Interview with Martha Nichols

Interview with Martha Nichols, editor of Into Sanity, Interview by Lee Hope Editor-in-Chief, Solstice: Essays about Mental Health, Mental Illness, and Living In Between — A Talking Writing Anthology

Could you describe how you see the “ancestral threads” of mental illness permeating many of these essays? Could you give a few examples?

The image of threads running down the generations resonates with me. There are genetic threads, certainly, but I’d extend the metaphor beyond biology. The experience of living with mental illness is a learned identity. It’s one I learned through stories, some never meant to go beyond my family, which makes it hard to explain to anyone else why I’m so hypervigilant or occasionally paranoid or open to certain bizarre fantasies.

When you write an essay about mental illness, you can’t avoid questioning the truth of family stories. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity to remake the way you see yourself. Did the Italian immigrants in my family bring the seeds of depression with them from Sicily or were their lives (especially the women’s) simply full of despair and loneliness? Probably both, but I’ll never know for sure.

Explanations for mental illness are constructed out of mere flickers of reality like this, within a family and in the larger world. I grouped the last four essays of Into Sanity in a section titled “Legacy” to highlight the many forms the illness—and the fear of it—takes as it ripples from ancestors to descendants.

For instance, in Maureen Sullivan’s essay “Not Whistling Dixie,” memories of a bipolar mother and the other “Southern crazies” in her family flood back during a common event: a parent-teacher conference. Sullivan recounts how the good news that her child is smarter than most preschoolers terrified her. She worried that her family’s “DNA could be loitering in her three-year-old daughter.” After all, back in Savannah, her “toothless, jobless, bipolar” Uncle Billy supposedly “had an IQ of 210—Higher than Ein-damn-stein was how Aunt Margie put it.”

In April Newman’s “Hoard,” she connects her own hoarding tendencies to her eccentric grandmother Eunice—“entire rooms of her house were stacked full with boxes that held old clothes, china, faded flyers from my dad’s bands from the 1970s…his childhood wrapped in plastic and fermenting”—and to Eunice’s son (Newman’s father), who “died in an emergency room with a cell phone that had no family telephone numbers stored in it.”

The legacy continues, not because a writer like Newman romanticizes it, but because acknowledging all the tangled threads is one way to get a grip on her own life. Even so, it’s a constant choice, deciding what to remember and what to throw away. As she says in the opening of her essay:

“These days, I try to keep a safe distance from certain parts of my family history. I vacuum my floors. I reread Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, watch TED talks on minimalism, and purge objects annually. I cannot explain exactly why this keeps me safe, but it does.”

There are many more essays by women than men in this collection. Did this selection emerge as a result of the number of such essays submitted to Talking Writing, or could you surmise that women writers are more likely to open up about experiences with mental illness? For instance, could you comment on the essays on cutting.

Women do seem to talk more about struggles with depression or trauma than men do—and they may discuss this more openly in social media—but writing an effective personal essay is something else again. I’m not a social scientist, but I still think any evidence for gender differences has to be anecdotal at best. If anything, I’d point to generational differences, with younger writers more accustomed to speaking out publicly about painful experiences.

So, my choice of essays for Into Sanity had more to do with the way the anthology came together than with gender differences. We decided to publish a print collection after running an annual contest in 2016 for personal essays about mental illness. Mark Vonnegut was the guest judge, and in our submissions call, we asked for work that went beyond standard recovery narratives. In his own memoirs—especially Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So (2010)—Mark’s approach to the topic is unsentimental, including the kind of gallows humor his famous father is known for.

But what struck us most about the entries was how authentic the stories were. That authenticity transcends gender. It felt intensely, achingly human.

I’m especially wary of relegating cutting to one gender basket. There’s a broad assumption that more young women are cutters, while more young men commit suicide (or do so “successfully” in the language of research). Yet such binary thinking seems too simplistic to me. Even the experts aren’t clear about gender differences in “nonsuicidal self-injury disorder” (the DSM-5’s classification for cutting and other forms of self-harm).

Beyond the constraints of psychiatry, I’d say both men and women can hurt themselves terrifyingly, shockingly, for reasons that appear incomprehensible. Such self-injury isn’t just a diagnosis; it’s the result of private pain—the kind that even great writers don’t often write about explicitly. How else to come to grips with the self-destructiveness of male authors like Tennessee Williams, David Foster Wallace, John Cheever, and John Berryman—to name but a few? In The Trip to Echo Spring: Writers on Drinking (2013), Olivia Laing is powerfully insightful about the nexus of alcoholism, creativity, and private pain.

What’s more, the contributors who wrote about cutting in Into Sanity—Rae Alexandra Underberg (“Beauty Marks”) and Beth Richards (“Try Ending this Way”)—differ by age, geographic origin, sexual orientation, career. Their pieces are unique, full of the particularity and self-awareness of individual lives.

This is a challenging collection with much suffering and some light. Some of the essays are open-ended intimating possible future episodes of mental illness. In your epilogue you state, “We all resist the notion that life is a series of scattered moments. Light does occasionally dawn inside our skulls, but then the darkness comes down again.”
Could you give some examples of this discontinuous darkness from Mark Vonnegut’s work, such as in “Crack-up Number Four.”

Mental illness is open-ended. Anybody who’s lived with the illness themselves or with loved ones who cycle in and out of episodes knows just how fragile recovery can be. In Mark Vonnegut’s 2010 memoir, he conveys the uneasy transition from his early descent into psychosis on a hippie commune (as recounted in his 1975 memoir The Eden Express) to becoming a pediatrician in the Boston area. He lived years of seemingly normal life with wife and son, only to slam into what he called “Crack-up Number Four.”

In his chapter of the same name, he sardonically observes toward the beginning: “Man Recovers from Mental Illness, Goes to Medical School, and Becomes a Doctor. It was a perfectly good story with a perfectly good ending.” Except the story didn’t end there. After drinking too much on a fishing trip with his uncle and father Kurt, Mark spins down, until he tries to dive through a third-floor window and the police take him to the hospital in a straitjacket. As he writes:

“When the voices came back it was like they’d never gone. Fourteen and a half years, and it was like we picked up in the middle of a conversation that had been interrupted just a few minutes earlier.”

In “Why Going Crazy Isn’t Just a Good Story,” my epilogue to Into Sanity, I look closely at the way his attitude toward the promise of recovery changed over time. To me, “Crack-up Number Four” feels like the God’s honest truth for a change. “The first time I went crazy, I thought that good things might come out of it,” Mark writes. “I looked forward to learning whatever it was the voices knew and how they knew it.” That’s the standard recovery hope—that such suffering is meaningful and will inevitably lead to healing.

My own experience with a bipolar mother, other relatives on her side of the family, and my father when he was beset by Parkinsonian hallucinations, tells me otherwise—as do Mark Vonnegut’s second memoir and the essays of Into Sanity. Recovery involves both constant healing and fragility.

I think we’re never certain in this life. To provide a “perfectly good ending” to a traumatic tale may be reassuring to some readers, but to me it seems naïve and unexamined—even profoundly untruthful. It’s why I now resist the generic recovery arc in many memoirs, especially those that involve mental illness.

In my epilogue, I follow up what may seem to be a grim reference to “life as a series of scattered moments” with this:

“My mother on her worst days wanted it all to mean something. In both his memoirs, Mark Vonnegut calls ‘too much meaning’ one of the chief problems of psychosis…. There’s a plot, all right. But it means far less than the realization that nobody is actually in charge or working the levers of the universe.”

Is that hard-won realization grim—really? It doesn’t have to be. Acknowledging that humans have little control over what happens to them can lead to amazing storytelling. But it requires writers to abandon the safety net of a happy ending.

There is much honesty about the role of the caretakers, about the ricochet of mental disturbances throughout families.  In the powerful essay “Storms of the Circus World,” Lorri McDole writes of her brother Randy.  “I watched him stretch out over the end of the dock to pull up one of his makeshift crab pots. He lay there forever it seemed…I imagined him sliding, seal-like, beneath the surface, while I just watched him go without saying a word.” Yet this essay ends with redemption. Others do not. Your insights?


Ah, redemption. Yes, it does come in Lorri McDole’s essay, but it’s far from a happy ending. I’ve already noted above my own aversion to standard recovery narratives. I like essays that bring the reader to a resting point but make clear the story doesn’t end there. Self-examination, U-turns, revisions of what you always thought you knew—that’s what essay writing is about. I think of Montaigne back in the 1500s, revising his self-observations for as long as could.

Stories by caretakers, if they’re honest, do contend with both resentment and love—and here’s one place where gender differences inform the writing. Regardless of why women so often end up taking care of others, they do. And in this anthology, most of the stories about caretaking—of brothers, sisters, step-sons, mothers, even long-term clients—are by women.

Can you describe the lasting mark that can be left on the children of a parent with mental illness, as depicted in Jane McCafferty’s “Unleashed,” Joe Vastano’s “Nine Photographs,” and your own essay “Hurricane Warnings.”  

As Joe Vastano notes in his essay, all he has are nine photographs of a mother he never knew. But she lives on in him, both through his own battles with mental illness and the way he reconstructs her to save himself: “When you have only shards of information about your origins, mythology works like mortar between the cracks to help assemble a mosaic that at least feels true.”

My kneejerk response, in contrast, has been to cut my mother out of the story. In “Hurricane Warnings,” I explore my first memory: a roof blowing off a house in a big storm. Through later research, I pinpointed that it would have happened in 1960, as Hurricane Donna whipped up the east coast. I was two years old at the time, and my mother must have been there, yet I don’t recall her. “When mental illness is part of the family,” I write:

“[R]etrieving and confirming memories is…like a battle with zombies. The memories die but keep coming back to life in unexpected, misbegotten shapes.”

For her part in “Unleashed,” Jane McCafferty negotiates the difficult road to compassion for her bipolar mother. I’m grateful to her, not because I think the road I’m on is just the same, but because it’s a reminder that children of the mentally ill aren’t doomed to resentment and false longing.

“I had a lot of mothers,” McCafferty observes. One had a temper; another was devoted to family—another still was a funny storyteller. Perhaps the toughest to live with, though, was a mother seen through the “cold eyes of strangers.” I, too, know what it’s like to clutch that hot red ball of fierce protectiveness, shame, and love to your chest. Of a nurse who said her mother “was dancing like a crazy motherfucker,” McCafferty writes:

“[H]earing this felt like a punch in the gut. I thought of all she didn’t know about my mother, who was not some crazy motherfucker, but my mother.”

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols is the co-founder and editor of Talking Writing, a digital magazine and nonprofit organization based in the Boston area. She teaches in the journalism program at Harvard University Extension School and has published work in Utne Reader, Harvard Business Review, Christian Science Monitor, among many other outlets. Martha edited the anthology Into Sanity: Essays About Mental Health, Mental Illness, and Living in Between (Talking Writing Books, 2019), which includes a preface by Mark Vonnegut.

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