Uncollapsing Memory: A Conversation with Vince Granata
I met Vince Granata when we were both work-study waiters at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. In between bussing tables, refilling the salad bar, and joking around while memorizing that day’s menu, the waiters all got to know each other. The first question writers always ask is, “So, what do you write about?” This question is inevitably a little awkward to answer, as it is to ask, especially when your writing is rooted in trauma and grief. I don’t remember exactly what Vince said in response, but I do remember his tone, gentle and quiet. He was working on a memoir about how his mentally ill brother Tim killed their mother and how his family coped after the tragedy. When Vince gave a reading from this memoir halfway into the conference, my entire row, as far as I could tell, began to weep.
Now that I’ve read the complete memoir, it has only increased in affecting power. It’s a beautiful memorial to a woman who was admirable and loving as well as a compassionate portrayal of Tim and his struggles with schizophrenia and the criminal justice system. Vince is interested in how we can live again in the flow of time after devastation and how we can reinhabit space—how is the same house he grew up also the site of a murder? He’s interested in presenting the limitations of the current treatment of those with serious mental illness, a system that stabilizes people like his brother but does not provide them with the long-term help they need. And he’s interested in the limitations of words, how they obfuscate or elide illness when it would be better, though more painful, for it to be clearly seen and felt. Everything Is Fine is an impressive accomplishment because it successfully manages these different arcs, but it will continue to linger with me for its vulnerability and grace.
Vince and I corresponded by email this spring about the book, writing through grief, and the process of structuring and ordering in life versus on the page.
The Rumpus: Early on, you write: “Eventually, I had no choice but to look at loss and pain, at all the pieces of my family’s story that I didn’t think I could ever understand. It was this process, recognizing the pieces, struggling to put them in order, that almost destroyed me. It’s also what allowed me to live again.” I’m interested in this process of structuring and ordering, how the process of doing so in life after trauma varies from the kind of structuring and ordering one does to ensure the reader has the clearest understanding of a story. For example, though you learned the specifics of how your mother died and the happenings of that day much later, you choose to present these events at the beginning of the memoir. Can you talk about the difference or tension between the two?
Vince Granata: I remember this moment, months after my mother died, when I had this terrifying realization, I’m going to think about my mother’s death, in some way, every day, long as I live. Though that’s proved true, it hasn’t been devastating in the way I’d feared it would be. While I can’t see a middle-aged woman crouching to pet a dog and not miss my mother, remember how she died, I feel more in control of those moments when I can place them in the larger structure of my life that holds much more than just her tragic death. So, that’s one way of structuring and ordering what I’ve had to do to live after trauma, but that sort of ordering is different than the structuring and ordering the memoir demanded.
For this book, it felt important to attempt, as you’ve perfectly put it, “the kind of structuring and ordering one does to ensure the reader has the clearest understanding.” A big question became, how can I tell a chaotic, traumatic story in the clearest possible way without artificially undercutting the chaos and trauma of the experience? The way I approached this question has a lot to do with the tension between the two types of structuring and ordering you mention. The book unfolds chronologically—with one substantial exception, which you’ve identified and I’ll address. There’s a scene in the memoir when, a week after my mother was killed, I stand in my family’s house where she died. The character “I”—Vince in that moment—doesn’t know many of the details about her death, only that it was in this room, at the hands of his brother during a psychotic episode. In the scene, the way the character “I” tries to structure and order what happened is through an act of imagination, terrifying conjecture. But the character “I” isn’t the only “I” present on the page. There’s also the narrator “I”—writer Vince, years later—and that “I” has more information, more distance from that day. That “I” has done the ordering and structuring a reader needs. So maybe another way to think about the tension between the two types of ordering and structuring is to think about the tension between the character “I” and the narrator “I.”
But to return to the most substantial break in the chronological structure of the narrative—I begin the memoir with the day my mother died. I then move quite a bit backward in time, but progress largely linearly from there. I felt I had to start there—though this certainly wasn’t the first section I wrote—because I wanted to make it clear that the book wasn’t about that day, but rather about how my family arrived at that tragic day, and how we’ve lived in the aftermath. Withholding that day for shock or suspense would be antithetical to the purpose of the book.
Rumpus: Related to the process of ordering and structuring, there seems to be a way in which time and space collapsed in the aftermath of trauma. Loving memories are recontextualized; the same space that nurtured you as children also becomes the scene of a crime. Sometimes this kind of collapsing happens even within a single sentence, for example: “A police officer stood next to the cones, a sentry in the same yard where I had landed fifteen years before, flying over my handlebars after squeezing the sensitive brakes of a new bike.” I’m wondering if you could discuss this collapsing and how you were ultimately able to give time and space depth and texture again. There’s also a beautiful, moving section involving your brother Chris, who has almost an eidetic memory. When you would get upset on the 24th of every month, the day your mother died, he would text you a memory of an earlier 24th, when the family had done something happy. Uncollapsing time and space seems to have been important for healing.
Granata: One of the most painful effects of trauma, for me, was the way that trauma seemed to taint memories, even memories that were years if not decades removed from my mother’s death. And yes, I think “collapsing” is exactly the right word for this effect, like the weight of trauma can crush even long stretches of time. It felt important to represent how instant that collapsing could be—a single memory trigger, like the moment you mention about a neighbor’s yard—and how that sort of vortex can happen within one sentence, suddenly, as it did in life. This was a tough balance to strike in the writing, because if every sentence had this sort of collapse, it would be difficult to move the narrative forward. Though, I suppose this challenge also represents the challenge of living after tragedy, when everything seems like it’s reorienting your focus backward. And that’s part of the reason why “uncollapsing” became such an essential part of healing, or the process of healing. It felt like I had to learn how to remember again, how to reclaim moments of my life without getting sucked into trauma’s vortex. My brother Chris, and his seemingly miraculous memory, was an important way for me to start this process, to think about how my decades of memories were still an essential part of me and not just a prelude to tragedy. And this uncollapsing had to happen in both directions, too, as in the aftermath of my mother’s death it felt impossible not to think of time as x days/months/years since she died. I found myself leaning heavily on phrases like, “three months after my mother died,” or “two weeks after my mother died,” as if this was my only way to order time.
Rumpus: I got the sense that language had to be redefined or reclaimed, in addition to the reclaiming of memory, in order to confront what had occurred and figure out how to best help Tim. For example, you write about the word “elope” in doctor reports, stating, “…one doctor observed, ‘patient tried to elope from the unit.’ Elope, like Tim was headed for a secret rendezvous, a forbidden marriage.” You similarly analyze the words “involuntary,” “askew,” “restore,” “courtyard,” “defect,” and “remember,” along with several others. How does this redefining or reclaiming of words play a role for you both in terms of processing what happened as well as processing it specifically through your writing?
Granata: Many of these word meditations have to do with the misuse or lazy use of language around mental illness. There are sections of the book where I try to discuss the dangers of generalizing when discussing mental illness and explore how even clinical language can be troublingly nonspecific. What we currently call schizophrenia is in all likelihood a constellation of different conditions that we group under a too-big umbrella. And a lot of our existing language for psychiatric illness falls short. The DSM has to rely on language describing symptoms to classify illness, which mandates that schizophrenia will be diagnosed based on a checklist of terms. It was critically important for me to be aware of my language around mental illness, and I think that attention to language permeated other areas of my writing as well.
Many of the words I explored were words uttered by others or printed in reports that had a distancing or softening effect. For example, as you point out, doctors used the word “elope” to describe how Tim tried to escape from the psychiatric unit. I wasn’t there for that moment, but I imagine that it was an intense and traumatic moment for Tim. The word “elope” seems comically mismatched for that occasion, seems, as you mention, euphemistic. I wanted to avoid using that type of language, language that would soften reality or distance a reader. But of course, I had used this type of language, too. I had, especially when I started visiting Tim after our mother’s death, used language that aimed to soften the reality of his situation. For example, I described a place at his psychiatric prison as a “courtyard” to make it sound like I was talking about a college campus. So I think this is one way that writing helped me respond to trauma, helped me look at moments when I flinched with language—softened a moment with “courtyard”—and revise those moments to come to terms with a painful reality.
Rumpus: You mention the DSM and how schizophrenia is likely a constellation of different conditions. I’m wondering about the research that you did—not just the hundreds of pages of reports you read, materials from the court case, and your mother’s letters, but also medical texts and doctor interviews—and how that got folded into the memoir. Can you share a little about how that worked?
Granata: From a writing standpoint, one of the biggest challenges of the book was figuring out how to fit researched sections between narrative sections. I knew that I had to figure out how to fold in the researched sections because without contextualizing or exploring the greater factors around my family’s story the book would just be about a single tragic event. While that story is an important one to tell, the greater implications of that story shrink if I don’t also consider how countless other tragedies occur daily when people who need healthcare don’t get the care they need. Structurally, I tried to insert the researched sections when the reader would need context to appreciate a certain situation in the story. For example, when I talk about Tim’s hospitalization I want the reader to understand the constraints limiting the length of his hospital stay.
To speak more generally about the need for research in the memoir, I couldn’t write this book without showing the work of that research because a crucial component of how I lived after tragedy involved doing this research—on schizophrenia, mental health care—work I had to do because I had known so little before my mother’s death. In some ways, the research sections are addressed to an earlier version of me, and contain what I would have needed to hear a year or years before my mother’s death, what might’ve helped me stop what was happening in my family. This was a painful place to write from, but the hope that someone reading this book might see something that leads them to support a loved one who is suffering helped keep me working.
Rumpus: You and your mother shared a love of literature. There’s a beautiful moment in the book, one of your last together, where she encourages you to pursue your passion for writing. When did you know that this is a story you were going to write, and how did you get started? Similarly, though the memoir is finished and published, your family’s story and healing continues, as does Tim’s treatment. How did you determine where to conclude the book?
Granata: I started trying to write this story a year after my mother’s death. Initially, I envisioned a single piece, an extended op-ed that would reveal how systemic issues with mental health care failed my brother. To start the process, I got a hold of my brother’s medical records from his hospitalization before he killed our mother. In trying to make sense of all those documents, I found myself getting increasingly angry, underlining names of doctors or social workers, leaving expletive laden notes next to entries that I felt incriminated the people trying to treat Tim. Though I can understand why I lashed out toward this easy target—much easier than pointing blame at my own inaction—I’m not proud of this response. Because all I could muster during that first attempt was naked anger, the writing was awful, just dense knots of coiled rage. I gave up.
Shortly thereafter, I began an MFA program at American University, though when I started I thought I was a fiction writer, and only enrolled in the nonfiction workshop because Richard McCann, a writer I admired, was teaching that course. After meeting Richard, I realized that nothing felt as urgent as my family’s story. Richard helped me abandon that angry stance and find a quieter, more reflective posture. He helped me write from grief. With Richard’s help, I began writing the book in late 2015. As it happened, my writing began roughly the same time as the event that marks the book’s end, my brother’s trial. The trial and its immediate aftermath felt like the right ending for several reasons, but most significantly, it wasn’t until Tim’s trial that I allowed myself to look honestly at what happened in my family. At Tim’s trial I learned details about my mother’s death that I had willfully avoided, and that marked a critical turning point for me, helped me begin the work I needed to do to learn to live with my family’s trauma.
Of course, some material from after my brother’s trial made its way into the book, mostly in the epilogue, how I address some of the years between Tim’s trial and “present day.” But “present day” was, obviously, a moving target, so I had to limit how far I’d push that epilogue. The one element that I continued to revise—through final edits—was a sentence about how long Tim has been receiving consistent voluntary medication and treatment, nearly four years now. This was my favorite sentence to revise, a way to show that with the right support, Tim could participate in his treatment, could be the thoughtful, loving brother I talk to each week. But revising that sentence was also a painful reminder that if he’d received this support and care earlier, he could have lived a peaceful life. It’s a reminder that none of this had to happen.
Photograph of Vince Granata by Beau Bumpas.