Voices on Addiction: A Conversation with Emily Arnason Casey

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I met Emily Arnason Casey while we were students earning our MFAs in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011. I read Emily’s debut book, Made Holy: Essays, several years ago in manuscript form, offering her feedback, and again now as a published book by the University of Georgia Press as part of Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction.

Made Holy: Essays is a lyrical exploration of alcoholism and the heredity of addiction, memory, home, nostalgia, and longing, with brief excursions into motherhood, feminism, and privilege. Reading these essays is like entering into meditation with the mind of a writer whose prose resembles poetry rippling down a creek to settle into one of the still northern Minnesota lakes of her childhood, or Lake Champlain in Vermont, both of which figure prominently in the settings of many of the essays.

Emily Arnason Casey is a writer, teacher, and activist, living with her family in rural Vermont. I caught up with her recently by email to discuss landscape, obsession, brilliance, and loneliness, among other things in her debut essay collection.

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The Rumpus: Made Holy is an essay collection, but it could be viewed as a memoir in essays. Among the storylines are your childhood memories of growing up lakeside in Minnesota and your struggle with alcoholism (as well as a family inheritance of substance abuse). Why did you choose to tell these stories in essays as opposed to a straightforward narrative with an arc? Do you find the essay as a form mimics life or your experience with addiction?

Emily Arnason Casey: I subscribe to the idea that as writers our weaknesses often shape our voice. I have very little capacity to sustain a straightforward narrative as a writer. I always squirm out of it and find it uncomfortable. I think the essay as a form is made for contemplation, and unlike fiction, it breaks form in order to pull the reader into the fabric of the essay. I can’t tell these stories without hesitation, and in the circling back and tumbling through the layers of time, I am able to create or grapple with an emotional truth, which is, I think, the more concrete truth of our lives.

Rumpus: Landscape figures prominently throughout the book. You write in lyrical language depicting the sky and water, pine forests and apple trees, lake cabins and birds. You state, “Place forms its own kind of time and its own myth. I live between two landscapes: the woods of northern Minnesota and Burlington, Vermont.” As I read, I got a real sense of both these locales. In addition, the narrator, in her attempt to understand her intense longing for and nostalgia about these places, takes the reader inside several other landscapes, all internal, a sort of emotional landscape. Can you speak to this?

Casey: I find landscape as a conceptual tool helpful. I have thought a lot about the landscape of time and the landscape of memory and how we map the stories of our lives from this ever-shifting internal terrain. Memory and time are unreliable narrators but they’re what we rely on most, especially emotionally, and they become a sort of landscape within us that we return to again and again, and I think each time we travel across them we change them because we’re always a little different.

In writing essays, I’m partially attempting to create the experience of the truth I’m working out. So, for example, I recently had an interviewer ask if I believed something I wrote. In the essay, “The Blue Room,” I am contemplating a poem by Bill Holm, and I write, “Why do we imagine that the pain we inflict on each other has meaning?” I tried to dodge this question a little because I could see how wrong this felt to him. I know pain has meaning. Most of my book is about the meaning of pain and what we do with it. Yet, there is a sort of emotional truth for me in that idea that doesn’t necessarily land well for every reader, but I can tell you that that editor had really thought about the meaning of pain, and so I felt I’d done my job. You have to risk everything as a writer, and it’s emotionally wild. You’re alone in the wilderness, and sometimes you find another person to hang with, but it’s mostly just you, and that’s terrifying at times and also exhilarating. You can’t play it safe. You know what you’re meant to write, I think, instinctually, so if you avoid it, you will have difficulty, and if you write it, you will have difficulty.

Rumpus: I love those concepts, the landscape of memory and the landscape of time, and the idea that memory and time are unreliable narrators. Memory and time are two strong themes throughout the book. In the essay, “Body of Memory, Phoenix of Time,” you ask yourself, “And why do I covet these memories? Recasting them here on the page, reshaping them in my mind, collecting them like a menagerie of little beasts, of which I am keeper and custodian.” It seems to me the answer is nostalgia and longing, two other recurring themes throughout the collection that are driving forces for the narrator. Nostalgia and longing seem two sides to the same coin the way memory and time are related. Having written this book, are you closer to understanding your intense longing for and obsession with nostalgia?

Casey: Yes. I wrote the obsession out of me. I came to a place of acceptance around the past. One of the peer reviewers for my book made a connection between nostalgia and addiction that made a lot of sense. There is a parallel there. I write that the original meaning of nostalgia is longing for a place to which we can never return. Addiction is very much about a compulsive longing to return to a different time, to an imaginary past that existed in this illusory before. I think much of life is made of this longing. We want to go back, especially after loss, which is a constant in life, and we imagine that the past was simpler than it really was. I know already that I will miss these years I have right now with my young children, and there is a tiny part of me that is already mourning that loss.

Rumpus: Towards the beginning of the book, in the essay “Ancestry of Illness,” you write, “I want to connect the dots between generations of alcoholics, to point a finger at the disease.” And in your title essay, “Made Holy,” which is the penultimate essay of the collection, you write: “Perhaps sorrow is a form of heritage, something passed in the DNA, in the blueprint of the body; it remains generation after generation.” It has long been known that genetics is a contributing factor in whether a person will develop an alcohol use disorder. And in recent years, studies have tackled this question of hereditary trauma. I’m fascinated by this notion of sorrow as a form of heritage. Could you elaborate on this? Do you think there is a direct link between alcoholism and sorrow?

Casey: I want to believe this heritage because it makes me feel less alone to trace the genetics of it. I do think my grandfather, having gone to war at a very young age, carried his grief all his life, and perhaps the trauma of war triggered his alcoholism, but there are also veterans that don’t have addiction issues. I love the new research on DNA and trauma because it confirms a truth that I think we have known emotionally, but I see, too, how trauma is passed in behaviors that are hard to recognize when you’re inside a family. For example, a desire to control the family narrative, gaslighting within a family, and scapegoating of the person who speaks up against this behavior. The person in an alcoholic family who heals is often cast out because they are disrupting the narrative of shame. I’m not saying that is entirely the story of my immediate family, but I have seen that very clearly as a part of the problem with this disease.

In terms of the medical research, I have a healthy distrust of the medical establishment and their ideas about mental health because they have a terrible track record of mistreatment and abuse, especially of women and people of color in this country. Just consider the way something like homosexuality has been construed as a disorder until very recently. So, while I love the poetic justice of the DNA studies and studies around trauma (and because they are leading to more knowledge, they are potentially helpful for people with varying mental health diseases), I’m also a skeptic. I think the diseases of alcoholism and addiction can’t be solved through modern medicine because they have to do with something broken in our society that is also broken within certain individuals, and I can’t say what that is, but I can sense it.

Rumpus: In the essay “Self-Portrait,” originally published here at The Rumpus, you write, “The opposite of addiction is connection.” Recently, I read an essay that suggested the opposite of loneliness is intimacy. Connection and intimacy are essentially the same. Therefore, perhaps, addiction is the same as loneliness?

Casey: The loneliness of the disease of addiction is immense. Connection has helped me to stay sober all these years. People still believe alcoholism and addiction are about substance abuse, but even if you quit, you’re not suddenly all better. I think in some ways I was always lonely, even in the crowd of my family, until I found alcohol, and for a time it saved me before it began to kill me. We have historically created secrecy around “craziness” by institutionalizing people who struggled with mental health and substance abuse, which is a way to banish them. The result is we live in a society that’s incredibly resistant to getting help with substance abuse or mental illness. This is in part why I felt compelled to write about it. I think when we tell the truth about our lives, we begin to break down shame and free ourselves. Stories are what connect us. No one wants to be told what to do or how to change, but we learn things about ourselves through stories. In recovery, as in writing, we employ the old adage: show don’t tell. It works. Is intimacy the opposite of loneliness, perhaps?

Rumpus: In “The Blue Room,” when the narrator has entered the beginning stage of sobriety, she contemplates brilliance. You write, “I learned that brilliance is not of the mind but of another place, the soft place that you cultivate in your own silence. The place you get to when you understand that words only point at the truth, language will never do, but it is all we have. Brilliance is the dark night where you face yourself alone, sober, silent.” What do you mean by that?

Casey: Hah. That’s mostly a dig on this whole crazy, insane masturbatory male artist persona that I found myself constantly encountering as a young female writer. People who didn’t want to do the work or didn’t think they needed to. They believed they could be drunk, rambling poet geniuses, and maybe they could, and I was a little jealous, but I think the craft of writing is much more sacred and much less romantic. I learned it was work later on and that writing isn’t a magic carpet ride you catch if you have enough pizazz and a loud trumpet. But I also believe writing is about cultivating truth, and the truth of one’s life is often painful and terrifying. We must sit quietly and look inward. There is this whole critique of nonfiction as navel-gazing, but so much of what’s wrong with the world has to do with lack of personal insight, lack of seeing, refusal to be alone in the dark with ourselves. I mean, who actually lies down at a reasonable hour in a quiet, dark room to fall asleep? I think most people have fans or music or phones or pills or just wait until they’re exhausted. This avoidance of self is a disease, or dis-ease, as they say.

Rumpus: Imagination is a device heavily utilized in your writing. Often the narrator imagines the lives of others to fill in the gaps of her curiosity or to seek answers she doesn’t have. In the final essay, she imagines an entire story within the essay’s story. The narrator’s expansive imagination developed during her idyllic childhood rooted in nature and a grounded sense of home. In “The Highway Home,” you write, “If home is anything, it is myth and magic and at the very least the start of the story. Home pulls me back like an axis of life, a place I return to both to tear myself open and to find healing renewal in a landscape that soothes me with a language unlike others.” Do you think imagination is a type of home, one you return to in the same way you return to your childhood home in Minnesota? And if home is the start of the story, is imagination the end?

Casey: I grew up with four sisters and several girl cousins, and women tend to imagine what people are thinking in order to predict behavior and, unfortunately, to keep themselves safe. It’s something we learn culturally through other women. However, my childhood was very safe and carefree, which is a product of privilege and luck. I spent hours in the woods or outside with my sisters and cousins during the summer, and all we did was imagine, make up stories, act out our fears and dreams. It was exhilarating and I’m grateful for that. I am a huge fan of boredom. I think it fuels imagination, and, of course, we don’t allow ourselves that anymore. I was also a sensitive child and felt like I didn’t have any skin, so I hid in my imagination and believed all inanimate things could talk and feel and think. I still kind of believe that.

Imagination is uniquely human. It’s part of our consciousness and gets us into a lot of trouble. For example, Claudia Rankine writes about how the failure to police the white imagination leads to the death of black men and women—I’m a part of a panel on the white imagination and intimacy at AWP next year in San Antonio, so more on that then. But understanding this is critical to our recovery as a nation.

And, yes, imagination is a type of home, or perhaps it homes us. If we can imagine a way out or a way through, well, then it’s very likely we can manifest something like that, and I don’t know if that’s an end, but you might call it that.

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Photograph of Emily Arnason Casey by Leslie Twitchell.

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Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.


Laurie Easter lives and writes off the grid in Southern Oregon. Her writing appears in Chautauqua, Under the Gum Tree, and Pithead Chapel, among other literary journals and is anthologized in The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, published by University of Nebraska Press. Her essay "Crack My Heart Wide Open," published by The Rumpus, was listed as "Notable" in Best American Essays 2015, and her manuscript All the Leavings was a finalist for the 2018 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize. More from this author →