The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Jillian Lauren

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Jillian Lauren is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, which, in lyrical, harrowing prose, chronicles the 18 months Lauren spent as a teenage concubine in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei. She’s also known for her novel, Pretty, which delivers a gritty tale of a self-destructive girl and the redemption she finds in surprising places. Both books were published by Plume/Penguin, as is Lauren’s recently released second memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted. Picking up where Some Girls left off, Everything You Ever Wanted details Lauren’s journey from “punk rock Scheherazade” (as she was once described by Margaret Cho) to wife, mother, and, yes, pierced and tattooed member of the PTA. Exploring multilayered themes of identity and reinvention, Lauren’s vivid, honest account of her journey into family, community, and self-understanding, will resonate with those who are mothers, or, like Lauren, parents through adoption, or adoptees themselves. But Everything You Ever Wanted makes broader connections as well, as any reader who’s ever desired a second chance will surely attest.

Lauren’s written work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Los Angeles Magazine, and Salon, among other outlets, and has been anthologized widely, including in The Moth Anthology, True Tales of Lust and Love, and Best of Babble Blogs. She has performed at spoken word and storytelling events across the country, including as a regular on The Moth main stage, and has been interviewed on such television programs as The View and Good Morning America, and by Howard Stern. Lauren is a popular and sometimes controversial blogger at MSNBC, The Huffington Post and jillianlauren.com, which was named a Top 100 Mom Blog of 2012 by Babble Magazine. She is married to Weezer bass player Scott Shriner. They live in Los Angeles with their son, Tariku.

I spoke with Lauren via phone from her home.

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The Rumpus: One of the many things I appreciate in your work is your apparent fearlessness when it comes to facing of the messiness of life—your willingness and ability to hunker down in the middle of hard situations and scenes, and work your way through them on the page. You did this in Some Girls, charting your journey of sexual adventure and risk in prose that was gritty and lyrical, compelling and wrenching. In Everything You Ever Wanted, you do it again—only this memoir maps your more recent experiences of family and community building, motherhood and marriage, and related issues of trauma and identity. Do you find that writing so fearlessly transforms your past? Or am I totally off base in describing you as fearless? Were there times when you hesitated before the writing, or resisted it altogether? Messy places that scared you that you longed to avoid, or, in fact, did?

Jillian Lauren: I don’t really see the point of writing a book that doesn’t dive into the messiness of relationships and life. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a tremendous amount of resistance. I had resistance every day. It was painful to write a lot of this stuff. I constantly reexamined how the writing would affect the people in my life—which is an ongoing ethical question for a memoirist.

In terms of “transformation,” writing about some of our more challenging times as a family didn’t change the experience for me, or transform what happened. But it did give me a sense of empowerment around it. Creating narrative out of our lives is an empowering experience. My ongoing documentation of my experience as a parent to my son Tariku has definitely brought a new level of consciousness to my parenting. Not that everyone needs to write about her experiences in order to achieve consciousness, but that’s how I do it. I’m a writer and a storyteller. It’s how I get a sense of awareness, presence, and meaning in my life—by putting words to things. In my blog, where the events are written about pretty much in real time, not with a few years of distance—that’s where I’m really able to process some of the more confusing parenting moments.

Rumpus: Keeps you on your toes, writing in real time. More in the moment.

Lauren: Yeah. But that concept, “being in the moment”—it’s an aspirational one to me. It’s never something I feel I have a handle on. The best I can do is to try to listen and pay attention. In Everything You Ever Wanted, I reference these directives—these parenting forces—that sometimes seem to come at me from everywhere, telling me to be present with my child in every moment. And I think: how could I possibly even know that I was present in the moment, when all I can even think is, God, I’m so tired, I’m just so tired all the time. Half the time, early on in parenting, it was all I could do to make sure there was food in my son’s mouth at the right time. But my consideration of that aspiration, and my engagement with it, has at least helped me be more aware.

Rumpus: Were there things that took you by surprise as you wrote Everything You Ever Wanted?

Lauren: Writing the book helped me clarify certain concepts that were nebulous to me. Being forced to put words to things made me make sure I understand them myself. For instance, Tariku’s sensory integration issues. What that means is that my son processes sensory information differently than most children his age, who are developing more typically, neurologically, do. Sensory integration issues, and the challenging behaviors they inspire, are often hard to understand. And so I was forced to bring a fair amount of rigor to my consideration of this condition, not just for the sake of Tariku, but also in order to convey the information in a way that made sense to readers. This memoir isn’t intended to be instructive, of course, but I did want to be precise.

I also wrote about making the connection between my son’s post-traumatic stress disorder and my own trauma, and that act—the act of writing—really clarified my understanding.

Rumpus: That part of the book remains particularly vivid for me: “I consider my own history—the night terrors, the self-medicating, the years of edge-pushing behavior . . . I feel suddenly like there’s oxygen in the room. I hadn’t even noticed that I was suffocating. Something shifts; this understanding is what I’ve been waiting for. My son has trauma and so do I. And we are not alone. That is a start.”

Lauren: Yeah. Absolutely. In fact, I understood my trauma for the first time, as I parented my son. This is one of the greatest gifts of parenting, I think. We get to re-parent ourselves. There were ways in which I wasn’t nurtured. I never focused on those things. I was more dismissive of them, until they started to arise in Tariku. It’s easier for me to bring a deeper level of compassion to him, than it is to bring it to myself. So Tariku teaches me every day how to be compassionate—and how to be a parent, not just to him, but to myself.

Rumpus: There’s such compassion in how you address everyone who appears in your work—even when his or her actions might be viewed as less than compassionate to you. Your parents, for example. To me there’s deep empathy expressed for your parents, but you write that you were, in essence, “disowned” by them. To me, that sounds like the memoirist’s worst nightmare.

Lauren: I know. I always hate when people bring this up, because I wish I had a better scenario for them. But I always have the same answer: Write the story you need to write. As my husband used to say, when I felt scared about what I was writing in Some Girls: “No one’s publishing this book yet.” So, yeah, I really believe you need to write what you’re called to write. You can always edit it out later. And my parents and I are talking again now—making cautious contact. We’ll see how they feel about this book.

Rumpus: Self-examination can be an exercise in navel gazing, but if you use self-examination to reach toward more universal themes, to reach toward a greater understanding not just of yourself, but of humanity—well, that’s the beauty of memoir, that’s the potential.

Some Girls presents a notably unique experience, as does Everything You Ever Wanted. And yet you’ve said that hundreds of women across the country wrote to say that Some Girls was, in essence, their story, too.

Lauren: Obviously most people didn’t live in a harem. What the women were saying was that I had touched on themes and narrative momentum that they related to, and that they were able to draw parallels to their own life. I’ve gotten a few similar responses to Everything You Ever Wanted, but as it just came out, all of them have been from my friends. So we can’t trust those. We have to just wait and see what the general response is going to be. The book does explore themes of identity, belonging, family, and trauma. I do imagine that it will appeal to mothers, but, theoretically, it also should have a broader reach.

Rumpus: In your recent TEDx talk, you said this about identity and its formation: “If we look more closely at how adoptees assemble an integrated sense of identity, we can see that who we are and where we belong in this world are not just a function of nature or nurture. Who we are and where we belong is an act of imagination . . . We are the stories we tell ourselves.”

I find this statement both startling and liberating.

Lauren: The idea of identity being a choice is an absolute obsession of mine. It’s my great passion as an adoptee and an adoptive mom. I have so many influences in my life, and my son has exponentially more. He says to me, “Am I Irish?” And I say, “Sure, you’re Irish by my birth family.” Then, when it’s St. Patrick’s Day, he says, ”I’m Irish too!” So he gets to try these identities on, and see what resonates with him in his soul. Yes, it has to do with the blood in our veins, but it goes far beyond that. Family is a choice. It’s a given, and a choice. Once we start to open up our imaginations in this way, we can feel a lot less victimized. Adoption makes very apparent that we don’t own our kids. There are all kinds of ways to couch this. I would say that my son is on loan from God. But even if you don’t have a faith-based view, you still don’t own your kids. They’re here with their own paths and their own goals and their own purposes. And we’re just lucky enough to get to help them along. I think that might be a little harder to see if you’re looking at this little carbon copy of yourself who just might get to fulfill all the dreams you didn’t get to fulfill. When you adopt a child it’s clearer that this child is a gift from the universe, not a possession.

Rumpus: In Everything You Ever Wanted, you write of constructing your own chosen family from “the people who were left behind.”

Lauren: Right. For a long time, I really felt like I needed to be pregnant. Having been adopted, I never was around someone who looked like me. I felt like I needed a pregnancy to feel this primal connection to the earth. But what I found was that I received that feeling of connection and belonging through Tariku, and also through the other families in the adoption community who we’ve met on this journey. They’re absolutely phenomenal. I couldn’t have hoped for a better, chosen family than our adoptive family friends. For instance, my friend Ashley, who lives in Wisconsin. I met her in Africa when we were adopting our kids. Where would I have met her otherwise? This process has really opened up my life and my heart, and made me realize how much I don’t know. It’s great when you figure out how much you don’t know. Much better than knowing it all, which is how I started.

Rumpus: In Everything You Ever Wanted, you describe your friends’ radically different responses to Some Girls. Your Christian friends read the book as a redemption narrative, and your feminist friends read it as a stand against shame. Do these interpretations resonate equally with you?

Lauren: I certainly like those interpretations of the book, but it was definitely a case of readers bringing much more to the work than I intended when I was alone in my office, writing it. My intention was to tell a true story. I tend to look at all of my work through a hero’s journey lens, so there was that at play for me. It’s something I’m really interested in, and read about a lot, and study. So that’s always an undercurrent of it in what I’m writing. I wouldn’t classify the book as either a redemption narrative, or a stand against shame—but sure, there are those threads at work, if that’s what’s speaking to you.

Rumpus: Have you read any of Everything You Ever Wanted to Tariku?

bookLauren: It’s so funny! I haven’t read any of it to him. But the other day he picked up the book, and . . . well, he can read now. He started reading it! I immediately went over to see what part he was reading, of course. There’s a section where I describe the time, early on in his life with us, when he wouldn’t eat, and he wouldn’t eat, and he wouldn’t eat. And as you know as a parent, there’s nothing that will make you more hysterical than this. One day during this time, for lack of anything better to do, I took him to the mall, and we started walking aimlessly around. I got this sausage sandwich to eat, and he kept leaning in, and leaning in, and I fed him a bite, and he loved it! Well, we got on a different track about what to feed him, then, and things improved. But you know kids love to hear stories about themselves when they were babies, so he’s just enchanted with that story—the time he ate a spicy sausage at Jody Maroni’s. I wouldn’t let Tariku indiscriminately flip through the book and just pick a passage, because there’s definitely stuff in there that he’s not ready for yet. But he’s going to come to some of my readings, so I’ll definitely find more Tariku-friendly pieces to read then.

Rumpus: As you were writing, did you think about him reading it all one day when he was older?

Lauren: Of course. I told a really honest story. I don’t think that I have to present our family as without flaws, or to present him in some glossed-over way in order to have him feel comfortable and proud when he reads it. But he is such a shining spirit—a heroic figure—that I really consider this book to be my gift to him. That was always in the back of the mind when I was writing. Sure there were some things that didn’t make it into the final draft. But I think I still was able to tell a story that was radically honest.

Rumpus: In terms of the hero’s journey, then—Tariku is the hero.

Lauren: Yeah. Well . . . it’s actually my journey, though. It’s my voice. The hero’s journey would be presented through the hero’s POV. But there are these parallel journeys going on—his and mine.

Rumpus: You’ve written a novel, Pretty, too. How do you find the different forms of writing—fiction and memoir–influence each other?

Lauren: They’re all pieces of a whole. It’s all about storytelling for me. I’m typically a restless person, and an artist with a lot of interests, so the medium through which I’m going to tell stories has shifted a lot, and will continue to shift. I think I’ll always write books, but I love utilizing different modes. Each one has different craft aspects, different rigors and tools, which are challenging and exciting for me to learn. I love working across these different platforms.

Rumpus: How is your spoken-word, storytelling voice different than your writing voice?

Lauren: They’re not the same, but I think they’ve gotten closer over the years. There’s more continuity with voice between different platforms for me now. And that seems to have something to do with getting closer to an authentic expression of who I am.

Rumpus: Is there a connection between your writing voice and your physical self? Is “voicing” a story on the page in any way a physical experience?

Lauren: It’s so important for me to be connected to my body in my writing process. As writers, we have this tendency to walk around as if everything we do professionally happens from the neck up. I don’t think that’s true at all. Our bodies, not just our brains, are storehouses of memory and emotion. I actually have a lot of different techniques to keep myself grounded in my body while I’m working. I stretch a lot. I do mental mapping exercises, trying to locate different sensations. I’ll do exercises to enter a scene through a different sense or body part, and that will get me more in touch with what was going on physically in the scene.

Rumpus: Do you recall a specific scene in Everything You Ever Wanted when you utilized these exercises—a knotty part of the book where you had to rely on such resources to authentically enter the experience?

Lauren: Absolutely. There was stuff I had a really hard time looking at, that I had to go into, and so I had to circumvent my own judgment. I did that by working to stay inside what physically happened. How did it feel? How did it smell? I write about the time I smacked my son in Everything You Ever Wanted. I had to face a lot of shame, writing that scene, and so it was terribly difficult. Every time I sat down to try, I got really sleepy or really hungry. I found any one of a million reasons not to write that scene. Ultimately, I got through it by focusing on the physical reality of what happened. I tried to stay away from judgment.

Rumpus: Which takes me back to my appreciation of what I see as your fearlessness. Shame can cause a lot of fear, particularly as it manifests itself in relationship to the body. Thus, the convenience of the mind-body split. But here you are, talking about entering a scene that carried a lot of shame for by focusing on you body . . . working through that shame—or, wait, maybe better: having a conversation with it.

Lauren: I think having a conversation with shame is the key. If we actually had to have worked through things in order to write about them, none of our great writers would ever have written a word. I don’t think we have to get better, or be fixed or healed in order to engage with things on the page. But I do think that shame is a real creativity killer. Shame can create a very crippling resistance inside of us, so that we have to be able to at least acknowledge it, and grapple with it, and maybe find some fire in it—find some stuff we can use, really mine the gold that is buried in there. It’s such a human thing, such an essential part of the human condition, to grapple with shame.

As women, in particular, a lot of culturally mandated self-doubt and self-criticism hits us where it counts when it comes to mothering, because at what is it more important that we succeed then in being the mother to our children? For me, there are many things that are important to me in life. I’m not saying that my identity as a mother is the ONLY thing that’s important to me. But it is the thing that’s the most important to me. So the idea that I’m not worthy of that task, and that I was failing as a mother, or am failing as a mother, is so haunting to me, a constant devil on my shoulder. Oh, see you’re not good enough to be a mother after all. The shame behind that is so profound.

Rumpus: You portray this vividly in your memoir, as well as your struggle to juggle multiple roles. That balancing act’s a tough one.

us1Lauren: Oh, there’s no winning with this idea that you can achieve a work-life balance—and then, somehow if it’s not balanced, you’re doing something wrong. I really feel there’s never a balance. Something is always losing. There not so much shame for me in this tension, as much as there is guilt. The Mom Guilt. I don’t think there’s any getting rid of it. I’m harder on myself than I’d never be hard on with anyone, especially a man or a father. If my husband has to travel for work, well, of course he has to travel for work. He doesn’t love being away from his family—well, maybe sometimes he does—but for the most part, he misses us. Still, he travels for work, and work is important, and work is what makes it possible for us to live in this house and have all our therapy appointments. Also Scott is creatively fulfilled by his work—he loves what he does, and would never consider stopping. All this is absolutely acceptable and appropriate to me when I’m talking about someone else, but when I’m talking about myself . . . well, there’s guilt about the times I have to spend away from him, or the times I can’t pick him up at school. Or the times I can’t be there at the 10 AM tea with the mom’s club at school. The guilt may never go away, but it does help to be aware of it, and maintain some perspective on it.

Rumpus: In the book you describe your experience of writing as drawing “a thick, black line around all of the dissolving, hazy edges; {writing} delineates me.” So writing helps you that maintain perspective, I assume.

Lauren: Writing helped me individuate again. I would come back from writing feeling stronger, feeling that I understood who I was as a person and a mother feeling that I understood my own boundaries in the world. And then I would lose all those boundaries again. And then go and write again. It was a constant interplay. I’m hopeful that a good book came out of it—something deeper, more emotionally raw, and better crafted. Those were my goals, writing this memoir.

Rumpus: In a recent blog entry, you reference the artist Marina Abramovic, who said, “The artist has to be a warrior, to conquer not just new territory, but himself and his weaknesses.” Do you consider yourself a warrior? (Disregard any concern you may have regarding self-aggrandizement, okay?)

Lauren: I see myself as a warrior, artistically. But it’s not like I’m some great warrior, twenty-four hours of every day. In my personal life, I’m a little bit of a whiner, a bit neurotic and makeshift. I drink too many glasses of wine. But I do look at the process of making art as a warrior would. I don’t think writing memoir is for sissies. I don’t think writing anything is for sissies—certainly not finishing a book. It takes a lot of grit. This is something—grit—that did not come naturally to me. I had to teach myself about it. I’m still teaching myself these skills. You have to show up every day in spite of the fact that you don’t believe in yourself. To me, that is the warrior-aspect of writing. It’s not like it’s some great act of heroism. It’s the fact that you continue to do it, even when you don’t want to do it, or you don’t believe in it, or you’re paralyzed by self-doubt. You sit down and put one word down after another. That’s the heroic act.

Rumpus: So, showing up. That’s your method.

Lauren: Truthfulness is my number-one intention. I don’t know that I subscribe to any methods or rules. I do like the oldies but goodies. Three act structure. Beginning, middle, end. That kind of thing. Most bad memoirs are bad because they’re poorly crafted. So I’d say my rules are about narrative structure, more than anything else. I work to understand what the turning points are, and highlight them. And often these are the moments of greatest suffering or adversity. Those moments are what shaped me as a person, and shown me who I truly am.

Rumpus: Our wounds come from the same source as our power. Adrienne Rich wrote something like this in one of her poems.

Lauren: There’s a lot of running away from suffering, which makes sense because it hurts. But if you can lean into suffering and find some value in it as you move forward—that’s what I like to read about in memoir. That’s something I’ve been taught, reading other people’s stories.


Karen Halvorsen Schreck’s next novel, Broken Ground, will be published by Simon & Schuster/Howard Books in May 2016. Her last novel, Sing For Me (Simon & Schuster/Howard Books 2012), was called “Impressive . . . a well-wrought and edifying page-turner” by Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review). She is also the author of two young adult novels, While He Was Away, a Finalist for the 2012 Oklahoma Young Adult Book Award, and Dream Journal, a 2006 Young Adult BookSense Pick. Her published short stories and articles have received various awards, including a Pushcart Prize and an Illinois State Arts Council Grant. More from this author →