I didn’t know about, that’s when I agreed to the treatment. And so the two were playing off each other. I was going in and having this treatment to recover memories, and I was painting them at the same time.
Rumpus: In the book you mention that you had given up writing for a livelihood around this time, in response to what you were discovering about yourself, and you were selling the paintings as soon as you made them. Was that for financial necessity?
Carver: Well, of course I needed a job, but I also just wanted the paintings out of my house. I didn’t want my children to see them, and I didn’t want to see them. And every single one of them except for “Wrists Attack Razor” were gone the minute I put them up. They would sell. All these horrible, ugly, nasty things. There’s a market for that, I guess.
Rumpus: Were the buyers fans of yours? I’m wondering about the relationship between being a public person and going through this super scary and personal and deep thing. People are kind of watching you, and hopefully you’re feeling like they’re caring about you, but…
Carver: It was really great. I was on Facebook all the time, and I would put up the paintings as I was working on them, and I would talk about the things that had happened to me. I was very excited to not have these things be secret, and it made me feel very comfortable and safe that there were all these people watching me. I had felt at-risk from my father, but now he couldn’t get me anymore, because now everybody would know it was him. That’s the feeling that I had. That’s not the reality really, but it was the reality for parts of myself.
Previously I had been mind-fucked to the point where I was telling people who might have helped, “Yes, this is my father, this is OK,” and I wasn’t trying to escape anymore. And now I was telling everybody what had really happened, and everybody knew, and everybody was around and encouraging, and I felt like, even if I forget—and I’m always worried that I’m going to forget; I still doubt myself—I know that everybody else could hold that reality for me. And I could go pick it up sometime if I lost it again. It’s really strange to… I even feel strange talking about it. It feels very strange to not have your memories or your own sense of reality. The best you can hope for sometimes is to pick good people to hold it for you, instead of somebody who wants to use it against you.
Rumpus: That gets at the claim you make throughout the book that the cruelest thing that was done to you as a child was not the rape or the trafficking of you, it was the fucking with your mind.
Carver: The thing that my father did was to make me say and believe that I wanted this. That I wanted to be sent off with strangers as a tiny child. He would torture me emotionally to the point where I would say that I wanted anything. Until I asked for it. He made me ask for it. And then I became convinced that it was all me. I think. I don’t know.
Rumpus: You present some factual information about dissociative identity disorder in the book. At what point did research started to inform your understanding of what was going on with you?
Carver: Like most people with multiple personalities, I had long been drawn to other people, especially lovers, who had multiple personalities. So I was researching the symptoms—to try to cope, to understand why these guys were behaving like they were. (That started back when dissociative identity order was called multiple personality disorder.) But I had no idea that it related me, at all.
Rumpus: So you had all this background information to draw on when you when you were piecing this together for yourself?
Carver: Oh, I was so familiar with it. And then also I have always been really morbidly obsessed with children who get murdered and kidnapped and raped. Who get pornography made out of them. So I already knew a lot about that because I was just so drawn to it all the time, again not knowing it related to me personally.
I want to ask you a question. Do you relate personally at all to disassociating?
Rumpus: I don’t know that I relate to disassociating exactly, but I do have… I was molested as a child at a young age, starting around four. It has nothing to do with your situation. It has nothing to do with my parents, and they were loving parents. But definitely I’m interested in the fact that we’re the same age and this is coming to you in your forties, because I’ve become sort of obsessed with these childhood experiences in my own life lately. And it’s hard to precisely remember things from when we’re little—some things are really blurry, isolated moments are crystal clear, some memories come forward in a way that actually hurts my brain— and I’ve definitely spent a lot of my lifetime telling myself that I don’t need to think about this, and who cares, and it wasn’t a big deal. Even—and I still think some of these things—even thinking in some ways that it was not that negative, that it developed some positive traits in myself, and the discomfort of that feeling…
Carver: I think it probably did. And in other eras and other countries it’s the norm. You think all these things. And it is so incredibly prevalent…
Rumpus: It is. What, like one out of three or one out of four people experience…
Carver: That’s what they say. And that’s just one out of three people who know it and admit it and are believed. The reason I asked you that was because the book is so inside the experience of disassociating, and I was wondering if anyone could relate to it who didn’t know what that was like.
Rumpus: Reading the book was a very powerful experience for me. One reaction I had is to feel almost guilty about how much I connected to it. How can I compare my experience to your experience, which was so much more extreme? And yet some of your images and descriptions are so vivid to me, they strike a painful and electric chord. I think the book could speak to anyone who was sexualized really early. It’s a confusing thing to have happen. You can want it to go away, but it doesn’t go away—or it doesn’t stay away. And then questioning that: Why am I thinking about this? Am I misremembering? Am I reading too much into this? Am I creating memories?
Carver: Am I being a crybaby? Am I trying to get people in trouble?
I look at other people’s history and think about how much worse they had it than me. That makes me discount my own experiences. Everybody does that. Everybody compares. But the thing is, when you’re a child, your reality is total. So it doesn’t matter if you get punched in the face once, or if, you know, you’re prostituted every single day. For you, it’s a total experience.
Rumpus: It’s such an unusual book. It’s so deep and raw. It has messages to us now as a society, it has messages to people who’ve survived stuff in their childhood, and then sometimes it’s just very vivid description of the disassociation and… just the perspective of a helpless child. It’s doing a lot. Nothing about the book is typical. Even the trim size, the way the images are placed, the use of two different fonts… The format and structure and language of the book seem to be representing the splintering of memory and identity, the disassociation, but it doesn’t feel self-conscious in that way. I didn’t get the feeling that you’re formally experimenting with how text can represent consciousness, for example. So I wondered about the process of creating this book, about how intentional it was, or whether you were working from a more purposefully unconscious process like the one you describe you used for creating the paintings themselves.
Carver: The stuff that’s in Times font, that was me as a writer making sure I was getting things correct, making sure I was getting the chronology OK, making sure I was saying what I believe was true. The stuff in the sans serif font, I did not exert an editor or a narrator or a writer onto that, I just let the experience tell itself; I let the memory tell itself. I didn’t question it. I didn’t try to make it good. I didn’t try to make it right, because that was how I kept lying to myself and everybody else all my life. And that was the bad thing about writing. I was able to lie convincingly and look very naïve, because I was trained in that, so when I told the stories from within themselves about what was happening, I didn’t question it. I didn’t ask my approval.
Rumpus: What about the fact that the titles of the paintings are listed in the beginning and organized carefully into groups, but on the pages themselves, the paintings are not titled, and the commentary about them does not always appear on the same spread, which can be disorienting. Was that disorientation intentional, or was that part of the giving-permission strand in the book?
Carver: You can go look for the title of a painting if you want, but you won’t be compelled to attach my title to the image. Because I was hoping that people would tell their own story through reading this, that it would wake up something in them. I didn’t want it to be only about my experience. I wanted people to feel what they had hidden inside themselves.
Rumpus: It was very successful for me on that level. It was disorienting at first—not in an off-putting way; I devoured the book in one sitting—but then I kept going back to it. There’s a certain kind of work that has to be done by the reader. I was very involved with the book, and personally involved, and the one other person I know who’s read it has felt similarly.
Carver: I’m happy to hear that. I’ve always tried for that, even as a teenager performing on stage. Or even in my personal life. I always try to get people off balance. It’s kind of Buddhist and it’s kind of performance arty, but it’s a way to wake people up. Every time I’ve learned a lot, it’s when what I saw as walls were knocked down and I could go in any direction. But the movement is preceded by a period of uncertainty, of feeling lost or confused. That’s part of it.
Rumpus: In some ways, I can compare this book to Rollerderby and the anarchic format of a zine, where you’re fitting things on the page in odd ways, putting in weird ephemera or hand-written notes, where the whole project feels more impromptu. Then there are your books, and you’re a great writer—technically good, pitch perfect in your voice, adept at structure—but the books feel very contained.
Carver: It’s true, when I started being published by big magazines and big publishing houses, I lost some thrill. And I gained some money, and some social position. But it really wasn’t worth it, and I was really happy to go back to self-publishing. I did not want anyone to tell me one word. I didn’t care if I did a really bad job, it was going to be my job, and I didn’t want anyone else to look at it.
Rumpus: I want to talk about something you write in the book. When you explain why you felt like you had to give up writing for a living, you say: “My success in writing came out of the same formula I learned as a child prostitute: find out people’s dreams and make them believe not only that dreams can come true, but their dream already is true… I take their hand and show them. I make them laugh. I appear to be dirtily innocent and happy – utterly without fear or disgust, and I make them feel there’s no reason for them to feel any fear or disgust either.” That’s a great description of your voice, and when I read it I had a strong response, because I loved your voice. I loved your energy, your optimism, your combination of craziness and sensibleness, and it is a harsh toke to have to look at all that in the context of traits demanded by a child prostitute. We do all want to feel OK about our lust and our desires and our messy parts, but of course some lusts are not OK to act on, and it’s hard to walk that line. It can be confusing for people who have spent a lot of energy and a lot of their lives convincing themselves otherwise.
Carver: An editor who was really important to me, Ada Calhoun, said basically what you just said. She apologized because she felt that she had somehow taken advantage of me as an editor, taken advantage of that child-like voice, by encouraging me to be like I was. She said she was crying when she read this book, and she felt like she had taken part in something wrong. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I love writing. I love being happy about my life and accepting it. I loved helping other people accept themselves. And I loved being a prostitute as an adult. I loved having open relationships. I loved experimenting and living with gusto. And writing with gusto. And saying fuck you to anyone who tried to control what I was doing or call me names. I loved it. And so I don’t want to take away any of the glitter or happiness. It was all real.
I went through a period where I realized that I was also, at the same time, reenacting my past, telling people, “It’s fine. You’re fine. That’s the way human beings are. Accept yourself.” On the one hand that’s totally true, and I really believe that. On the other hand, now I know when to stop. When it’s not right. When it’s gross. I didn’t know before.
Rumpus: In the book you talk about having a backlash against your interest in BDSM, and then you talk about coming to a place where you’re able to reclaim it as your own. There’s a really beautiful passage where you talk about becoming bigger than your father’s influence over you.
Carver: I think my father was compelled to do everything that he did. He had no control. At this point in my life, if I do something, if I have sex or if I hit someone, it’s because I want to. I know what I’m doing. I’m not compelled; I’m not reenacting anything. Up until I painted these paintings and wrote this book, I, too, was just compelled. Needing to do something to someone. Needing to run away from something. Needing and not knowing. Just doing what I knew how to do.
Rumpus: You were 26 when you had your son Wolf, and leading a super alternative life. You found it in you to be a good parent in a really difficult situation, with a baby with serious special needs and a partner who was…
Carver: Who had special needs himself! Alcoholic, depressed…
Rumpus: I was moved by your explanation of where your parenting instincts came from, which was from having parented yourself in your imagination when you were a child and no one else was taking good care of you. But what else did you draw on? Because parenting can be hard even in optimal conditions.
Carver: I do think my ability to deal with all that came out of having dissociative identity disorder, because I had separated out a part that was a mother, and that part had been alive almost as long as I had, and that part could take over at any time. That’s the great thing about being dissociative: you can rise to any occasion without internal conflict, because you shut down the other parts. A really hard thing about being a parent is not being able to do what you want to do when you want to do it. But I didn’t have to experience that, because if it was time for me to parent, I just shut off that other part, and the mother part took over. There was no conflict. There was no resentment. There was no confusion. I’ve always been that way, no matter what the circumstances were.
Rumpus: So there’s a case where dissociation has been a strength.
Carver: Oh, It’s been a strength in everything in my life. I was good at it. In fact, I feel the loss of it very much now that I’m mostly integrated. I feel so much more conflict and resentment and so many more negative emotions, like anger and like feeling trapped. I never ever felt that, until I was, you know, “cured.”
Rumpus: What’s a benefit of being cured?
Carver: I haven’t been this way long enough to really be able to say much about it. But I am alive, and I really don’t think I was ever truly alive. I was playing roles, and half of me or three quarters of me or nine tenths of me was dead all the time, and there was this stunted part that was playing a role and she knew, or he knew, that the role would be over and they would be dead.
There was a lot of desperation and feeling disrespected by myself. And now I don’t have that. I’m all alive all the time. But it’s just not always good. Sometimes it’s really inconvenient. I don’t want to have to be sad. I don’t want to have to be patient. I want things to be really easy and magical, and they’re not all the time.
Rumpus: I was struck by the end of the book, where you’re describing going into the desert with the man that you love. The voice there seemed very recognizable to me—the syntax, the gleeful energy—it was the “Lisa Carver voice” that you refer to earlier in the book as being sort of an act. But it seems like that must be an innate part of you, too, that it’s not just an act or a lie. Or were you going for the trope of the happy ending there?
Carver: It was never a lie. That voice was always a part of me, but yes, that was the trope of the happy ending. I hadn’t been integrated long enough to be able to speak with authority about what my life looks like now, so I think I did call on my old voice. Sort of like, hey, can you say something here that’s happy and true? Because I can’t yet.
But that all definitely happened. I went to Nevada. I was with someone I loved. I didn’t think about my father all day. Definitely one of the best days of my life. But I wasn’t able… I’m not able even now to describe what it’s like to be a real person.
Rumpus: You say at the very end of the book that you still, after all this time, feel like you’re lying. There’s an obsession with the real in memoir. Writers talk a lot and write a lot about the slipperiness of memory. You, of course, are talking about something far beyond that everyday slipperiness that most of us experience. There was someone who was purposefully trying to fuck with your memory…
Caarver: More than someone. It was a whole system. My father and my mother and the girlfriends and other family members all played their part…
Rumpus: So you had nowhere to look for an accurate reflection, or no one to reflect back to you your own experience…
Carver: I have my cousin. She saw a lot, and we’re still close, and we are able to say to each other yes, that really happened. And then I have police records, and all the letters I’ve kept from my childhood. And I have some photos. I still have these actual things, and I can turn to these things to help me…
Rumpus: It sounds like these physical artifacts have been important to you. You say, “A believed child is the safest child.” And it’s so easy to tell a very young child they’re wrong, or to dismiss a very young child’s account of something. It’s difficult for anyone looking back into his or her own childhood and trying to locate the truth, or the honest perception. I’m wondering how you see the relationship between factual truth and honesty, an honest accounting. How do we trust children or our selves as children, our very early memories?
Carver: I don’t really care if it happened exactly as I remember it or not. It doesn’t matter. Obviously I was really fucked with. The details, some of them, I’m sure I invented at the time to cover up other stuff, and now what I remember is the invention, and that’s OK. I know the dynamics now, and that’s all that matters.
I know—well, I believe—I have a memory of—pornographic films being made of me when I was a little child. My father was eventually reported to the police for being a child pornographer, so that sort of corroborated my memory of it being done to me. And I met one of the people who’s now grown but who had as a child been filmed by my father. While I was writing the book I was pretty obsessed with tracking down one of these films with me in it, because I still doubted myself. But now, if somebody handed me that film, I would absolutely not watch it. There’s no reason I need to see myself or any other child being raped. How it plays out in my relationships now matters, but the details of what exactly happened, and my veracity, my exactness, that doesn’t matter. What do I care? It’s over.
Rumpus: It must feel good to be at that point.
Carver: I think that I really cared so much before because parts of me knew that they had to hold on to that information for me. They had to keep it safe for future me, for me now, or they would be dead like my father wanted them dead, like all perpetrators want that memory dead. So those memories were like people, like little girls, and they had to be believed; they had to be seen.
This is going to sound like weird therapy talk, but once I said to the little girls, the memories, “I believe you all. I believe all of you. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says. It doesn’t matter if there’s any proof otherwise, I believe you all,” it was like they all said, “Oh, thank God. I did my job, and I can rest.” Like they all grew up at once and became part of me. So now I don’t have to hang onto it anymore.