Chana Wilson: The Power and Fury of the Past
Author: Karen Schechner
July 31, 2012
What begins as a harrowing memoir about a young girl whose mother repeatedly tries to kill herself—with a rifle, with pills—makes a hard left and morphs into a sort of dual coming-of-age tale. Chana Wilson and her mother were both rescued from the claustrophobic 50s by the Second-wave feminist movement of the 70s. In Wilson’s Riding Fury Home (Seal Press), she writes an inspired account of how the burgeoning revolution in New York and California directly and radically changed her and her mother’s lives—politically, sexually, and professionally.
Wilson is a psychotherapist, a former radio producer and television engineer, and a blogger for the Huffington Post in the Gay Voices section. After working so long on the memoir, she says, “It’s refreshing to write in this short form of personal essay. My first post was ‘Gay Conversion Therapy Devastated My Family,’ which tells about the profound impact of homophobic therapy, not only on my mother, who became suicidal, but also on my father and myself as a child.” She lives in Oakland with her wife.
With many LGBT publishers now closed, the route to publishing a lesbian memoir seems extremely difficult. What was that process like for you?
It was difficult. The first response from an agent was brutal. She said that if I was famous, she could sell my memoir in two seconds, but since I wasn’t, I should throw it out and write a simplified, more sensationalized version. Fortunately, I have a supportive community of fellow writers who urged me to stay with and believe in my narrative.
For the next nine months I got rejections from agents that basically said, “Beautiful writing, moving story, but not commercially viable.” I moved on to Plan B: submit to small presses that accept unagented proposals. As a feminist publisher, Seal Press was a great fit for the memoir. They made me an offer just three weeks after I submitted my proposal. I’ve found there is an advantage to being with a small press that believes in your work. Seal Press has done a great job in supporting me and getting reviews, radio interviews, and publicity. I couldn’t be happier.
Riding Fury Home takes some unexpected turns. After the first few chapters, I’d thought it was going to be about a daughter coping with the fallout of her mother’s mental illness, and while there’s some of that, it’s more of a sexual and political coming-of-age story for nearly everyone involved. Were there surprises for you when you were writing it?
Yes, definitely. Once I began work on the memoir, my father, for the first time, was willing to excavate the past. He told me a stunning detail that completely changed my understanding of what had happened: the story of my mother’s first suicide attempt with a rifle when I was seven. Because of Mom’s electroshock treatments, she didn’t remember having done this. She believed that she was locked up in a mental hospital because my father had colluded with her psychiatrist to commit her for no good reason. She died thinking that, and I shared her blame of my father. So learning this gave me a very different perspective: My father wasn’t the villain in the story, but was also swept up in the pain and anguish of a terrible situation.
My father filled in details of his side of the marriage, like my mother saying to him, “Let’s stay married, but live as brother and sister.” I found out about his deep hurt, rejection, and despair. By the time I finished the final draft, I had come to a much more nuanced and three-dimensional view of my parents—and of myself.
Another surprise was how healing the process of writing itself was. I’d done a lot of therapy, and felt I had all the insight I was ever going to have, and that writing would simply be about developing craft. But there was something profound about imagining into my experiences as a child in a visceral way in order to describe them. I also committed to writing the deepest truth, which meant I had to reveal my own flaws and complexities: how my suppressed rage at my fragile mother came out in nasty ways, how I hated her as well as loved her fiercely, how in young adulthood I groped for love and clung in relationships with partners who tore my heart up and drove me nuts. It was liberating to have gathered the courage to put it all down in words, and to communicate the arc of transformation.
Do you think this country has improved in terms of how we deal with depression since your mother was first institutionalized?
My mother’s depression was profoundly affected by homophobia, both in the external culture and internalized by her. She was harmed, not helped, by psychiatric treatment that regarded homosexuality as a disease. Therapy led her to deeper despair because she was not able to be her true self.
Now, there is a trend to view depression as primarily biochemical. That view has helped remove stigma from depression, and anti-depressants can certainly help some people. Yet, now as then, depression is often a complex interplay of personal and family history, trauma, and cultural bias and oppression. Even today, gay teens are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than others their age. One great difference is that these days there are visible LGBT-affirmative therapists who can create safe spaces to help people heal and work through trauma and depression.
However, the culture war still rages: almost forty years since homosexuality was removed from the DSM as a mental illness, there are therapists and religious counselors who subject clients to futile and often harmful attempts to change their sexual orientation. But there is push-back against this. In California, there’s a landmark bill, SB 1172, that would ban so-called reparative therapy on minors. Parents could no longer drag their LGBT youths to be “fixed.”
There are some hard truths here about yourself and your parents, and to a much lesser extent, a few former girlfriends. Was it a difficult book to write?
I didn’t begin writing until after my mother had died, and that gave me a certain freedom. If she’d been alive, I’m not sure I could have been fully honest about our relationship for fear of hurting her.
My writing teacher, Monza Naff, dared me to write beyond the safe and easily known, asking “What’s the thing you most don’t want to write?” This led me to some of the scariest, darkest places. But Monza also helped me find balance by urging me to include those things that sustained me.
The hardest for me was trying to imagine into what I felt as a child, because at the time no one ever asked me about my feelings, so I stuffed them away. How do you write about feelings that are held inside and not expressed? It was tricky. What helped was that I did many rewrites, each time trying to enrich the layers of emotion. If there was numbness or lack of feeling, I sometimes said that from the viewpoint of the adult narrator. But I didn’t want to step back from myself too much. It felt more potent to stay in the present moment.
One of the fun things about Riding Fury Home is that it’s a detailed, first-person account of second wave feminism. Did you intend for your memoir to add to the historical record of that movement?
For my mother and for me, the women’s liberation movement was central to our personal journeys, so to tell the tale inevitably meant describing that time and the exhilaration and intensity we both experienced. Although we lived on separate coasts, we were each immersed in lesbian-feminist communities. When we visited each other, we dropped easily into the other’s life. In Greenwich Village, we’d go dancing in lesbian bars, to raucous dyke parties heavy with pot smoke, and to poetry and music events at the women’s coffee house. Mom stayed with me in my Berkeley lesbian collective, joining our vegetarian meals and endless political discussions. I interviewed her on the radio for Lesbian Air, the pioneering lesbian radio group I was a member of.
So, even though I was focused on our specific story, readers of my generation have told me how evocative the memoir was for them. For younger readers, it illuminates the feminist zeitgeist of that era. Although I didn’t directly set out to elucidate history, there has been interest in the memoir as a text for sociology, women’s, gender, and lesbian studies.
When you were first coming out as a feminist and lesbian, it seemed like Judaism served as a familiar, stabilizing force. What role did religion play?
I grew up with a very paradoxical relationship to being Jewish. My family was the only Jewish family in a small, predominantly Protestant New Jersey town. My parents were atheists, and I wasn’t raised with any Jewish practice or identity. So, even though at school there were classmates who lobbed, “You Jews killed Christ!” at me on the playground, I thought of myself as an American, and that it was just my immigrant grandparents who were the Jews.
Yet, when I was coming out, I was searching for kin and a sense of belonging, and I found a particular affinity with Jewish women. This surprised me, but there was a feeling of home, of familiarity in the passionate discourse of Jewish women, of hands gesticulating in expressive arcs. I discovered I was culturally Jewish after all, although religion had nothing to do with it.
What are you reading now?
I read a lot of memoir and creative nonfiction interspersed with fiction. I recently finished Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. For me, the intense potency of Winterson’s memoir grew as I read. Winterson is so matter of fact, even stoic, about the horrifying fact of her mother locking her for hours in the coal bin, but as the recursive layers of the narrative add up, it packs a more and more complex and astounding punch. I especially loved her references to her survival via reading and writing. “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”
I also just read The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók. This memoir is a heartbreaking tale of growing up with a mother who is paranoid schizophrenic, and how in adulthood Bartók must hide from her delusional mother, only to reconcile as her mother is dying. I found this a haunting and exquisitely written memoir.
Next up on my shelf are the novels My Magical Palace by Kunal Mukherjee and Home by Toni Morrison.
Photo credit: Irene Young