During Gabe Montesanti’s final MFA workshop at Washington University in 2018, the students provided other members of their cohort with lists of topics they were banned from using in their final assignment. Gabe’s list consisted of the following topics: belonging, body image, roller derby, mothers, queerness, sports, and swimming.
Brace for Impact, her debut memoir published by Dial Press, includes all of them. The book centers around Montesanti’s experience playing roller derby for a league in St. Louis and finding connections between her uncertainty in a new sport and the traumatic, unsettling memories of her youth: a psychologically abusive mother, a difficult family dynamic, and a driven, pressured relationship with athletics and her body. While the memoir spans approximately four hundred pages, Montesanti’s gift for prose keeps the pace spinning like skate wheels on a derby track.
I met Montesanti in the summer of 2021 before she began teaching at the University of North Texas as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Literary Nonfiction. A week before classes began, I took her on a tour of the campus and introduced her to her office, down the hall from mine. Throughout the past year, she and I have sat in each other’s offices discussing teaching and writing the essay, thinking about persona, portraiture, and writing about people in and out of our lives, some of the very topics we discuss in this conversation. Eventually, our collegial relationship evolved into a friendship. As I write this, Montesanti and her wife are packing up their house to move back to St. Louis.
She and I talked about Brace for Impact at my kitchen table.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about the structure of the book, which is in three parts.
Gabe Montesanti: Over the course of a few years, revising and shaping the narrative, I realized I could classify each essay [in the book] into three categories. The first category was early days in roller derby and getting to know the sport and my team and my derby mom. Part two involves feeling more comfortable on the track, playing in my first game, and thriving in the community—the glitter and the tattoos and the campiness. It ends with a pretty catastrophic injury. I titled that chapter “Break,” because it felt like there was a natural break in the narrative. Part three is family-focused and goes into healing from surgery and the idea of rescue and what it means to self-rescue.
Rumpus: Some of the most immersive writing I’ve ever read is the “Break” chapter. Your descriptions allow the reader to experience the pain, and it’s beautifully written:
The pain still felt eerily distant, like the first time I pressed my ear to the railroad tracks and heard the low rumble of a train too far off to see… Like that train, I could feel the pain barreling closer, gaining speed. I held it in my throat like the crickets I’d once consumed on a dare.
Montesanti: I started writing “Break” in the hospital. I had asked my girlfriend at the time to bring my journal to the hospital, and I still have all my hospital notes, which are incoherent and sort of crazed. And, the experience of going into shock—while it was the first time I had ever experienced it—I mostly remember everyone’s reactions. Growing up, I was trained to see myself through other people, so I was looking to my derby mom to see how bad it was, and I was looking to the EMT skater who came and put a pizza box around my leg. I was looking for clues about how to feel. That became a strong theme in the book, because of how I was raised.
Rumpus: There’s a moment in the memoir when you describe your “familiar family dynamics” and reveal, “There is so much we didn’t say to each other.” When people ask me why I started writing, I say it was because of the silences in my childhood home. There was so much we didn’t say to each other, so much we ignored. I started writing to say all I couldn’t. Did you begin writing for a similar reason?
Montesanti: I started writing because there were so many secrets in my family that we all experienced but never spoke aloud. It felt like a tangible way to document what was happening in my life, even from journals and little essays I wrote as a child that I still have. One of the first essays I ever wrote was in sixth grade, and it was about my sister getting pierced by the wire rim of a sombrero. I used that essay to craft the chapter that involves the sombrero accident. There were details in that sixth-grade essay that I wouldn’t have remembered otherwise. I think so much of my writing is about giving voice to things that would remain hidden otherwise.
Rumpus: About your mother, you write, “I was addicted to the dynamic that bonded us.” You and I bonded early over our similar relationships with our mothers, the ways they mercilessly judged us or commented on our appearance or attitudes. In one scene, another roller derby team member says, “My entire life unfolded the way it did because of my mother’s conditional love.”
Montesanti: One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot in writing this book and publishing it is the kind of violence that doesn’t leave scars and doesn’t leave bruises. And that’s something that I found really appealing about roller derby, was the physical evidence of the bruises and the pain. I could point to something, and people could tell that it hurt. My mother is such a crucial part of this book because our dynamic was so painful, and it was so endearing at some points and tender and enmeshed. I couldn’t have written this book without her in it.
Rumpus: In one scene, you’re at practice and imagine yourself spreading your arms out like Tonya Harding. It reminds me of the film I, Tonya. I rewatched it for about the twentieth time while re-reading your memoir. There are several connections between that film and your memoir, don’t you think?
Montesanti: Totally. I see a lot of connections between I, Tonya and Brace for Impact in the complicated relationship between mother and daughter, as well as the tough love the mother exhibits. I always get chills at the end of the film when Tonya Harding decides to start boxing and physically use her hands: “I became a lady boxer. I mean, why not? Violence was what I always knew anyway.” That’s so similar to how I feel about roller derby. Not the physical act of violence, but the way I was conditioned to be in the world.
Rumpus: I want to talk about one of the elements of the memoir’s arc. In Part I, the essays center on a “real time” event, such as attending recruit night, a morning run, or skating for the first time as an adult; they seamlessly intersect with your past, your childhood, your mother, your swimming, your queerness, and your body issues. In this way, we’re moving through the trajectory of the roller derby, but we’re also learning about the traumas, physical and psychological, that you endured in your family home. As the memoir progresses, the past falls away and the focus shifts toward staying in the present moment, your ability to remain in the body and the mind.
Montesanti: That’s a really astute question, and I’m so glad you noticed that, because that was something I worked really hard on doing. It’s supposed to call back to the way in which intrusive memories can sometimes enter into our bodies at the most inopportune times. I was trying to write with that in mind to play on the idea of dissociation. Also, my background is in math, and I like thinking about writing sometimes like a sine curve, which is like a wave. The X axis is the main thread, and the sine curve itself is the memories that can permeate the main thread. I thought about that structure and that visual a lot while writing. On the wall at a residency, I physically mapped out all the memories that were associated with the main scene.
Rumpus: In the first chapter, you and your then girlfriend, Kelly, arrive at the St. Louis Skatium for recruit night, and you’re both nervous to go inside. Standing at the door, you remember a time at fifteen when your father drove you and her sister by the house that your parents lived in when you were born. Can you talk about the significance of this scene and why you chose it as the first recollected moment in the memoir?
Montesanti: Not only did I want to establish early that I was going to be playing with time, I also wanted to present the family dynamic early in a way that was quieter. It’s an introduction to the family dynamic: feeling like you’re on the outside and never really taking the leap to go inside. Ultimately, we drove away from the house that day. We didn’t ask the current occupants if we could look around. So it sets up this immediate tension of me doing the opposite of what my family had done by entering the Skatium and braving the unknown and the fear of rejection.
Rumpus: One of your syntactical patterns in the book is anaphora. For example, here’s the end of the chapter, “Break”:
I didn’t want their pity, except I did. I didn’t want to be seen. Except I did. I didn’t want my mother, except I did.
Montesanti: Repetition in general is a powerful craft choice to emphasize certain lines. And I was looking for emphasis at the end of that chapter. There’s a moment right before that final paragraph about how I felt I wasn’t there, and I wanted the last paragraph to reflect the splitting apart, so the sentence itself is split into two, which is then repeated three times.
Rumpus: You told me the other day that the fish tank scene is one of your favorite scenes in the memoir.
Montesanti: In the scene, my sister and I have been punished by our mother, who removed all the light bulbs in the room. In our beds that night, we witnessed a fish in their tank giving birth and then eating the babies. We try to save the babies from the mother by throwing them onto the ground. Then my father steps on them and kills them because no one could see anything. It was chaos. There was a lot of screaming, and it was very visceral and slippery. If I had to describe my childhood in one scene, it would be that one.
Rumpus: In another scene—this one is about a visiting writer during your MFA program—you have a one-on-one meeting that is physically invasive and mentally harmful.
Montesanti: At the time, my MFA program had a policy where writers met authors one-on-one in a private apartment. The author got very close to me, wanted to know how old I was, wanted to walk behind me up the stairs (I was wearing a skirt) and during the visit, he put his hand on my knee. It made me very uncomfortable. But I was much more bothered by what he said than what he did. The visit was supposed to be an hour to discuss my essay draft, but it only lasted ten minutes. I wrote my essay on piss. He called it “repulsive.” For someone who has been told her whole life that she’s repulsive, it really struck a chord with me and triggered a bad episode. “It’s only been ten minutes.” He said, “But I have nothing else to say.”
The experience informed so much of how I think about teaching now. The way I communicate with the students is important to them. It can make or break someone.
Rumpus: The kitchen scene late in the memoir when there’s silence between you and your wife Kelly made me so uncomfortable! How do you create tension in narrative?
Montesanti: What was not spoken was more important than what was spoken in that scene. In that moment, Kelly and I really don’t know how to talk to each other about what happened and about my mother’s visit, and it’s unclear where our relationship will go. It felt like a pivotal moment in our relationship. In scenes that I want to be filled with tension, I try to make the sentences reflect the staccato of what’s being said, the choppiness and the uncertainty.
The paragraphs get shorter. The dialogue gets heavier. There’s less rumination and reflection. Everything that is being said is supposed to stand alone and not need interpretation.
Rumpus: Self-portraiture is so important in writing essays, and you do it so well:
In the mirror, I scrutinized myself. My hair, one shade lighter than pure black, hung in stringy clumps in my face. There was a zit in the corner of my mouth. My fingernails, painted black, were chipped and bitten. My legs were pasty white. No amount of makeup could make me feel better in my own skin, I reasoned, so I skipped it entirely.
What are you thinking about when you’re crafting those moments of self-portraiture?
Montesanti: I think about what I want to know about personas in nonfiction. I usually want to know things that are relevant to what’s going on. If the persona is focused on body types and figuring out whether she belongs in a sport, like I was in the first chapter, I want to know what she looks like, what her physique is, how seemingly comfortable she is in her own skin. I tried to address those questions by talking about clothing and my body and how I describe it as thick and later as dense and beefcake. I try to anticipate what the reader will be wondering.
In the mirror paragraph, I’m really uncomfortable. I’m going to a gala and don’t feel comfortable in the dress that I’ve been given by my derby mom, so I wanted the self-portrait to reflect the discomfort which was the acne and the awkwardness of how I stand in myself.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the connection between a persona in the essay or memoir and a derby persona.
Montesanti: It’s interesting because certain people in roller derby embrace their persona more than others. I always think of Cruella Belle-Ville, one of my teammates who carries around a Dalmatian stuffed animal and rips off the head before games. She advocates for leaning into your persona, but she’s also one of the fiercest competitors I know. One of the most famous players is named Scald Eagle. She paints her face to look like a bird of prey. Her sister, Brawn Swanson, like the character from Parks and Recreation, wears a handlebar mustache. I’ve never seen her without it on the track. Once in the airport when we were both flying to Denver, I saw her for the first time without her mustache.
There’s a lot of overlap, but my roller derby persona is not the persona I bring to writing. She’s much too competitive and not as introspective, the way I need to rely on introspection for writing. That’s not something that serves me on the roller derby track.
Rumpus: Late in the book, you write:
So many people I’d met through derby knew what it felt like to be an outsider, to be the black sheep of their family, to be an underdog, or to not quite fit in with normative culture. In derby, we created acceptance and inclusion and safety for one another.
Do you see any connections between derby community and the essay-writing community?
Montesanti: How I describe roller derby is applicable to the essay community specifically in that a lot of us don’t fit in with normative culture. A lot of us know what it’s like to be an outsider, and we write from that place. In my experience, the essay community creates a similar space of acceptance and inclusion—neither community is perfect, but they go a long way in helping people like me stop hiding and finally step into ourselves.
Author photo by Dena Patterson