Though I am a voracious consumer of memoir––a genre in which a reader can find no shortage of authorial struggles––I’m not sure I’ve ever read a memoir in which the writer had to endure so much for the final product as The Glass Eye, by Jeannie Vanasco.
On the surface, it appears to be about grief, but its plot is actually composed of many strands that curl around and into themselves like a sailor’s knot: the investigation into the life and premature death of Vanasco’s half-sister, with whom she shares a name; her devotion to her father (the titular glass eye is his) and her protracted grief over his death; the development of her mental illness; and her quest to write the book itself, which she promised her father on his deathbed she would do. That quest becomes so obsessive, and at times appears to exacerbate the symptoms of her bipolar disorder so severely, that readers might wonder if she will emerge intact from the process.
Alberto Giacometti famously proclaimed that in a fire, he’d save a cat before a Rembrandt. Thankfully, in this case, we can have both the art and the life. The Glass Eye is heartbreaking and harrowing and at times painfully intimate, but it ends on a note of tentative closure: Vanasco has found a loving partner, moved to the Baltimore area to teach writing, and fulfilled her promise to her father, splendidly.
In December, we exchanged emails about unconventional narrative structures, if creation provides as much catharsis as we hope it will, and the joys of living without social media.[“The Glass Eye,” an essay, was published at The Rumpus in 2009. While no longer available online, the piece featured gorgeous illustrations from Wendy MacNaughton and we are proud to have published work that led to this important memoir. – Ed.]
The Rumpus: The Glass Eye is a remarkable book for, among other reasons, its unconventional structure. Did you set out to write a more chronological or straightforward narrative, or had you always wanted to push the boundaries of form?
Jeannie Vanasco: I hadn’t really thought about this until you asked, but initially, when I worked on The Glass Eye as poetry and then fiction, I didn’t feel pressured to find an unconventional structure. But as soon as I realized that The Glass Eye would be a memoir, that’s when I started to obsess over form. I think that’s because I wanted to write something literary, and memoir isn’t usually perceived as inherently literary—not in the way that poetry, for example, so often is. But what even makes something literary? Usually, the story is less important than how the story is told. And a literary book usually asks the reader to do a certain amount of work. To parse the meaning without being told the meaning. But in memoir, to leave too much open to interpretation implies that you lack control over your own story. The question that bugged me throughout the writing process: How do you truthfully and artfully show the messiness of mania, grief, and reality in general—all while maintaining authority as a narrator?
I doubt I could have answered that question without my editor, Masie Cochran. She’s the one who suggested the binder structure—where scenes are categorized by either “Mom,” “Dad,” Jeanne,” or “Mental Illness.” In an earlier draft, I’d mentioned the binders—how and why I used them in the writing process. I didn’t think the binders would turn into the organizing principle. In the book itself, the binder headings don’t always align perfectly with the events they describe. That’s because I wanted to push the form into its own way of showing. Manic, I imposed meaning where it rarely existed. But even when I felt better, when I was just a writer struggling to finish a book, I also was trying to find meaning. I added the meta sections, those present-tense craft sections prefacing each chapter. They allowed me to question my memories, to make sure I wasn’t simply choosing or editing memories to fit plot points. The meta-technique is also so deeply intertwined with the memoir’s impetus—because writing the book was my deathbed promise to my dad.
Rumpus: In a similar vein, literature is rife with memoirs written by people who resent or even loathe their parents. I can think of a few examples of works about “complicated” but loving parent-child relationships. But none that, like yours, are almost entirely tender in tone. Were you aware of that as breaking the mold? Did you walk away from the book with a more “nuanced” idea of your parents, as your mother put it?
Vanasco: You’re right. Not many memoirs explore great childhoods. That’s probably because it’s hard to make happiness interesting on the page. Books benefit from conflict—internal and external. Also: not many kids are lucky enough to have two loving parents at home. But it would have seemed a little strange not to acknowledge conflict between me and my parents, as well as conflict between my mom and my dad. No relationship is idyllic. I decided that if I was going to show those conflicts, I’d reflect on the motivations behind them. My dad, for example, could be extraordinarily over-protective. But that’s because he lost his daughter Jeanne to a car accident, and his first wife blamed him. He also could be possessive of my mom, but that’s because he caught his first wife running around on him.
Your question is a good one. No one has asked me about how, now that the book is done, I view my parents. I still think my dad was an amazing dad, and my mom was and is an amazing mom. It’s easy to see somebody else’s faults—especially those of one’s parents. What parent hasn’t screwed up in one way or another? But I’m really lucky. My parents’ mistakes, when it came to raising me, were few and well-meaning. My mom recently moved in with me and my partner, Chris. We turned part of our house into an apartment for her. I love her deeply, but we have our arguments. However, when she’s angry, she usually holds it in. I hate the silent treatment. Hate it. I used to hold in my anger, but then all my East Coast therapy sessions broke me out of it. Recently, she seemed mad at me but she wouldn’t explain why. It was driving me crazy. To get her talking, I jokingly told her: “The mommy dearest memoir is next.” And then we were okay. She told me that she wasn’t angry with me, but with herself. It’s been hard for her to adjust to a new city where she knows no one except for Chris and me.
Rumpus: One of the (sometimes annoying) things people asked me when my book was published was whether I “needed” to write about my anorexia to recover from it. You talk about this a lot in The Glass Eye––promising your dad a book, with the implicit hope that if you fulfilled your promise, you could move on. Did it work in any way?
Vanasco: I think so—to a degree. I’m still sad about my dad’s death, but I feel more comfortable with the sadness. After I submitted the final draft of the manuscript, I felt lost. I organized my entire adult life around the promise to write a book for my dad. Writing The Glass Eye gave me a reason to think about him every day. Writing the memoir rationalized my obsession with him. And now that organizing principle is gone. Which is not to say that I’m unhappy the book is done. Suddenly, within the past week, I’ve found myself obsessed with the next project.
Rumpus: What about with respect to your mental illness? Of course, writing a book can’t “cure” bipolar disorder, but did writing about it provide you any clarity?
Vanasco: Just the other day, I experienced horrible racing thoughts—worse than I’ve had in a while. If you’ve ever seen a video by somebody running and filming at the same time, that’s what the world looked like: shaky, fast, in and out of focus. Then I became paranoid that almost everybody was angry at me. But then I reminded myself: you’ll pull out of this. I didn’t feel like I would, but I knew that I would—if that makes any sense. Writing the book gave me that perspective.
Rumpus: Having now completed a memoir that chronicles your mental illness, do you believe bipolar disorder is more or less integral to your identity?
Vanasco: I don’t think about my diagnosis as much as I used to. But I do think it’s integral to my identity. Every time a doctor or therapist told me, “You are not your illness,” I’d get frustrated. Because my illness inevitably shapes how I see and process the world. Now, of course, I’m getting into epistemological territory: What is a self? So let me jump past the philosophizing and say: I don’t want to romanticize bipolar disorder, but I do believe it has benefits. If we simply see bipolar disorder as wholly bad and something to get rid of completely, then we can fall prey to dangerous arguments, such as: people with bipolar shouldn’t be allowed to have children. Even in the twentieth-century, doctors used that as an excuse to sterilize Americans with mental illnesses.
Rumpus: The Glass Eye feels sui generis, but are there any writers you feel strongly influenced by, or any books that provided a template for yours? (“Template” is the wrong word but you get where I’m going.)
Vanasco: Virginia Woolf’s unfinished memoir, A Sketch of the Past, influenced me a lot. She examines the art of writing memoir within her memoir. And she writes so beautifully about her love for her mother. Also, Sarah Polley’s documentary film, Stories We Tell, gave me ideas for how to layer memories and let characters correct one another.
Initially, I studied poetry. One of my favorite poems narrates its own writing: James Schuyler’s sixty-page poem, “The Morning of the Poem.” But fiction helped me, too. John Keene’s Annotations is perfect. I first read it in undergrad—before taking a class with him. I’d never read anything so formally inventive. He’s a genius.
Rumpus: There’s a lot in the book about memory. You’re always calling your mom to confirm you remember something correctly, and you’re always questioning your own recollections of an event, and subsequent analysis of it. Was there a sense, while you were doing this, that it was in service of healing, or in service of the book? Or were those lines always blurry?
Vanasco: In service of the book. My whole life was in service of The Glass Eye. I probably should have been thinking about healing. Even when doctors told me that the book was triggering my mania, I couldn’t stop writing.
Rumpus: This is unrelated to the book, but is related to your writing life, generally: we bonded briefly over the fact that neither one of us have social media. Was that a conscious choice you made, to forego that? Is there a reason behind not having it?
Vanasco: I know some writers who function just fine on social media. I couldn’t. I found it distracting creatively. I needed my space. I deleted my Facebook account five years ago, and I don’t miss it. I didn’t want to think about likes or shares or whatever. A few writers told me that I was making a mistake, but I didn’t care.
The other big reason I deleted my Facebook account: I couldn’t handle the ideologically reductive discourse. I was angry—even at people I agreed with politically. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but how many social media users have really been convinced to interrogate their thinking based on a Facebook post or tweet? I was recently watching season two of The Good Place, and there’s this great line: “It’s a rare occurrence, like a double rainbow, or someone on the Internet saying, ‘You know what? You’ve convinced me I was wrong.’”