The Stories Are Horrifying: An Interview with Kristen Stone
“Virginia wants a baby.” Kristen Stone’s novel begins in 1956 with a young woman’s intensifying desire to be a mother. Because her husband Dacre is disinclined from touching her, Virginia pursues adoption: setting into motion the events and injuries that will cycle through the next fifty-plus years of this Florida family, and that form the affective lattice of this slim, emotionally dense book.
Recently published by Guillotine Press, That Which Girls Conjure Will Help Them Survive explores inherited trauma, nervous desires, and the ongoing work of repair. The book spans generations, divided into sections centering on Virginia and two of Virginia’s grandchildren, respectively: queer, sensitive Joan and Joan’s much younger cousin Hannah, whom Joan cares for as foster parent.
Kristen Stone is also the author of the poetry collection Domestication Handbook (Rogue Factorial, 2012) and the split volume self/help/work/book//The Story of Ruth and Eliza (Birds of Lace, 2014). They have written on parenting, names, and their work as a trauma counselor for venues like MUTHA and Entropy. Several years ago, Kristen and I talked at length about gender and writing queer/genderqueer girl characters for a conversation that is forthcoming in the volume Electric Gurlesque. It was a treat to come together again to discuss this startlingly intimate novel, which I had the pleasure of reading in an early, already very affecting draft. This interview was conducted online over a few weeks in May/June 2018.
MM: This novel is very much focused on family, on belonging (to), on inheritance, on family making as a desire, a goal, and, within a context in which children and women (especially poor and/or young and/or unmarried women) have been historically disempowered, a problem. I know you’ve been working on this for many years, while your own family has undergone many changes, indeed, as you have made, and continued to make, your family. How has the book changed and developed alongside these changes?
KS: This is such a smart and sneaky way of asking the question we (okay, I!) always want to ask, which is, how autobiographical is the text, or how close to your body. I started writing this in early 2013, the year two of my grandparents died, my paternal grandmother, who Virginia is based on, and my mom’s dad, who worked for NASA in the early days of the space program (but was otherwise nothing like Dacre.) I started writing it as a way of playing with or working out some of the family secrets that I only knew parts of, things I would never get to ask. In 2013 I wanted to start a family but didn’t know how. A person I cared deeply about moved away under distressing circumstances. I started going to church. I cried a lot. I started writing this book. When our son came to live with us in the fall of 2014, I took a long break from writing this, or anything. I felt like I was dying. But I kept coming back to it, my choppy, traumatized text. Last year, I had some new clarity around myself, and family, and at Sarah McCarry’s urging, went back and filled in some of the gaps, answering or talking around why are these people this way. Which isn’t to say the novel is about a fantasy of completion or wholeness, or that a simple explanation makes things necessarily better.
I didn’t want there to be a big reveal. When my grandmother was dying, she would often begin to say, now, I need to tell you something important, and we would all think, yes, here it comes, this is the story of why we are the way we are. And it never came. And in some ways I think that’s more interesting, and also ordinary: that you have to move on and reconcile in a different way, that there is no One Big Secret to exhume and analyze and then we all feel better, but a kind of making peace with what we cannot access or touch or know, and in light of that, creating new forms, which I think is the family that’s made at the end of the story.
One of the things I love about this book is that it doesn’t suggest any kind of complete story. Joan, who is perhaps the moral heart, undertakes the work of repair, though she herself isn’t quite sure what she is repairing. And she understands that the process of healing—for herself and for Hannah—will be ongoing and maybe never finished. One of the most powerful moments for me comes late in the book when Joan’s mother makes the comment: “She just needs love…with enough love she will heal.” And Joan rejects that as “a nice thought” that isn’t true. Again and again, the novel resists dominant narratives of family—and adoption.
There is so much recursion, this idea of inheritance as affective, trauma circulating in traces, in gut feelings, in emotional knowledge. Recent attention to epigenetic trauma foregrounds genetics but your book seems to go beyond that, given that there are many families, many parents, birth and adopted, given and chosen. How are you thinking about trauma and/or other kinds of inheritances here?
There is the way I speak in my day job, as a trauma therapist (work I went to school for and grew into as I was writing this book) and the way I read and think about writing. I think of trauma and inheritance as largely environmental, as learned, as a sense of unease that a person can’t shake. I really tried to write that into the book. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing I know how to write: quietly dysfunctional families that appear normal on the outside. I don’t know how much mental health language to use here. It’s hard for me to read sometimes because I want to create treatment plans for and therapeutic alliances with characters in books. This was especially pronounced for me, reading Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart earlier this spring, a fucking intense and brilliant book in which people’s trauma is so multi layered, migratory, global, and sexual, and as a result everyone was having these wildly hurtful relationships. Just like: oh shit, this is so much pain. I want to help relieve it. But it’s not my job to read— or write!— as a clinician. Witnessing and helping are related, but complicatedly so.
I realize this makes me sound wretched, or like I have a savior complex— but I just want to be honest about the way I read. I can’t shut it off totally.
How much Virginia wants to love her children, but she doesn’t know how, and how she tries to be normal, and nothing works, is a big part of the trauma. In the last few drafts of the book, with brilliant, light-touch editing from you, and Sarah, and others, I became much closer to the characters. They stopped being the ghosts of my own dead or missing relatives. Virginia in particular. Sarah pressed me to explore why Virginia was the way she was: and part of that was the time period, and how wildly hard it was to be a woman in those days, even with all her privilege, and the secrecy and shame around abortion and adoption, and. And, and, and.
I did have to leave a lot of stories out. We don’t learn what happened to Sandy or her baby, we never learn about the birth parents. I could have branched the stories out, back and back and back, tracing so many inheritances, and all the ways race and class and gender intersect, a history of female and maternal pain, of adoptee and birth parent loss and grief. (The maternity home I referenced in the book is real, the stories are horrifying; the babies who were born there and the girls who were sent there are still looking for one another).
I did not want to write a book about adopted people being dysfunctional, and I hope that’s not what I’ve done or how the text will land. In the book Dacre thinks that, he uses some pretty nasty language to describe his own children and their birth mothers. Too, there is a narrative that you find on adoption blogs— and I think with the growth in trauma-informed care that this is on the decline, I sure hope so, there was a time a few years ago that I read too many of those and they really fucked me up, honestly, all these parents who purport to love their adopted children, and they write these awful things on the internet, categorizing their children’s faults, and pathologizing every single one of their behaviors, when those behaviors are attempts at getting their needs met. What strikes me about this, now, is that these parents are clearly not attached to their children, even as they blame the child’s behavior on the child’s lack of attachment.
I’m struck by the word “conjured” in the title, as your novel is not a conventional ghost story. What is conjured here? Where do ghosts appear?
I was thinking about how to answer this earlier tonight while I read my son the penultimate chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix— a book with a hell of a lot of conjuring! Maybe the whole story is conjured. I conjured it as a way of mourning my difficult grandmother and all the secrets she— to be dramatic— took to her grave. In art therapy there is this theory— I don’t know how scientific it is, but I read it in a book about neuroscience, so there you go— that early childhood trauma encodes in the non-verbal right part of the brain, and that the two hemispheres of the brain can’t fully communicate until the age of three or so, when the corpus callosum mylinates, so those memories kind of get stuck. One of the reasons why art therapy is effective is that it’s a way of getting at that non-verbal stuff, to process it.
And I think of conjuring, the way I mean it in the book, is like that: to give a form to feelings of unease, to move through them. Not necessarily past them, because that’s again that fantasy of fixing trauma. But to not get stuck. And in the book one girl sees the Virgin Mary, another hears ghost dogs in the china cabinet, a dead mama comes in a dream and sets her orphaned daughter on a fact-finding mission. Joan conjures a purpose for herself, in parenting, which works, for a time. All these things are sources of comfort, even though that’s also complicated.
All of these conjurings seem very much about traces, and traces, as marks or inscriptions, are a kind of touch. I was struck by how touch circulates here, as something alternately very much desired (by Virginia, by Joan (sometimes)) and very much not (Hannah’s “DO NOT TOUCH ME” a particularly difficult moment). In another conversation we’ve had (on the Gurlesque) you described an interest in an erotics of touch. Here touch means, can mean, so many things—desire, violence, trust, care.
I think all my characters have a complex relationship to touch, and that shows up in various ways when people have early childhood trauma, and for other reasons too, people don’t know how to get their needs met, or they think they won’t get their needs met, so they quit trying, or devise these other methods. I wanted to include lots of sensory details in particular for that reason. And again, as I continued parenting and learning about trauma, this was a place where my intuition was right, that trauma— again, especially early, developmental, attachment trauma— fucks up or alters sensations. Again, that feeling of unease (in trauma therapist talk, hypervigilance), which leaves traces.
A lot of what we label as dysfunctional behavior is trauma, and those behaviors are an attempt to get needs met. So we see characters getting their needs for touch met in strange ways, and the need for touch is complicated by revulsion and triggers. Joan for instance, who’s just covered in feelings of unease, it coats her like a sticky film, and some of that is the lingering effects of growing up in an unstable family herself, and some of that is— a bit subtle, but I wanted it to be there— some traces of dysphoria, which is another kind of difficulty with being touched.
I’m rereading the introduction to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child right now for a summer course I’m teaching, and what she writes about the ghostly gay child strikes me as very resonant with your book, particularly Joan’s arc, though one of Stockton’s primary arguments is that all children are queer (to adults). For those who felt queerly estranged as a child, with or without a relationship to the words “gay” or “queer” (or “trans”), she writes, “a telling kind of ghostliness hung about their growth” (6). Joan reads as haunted to me in precisely this way.
According to Stockton (writing in 2009), it’s specifically fictional narratives that “uniquely nurture ideas of queer children” (16). Above you noted that when reading and writing, you have to almost turn your therapist responses off–what does fiction open up for you in writing queerness, in writing children?
A strange thing happened while I was writing this book, a set of life circumstances that will never be replicated— that I shifted from writing as a former child, to writing as a future parent, to writing as a parent. A lot of my early writing, my first book and all the mess that came before it, was from a child’s or adolescent perspective. And other people have observed, much more articulately that I feel right now, that queerness can bring with it an extended adolescence, that trans folks go back and have second adolescence and puberty if they transition as adults, and there was so much in my childhood, and the idea of childhood, that I wanted to unpack. And of course my writing is influenced by the work that I do in my day job, but fiction opens up a chance to be differently playful, and to not be beholden to the idea of healing.
I think— there are a few moments in the book between Hannah and Joan that are really sweet, or even a little funny— and when I could detach myself from the thought that I would be wildly, wildly overwhelmed to parent a child like Hannah, I had fun writing her, and Sandy too, and unlike the children I work with, or my own children, I had no responsibility to make them more coherent or manageable in the eyes of adults, nor did I have to minimize their distress. And I was proud of them. I loved writing about Hannah prowling around the house at night, using her aunt’s dial-up Internet to learn about her dead mother, and touching the ends of cigarette butts to make sure they weren’t still smoldering. And how she manifested her pain in a totally opposite way from Joan.
In reading your work, I often feel I am being granted access to the privatest, most sacred thoughts and feelings. I love the intimacy of your writing, in this novel and in all of your work—each one of your TinyLetters [https://www.kristenstone.com/love-letters-for-psychic-survival/] offers this quiet boost of warmth and tenderness and affirmation. It’s an intimacy that feels very private–unnervingly so, perhaps—but also an invitation to–be trusted, I guess. When I read your writing, I trust you and feel trusted in turn. As someone who writes uncomfortable raw feelings often—albeit in a much ‘louder’, potentially, mode—and who is often cringing at my output—I’m curious about your relationship to rawness, intimacy, vulnerability. Are there times when you find yourself anxious about or resisting going there in your writing? And: how do you get there in the first place?
First, for these kind words you speak to me that make me feel like I need to lie down: thank you. I love what you’re saying about reciprocal trust and reading. In relationships, in therapy, there is a feedback loop of risk and trust— as you begin to trust someone, you take more interpersonal risks with respect to sharing, and your risk-taking begets more closeness and trust, etc. and hearing that it’s unnerving yet invitational at the same time is really validating to hear. Thank you.
I also want to talk for a second about the idea of “cringing at [your] output”— I assume you mean this literally, that there is a face or gesture you make as you are writing— or more likely, reading your writing over. I think that’s really interesting, and bold, the act of cringing and then overriding or recovering from that feeling to keep writing, or to hit send or whatever.
Absolutely yes there is SO MUCH that I don’t want to go there with/for/about. For me that has often been about sex and sexuality— not desire or attraction per se, but naked bodies and sex acts. The parts in this book, for instance, that are the most embarrassing for me, or cringe-y (even reading over them I have to skim)— are the ones that are the most sexual. There are a lot of holes that I’ve left, too, around sexuality, in the book, where folks black out or or the narrative jumps, which also mirrors a trauma experience, where memory is not linear. One thing I appreciate about your writing, M, is that you do write these extremely graphic, bodily scenes that are intimate and horrifying and strange, that work on a visceral and intellectual level both— like the idea of being devoured. To cringe and then relax is somatically instructive, to carry on.
For me to write sexually graphic material— let’s just say that the bad feeling that Sandy and Joan share (another type of ghost, maybe, these parallel sensations) is something I am familiar with, it’s a sign that I’ve gone too far– in a way that’s hard to come back from. So I don’t generally write about sex, although I write around it, which is also instructive, and something to notice, is how people talk around something they cannot say directly. This is a form of coping, or accommodation, right, the way you say the thing you cannot say plainly— and it can be painful, and it can be dysfunctional, but it can also give rise to really interesting and creative forms. (I think I’m talking around things again.)
The other thing that is hard to write about, that I am slowly moving towards, is gender. If someone had asked me, even a year and a half ago, are you trans, I would have been like, nope nope nope, but I was writing and creative trans characters, and AFAB characters with, at best, ambivalence about the bodies they were born into, and maybe Joan falls into that category, and maybe also Joan would wonder— am I this way because something bad happened to me, or is this just the way I am, and if this is just the way I am, do I need to do something about it?
I feel like this is also a writing process question, which is maybe a tidier ending than my/Joan’s genders, so I will wrap up on saying in trauma therapy there is this idea of pendulation— moving between comfortable and uncomfortable sensations, as a way of processing and moving through something challenging, without getting stuck. My writing process involves a lot of that, a lot of boring information about what I ate that day, or funny things my son said, or things that struck me about my clients, or the weather, with little forays into other things, and over time my capacity or certainty about what to say and how to say it, kind of gels.