Doing the Work of Empathy: A Conversation with Marin Sardy
I last interviewed Marin Sardy five years ago, in the aftermath of Robin Williams’s suicide, to discuss the larger cultural discourse on mental health prompted by Williams’s death. The topic is deeply personal for Sardy: She grew up with a mother who had schizophrenia, and then watched its onset in her brother, who ultimately took his life after living on the streets in Alaska. Though I knew Sardy’s brother had died recently when we spoke five years ago, I did not know then that he had died by suicide just a month prior.
When we spoke recently about her debut memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, Sardy said it had taken a long time for her to work through and write about her brother’s death. Doing so influenced the final shape of the book, which began as an essay collection, but evolved into a memoir that braids and layers Sardy’s personal and familial history with meditations and investigations through myriad neuroscience, cultural, and societal lenses.
I first met Sardy more than a decade ago when she wrote arts criticism for the weekly newspaper in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I was editor at the time. Sardy’s essays have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, Missouri Review, and many other journals, and her work has twice been listed among the year’s notable essays in Best American Essays.
The Rumpus: Marin, this book was really beautiful. I have to admit I cried through the last half of it.
Marin Sardy: Thank you. And I’m sorry.
Rumpus: Well, don’t apologize.
Sardy: I knew it was going to be a tear-jerker, and I’m hearing that a lot from people who have read it, so it is what it is.
Rumpus: It took me a bit by surprise, actually, because the first half engaged me more narratively and intellectually, and then by the time I was at the end and your brother had taken his life, it was such a gut punch. And I actually knew that had happened, so on some level I knew it was coming, but it was still gutting. How much of that did you consciously do in making the book, in terms of moving from a distanced narrative to the more emotional pieces of it?
Sardy: I think with a lot of decisions I made in making the book, the conscious decisions came after following an unconscious thread. By the time I was writing the book, I had a degree of peace about my mother that I never had about my brother, and that enabled me, and maybe made me more interested in, looking at it from a more intellectual perspective. It was going to be impossible to write about my brother in that way because it was just too emotional for me. That’s not to say I didn’t have intellectual purposes about how I wrote about my brother. My goal in the parts about my brother were an attempt to piece together what had happened, to try and see the bigger picture and understand as best I could what went wrong and how schizophrenia defies people’s efforts to help.
There was an intellectual analysis that I was working on when writing about my brother, but there was no way to escape how personally emotional it was, so I made the choice to harness that. Many of the choices I made were in order to harness what I was already feeling and experiencing about schizophrenia. I wanted to capture the reality of the experience of loving people with this illness so, to a certain degree, I just let that guide me.
Rumpus: The shape of the book, chapter to chapter, employs an aesthetic use of sketches—which also is referenced in the title, of course—and fragments. Was this structural choice made to reflect your perception of how your mother and brother were experiencing reality? How did you experience the reality of living with their reality?
Sardy: When I first started writing, I was drawn to the fragmented approach because that was true to my experience of how I remembered it. They were traumatic memories and it was apparent to me that my traumatic memories lived inside my mind in a very different way than ordinary memories. So, I wanted to capture something of that. The deeper I got into the writing, the more I realized how true it was of the way my loved ones with schizophrenia’s memories were shaped as well—for different reasons, but both relating to mental health problems. I figured, okay, I have these two regions to pursue, this fragmentary approach, and now I’m just going to let this material and my sense of the experiences guide me on how to do that.
Rumpus: I’d like to hear you expand on that a bit in terms of the chapter “The Rumor.” For me it evoked both Nabakov’s Pale Fire and David Foster Wallace’s writing. It’s also the only chapter where we have narrative through the footnotes, which connotes this idea of split identities telling a story.
Sardy: I haven’t read Pale Fire, but I certainly knew about the structure and the idea that it was structured with footnotes and commentary that told much of the story. And of course, I had read enough David Foster Wallace, which somewhere in the back of my mind was certainly the origin of the idea; I didn’t come up with this on my own. But at some point, it really appealed to me. It occurred that I could make use of the footnote commentary to talk about this phenomenon in my life. The phenomenon was that my experience was split between a public existence and a private existence that I was completely unable to communicate and completely unable to make part of the rest of my life. It was totally compartmentalized, and the footnotes struck me as a perfect way to show that. I knew that the story told in the footnotes would be one about living as a witness to my mother’s symptoms and signs of her illness. Then I had to find a surface story that would work with that and could highlight what I wanted to say.
Rumpus: One of your relatives says in the book, “The way you have to look at it, the only way I can deal with it—you have to consider it a story.” That struck me as both very profound and a useful thing for a writer to hear, but also, I wondered, what does that involve? Does that mean you have to look at it with distance, you have to look at it with narrative? It seemed like a unifying thought and must have been meaningful to you since you ended the chapter, “Conversations with Family,” with that line.
Sardy: I certainly was grateful that thought was handed to me and summed up a lot of what I was trying to do with the book. For my aunt who said it, it was about having some distance from it and not letting it pull you under. For her, keeping a little bit of a distance was how she continued to be okay through it all. And for me, it doesn’t quite mean the same thing, but I kind of liked that I could have that statement in there and it would mean something a little different in terms of her life and in terms of my book.
For me, writing the book was a lot of how I was trying to help myself be okay with everything that happened, and to give myself a little bit of separation from it so I could be not always bogged down in it. I was doing the same thing as her, but not in the same way, and as soon as she said that line I just knew it was so precious to me.
Rumpus: It harkens to Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Sardy: Absolutely. And Didion’s writing and her approach to essays, especially early on, was part of how I was able to figure out my own approach. Rather than trying to make sense of everything, embracing one’s inability to make sense of things, and putting that part down on the page as well, and letting it do the work.
Rumpus: In that chapter with the interviews with your relatives, you made an interesting craft choice to include their responses but not the questions asked. I know you also have a journalism background, so I was curious about that decision.
Sardy: You’ll probably find this entertaining; I created that chapter after watching some documentaries. Once I was into the writing of this book, I think my radar for certain kinds of storytelling was in high gear and I’d watch documentaries and find myself mulling over how they’d constructed a narrative out of all these pieces of film. You don’t hear anything the interviewer is saying, you only see the person telling the story. When I was sitting across from my family members, that was what I saw, that was my view, and there were times where I was like, “I just wish I could turn on a camera and capture their gestures, their demeanor, their tone of voice.” That kind of thing was not possible to capture when I transcribed the interviews. I was seeing their language: the way they constructed their sentences, where their thoughts broke, where they repeated themselves, where they trailed off—which all felt so powerful to me and conveyed much of the meaning that I was trying to communicate.
I tried a couple of different ways of dealing with those interviews. At first, I incorporated them into the narrative in the traditional long-form journalism way, but I wasn’t happy with it because I felt everything that had been so compelling to me as I sat in the interview was getting lost and what was left was just the facts. That had been bugging me and one day I just thought, “What if I just did this like it was a documentary transcript, like a screenplay for a documentary, and all you get is the words exactly as the people have said them?” So, I started playing around with that and then it felt exciting.
Rumpus: I don’t know if it was an intended effect, but after I read that chapter, I thought it could provide comfort to people to hear how others have had the same frustrations and questions and inability to know how to navigate.
Sardy: Yes, definitely. That was an aspect of the experience I didn’t want to get lost in the writing of the book. Talking to other people has been hugely important for me, and not just in the way they tell their stories, but in the way they can relate to one another. I wanted the book to give the feeling that this book wasn’t just about one person. This is an illness that runs in my family; it has shaped my entire family. I think of mental illness as a family phenomenon. It’s well understood that alcoholism and drug addiction, for instance, affect entire families greatly. That’s part of the mainstream narratives of addiction that we grow up hearing. But I’ve always felt there isn’t really an understanding about how when one family member has a serious mental illness, it can reshape the whole family. It demands a lot and affects everyone deeply. I wanted to foreground that at some points in the book to make sure it was getting across.
Rumpus: Addiction narratives, and addiction memoir as a genre, tend to follow the narrative trajectory of people hitting rock bottom and then climbing out of it. Is there a genre of memoir or writing that looks at mental illness that you either would consider your book a part of, or that you were working against and wanted to challenge?
Sardy: I read a number of different mental illness narratives and memoirs. I don’t see a strong vein of a particular way to approach it. I do see a dramatic difference between books written by people who live with mental illness and people who are witnessing mental illness in others. And I felt the books written by witnesses often fell short in particular ways. For instance, they often failed to understand the subjective experiences of the people they were writing about and often wrote about them in a way that either was lacking compassion or could easily generate a lack of compassion in the reader. I definitely didn’t want to do that, and part of the reason I did as much brain science and psychology research as I did, was so I could avoid that as much as possible. I talk about in the book how to some degree it’s impossible to know what goes on in my mother’s head, for instance, but I was going to make every effort to understand the world in her terms. I felt that I owed her and my brother that much. I took on that responsibility of doing the work of empathy, really, which I think is often short shrifted by people who write about illness in others.
Rumpus: In the chapter “Asylum,” you write about David Bowie’s preoccupation with schizophrenia and how it manifests in albums like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, as well as in his costuming and presentation. I started thinking about my own lifelong Bowie fandom and, of course, his massive appeal to millions of other people. What do you make of the broad appeal that disjointed, fractured identity and boundary breaking has in the creative realm versus how it plays in the interpersonal realm?
Sardy: That’s a really good distinction between the creative realm and the interpersonal realm; I wouldn’t have formulated it that way. In the creative realm, the appeal of it is that it captures so much about the quality of experience and the nature of being human that’s often historically lost in traditional art forms. The history of Western art is one of making things coherent and seamless, and certainly in Western literature, as well. So, I think when you construct art that mirrors reality as seamless and linear, you’re leaving out a lot of things that probably need to be talked about. And in our era of a globalized, digitized world, information comes at us in a fragmentary way. We’re processing things in bits and pieces from all directions.
That truth about the nature of experience is at the forefront of a lot of creative people’s minds. I don’t think the appeal for a lot of creative people has much to do with schizophrenia, but it does have something to do with being human. Schizophrenia magnifies that, that fragmentary nature of experience. I think what I wanted to do with Bowie was to partly show that schizophrenia is not wholly separate from the human experience, but is part of it. Bowie was able to create some extraordinary beauty out of all of these elements. I wanted to highlight that as well, those moments. If you look at the things my mother says, for instance, and some of the things that my brother says, there’s a lot of beauty that is generated by schizophrenia. In terms of the interpersonal aspect, that’s one I haven’t thought about as much, but I do think people have—it depends on the person—a lot of people have very little patience and no tolerance for someone whose mind is not linear and at times nonsensical. Certainly, part of what I want to do in this book is give people a reason to be more patient and see the value in caring about someone whose mind is like that.
Rumpus: You avoided giving specific recommendations, but reading the book and thinking about your brother, I thought this is such an unacceptable outcome that this is how this works. Did you start thinking about ways of shifting these patterns? Are there signs of hope you’ve seen in terms of programs and approaches?
Sardy: Yes and yes. Much of why it didn’t make it into the book is because I think what can be done are not things we could have done for my brother at that time. The fact that both my mother and my brother were raised in a society that shunned and ignored and vilified schizophrenia had an enormous impact on how they felt about the possibility of having that illness and it played no small part in their resistance to the idea that they had that illness. In my perfect world, we go back in time a long way and people grow up knowing that if they find out they have schizophrenia, they can feel the same way about it as if they find out they have diabetes. As in, no one is going to hate me because of this, no one is going to think I am monster because of this. That’s the change I would feel maybe my book can help to make progress with.
And I do see signs of hope. The conversation about all kinds of mental illness has expanded so much in my lifetime. Certainly, in the last ten years, there has been an increase in the number of people who write about their own individual experiences of having mental illnesses. People feel more comfortable and safer coming out and saying, “I have this diagnosis, this is what has happened to me, this is what my life is like.” That may be the number one thing that can be done to give the public more understanding of why they should be compassionate.
I feel that schizophrenia is the last outlier in this. I’ve been frustrated seeing so many people writing about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder—celebrities coming out and saying they have these illnesses. Often it seems like it’s just crickets with schizophrenia, even while these conversations about these other illnesses have been growing so much. But I do think there are people starting to come out and talk about schizophrenia from the perspective of having the illness and challenging the stereotypes. We’re just at the beginning of that with schizophrenia, but I hope my book can be part of moving that toward the mainstream.
Photograph of Marin Sardy by Grace Palmer.