Sometimes writing is a way of laying claim on the chaotic, of imposing a kind of fitful understanding onto something that defies order or remedy.
Eleanor Henderson is the author of two acclaimed novels, Ten Thousand Saints and The Twelve-Mile Straight, and a professor at Ithaca College. When her husband developed cyclical and surreal symptoms that defied diagnosis or treatment, their love story veered into one of duality: trauma and illness, addiction and survival, darkness and light. So she wrote about it, and also about them.
Her memoir, Everything I Have Is Yours, is unflinching, intimate, and impossible to put down. This month’s pick for the New York Times’ book club, Group Text, it’s the story you write when, cliches aside, life truly feels stranger than fiction.
Thanks to Eleanor for talking with me about the power of bearing witness, moving through and writing with uncertainty, and — it’s not all heavy — Ethan Hawke’s shirts.
Sara Shukla: George Saunders wrote this wonderful letter to his students at the start of the pandemic, and I still think about all the time, especially these lines:
Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, “Ah, so this is happening now,” or “Hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth. Did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker.”
And then I real quick try to pretend that I didn’t just call the universe a “stinker.”
Way before the pandemic, you experienced how life can just, suddenly, shift from what you thought was possible. I wonder if you, like our friend George, agree that it’s good for a writer to bear witness, and good for the writer too, especially if she can bear witness with love and humor. (There is love and humor in this book, alongside the darkness.)
Eleanor Henderson: I love that quote. It’s fairly present in our modern consciousness, this sense of mindfulness, of being present, but it’s really hard to practice. This reminds me of Aaron’s psychiatrist who tells him in one scene, “You know, it’ll take a long time, but you have to just practice noticing: there is my symptom, there is my terror, there is my anxiety, and I don’t have to fix it.”
And that’s really profound to me, and something I’m trying to practice all the time, something that, for me, is at the heart of Al Anon, which is all about acceptance and bearing witness. It’s also the best and really only thing I can offer to Aaron.
I really think that, one, Al Anon and, two, this experience of watching Aaron suffer, and helplessly trying to fix it, prepared me well for the pandemic. It’s not like anyone wins a gold star for enduring a global crisis, but I did think in the early days, oh, these skills are going to serve me well. I know what it’s like — and a lot of people do — to have an emergency that just washed over you.
I’m fascinated with how writers’ personal experience finds its way into their novels, probably because until a few years ago I thought novelists just conjured stories from their magical brains. Your two novels are each born, in part, from experiences of men you love. Ten Thousand Saints is set in the ‘80s in St. Mark’s Place, and it borrows from Aaron’s encyclopedic knowledge of hardcore bands and straight edge culture. The Twelve-Mile Straight was inspired by the farm in rural Georgia where your father was a boy.
Fiction can be a way of examining our own lives sideways. What made you choose to write a memoir instead, to grapple with your story so directly.
My dad and my husband had stories I was obsessed with, and I was very comfortable with that second-hand remove, borrowing the backdrop but inventing the scenarios. And, obviously this book is really different. With The Twelve-Mile Straight, I felt like I maybe barely got away with telling a story that was too far outside my lane, and it was not comfortable, and didn’t feel appropriate, for me to keep expanding — like the highway — my storytelling. I felt it was time for me to be accountable to my own story.
But, it’s complicated, because my story isn’t only my own story either. I’m telling Aaron’s story, so there’s still that sense of appropriating someone else’s suffering. But at least I could confront it, using the “I,” which could put me at the center of the story as well. And I just felt that there was no room for any other story in my imagination at that point. As soon as I finished The Twelve-Mile Straight and came home from book tour, I sat down and started writing.
Aaron had had this really bad night, and I woke up the next morning and felt, “I can’t keep letting these nights go by and pretend like they’re not happening.” I hadn’t really admitted to myself how much they were shaping our days, and putting it down on paper gave me a sense of distance, and control — maybe false control — but it was what I needed at that time.
The antagonist here is, first, Aaron’s illness, the “too much fire” burning to get out. But it’s also the shrugs and inconclusive diagnostics of the medical community. Do you feel like your capacity to live with uncertainty has stretched?
I really like the way you talk about the antagonist, which was kind of murky as I was writing. I felt sometimes like he was the antagonist, like “You’re the problem, stop being sick,” then I’d beat myself up, and it was like self vs. self. But when I could separate Aaron’s illness from him, and be angry that he was sick, be angry that people get sick and we don’t know why, that was better.
And there were definitely times when I — and certainly he — turned our anger and frustration on the medical community. I think, in part, some of that was justified. But there were doctors who, even within a pretty rigid, traditional medical world, said things like, “I believe you. I know you’re in pain.”
That acknowledgement that not knowing was part of the process was the hardest to hear, but it also came to be the most refreshing and realistic thing that we could hear, because it acknowledged the complicated nature of illness. It also reflected back to me that we as patients often have unrealistic expectations of what doctors can do for us. Doctors are real people who’ve just had a great deal of training and education, but they’re still just people living on this mysterious planet. It’s humbling.
How has it affected what you write, or maybe even how you teach writing?
It certainly impacted this book, and turned it into more of a question than an answer. How has it affected my teaching? I love that question. I think it has encouraged me to encourage my students to leave more room for discovery, and not knowing. I didn’t know where I was going to get with this book. I hoped I’d get to where I had a neat medical mystery solved, like the New York Times Magazine column (which I love and hate), by the end, and that would be greatly satisfying, but it just doesn’t feel true.
In writing this book, I began to ask my students to try to let go of having control of a piece of writing. It’s so magical when we can let the writing teach us something and tell us something about who we are and what we think and what we believe.
How did writing about your life in passages and scenes, with turns and revelations and pacing, differ from your process of writing novels? I ask in part because I binged this like Netflix, but I kept thinking as I read, this is a life. This is multiple lives.
I knew what all the material was, with a memoir as opposed to a novel, so it was really just about selecting and shaping. But on the other hand, I had this endless supply of material, unfortunately. There was always another thing. It was like, okay we’re going to the ER again, I guess this is another chapter. And that was weird, and surreal.
There was this feeling of, “If this were a movie, I would be binging it.” I had this weird interest in my own life, recognizing it as a compelling story because it was so science fiction, and the level of emergency was at an 11 every other day.
The next day, often, or a couple days later, I’d wake up early to write after having a really tough day, and getting to walk through it in the present tense has something to do with the level of mystery that the reader experiences, but it also helped me to be able to disassociate from it a little bit.
It must have felt like something to do with it, instead of just experiencing it, or feeling passive to it. It’s not like writing about it changes an outcome, but it’s something to grapple with.
Yeah, absolutely. We’re writers, that’s what we do, and that was something to do. As Zadie Smith says, writing is something to do. Especially as I began to recognize all the unhealthy ways I was processing my lack of control — and it’s not a purely healthy way, writing a book, but — it felt like I could do less harm by just writing about it than I could by doing other things.
You write early in the book, “I did not know that it was a ritual that we would perform night after night in the years ahead – Aaron moaning along to the mystery that had befallen him, me cooing beside him with a book half-open: there, there; there, there.” What books have imprinted upon you along the way?
The first that comes to mind is Porochista Khakpour’s Sick, which I remember reading out on the deck, eating a piece of avocado toast, and just reading about her experience of Lyme disease, and all the ways that her mental illness symptoms were scissoring her physical symptoms. I felt with my full body that even if this isn’t exactly what Aaron is experiencing, the recognition of somebody else having that sort of surreal experience of their own symptoms, and cataloging it with the same frenetic energy that I felt like I was cataloging and consuming, that was really striking.
Aaron had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia when I heard about Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. That was as powerful as I thought it would be.
Oh, and I was teaching a class called Narratives of Mental Illness, and we happened to be reading Victor LaValle’s novel, The Devil In Silver. It takes place in a mental institution, and it’s about this cast of outcast characters who are trying to fight a monster in the hospital. I was reading that literally the week that Aaron was hospitalized against his will. I felt this weird solidarity with Victor LaValle because he gave me a way to make metaphorical a very scary experience.
I recently talked to a friend who’s living with a rare breast cancer, and she said she tries to focus on the “and.” Like, “I can be sick and enjoy my family.” She tells her kids, “we can be sick and grow a vegetable garden.” I thought of this “and,” this duality, near the end of your book. We can be unsure and we can believe. We can be sick, we can be in pain — or we can carry someone else’s suffering — and we can love, and we can move through the day, or the night; we can go to our kids’ Halloween party and do the things of life.
It’s not about, ultimately, finding answers, or even resolution, but how we choose to live with the not knowing. I guess I’m wondering, what was it like to “end” a book about a life, a story, that’s very much ongoing?
The “and” speaks really powerfully to me, and I think that was something I was trying to notice and trying to incorporate. It’s something I’ve seen in a few pandemic essays, this sense of “the world is burning,” but also, “what’s for dinner?” I feel like we’re contending with that more and more, especially in the age of consuming so much good and bad and hard and light, all at the same time. We need both, and it makes me think of scrolling through my photo gallery, which I write about a little bit in the book, where there’d be pictures of a birthday party, then going to the lake, then pictures of Aaron’s bloody body, which I’d be taking to show to a doctor, or to prove that it happened. So, the “and.”
There were times when Aaron had to basically tranquilize himself because he hadn’t slept in five days, and then then I’d take the kids to the movies. Or he’d come to the movies 20 minutes later. So often what feels like our edge is so close to the center of our lives.
That was something that I began to notice and appreciate through writing the book. In a certain way that was the only thing to do with all of that pain — and this is getting back to your earlier question too — to surround it with love and humor and joy and reality TV and video games and loving on our pets, and being silly with each other. Just being alert and witnessing, that sense of “and,” that we can hold more than we think we can.
I saved my most serious question for last. Ten Thousand Saints was adapted for film, and Ethan Hawk played the pot-dealing dad to newly straightedge Jude. I remember you getting to keep some of the shirts he wore for the filming. I ask this with utmost earnesty: do you still have them?
Yes, I still have his shirts. They were in my office, and I think I secretly wanted my students to ask me about them. I was keeping Asa Butterfield’s yellow skateboard in my office too. Aaron has the same size feet as Asa who plays Jude, so he was wearing his Doc Martens for a while. But the shirts are in a sealed bag in our attic. They’re old ‘70’s style bowling shirts that seem like they’re made for Ethan Hawke. While I had them stored in my office a good friend of mine, Jacob White, a fiction writer, walked by my door and admired them. I realized he’s the same size, so I’ve given him one. It was incredibly cool and fun to have the trinkets and detritus of that movie.
It’s a good “and,” right? All this traumatic stuff has happened, but this happened too. You have the shirts to prove it.
It’s a good “and.”
Eleanor Henderson is the author of two novels: The Twelve-Mile Straight and Ten Thousand Saints, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times and a finalist for the Award for First Fiction from The Los Angeles Times. With Anna Solomon she is also co-editor of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers. The Chair of the Writing Department and the Robert Ryan Professor in the Humanities at Ithaca College, she lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and two sons.