Things That Helped

A deli Q&A with Jessica Friedmann, which helped

On Australian journalist and memoirist Jessica Friedmann’s first-ever day in New York City, she was supposed to meet me in the lobby of the Ace Hotel to do an interview about her essay collection Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression. I had to email her from the bar to tell her we’d have to improvise, as there were no empty seats. I should have known that would be the case because there are never any empty seats, and in the moments of sending the email and looking around for her, I was afraid she’d say something to the effect of “You should have known there would be no seats.” Except she couldn’t because she’d never been to New York before. Also, because it turned out she was very nice.

Anyway, we walked to a two-story deli on 5th Avenue and I walked into a tree while I was talking. Then we ate some deli danishes while she told me about her book, which is about all of things she read and listened to and looked at and made when she was dealing with postpartum depression. I can’t believe how warm and smart she was, or that she wasn’t annoyed by the deli coffee and the horrible animation on my iPhone voice recorder app. Her book is remarkable, and it was nice for me that I read it during a summer of feeling confused about how a woman’s body works and what it wants.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about motherhood in general. I don’t know if you read the Sheila Heti book that just came out?

Not yet.

It’s super interesting. I mean, I’m 24 so I haven’t thought about it that much until very recently.

Yeah, it’s funny, there seem to be… oh that is a good animation.

Sorry, I can cover it up so it’s not distracting!

It’s okay. It seems that every review I’ve read recently, of the Heti book or of Rumaan Alam’s book started off with a little preamble about “the movement of motherhood books at the moment!” It’s a really strange thing to come together as a trend. But it’s great to be part of a moment.

I was going to ask you about the part of the book where your friend thinks she has a miscarriage and it turns out to be, maybe like a phantom pregnancy, but the physical pain is somehow real. I had never read anything about that sort of thing at all, and it’s just shocking to me how much about women’s bodies seems to be secret.

I think the first thing to say is that even though I use the language of maternity and motherhood often in the book it’s really not just women who experience these things. Plenty of queer or trans people have female-coded bodies and it’s a really hard thing to talk about because a lot of research is very binary. So, when I’m talking about these things I prefer to use the term “reproductive health,” because a lot of people who aren’t women will go through the same experiences in their reproductive lifetimes.

It’s really fundamentally pretty fucked, how little attention is paid to the female body

I don’t want to speak for [my friend] because she’s gone through quite a lot in her own reproductive journey, but I’m finding that as I’m into my thirties, a lot more of my friends are being diagnosed with things like endometriosis, after years of doctors just saying “have an ice pack, take some Tylenol, I’m sure the pain isn’t that bad.” There’s this incredible lag between women and people with uteruses identifying something wrong within the body, something outside the norm, and medical professionals actually taking them seriously.

You said you’ve been reading a lot about motherhood, I personally have been reading a lot more about reproductive health and endometriosis and cysts and all the things that can get in the way of having a healthy reproductive system. And because it is mostly women’s pain, it goes under the radar. We’re expected to have a much higher pain threshold than men, or conversely male doctors don’t understand the extent of things and dismiss you out of hand when you say “I’m having intolerable pain, it’s so bad that I’m throwing up.” And he’ll say “Oh, you’ve got your period,” when in fact it’s interstitial bleeding or you know, a cyst has burst. It’s really fundamentally pretty fucked, how little attention is paid to the female body, given that it comprises half of the bodies on Earth.

That reminds me of when The Rules Do Not Apply came out and there was that kind of demented review of it where the writer was basically saying, “Miscarriage happens to so many people, it’s not inherently interesting.”

No, I did not read this!

It wasn’t a very well-written memoir, in my opinion, but the reviewer’s argument was kind of “This woman is white and rich and her experience is not uncommon enough to justify writing this.” Of course questioning privilege in publishing is always valid, but… I don’t know.

I think it’s a pity that it’s middle-class white women and rich white women —and I can put myself in there too — who are represented in publishing. I feel like that ties into what I was just saying. The people who can afford to speak out about miscarriage and mental illness are the people who have adequate access to care. If you’re going through something and you’re untreated and you’re right in the thick of it, you don’t have the distance to write about that. It’s just an experience you’re living through. Only some of us end up getting access to the space and clarity to write about these things, and it is very tied up in class and race. You can’t get away from the fact that, while mental illness can happen to anyone, it’s compounded by things like gender dysphoria or poverty or just any of the ordinary injustice that make some people’s bodies worth more than others.

Only some of us end up getting access to the space and clarity to write about these things, and it is very tied up in class and race.

At the same time, I think miscarriage is absolutely something that’s absolutely critical to talk about and write about. I’ve never experienced one, but my friend Lorelei Vashti wrote this beautiful piece called “Every Day is So Long,” talking about how one day she had two babies and a weekend later she had no babies, and there was no structure or process for talking about it. In Australia— I assume it’s the same in America — there’s no widely recognized ritual. You can maybe take a few days off if you’re comfortable telling your boss. It seems so much a private issue, where it happens to so many women and it can be devastating. To the body as well as to the mind.

You talk about a lot of things that helped you during that time, obviously, that’s the conceit of the book. But were there other memoirs of postpartum depression that you read? I can’t really think of any like, classics of the genre.

It’s so funny, the only classic of the genre is the Brooke Shields book, Down Came the Rain. Which I haven’t read.

I haven’t either, I didn’t even know that existed.

Oh, she had a whole thing with Tom Cruise about it. He was on his anti-psychiatry rampage, and he told her she shouldn’t have been taking anti-depressants after she had her baby and she came out swinging, like “Otherwise I couldn’t have functioned as a parent, so up yours, Tom Cruise,” basically. I guess she kind of broke the silence for a generation of women. That said, I didn’t read it because I felt, it’s very funny, I was about to use the word “egotistical.” I felt egotistically like “Oh, I wouldn’t relate to that, my story is so different.” But the whole thing about mental illness is that it does force you to be in the self in a really involved way. It is self involved, it is self-conscious. All those words that you usually use to denigrate someone. It’s when you’re in the grip of it, you cannot help but be self-involved.

When I could read again, what I found most useful was just feminist theory. Julia Kristeva’s The Abjection of Self, it talks very explicitly about how the self can be reconstructed, or put together and fresh. Put together again and new. I didn’t need to do that as a theoretical exercise, I needed to do that as a practical exercise. Also, of course, I had a lot of therapy.

Was it challenging to get a book like this published?

I had an editor at a publishing house contact me out of the blue, saying they were looking to expand their debut list and was I working on anything. And I said “Well, actually, yeah!” I think I wrote back within half an hour or something, all prompt and excited. That didn’t end up going forward. They wanted half of the book up front to take to acquisitions and I just didn’t have it in me at that point in time. I was really juggling — I hadn’t been to work for some time so our income was very small, and I was juggling childcare, which I needed so I could go to therapy and then practice all the things I learned in therapy and have rest and get the writing done, with working to pay for all of those things. I just didn’t have the space to take a couple of months off to write 30,000 words to take to an acquisitions editor.

So, I wrote an email to Curtis Brown, the agency. “Dear Curtis Brown, I have been approached by a publisher. I don’t really know what to do. If I could have a half-hour phone call with one of your agents I’d greatly appreciate it.” I heard back in five minutes, and had a really nice chat and kind of signed over the phone, and once I had four essays they took the book to auction. We had a few offers and wound up going with Scribe, which is this really great independent publishing company in Australia.

The larger publishing houses… they were not super interested. The sales potential is very low. Even though postpartum depression affects one in seven women, it’s considered a niche topic to write about. You’ll have to write there in square brackets “makes crazy gesture to the gods.”

Even though postpartum depression affects one in seven women, it’s considered a niche topic to write about.

We put it out in Australia, and it has been pretty quiet. There’s been some nice critical attention and quiet, slow sales. And I suspect the same will be true in America. It’s a difficult book.

I really wanted to make it easy to read, but the basic concepts that are discussed aren’t straightforward. There isn’t a beginning, middle, and end, where I end up healthy and in love with my child. I am now, he’s divine, he’s so gorgeous. But that idea of a recovery narrative never interested me. It’s so great to see Leslie Jamison come out with an anti-recovery recovery memoir as well because the recovery narrative is so glib. It doesn’t leave enough room for “Actually, maybe I have this problem forever. Maybe I will just always be on anti-depressants, but I know how to manage it now.” That’s the best it gets for a lot of us.

Bringing the book to the US, do you think there will be any cultural differences in the reception?

It’s really hard to anticipate. FSG changed the subtitle. In Australia it’s just “essays.” A single-author essay collection is still very unusual in Australia. But here there are so many single-author essay collections by young women at the moment that FSG felt that if they just wrote “essays” it wouldn’t give enough to the potential buyer. So they made it “On postpartum depression.”

I had a Publisher’s Weekly review that kind of gestured toward that recovery memoir about how they wanted it to have a cleaner ending and clearer trajectory. In some ways, that feels quite American. That sounds insulting.

No, American accountability culture is very, uh…

Yeah, you know that TED Talk or This American Life style, you can say it in 17 minutes and it has a beautiful, strong, resolved ending. I can’t really write that way, I’m too circular and messy and there are too many loose ends. That said, America at the moment is just having this incredible boom of essays. I think Jia Tolentino wrote that article saying like, “the first-person essay is dead, long live the first-person essay.” There are some really interesting thinkers and writers just grabbing a topic by the scruff of its neck, pinning it down, and analyzing it. It feels like there is such a huge reading population here, that even if what you’re writing is “niche,” like what I write is “niche,” there will be enough people to sustain a readership. I think you have 10, 12 times the population that we do. And so possibilities feel a bit more open.

One really big difference though, to go back, is that in Australia, we do have a bit of a safety net. We have Medicaid. You can get up to 10 rebatable psychology sessions under the Medicare program. It’s nowhere near enough. We don’t have enough mother and baby units in the public ward, but I don’t know if Americans have any. Is there a public system for this kind of thing?

For, uh…

So, in Australia, if you have a pressing psychiatric need and you are a mother with a young baby, there aren’t enough beds but there are some beds in the public hospital where you can go and get treated and your baby is there with you and they teach you how to take care of your baby and manage your psychiatric health at the same time and it’s free.

Oh, yeah, I’m assuming there’s almost no way that exists here.

Yeah, so I’m talking about these issues in the book and there’s quite a lot that’s tied up in the way that Australia practices mental health care. I probably need to dig a little more into the way that Americans practice mental health care.

The other big difference is that you have a huge, visibly Christian and faith-based culture. Australia is pretty secular. A lot of people have faith but they practice privately or it’s just kind of threaded through their community, whereas here it feels as though the church or various churches have a very strong influence on the pattern of people’s lives. That feels like it complicates things a bit.

In Australia there is a strong understanding that if you are going through something, you go to your doctor and talk about it and make a mental health plan, and they refer you to some psychology sessions or potentially psychiatry sessions. Here in the States, a lot of the discourse I’ve read about it, the first person to call is your pastor or your rabbi. Obviously medication is not for everyone, but it does feel like some people are slipping through the cracks, not receiving treatment, because the issue is reframed as gratitude or patience or putting faith in something, when actually it’s something that may need medical involvement. I’m still trying to figure out how to speak to that without being antagonistic, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to a faith-based leader. Going to your rabbi and having a chat about how you’re finding things difficult is a completely normal thing to do. And obviously lots of churches or synagogues or mosques will point you towards medical help but I’m aware that there are some that just won’t, it’s a paradigm that they refuse. So I worry about women and parents who may be vulnerable to not having a way of talking about things outside of gratitude and patience and “Am I a good enough parent?” It’s not about being good enough, it’s absolutely not. It’s about taking care of yourself in a way that works.

I worry about women and parents who may be vulnerable to not having a way of talking about things outside of gratitude and patience

Have other women tried to come to you to talk about these kinds of things?

Oh, all the time.

Early in the book is when it’s very dark.

There are some funny bits too!

Oh, yeah, but those are the parts that are things people really don’t say, ever. Do you hear from people about that? Strangers, or people you know?

I was just tweeting about this. I hear very intimate details of people’s lives, almost immediately upon meeting them. There’s some need to speak about it. When I was writing the book, I would go to the hair salon and the woman would ask me what I was working on and I would barely get the words out before someone would say “Oh, my niece had that, my sister that, I had that, no one talks about that.”

On the way here, this is what I was tweeting about, I was coming through customs. The officer stopped me and he was very tall and very serious and you know, “What do you do for work?” and I was like [whisper] “I’m a writer. “What do you write about?” [whisper] “I just write about postpartum depression.” And he looked at me and he went, “I think my wife had that with our first two. We have four kids. I really wish people would talk about that more. Americans are so private about it.” For about five minutes, he and I just stood there having a chat about his life and about how when she had a miscarriage with their first child, she didn’t know how to talk about it. This is just literally going through the line to try to get into America. There were people backed up behind me, but he really had been just carrying it around, maybe not even realizing that he wanted to talk about it.

A lot of the conversations I have are “I had this and I’m glad you wrote about it,” and those are very sweet and brief. But sometimes it gets to a point where I end up sitting down with someone I’ve never met and we’re dusting off our hands and saying, “Well first you need to ring the crisis assessment team and they’ll come to your house and they’ll hook you up with a social worker and a social worker will know whether there are any low-income programs in your area, and if not you can go to X, Y, and Z departments.” None of this information is freely published and available, because if it were, everyone would use it, and there isn’t enough funding for everyone to use it. It’s just impossible. What people suffering mental illness need is real advocacy that says “You are sick. I will help you find help.” Rather than just, “Well, if there’s anything you need!”

My mom is divine, I love her to bits. She’s always said she didn’t feel she had a relationship with my son until after I was healthy. Because she was a mother first at that point, and then when I could be the mother she got to become the grandmother. She was quite fierce in protecting me and making sure I had an advocate in getting help.