A Skeletal Low: Juliet Escoria Interviews Sarah Gerard
Sarah Gerard’s debut novel Binary Star is about anorexia. It’s also about travel, a destructive relationship, veganism, being a student, astronomy, working menial jobs, political activism, mental illness, and self-destruction.
Binary Star is told in fragments, in a way that feels like you’re eavesdropping on someone’s private mental breakdown.
The whole book feels like it’s going to dismantle itself on the next page or sentence, yet somehow Gerard is always in control, building up to a perfect and explosive ending.
I spoke with Sarah Gerard about all of this over a series of e-mails.
JULIET ESCORIA: It seems to me that some people develop self-destructive habits due to circumstance (e.g. a terrible upbringing, instances of trauma), but others of us were simply born with an undeniable, difficult to escape self-destructive streak. That’s something I’ve never been able to understand, given that humans are programmed with a strong will to survive. Do you identify as someone who, as Lady Gaga might put it, was “born this way?” Is there some benefit to having a deep-seated desire to hurt yourself?
SARAH GERARD: There is evidence that a good deal of addiction can be hereditary, and certainly there is a lot of addiction in my family. Growing up, I was familiar with the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, which turned out to be a good thing when I needed to start attending Overeaters Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings later in life. Though, I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time.
Another way of beginning this answer may be: when I was seven, I found a box of staples in my grandmother’s home office and used the long, sharp edge of one row to slice my fingertips open, then I smeared the blood all over the counter of her guest bathroom and lied about it afterward. I went to rehab for the first time when I was sixteen because I cut my legs and wrists to shreds.
I had a very stable, loving upbringing. I’m an only child but I had friends in the neighborhood, some of whom I’m still close with. I’ve always done well in school and received praise for my achievements. I was enrolled in several after-school activities of my choosing—gymnastics, girl scouts, music lessons, community theater. I still have a very open relationship with my parents. So, yes, I do think some people are born with these tendencies.
If I can offer up a very reductive explanation for my self-destruction over the years, it’s that I have always taken a lot of comfort in the idea that my body is something I own and can feel, which makes it the perfect recipient of my frustration. I will also point out that pain very often feels good, even euphoric. Sometimes, people are self-destructive in an attempt to dull emotion, but I’ve always had the opposite intention: I wanted to feel deeply, and focus my feeling in a particular location, or toward a particular goal.
I don’t starve or cut myself anymore but I do pick my cuticles. The other day, I asked my analyst to help me live a life where my hands aren’t bleeding and he told me, in so many words, that I might never have that life, but he did suggest rough sex may be a healthy alternative. So, I’m going to try that next.
JE: It seems like it could be easy to write a fictional work based on true events and eventually disassociate a bit from one’s past circumstances during the editing and publishing process. Has your relationship with your own past struggles changed over the process of writing this book? Have you ever had thoughts like, “Oh, it really wasn’t that bad,” and then gone back to look at your work and been like, “Actually, it was that bad.”
SG: Sometimes I wonder if I could have stopped starving at any time. Or, I look at pictures of myself from one of my periods of bulimia and notice that I look heavy, and think, “Well, you couldn’t have suffered that badly; look at how healthy you are.” I wonder if I could have gone on that way for another couple of years, and reached a skeletal low, as if that’s some kind of accomplishment. This is just the sickness talking, of course. It never goes away completely.
I know that I couldn’t have written this book unless I’d lived this character’s struggle. As much as possible, I tried to write about her eating disorder without using any clichéd language, any clinical terminology, or any real numbers. I wrote about her feeling—just that. I didn’t reason with it. I didn’t care about making sense. I didn’t give a shit about consistency. Because however obsessive-compulsive an eating disorder is, it is very often not consistent.
Writing this book helped me to find the real injustice in my eating disorder, though. Of course, I was born with certain tendencies for which my culture is not responsible. But to a large extent, my eating disorder was a cultural disease. I was taught to crave food that was unhealthy for me and then taught that I would never be beautiful, successful, and loved unless I met certain impossible standards for beauty. The food I was taught to crave has addictive qualities and is subliminally associated with feelings of comfort. I could go on.
JE: What you said about eating disorders being at least in part a cultural disease, along with the content of the book — the eating disorder and animal rights issues, most notably — seem to correspond with the “personal is political” line of thinking. Is this something you had in mind?
SG: Every novel is political because its author is working from certain conditions and certain conditions exist within the world of the book—there are power relationships affecting its creation and also working on its characters. It’s a fallacy that if an author isn’t dealing directly with political issues that a book is not political. In fact, I would say that every author deals directly with political issues, and an author who thinks she isn’t is only guilty of resting on prevailing assumptions about neutrality. What was interesting to me as I was writing Binary Star was how the narrator unraveled the conditions of her disease from the inside out by looking critically at her suffering (“the personal is political”).
Certainly she is very sick, but there is a power imbalance in her romantic sphere, and there is also—is always also—an imbalance in her culture which buries her in a constant stream of brand names, utopian imagery, material fetishization, and so on. By design, it can’t be ignored. This kind of investigation is very important in my work, and I do think artists have a responsibility to take a stance on oppressive conditions, especially if the artist has an audience. To neglect that responsibility is to neglect the needs of the audience, which lives under those conditions.
JE: I know that a draft of Binary Star was your thesis at your MFA program. How much different of a book was it then?
SG: As my thesis, Binary Star was about two girls in the summer after they graduate high school. At the time, I was very interested in the theory of the Hollow Earth and in other “hollow Earth” stories like The Time Machine and Journey to the Center of the Earth and that terrible movie The Descent (which is actually based on a book by Jeff Long), the common theme being that humans descend through a hole to the center of the Earth and encounter a monstrous humanoid race that either destroys them or teaches them things, or both. I’m interested in holes as they work in fiction generally—one of my favorite books is The Woman in the Dunes and one of my favorite short stories is Kafka’s “The Burrow.”
I wrote the critical portion of my thesis about holes in fiction, and incorporated a hole into the first version of Binary Star—one of the girls has a brother who is seen often digging a hole in the backyard, but never says what it’s for. Of course, this was meant to be an analogue to whatever was missing in the life of the protagonist, but the problem was that I hadn’t yet defined what that was, which of course means that I didn’t know what the book was about. And of course, because I didn’t yet know what the book was about, the formal experimentation I was attempting wasn’t working. Some sections were written in alternating first person and some were screenplay, while others—and this also holds true in the second version—read like notes in an astronomy lecture. In very early versions, whole pages were screenshots of a YouTube video of Zecharia Sitchin. I’m not sure anymore what that was about.
JE: What happened in the trailer when you were writing the draft as it exists now? It said in Vice that you did not shower, but what else was happening, in terms of your schedule, and also emotionally and mentally and creatively? Did anything weird or unexpected happen as a result?
SG: In my life, showering is not a first priority, and that month it was possibly my last priority. I was very focused on completing a first draft in a very short amount of time—I was actually only there for three weeks, maybe three and a half. So I gave myself a schedule: I woke at 7:00, as I usually do, read fifty pages, or as much as I could until I felt I had to write something immediately, and then I wrote until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, which was usually around midnight. Writing involved researching, thinking deeply, taking notes in a notebook, and then a second notebook, writing letters to friends when I had to, plotting, writing something new, and then often rewriting it. I would usually start about ten pages before the end of what I’d written the day before, rereading it, and usually rewriting it. I went down many bunny trails before realizing they were bunny trails.
I turned my phone off and set an away message on my email, and went dark on social media. My husband and I spoke for about a half-hour each night, which was difficult, but probably also for the best as I had gone completely insane after awhile. He was also away that month, working on a screenplay for a movie that made the festival circuit this year. I wasn’t vegan when I got to the trailer at the beginning of the month, but by the end of the month I was telling him I didn’t want to consume animal products of any kind anymore, which was quite a shock to him. At first he didn’t take it well, I think because we’d been apart for several weeks already and the distance was really felt. This must have felt like another degree of distance. He’s now vegetarian.
When I finally finished the first draft, I went to my parents’ house to print it out—this is when I took one of the showers—and I spent the night there reading it and taking marginal notes. The next day, I went back to the trailer and input all of the edits, reading the novel through in one sitting, start to finish. At the end, I broke down in tears. Angry, frustrated, cathartic tears. And because no one was there to see me, I sobbed with my whole body.
JE: I’m curious what, exactly, you mean about having gone completely insane after being alone for so long. I’ve often fantasized about doing what you did — locking myself in solitary for a while with nothing to do but work — but have thus far not done so, partially because I am afraid of what might happen inside my brain. But it sounds like you found something inside yourself that maybe wasn’t conducive to day-to-day life, but was essential for making something totally fresh and new. So was the “insanity” a key part of the creative process, or just a side effect?
SG: When I say I was “insane” I’m being a bit cheeky; what I mean is that I was very, very raw and I was not thinking rationally. I was also playing with old habits, like criticizing myself in the mirror for long periods of time and drinking too much coffee—sometimes on purpose to see what it would feel like, but sometimes just because the habits become habitual again once they’re reawakened.
As a writer, I’ve learned to go where the pain is, which is the opposite of what we try to do in our everyday lives, where we mostly try to assuage discomfort. We watch a movie or listen to a song that will make us feel better. We talk to our friends and ask for advice. We eat comfort food, go for a run, smoke cigarettes, drink, have meaningless sex. But the purpose of art is not to make us feel better; it’s to make us feel, or make us think, which is also feeling. I went into the trailer intending to make myself hurt by immersing myself in very painful material under extreme pressure without the luxury of social support, and completely pushing aside all the logic and replacement behaviors I’ve worked for years to bring to my eating disorder. Communicating with the outside world would have been a distraction from the raw feeling of the sickness and also some relief from it—so, not the point, when the point was to revisit that pain and translate it directly into language. You need only to read the book to know how I was thinking and feeling that month; it’s all right there, with very little alteration.
JE: (The following question and answer discusses the ending. So… SPOILER ALERT.) The ending seemed risky to me, in that you could have tied up the story with something much less dramatic or extreme, but I found it to be a risk that really paid off– it was surprising but also seemed fitting, and I really admired your ability to pull it off. How did you find your way to this ending?
SG: Honestly, it was just the only ending that felt right to me. I really didn’t want to tie the story up nicely because it seemed unfair after all this protagonist had been through. Now she just has to clean up, calm down and re-enter society? Beyond being unfair, it’s just unrealistic; the last thing I wanted was for anyone reading the book to come away with the idea that there are easy solutions to eating disorders, or that a person can live in this destructive way for long periods of time and emerge unscathed, even psychologically. But it seemed equally unfair for her just to lay down and die. She has to fight back, and she has to fight back in a way that is equal and opposite in force to the inertia of her disorder while acknowledging the real-world consequences of long-term purging and starvation.
Actually, the ending was the hardest section of the book to write on a purely technical level—I had to rewrite it three times and, reading it again, I still feel the urge to edit it. There’s a lot of debris swirling around very rapidly. That’s hard to get across when letters and white space are the only materials you have to work with.
JE: In the tradition of all the year-end lists, what is something you did or consumed in 2014 that you would recommend to other people?
SG: I had the pleasure of reading the primatologist Frans de Waal’s book The Bonobo and The Atheist this year. De Waal uses examples from other primate species, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos, to demonstrate how morality is an evolutionary trait rooted in altruism rather than a system of beliefs imposed on us by religion. At the same time, he makes the argument that religion has actually been useful, and continues to be useful, in promoting altruism. His definition of altruism is fascinating in that it isn’t purely a byproduct of benevolence, although empathy is also a very important part of it. But altruism is foremost a form of social organization and control, and so is necessary to perpetuate the species. In a way, though, I like to think that, with this book, de Waal proves that humans are biologically designed to be good, because it benefits us to be nice to each other. We have to be kind in order to survive.