Thursday, September 23, 2010

Koren Zailckas' "Fury"

Koren Zailckas is the author of the memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, which appeared on ten national bestseller lists and spent twenty weeks on the the New York Times bestseller list. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fury: A Memoir, and reported the following:
Before now, I’ve always been a little too frightened to apply the page-99 test to my own books. I imagined the result might be awkward, even mortifying--sort of like when the DVD skips halfway through a home movie, and the screen stalls on an image of you mid-blink, your mouth hanging open like dope. What if the freeze frame wasn’t representative of the book at all? Or what if it highlighted a passage that I secretly hate?

I’m relieved to find that Fury’s essence is right smack in the center of page 99.

The scene’s setting speaks to just how personal this book is. Page 99 finds me seated in the office of a psychologist that I’ve begun seeing after a devastating break-up.

It’s the first real time I’ve had my brain shrunk. In the book, I refer to this particular therapist as “Alice” (it seemed fitting, given the way I followed her down my depression’s rabbit hole), and she’s the most patient woman this side of Mother Teresa. In this scene, she’s trying very hard to help me recognize that a lot of my despair over my ex is really just deferred anger from my childhood. Still, I refuse to give a sister a break. When it comes to the subject of my family, I’m a fortress:
She keeps enticing me to tell her more about my parents, my childhood, my life since my first book and what compelled me to choose the anger topic for my second. I respond out of a sense of obligation, but my answers are brief...

I tell Alice my childhood was so average and uneventful that I have few distinct memories of it. I tell her I played with the other girls in the neighborhood (leaving out what an unwelcome tagalong I was, how I was frequently excluded and bullied). I say I’ve always had a roof over my head (but leave out how desperate I had been to sneak my way out of it). I tell her my parents had never divorced or anything (but not about the endless arguments with my mother, fights I had frequently tried to cope with by boozing to blackout).

I’m not trying to be rude, but I firmly tell Alice I didn’t have any childhood woes. “Maybe we can just skip ahead in the interest of time?”
Of course, the impressions we form in childhood are horrifically powerful, and many of them continue to dog us for the rest of our lives. As the story progresses, I’m forced to stop lying to myself about what I desperately want to believe was my “run-of-the-mill” childhood. Eventually, I acknowledge that my cholerophobia (or chronic fear of getting ticked off) had everything to do with the family that I grew up in.

Also on page 99, I can really see and appreciate the way Fury reveals its inner workings. Because I was writing this book as I lived it--almost in real time--it only seemed honest to let the reader accompany me through the book’s difficult writing process.

I didn’t initially intend to write a sequel to my first memoir. In fact, I didn’t set out to write about myself at all. A few years after Smashed, I began writing what I thought was going to be a journalistic book of essays, exploring common American attitudes about anger. To that end, I flew halfway across the country to attend the kind of anger management seminar that you see in movies where people beat one another up with rubber mallets. I exhausted my library card, checking out books about sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, linguistics and so on. I was determined to find out what every expert (not to mention every hack) thought about rage. Was it better to express it or repress it? And if the answer was the former, then how?

In spite of my relentless fact-finding (or because of it), my own writing stalled. As I sit in Alice’s office on page 99, I’m only beginning to realize why I was attracted to the topic of American anger to begin with and why I was having trouble seeing it through: I admit to Alice that I set out to write a book about anger because I sensed I was conflicted about it.

At the time of that session, I couldn’t imagine finding the courage and direction to turn my “anger book” into a personal excavation of my repressed rage. But that’s exactly what I went on to do. I had to be honest with myself, my family and my readers. Flailing in work and disappointed in my relationships, I could either look hard at the unspeakable emotions I’d felt as a kid or they’d continue to blind me to the present moment.
Learn more about the book and author at Koren Zailckas' website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue