Talking to Lisa Carver

I recently interviewed Lisa Carver for The Rumpus. We talked on the phone for two hours about her new book __________, which includes paintings she did as part of a memory-reclaiming process that led her to recall the torture, exploitation, and sexual abuse she lived through as a child. It’s a strange, heartbreaking, beautiful, raw, brave, informative, confusing, and emotional book. You can buy it here, and I recommend you do. As both an object and a pulsing piece of life, an organism, it just blows so many other books out of the water. There’s that talk of incest narratives being sure things providing cheap thrills (yes, this talk started might have started in 1995 with Kaite Rophie’s “Making the Incest Scene,” but the sentiment has legs) and about dysfunctional family stories and big sex-filled messes being the easy, go-to fodder for salable memoirs, but yet it seems to me this book, dripping with all that and more, has had a quiet reception, even given that it’s self-published. It’s easy for me to conclude that it’s too real—and too weird, too, probably—for even the indie masses.  But those judgements could have easily applied to Lisa Carver herself since the day she hit the stage in 1980-something-or-other, and yet that didn’t stop her from making a splash.

I was so excited and nervous about talking to her. Yes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro—but Lisa Carver meant , well, not more to me, but . . .  She was my friend in my mind. Or she was who I wanted to be my friend. She’s exactly my age, but I thought she of her as the cool older girl. I didn’t have celebrity crushes. No Madonna or Exene or whoever. I watched and longed for and studied the women at the bar with the shorn hair, the purple hair, the double nose ring; the outlandish, off-hand style and impeccable connections; the ones who knew the bartender, the band, everything, everyone. Most of these crushes were had when I was still a teenager, or close to it. And I got to know most of the women, eventually. And then usually the bubble burst. Not necessarily from disillusionment; sometimes it burst into friendship—we’re all just people. But Lisa Carver. There’s something about her sentences, so casual yet so carefully constructed, and the way they seem to loop to her brain and her loins and her energy. And then to talk to her about newly exposed childhood memories of the most profound assault and a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder in the context of the world’s skepticism about such things, and in the context of my own wrestling with them . . .  It was a very meaningful conversation for me.

I had to edit the hell out of the interview to make it digestible as even a long-form online piece. Same with the introduction. Lisa Carver! Lisa Carver! She’s done so much! I have so much to say! I rattled on, and then I halved it. Here’s something that got chopped: How I discovered Rollerderby in the magazine rack at Reckless Records, where I was shopping with my boyfriend in maybe 1991. I mean, I liked to shop for records, too—for about the ten minutes. And then what to do for the next hour? Finding a zine in the magazine rack that was brimming with gossip and sex and conversation was a thrill and an oasis. It made it OK to be a girl in the record store. Later, I would religiously pick up Rollerderby at Quimbys, when the store first opened on the corner of Evergreen and Damen and I lived just above it. Sometimes the content missed for me. Lisa’s obsessions were not all mine. Horses? No. Dismissal of Kurt Cobain and promotion of mandatory sparkling eyeshadow wearing for all ladies? I could only humor her on that. But the zing and rhythm and logic behind the sentences remained breath to my brain. I don’t think she’s gotten enough kudos as a writer.

In the interview, after I’d hit on all my questions and we’d wandered off into nooks and crannies of them and I thought we were winding down, I asked Lisa whether she had anything else she wanted to get into. And she did. And it was important. And I cut it from the interview. So I’m including it here.

Zoe: Is there anything else you want to get into?

Lisa: Yeah, we didn’t talk at all about substance abuse, and that’s part that a lot of people can relate to, and it’s a big part of how a lot of people find out about what they’re repressing. So I don’t have a. . .  I don’t know what I would want to say about it. I think it’s hugely important, and I see it among everybody.

Zoe: When did you totally quit drinking? And I know there were drugs involved too.

Lisa: I quit doing cocaine and in 1999, and I quit drinking and Xanax later, like a couple years ago. I was never an everyday person. I’ve never driven drunk. Alcohol and drugs were really a side story and were never a driving force in my life like they become for a lot of people. It was another way I abused myself, like anorexia. But what really bothers me is that my mother was a pills addict, multiple pills addict, and I didn’t really know it until…. I think until I wrote this book. And it’s probably why she let these things happen to me.

I’ve always been drawn to addicts. It really appeals to me, that kind of person. It seems like… wild and extreme and in pain, all things I relate to and enjoy being around. So I don’t think I’ve ever really loved somebody who didn’t have drug and alcohol problems. I idealized it. And of course I’ve always loved artists, writers and singers who killed themselves. So now to realize if my mom hadn’t been an addict she would have stopped it. She would have taken me away and protected me. Because she wasn’t a bad person. That just makes me completely change my feelings. Now I feel like throwing up about numbing yourself out to what’s real. But as I think about it, my mother was probably abused as a child and that’s why she got together with my father and why she became an addict because it was all. .. familiar.

Zoe: You mention that your dad was also abused as a child.

Lisa: Of my dad definitely was. There are lots of stories in the family about how deeply and badly my dad was abused. He had bones broken. And all of my aunts were said to have been molested by my grandfather, even as adults, and most of them committed suicide. My family’s all messed up. And then my mother’s parents died when she was a teenager, and all I have are her stories and they’re very sugar coated. But I do know her mother never liked her and said she was ugly and didn’t do well at school, and my grandmother adored my mother’s brother who was good looking and tall and on the basketball team and got good grades and knew German. My mother’s father was sort of a bum, and my mother said her happiest memories were when he would almost kidnap her and take her in the wagon away and her mother would be really mad, and I wonder about that…

Zoe: Your mom was also really ill, right?

Lisa: So many people have been abused as children. If you don’t let it into your brain, it plays out in your body. Every disease my mom had, she made it worse by doing nothing she was told, doing everything the opposite of what would make it better, and then she would doctor shop to get more and more drugs. She had more and more organs removed. She died of cancer at only 53 years old, and the reason she died was because she had hardly any organs left. Most of her functions were being done artificially at that point, so there was nothing to fight the cancer. Instead of managing her stress she was taking more and more and more drugs.

Zoe: Are you seeing someone now? There are a lot of patterns to be broken, a lot of patterns it seems like you want to break.

Lisa: I have the boyfriend I’ve had for going on five years now, and it’s very tumultuous. He of course is an alcoholic with mental disorders and social-emotional craziness. And I really feel close to him and not judged by him. Because he’s way worse than I can ever be, so I feel really really good with him, really super good, but on the other hand it’s . . . the craziness, all of a sudden it doesn’t look so good when you step back from it. It just looks abusive. So, um, that’s been . . . We tried to navigate how can these two unhealthy people who are really drawn to certain dynamics make this work. How can we act like normal people, because we’re not like normal healthy people, but we don’t want to be like we are any more. We don’t know what to do. I really literally do not know what to do right now. I mean . . . We live together. I don’t know how to live with somebody I love. And nor does he. But, we’ve been doing it, crazily.

Zoe: How old are your kids now?

Lisa: 17 and 9.

Zoe: I have a ten year old and a three year old.

Lisa: Ooooooo. I wish I had a three year old.

Zoe: Well, you know. Sometimes. They’re good to borrow.

* * *

There’s a lot more to Lisa’s story than anyone knew, then she knew, until now. But she’s still Lisa Carver. Not too much longer into the conversation she got me to make sex confessions, which I’m not going to share here.

I’m very glad she wrote and published __________.