Anne Lamott’s “Imperfect Birds”
“Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities.”
Anne Lamott appeared on SOF years ago, in 2003, in a show we titled “The Meaning of Faith.” I had been fan of hers for some time prior, but I was especially captivated at that time with her personal story of redemption and recovery, and her life as a thoroughly 21st-century writer.
So, when her new fiction, Imperfect Birds, showed up in the mail, the volume floated to the top of the stack of books on my desk — and I took it home and read it. And then I read the two novels that preceded this one and decided to put some questions to her about this very moving story of recovery and human frailty.
What follows are her replies that took place via email:
I appreciate you taking the time to discuss your new book, Imperfect Birds, with me. In this story you bring us back into the lives of the Fergusons—a story begun in your book Rosie (1983) and continued in Crooked Little Heart (1997). So, the first thing I want to ask is, what is it about this story that makes it necessary to write it in intervals of 13 years or so? Is that because it’s a hard story? A sad one?
Novels take a lot more stamina and time—at least two and half years—I much prefer self-contained stories and essays that I can begin and finish in a week. Novels are years worth of needing to keep the plates spinning in the air; hardly ever really knowing what you are doing, and lurching forward slowly, backtracking, flailing, falling, losing hope and confidence, getting back up, lurching onward.
The Fergusons, especially in this last book, really embody the idea that alcoholism is a family disease. (I am a recovering alcoholic and the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, so I am grateful for this portrayal.) Elizabeth, the mother of the teenager Rosie, is a middle-aged recovering alcoholic whom I found sympathetic at the same time her helplessness made me want to wring her neck. Of the primary characters in the novel, she seemed most incomplete, in a way, most damaged, even though it’s her daughter who is in trouble. Will she stop living her incomplete life through Rosie?
I don’t see her the same way you do. She has really been a late bloomer, not even getting to the full expression of grief following her beloved husband’s death, until Rosie is 13—8 years or so later.
I see her small actions towards truth and tough decisions as heroic, because emotional expression does not come easily to her, as it does to James and Rae. Truth does not come easily to most people in this culture—a good appearance is the dominating value. Rae and James’s adoration of her is one of the things that most helps me experience what a profound, if introverted, person she is—how brilliant and rare, to be able to have a husband and best friend of this quality.
Your portrayal of Rosie’s drug use seems to me to describe a sort of 21st century story about addiction. In an older sort of story about teenage drug use, the kid would hook up with a bad crowd, her grades would crash, and she would start stealing cars or running away from home. In this case, the teenage junkie is extremely high functioning—a model student who volunteers at church. But she’s morally bankrupt, a schemer and liar and manipulator. I think this change in the nature of story reflects a change out there in the world. Do you agree? What has changed?
The pressure on these modern kids is infinitely most intense than it was on me—I’ve heard it said by high school teachers whose kids are almost cracking up under the strain to get into the great colleges, that exceptionalism is the new normal.
At the same time, there’s a kind of terrible feeling of inevitability and doom that begins to unfold. Rosie clearly has fallen into this vortex and there is only one outcome possible. For me, that really hits when it becomes clear that she and her boyfriend Finn are taking a horse tranquilizer with complete whimsy, as if they were tasting chocolates. Her tone is one of complete innocence. Is this the function of denial? Sin? Is she even a moral agent at this point?
She’s a late bloomer too. She didn’t develop until fourteen and fifteen, whereas her best friend in junior high is a luscious voluptuous vanilla blondie who gets pregnant at fourteen. So partly I think she has a lot of catching up to do—she spent the bulk of her youth on the tennis court, which injured her in many ways, and now she wants to experience being desired and larger than life, wild, intense, young, loved, and normal, part of a whole.
In Crooked Little Heart, it seems like Rosie’s moral education really begins, or anyway gets interesting, when she is becoming a competitive tennis player, and she starts cheating, and then she keeps that secret, and we begin to actually feel the spiritual corrosion that secret causes. She starts lying to herself first, about whether she is even cheating. As I read it I actually started thinking about my own reflexive dishonesty and the perils of that. Is there a connection between this cheating and keeping it a secret and where Rosie ends up at the end of Imperfect Birds?
I don’t think so. Almost all of us are pretty secretive, and maybe especially those who had a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, as Rosie does. Then you hear that we are only as sick as our secrets, and it takes a little while to truly get that, and to make the decision to try living a different way.
In the last year or so, I was aware of five people in my orbit who died of alcoholism. I wasn’t close to any of them—they were family members of co-workers or uncles of friends. The people who died were in their 50s (roughly my age) and they just finally wore out. One of them died with full-blown cirrhosis but others were just-you know, their heart gave out, or they fell off a roof, or just came to the end active drunks inevitably come to. It’s such a staggering thing to see people come to that end. Why do you think some of us manage to get better and some of us don’t?
I literally have no idea. Grace?
Elizabeth’s good friend Rae at one point counsels her that she needs to accept the truth, and that even if it is bitter and frightening and difficult, it is beautiful and she should find a way to be grateful for it. That seems like hard advice. Does Elizabeth come to terms with her hard truth? Doesn’t it take her a long time?
It does take her a long time. It has always taken me a long time, too—as a parent, as a daughter, as a sister. You just keep trying not to see what is going on in front of you—especially if you were raised among alcoholics, it’s one of the first things you learn: that what seems to be going on between your parents can actually be explained so that they do not seem crazy or out of control. So you develop a habit of not seeing what you’re seeing—of colluding with the lie machine. And this is a very hard thing to turn around, which is why I said earlier that Elizabeth’s growth, while slow, is so heroic.
I hope this isn’t too personal. You’ve spoken in interviews and in your other, nonfiction writing, about your own experience of addiction, and how your religious awakening happened. I remember, in the interview you did with Speaking of Faith several years ago, you told a story about coming down from drugs on a houseboat, and that—I believe the story was—Jesus was there with you. And I seem to remember that for a while, you said, Jesus was nipping at your heels like a little kitten. Not like Deus Omnipotens, but like a playful lovely kitten. That image is so unexpected and has always sort of stayed with me. Do you still have the experience of Jesus, or of grace, like that? Do you see these novels as religious or spiritual stories?
I have a very unsophisticated relationship with Jesus. I do not have one interesting theological thought in my head. I just feel him, and did from the beginning: I feel the intense love he has for us, especially when we are suffering, and I feel his delight in me, which is something most of us are starved for most of our lives, and I feel his unwavering companionship. I feel his purity and goodness, and I see it wherever people are suffering, and others show up to help. I see Christ Crucified in the world’s abject poverty and despair and unfairness, how horrible horrible horrible it is for most people, and when I see this, I desperately want to be there beside him, helping in any way I can. Maybe just bringing a glass of water, or sitting there breathing with him, like you sit with someone in child birth.
Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities. I try to shine a little light in the world, to be the light for whomever is there, whether at the market, or in a bookstore. It is my spiritual calling. I do a very meager job most of time, but this is my intention.
(photo: James Hall)