Interview by Leslie Lindsay
These are the words of renowned but reclusive artist, remote mother, Jennifer Bartlett in History of the Universe, and the epigraph of her daughter, Alice Carrière’s searing memoir, Everything/Nothing/Someone: A Memoir (August 2023; Spiegel & Grau).
A daughter holds many meanings: she’s at once an extension, a future, and a past. She’s a barrier, a promise, a hope. In the hands of Alice Carrière, she is also a wound, a danger, a repository of trauma.
“Who did what to whom? It was a question that haunted my family long before I was born. What happened to my mother? What exactly had my father done to me?” she writes in the book.
Raised in Greenwich Village in the late 1980s-1990s, Alice tells a searing tale of her unconventional upbringing as the daughter of the painter Jennifer Bartlett and European movie star father, Mathieu Carriere. From an early age, Alice is forced to relive her mother’s recovered memories of sexualized abuse and her father’s confusing attentions. What’s more, she lived a privileged life in a 17,000-square-foot mansion, complete with indoor pool containing 90 tons of water.
To say she was drowning in affluence, but terribly neglected and alone, is not an understatement.
When Carrière enters adolescence, she loses grasp on herself; she’s not sure exactly who—or what—she is. Does she even have a body? Doctors call it a dissociative disorder and overmedicate, further pushing Alice away from herself.
Carrière does not wallow in trauma. She does not beg for sympathy or play the role of victim. She questions. She writes. And in doing so, she uncovers her own truth. By reliving the moments of chaos, perhaps inventing new ones, Alice develops a sense of security, from behind her desk, as her mother once did with oil on canvas.
What does it mean to excavate one’s life? Are memories truth? Can trauma be a series of events? A context? A situation? What if those are seemingly ‘innocuous’ moments are…lasting? Is that still trauma?
These are the questions Carrière sets out to extrapolate from her lived experience.
In May, which just happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, Alice and I connected over email to untangle the stories told to us by our parents, the concept of intergenerational trauma, art and architecture, and the mangled psychiatric system.
Leslie Lindsay: Everything/Nothing/Someone is such a searing portrait of a highly dysfunctional family (extended, too) and upbringing. The title is broken down into a three-part structure, which plays to the lived experience. You grew up in a massive house in Greenwich Village, complete with a nanny, cook, studio, pool, gardens. It seems you ‘had it all.’ That would be the ‘everything.’ And then…your psychiatric break, the times you are hospitalized in plush psychiatric institutions, attempting to piece yourself together, the ‘nothing.’ And finally, in the end, you are ‘someone.’
My question is two-fold:
1) Was this structure intentional?
2) Can you tell is a little more about 134 Charles Street? Do houses provide structure?
Alice Carrière: That’s an interesting take on what “Everything” refers to. I think of it more as a reference to my diffuse identity and the porousness of boundaries. I was the child of two self-destructive, self-absorbed artists who lived in an alternate universe where they were the exceptions to every rule, and where the power of their desires could shape reality. Everything was abstracted, turned into art or theory (including me).
My mother was a famous painter whose recovered (or implanted) memories of ritualized sexual abuse and murder made her too afraid to experience and share feelings, so she hid herself in her work. My father was a European film star who treated parenthood as a radical philosophical experiment that involved the total annihilation of boundaries, where everything could be what it was and also the exact opposite.
I was flooded by the torrential force of their impulses and desires, and I became everything—a child, a mother, a wife, an idea. The structure was absolutely intentional and was a gift the title gave me. I’ve been writing this book for many years, and I only really found out what it was about near the end of the process. When I landed on the title and could impose the three-part structure, that really helped to clarify the major themes of the book and the narrative arc my life has followed. I was surprised by how much poetry and parallels there were just lying scattered around my life. I was excited when I wrote the opening set piece that introduces Charles Street as both its own character and as a framing device through which you learn all about the family and its dysfunction. In this case, the house not only provided structure in the book, but it also raised me, and it continues to haunt me like the ghost of an ancestor.
“When I landed on the title and could impose the three-part structure, that really helped to clarify the major themes of the book and the narrative arc my life has followed.” — Alice Carrière
LL: Your mother was very eccentric and unavailable. She made art every day from six in the morning until seven at night, with a two-hour nap in the middle of the day. She hosted big, glamorous parties; she was self-involved. But also, we think, struggling with some recovered sexualized memories, ones she shared with you. Aside from that, you craved your mother’s attention. Do you get the sense that your mother’s trauma became a shared delusion?
AC: The scope and elaborateness of my mother’s recovered or implanted memories matched her ambition, her brilliance, her attention to detail, her extravagance. They were so big that they crowded everything else out, and they hijacked my experiences too. There was a time when I believed I had absorbed her trauma, where I couldn’t differentiate between her experiences and my own, which made the idea that I had been wounded in my own unique ways seems impossible. So yes, it was absolutely a shared delusion.
LL: You write later in Everything/Nothing/Someone that you missed the mother you never had, the one you couldn’t have, that you loved her but hated her. This is a sentiment many can identify with. Can you speak to this concept of complex grief? How one can grieve a person they needed or wanted, but who was unavailable, either psychologically or emotionally?
AC: I think the job of the memoirist is to show and embody how many things, often incompatible and contradictory things, can be true at the same time and remain coherent in that understanding and that experience.The ambivalent feelings that are present in the book reflect what I was going through at the time. After having completed this book and after having read through my own life story so many times, I realized I had written myself into a place of deep, deep empathy. I also spent a long, long time grieving my mother. I grieved her before she died, as she slipped into dementia. And I grieved her when she actually died. And I grieved her when I began to understand her better and more completely.
“I think the job of the memoirist is to show and embody how many things, often incompatible and contradictory things, can be true at the same time and remain coherent in that understanding and that experience.” — Alice Carrière
Leslie Lindsay: Turning a bit to your father, as described in the book, ‘a European sex symbol.’ He had been working in film and television since he was thirteen. He knew six languages and wrote a book about the poet Heinrich von Kleist. But he carried a great deal of trauma. His father was a German psychiatrist, head of a highly dysfunctional family; your father’s brother died by suicide, coloring the family. His behavior to you was often quite sexualized, indecent. But was it abuse? Who gets to define abuse? Can you expand on this, please?
AC: It’s interesting the response I get to people hearing what my father did or didn’t do. Some people think it’s not a big deal at all, that he was just a provocateur, or that since there wasn’t any physical touching, it’s not that bad. Even my father would be the first to disagree with that. Just as I’ve struggled immensely with how he behaved, he harbors monumental regret and shame. Some people have asked me how I can forgive him. To that, I say: because I wanted to. I find a lot of power in choosing to move forward with him. I find power in listening and trying to understand. I find power in getting to define my own reality and taking action based on that. I also believe people can change, because I’ve changed so much. I have to say I’m really proud of my father. His response to this book has affirmed my choice to forgive him and have a close relationship with him. He’s so proud and supportive. He thinks it’s a masterpiece and tells everyone about it even though it’s not always a flattering portrait of him. Our relationship is one of the gifts this book has given me.
LL: When you arrived at Vassar, things are okay, for a while. But soon you’re skipping class, staying in bed (sleeping bag, really; easier to make), and urinating in mugs because the hall bath was ‘too far away.’ What do you think happened then? Was it the stress of school, the opulence and family secrets catching up with you?
AC: It was the dissociation, which had been exacerbated by the marijuana I had smoked right before I arrived at school. I was away from my fortress, 134 Charles Street, and my dissociative episode had completely stripped me of any carapace of identity that had previously protected me. I couldn’t recognize my own face in the mirror, I didn’t know where the words I spoke were coming from. I was living in two entirely new and alien worlds—the physical world of college, and the invisible world where my howling dissociation was commenting on and gobsmacked by everything I tried to do. It was a separate entity that was marveling at and questioning how and why I was talking, how and why I was putting one foot in front of the other, how and why I was following one breath with the next. It was too much to have too little of myself inside me.
LL: You come to terms with so many things in Everything/Nothing/Someone, but it’s all hard-earned. You wrote letters, you do deep emotional work. You see therapist after therapist, you take medication. You eventually become a caregiver to your mother, who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; and there’s an intervention staged between you and your father. While it’s probably a challenge to tease out any one thing, what one might have saved you?
AC: Writing saved me. Gregory, my husband and partner of 15 years, healed me. Dissociating is hard. Describing it saved my life. Even when it was a challenge to find the right words, that challenge made me feel connected. When I was in my worst moments, the urgent need to describe what was happening was what kept me from getting completely lost.
I’ve always used storytelling to metabolize the chaos around me. As a child, I used to think about myself in the third person. In my head I would say, “She is walking down the street, it is raining, the rain falls on her jacket,” trying to narrate myself into existence.
This unique relationship I have with words prepared me to be a translator of these most untranslatable moments. I remember vividly being in the locked ward, having a dissociative episode. I had crawled under the sink and was banging my head against the wall, screaming my own name over and over. A nurse came in, because I was frightening the other patients, and asked me what was happening. When I told her, she casually said, “oh, it sounds like you’re dissociating.” When I heard that word, I felt for one moment like I wasn’t falling through infinite space. After that, I read everything I could about dissociation—Clarice Lispector, Octavia Butler, Sartre. If any word in this book can do for someone else what that word dissociation did for me at that moment, I’ll be happy.
In addition to writing, my husband, Gregory, who is a real-life person and not just an incredible character in the book, taught me how to turn outward. We met at our worst—he was curing his heroin addiction with a liter-a-day vodka habit, and I was plagued by burgeoning delusions—and yet somehow, we hung on to each other. The fastidious care and optimism he brought to my life allowed me to slowly turn outward and be able to help care for and connect with my mother when she was diagnosed with dementia, with the elderly nanny who raised me, and to reunite with my father and listen to his story. Through those relationships and through writing this book, I learned the value of being curious. Being curious about myself and other people saved my life. I wrote myself into a place where I could feel and feel for others.
My mother has a quote in her fictionalized autobiography that says, “I’m afraid to learn that I’m not the only person in the world.” I learned that not only am I not the only person in the world, but that’s also a great thing.
I also want to acknowledge the immense privilege I came from, which also saved my life. Most people don’t have the “luxury” of being mentally ill for over a decade and not becoming homeless, not losing everything. Not many people have the access to mental health resources I had, even if some of those resources almost killed me. Most artists don’t have the privilege to pursue their art and use it to cure themselves.
LL: Individuals who experience some kind of trauma, but ‘make it out,’ often have a strong support person, someone who provides structure and stability. It sounds like Nanny was your person. Let’s end on that. We are all full of stories and experiences. Our stories can save ourselves and…maybe even someone else. We become our someone.
AC: I would say Nanny was the original glue that kept me together for the first twenty years of my life, but Gregory is the person who really healed me. His optimism is directly proportional to how sensitive he is to the “swirling depths of despair,” as he calls them, so it’s helpful to be with someone who can commiserate about how bizarre and grotesque I find consciousness to be. When I’m feeling particularly unreal, I’ll check in with him, and he will confirm that he, too feels like “a child’s drawing version of himself.” If he notices I’m particularly far away, trapped in dissociation or anxiety, he’ll extend his hand to shake mine and say, “Hi, welcome to this moment.” He gives me what I need to not only endure the strangeness of life but be playful with it. And, of course, I continue to write.