Monday, November 5th, 2007
When I was growing up, any time my mother observed two of her children doing something alike—wearing the same color, picking out the same pair of sneakers in the shoe store—she’d laughingly ask, “What are you, The Bobbsey Twins?”
I find myself saying it today, but I doubt many of my own generation understand the second-hand reference. For my mother, though, it made sense. The Bobbsey Twins—along with Tom Swift and Uncle Wiggily—were the beloved characters around which three series of children’s books were created by Howard Garis and his wife Lilian between the turn of the century and the 1950s.
Leslie Garis is their granddaughter, and today she’s the author of her own book: House of Happy Endings (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Garis’s memoir takes us back to the idyllic setting of The Dell in Amherst, Massachusetts—the house where she spent the better part of her childhood with her parents, siblings, and grandparents Howard and Lilian. Read an excerpt here.
Life at The Dell was not as utopian as it may have been for Uncle Wiggily and The Bobbsey Twins. At the center of Garis’s story is her father, Roger Garis, a struggling writer whose agonizing mental breakdown appeared to be both genetic and—somewhat mysteriously—written by his own parents. —Kim Brittingham
With all the insight and knowledge you have now, why do you believe your grandmother so grossly underestimated her own son?
I think the problems she had with him originated from two sources: her competitiveness and her hysterical, depressive panic. She was deeply upset that her husband Howard outstripped her so spectacularly in output and earning power, and she didn’t want her son to become a “serious” writer and trump her with critical success. Plus, her overwhelming panic gave her an abiding belief that disaster was about to strike her and those she loved. So she tried to protect her son. Her psychology was complicated by her ego-blending narcissism, which meant that she couldn’t separate her son’s life from her own. She was unable to grant him an independent life, almost as if giving him independence would be the same as cutting off a limb and bleeding to death.
Early in House of Happy Endings, you wrote of your mother, “I realized that she wanted me to please authority, and since I couldn’t do it, I began to distance myself from her.” As you matured, what are some ways that you and your mother found yourselves at odds in this context?
This question may be too personal to answer fully, but let me just say that I have always wanted to look directly into the face of darkness and she has always wanted to turn away. This has resulted in our having very different tastes in literature, art, and music. And she still uses euphemisms that drive me crazy (like “bumpy tummy”instead of “upset stomach”). But as I have grown away from my original family and into my own life, these details no longer make much difference, and we get along very well. We have a close relationship, respecting our differences.
As a little girl you felt you were “unbreachably different” from many people around you, which you say made you “feel somehow hard”. What do you mean by “unbreachably” different? How so? And how do you believe you were “hard”, even as a child?
I felt different because my consciousness was crammed with information—both visual and verbal—that I was constantly processing, and I suspected that I was taking in and retaining more impressions than my friends were. I would, dispassionately, but obsessively, sift through my observations seeking hidden truths. That process made me suspect that I might be—as Joan Didion was called—”a cool customer.” I would, for example—always probing for the unseen reality—question motives as I observed interactions among friends and family, and that tended to modify my immediate emotional response. I see now that my mind was discovering both a defensive stratagem and the beginning of my mature ability to be analytical. I felt “hard” because at a very young age I had a distance from events that I believed was probably unseemly for my age.
Tell me more about feeling like “a kind of outlaw” among your parents, grandparents and siblings.
I felt like an outlaw not only because of what I wrote in answer to your last question, but also because I was boiling over with energy and a mysterious rage that got me in trouble in school. I was practically ungovernable. I understand now that I was hyperactive, but I also had a desire to break every rule, ask every question, try every experience. Nothing seemed to satisfy my desire to feel a rush.
Of the four primary adults you grew up with—your parents and your father’s parents—which one do you feel you are most like now, as an adult?
Actually, I feel essentially different from all of them. My love of novels in some way makes me similar to my father and grandparents. I can’t resist a good story, but only—unlike my grandparents—if it is expressed in sophisticated prose. After finishing writing my book I understand them all better than I ever did, and their personalities are unique to them. Mine is a strange one all on its own.
Since writing the book, have you learned any more about what attracted your jovial, kindly grandfather to your considerably cooler grandmother when they met as young adults? Were there early clues as to the kind of woman she’d eventually become, particularly the kind of mother she’d become?
I think my grandfather was attracted to Lilian because she was pretty, intelligent, lively, and, as the only female reporter, a star in the newsroom. He found her intriguing and he rose to the challenge. She piqued his romantic nature. I think early on he must have seen the seeds of her eventual mental illness, and I suspect he used signs of her depression when he created the boy he called Roger in his 1904 book “The White Crystals.” Of course Roger was his real three-year-old son’s name, and, in one of those twists that kept recurring in my family, twenty five years later Roger would manifest those same symptoms in his own life.
Now that you’re a successful writer, are you still in awe of how prolific a writer your Grampy was?
Any writer would be a fool not to be in awe of such discipline, ambition and productivity.
Did anyone else in your father’s family suffer from ulcers besides him? Was there any sign that his physical “weaknesses” had any basis in biological reality, or do you believe his frailties were entirely created by his parents’ preconceived notions about who he would become?
I have had stomach trouble in a milder form all my life. The question of ulcers is difficult to answer because now a bacteriological cause has been found. At the time it seemed that his stomach pains were a result of his emotional distress.
You wrote of a scene where your typically miserable grandmother stuck apple seeds on your forehead in a whimsical wish-making ritual. This seems surprisingly fun-loving considering the kind of woman she’d become at that point. Do you recall similar times when your grandmother seemed to step out of character for a few precious moments?
I’m afraid I have few happy memories of her. My cousin, who is older than I am by more than ten years, and, as a child, visited her almost daily New Jersey, remembers her with much fondness, as a person who took her shopping and spent relaxed hours with her. By the time my grandmother came to Amherst she had been reclusive and unwell for a long period.
While listening to the radio drama “Mary Noble” as a girl, you imagined your “illustrious destiny, although I wasn’t sure what it was”. Describe for me some of the imagery from your idealized future life.
I was going to be a famous actress who lived in a big apartment in New York and had many friends and suitors. I was also going to be a novelist, living in a slightly more bohemian but still elegant apartment, with charming friends and many fans who asked my advice about life and love even as I grew old.
You were quite young when your father encouraged you to abandon the concept of sin: “No such thing as sin”. How did this lesson come into play in your life in later years?
In many impulsive actions, some of which I regret, and some of which I don’t. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
In the face of a long-suffering father, you established early on a “lifelong habit of trying to steel myself against being overwhelmed by emotion”. How did this habit manifest itself throughout your life? How has it served you? How has it failed you?
I’m afraid this is one of the central questions I spent years in therapy trying to answer, and never quite did. This summer our oldest son was married, and when I found myself sobbing in the church during the ceremony I was tremendously reassured. It meant my emotions were accessible after all. It is a life-long pattern with me that I will be going along in my life, coping as usual, oblivious to my own distress, when suddenly I will get a stomach ache or feel as if I were going to faint. My body alerts me to the fact that I am upset, and I search my mind for the source. My defenses are still powerful and in place.
Why do you believe your father had so much difficulty connecting with his two sons?
It was explained to me by Thayer Greene, the minister and Jungian therapist who plays an important part in the book, that my father had such a weak ego that he was unable to connect with males in his life. It was easier for him to relate to women, and easier still if the female were a child.
In your father’s play “Amusement Park”, you were disturbed by the character of the daughter and her role in her family, and you questioned whether it was her place to sacrifice herself for them. Did you feel you sacrificed yourself for your family? Do you think your father sacrificed himself for his?
I don’t think of my family role as one of sacrifice. I helped my father and mother as much as I could during the difficult years, and I paid a large price in terms of my own mental and emotional health. But we were all damaged. The sacrifice of the little girl in my father’s play was bizarre and twisted in a way I could barely perceive, but which nevertheless affected me eerily. It wasn’t so much the idea that the girl would want to help her father, but that she valued life so little that she was willing to throw it away with equanimity. I had a vague notion that it was my father, in fact, who was drawn to annihilation, and he put his own despairing death wish into the personality of an otherwise happy and well adjusted little girl. It didn’t ring true.
You seem to have a lot of insight into your brother Buddy’s childhood learning disabilities. Have your own children faced similar challenges?
As I say in the epilogue, my children have all faced difficulties with learning disabilities and depression. The family DNA spread itself out over them in particular ways. No one had everything, but each one had some. They have all received the best help available in a world that is infinitely more enlightened and medically advanced than what was around in the 1950s and early 1960s. Each one is doing wonderfully well.
If you could play a trick with time and have your father back with you now, in his prime, what might you do to change the outcome of his life?
I would get him medicine (probably an SSRI) early in his life. There would have been no addiction, he would have been relatively free from depression, and he would have been able to cope with all the problems that ensued. By that one medical intervention our lives would have been entirely different.
How did your father’s initial experience at “health camp” as a young man leave him “demoralized and bewildered”?
By sending him to a “health camp”instead of a hospital, he was being given the message that there was nothing wrong with him that a little strength of character couldn’t cure. It denied the reality of the illness from which he suffered, and it made him feel guilty for his symptoms, which his father obviously saw as weakness.
When your father first came home for a visit from Riggs Psychiatric Hospital, it was noted in his records that he was “able to answer all of the children’s questions…”. Do you remember what kinds of questions you and your brothers had for your father after this first hospital confinement?
I imagine they were the simple questions children ask, like what a star is made of, or what “The Bridge on the River Kwai”was about. He was clear-headed enough to focus on something outside himself, so that he was available to his children and felt himself to be a satisfactory father.
A couple of times in your book, you speak of your rage. “Rage was my constant companion, for which I hated myself.” Yet I read little about your expressions of rage growing up. What did you do with your rage?
I sublimated it into work and eventually it lessened and mutated into a weak version of ambition.
You hint at having been somewhat boy-crazy, with plenty of “milk shakes and the flirtatious scoping at Valentine Hall”. Tell me about your relationships and interactions with boys as a girl.
What can I say? I loved the boys. I was fairly pretty and quite flirtatious so they liked me back. That never really changes, it just peters away with age and marriage. It also takes another form when you develop deep, enduring friendships with women, which, while being sexless, are passionate in intensity. There’s a book here—but not for me to write.
During your third year of college you described having a mini-breakdown, “entering my dorm room after a walk, the view before me…exploded before my eyes. The furniture flew in all directions, and I began to scream and couldn’t stop.” Help me understand what happened here. What was actually happening in your body? What were you feeling?
I can’t explain it. My mind, overburdened with unhappiness and already suffering from biological depression, broke with reality, and I had the impression I was in the middle of a hurricane. The feeling, which I remember clearly, was one of panic and so much emotion that my body could no longer contain it. It was like an explosion. My physical self no longer had boundaries; I was flying through space and all the parts of the room I was in were flying with me. I was aware, as if from far away, that I was screaming, but it was as if the screams were coming from outside myself. I suppose it could be compared to a bad LSD trip, although I never took LSD, so I can’t be sure.
When you read your father’s play “Love and Paula”, you were dazed and shaking, and you say you lost consciousness for a moment. Do you remember what was going through your head at the time? What were you thinking as you noticed the many places where he’d written your name instead of “Paula”?
The memory of this play is so painful to me that I would rather not discuss it. I think it is clear in the book that I was made aware of a love he had for me that contained the erotic. I didn’t put that section in the book until it was almost in print, because it was so hard for me to think about.
While living in Europe, your consciousness mysteriously shut down for two days and nights. Have you since learned what this was all about? Has it happened since then?
Earlier in the interview I said that I used to feel as if I were going to faint and that would indicate to me that I was upset about something. In Paris I actually did faint in the newsroom of The New York Times. I was brought to the American Hospital in Neuilly, where the doctor explained hyperventilation to me. I fainted because I hyperventilated, which happened because I was having a panic attack. I believe that the lost two days were a more dramatic version of my mind shutting down in times of stress. I was overwhelmed with fatigue and fell asleep, as if under a spell, waking up two days later, severely shaken by the experience. I can’t give a better explanation than that. Since then I have had similar days without completely losing consciousness. The French, who have a description for every state of mind, and who have much less guilt than we do, call that kind of day, un jour au lit.
Tell me more about the illness you mention in your epilogue, which “plagued me in my twenties and thirties, and engulfed me in my forties.” What is your diagnosis? And you mentioned medication that works for you now—with what medication have you found success? How has it specifically helped to normalize things for you?
My illness is simply, and not so simply, major depression with panic. I was an early Prozac patient, starting in 1989. Since then I have taken different drugs as medication has improved, and now I take Celexa, which works well for me. In the mid-nineties I tried living without the pills, but the reappearance of my illness was so terrifying that I have never gone off medication again.
When it comes to physical and/or mental illness, what similarities can you now draw between your adult self and your father?
I am well; he was not.
You also mention your daughter receiving psychiatric care and psychopharmacology. Was there ever a time during her treatment when you thought a psychopharmacological approach was not working, and nearly gave up? What was that journey to successful treatment for your own child like?
My daughter’s illness is really her story to tell. From my point of view, in terms of psychopharmacology, the doctors couldn’t find a drug that worked. SSRI medication brought on hallucinations and suicidal ideation, other drugs made her paranoid. It took a very long time before medication was found that seemed to help, and the doctors have changed and improved her medication continuously over the years. Her father and I were desperate, but we had tremendous faith in her doctor and in the care at Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. Of course we were afraid that she wouldn’t get better, but after about a year from the onset of her most serious symptoms, she seemed to be on the mend, and we dared to hope. Today, with intermittent therapy and the right medication, she is thriving.
Did you have to contend with your own illness concurrent with dealing with health challenges in your children? If so, how did you juggle being a support to them while keeping your own head on straight?
That was a struggle, yes. I am only now beginning to learn of their experience of my depression, which I was foolish enough to think I was hiding. I would say that doing laundry, making meals, reading stories, all the details of motherhood kept me going a lot longer before I sought medication than I would have done without the sense that I had to take care of my children no matter what. These are not easy questions to answer!
Have you or any of your children developed an interest in writing juvenile literature?
Our daughter is an assistant editor at Roaring Brook Press and First Second Books, which publish early childhood books, young adult novels, and graphic novels. She has an uncanny gift for what she does. I wonder why?
Did you share any of your grandparents’ books with your children when they were growing up?
Mainly “Uncle Wiggily.” I didn’t talk about my family history very much. They saw old books around, and occasionally picked one up, but I never steered them to “Tom Swift”or “The Bobbsey Twins”or any other Garis books. I wanted to move on.
Buy House of Happy Endings here.