Interview: Kim Adrian
Kim Adrian is the author of The Twenty Seventh Letter of the Alphabet: A Memoir and the editor of The Shell Game, Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, an anthology of hybrid essays (both University of Nebraska Press, 2018). She has published two books of lyric criticism: Dear Knausgaard and Sock, which is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series. Her essays and short stories have appeared in AGNI, Tin House, O Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, among others. She has taught creative writing at Brown University and Grub Street.
The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is an unconventional, wildly disturbing, and hugely innovative book. It is an intimate portrait of family dysfunction, addiction, and mental illness that grabs the reader immediately. The story is told in razor-sharp vignettes—what Adrian refers to as a “glossary,” saying it’s a “reckoning, a love letter.”
Adrian has a gift for pinpointing—and extracting—precise, emotionally potent stories from her experiences and those of her family. Each fragment in The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is crisp and wide-eyed and seamlessly provides a subtext of the story, almost a meditation on the structure. Here, she imposes order on a rather chaotic upbringing by assigning a letter to each snapshot, while simultaneously developing compassion for herself—and her mother.
As a daughter of a severely mentally ill mother myself, I felt a particular kinship with Adrian. While conducting this interview, we exchanged emails in which Adrian shared, “The whole time I was writing [The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet], I had this feeling of wanting to connect to other individuals who’d grown up in similar situations—kind of like ‘ghost siblings.’” As I read Adrian’s account, this was palpable. It was remarkably validating—yet disturbing—to read of some of the uncanny similarities between our experiences.
Both Adrian’s mother and mine were sexually abused as children. Both married young and had children before their twentieth birthdays. Adrian and I are both firstborns. We each have a younger sister. Both of our mothers were diagnosed with a slew of psychiatric disorders and spent considerable time in psychiatric hospitals. Our mothers both had a penchant for sewing, shredded our father’s suits with shears, had issues with their teeth, and felt the government was “out to get them” or the phone was “bugged.”
“It can feel so isolating to grow up with a parent with mental illness, especially when you don’t understand that they’re mentally ill,” says Adrian. “The world just feels so squishy and unpredictable.” And she’s right, especially about the unpredictability, the isolation.
Leslie Lindsay for The Florida Review:
The title, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, sort of intimates this idea of a glossary, but it’s more than that. We don’t immediately know what the book is about. The title doesn’t give anything away. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet. It wasn’t a sound unit, but a word—and. As a reader, I felt we were continually marching on, starting with A and ending with XYZ . . . &. There was a clear-cut path, maybe even a sense of urgency or doom. Can you talk about that, please?
I’m glad you felt a sense of urgency. That’s part of what I was going for. Because The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet isn’t just about my relationship to my mother, and my experience of her mental illness, but also about a feeling of compulsion—the compulsion to tell this story. At the same time, I had no idea how to tell it, because storytelling had always been my mother’s domain. She’s a highly verbal person, a real magician with words. When I was a kid, I often felt incapable of expressing myself because she somehow managed to define my reality, my experience, with her words. She did this in a colorful and confusing way. I try to describe this in a few entries in the book, for example, the one called “Ice-Skating,” where she narrates how she thinks an ice-skating outing I’m about to go on will unfold from my point of view. It was uncanny when she did this. I could almost feel myself getting erased. The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet came out of a deep need to articulate my own experience using my own words. But readers who looked at early drafts always said the same thing: “You’re not in it.” It was so frustrating. Now, looking back, I think I was just so used to sublimating my own experience—when it came to interactions with my mother—that I did exactly the same thing when I tried to write about our relationship. I somehow went underground. When I finally found the form of the glossary, it opened everything up. Tackling the story in bits and pieces let me access my own experience in a very immediate way. It’s a lot easier to keep your voice present for the length of a fragment than it is for a long narrative line. With the glossary structure, I was suddenly able to tell the story. And the pressure that had built up inside me over the years of writing prior to landing on the glossary form, that pressure comes across, I think, in that sense of urgency.
I find the linked collection—the glossary of fragments—endlessly fascinating. It allows a good deal of freedom, while affording a sort of distillation. One can shine a light on specific moments without necessarily needing to create connective tissue between them. It’s precise and expansive. Would you agree? What did you find liberating about this form—what was challenging?
For me, the glossary structure removed the necessity to “tell a story” in the classic, conventional sense (which in any case never sat right with me in regard to this particular material). To create a classically linear narrative would have been to betray the confusion inherent in the experience I was writing about. But there’s also something intensely intimate about fragments. A fragmented text enlists a reader’s participation in a very real way. Readers have to connect the dots, create that “connective tissue” in their own minds. I don’t think that’s asking too much of a reader. Engaged readers actually enjoy being challenged. Fragmented texts offer something almost like a mystery to solve.
The book moves largely chronologically, but not entirely. I’m sure the structure required a bit of thought and experimentation. It’s flexible: events can weave in and out. Did you impose/assign letters to the vignettes first, or write and then piece together?
I’m glad you brought up chronology. There are actually three chronological strands moving through the alphabetical arrangement. The first is pretty basic, just the chronology of my growing up; the second unfolds in the “present day” —my current interactions with my mother, and my own domestic life as a mother of two young children; the third—which is a bit rougher—tries to trace my mother’s childhood and give insight into her family of origin. It took a lot of refining of entry titles to work it all out chronologically because, with this structure, the chronology obviously also has to be alphabetical. Some of the entries happened to land right where they needed to be, but others required some shoe-horning. Take “Ice-Skating,” for instance, which I just mentioned. That’s a perfectly fine title for that entry. I used it because the Letter “I” is exactly where that entry needs to be in the flow of the chronology. But it’s not a very poetic or evocative title. Originally, I think I called it “Tall,” which has much more emotional resonance with the material. So, yeah, I shoe-horned some of the headers, and lost some of the original poetry or power of my first-choice titles. But that seemed like an okay price to pay for the overall glossary structure, which has its own metaphorical value.
At one point in the story, your mother says something like—and I’m paraphrasing—“It’s okay. You can write about me. I know I am your material.” What was the emotional process of writing like for you? Were there things you feared putting in the memoir?
There were lots of scenes and details that I worried I shouldn’t put into this book: my mother’s “booger board”; my father stabbing a man; my mother throwing me on the ground or across the room when I was little; my father beating her unconscious in front of me. The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet took me twelve years to write, on and off, mostly on (though in a quasi-paralyzed state). Part of that long gestation period, that quasi-paralysis, had to do with what I was talking about before—the drive to tell this story coupled with an inability—or, perhaps, an unwillingness—to tell it in a conventional way. But the other thing that slowed me down was worrying about spilling so many shameful family secrets. It seemed obvious that my words might hurt people—my parents—but that was confusing, because I only wanted to reveal things that were part of me, part of my history, my lived experience. I know a lot of writers come down on the other side of this decision. They reconcile themselves to holding off on writing a story like this until their parents are dead. But I went the other way. The fact that my mother said that she knew she was my “material,” and I could write about her if I wanted to, meant a lot to me at the time. It was very generous of her, in a sense. But even these words made me feel trapped, because when she said them, I realized I didn’t want her to be my material forever. I wanted to get this story out and be done with it. More than that, I didn’t want her to be the one to tell me what I could and couldn’t write. In the end, I had to give myself permission to tell the story. And, actually, that was probably the hardest part of all.
Has your mother read it?
When it came out, I told her not to read it unless she was seeing a therapist, which she wasn’t, and still isn’t. At the time, she said that she wouldn’t ever read it because she didn’t want it to damage our relationship, and I thought that was smart. But since then, she’s said a few things in ways that seem informed by what I wrote in the book. So, I think she probably has, and just hasn’t told me.
I felt the way this story was told, it mirrored a real relationship; we got to deeper wounds as we spent more time with you, your mother, father, sister, even your husband—the characters—in this memoir. There was a slow peeling back of layers. Plus, the structure lends to the episodic aspect of mental illness. Can you talk more about that, please?
I’m so glad you felt that way. One thing I struggled with at the beginning of the writing process (and by that, I mean the first ten years—ha) is something I see a lot of my memoir students struggle with, too, and that’s the almost irresistible urge to say all the important stuff up front, especially about very complicated characters. One of the reasons I had such a hard time getting past the first fifty pages or so of the early drafts was because I was trying to show my mother in all her complicated glory, all at once. My mother can be incredibly selfish, cruel, really abusive, gas-lighty, manipulative, and, frankly, gross, but she can also be the opposite of all these things: empathetic and sensitive, elegant, funny, creative. She’s a great reader. Super smart. Super insightful. And she’s a fabulous cook and gardener. If her spirit hadn’t been so deeply damaged by the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, I think she would be doing amazing work in this world. Because, despite everything, she is one of those extra-alive kind of people. Unfortunately, because of her trauma and mental illness, she winds up bending most of her formidable energy toward destructive ends. In any case, back to your question . . . When I started writing this book, I tried to get all of that kind of information about her on the page, right away. I described my mother more or less the way I just did, though more elaborately. I figured that, in this way, I was being fair to her character. But writing like that is simply doling out information. And information doesn’t convey a sense of lived experience. Figuring out how to let the characters in this book, especially my mother, unfold in their own time, over the course of sentences, paragraphs, and pages, was a steep learning curve for me, but it was very liberating, once I got the hang of it. I was able to let the prose be more gentle, less rushed, less informational, and, most importantly, I think, non-judgmental because I wasn’t summing anybody up, or quickly sketching anyone with editorializing strokes.
I think it’s important to talk about personal mental health, too. You’re an avid yogi (another similarity we share), plus you knit, bake, and write. You must maintain your own artistic development, your own . . . can we say, sanity? Did it feel important for you to let the reader into that part of your life?
I knew I had to show some of those self-help activities on the page in order to be a reliable narrator. Because it’s happened so often, in “real life,” that when I get to know someone new, and eventually tell them a story or two from my childhood, they almost inevitably express disbelief. “But how did you get so normal?” is the usual question. Billions of hours of yoga, is the answer. Also, some fairly manic knitting and baking. And, let’s not forget, bubble baths. It sounds so ridiculous, but bubble baths have been very healing for me. I wanted to show at least some of that activity, even though, on some level, I feel embarrassed by it (thus the entry title “Embarrassingly Large Collection of Self-Help Books”). But you can’t come out of a childhood like mine, or maintain a relationship with a mother like mine, and just “be normal,” whatever that is. Healthy-ish. You have to work on your own mental/emotional state, and I have. I do. It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy. It also takes a certain amount of anger. And a certain degree of selfishness, to be honest. There’s an avid edge to these activities, at least when I do them. I’m not the world’s most peaceful, copacetic person. But I strive to be peaceful and copacetic. LOL. It’s how I funnel a lot of the ragged, sad, frightened energy that still circulates inside me into something more or less positive. I actually learned how to do this kind of work from my mother, who’s always been big on “self-improvement.” Not so much with things like yoga, but she’s constantly making all these little micro improvements to everything in her life—from jerry-rigging the bird-feeder in some ingenious way to trying to straighten out her crooked pinkies with popsicle sticks. There is, of course, a tremendous difference between doing these kinds of practices in the spirit of self-improvement versus doing them in the spirit of self-acceptance. It’s only when I understood that difference that I started healing in a real way. Unfortunately, I don’t think my mother’s ever quite grasped the distinction, which breaks my heart.
I want to end on hope. Because there’s so much of that within these pages, too. The last two years have tested us all—in different ways—and really, at the end of the day, what gets us through is cookies and warm socks. And a good book. Maybe a lotus blossom from the muddy depths of a lake.
Your phrasing is interesting, the way hope gets entangled with comfort in that question. Which I get. Hope can be as much of a comfort as warm socks and good books and cookies, all of which I love. But frankly, these days, my relationship with hope feels pretty strained. I find myself seeking out more . . . prickly . . . forms of comfort, too. I’m reading Theodor Adorno, right now, for instance. Minima Moralia. It’s excruciating, honestly—it’s just so painfully insightful about the pathological structures of the capitalist, consumerist system in which we’re all so deeply embedded. I know I was just talking about bubble baths. And I’ll never give those up. Not if I can help it. I read Adorno in the tub. But hope and comfort feel very—I don’t know—cheap, these days? Everything just feels so dark. Because of Covid, yes, but also the war in Ukraine, the environment, the extremism everywhere you turn, the way democracy seems to be evaporating in front of our eyes. One of the reasons I wrote this memoir is because I think mental illness isn’t given enough attention, considering how prevalent it actually is. It’s not treated with enough honesty or seriousness or urgency. And without those things, a bad situation won’t improve, no matter how hopeful we may be. Without those things, hope is just a fantasy. Collectively speaking, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that humanity is dealing with something that looks a lot like mental illness writ large. We’re suffering. And the planet is suffering because of us. Hope sounds lovely, but far away. All I can manage, at the moment, is to try to be more honest and serious and urgent about the things I would someday like to be hopeful about.