» Book Review
Stretched between Sunshine and Shadow
The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and Worst Year of My Life, by Kate Carroll de Gutes
Two Sylvias Press, 2017
200 pages, paper, $17.00
Kate Carroll de Gutes’s debut memoir, Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear, won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, as well as the Lambda Literary Award for Memoir, and she has written another noteworthy book. Her new memoir, The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and Worst Year of My Life, has already won an IPPY (Independent Publishers Book Award) and will speak to many readers who share the struggle between our public personas and private feelings. The book was sparked by a thought-provoking question that poet Fleda Brown posed to her online community about resisting the tendency to present life on social media as perfection, depicting beautiful children, beautiful friends, beautiful houses, even beautiful food—all of the time.
De Gutes set out to see whether or not she could intentionally share what she calls “the duality—the both/and, the light/dark—of life” for thirty consecutive days on her blog. She examines the way social media is used to “connect” with friends and acquaintances in the very moment we have a thought or a photo to share. In her work, she considers the questions: Has the immediacy of social media made us more isolated than in the days of neighbors chatting over the fence, mailing handwritten letters, and making phone calls? Has shaping a public persona overshadowed engagement in authentic human relationships?
She could not have predicted just how much her life would be stretched between the extremes of sunshine and shadow across the time-span of her experiment. Things took a dramatic shift when shortly into the #LightAndDark blog project, her mother experienced a series of strokes. Less than a month after her father died, De Gutes remembers taking her mother to a play. Her mother was having trouble keeping names and plot points straight:
I didn’t think it was Alzheimer’s then. I thought it was grief that kept her from tracking. . . who would think it was anything more than the grief of losing a spouse of forty-six years?
As the play began, my mother reached over and patted and squeezed my right hand, then let her hand linger there. Looking at this now, I see she was apologizing and thanking me in the same move. But all I felt was discomfort. My mother’s hand on mine, me standing in as spouse like I had done so many times before. I never wanted this role. Now here I was starring in it. I withdrew into myself. My mother felt it and pulled her hand away.
Then her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and eventually moved into a care facility near De Gutes. After the strokes, De Gutes and her sisters moved their mother again—from the care facility to adult foster care—in order to get the hospice care she needed. Just ten days later, she died. De Gutes made her mother’s funeral arrangements, delivered her eulogy, and closed her estate.
Within ten months, De Gutes became the primary caretaker of her close friend Steph. When cancer took her friend, De Gutes closed her estate. Then her close friend, editor Judith Kitchen of Ovenbird Press, died of cancer two days after completing the final edit on Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear. Grief shook the bedrock of De Gutes’ world, and multiple aftershocks continued to leave her feeling ungrounded. At the same time, she was busy giving public readings to promote her debut memoir, winning awards and giving speeches.
Under these circumstances, De Gutes still carried on The Authenticity Experiment, trying to render an honest depiction of her day-to-day reality. Some days her post went up only minutes before midnight, but she wrote something every day for the full thirty days. This chapter, just one short paragraph, titled NEGRONI (PRN) illustrates the swiftness of change in her life and the weight of the decisions that fell on her shoulders.
I’m not sure which is harder: moving my mom to an adult foster home on the down-low so she wouldn’t continually be retraumatized when we had to keep telling her about it, or leaving her there. Which is why tonight I’m sitting at my new favorite restaurant and drinking a Negroni. I ate here two weeks ago tonight with my mom. I feel like I’ve been in one of those Progressive Insurance “Life Comes at You Fast” commercials. Was it really only two weeks ago that I had this same drink at this same table with my mom?
When the thirty-day experiment reached its conclusion, some of De Gutes’ readers didn’t want it to end. She decided to continue to write under the #DarkAndLight hash tag, posting longer essays a couple of times a week. The result is a compelling collection of skillfully written essays, which with honesty and vulnerability celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. They read like letters from a dear friend. The thread tying them together is her understanding that life is never all good, or all bad. Life is messy. Joy mingles with heartbreak:
We live in the great mess, the humus, or soil, of life—which has for its root, the same prefix as human . . . Life should be dirty, tumbling around in all the organic components that make up our lives, our living, ashes to ashes, and all that beautiful fertileness that makes us who we are.
In The Authenticity Experiment, readers are invited to bear witness as the author navigates her way through profound grief, all the while doing her best to fully experience the good things happening for her as well. De Gutes takes her readers along with her to public places, delivering acceptance speeches at award ceremonies, delivering eulogies, and into the most personal spaces, while navigating the legal system to close two estates and being engulfed by crushing emotions in unexpected places. On each step of this journey, she bids readers to consider what she learned from that impossible year—what she calls the “both/and” of our lives. How do we give ourselves permission to experience joy in the midst of grief? Where can we find enough strength to be vulnerable and stay fully engaged with our families, friends, and communities? She asks, “Everything is always both/and, isn’t it? We are alive, and we are dying. We are there, and we are here. We are confused, and in our confusion we are finally able to see clearly and sing out in our full range.”
De Gutes doesn’t offer a road map. She’s not in the business of giving advice. Still, her story teaches by example that it’s possible to pay attention and appreciate the glimmers of light that brighten even our darkest days. Sometimes it requires conscious intention.
Please also see Heidi Sell’s interview with Kate Carroll de Gutes.