I first learned about Vince Granata’s memoir Everything Is Fine through my friend who is friends with one of Vince’s friends, and when I hopped on the phone with Vince, we naturally figured out we had yet another friend in common. Even though Vince now lives in Texas, he spent his 20s in the Boston area, where I have lived most of my life. Everyone knows everyone through someone else in Massachusetts it seems. It’s a small world.
It’s a small enough world that even before I read Vince’s searing memoir about the murder of his mother at the hands of his schizophrenic brother, I remembered hearing about the news story. I’ve long been someone interested in reading about the darker aspects of life, and Vince’s memoir might just be one of the darkest books I have ever read. There is nothing easy or light about reading Vince’s family’s story. And yet, while Vince’s book does not shy away from some of the hardest – the hardest? – things a family can grapple with, his memoir is one of the most empathetic, kind, and human works I have ever read. There is also a history of schizophrenia in my own family, and Vince’s book provided the nuanced and thoughtful approach to a devastating mental illness that is absent in so many pop culture narratives. I was thrilled to get the chance to speak with Vince and ask him about what it took to write this remarkable work.
E.B. Bartels: First, thank you so much for being willing to talk to me today. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy book to write considering the topic – and I’m guessing it’s not that easy to talk about either, so thank you again – but when did you know that this had to be a book? When did you start working on this memoir?
Vince Granata:Writing had always been important to me, and something that I’d use to understand the world and figure out what I thought about things. It took about a year after my mom’s death to actually think that this was something that I wanted to write about, something I even could write about.
Initially, I thought I would write a long essay – like an op-ed – where I would talk a little bit about my family’s experience, but mostly use that experience as a way to take down elements of the system that I believe failed Tim and my family. But it really didn’t work. I initially got a hold of Tim’s medical records from when he was hospitalized a few months before my mom’s death. At that stage, I was just so angry and looking for people to blame. When I read the hospital records, I was looking for an easy scapegoat – so I couldn’t really get to a reflective place to think more holistically about the whole story. So, I gave up pretty quickly after I tried to write that op-ed.
I’m sorry. Losing a mentor is so hard.
Thank you. I met him at American, where I had arrived thinking I was going to be a fiction writer, because fiction has been what I had written since I was a third grade. But he was teaching a nonfiction workshop, and as soon as I got into his class, it became clear to me just from conversations with him and from the way he talked about his own work that nothing was going to feel as urgent to me as my family story.
With his help, I really changed the way I approached the story and found a quieter posture. I realized that writing from a place of grief was so much more useful than the angry stance I had taken before. Though even once I realized that I still told myself I was just writing an essay or a couple of essays before I could accept that I was writing a whole book. If I thought about this it as a book right from the start, I think I would have psyched myself out of the whole process.
I really liked what you said about the urgency of nonfiction – I interviewed Melissa Febos recently, and she said something similar, that nonfiction feels much more urgent for her. I feel like often you live through a story that you feel like you need to share, that you need to get out or you need to work through, before you can do anything else. Though – I read this great essay by T Kira Madden called “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy” on Lit Hub. Have you read it?
Then you know what I’m talking about, but I often find that a lot of my writing students want to write about a topic as a way to process it – which is totally useful, that’s why I write in my journal every day – but at a certain point there comes a difference between writing as therapy versus writing as art. How do you see the difference between the two? How does one become the other? Where’s the line?
That that particular word – catharsis – is one I’ve always struggled with in terms of writing, because, in my experience, writing is not something that’s cathartic, it’s almost the opposite. Catharsis is letting go, but for me, with writing, it’s more like a taking in and holding onto. Writing can be very much serve the purpose of therapy, and writing this book was an incredibly important step toward my healing. It allowed me to sort of think about some of the most difficult elements of my family’s experience in ways that I really hadn’t allowed myself to in my mind, during day-to-day living. It also exacerbated a lot of pain. And in order to create something that other people can read and hopefully benefit from by learning about my experience, the priority can’t be the writer’s own feelings. That’s a pretty sobering thing.
When I first started working on this book, when I first started tricking myself into writing the book, I didn’t look directly at how much it was going to hurt to do write pieces of it. Far and away the most difficult chapter for me to write was the first chapter where I talk most directly about the day my mom died, and I didn’t attempt to write that until easily like a year, a year-and-a-half, into the process. I was living in DC at the time, taking the train back up to see my dad, and I was sitting in the café car, working on the book. I had originally started writing the book chronologically, starting literally from the day that my siblings were born and working my way forward. So then at that moment, on the train, I’d arrived chronologically at the moment when she died, and I was like, I guess this is what I’m writing right now. And ten minutes into trying to set this scene, I looked around and had a terrifying moment – like I’m sitting in this café car on this train, people are doing crossword puzzles, talking to their kids, and I’m about to write about the most upsetting, traumatic thing in my life. I had to stop, and I didn’t try to write that scene again for months. That is not something that I would describe as therapeutic.
That being said, now having done the whole process and having moved through some of those painful parts, I realized that I wasn’t able to think about some of these moments without writing about them. Even in the therapy that I’ve been incredibly lucky to do for going on seven years now, there were just certain things that I had a really hard time talking about. But I could talk about those things a lot more fully after I had engaged with them in writing.
That makes a lot of sense. I feel like a lot of memoirs do start with an impulse like, I need to write about this in order to heal. But, like you said, your own therapy and healing isn’t enough to make the book successful with developed characters, a narrative arc, all that. Also, I have students who say they just want to finish writing the thing so they never have to think or talk about it again, but if you publish a book about it… you just talk about that one thing forever.
It’s been about a year now since I did any real writing or editing for the book, and having that distance from the actual composing and revising makes this kind of conversation very different. I couldn’t have spoken about these things with any real depth while I was in the thick of it. But the disassociation that I was experiencing then was necessary in order to get through the process.
A friend of mine from grad school from my MFA program jokes that part of writing personal nonfiction is traumatizing yourself over and over. So, yeah, you have to figure out ways to disassociate, how to protect yourself. Sometimes I tell my students to try writing about themselves in the third person – that can help.
Definitely. I haven’t experimented with that too much myself, but I know other writers have.
You mentioned wanting to create a book that other people can relate to – so what are you hoping people can relate to? What are you hoping for readers to take away from this memoir? One thing for me was I found myself thinking a lot about the scene when you’re in the liquor store in your hometown right after your mother’s death, and a customer and the clerk are gossiping about what happened to your family. You approach them and say, “There’s no way you could have known this but…” and explain who you are. That just really struck me – you never know what other people are going through.
Right. Like if I was the customer at the counter checking out in front of someone who had just experienced this terrible trauma, I would have had absolutely no idea what to say. There isn’t even anything to say. Of course, people would be talking about it – it was a shocking thing that happened in the neighborhood – but part what I hope readers understand is that people can be harboring all sorts of personal private pains that you could never know.
And on a bigger scale, I hope people think about the way we perceive or misperceive certain serious mental illnesses and how those misperceptions can lead to very incomplete treatment or treatment that doesn’t actually address the problem. I want people to gain some understanding of how often we treat chronic mental illnesses. There’s good support for acute trauma, but not for bigger conditions that require lots of support and compassionate care.
I also hope that people who read this book, who themselves have suffered personal trauma or tragedy, will see they, too, can live through it. They shouldn’t take me as a model of how to kind of forward necessarily, but I hope it offers some example of living with complexity.
Yes! Though, at the same time, just having the words “a memoir” on the cover of a book is kind of a spoiler. You know at the very least the person survives the story and lives to write a book about it.
Also, when you’re looking at a narrative that deals with trauma, it’s really easy to hope for an easy resolution, or an ending that presents a simple form of healing. And while there is reason for hope at the end of my book, I still wanted to leave an ending that shows a reader that nothing is simple or easy. I’m still going to be struggling with a lot of elements in the story, but also that it is possible to actually have parts of the rest of my life that aren’t tied up with the trauma story.
I loved the open-endedness of the ending! I hate when memoirs wrap up too neatly – it feels false to me. There is so much still to figure out, like when you write about how you are still trying to figure out how to explain “Uncle Tim” to your future kids.
I also love what you said about tying your story to a large issue. I’m always trying to get my students to think about how their memoirs fit into something bigger than their personal story. I think it was really powerful how you showed your brother’s story to illustrate how the American medical system failed Tim, your mother, and your family. What research did you do when looking to expand out your memoir?
One of the reasons I think this was such an urgent book for me to write is that before my mom died, I knew very, very little about schizophrenia and about all the various systems that are deeply flawed when it comes to trying to provide care for people. The process of me finding more information naturally fit to the book, because one of the ways I was dealing with this tremendous loss was to try to make up for my ignorance about it. Before my mom died, most of my feelings around Tim’s experiences were based in fear and confusion. I saw him acting in a way that I didn’t recognize, and instead of trying to figure out how to help him, I would look away or speak to him in a way that didn’t acknowledge his terror. So, I knew that in order to try to tell the story at all, I had to address all the things that I didn’t know.
Purely from a craft perspective, that was one of the biggest challenges – to figure out when it made sense in the narrative to take a few pages and talk about what standards we have for holding someone in the hospital when they’re in sort of acute psychiatric crisis. I think my family story is worth telling for a number of reasons, but it would be such a missed opportunity if I didn’t also try to give that 30,000-foot view.
In terms of research, initially I found this trove of books that my mom had gathered that dealt with various issues around mental illness. She had hidden them under her side of the bed, because she was afraid that if Tim found them, he would realize she appreciated the full extent of his illness – that he himself wasn’t able to talk about yet. So as I read those books, I was both learning a lot about mental illness, but also getting a sense of what my mom had been doing in those years and months before her death. It was doubly painful in that way.
I was living in DC at the time, and a lot of the advocacy groups and organizations are based there, so I actually got to meet with some of the authors of the books. And at one point, one of the people I was interviewing, said, “Oh, yeah, we’re so glad you’re doing this project, that you’re trying to educate yourself and make a difference.” And that was great, but I also had this feeling that I was only doing this now, after it was already too late. I wished I had done it when there was still time.
Oof. Well, I guess it’s better to have done it at all, even if it felt too late. I will say something else I was really impressed by throughout your book was your nuanced portrayal of yourself, your brother, and your mother. No one was purely good or evil. There were no Hollywood schizophrenic tropes here, and the villain in the book was never Tim, but always his illness. And yet you also took a pretty hard look at yourself and the ways you and your family may have failed Tim. So, what I am wondering, is how did you manage to keep both the good and the bad of people in mind while you were writing?
It took me a while to get to any sort of reflective place where I could really see the complexity. When it comes to sort of representation of Tim, one of the most difficult parts was that in the weeks and months surrounding his trial, there were so manly highly sensationalized headlines and news clips that couldn’t dig into the nuance of what Tim was struggling with when he killed our mom.
For years, when you Googled Tim’s name, the only thing that would come up was pages and pages of horrifying details about how our mom died, and very brief mentions that he struggled with something. I can’t deny that his mugshot or the photos of him in his prison jumpsuit aren’t part of the story, but there’s a lot more there. I wanted to reconstruct this full picture of him that that made him so much more than this one monstrous act.
It’s strange, the word “forgiveness” doesn’t really come up often in the book, but I think early on it became apparent to me that if I wanted to have any chance of surviving this trauma and continuing to live, I needed to find a way to forgive or at least not be only angry with him. For me, really, forgiveness was a selfish choice. It was something I had to do if I wanted to not just be consumed with anger every moment of every day. So, when I was writing about those early visits during that first year, I tried to recognize my own shortcomings and show that the business of what I was doing was really self-serving. I had been having these nightmares about Tim, based on the monster I had seen in these news clippings, not the brother I had known for twenty-three years at that point. By visiting Tim, I saw him as my brother again, and I stopped having those nightmares. I constructed these rationales that Tim needed me help to understand what was going on so he could move forward with the legal process, but really, it was for me.
There were definitely moments where my discussions with Tim weren’t great for him. I was asking him to confirm some things before he was ready to, asking him to suffer more than I could ever possibly imagine. I was pressing on that pain. It’s never been difficult for me to see the flaws in myself, and I wanted to make sure that people who read this book didn’t think I was some kind of saint because I was able to talk to my brother again. It was a survival tactic.
I feel like as a nonfiction writer I’m always pressing down on the pain, stirring up people’s worst memories. Though actually, I wanted to ask about memory. Any memoir is going to be full of contradictions, because memories are always conflicting, but in your book in particular, your brother at one point had a different sense of reality. How did you handle writing about the moments that don’t add up?
For me, this falls into a couple of different categories. When I was writing about Tim’s experiences, and when those experiences involved psychotic symptoms or when they were experiences that I haven’t had, as someone who doesn’t have schizophrenia, as often as possible I wanted to make sure they came from what Tim had directly expressed in his own words. I tried to limit the moments where I imagined what something might have felt like to him, but when I did, I tried to make as clear as possible that I was imagining. But even when I used Tim’s interviews with his doctors or lawyers, it was complicated because some of the things may have been true to him in the moment but then, when he reflected later, he saw them differently. That was an incredible fraught process.
But then there are the bigger issues of memory. There are those that are more low stakes – like if I forgot the exact brand of sandals my mom wore. I try not to get too hung up on those. But – and I write about this in the book – our memories are really tied to our emotions. So when I think about a certain afternoon, if it was happy for me, I will fill that memory in with a lot of warmth and light that might not be consistent with how someone else remembers that afternoon, if they felt differently about it. Therefore I just tried to keep recognizing that, in recalling the past, our emotions try to fill in a lot of gaps. I think that directly addressing that and really engaging with the idea that my memories are going to be different from someone else’s, is a way for the reader to understand the difficulty.
I also struggled a lot with the fact that memoir is a self-centered form. I don’t mean self-centered in a negative way, but self-centering. Memoir can be incredibly empowering, and allow people to tell stories in a way that resonates with audiences. But at the same time, it’s unavoidable that, by using first person pronouns the whole way through, you’re going to create something that appears to be a definitive account of a story, even if you acknowledge that it is not.
Definitely. I have to say, I do love when two members of the same family write different accounts. Like the memoirs by brothers Tobias Wolff and Geoffrey Wolff, or the books by Nic Sheff and his dad, David Sheff.
Something else my students often struggle with though is how do you approach writing about people you love – did you ask your siblings and father for permission? Did you show them excerpts beforehand? Or did you pull a Mary Karr and just publish it and deal with the fall out later?
Everyone’s going to have a different dynamic with their loved ones and with the people that they are writing about. But the one thing I am sure of is to make sure it is clear what writing this family story means for the writer. It’s not very productive to tell someone, “Hey, this is what I want this book to be for you.” But you can explain what you want the book to be for yourself, the writer. Like I told Tim, that my intention is that people who will read the book will see him as more than just the tragedy of our mother’s death. But even if that’s my intention, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be any less painful for him to have these details in print. When you have those conversations about your intentions, often what you’re doing is trying to make yourself feel better about why you’ve written what you’ve written. That’s an important part of the whole process, but ultimately the only thing that you can speak with total authority on is what you’re getting yourself, as a writer, out of the book.
Also, you can’t force people to engage with the work in the same way you do. I told my brother Chris, my sister Lizzie, and my dad that they were all welcome to read the book if they wanted, but, for example, my dad is not a big reader. He can solve a Rubik’s Cube in 90 seconds, but reading was not a way he was going to engage with the process. And with Tim, it was more complicated, because I felt I couldn’t share until much later in the writing process – if I were to have introduced pages for him to read early on in his recovery, that would have been terribly detrimental for him. He only finally read the book about nine months ago. But we spoke about it extensively before. It was never something I was keeping a secret. Though I also only wrote about our visits together from before I started writing the book – I never wanted him to think I was just visiting him purely as a reporting trip. And the fact that he’s been as supportive as he has been really blows me away, but, at the same time, I’m always going to worry that he feels like he owes me the support over that because of what happened.
So, all this is a long way of saying it’s complicated, and you’re going to have to have some complicated conversations.
Definitely. It’s also complicated to figure out where to draw a circle around your own story. Obviously, your siblings’ and dad’s experiences are also part of your experience, but it’s also not really your place to share their grief or their perspective.
Right. I think part of that decision comes from how you framed that question – where do their experiences directly support my own. For example, in order to talk about my own grief, it was helpful to talk about how the ways Chris, Lizzie, and I interacted and the ways I saw them grieving, and the ways that they supported me. When it comes to Chris, one of the things I really wanted to write about was how he helped me find positive memories – he was able to provide support for me in that way. So, I would write about him and his experiences, only when they were thing I could also feel or directly comment on. I tried not to map any feelings or thoughts onto them that I couldn’t actually represent. But it is hard to figure out where that line is.
E.B. Bartels is a writer, editor, and teacher from Massachusetts. She has an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Catapult, The Believer Logger, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and The Toast, among others. E.B.’s narrative nonfiction book, GOOD GRIEF: ON LOVING PETS, HERE AND HEREAFTER, about the ways we mourn and remember the animals we love, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2022. E.B. is an instructor at the creative writing center GrubStreet, and she lives outside Boston with her fiancé, Richie, and their pets.