Interview: A Conversation with Kathleen Frazier, author of Sleepwalker

Interview by Rachael Marks

Kathleen frazier ii

This interview is long overdue—quite literally. Without getting too grossly personal, I feel that I owe both my interviewee and editor a brief explanation as to why this is so, and here it is: When I read Ms. Frazier’s final manuscript for “Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnabulist (Skyhorse, 2015),” a brilliant and at times brutal (in the good sense) chronicle of her twenty-year bout with somnambulism, I was in the midst of an equally brutal (in the bad sense) eight-day-and-night bout with insomnia. During this period, I was involuntarily, painfully awake at all times. Although I joked about it at first, walking around with my arms stuck out of me like a zombie, it eventually became truly scary. And it either catalyzed or was the first chapter of a very long Bad Time in which writing, as it had been with sleep, was impossible.

Sleepwalker cover photo new york city from afarThat said, in “Sleepwalker,” Frazier rips the sad-clown’s mask off of the subject of sleepwalking, and reveals, as Kurtz wails before dying in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” “THE HORROR.” Exclamation point. She shows us the nightmares, the shame, and even the violence. And she shows us the trauma, which, for Frazier, has been intergenerational.

She writes: “My parents were like cars speeding out of control, brakes slammed on, spinning wildly against the pressure of generations of drink, mental illness, and resultant sleepless nights.” She describes witnessing her mother’s “night terrors,” which she feared she would inherit and did. And she “unpacks” trauma in such a way that we can see all too clearly how trauma can lead not only to sleep disturbances, but to self-harm, compulsive thoughts and actions, difficulty staying safe, and an inability to trust anything as much as the promise of chaos and suffering. And horror.

I spoke with Ms. Frazier on the morning after my eighth and last sleepless night. And although The Bad Time was soon to follow, I felt that our conversation signified the promise of wellness and safety, which ultimately reemerged. And I slept very deeply that night. This is the conversation that we had (self-edited, on my end, for clarity).


RM: I have to tell you, I’ve been finding so many different angles from which to approach your book that I’m a little overwhelmed by the prospect of just picking one and getting started.

How are you? Today, as we speak?

KF: I’m great today! Thanks for asking. I’m working on some blog posts and an op Ed to do with sleep and trauma – stepping into my new role as a sleep advocate. I don’t know where it will take me but my mission statement seems to be that healthy sleep is a basic human right.

RM: I’m glad to hear that you’re thriving, and I’m also glad that you mentioned trauma right away, because that actually struck me as the heart of your book.

KF: Thank you for getting that. Also I want to find out how you are feeling?


RM: Funnily enough, I’ve been having really bad insomnia this whole week. I read your manuscript I think on my fifth night of no sleep, with the computer monitor glowing eerily in the dark. It was very meta, as they say, or as they used to say. But I’m doing well today and taking it easy, which I’m still learning how to do.

KF: I think we all are still learning how to do that. Yeah, the trauma piece with sleep has really been hitting home for me lately. My op Ed is about the Compton civil lawsuit which hasn’t been covered much at all in New York City. Have you heard about it? From the point of view of sleep and trauma… In researching my current essay there are so many more studies on trauma and sleep than when I was adding research articles to the appendix of my book.


RM:I have the video on now. It’s intense. Could you summarize the situation for our readers?

KF: There is one boy who came from a violent, alcoholic home, where he both witnessed abuse and was abused, then in and out of foster homes. Last year he was homeless and slept on the roof of his school’s cafeteria for two months before anyone realized. The school then suspended him and supposedly offered him no help!

Another boy started having nightmares after he woke up from a sound sleep at the age of three to see his father pull a gun on his mother. Since then he has had chronic nightmares and it is heartbreaking to hear him search for the words of how exhausted he is and how he tries to manage

RM:I want to say that I’m surprised, but that feeling of “no help” is so familiar to me. And I didn’t grow up in Compton, I grew up mostly in Brookline, Massachusetts. Although we did live in a building around the corner from the combat zone for the first five years of my life.

 Is the lawsuit against the school? The school district?

KF: Five students and three teachers are the plaintiffs and they simply want the school district to train teachers and staff properly to first recognize complex trauma and then have programs in place to help these kids. Yes, it is against the school district. And they want complex trauma to be recognized as a disability under the disabilities act.

I don’t know if you know but five percent of my personal proceeds from the book will go to an organization in New York City called creative alternatives of New York. They use drama therapy to help people recover from trauma. 65 percent of their clients are under the age of 25!

Regarding the op Ed and my next steps… I would love to have a column on sleep and health. I would love to speak worldwide about sleep terrors in particular, sleep and trauma and, as I said before, sleep as a basic human right.


RM: And, as I’m understanding now on day seven of unrelenting insomnia, healthy sleep is so crucial to our wellness and resilience—without it, we are dangerously fragile, susceptible. You describe incidents of sleepwalking in which you unknowingly become a serious threat to yourself. Those scenes are terrifying. So are the scenes where you’re scared out of your mind of falling asleep. You recount your siblings finding it hilarious when you have your “First Sleepwalk.” “Everybody laughed,” you write, “and I laughed too.” And then total horror ensues. You destroy the widespread (mis)conception of sleepwalking as a form of comedy.

KF: It’s true. Sleepwalking, especially combined with sleep terrors as it often is, at the very least exhausting and at its worst, fatal.


RM: I’ve had at least some degree of trouble sleeping since I was a kid, and my parents and partners have reported some strange nocturnal stuff they swear they saw me doing, even though I have no memory of it. Sometimes there’s evidence—I once woke up to a variety of empty condiment containers scattered on my comforter. Still, it’s a part of my life that I’ve pretty much left unexamined.

KF: I don’t think you’re alone in that. Our whole country is in denial about sleep and health. The stats on insomnia are very high, especially as reported by women. I think something like 44 percent of American women report insomnia – but it’s fairly easy to look up.

RM: I’ll look it up. I want to emphasize that, as opposed to the widespread denial that you speak of, the issue of disordered sleep, which is so closely bound up with the issue of trauma, is the lens through which you examine your entire life in this book. Which I think is pretty profound.

I remember very clearly being afraid to take your workshop on writing about illness [at Hippocamp 2015], because I felt that revisiting past brushes with illness would reactivate the fear that came with them, and I was still partially in denial about the issues that I struggle with now (PTSD and autoimmune disease). And in “Sleepwalker,” the illness (sleep/trauma), and your understanding of it, gives everything else shape and meaning. Did you know that this would happen?

KF: Thank you for your encouragement around my point of view of sleep for my memoir. It’s funny, but since the book has come out, my denial continues to break. What I mean by that is people keep reflecting back to me their own fears about sleep and sleep issues and I realize just how important it is for me to continue to speak out and educate. I am really becoming a sleep activist.

I did not know this would happen. My literary agent was very helpful when I was polishing the sample chapters that went along with my book proposal. She said to me something like, “It needs to be about the sleepwalking, it needs to be about the effects of it all the way through. That needs to be the through line and write it as if it were a novel.” She didn’t mean make anything up; she meant that the memoir had to have a driving force and every chapter needed to leave the reader wanting more – like in a well-written novel. So that’s how my illness and understanding of it gave shape to everything else in the book.

My agent by the way is Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyons Lit Agency. She searched me out after reading my two-minute memoir essay in Psychology Today. That was a dream come true.


RM: Sounds like you have a very astute agent. The book does read like well-written novel. For me, it was all-encompassing. I mean this, of course, as a compliment.

KF: Thank you! A lot of people are telling me that. My mentor, Ellen Burstyn, read it in one day and cried three times!


RM: Crying was definitely a part of my reading experience as well. That’s so crazy that Ellen Burstyn is your mentor, given that she played the mother in “The Exorcist,” which you talk about with regard to your childhood understanding of somnambulism as demonic possession.

KF: That last statement sounds like a brag to me which I didn’t mean to do. It’s just that Ellen has been more than a mentor to me, she’s also been like a mom. She’s godmother to my daughter. Artistically, she is one of the fiercest critics I know, and her standards are very high. So it means the world to me that she endorsed the book so completely.

The Exorcist connection is really something right?


RM: It really is… In “Sleepwalker,” your references to “The Exorcist,” and your meditations, as a terrified child, on evil and monstrosity are actually where I feel like you start to establish a really masterful control over your history, which, as you show us pretty much right from the beginning, contains a great deal of chaos.

Control and loss of control feel like major themes, along with trauma, and when you start to talk about evil and sin and damnation and punishment, even though you are recalling your thoughts from a time when you were not well, I sense the beginnings of self-assertion, or at least self-identification. To believe that you are bad because you are sick is, I suppose, bad, but it least you are believing that you are something. Does this resonate at all?

KF: Yes, I think that’s true. What comes to mind for me are those early memories in bed when my brother Billy first took ill. Even as a little girl I never liked the punishing aspect or interpretation that many of the adults seem to have had in the religion/culture that I was brought up in. Once again, I think a lot of their behavior, their fear-based and harsh, controlling, even violent behavior, was in response to untreated trauma.

I heard a specialist, a Ph.D. at a medical university, talk about PTSD and his theory seems to be that underneath it, what is really stuck in the person’s consciousness, or rather, their unconscious mind, is the fear of death. I can see that with me from a very early age and I tried to make clear from the beginning of the book with starting out about my fear of falling asleep, of leaving this world behind and separating myself from the ones I love.

It was great in Dr. Mahowald’s foreword when he spoke about exorcisms performed on people with sleep disorders. I thought that was very powerful.

I also think that in some way my body was trying to protect me with the sleep terrors. In other words, that energy, that emotion of terror that I felt or didn’t feel during the day had to come out somehow. Otherwise I wonder if I might have become schizophrenic like my brother and grandmother. Like I wrote in the book, I learned from all that sleepwalking, all that nocturnal wandering, it [shows] that the body doesn’t lie.


RM: It came through very clearly to me that in certain ways the sleep terrors were protecting you. That maybe the sleep terrors and the fearful staying awake were, again, unconscious efforts to gain some control in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable situation. There’s the fear of death, and also, again, just chaos, the chaos of your parents lives and memories.

I felt very pulled into that chaos, and scared by it. And scared for you. Was it frightening to relive that as you were writing?

KF: It was very frightening. I wasn’t able to commit to sharing it with the world for many many years because I felt so much shame both about the actual chaos and fear growing up, my own reaction to it, and I felt like I was betraying my family to tell the story. I think that’s a very ingrained feeling for those of us who come from alcoholism, mental illness and intergenerational trauma. Some of my siblings are completely ignoring the book. They are upset with me for sharing such personal information publicly.

I kept having to enlist help from other healthy people to keep on going with the writing. I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until Tobias Wong’s death that I found my courage to tell this story.

Yet there were many times during the writing when I felt great relief as encouraged by my husband and daughter who listened patiently to all my rewrites. Their love and encouragement helped me to know that I was on the right track. And Friends kept reminding me that I was being of service in the telling.

More and more attention is being placed on mental health issues in our country and it is long overdue. For me, the biggest step is always from isolation to community. I was blessed to be surrounded by people throughout my story who, while they didn’t know how to help me with my sleep issues, they supported me in sharing my story and moving towards health in whatever way I could. My work at the Actors’ Studio when I finally put pen to paper changed my life, as did my meeting my husband – which is a whole ‘nother question and answer!


RM: Ha! But betrayal is a real risk when writing this sort of story. So is re-traumatization. I feel like there should be a guide for self-care to writers who are grappling with trauma and sickness as subject matter, particularly when there’s a painful family history. Maybe you could write one, so that I could read it and learn?

This is something I think about a lot. You talk about torture a lot in this book: torture movies, torture fantasies. Writing, I think, can be a kind of torture. Yet we do it anyway. Why? And how can we make it less so? I’m hearing that community is a big part of it, but does anything else come to mind?

KF: For me, the pleasure outweighs the torture. Or maybe I just feel sicker when I’m not creating – I think that’s it. I did have certain writer’s rituals in place physically when I worked on this. For example, I always lit a votive candle before I began. I live in Washington Heights, and we have botanicas (religious stores) near us, so I like to get, funnily enough, the old-fashioned candles with an image of the guardian angel helping the children across a bridge when there’s a plank obviously missing, or of Mary with beautiful light radiating from her hands – I’m really into the goddess images – or of Michael the archangel fighting off the devil… Which is really my own shadow, right? I often bookended my writing with a call to another writer. I always read my work to my family which also helped keep my sanity. When I would finish a writing session I would go to the bathroom and wash my hands and pray, releasing with the water all those feelings of fear and guilt as best I could. And now with the book going out in the world, I keep a copy of it on our family altar, and every day I make a habit of picking it up and physically offering it up to my higher power and thereby letting it go, releasing it into the world as best I can. Does that all sound too woo woo?

One of my early acting teachers who I mentioned in the book, Therese Hayden, used to instruct us to go for a nice steady walk after we worked in class. It’s a great way to release the energy and digest the experience. A nice steady walk, she would say. I also learned from her early on to call the emotions energy in order to take the onus off them, and ease any judgment.


RM: It definitely doesn’t sound too woo woo. And I’m even sensing some vestigial traces of Catholicism in your “writer’s rituals,” only they are self-nurturing rather than self-flagellating. Do you (or did you) ever derive any comfort from Catholicism, to counteract its more intimidating and sometimes damning aspects?

KF: Absolutely! I loved sitting in church, seeing the sunlight come through stained glass windows, shining cobalt blue and crimson onto my skin. I loved the incense and the candles and our family coming together. I often loved praying and I loved the Rosary – which is definitely a form of meditation. I loved the statues and the holy cards, especially the images such as Jesus with his heart aflame and Mary standing on a cloud with light radiating from her fingertips. I loved the idea of miracles and that my mother taught me to pray for signs when I was looking for guidance.

I’ll give you an example… Around the time I began writing I questioned whether it was the best thing for me to do, and I prayed for a sign. Well, back when I was a girl, I had taken the name Bridget for my confirmation name – mostly because she was the female saint of Ireland and also because she was very generous, always giving things away much to the consternation of her family. It wasn’t until I started working in ceremony with indigenous peoples that I got interested in the culture of Ireland in pre-Christian times. It was then I found out that Saint Bridget was the Catholicized version of the Celts great goddess Bridget. She had been the goddess of words, of poetry, as well as of blacksmiths. That was wonderful to discover right at the time when I’d asked for a sign and was just putting pen to paper. But additionally, my father’s people were blacksmiths all the way up and through his generation. In Ireland the blacksmiths were second only to the village priest, such was their importance.

I’m sure many people would say these kinds of events are coincidences and they may be right, but I’ve always taken great comfort and pleasure in these intergenerational connections. And I guess I can thank my mother and her interpretation of Catholicism, her practice of it, for having modeled and taught me to pray for my own little miracles along the way.

It’s a beautiful question, Rachael, and I see in answering it how my mother was making effort to teach me to trust my higher self, a.k.a. my intuition, even while she was unable to do so consistently herself or instruct me how to follow my intuition in many ways – including around sleep. Her unrecovered trauma prevented her from doing that.

I hope I answered your question! It seems I went from your question about the Catholic church to my mother’s practice of Catholicism but I think (during our formative years) our parents are our strongest influences regarding how they practice a particular religion or not.


RM: I grew up in a somewhat nihilistic Jewish-atheist household, and, while reading your book, I sometimes caught myself getting envious of your Catholic upbringing, because, yes, that religion provides those who practice it a wealth of symbols and rituals, which in turn seem to provide a structure of meaning.

I want to ask you one last question. I don’t want to give away the ending, but we, the readers, know that you’re alive, and well enough to have told your story. Do you think that in order to tell the story of an illness, the writer needs to have gotten well, or to have reached a point of resolution? Do you think it’s possible to write your way through an illness?

KF: These are very good questions. I don’t want to speak for others but, for myself, I think part of the reason why I couldn’t write the story sooner was because I hadn’t worked through it, or healed through the resolution. Back when I first put pen to paper in the mid to late 1990s I still had so much anger toward my family and fear. Because I hadn’t slept well for 20 years, I was, at the age of 35, separating from my family in a way that many people do during adolescence. When I was writing the book last year I felt so much love for my family throughout the process… So much appreciation of their courage and heroic efforts toward health. Reflections of my own journey, hey?

I’d been seeking health from the time I stopped medicating my sleep disorders with alcohol, then there were the efforts to unpack my family traumas, the accident from sleepwalking, the sleep disorder clinic and the several years of gestalt therapy. But when I was faced with the possibility of severe night terrors after I came off of klonopin in order to conceive [my daughter] Hannah, I was down on my knees ready to do anything to keep that from happening – to keep a recurrence of my illness from happening. It wasn’t through any virtue of my own that I began to write but circumstances drove me to develop that quality of willingness. And once I put pen to paper, and even though it took all of these years and I’ve been writing other things when this memoir has been on the shelf (for example historical fiction inspired by my Irish grandmother in which the protagonist is, of course, a sleepwalker). The act of writing for me was, has been, and continues to be a turning point one day at a time. Yes, I have written my way through the PTSD and sleepwalking and sleep terrors, I believe. But it’s not something that’s ever accomplished… There’s always the next chapter of my life and my health is contingent upon my spiritual and creative conditions, so to speak.


RM: Kathleen, thank you so much. And, as another personal aside, I recently came off of klonopin, which triggered the horrible insomnia. Welcome to the Twilight Zone!

KF: Wow! That is very intense… I hope you came off of it slowly. I found that even the very small dosage I was on was intense with the stopping.

RM: It’s intense, all right. Not to be too glib, but I think I’m going to attempt a restorative nap soon. Thank you so much, Kathleen.

KF: Thank you Rachael! This has been a wonderful experience for me. I so appreciate your depth of reading and digestion of my memoir and the interview itself. This way of working has been wonderful for me!

RM: Me too.


Rachael marks 2Rachael Marks is a writer, music maven, sociological excavator, choreographer and performer living in the Boston area. Her writing has been published in DigBoston and on the Flat Field Records website, and she is currently at work on her first book. She has also created and performed numerous solo works, and danced with the butoh companies Bodydrama and CHIMERAlab.



Share a Comment