Interview with Jeannie Vanasco

by Elizabeth DeMeo

  Photo by Justin N. Lane

In “Too Rushed,” your essay in our fourth issue, you write, “It’s 2018, and I’m not here to make a new argument: mental health patients are not more violent than the rest of the population.” Despite the fact that there is considerable research to support your argument, people continue to argue to the contrary, particularly in the wake of national tragedies caused by gun violence. Why do you think this is?

I know this has been said a lot, but: one of the only times that politicians discuss mental health is in the aftermath of a mass shooting. And they usually deliver the this is a mental health issue line in a really soft-spoken voice. It’s so irritating. They steer news coverage away from gun control. It’s not to say that mental health isn’t a factor. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. I’d really like to see more journalists push back when politicians recklessly conflate gun violence with mental health. Pressure them to respond to this fact: that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence rather than the perpetrators. And get politicians back on the subject of gun control.

I asked a journalist why so much gun-violence reporting lacks context—that only three to five percent of all violence, not only gun violence, is attributable to mental illness—and he said it’d be too clunky if a reporter always provided context. But if it’s between clunkiness and an omission of facts, I’ll take clunkiness. I think most people would. It’s the same way I feel about memoir. A lot of times, the important context is in the stuff that we’d rather not include because it risks making the work uneven.

I wish news coverage regularly focused on mental health. We spend more than $300 billion a year on psychiatric care in this country. There are plenty of mental-health related questions to explore through reporting: Where are people with chronic and severe mental illness living? How do police handle people with mental illness? How much do poverty and race serve as barriers to care? How will the new administration affect care for those with mental illness? Who profits from labeling people as mentally ill? Also, the fact that we imprison so many people with mental illness—as opposed to investing in assertive community treatment services (which pretty much pay for themselves, according to economists)—conflates mental health with violence.

This is why memoirs by authors with mental illness are so important.

[I]f it’s between clunkiness and an omission of facts, I’ll take clunkiness. I think most people would. It’s the same way I feel about memoir. A lot of times, the important context is in the stuff that we’d rather not include because it risks making the work uneven.

In your memoir The Glass Eye, you often divide your prose into sections that are based on binders you’ve kept. At what point in the process of writing the book did you know that these binders—respectively labelled “Dad,” “Mom,” “Jeanne,” and “Mental Illness”—would be its major organizing scheme? Did you ever consider organizing it differently?

For several years, I kept muddying up the manuscript, restructuring it according to associative logic, image patterns, even a sonic thesis (eye + i = I). Then I tried fitting the manuscript into received structures, such as Freytag’s Triangle. Agents wanted me to shove the most dramatic material up front. They wanted the book to open with me hallucinating that my eyes had fallen out. But that doesn’t exactly gain the reader’s trust.

After my editor, Masie Cochran, read my book proposal and sample pages—which mention the binders in passing—she asked what I thought of letting the binders guide the structure. That was Masie’s approach: instead of saying do this, she’d ask what if you did this? Her questions opened new possibilities. It’s not as if she didn’t make direct suggestions; however, they almost always arrived with a question mark—which preserved what little confidence I had, allowing me (in the moment, at least) to believe I came up with an idea myself. Instead of interfering with my artistic intentions, Masie helped me see what I’d intended all along.

[A]s soon as we start to intellectualize or analyze a memory, we risk fictionalizing it. We risk imposing meaning as opposed to finding it. Balance—between self-aware reflection and memory—is important.

Conversations with your mother inform much of The Glass Eye, and conversations with both a former student and a fellow patient at the psychiatric hospital play a major role in “Too Rushed.” Do you ever imagine these people and others you know reading your work as you write it? More broadly, to what degree do you think about audience while writing?

While writing, I only think—or try to only think—about the writing. Until I reach the revision stage, I generally don’t consider what the people I’m writing about will think of the writing. That probably sounds cold. But I can’t generate material if I’m thinking about what others will think. Of course, I’ll consider removing details that could hurt the person I’m writing about. It’s sort of a case-by-case basis. I try not to think about that stuff, though, until after I have a full draft. I worry about audience the most, I’ve noticed, when I don’t want to confront my own thoughts and feelings about a difficult subject or memory. This isn’t to say that I don’t care about audience. I just wait, or try to wait, to care.

In your memoir, you write, “This can’t be ‘The Glass Eye Poem’ all over again,” referring to a poem you’d written about your father while in college. In this vein, I’d like to know what you see as the benefits and drawbacks of exploring the same material over a long period of time—is this something you think all writers do, whether we’re conscious of it or not? Do you find that the way you approach certain material changes as you grow older?

That’s an excellent question. I think it’s hard for creative writers not to explore the same material over and over again. My next book isn’t about my dad. It’s about something that happened when I was nineteen, after he died, and I realize that if I’d written about the experience in my twenties, it’d simply be another book. That’s not to say it’d be less honest, or anything like that. How I’m thinking about an experience as I’m having it is rarely the same way I’ll think about it one month later or six months later or six years later. I don’t necessarily believe that the further away from an experience you are the more wisdom you have or the more truth you know about it.

I used to believe—because I’d been taught—that I should wait until I had a greater understanding of the past before I wrote about it. But not everyone has the privilege to wait. Also, as soon as we start to intellectualize or analyze a memory, we risk fictionalizing it. We risk imposing meaning as opposed to finding it. Balance—between self-aware reflection and memory—is important. Also, I like when a memoirist begins a sentence with: I can’t remember if.

As for how I approach older memories now: I’m more willing to let certain material go. Just because I remember something doesn’t mean it’s relevant to my project. When I was younger, I used to think I had to hold onto every single written fragment. But that’s partly because of my mental state. During manic episodes, everything felt important. Everything felt invested with meaning. But I couldn’t make choices. Mania slowed me down, even though I felt like I was writing really fast.

Your keen ability to portray the good in people you love, like your father, is evident in much of your work. I’m interested in the ways your readers have responded to this aspect of your writing—as you note in The Glass Eye, “In my pages, my dad didn’t seem human, some of my classmates told me. He lacked flaws.” I’m curious to what degree you think this critique is (or was) valid at the time it was given, and to what degree you think it is influenced by genre expectations. Is portraying those who are close to us in a more positive light a relative rarity in nonfiction? If so, why?

I’ve heard memoirists say that it’s so much easier to write about dead people, and my response is always: Really? I find it so much harder. The dead can’t defend themselves. I’m not saying we shouldn’t write about dead people’s flaws, but I think we should be hyper-aware of what motivated their flaws and of what motivates us to write about them.

That critique came early on, my first year in the memoir program—when my manuscript needed a lot of work. One classmate contextualized her critique in an extremely helpful way: she said that she didn’t have a good father, and that’s why she couldn’t believe my portrayal of my dad. She didn’t realize that some fathers could be kind, generous, and loving toward their children. I didn’t realize that some readers would have that perspective. I didn’t realize that a lot of people had fathers who didn’t express love. That’s how lucky I was. Her critique helped me realize why I needed to explore my dad’s character more deeply.

I do think the critique—that I needed to show his flaws—was partially motivated by genre expectations. I don’t know if positive portrayals in memoir are rarer than negative ones. I’m guessing that’s the case. I felt conflicted—because while I know that conflict is important, I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out any of my dad’s flaws. I’ve heard memoirists say that it’s so much easier to write about dead people, and my response is always: Really? I find it so much harder. The dead can’t defend themselves. I’m not saying we shouldn’t write about dead people’s flaws, but I think we should be hyper-aware of what motivated their flaws and of what motivates us to write about them.

Graduate school,” you write in a Modern Love piece for The New York Times, “can be an excellent place for someone with a mental illness to hide out.” In your experience, how does grad school differ from other environments in the ways in which it is/isn’t conducive to dealing with mental illness? Did you find variation in this regard between the two MFA programs you attended?

The reason I first applied to grad school: I’d been hospitalized for a severe manic episode while working as an editor—and my boss told me that if my health didn’t improve, I’d probably lose my job. I’d just started dating a poet, and he suggested I apply for a poetry MFA as a back-up plan. It turned out to be great advice. Grad school offered me a flexible schedule, health insurance, and financial support. Sure, I wrote terrible poems, experimented with so many different types of meds that the side effects made it hard to attend class, but it was a good start to figuring things out. So then I applied to another MFA, this one in memoir. And it was my last year there that I landed on the right combination of meds. I graduated in 2015. I received a diagnosis of bipolar 1 in 2006. It took almost a decade to find mental stability. I couldn’t have done that without a flexible schedule. My professors at both universities were very supportive.

This is not to argue that academics are more empathetic than the general population. And universities certainly aren’t as progressive as they’re made out to be. Just look at how they treat adjuncts. But if you’re a student or full-time faculty member, there are more protections in place.

The down side to grad school if you have a mental illness: academia is all about the life of the mind. So what do you do when your mind is interfering with your life? Even at a university, there’s this pressure to thrive under capitalism, to prove that one is productive and “useful.” I’m very lucky to have a tenure-track job, and to teach where I teach. I was hired even though my writing sample acknowledged my experiences with psychosis. That’s not exactly something you’d acknowledge in most job application materials: I’ve hallucinated that my eyes have fallen out—but I promise I can do the job.


JEANNIE VANASCO's "Too Rushed" can be read in the Spring 2018 issue. She is the author of The Glass Eye: A Memoir. Her writing has appeared in the Believer, the New York Times, Prairie Schooner, the Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, and on NewYorker.com. She lives in Baltimore and is an assistant professor of English at Towson University.

ELIZABETH DEMEO is the Assistant Managing Editor of The Arkansas International and a third year MFA student in the University of Arkansas Program in Creative Writing & Translation. A former intern for Tin House, she is also the director of the Arkansas Writers in the Schools program. Her work is forthcoming in Indiana Review