I’ve been a fan of Elizabeth Kadetsky’s writing since I read her fiction for the first time in our graduate school writing workshop. I was particularly drawn to the stories she wrote after a summer research trip to sites in Canada connected to her family history. I had not seen women like this in fiction before and admired how Elizabeth’s characters, based on women in her family, had desires, trajectories, motivations, and quirks that had nothing to do with the men and children in their lives. They were wives and mothers, but the writing focused on who these women were outside of their service to others. After graduation, these women stayed with me, and I always hoped I’d hear more about them. As I read Elizabeth’s memoir-in-essays, The Memory Eaters, winner of the Juniper Prize in Creative Nonfiction from University of Massachusetts Press, I was thrilled to find these women again, this time in nonfiction.
While The Memory Eaters introduces us to long-dead cousins and grande-grandmamans and tantes who are mill workers and immigrants and glamorous floor models in department stores, the thread through all of the essays is our narrator, Elizabeth, the primary caretaker for her sister, Jill, who struggles with addiction and homelessness, and her mother, who is steadily losing her memories and her ability to care for herself as her dementia progresses. Elizabeth weaves research, reporting, and archives with family stories about intergenerational trauma and secrets in this lyrical, powerful book about how our histories haunt our present, about the pressures of caretaking for our loved ones and ourselves, and the questions that drive how we make meaning of our lives.
The Memory Eaters is Kadetsky’s fourth book; her three previous books include two works of fiction—a novella, On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (Nouvella, 2015) and a story collection, The Poison That Purifies You (C&R Press, 2014)—and a researched memoir set in India, First There Is a Mountain (Little Brown, 2004, and Dzanc Books Reprint Series, 2019). She is currently associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State and a nonfiction editor at New England Review.
The Rumpus: I love this book’s title, The Memory Eaters, and the epigraph from Homer’s Odyssey describing the men who “might eat Lotos and lose their longing for home.” I’m curious about the origins of The Memory Eaters. You wrote the essays that became this book over a period of fourteen years. When and how did you know that you were writing pieces of this book?
Elizabeth Kadetsky: I’d been trying to write about my codependent relationship with my sister and her decades-long struggle with addiction for many years. Around 2007, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the theme of forgetting was at the front of my mind. At the same time more or less, I met someone at an academic conference who expressed shock that anyone could imagine telling stories or even being a writer without having read Homer’s archetypal Odyssey. The Odyssey became a minor obsession for me, of reading different versions of it and studies about it. When I “discovered,” as it were, the men in the Odyssey who ate lotos and didn’t want to go home again, a lot clicked for me. Odysseus’s story sent me to the myth of Persephone, who similarly seeks to forget after ingesting forbidden substances. So, the title is a reference to those who ingest the “taker away of pain,” to use Edna St. Vincent Millay’s phrase. The resonances in both of these tales brought me full circle to my upbringing and to my mother.
My mother raised me in a sort of made-up religion based on her readings and study of Jung and of Jungian interpretations of mythology. Like many children raised in traditions, I had done my best to distance myself from those teachings, and as a result I actually knew very little about them when my research started to push me toward them. Another way of describing how the theme of forgetting and the title came together as organizing principles is that several things happened synchronistically (to use a Jungian concept, since in this worldview “there is no coincidence”) to make me see the relevance to my writing of the Homerian story of the lotos eaters and the related myth of Persephone, Demeter, and Hades. One was that I found a reference to the Hades myth in a journal entry of my mother’s. She described herself as Demeter and my sister as Persephone. This led me to read more about the Persephone myth and to see its integral relationship to the Odyssey’s lotos chapter.
Rumpus: As processes, we both use documents, records, letters, archives, interviews, and research trips, as well as memory, in our writing. You write, “The purpose of genealogy may be only to flatter one’s mortality—or, alternatively, to tell ourselves stories with which to distract ourselves from weightier problems.” Could you talk about how content drives process in your book?
Kadetsky: For the memoirist, it can be difficult to get started telling a personal story because unlike in fiction, it can feel self-indulgent and to not answer the “so what?” question. The memoirist must ask, “This thing happened to me, but how is it relevant to readers?” In fiction, there is that built-in element of entertainment, even if the material is weighty, that comes in part from the reader’s expectation of a satisfying rise-and-fall storyline. Nonfiction brings a different set of reader expectations—that something universal will be addressed, that the author will offer new insight onto it.
Also, I do really enjoy research! I often start with the research, in the thinking that a factual grounding will externalize the personal material. I never trust my personal story to, entirely, make up the “material” of a nonfiction project. This also describes the memoirs by others that I love, whether they use documents, or quotations from texts, philosophy, or what have you—for instance in a work like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
I like to engage with and argue with the research; this makes the work dynamic. If the research question is in the end negated by the actual research, all the better. This happened several times in the writing of The Memory Eaters. For instance, looking through family genealogical archives in Canada. I had a lot of fun building a family tree and discovering things that had never been asserted by my relatives (for instance, our Native American heritage), while at the same time disproving things that had been asserted, such as our noble roots. Some family myths were easily fact-checked online. Discovering that they were not true in the end added to the story rather than detracting from it, because the slipperiness of facts seemed so in keeping with my family’s “true” character. In this way, it wasn’t facts that spoke the truth, but, rather, that my family related to facts in a way that revealed a certain truth about who we were and how we interacted with the world.
Rumpus: I found myself moved to tears so many times reading this book, by its vivid scenes and the narrator’s reflections. Even a list! “Tante Simone, Tante Annette, Tante Fleurette: they have all passed on by now, of old age. Oncle Roger: he died by jumping from a train near a lumber farm outside Montreal. Oncle Raymond, who never got over World War II: they say alcohol took him as well.” Can you comment on choices you made as a writer to evoke these emotional responses?
Kadetsky: I do love lists. Why are they so powerful, for instance in a foundational work like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, or in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, where the camera flashes between characters of different ethnicities uttering racist stereotypes? I remember hearing the instruction when you and I were in graduate school, “When the temperature gets high, the prose should pull back. If the scene has a lot of drama, the writing can be simple.” The prose shouldn’t get in the way of the reader’s experience of what’s happening. Lists have this effect. They allow the reader to see the facts stripped of any presumed emotional reaction. Leaving that empty space between the facts allows the reader to fill in with a wordless type of emotional response. Naming the emotion can deaden it.
Rumpus: You write about what it is like to be the caretaker for your mother and sister. What kinds of pressures did you feel in writing about these family members? How might writers approach this kind of writing? What issues should we think about, be aware of?
Kadetsky: Family members might feel a sense of relief in being asked to finally talk about something that has been considered secret or off limits for decades. This is what happened when I asked my father about my mother’s alleged affair before their divorce fifty years ago. No one ever talked about it openly! The actual conversation was breezier than expected. Once the topic was aired between my father and me, a weight lifted. It’s difficult but important to talk to family members and air unspoken caveats that are also being brought up in the text. Starting a dialogue with family members can also lead to more breakthroughs in the writing or story, and further secrets may emerge. That said, it can be freeing to write the material first in the knowledge that changes can be made later if necessary.
Writing about my mother, I was in the lucky position of having had her permission from early on, from long before she had Alzheimer’s. “It’s your story,” she’d always said, because she did believe in the power and importance of art. Because she had that attitude, my sister also adopted the same. For a long time while working on the manuscript, I left my sister out, and then when I added her, I changed her name. In the end, she insisted that I use her real name, and she gave me her permission to write about my experience of her story. That said, I think it’s important for memoir writers to remind the reader that the story within represents a single perspective: the author’s.
Rumpus: What themes from The Memory Eaters do you see yourself carrying forward into your next project, or are you going in a different direction completely?
Kadetsky: Right now, I’m concluding a Fulbright grant in India researching how antiquities exist in the cultural imagination. I’m also looking into how certain individual sacred objects made their ways from small temples in Rajasthan and Gujarat to the greatest museums in the world: the Met in New York City, the British Museum in London. As with The Memory Eaters, I’m working with material whose final form may be either fiction or nonfiction. I see it connecting to my exploration of memory in The Memory Eaters, but it will probably in the end be a more external project based on research and other people’s stories. I’m ready for a break from my own story, and some time to gain more distance from it.
Photograph of Elizabeth Kadetsky by Nina Subin.