INTERVIEW: Suzanne Scanlon, Author of Committed: On Meaning and Madwomen

Interview by Leslie Lindsay

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Book cover: Committed“How do you not measure your live in a before and after? Does anyone not do this?” writes Suzanne Scanlon in the first part of Committed: On Meaning and Madwomen .

These words immediately resonated and haunted me for days. I have often thought the same about my own life, when my mother had a psychotic break when I was halfway between my tenth year, resulting in a type of mother-loss, not unlike Scanlon, whose own mother died from breast cancer when she was nine-years-old.

Having grown up the daughter of a physician father and nurse mother, in west suburban Chicago, in a subdivision called Sans Souci, literally translating to ‘without worry,’ Scanlon examines suburban subdivision with ‘minor horror,’ … ‘living in one might feel like death.’ After reading Plath’s The Bell Jar, she found a narrative to frame her grief, which extended to many other literary works.

Writer, mother, and author of two previous novels, Scanlon scrutinizes that grief, her relationship with her mother, her suicide attempt and subsequent long-term hospitalization in the New York Psychiatric Institute in the 1990s, her re-entry, all within three acts. Here she explores children of divorce, self-discovery, and more under the guise of memory, sprinkled with many critical quotes from women writers who went on to shape her life: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Janet Frame, Audre Lorde, Shulamith Firestone, Kathy Acker, among others.

Scanlon peers at her mother through incisive and empathetic eyes, but always with an undulating merit of love, if not hurt and confusion. ‘This is the beginning, I think, of making a home. The beginning of creating myself on the page,’ she writes in Committed.

While these vignettes may sound devastating, it is Scanlon’s strong sense of insight and transcendence and her own love for family and literature that provide the reader hope in the ties people form with one another, as well as our own human persistence. It’s a raw and masterful memoir about becoming a woman, going mad, and doing it all at once.

As a writer innately consumed with mental illness, mother-loss — and its subsequent downfall — I became infused with the intricacies of home and memory, and the craft of writing blended memoir.

Please join me in conversation with Suzanne Scanlon.

Leslie Lindsay: Suzanne, I am so delighted to connect! As I read Committed, I felt an immediate kinship between our experiences. The fact that we were both around years old when we ‘lost’ a significant parent — your mother to breast cancer and then soon after, your father in a sense with his remarriage, and my mother to severe mental illness. We both felt untethered, navigating these complicated circumstances. It would be easy not write about these things. Yet there’s a calling, a haunting, if you will. Of course, mother-loss wasn’t your only motivation to writing. Can you speak more about inspiration?

Suzanne Scanlon:  No, it isn’t my only motivation. Perhaps it made me a writer, but it’s not the only thing. My inspiration comes from reading, always, wanting to enter into an ongoing conversation about so many things. The conversation these writers have been having, continue to have. I’ve always found life to be so limited when it comes to reaching the divine, addressing what really matters. And that’s the job of art. To create a space for it. For philosophy, doubt, discovery. Communication.

LL: Like you, trauma has played a large role in my personal life, but professional life as well. You studied the role of mental illness in literature, whereas my work at a (former) child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. taught me about the bleak ‘before and after’ a traumatic event, how individuals who have experienced such jarring discord often try to mend the gulf. That’s what I feel Committed is doing, it’s dwelling in that in-between space, or as you say, Duraspace, after Margaurite Duras. Would you agree? I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the fact that your mother was an R.N. I wonder how much of your hospitalization—the nurses, particularly — served as surrogate mothers?

SS: There were very kind nurses and doctors. But no one has ever been a surrogate mother for me in a substantive way. I had to become my own mother, that’s the closest I could get to having her back.

LL: One of the things I think you do well is delve into your own interiority, which is masterfully and brilliantly done. I understand you had access to your mental health records, your chart, and kept a notebook, which pained you at times, to read. Can you talk a little about how you were able excavate recreate your interior world from thirty years ago?

SS: It is like method acting, as I say, quoting Hilton Als. I have to return to the feeling and the moment and I do that the way an actor might. So I return to what I remember of the circumstance – the subway or the dorm or the street or the hospital – and I put myself there, enter the space through recalling sensory details. This brings alive my memory of the time and place.

LL: Of course we are all curious creatures and would love an inside peek at the New York Psychiatric Institute, which is no longer functioning in the same capacity as it was in the 1990s. You mention that you ‘lived’ there, but then change your verb to ‘stayed,’ as if in a hotel. Now, you admit to being drawn to hotels, and that’s something I can identity with. The freedom, the transitory feeling. Can you talk more about that, please?

Headshot of Suzanne Scanlon

SS: At best, the hospital allowed me to live in between and sometimes that in between space can feel invigorating and hopeful. So much dramatic power lies in the transitional moments, as we see throughout literature. A hotel stay implies the liminal, the never settled nature of things, a life in transition. As an artist I like anything that pushes toward disequilibrium, and then perhaps a point of transformation. I think of artists like Sophie Calle who has used hotel rooms, or Jean Rhys living in hotels. It’s decadent and seedy or sad, the space of the outsider, a mark of non-belonging.

LL: I really want to delve into the literature you present in Committed, and I was so very struck by this line, “[…] when I read The Lover and Beloved and now The Bell Jar, I did not know that a book is about communication. Or, if I knew, it didn’t matter before now. A book is a way to speak to someone, across time and space.” Do I ever love that! Can you speak into that more, please?

SS: I was clinically depressed at the time I read these books and so perhaps they meant more than they would now – I had a heightened sensitivity. I was porous. I felt that these writers were inviting me into their worlds – and they were, as any great narrative can – and speaking to me. And this is why I write. That seems obvious but I hadn’t realized how literature did that, especially because the way books were taught in school or my education did not emphasize this magical quality. It was an over emphasis on content I suppose, ignoring the author, or the feeling the reader might have in response. It is such an intimate and sacred exchange, writer to reader.

LL: Circling back to mother-loss, which may have been the impetus to so many of the themes in Committed, I was struck by the author Julie Kristeva’s quote about the loss of the mother (what Adrienne Rich calls the essential female tragedy) is the ‘noncommunicable trauma,’ that the resulting sadness is depression with specificity (Black Sun). The best way to understand it is through art, that art is the language. You found solace in literary works and then wrote. You communicated your loss, your grief. Did it help?

SS: The act of writing helps, being a writer helps. If I couldn’t write, I’d be unhappy. But that doesn’t mean it ended my grief. That is very alive in me. Grief wasn’t something to get over, that’s what literature showed me.

LL: I’ve loved this so much, Suzanne. Thank you. I want to end on hope because that’s what I think Committed is ultimately about. You want to write and talk and ‘not put it behind you,’ like Dr. Triel and your college dean suggestions. You want to share your battle wounds, you want to talk about how shame should go by the wayside. What’s next for you?

SS: I have at least two projects in the works, though one might absorb the other. It’s not clear yet. I hope to know soon.


Committed: On Meaning and Madwomen will be released April 16, 2024 with Vintage Books.

leslie lindsay

Leslie Lindsay

Staff Interviewer

Leslie Lindsay is a writer/creative based outside Chicago. Her essays, interviews, and photography have been published in many literary journals, including Hippocampus, Ruminate, The Millions, and The Rumpus. Her book, Speaking of Apraxia: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech was released in audio by Penguin Random House in 2021. She is a book ambassador, influencer, and active on Instagram.

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