A Poet Survives Abuse, Brain Trauma, and a Hurricane, Then Turns to Memoir
Alice Anderson’s story of survival and the strength of writing
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Alice Anderson’s voice is pure music, distinct, rhythmic, and lilting. I first heard her read the poem “Joy Ride,” from her second collection of poetry, The Watermark, and I was mesmerized. I met Anderson on social media, where she has a huge presence and following. We met up in person at the AWP in Los Angeles in 2016 and made a magical connection that has persisted since. She is a fierce advocate on behalf of those affected by intimate partner and domestic violence and a voice for those impacted with traumatic brain injury.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away shines a light on the violence one in three women and one in four men will experience in their lifetime. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when her doctor husband’s mental health spirals out of control and he tries to kill her, Anderson must gather up her three small children and flee for her life. An epic battle ensues — emotional, psychological, spiritual, and legal — for her children’s welfare, for self-preservation, and ultimately for redemption. Anderson’s debut in prose, a memoir, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away is as poetic and lyrical, as dramatic and captivating as her poetry, and as fierce as her advocacy on behalf of victims of violence.
Kelly Thompson: So, we’re speaking on August 29th, in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, now downgraded to Tropical Storm Harvey, which is devastating Texas with unprecedented amounts of rain and flooding. How is it that your memoir, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, which begins with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, enters the world 12 years later with Hurricane Harvey? Would you call that synchronicity? There’s a sense of having come full-circle with its release this week.
Alice Anderson: It feels incredibly full-circle, but also heartbreaking. There’s this kind of mirror image that is happening with Hurricane Harvey that happened with Hurricane Katrina.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast it devastated the entire coast. Mississippi has 32 miles of white sand, gulf beaches. And all of the towns along the coast, all the way from Bay St. Louis to Ocean Springs, where I lived, to Gautier, to Pascagoula, they were all destroyed. Then the levies broke in New Orleans. It was a devastating catastrophe, but it was a man-made catastrophe. Many people on the coast felt ignored or forgotten-about.
I thought about the people on the coast of Texas the other day. To me, it feels like Katrina all over again.
Katrina was definitely a character in my poetry collection, The Watermark. Katrina is also almost its own character in the memoir Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away. The only way I know how to talk about something that big is to make it into a personification, because it really does come in and change your entire life, or your life entire.
KT: The Watermark was your second book of poetry, released last year to great acclaim. Diane Seuss, another brilliant poet, said that “poem after poem seethes liked a hurricane . . . .” A couple of lines in the poem, “Birds,” resonated with me “You must find grace within the calamity. That’s where all the beauty lives.” Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away certainly does that, finds grace within calamity on so many layers because your memoir isn’t just about surviving Hurricane Katrina, but it’s also about surviving your ex-husband Liam’s violent attempt on your life and the unrelenting battle that follows to free yourself and your children from his abuse.
AA: That line is almost like a motto to me. Many years ago, when I was getting an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, my class was so small; there were three full-time professors, Thomas Lux, Mark Doty, and Jean Valentin, and only five poets in my class. But, the late great Thomas Lux nicknamed me, “The Redemption Addict.” I see that as a pull-through in all my work. That is who I am at my core, no matter what it is, no matter how ugly, how terrible, how violent it is, I am able to, or I strive to, see the redemption. The silver lining. The meaning in it. And I think that’s just me as a poet and also me as a survivor. That came through in the memoir as well.
KT: It does. The story begins with what I think of as a prose poem. In the prologue, we read: “We make chapels of our scars. Every one of them is a chapel. Every one of them becomes the religion of your life.” Which reminds me of how the best writers, to me, have been the ones who take the stuff of their lives, take the dark and the light and transmute it into art. Clearly, that is your religion. Would you speak to that function of art in your life?
AA: It’s very interesting because I did something in this memoir that maybe some writers do, I’m not aware if there are a lot of writers who do this, but I wrote the memoir while I was going through many of the events. I didn’t write the stories right after Hurricane Katrina. But, about five years in, I began writing as it was happening.
Writing was a way to be a translationist of my own life. What I was experiencing was absolutely devastating and oftentimes nearly unbearable. Writing the book was a way of backing up from it and making it into something beautiful, and seeing the higher meaning of it all while it unfolded. At a certain point, though, I stopped writing the book because I didn’t know where this story was going to end.
But then, there’s a scene where I’m driving in the middle of the night in my car with the sunroof open and one child next to me, another child in the backseat and we’re following an ambulance that’s carrying my third child. And I had this overwhelming spiritual feeling, you could say religious, where I realized, “I’m driving through the end of my book. This is the end of the story.” I discovered that there’s a real transcendence to writing your life as it happens.
I discovered that there’s a real transcendence to writing your life as it happens.
KT: No spoilers, but yes, that harrowing scene at the end where everything comes full circle is breathtaking. I love your writing process, the way life parallels art and vice versa. There’s more than one near-death experience in this story. I’ll read from the passage in the chapter Heck on Wheels that occurs after a terrible motor accident from earlier in the narrator’s life:
I saw my whole life rise up. All of it. The blood and the guts of it…blackbirds sprang out of my mouth and into a sky filled with stars the shape of every moment of shame I’d ever swallowed. And then they fell to the ground, beautiful shooting jade, exploding into laughter. Everything was silent. I didn’t see God.
Ah, that’s so beautiful. I get a sense that your near-death experiences add to the theme of redemption and magic that runs through all of your work. That transcendence that comes across even inside the brutality.
AA: I think it’s added to my experience as a human being, as a person with a heart. It’s very interesting that you chose that quote, because I went back and revised that section, or that little part of that chapter, after a conversation about near-death experiences you and I had. And, in talking with you, I thought, “I have more to say and I need to be more courageous about what that moment was.” But, I think that those experiences, any experience that takes you so close to the edge, whether it’s the edge of life and death, or the edge of sanity and madness, the edge of violence and safety, the edge of health and wellness, of ability and disability, any experience that’s on that edge feels spiritual to me, and it’s a challenge to try and capture it on the page.
KT: Very much so. That’s not the only near-death experience your narrator has. Her ex-husband tries to kill her, and with the divorce and fighting for custody, the aphasia from the traumatic brain injury, I think those edges really do lend themselves to the richness of this story.
AA: Definitely. One of those near-death experiences was the accident, one brutal moment in my life where I flew off a scooter and into a bus stop pole, and almost died. That it was followed by the added trauma of someone trying to kill me years later was a different experience of near death altogether. What I really struggled with and tried to capture, something I don’t see often in writing about domestic violence or abuse, is this feeling of being killed in slow motion.
Depending on the situation, it may be beatings over time, or verbal and emotional abuse. Whatever it is, it is killing you little by little. I left after he tried to kill me. It was so brutal and it was the first time.
KT: You didn’t really experience repeated physical violence in the relationship because after he tried to kill you, you left. But there was escalating verbal and emotional abuse prior to that.
AA: A couple of years ago on Twitter, there was this famous hashtag, “Why I stayed.” A lot of abuse survivors suffer because of the stigma and the judgment. When you talk about violence, people still can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact that the danger is not just getting beat up, or pushed around, or a black eye, or a broken bone. The danger is really death. So, it was important to me to capture on the page the actual danger involved in domestic violence. And that’s where that line in the story comes from, where the idea of being killed in slow motion came from.
KT: That line comes toward the end of the story, you write, “You don’t think about the ways domestic violence can kill you in slow motion…” If you think about the trauma involved and the emotional impact as well as the real danger, anyone on the receiving end of intimate partner violence is experiencing a slow death, and it’s misperceived, minimized, and stigmatized in our culture. You also write, “The damage keeps settling in. Just like abuse: the damage keeps settling in.”
I want to read from a passage early in the book that foretells all that the narrator would endure.
My life unfurled in a series of disastrous…sometimes devastating events marked by a doomed love, by babies born, by a once in a lifetime hurricane, by brutal domestic violence, by a night of the soul so long it seemed that daylight may never come. All of it complicated by a gothic legal battle, a traumatic brain injury, and affairs of the heart, both sweetly maternal and wildly romantic.
So, as a reader, that’s like, “Whoa.”
AA: That seems like way too much shit to happen to one person doesn’t it?
KT: Yeah. So this is a question for writers, as well as readers: Did your background in poetry lend itself to your ability to cover so much ground in your memoir?
AA: I think so. The way that I wrote Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away is not typical. I wrote the first scene, “How I Learned to Shoot a Gun,” and I had the same feeling about writing that scene, or chapter, that I’d get when I wanted to write a poem. That moment becomes big and real in my head, as I’m driving down the street, or when I first wake up in the morning, for weeks on end, I’m thinking about that scene. And I’m layering it in my head, so that when I finally write it down, it’s pretty much finished. I don’t do a lot of drafts.
So, I just kept writing these scenes until I had a stack of them. Then I made a list about things that I might write that would connect them. When I first started writing, I did think all of those things in that passage that you read would kind of hold an equal value. I think a lot of people who know me online thought this book would be much more a brain injury book. But in the end, the larger story, which is sort of the story of my family’s survival, rose to the top, like the cream.
KT: I love the image in that same passage, “Like a strange ball of ribbon dropped from the sky in a storm, random, out of control, my life unfurled.” In addition to the larger metaphor of the storm, it’s a perfect metaphor for the story. I see it as a form for the structure of the book, in a way.
AA: Well, you know I’m very visual, so when I write that, I actually am carrying that ball of ribbon around in my head. It’s this kind of pale pink color, and it drops from the sky before the hurricane comes. And it’s literally sort of unwinding in slow motion. It’s like when you see those white plastic bags caught in the wind in the street, and they never really land. They move around in different shapes. I think of that unraveling just like that. Even in the unraveling, it’s still beautiful, and so fascinating. So, it’s a metaphor for all of the different kinds of unraveling in the book. All of it. Yes.
KT: So gorgeous. I love that image. The narrator of Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly away not only experiences trauma and brutality in her amazing life, which includes great adventure like modeling in Paris, and an award winning debut book of poetry, Human Nature, but it seems that wherever she goes, a kind of magic goes with her. And, yeah, I fell in love with this narrator. I recently spoke with Rene Denfeld about her new book of fiction The Child Finder, which also comes out this week, and in The Child Finder, the protagonist of the story says she doesn’t believe in resiliency. Instead, she believes in imagination. And, I couldn’t help but think of the narrator in Some Bright Morning because she is so imaginative and magical. Did imagination play a role in her ability to survive?
AA: I love that you said that. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I really have a deep connection with the magic of the universe, no matter what is happening. There’s a scene where I’m in an upstairs bedroom changing the baby’s diaper, and I look out the window, and see all of my journals from my entire life, dozens and dozens of journals, the ones I’d thrown in the garbage because he forbid me to write, heard the crunch and creak of the garbage truck, and that moment, I looked at those white pages, even in the devastation, and, not just as I was writing this, but in the moment it was happening, I really saw those pages like bird wings. Past the garbage truck, I could see out into the deep water bayou, where cranes were flying by, and I knew, even as my ex-husband was erasing me, the journals would come back to me … in some form. I think I have a natural connection with the magic of the world. I am always on the lookout for it.
I’m not sure why I have held on to such wonder considering the life I’ve lived, but I think I have. I wanted the narrator of this book to have that wonder and to enjoy the magic of it because there is a lot of beauty in the world, no matter what is happening.
KT: That sense of wonder in this narrator goes all the way back to her childhood and comes forward consistently, and beautifully so. On that note, although there’s much sorrow and pain in this story, it’s also full of humor and laughter. One chapter is aptly titled, Welcome to the Circus and it’s full of colorful characters. A favorite of mine, Dr. Colette V. Colette, is a psychiatrist, and appears in the FEMA trailer on the county fairgrounds where family court is being held. She’s wearing maxi pads affixed to her shoulder, embellished with Christmas bows and decoratively-trimmed Post-It notes that read, “I love you, but don’t hug me.” Evidently, everywhere she goes people insist on hugging her and it hurts her shoulder.
Then the narrator goes to Dr. Colette V. Colette’s office to be evaluated as to whether or not she’s a fit mother and every inch of shelf space and desk top and floor space is covered with pink flamingos of every kind. And, I have to say that I laughed until I cried during those sections. The maxi-pads and the flamingos. I still laugh thinking about so many of those amazing characters, not to mention the image of holding court in a FEMA trailer in the middle of the fairgrounds in the aftermath of a hurricane. Truly a circus!
AA: There is a lot of “You couldn’t make this shit up” in this book. Even before I knew I was going to write a memoir, I would say to my close family members who knew what I was going through, “Man, I should write this story someday.”
There is a lot of “You couldn’t make this shit up” in this book.
KT: Something I found beautifully done in the memoir is the treatment of the family. The narrator’s parents come across as multi-dimensional beings in spite of the narrator’s difficult history with them. I don’t want to put out any spoilers but the father daughter story was stunning. What was it like to write about that?
AA: A lot of my earlier work features the father, right? So I really loved that I finally had the chance to tell the end of the story. I was pleased to be able to write about it.
KT: In honor of those affected by partner violence who may be struggling, especially those who might be in a violent situation even as they read Some Bright Morning, any words?
AA: Oh, my goodness. Well, we can go back to the first line of the book, “We make chapels of our scars,” and there’s this wall, this huge, shimmering wall of silence, still, around domestic violence, and intimate partner abuse. And there are a myriad of reasons that people are silent.
One of the things that was wonderful about writing this book was that I could finally tell my whole story. A lot of people, when they read this book, the first thing they say to me is, “I had no idea.” And it wasn’t because I wanted to be silent, or I wanted to keep secrets, but the experience of escaping a violent environment is not quick. The leaving is just the beginning. It is not over in a night, or a week, or a month, or, a lot of times, it’s not over in a year.
I liked being able to tell the story that as long as it may take, or as much as you may be wondering, “Why am I still enduring this?” You’re still always going towards your moment of freedom. I hope that people feel that. To those struggling, I hope that you make chapels of your scars because everything you’ve gone through becomes who you are. And, it doesn’t have to be shameful, and it doesn’t have to be ugly. The truth is no matter what happens, you’re still beautiful. You’re still the chapel.
To those struggling, I hope that you make chapels of your scars because everything you’ve gone through becomes who you are. And, it doesn’t have to be shameful, and it doesn’t have to be ugly.
KT: And I think the story will help other victims know that they’re not alone and that there is a way out, a way through. And for those who may have a traumatic brain injury, your narrator’s fierce determination to regain function is an inspiration. Any words for those with a traumatic brain injury?
AA: Oh, my gosh. I’ll say three things. The first thing is, “Nobody gets traumatic brain injury until they get a traumatic brain injury.” And the second thing, every neurologist, every specialist, tells every person who’s had a TBI, “How you are at two years is how you’re going to be.” Do not believe the outcome that is ascribed to you. As Lidia Yuknavitch says, “We are not the story they made of us.” If I believed the story they told me I would never read again. I would never speak in fluent sentences again. I would certainly never teach college again, and I would never write again.
Finally, brain injury recovery is very, very slow. Over a period of four years, I kept working day after day, and refusing to believe the prognosis I was given, finding new ways to recover that worked for me, that I just made up most of the time. I was not the story they made of me. I have come farther than anyone could have ever imagined. And I’m in year eight, and I was just talking to my partner the other day, saying, “You know, a year from now, we’re going to be talking about when we first started dating, and I was like this, but look how much further I’ve come.” Because I see improvement year by year. And, so, it’s slow—
KT: Nevertheless, she persisted.
AA: Yes! Nevertheless, persist. That’s exactly right.