Most of us can remember the wiggly, brightly colored, gelatin-based dessert from our childhood. But what do we really know about Jell-O, one of the most recognizable brands in American history? Where did it begin? How did it become a staple food item in kitchens across the country? And how does its decline relate directly to the rise of women’s rights and feminism? These are just a few of the deeply interesting questions explored in Allie Rowbottom’s debut memoir, Jell-O Girls: A Family History.
As a child of the Jell-O fortune, Rowbottom has a unique connection to the beloved dessert. Her mother, Mary, was driven to chronicle the lives of her own mother, Midge, and herself in pursuit of understanding what she called the Jell-O curse, because even as their family enjoyed great wealth, so too were they plagued by suicide, early death, cancer, and alcoholism.
Rowbottom, who has written for Vanity Fair, Salon, and The Rumpus, masterfully pulls together American history, her family’s history, and her own struggle with food and body image into one compelling story.
Recently, we spoke about what it means to give a voice to ghosts, how privilege is a poor shield, and how she crafts the language of pain.
The Rumpus: Your mother believed that the Jell-O money, and later the patriarchy, was the source of the curse in your family. Did you also believe there was a curse? And if so, do you know the source?
Rowbottom: I think when my mother pegged the curse on patriarchy, she debunked the idea that it affected only our family, or was somehow connected only to Jell-O. Jell-O and its odd anti-feminist, and sometimes awkwardly feminist, marketing was only ever a emblem or a symptom of a hegemonic structure that negatively impacts everyone. But I guess, yes, I do think that patriarchy is a curse in so far as it is a pox on our global culture, though I think it’s a pox that affects everything—people, animals, environments, products—albeit in different ways.
But in terms of a curse specific to my family I believe there could be a genetic predisposition to certain illnesses, both mental and physical. And this is especially true given what scientists now know about epigenetics and how one generation’s trauma changes their genetic code, which in turn changes the fate of future generations.
Rumpus: You did such a meticulous job of capturing how fast events/changes were happening in American culture for women—we’re talking just three generations between Midge and Mary and you! I was really into the way you slipped into your grandmother’s head. It’s a bold move, but it really works. Did you have source material?
Rowbottom: When I was growing up, my mom made her own mother, Midge, who died when my mom was fourteen, a presence in our lives—like a friendly ghost. It was confusing at times, but I realize now that my mom needed to keep her mother close this way. Maybe, too, she was preparing me to tell her story. I don’t know. But I will say that when it came time to write my grandmother, I had a lot to work with. My mother wrote about Midge obsessively—we’re talking reams of paper. She also left me a Bible-thick collection of Midge’s letters that I worked from.
Rumpus: How did you write Midge’s voice?
Rowbottom: I think I wrote Midge’s voice, and entered her thoughts, trusting that the emotions I gleaned from her letters and from my mother’s experience of her were ones I could tap into myself, then give back to her—if that makes sense. I also wrote knowing I would get things wrong because it’s inevitable in any memoir, short of co-authorship, which obviously was impossible in my case. Or was it? I did feel as I worked that I was doing some pretty spooky channeling and I tend to think of Jell-O Girls as a séance of a book, in so far as it works to merge the voices of women across space and time.
Rumpus: Objectivity, especially in personal narratives, is always a concern. And here you’re talking about the passing of your mother. Where did you fall on the subject of objectivity? Did you ever question if you were or weren’t? And did it matter?
Rowbottom: I wouldn’t say I questioned my own objectivity because I know I’m not objective. Like, I pick up The Liar’s Club to read what Mary Karr feels about her mother, her father, her life in East Texas—not what some impartial observer thinks. I wrote Jell-O Girls hoping that tapping into, rather than resisting, my connection to the story could give a depth of meaning that another writer couldn’t access.
Of course, there’s always a risk of creating—out of love or vanity, usually—a sanctimonious portrait of oneself or one’s subjects. And maybe this is a particular risk in memoir, but I tend to see it as a particular trait of bad writing across the board.
Rumpus: It felt to me that enormous wealth and privilege were actually sources of anxiety and tension, and also in a way a kind of anesthesia for real human suffering, but I think that would still be considered a radical idea in many circles. How have you attempted to face that legacy, knowing the impact it had on your family?
Rowbottom: For me, writing—especially in this book—is all about asking questions I’ll never truly be able to answer. And maybe it’s just the material I’ve chosen to work with (I’m presently writing another nonfiction book with roots in my own experience), but so far in my life I’ve spent a lot of time digging about in the past, interviewing ghosts. It’s nice to share some of their answers with readers, less lonely.
This may be a muddled answer, but let me try: I absolutely think that wealth insulates many who have it from how fucking hard everything is when you don’t. That’s part of the privilege of it, right? Not to have to struggle with simply existing the way one does when money is scarce, not to have to confront the suffering of those who are less privileged. We see this all the bloody time: wealth as a shelter from the suffering of others, wealth as a numbing force.
But I’ve also seen, by looking at the Woodwards, my mother, and my extended family, that there’s pain that’s unavoidable, no matter the privilege. Sometimes it seems that those who have privilege find this unavoidable pain harder to accept than those who don’t. But at the end of the day, grief—and the addictions developed to cope with it—know no bounds. Certainly, having money to go to rehab or pay the hospital bill, the death tax, makes an inconceivable difference and shouldn’t go unmentioned. But also: pain is pain.
Rumpus: Speaking of pain, one thing that struck me over and over again was the language, in particular how beautifully you articulated the language of the body and the language of physical pain, especially about your mother’s many surgeries. I felt like you really cared about getting those details exactly right. Could you talk about how you crafted those passages? And I’m curious about how much time you spend thinking about the sentences versus the overall plot.
Rowbottom: When I was getting my MFA—which feels like a hundred years ago but was actually only eight years ago—I had just come off a summer taking care of my mom and was really engrossed in reading writers whose work centered around physical trauma: Sarah Manguso, Katharine Harrison, Lucy Grealy, and Audre Lorde, to name a small handful.
Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay in particular influenced me for the sparsity of her language, her tone. From her I learned that immense trauma—especially when it comes to prolonged illness—can be so intense that to embellish or over-explain it is to overcook it, if you will. I definitely took that lesson with me into Jell-O Girls, and it’s one I find myself discussing with students a lot.
In terms of time, I spent a lot of time on sentences when I was first writing about my mom’s illness, years before I started Jell-O Girls. Some of those early sentences made it into the book, but even those that didn’t prepared me to write about illness and pain, so that when it came to penning new material about illness and bodies, I knew how I wanted to approach it. Plot was/is always my primary struggle, and figuring that out didn’t truly come until the last six months I spent with the book before it sold.
Rumpus: In On Writing Well, William Zinsser says:
Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.
This quote really reminded me of Jell-O Girls because you’re pulling information from so many different sources and talking about the lives of not just yourself and your mother, and grandmother, but also the girls of LeRoy, and a kind of summary of the rise of feminism. That’s a whole lot of information! Can you talk about the challenges you faced in organizing this much material?
Rowbottom: So, so true. Memoir is shaped and selective; it’s a life molded into a story that is both unique and universal. In the case of Jell-O Girls, it’s several lives molded into the story of each woman’s individual experience with mother and daughterhood within the larger narrative context of patriarchy and American feminism. This meant that I had to be selective about what went into the book, even if it was hard to omit material—and a few times, even when it felt pertinent to the overall message.
For example, the book chronicles my mom’s early sexual abuse, and later, her relationship with an older cousin. But there were other, really horrifying instances of sexual trauma that I read about in her writing but couldn’t fit into Jell-O Girls and keep the book tightly bound to its message and moving urgently forward. Ultimately, I learned it’s important for a book to have shape, even a messy shape, and especially in nonfiction, shape in keeping with the author’s truth and the truths of her subjects. Personally, once I as a writer have a sense of what that shape is, anything that detracts from it needs to be pared back or cut.
Rumpus: I always ask writers to name their influences or books you read that were helpful to the writing of your own book…
Rowbottom: Since this is my first book, it feels like every book that’s changed me and the way I see my work bears inclusion. Which is to say, this is an incomplete list. Here we go: Annie Dillard, Mary Karr, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austen saw me through the horrors of high school and are all beloveds still. Then came college where I found Carole Maso, Marguerite Duras, Audre Lorde, Jeanette Winterson, and Helene Cixous. In my MFA years came Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Eula Biss, Kathryn Harrison, Claudia Rankine, Eileen Myles, Lucille Clifton, and Anne Carson, whose “Glass Essay” remains the piece I return to over and over as the years pass, a piece I sense will be this for me for the rest of my life. During my PhD years and presently: Leslie Jamison, Lidia Yuknavitch, Adrienne Rich, Roxane Gay, Morgan Parker, Lauren Groff, and Mary Gaitskill. I could go on, but I will stop there.
I think of all these writers as baked into Jell-O Girls, and into me. More than anything, I am grateful to them. (And yes, I realize this list is entirely composed of women. Of course I read male writers, too. I hesitate to even say that, or wonder why I feel I need to since many a list of influences comprised entirely of men has been presented in the past without qualification).
Rumpus: Could you define what feminism means to you and where would you like to see Jell-O Girls in that conversation?
Rowbottom: For me, feminism is freedom. The freedom for every person of every gender to make choices for themselves. More than that, to speak their stories and in the process, to liberate those stories from forces that, historically, would prefer silence—the status quo. I see Jell-O Girls as a document of two women, myself and my mother, speaking our stories, despite the forces dedicated to our silence. I would like to see it persist in the world as a permission for others to do the same.
Photograph of Allie Rowbottom courtesy of Allie Rowbottom.