DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off today. Our guest is cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider. He has a new collection of personal essays, which are a little hard to describe but also hard to put down. They're all reflections on relationships in his life. And the subjects range from a whirlwind romance with a performance artist and prostitute, a married woman he fell in love with, his cat and a pastor that Kreider - an affirmed atheist - dated.
Kreider's weekly cartoon called "The Pain - When Will It End?" ran in Baltimore's City Paper for 12 years and was collected in three volumes by Fantagraphic Books (ph). Tim Kreider teaches writing as a visiting faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College, and his essays appear in The New York Times and other publications. His new essay collection is called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You."
Well, Tim Kreider, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is a fascinating collection of stuff, some serious reflection on your life and just some fascinating experiences, one of them involving you taking a trip on something that I did not know existed and I guess doesn't anymore - a circus train. How did this happen?
TIM KREIDER: Well, an old college friend of mine, whom I call Annie in this essay, was at loose ends in her life and answered a somewhat enigmatic classified ad for a teaching position and then found herself working for the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, living on the circus train and setting up her one-room schoolhouse in the downtown arenas wherever they stopped. She was teaching the children of circus performers. She was hired, actually, by the same agency that hires teachers for movie sets because all children in the U.S. need 180 days of schooling a year, including kids who are publicly flung through the air by their parents on trapezes. She had asked me to accompany her on the circus train down to Mexico City, which at that time - mid-'90s - was considered a very dangerous place. She wanted me to pose as her husband for protection.
DAVIES: OK. I want you to read a section here. And this is where you and Annie are kind of sitting outside in one of the cars, I guess, just hanging out as the train is moving through the countryside. Share this with us.
KREIDER: (Reading) You know, the trainmaster'll throw you off the train if he catches you doing that, someone passing through the vestibule told us. He meant dangling our legs out of the train. And he told me he probably wasn't exaggerating. The circus' management philosophy was very 19th-century. The basic contract was, you don't like it? Get off the train. So we stood instead, leaning over the closed lower door to look outside. When we were on a bend in the track, the wheels screeching against the rails, you could see nothing but train curving away in either direction, people leaning out the window and doors to wave and give each other the finger. For the first time, I could appreciate the train's true length. It was like being inside the Empire State Building laid on its side.
Big, red, circus-y letters painted on the sides of the cars advertised who we were. No one can resist waving to the circus train. One group even waved to us from a cemetery. We had no choice but to wave back, conscripted into service as ambassadors of goodwill. Sometimes Annie wore a red clown nose while waving. At one railroad crossing, a man sitting in the cab of his pickup waiting for the train to pass got to see Annie wearing the nose flash her breasts at him. I caught a glimpse of his face bursting into laughter before he was whisked into the past.
DAVIES: And that's Tim Kreider reading from his new collection of essays, "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You." Tell us a little bit about life on the circus train. There were different - all the performers and staff had their own cars. What were the different cars like?
KREIDER: Well, first of all, what I can tell you about the circus' inner life is pretty limited. It's a very insular society. You know, these are people who were long regarded as social pariahs. And a lot of these acts are dynastic, from old Eastern European circus families. You know, they're hereditary. And so you're either with the circus or not. It's kind of - it's almost like an ethnicity. You don't get to just be with the circus because you're riding the train. So what little I was able to glean came from Annie's gossip and also from eavesdropping in the pie car, which is the dining car. That's what they call it.
KREIDER: ...Where I got to listen to roustabouts and another circus workers bitching about, you know, the things that all workers bitch about - hours, overtime. I remember one guy saying the immortal line, when I finish making that candy, man, I'm done.
DAVIES: He makes the cotton candy, I guess, right?
KREIDER: Yeah. There were also the clown car, which the clowns themselves called a dorm on wheels. They had little compartments about the size of a closet or wardrobe to live in, so they all tended to congregate in the common area, the kitchen. And, you know, they're, like, theater kids. They're cutups, goof-offs, showoffs, always, you know, playing outdoor sports indoors, wanging (ph) each other over the head with cookie sheets.
They picked up itinerant workers to serve as roustabouts for as long as they needed them - basically hobos who slept in berths that were pretty much like those hammocks below decks in old sailing ships. Each car was like its own little world. I describe it in the essay as being like your friends' houses when you're a kid. Each one has a slightly different smell that's all its own. Some were sort of antiseptic. Some were like sweet-and-sour pork - indefinable, but distinct.
DAVIES: Right. And while you never became an accepted member of the tribe, you got to see things, including, you describe, the routine for if there is an accident, say, on the trapeze. They don't have a doctor traveling with the circus, right? What happens?
KREIDER: No. This was all explained to me by Annie. They don't, in fact. They just - they don't have EMTs or medics. They just call 911 like the rest of us do. They do have a performance protocol. I recently talked to someone who remembered as a kid or thought he remembered seeing a fall at the circus. But he wasn't even quite sure he trusted his recollection because the whole performance protocol is designed to make you forget what you just saw. Like, they whip up a snappy, up-tempo, nothing-to-see-here-folks number, and they deploy the full force of clowns deploying maximum antics to distract all the kids. And he admitted it had almost eradicated from his memory what he's pretty sure he saw. They, you know, want everyone to have a good - as they say, the show must go on.
DAVIES: You've also wrote about your relationship with your cat, which I think you've written about elsewhere.
KREIDER: Ah, yes.
DAVIES: This is...
KREIDER: ...My beloved cat.
DAVIES: Yeah. You hadn't planned on getting the cat, right? He kind of crawled up to your house on Chesapeake Bay, and then you fed him. And then the rule is, if you fed him, you get him, right?
KREIDER: That turns out to be true and is probably mimetic of how cats came to be domesticated in the first place. You know, I don't think we domesticated cats on purpose. They started hanging around and turned out to be useful.
KREIDER: And I think they're getting more out of the deal than we are, at this point.
DAVIES: Right. And you have a passage in which you kind of talk about this theme of them being exploitative captives, which - you want to just read this for us?
KREIDER: (Reading) The cat has also efficiently conditioned my behavior. Biologists call cats exploitive captives - an evocative phrase that might be used to describe a lot of relationships, not all of them interspecies. I made the mistake early on of feeding the cat first thing in the morning, forgetting that the cat could control when I woke up by meowing politely, sitting on my chest and staring at me, nudging me insistently with her face or placing a single claw on my lip.
She refuses to drink water from a bowl, coveting what she believes is the higher-quality water I drink from a glass. I've attempted to demonstrate to the cat that the water we drink is the very same water by pouring it from my glass into her bowl right in front of her, but the cat was utterly unmoved, like a birther being shown Obama's long-form birth certificate. In the end, I gave in and now serve her water in a glass tumbler, which she has to stick her whole face into to drink from.
What the cat would like best would be for me to sit, without moving, with her on my lap forever. And I've often pled inability to come to the phone or make dinner because the cat is asleep on my lap, and there is nothing to be done. She registers her protest at my extended absences by pissing on my things, leaving neat little cat turds on my bed like ominously terse notes from your spouse or, more recently, by starting to die whenever I try to leave town.
DAVIES: You know, this is a relationship you fell into, which has lasted much longer than any relationship you've had with a woman, I gather. And you've reflected on why - why you, you know, lavished such affection and attention on this creature.
KREIDER: Well, luckily, I learned only after mostly writing this essay that people much smarter than me, like Montaigne and Plutarch, have written about the same thing. And I think it's really characteristic, especially with people who have difficulties forming human attachments, people who aren't married or don't have kids, that there's just a certain reservoir of affection we all have that needs to be expressed in the literal sense. And so we'll lavish it on pets. I mean, those are less complicated, less demanding relationships than human relationships. And the cat, you know, used a very wily approach on me. It was - she sort of insinuated herself gradually, which my smartest girlfriends have also done. She waited me out.
DAVIES: You write in a different essay about the cat's final, I guess, weeks and months, when it was incontinent and, I guess, demented. And you kind of became a crazy person, sort of following him around, trying to snatch him - her around, snatching her when she was about to do her business. And she eventually passed away. How has that - I don't know. How have you dealt with that? Do you want to get another cat?
KREIDER: Yeah, it's been several years now. And I think I have observed an appropriate mourning period. And I feel prepared to get another cat now, although circumstances don't permit it, currently. But I think within the next year, yes. I'm ready for a new cat because a man without a cat is not a man.
DAVIES: Tim Kreider is our guest. His new collection of essays is called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO BENEVENTO'S "GREENPOINT")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Tim Kreider. He is a cartoonist and essayist. He has a new collection of personal essays called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You."
Another fascinating essay in here called "Kind Of Love" begins when you get a letter. You're a cartoonist, which we'll get to. You're a cartoonist. And you got a letter from a fan who really admired your work, offering sexual favors. And what happens?
KREIDER: Well, I should say that that was a pretty much unprecedented experience in my life at that time. And it's, at least, reason No. 2 why you become an artist after not wanting to get a real job - is in the hopes that it will make girls or your preferred gender like you and want to sleep with you. And so, yes, out of nowhere, I got this note from a cartoon groupie. And, you know, friends conferred with me and speculated that it was just a scam or a cruel hoax perpetrated by a basement full of sniggering teens or an FBI sting operation. But no. Indeed, it proved to be this woman who had grown up in Baltimore, where I was a cartoonist for many years. And my cartoons, which were very dark in their humor, had helped her get through a very depressed adolescence. And she remained my admirer and was - I mean, she just let it be known that when we were both next in town, she would love to meet with me.
DAVIES: Right. And a lot of people would run from this. And I wonder if you saw it, in part, as material for writing. I don't know. But you met. And what did you learn about her?
KREIDER: Let me address question...
KREIDER: ...Implicit question No. 1 in that question.
DAVIES: Sure, OK.
KREIDER: I don't think that I lived my life in active pursuit of good material. I mean, at that time, I was a cartoonist. I was not a writer. But I think maybe that writers are people who do not run from things that most sane people would run from. You know, I'm someone who tends to say, well, this will be interesting, if nothing else. And quite often, they are nothing else. But they are often interesting experiences, this being one of them. I don't think you can...
DAVIES: Fair enough.
KREIDER: You know, if you're a writer, you live your life with - always in the back of your mind, this might make a good story. But if you're a human being, you're still operating out of the same idiotic, irrational motives that the rest of us are.
KREIDER: So sorry. Your real question was...
DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us about Zoey - the name you gave her - yeah.
KREIDER: Yeah. I call her Zoey in this essay. She is first and foremost an artist. She's a sexual performance artist in the tradition of Annie Sprinkle. You know, performance artist was not, in her case, like, a euphemism for pole dancer. But she was also a fetish model. And she is also a prostitute, about which she is, suffice it to say, unrepentant. She is - you know, she thinks that that job should be voluntary and safe more often than it is.
DAVIES: Right. And so you did end up having a relationship with her, spending time together. What was it like?
KREIDER: Yeah, a relationship of a sort. This whole book is about relationships of a sort, as the title of the essay alludes to. They're all of these in-between relationships that are not quite conventional or definable. In the essay, I call it a whirlwind pornographic romance. We spent a week together, which I describe as sort of like one of those having-fun, getting-to-know-each-other montages in rom-coms if they had those montages in porn films.
KREIDER: ...With some, you know, jaunty pop song playing in the background. But, you know, at the end of it - well, I mean, we got to know each other through our professional personas. You know, I had seen these photos of her online. And she had this very raunchy, take-no-prisoners image. And she knew me through my cartoons, which led her and most other readers to assume that I was some, you know, perpetually hungover, disheveled, unshaven person emitting spittle as I ranted. And we got to know each other over the course of the week. You know, we're both artists, and we understand professional personas. And we both liked the experience of getting to know each other and of letting ourselves be known. And by the end of the week, she told me that she kind of loved me. And I told her I kind of loved her, too.
KREIDER: And we still do.
DAVIES: Did you ever get jealous of her other relationships, liaisons while you were hanging together?
KREIDER: Oh, yes. I mean, I was a young man. And my jealousy was not just Othello-like but you, know, Medean.
KREIDER: And even though it was a weeklong relationship whose terms were perfectly explicit, I still - you know, she introduced me to one of her other lovers, whom I did not enjoy meeting. And I once had to return a purse to her and found her in bed with someone else, which, you know, was well within her rights but did not make me very happy.
But as I said in the essay, I think those little bouts of jealousy were mild, inoculatory (ph) doses that protected me from what could have been a much worse case later on. She and I never contemplated having a serious relationship. Neither of us ever entertained that possibility. And that's true of most of the relationships in this book. There are very few conventional boyfriend-girlfriend relationships among them. There's an ex-girlfriend relationship. But they're very deep and enduring relationships nonetheless.
DAVIES: You've been a cartoonist since your 20s. You published a series for many years called "The Pain - When Will It End?" Where did the - I don't know - the impulse to express yourself this way come from?
KREIDER: Well, I was always medium-good at both writing and drawing. We make all the most important decisions in our lives when we are too young and clueless to understand their implications, and I decided somewhere in middle or high school that I would rather be a writer I think because I thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that it would be cooler.
So I went to college for writing. I went to Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars program and then graduated. And what you were supposed to do then if you'd gone to a writing school was write short stories and try to get those published in literary magazines and then work on a novel. And it turned out I had no idea how to write fiction at all. I still don't. I don't know how to reconcile the necessities of plot with anything resembling real life. I just don't understand life well enough to make things up.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of the cartoons had autobiographical material in there about your life. And you would draw yourself a lot not always in the most flattering way. And it was funny. I was thinking about how, you know, most of us come to work some days thinking, this is great. I have great colleagues. I have good relationships, and I do my job well. And then other days, I feel like, I can't do this. I'm not any good at this. I don't know. I'm wondering about the process of drawing yourself and it - whether it varies with your own self-image.
KREIDER: (Laughter) I don't think it had a lot to do with self-esteem. I think for me, I always drew myself stubbly because it helps give definition to a face. And it sort of expressed an inner stubbly-ness, a sort of state of spiritual dishevelment. I mean, your job as a cartoonist isn't just to capture a likeness.
KREIDER: A caricature brings out aspects of someone's character that that they're trying to conceal. Like, when I tried to draw George Bush, who at the time I hated as a politician and a person, I found myself helplessly empathizing with him. And I just found my own face twisting helplessly empathizing with his expressions. And his expressions were a kind of cringe I found that there was in his face a deeply hidden insecurity and an anxiousness to please.
And what I was revealing in my drawings of myself is probably not for me to say. It's probably way more obvious to everyone else in the world than it is to me. But it's true that even back then without it being a calculated decision, I just automatically included drawings of my friends in my cartoons, which is a practice I've continued in my essays. I just naturally use my life and my friends as raw material.
DAVIES: Tim Kreider's collection of essays is called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You." After a break, he'll talk about the famous psychological experiment his mom volunteered him for when he was a baby and about getting stabbed and how it affected him. Also Maureen Corrigan reviews the Iraq war memoir "Eat The Apple" by Matt Young. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIM HALL'S "CIRCUS DANCE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off today. We're speaking with cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider. His cartoon called "The Pain - When Will It End?" ran for 12 years in Baltimore City Paper and is now collected in three volumes by Fantagraphics Books. And he has a new collection of personal essays about the many and varied relationships in his life. It's called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You."
You have an essay in the book called "Our War On Terror," which describes your reaction to what happened after the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. And you said you felt morally conscripted to become a political cartoonist. And a lot of your material then was about your rage at what was going on in the country, the Patriot Act, the invasion, the lies and cynicism you felt you saw among our national leaders.
It's also about your friendship with a woman, another cartoonist who you call Lauren, who was married at the time. And you have this friendship which you say was intensified because it was a time of war. It raised the stakes for everything. And you had this very, very close relationship over a long period of time. And I'd like you to read this passage where you're describing a point in your relationship.
KREIDER: (Reading) The first time I ever drew Lauren in a cartoon, we had to sit down over beers and have a little talk. Lauren admitted that she had not been initially thrilled to see herself looking in my depiction, quote, "like a batty, old lady." But she admitted there was a certain batty, old lady-ish (ph) side to her personality. And as a cartoonist herself, she could understand that I must've observed her carefully and with great affection to have captured that aspect of her. She'd often tease me for having such an obvious type to which, she had noted, she did not conform. You like them willowy, she'd croon, with long tresses.
(Reading) Lauren herself had chin-length brown hair and had once told me she'd always thought of herself as short and stumpy compared to her pretty, popular older sister. I did not even make eye contact during this talk. And I'm sure she took my silence as acquiescent. The only thing I could think of to say in response was something I could not say - that her face was my favorite sight on Earth, that my heart lit up like the tree at Rockefeller Center every time she walked into a diner or a bar to meet me, every time I heard her answer the phone - Tim - with such audible pleasure, that I adored the broad curve of her lip, her pigtails, her knit cap, her leopard coat, the pale blue of her eyes, that I cherished the sly sidewise look she'd give me to let me know when I was full of it, the way her lower lip pulled to the left when she felt conflicted or guilty, the glances she'd give me across the room at parties, both of us complicit in knowledge that we'd rather be talking to each other, that sometimes I'd close my eyes and breathe in the air she'd walk through.
(Reading) One rainy afternoon when I was helping her with some scanning and Photoshop during a deadline crunch, she got up to fetch us some lunch and paused behind me for a moment to rub my left shoulder blade. I felt her handprint there for years.
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Tim Kreider, reading from his essay "Our War On Terror," which is in his new collection "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You."
That's such a gripping description of what forbidden love feels like. You eventually talked with Lauren about your feelings. How did it go? How did acknowledging this attraction affect you?
KREIDER: Well, it was a rough time in our friendship. I mean, I'd wanted to write this essay for years because I know this is not an uncommon experience. I mean, there's even a term - work spouse. I mean, people become close through various circumstances often through work. But in our case, it was being colleagues but also protesting a war together. And sometimes, they get closer than they expected. And then they either have an affair, or they stop seeing each other. Or they figure their way through it. And we had started out as friends. I mean, a lot of people pretend to start out as friends. But they both know what they're really doing. We really were friends. And we both treasured that friendship and were very stubbornly determined to salvage it. And we managed to.
KREIDER: And that was a process that took years. You know, we had to negotiate some things. And the friendship changed. And, you know, at the time, well-meaning friends told me, you know, one day, you will be closer for this. And to me, that sounded like, you know, one day, you'll thank me for making you do your algebra homework. But it's true. It's a less intense and volatile but more enduring friendship now. So I thought this would be a worthwhile thing to write about because not everybody finds their way back to friendship out of these imbroglios.
DAVIES: Right. You know, it's clear from the book that you have had a lot of relationships with women over your life but have never, you know, had a - you've never been married. You've never lived with a woman. You've never had a deep, intimate relationship that's kind of been enduring. And correct me if I'm wrong about this. And I'm wondering how this experience with Lauren might've made you think of that. I mean, if she were available, might she have been someone you would've ended up with?
KREIDER: Well, we don't get do-overs...
KREIDER: ...In life. And we don't get a control experiment. So who knows? I mean, I think a lot of people share the pattern that they are repeatedly attracted to people who are unavailable. There is something that feels safe about that to them. They dread the possibility of actual entanglement. I would disagree that I have not had deep and enduring intimate relationships.
KREIDER: I wouldn't pretend that they've been the same as living with someone or being married to someone for years. I don't know the first thing about that. I think that's a whole other world from anything I know. But, you know, my relationship with Lauren is a deep and enduring one and intimate in its way although it was never sexual. I think that this model of an intimate, sexual relationship that is enduring and codified as a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship or marriage makes a lot of people feel inadequate and frustrated and like failures.
And I just think it's a very narrow and limiting model. And I think there are a lot of different ways to love people and a lot of different ways to structure a relationship. I mean, I think one of the few conclusions I may have reached from writing this book is that when we say relationship or marriage, we all think we're talking about the same thing. But I think there's a lot of different deals worked out out there.
DAVIES: Tim Kreider is our guest. His new collection of essays is called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Tim Kreider. He is a cartoonist and essayist. He has a new collection of personal essays called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You."
You know, you write in some detail about relationships with friends. And people's memories and perceptions differ. And I'm wondering when you write about them, do you talk to them first to either get their permission, tap their perceptions? And do they get any kind of edit on your account?
KREIDER: Yeah. I'm a lot more cautious and circumspect about that than I used to be because I've written about people in ways that I naively thought were empathetic and fair but which they experienced as devastating betrayals. And I have no wish to hurt anybody. The only people I ever gave veto power over my writing were my sisters because I hope that they'll take care of me when I'm old.
KREIDER: But most of my friends - you know, I ran all these essays by their main characters. And I told them all that if you have serious objections to anything in here, factual or otherwise, you know, things you just don't want made public, I will take that very seriously and did. And I don't remember anyone asking me to make any changes that I felt were censorious or any big deal.
DAVIES: You were involved in a actually famous childhood experiment - a psychological experiment which was designed to test kid's attachment to their mothers where you'd play with toys. And then the psychologist would put you in a room with toys and then observe how you were there when the mom was there and then when the mom left and when the mom returned. And based on what your mom told you of her memories of how you behaved in this little thing, you concluded you might have been in the category of 1-year-olds who had relationship issues with your mother - kind of a detachment - and that this might have had something to do with your - how do I - I'm not sure how to put this accurately - but your difficulty in having long relationships with women.
I don't know. What do you think of - where did you come out on all that? You actually tracked down the graduate student who had been with you that day who kind of even remembered you although you couldn't get any of the hard data. What do you think? Do you think any of that affected you deeply? What do you ascribe to the idea that this detachment as a kid affected how you related to women as you grew up?
KREIDER: Well, I can almost hear all the developmental psychologists out there listening, scrutinizing my every word for the slightest inaccuracy. So it is a famous experiment at least among developmental psychologists. I say in the essay that when therapists and social workers find out I was one of the original infants in the Strange Situation, which is what it was called, they react sort of the way a more general audience would if they found out I played one of the kids in "The Goonies." It's the go-to method of classifying infant's attachment patterns.
And I should say that only one of those attachment patterns, which is very rare, is classified as a disorder. They're really just different styles of attachment, some of which are a little more maladaptive than others. My guess, based on Mom's description, was that I might fall into what's called the avoidantly insecure category. But Mom's description isn't clinical data. It's a 40-year-old - well, no - 50-year-old recollection. And I'm not even slightly qualified to interpret it. So yeah, I undertook to try to find the original data on my infant self because one thing that made me guess I might be avoidantly attached wasn't Mom's description but my entire relationship history.
And, yeah, I'd begun guessing that maybe I had what they call some attachment issues. And I thought it might be helpful to find out what they thought back when I was 8 and 11 months old. It would be like a snapshot of the primordial universe. I thought of that as the control experiment. You know, that's how I was uncontaminated by life experience. So suffice it to say, I did not find out. I did manage, with the help of an ex-girlfriend who is a science reporter, to track down the experimenter who carried out the study I was in. She was a student of Mary Ainsworth's who originated the Strange Situation - a graduate student at the time, only 19.
So she was not only still alive but still professionally active as a psychoanalyst in the Baltimore-Washington area. And like most psychoanalysts, she was not in the business of doling out answers. We had a conversation that, at times, was like an interview and, at times, a little like a therapy session. And she could not have, she said, even if she wanted to, told me how it was classified because all that data was anonymized for confidentiality. But she said she did in fact remember a Timothy from that study. And she said that I was delightful, which to me is more valuable information, really.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you refer in passing in this book to having been stabbed once. And you don't describe it in this book. In your earlier book, you actually do refer to it in an opening essay. But you don't really tell us what happened although you do note that you have told the story again and again and again. But since I haven't heard it and our listeners haven't heard it, what happened?
KREIDER: Ah. You know, what I always tell my students is that often the better the story - that is the better the story is to tell friends in bars, the harder it is to turn into an essay because really, the only point of those stories is, you know, I had an adventure. And my life is cool and fascinating. And that really doesn't give anything to the listener or the reader. It's very difficult to extract from experiences that are singular anything universal - something that the reader can use, you know? And I think writing about yourself is such an embarrassing indulgence that the reader better be getting more out of it than you are.
So I didn't really - I rather pointedly didn't write about getting stabbed - even in the essay about being stabbed. I wrote about the year after that during which I was never unhappy or anxious at all and how that feeling went away because that's something, I think, that more people have experienced and can relate to. I may yet figure out a way to write about the stabbing story. I mean, I'm thinking of writing about it now in the context of why young men feel this need to seek out adventure - potentially deadly adventure, which can range from anything to enlisting in the army to just drinking themselves to death in frat hazings because that's what I was doing back then.
I'd gone on this sort of self-invented mission to the Greek islands. I was there to - ostensibly to track down where a writer I admired had gone to drink himself to death. So you know, I was obviously not in an emotionally healthy place myself. And I did in fact find out where he had died - slept in his deathbed. And shortly thereafter, a stranger stabbed me in the throat.
DAVIES: It was a stranger. And do you know why?
KREIDER: Oh, you know, the usual reason. I mean, it was (laughter). I mean, I was walking a belligerently drunk girl home from a bar. And somebody else in that Greek town was walking their belligerently drunk friend home from a bar. And our belligerently drunk friends got into it with each other. So there's two belligerently drunk people yelling at each other on the street and their sane friends trying to drag them away from each other. And I thought I'd gotten us away. But then he ran up behind us, and because she was a woman and they still have a sort of gallant honor culture and creed, he stabbed me, the man, instead.
DAVIES: Wow. And you survived, but it wasn't clear for a while that you would.
KREIDER: It was by no means clear to me for several crucial minutes that I would live, no. I mean, you know, the short version is it was just random street violence. It was nothing. You can mythologize it and turn it into a sort of self-fulfilling death wish story, a heroic journey if you want, which I might do in an essay. But yeah, it was sort of a "Christmas Carol"-type rebirth. I mean, I felt quite sure I would die for a few minutes and then woke up a few days later in the hospital and was still in the game.
DAVIES: And it affected the way you looked at your life. It was a new opportunity. Every breath was precious.
KREIDER: Yeah, for a while.
KREIDER: (Laughter) The question is, how come we don't get to live our lives that way? I mean, it just didn't last. I heard after I wrote that essay from quite a lot of people who had had near-death experiences, all of whom wanted to tell me about them in excruciating medical detail. And my impression from reading those descriptions is that the people whose lives were - and personalities were permanently changed by those experiences were people who had to live with the possibility or likelihood of death for long periods of time, people who had potentially terminal illnesses. But people like me who basically got hit by lightning, and then woke up and were like, whoa, that was a close one, it just doesn't last. For me, it really just confirmed the youthful delusion that other people die but not you.
DAVIES: But you said you do think of it now every year on your stabiversary (ph).
KREIDER: Sure. It's like a second birthday. It's a - well, it's, you know, another excellent excuse to drink with friends.
DAVIES: (Laughter) OK.
KREIDER: I would say the things that really impress my mortality upon me more are the much more mundane things that impress our mortality on all of us. Like, you know, my eyesight's starting to blur.
DAVIES: Well, Tim Kreider, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
KREIDER: Sure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Tim Kreider's new collection of personal essays is called "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews what she calls an eloquent and raw memoir of the Iraq War. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Matt Young is a combat veteran of the Iraq War who's written a new memoir about his experiences called "Eat The Apple." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Young's memoir is both profane and profound.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Matt Young enlisted in the Marines in 2005 on impulse. He was 18 years old. And hours before he walked into the recruitment center, he'd gotten drunk and crashed his car into a fire hydrant. Young knew he needed direction in life and thought that becoming a Marine would help him to quickly man up. Midway through his superb debut memoir called "Eat The Apple," Young describes the surreal experience of flying back to the U.S. on a four-day leave from the Iraq War. His family and fiancee are waiting to greet him when he arrives in California. Young recalls wanting so badly to be happy when he sees them. Of course, that simple wish is doomed.
At the hotel, Young chugs beers and tries to connect by telling stories about Iraq - stories about detaining a 12-year-old boy, about how he and his fellow Marines can't stop laughing during a deadly ambush because they're so terrified. As his family and fiancee grow silent, Young decides he needs to make up other kinds of war stories - fictional ones, still full of bullets and blood but also full of meaning, stories where he gets to feel for once like a hero. But that strategy doesn't work out so well either. Young remembers waking up the next morning and feeling like there was a tough, meaty, sick feeling in the ethereal place beyond his stomach - a shattered, figurative pelvic bone where he birthed his lie into the world.
Like Young's family, most of us readers still want to be told war stories where violence and death are redeemed by a larger purpose. And yet throughout history, so many of the writers and poets who've seen combat tell us it's just pretty to think so. The absurdity of war theme has only intensified in recent years, with cynical Iraq War novels like Kevin Powers's "The Yellow Birds" and Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." "Eat The Apple" falls into formation right alongside those fictional testaments of youth and war. As a memoir, it loosely follows that most traditional of plots - a young man's growth from innocence to experience. But that's the only aspect of Young's narrative that's conventional.
Young is a frank, funny and mercilessly self-lacerating narrator. His writing is entertaining and experimental, two adjectives not often found together. To convey the chaos of his three deployments in Iraq, Young writes in choppy chapters filled with lists, letters, cartoons, plays and, yes, lots of stories. His lighter subjects range from desert sand flies to the inventive ways Marines devised to entertain themselves, as in the diagram chapter entitled "How To Make A Portable Partner." Without warning, these comic interludes take a turn toward the brutish. Young owns up to killing dogs for sport and bullying and breaking a junior recruit. Then the narrative veers off again into explosions, sniper attacks and downtime in camp, where the young Marines rub suntan oil on each other and try to figure out whether what they're feeling is more than just Marine Corps brotherhood.
Throughout his memoir, Young questions just how that fateful decision to enlist transformed the raw teenager that he sometimes calls past-me. Nowhere is the answer more disturbing than in the chapter called "Masks." There, Young describes how he hardened into a person-thing in the Marine Corps. Years after his discharge, Young says he discovered a photograph taken of a gruesome scene involving the defilement of the corpse of a suicide bomber. Here's Young referring to himself through the distancing collective pronoun we, describing his response to that photo.
(Reading) We feel sick to our stomachs. We think we need to find a dog to stroke, a baby to coddle. We destroy the picture and reinforce the packaging that houses the person-thing with positive thoughts and exercise and whatever other coping mechanisms we have developed. But even as we rip the picture to shreds and our eyes well with tears for our once lost humanity, we feel the person-thing slithering along the walls of its makeshift cell, waiting.
"Eat The Apple" is a brilliant and barbed memoir of the Iraq war. Unlike his Past-me self in that hotel room struggling to communicate with his family, Young has now found the language to convey the messy totality of his experiences. And that's just about all the redemption you'll find in Young's war story.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Iraqi War veteran Matt Young's memoir "Eat The Apple."
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DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs. We talk with psychologist and journalist Lauren Slater whose new book "Blue Dreams" is in part about the science and history of mood-altering drugs. She'll also talk about the medicine she's taken as a patient with bipolar disorder and depression and the side effects she's experienced. Hope you can join us.
Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. Terry Gross returns tomorrow. I'm Dave Davies.
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