Tuesday, September 7th, 2010
“I was writing the book at the same time that I was feeling very private, and these two things were coming towards each other in a collision course. Which one would win?”
What could Carl Jung and an American boy raised in Denver, CO possibly have in common? A lot, actually. Especially if that boy is Micah Toub, the son of two Jungian-trained therapists and author of the new memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks. Raised in a version of suburban America in which a trip to Skipper’s seafood chain restaurant could easily veer off into the land of “magical beings and visits from E.T.,” Toub was encouraged by his parents to consult his ally, confront his shadow, linger in “double-meta land,” and, after failing to get a hard-on during his first sexual encounter (yep, he went there), “become the erection.”
The vignettes from Toub’s life lend themselves naturally to his humorous recounting, but like any good Jungian, Toub has produced a multi-layered work. At once a confessional, entertaining story about one American family, it is also a collection of life lessons, a Jung-lite for the common man, and an intimate, well-researched portrait of Jung from the unique perspective of a writer who had no choice but to live by the creed WWJD (“What Would Jung Do?”).
I met up with Toub over coffee at Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York to get into Toub’s head and find out more about the process of writing Growing Up Jung.
Why did you choose to write a memoir? Was it at all because Jung encouraged his patients to write about their own lives?
I started writing the book because I had a lot of odd, quirky stories to tell that I thought would be funny. Honestly that’s why I started doing it. But in the process, I went through a divorce, and that actually impacted its tone a little bit. It became a more reflective book than it would have been otherwise. I began looking at my parents’ divorce, and at some point I realized that if I wanted to write a memoir, I would have to include painful moments, too.
I was working on a novel before this. It didn’t quite work out, and this just seemed like it would be so easy to write. I actually said that to a friend of mine, and he said, “Well, writing is so hard. Why don’t you just do the easiest book you can?” But of course it turned out to be very hard.
The first thing many readers have said about your book is that it’s hilarious. Has humor always played a major role in your writing?
I grew up reading MAD Magazine. That’s probably one of my formative influences. Humor is something that I’ve always used. It’s what I enjoy the most. But if I were to analyze it a little bit, I’d also say humor is an easier way to talk about really difficult things and a form of therapy. Sometimes you do go so deep into an issue, and you do have to transition, to laugh for a little bit, then go back to the issue.
In the book I write about how, when I was with my therapist and I was making jokes in therapy, she wasn’t laughing. I thought that was interesting, because she was forcing me to look at my jokes and see where there might be some painful undersides to them.
Did you always intend to combine your memoir with Jungian concepts and stories from Jung’s own life?
I don’t think that my life alone is necessarily worthy of being read, but what makes it valuable to readers is that they are going to learn about a psychology and about coming of age the same way that, when I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I was learning about grief and loss. Didion’s a great writer, and her life is worthy of writing about I’m sure, but she was also able to talk about death through research and her philosophical speculations. That book gave me direction as far as how I wanted to bring in some research. From the beginning, there was a sense that I wanted to impart some lessons, and they were all lessons I learned from my parents.
Apart from the broader lessons, there are also some pretty odd techniques that your parents taught you–”active imagination,” for example, where you meditate on creatively unpacking the unconscious.
My parents had me doing active imagination from a very early age, so to me it’s second nature. I usually close my eyes and see something.
Last Christmas, I was going through a hard time, and I did some active imagination, where you close your eyes and you wait for a figure to appear before you. And there was this lizard guy with a Cheshire grin. So I was talking to Cheshire lizard, and I told it I was feeling very confused. I had been divorced, had had another big breakup, and I’d just finished the book, which I actually found quite depressing, because I lost a lot of purpose in my life. I asked, “Who am I?” And it said, “You will never know.” It seemed like this figure was just telling me not to try to figure everything out, to just relax.
I’m really not making it up—it just comes to my imagination.
At times you’re Jung’s biggest skeptic. But you’re his number one fan. So which is it? Do you consider yourself a Jungian?
I think I am. I am a Jungian the way you’re an American because you were born in America. I’m a Jungian because as my limbs were growing bigger and I was becoming more mature, Jungian thought was being infused into me. So, I’m a Jungian not by choice, but by birth.
Jung’s teachings are like a religion. Jung was very much a religious figure to a lot of people. I still do have the choice to abdicate!
Jung is perhaps best known for his dream analysis. Your memoir, rightfully so, opens with your father asking you, “Did you have a dream last night?” When you were writing this book, did you have any significant dreams about it?
Yes, actually. I had a dream about confessional writing. One night before bed, I was on Facebook, and I was testing out my ability to be confessional. There was this thing going around Facebook where you write 25 things about yourself. So I wrote a list of the 25 worst things I’ve ever done, from throwing a Slurpee in a mailbox when I was thirteen to exiling a friend from my circle and telling my mom I hated her. So I made this list, I posted it, and I went to sleep.
That night I had this dream, a nightmare actually, where these 25 things were written in huge banners all over the place, and a lot of people were really angry. One of the banners said, “Welcome to your new life.” I woke up and I thought, My God I can’t have that out there! And so I logged onto Facebook at four in the morning. I was going to delete my list of 25, but a couple people had already written notes and they weren’t worried about my list. They were just responding to it. Someone had written, “This is so great.”
Before I wrote this book, I was a very introverted person. If I was going to write memoir, I was going to have to be honest about what’s going on in my life. I was writing the book at the same time that I was feeling very private, and these two things were coming towards each other in a collision course. Which one would win? Was I going to have a mental breakdown because I wasn’t ready to write this book? Or was I going to overcome the anxiety of being honest? In the end, I think that it all turned out fine.
In fact, you write that your father is a very private person, and he was quite upset when he found out you were writing this memoir. How have your parents responded to your book?
My dad hasn’t had the greatest sense of humor about it, even though he gave me my sense of humor. It’s kind of ironic. I involved my dad in the whole process of writing the book. He read the outline, and that’s when he was most upset because he didn’t know what this book was going to turn out to be. He asked me not to write the book. Later, after I’d reassured him that it was going to be fine and he’d read it, he saw that it was balanced. He’s still a little shy about some of the personal stuff, but he’s standing behind it now.
My mom was okay with the memoir from the get-go. She has this attitude that she just needs to let me do what I need to do and that it will work out. You try to portray a person, but you can never portray them completely accurately, because they’re complicated, and my mom gets that. Because this book is about psychology, you don’t see my family in our more normal moments, like my dad and me throwing balsa wood airplanes or playing catch. Everything in the book is true, but there are certain ways you write, a certain order.
You do disclose quite a bit of personal information in your memoir, but it seems you’ve made some specific choices not to touch other subjects, most noticeably the subject of your divorce. Did you deliberately choose to keep your divorce private?
The divorce happened while I was writing the book, so that was actually quite confusing, because I didn’t quite even know what happened. I could have maybe presented the facts in the book. This happened and then this happened, but I felt it was wrong to do that until I’d digested it to some extent. But I did want to include it, so there are just two paragraphs about it, which might bother some people. I left the details out because I wasn’t ready to write about it.
When I go on dates now, women ask me, “Are you going to write about this?” I can’t tell if they’re excited about that, but I usually tell them no. I tend not to write about things until some time has passed. If you write about something too soon after it happens, you start to get too wrapped up in your own story, and you don’t let it unfold properly. I call it life incest. So I let things happen and wait for a while before writing about them.
For such a private person, you disclose a lot about your sex life and sexuality, including the moment you discover your father’s porn while stuffing your face with Ding Dongs in the garage. Was it difficult to write about sex?
Writing about my sexuality or even how people might perceive it is not the most comfortable thing in the world for me. I try to write things that are scary. For instance, I wrote a column about people thinking I was gay when they first met me, and I have had a gay relationship so that confuses things. I had tried to change my voice or act differently to appear straighter for a while. I’m embarrassed about that, but then some guys do that on a daily basis. I thought it was worth telling people, and the responses I get are that people are usually happy to hear about it, though people get angry, too.
Last year, there was a huge buzz when W.W. Norton published Jung’s Red Book. Was it odd that W.W. Norton also published your book?
Jung would call that a synchronicity. It was amazing that this happened.
And finally, Micah Toub, what’s your Six-Word memoir?
I am glad their condom broke.
BUY Growing Up Jung.
READ excerpts of Growing Up Jung.
CHECK Micah Toub’s website for links to his Globe & Mail column, blog in Psychology Today, and personal blog: Meta Micah.
FOLLOW Micah Toub on Twitter.