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July 14, 2017 | Interview

Interview with Sarah Gerard

Zeke Perkins

Interview with Sarah Gerard photo

Sarah Gerard tackles topics both personal and political in her new essay collection, SUNSHINE STATE. From her family history and childhood in Florida to our culture’s systemic inequality and environmental decimation, Gerard explores the weight of trauma, death, and hope. I recently sat down with her in Brooklyn to talk about self-abandonment, waking up, and rebuilding after divorce.


I want to start with structure. I felt that there was a sort of a narrative arc in the book — not in the sense that there is rising tension, a climax and a conclusion — but that you’ve chronicled themes of your past and life as well as of Florida in a way that has momentum. At the end you address death with “Rabbit,” and the final essay, “Before: an Inventory,” was something like reliving all the details of one’s life working backwards in time to the beginning — kind of Benjamin Buttoning.  Can you talk about the book’s structure and how you formulated it?

We didn’t come up with the structure until the very end. We went through a couple of phases and then we decided to wait until the manuscript was complete to come up with its order. At the end, I just sent the order to my editor, and she said yes. And it turns out the pieces are roughly in chronological order after “BFF,” which links it to [Gerard’s first novel] Binary Star in a structural way. I mean, “BFF” is fragmented and non-linear and personal. It’s in second person but that implies a first person which is just like Binary Star. Both are about these really intense relationships. They both have themes of addiction and domestic violence. So that’s why I wanted to start with “BFF”.

Then the very next essay opens with my baptism and moves roughly chronologically from there.  The two journalistic pieces later in the book kind’ve reach outward in the way that you do when you reach adulthood. You suddenly wake up to the outside world and to the reality that there are other people and they have struggles, too.

In some of the first iterations, I thought the last essay [“Before: an Inventory”] would be closer to the beginning. Then I’d pair some of the other essays. But thinking about the book in terms of couplets doesn’t really bind the whole book, though, and there are themes that go through the whole book. So the challenge was finding the natural arc. And that happens with my stories, too. I kind’ve write them scattershot and then figure out the order. I did that with Binary Star to an extent. You could sort of lift the different scenes up and rearrange them.

One theme I found through these essays was a sort of hopeful individualism, or positive thinking, which was both liberating (particularly for women) and also a bit naive and destructive. This was the the place inside that you describe your mother finding that her abuser couldn’t get to. It was also a limited place as she couldn’t simply think or pray away abuse, for instance. Moreover, affirming only oneself can lead to the ideology behind the unfettered materialism of Agway pyramid scheme you describe in “Going Diamond,” or the narcissistic fantasies of Ralph Heath [founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary] in “Sunshine State.” Can you talk about that, and maybe a bit how positive thought and social change interact?

Emilie Cady says in Lessons in Trutha Course of Twelve Lessons in Practical Christianity that freedom has to be won in one’s own mind first. In terms of realized social change, the next step would be action — which my mom takes with her work with domestic violence survivors.

Actually, there’s somewhat of a conflict in the book with your mother being so busy with her work on behalf of domestic violence survivors that she isn’t actually able to pray as much as she’d like.

Yes, exactly. Then later on in the book, homeless advocate G.W. Rolle says, when asked about his denomination, “I identify as the hands and feet of Christ.” So, I mean, he’s a man of action. It’s interesting in the case of my mom that the action she takes to address domestic violence gets in the way of the inner work that she has to do. There is an extent to which all the characters in the book experience friction between who they believe themselves to be and the way they live their lives. Even if the way they are living is an expression of their belief — even in Ralph Heath’s case. There is the friction between what’s happening in Ralph’s mind and what’s happening in his life. He’s gone too far on the side of action.

Because he’s not reflecting.

Which is what you do when you pray. In my mom’s case, she reflects on that moment with Bob [her abusive first husband] in her journal. She doesn’t use his name in the journal but we know she’s talking about him. She thought about a moment far in the past where she didn’t feel safe and that’s where she found her faith.

Let’s talk about that. The New Thought Movement you chronicle in “Mother-Father-God” is pretty complicated.

Yeah, it’s kind of a mindfuck.

There are a lot of feminist undertones in it, right?

It’s not even really just undertones. I mean, they made God both male and female and they actually did it in a way that expresses a desire to move towards a matriarchy. Moreover, there was direct intention to ordain female ministers. These female ministers spread around the country and started their own movements. So it’s not just an undertone but it was basically the whole point.

In that way, this sort of positive thought — this sort of individualistic hopefulness — can be really liberating because it values the internal life of women, right?

Exactly, it empowers them. It restores their autonomy. It gives them back their power of thought. It’s like my mom said, “You can make me act the way you want me to act but you can’t make me think the way you want me to think.”

That definitely makes me think of 1984 and “thought crimes.”

Yes, absolutely. The awakening that my mom had, that women have, that Emilie Cady talks about is waking up from the fog of gaslighting. Because there is an extent to which you can make somebody think what you want them to think but there is a moment of waking up that has to proceed your escape. I don’t have to think this way anymore. I don’t have to think in ways that are violent towards me anymore.

That’s powerful. I don’t have a great transition here but I want to talk about lies. So much of this book is about lies and falseness. The infidelity, along with the drug-induced euphoria, in “Records”; the lies two friends tell each other in “BFF”; the pyramid scheme in “Going Diamond”; Ralph Heath’s fantasies in “Sunshine State.” Lies serve a powerful emotional purpose for almost all the people in this book. Can you talk about lies? Do you think lies are necessary?

We all need to lie to ourselves to an extent. One of the most devastating aspects of getting a divorce is confronting the lies that my husband and I passed between us. Lies that kept us afloat for as long as it was. We all absently or purposely lie to our partners, everyday. We lie to our parents, to ourselves. There was a way in which my husband and I were just lying to ourselves in order to stay together.

It’s like in my essay, “Mother-Father-God.” Linda Osmundson, the Christian Scientist and domestic violence advocate, who I interview at the very end, said, “Without hope there’s no reason to live.” So the question is: when does hope cross over into self-delusion? And it’s ironic that she herself would be saying that — “Without hope there’s no reason to live” — even as she’s dying of cancer.

To be honest, hope can be exhausting. Look at G.W. Rolle. He’s been fighting for the most desperate people in our society for a long time in this almost impossible battle. He’s still going but you can see how it’s a daily struggle for him. And still, without that hope and struggle, what reason would he have to go on? 

Yeah, people end up living out their stories.

The stories of ourselves that we tell ourselves. Then we wrap our whole identity around them. The question is: what’s left when you extract that? What’s left when you strip away the story you’ve told about yourself?

Since my husband and I broke up, I’ve been reassessing myself. Who am I without this other person in my life? Our lives were so intertwined. It was like one life for five and a half years. This other half is gone, now what’s left? It’s a slow process of rebuilding myself. It’s figuring out what I want and what I need in my life without considering this other person’s needs or desires for me or for himself.

In my writing, I’ve tended to write basically the same story over and over again — a sort of story of myself. A story that I’ve found in your writing that repeats, particularly the pieces dealing with young women or you as a young women, is a sort of recklessness or lack of understanding of where they are going. I’ve read a lot of stories of young men in the same boat and, many times, they end up causing a lot of destruction and hurting people. These young women do the same but in a very different way. In one section of “Records”, you write “I don’t care what happens to me tonight” and I think that, more or less, sums it up. I guess, what I mean to say is that these young women hurt themselves, or put themselves in harm’s way. Can you talk about that?

In that moment of writing,“I don’t care what happens to me tonight,” I think I was ready to have just any experience. I had let go, and I was interested to see what experience I could have. Or, rather, maybe it’s more apt to use the the word abandon. I think that there’s a meaning behind it that is giving yourself over to rapture and love, but there is also self-abandonment in addiction. You’re open to whatever violence could befall you. I think that the sentiment of, “I don’t care what happens to me tonight,” is somewhere between those two meanings — the excitement and thrill seeking abandonment, giving yourself over to forces from the outside. I think that’s something that fuels adolescence. I’d say it’s a very adolescent line.

I found it really interesting ending with the tattoo of the elephant you got. That you were returning to the adolescent self-abandonment — going back to the possible abuser, Mitch [an ex-lover who had sexually assaulted you], who had moved to New York and become a tattoo artist for that tattoo. That ending was very surprising.

I think I was just trying to figure out why the fuck I did that. I think that I just wanted to see what he’d do and how he’d act when I showed up. I think I was going to base my judgment of him on his reaction. I wanted to look him in the face. It’s because it’s so hard to make that kind of judgment unilaterally — one that can be so villainizing. Particularly against someone who you’ve shared other tender moments with, somebody who claims to care about you. It was just…

The other night, I was sitting next to these two men at a bar and I noticed one of them checking me out so, you know, I was actively ignoring him. But then his friend kind of jostled me and said, “Hey, can you give my friend advice about how to pick up girls?”

“No, I’m a lesbian, I can’t,” I said. I thought that might get them to leave me alone but of course it didn’t. I mean, what could I do?

So I’m in like a fifteen minute conversation with them. And they ask me about my politics and I tell them I’m pretty left leaning. And they say they are conservative. So my question is, like always, do I take the time to educate them or not? It is one of their birthdays, and I’m feeling up to it, I guess. One of the things they ask me about is abortion. So I tell them the story about Mitch and I say, if I had gotten pregnant in that situation what would I have done? I was eighteen-years-old, it was three days before I went to college, he wasn’t even my boyfriend. One of the guys says, “Well, if it’s one or two weeks in, that’s okay.” But this kind of blows my mind because these guys have no idea how fetal gestation works. And in the case of the story of Mitch, I couldn’t even confront this story for thirteen years. And this is how trauma affects somebody and the choices in their life. That’s why we have to keep returning to these same stories. That’s why writers keep returning to the same story because we can’t possibly know what they mean for sometimes even decades after they happen — how they changed us and why we did the things we did.

There’s a lot of chronicling in this book, a lot of lists. I’m thinking of how you list a lot of animals you’ve seen in your last essay, “Before: An Inventory,” particularly in the context of all the extinctions of animal species. Kind of like you wanted to capture these animals before they go extinct.

Yeah, each of the ones that was special to me. And, actually, my original intent was to include every animal I had ever met in my life, but then the hypnotist who I visited to draw all these animals out of my memory informed me that that’s not how memory works. So the ones I included are the ones that meant something to me for one reason or another — there was an emotional experience that I shared with each of them. Each of them has a story around them, a story that is implied, either with a color or an image or a birthday or a wedding.

Not many writers really tackle climate change, but climate change seems to be such a character in this book. For one, it’s Florida, which is obviously going to be affected quite a lot by climate change. Or, in “Going Diamond,” for instance —

Yeah, building a golf course in the marshland.

You even describe the surge of water creeping onto the golf course at one point.

Also, Ralph Heath buying up property along the coastline to preserve it against development.

Sure, and you talk about Ralph’s fear of hurricanes. This was kind of perfect. You use Ralph’s fear of hurricanes as metaphor for the instability of his psyche, the hurricanes representing a threat to his delusions, something that could crash in and destroy them. But, in a way, this could be all of our fantasies around climate change, particularly in Florida — the idea that the world, as it is, will continue.

Yeah, there was actually another essay that I wanted to get in but I couldn’t finish in time for this book. It will be coming out in an anthology of Florida writing with Barrow Street Press later this year. It’s called, “A Study of Human Responses to Man Made Disaster.” I was really interested in writing about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Gulf of Mexico is so important to anyone who grew up on it. It was one of the first things I saw as an infant — probably the first body of water I ever saw. I had friends who had houses on the beach growing up. So I was really interested in looking at how humans have shaped Florida for better or for worse — there’s so much to that. In school in Florida, you are required to take Florida history classes, and that history is very important to people who grow up there. Growing up, I learned a lot about Florida species of flora and fauna. I went to nature camp. I would collect hermit crabs and fiddler crabs, mango fleas. We went on nature hikes. We walked out into the mangroves. It’s really central to the identity of Floridians to have that reverence for the history of the place and Florida as a wild place. I really wanted to hit on that directly in the book. It ends up seeping up through the cracks in the book but this additional essay that I’ve written I think hits on it more directly — it’s an addendum.

Florida seems like a really good place to talk about the themes you focus on in this book: conspicuous consumption, climate change, etc. It’s also a really good microcosm of America. Was that your intention, to use Florida as a way to talk about America?

It is a place in America, so in that sense I had to situate it in the larger context of its politics. If I’m talking about things like consumerism and violence and religion, inasmuch as I’m talking about women in my life, it’s important to situate them in the larger context. Still, it’s important to be personal and intimate. For instance, in “BFF,” my friend’s struggle to escape intimate partner violence or even the things she has had to do to support herself and her daughters. It’s important to look at a story like hers and just tell it like it is and not so directly address Florida’s laws around domestic violence. It’s important to look at her as a character. But in an essay like “Mother-Father-God,” I’m looking more directly at Florida’s laws around domestic violence. So I think it’s both capturing a voice, capturing the very personal, and situating Florida in a larger context. 


image: Aaron Burch