Alison Smith, author of Name All the Animals: A Memoir, opens up about her brother and best friend today with Dr. Gloria Horsley and Dr. Heidi Horsley.
Enjoy the full interview:
G: Hello. I’m Dr. Gloria Horsley with my co-host
H: Dr. Heidi Horsley.
G: Each week we welcome you to Healing the Grieving Heart, a show of hope and conversation with those who have suffered the loss of a loved one and for health care professionals who work in this difficult field. As always the message is others have been there before you and you can make it. You do not walk alone. If you’re listening to our Thursday live Internet show, please join Heidi and me on the show by visiting our blog, www.opentohope.com, as well as www.compassionatefriends.org website. They can also be downloaded on Itunes and one of our great listeners, Heidi, sent us a message and said our Itunes hadn’t been updated since October so we’ve handled that now so they are now up to date on Itunes.
H: Oh, good. That’s frustrating.
G: Yeah, really frustrating for people and we appreciate your patience and we love getting the emails. If you have any problems with the shows.
H: Yes, please let us know because sometimes we don’t know until you tell us.
G: Right and there might be some show that’s not archived yet or whatever, so let us know. Today we’ve got a great guest and our topic is going to be My Brother, My Best Friend, and our guest is Alison Smith, and it’s going to be wonderful because it’s a good show on sibling loss and also Alison was brought up in the area that Heidi grew up in in the Rochester, New York, area, so we enjoyed reading it, didn’t we, Heidi, with all the
H: I loved reading it and Alison so captures what it’s like to have a sibling that’s been in your life your entire life suddenly die. She so gets it because she’s been there. So for all you parents out there, it’s a wonderful way to figure out what’s happening with your children and if you’re involved with bereaved siblings, I would highly recommend this book.
G: Yeah, it’s a great book and it’s going to be a good show today, and before we get to this show, Heidi, I wanted to talk about what you did yesterday.
H: Okay, I went to a place called The Institute for Urban Family Health and it is. They’ve got offices all over the New York area and all over the five Burroughs and they do a lot of therapy and networking in the community, and I spoke to their clinicians, their therapists, about working with people that are grieving and what they’re going through and what they should expect, etc.
G: That is so important, Heidi, because we really want the clinicians out there to know what’s going on.
H: Absolutely, and they have an idea that there’s expectations where this is where you are the first year and this is where you are the second year and grief goes in these nice neat stages in this predictable way, and it’s not like that.
G: And people are still caught in the Kubler-Ross model, too, aren’t they?
H: Absolutely, and we’re all, as you know, mom, we’ve been told that.
G: Not that it isn’t a great model, but we’ve talked before on the show about the acceptance thing. We’re looking at continuing bonds now, right?
H: Absolutely and also that grief goes in waves.
H: We could be angry at one point in our grief process and then a few months later revisit that anger and that’s okay. Grief goes in waves. Things throw us back into earlier places and reminders.
G: Yeah, I’ll have to say reading this book today that we’re going to be discussing threw me back into a few things in different places.
H: Absolutely. As I was reading Alison’s book, I was not only, and I’m sure this happened with you, mom, I was not only thinking about her story, I was a parallel process because I was thinking about my own.
G: Absolutely. Well, I also want to discuss. We got an email from Millie and Millie was nice enough to put it on our grief blog. So if you want to go to www.thegriefblog.com, you can read Millie’s entire email and you can also respond to her. She tells us that her son, Charles, died January 18, 2006, of a rare form of cancer. We’re very sorry to hear that. Very difficult.
H: It’s not that long ago.
G: Yeah, very early. And she said that I’ve been listening to all your shows whether it directly involves my issue or not. There are themes that run through every grieving person. This particular show, and this is a show that we did last week with Babe on stepparents, I was empathizing with my partner because she says, what about me? I’m grieving, too. So it was a great show, and thank you for your email, Millie. And we hope you’ll go on the blog with your stepparenting things and respond to Millie.
H: Thanks, Millie.
G: Heidi, would you like to introduce our guest today?
H: Yeah, I’d love to. Our guest today is Alison Smith, and our topic is “My Brother, My Best Friend.” In 1984, when Alison Smith was only 15 years old, her adored, older brother Roy died in a car accident. The two were so close that they shared the name “Alroy.” Alison went on to write the memoir Name All the Animals which was a New York Times Notable Book and was named one of the top ten books of 2004 by People magazine. Other awards include The Barnes & Noble Discover Award, The Judy Grahn Prize, The Fountain Award for Speculative Fiction, a Lambda, and a William Sloan Fellowship. Alison’s writing has appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s, the London Telegraph, the New York Times, the Believer, and other publications. Alison lives in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome to the show, Alison.
A: Well, thank you so much for having me today. It’s good to be here.
G: It’s great to have you on the show, Alison, and what a wonderful, strong book you wrote about your brother. I felt like not only did I enjoy the writing and hearing about your adolescence, but also knowing Roy.
A: Well, thank you so much. I did. I definitely wrote the book sort of because when I left Rochester, my parents stayed there and they stayed in a community where everyone knew Roy and I went out into the world and I realized no one would ever meet my big brother so one of the reasons I wrote the book was to bring him back into the world just to show him to my friends.
G: And it was quite an effort, six years, wasn’t it?
A: Oh, my God. I was so naïve when I started the book. But that comes in handy sometimes. I said I’m going to write a memoir and I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea how hard it was. I didn’t realize that there were so many things that I had not looked at because I was afraid to look at them and in order to bring the reader through the story, I had to spend a lot of time in some very sad moments. It wasn’t just a celebration of my brother’s life. It was memorializing and grieving his loss. He died so young.
G: And you have to put yourself right back in those events when you write. You have to put yourself back in the fort. Well, tell us about Roy and how he died and then tell us about the fort.
A: Okay, I grew up in Rochester, as we discussed.
G: Rochester, New York, by the way for you Minnesotans.
A: Yes, where Heidi grew up, too, and I was in a Catholic family and my brother, Roy, and I were the only kids, and we grew up in this little white two-story colonial, and he was 2-1/2 years older than me and he was just a great guy. I realize I’m bias but
G: So you were 15 and he was 17-1/2, 18.
A: Yes, exactly. And he had a lot of fine qualities, but I think I was extremely lucky and I thought his finest quality was that he was very fond of me. For a big brother, he spent a lot of time with me and he was in some ways the person I was closest to in the family and as we said before, we spent so much time together and were so inseparable that my mother shortened our names into a single shorthand and called us both Alroy, and Roy loved math and science. He was going to go to Purdue University on a scholarship and study to be a civil engineer.
G: And he was actually accepted there and ready to go, right?
A: Oh, yeah.
H: Good for him. That’s amazing.
A: He graduated from a boy’s Catholic Jesuit high school in Rochester and in the summer of 1984 when I was 15 and I was working my first job at the convent attached to my high school that summer and my brother was working two jobs. The first job he worked at a grocery store called Top Friendly Market as the cashier and he really didn’t like that job, but he had a second job he loved. He worked at a golf course and he basically got to dig ditches all day and came home covered in mud. It drove my mother crazy. I think he would roll in the mud before he came home just to make his point. We were really happy for him that summer. It was going to be the beginning of an extraordinary career. I knew he would be a brilliant civil engineer, but then one rainy morning on July 27, 1984, Roy drove off to work in the family camper van and he never came home. He died in a car accident that morning a half mile from the house.
H: Awful, and your life is suddenly turned upside down basically.
A: Well I think as so many of your listeners know when this happens, your life is split in two and there are only two things. For me, there was before Roy died and after Roy died and that was the defining moment for every event.
G: And you talk about the before and after people, too, I thought that was interesting in the book.
A: Yes. I was 15 and I think the challenging thing about being a young sibling is that you have so little life experience and you really don’t understand so many of your emotions and then you’re asked to process something – I think the most challenging thing we have to process in this world which is grief which is the fact that sometimes we are powerless to save the people we love. And so I had a lot of – some unhealthy and some sort of amusing and healthy ways of dealing with the grief while I wasn’t getting a lot of help from adults. And one of the things I came up with was this idea of before people. Everybody in the town knew that Roy died. It was a small town and it was a big tragedy, but every once in awhile I would meet someone who didn’t know he was dead and they would ask about Roy. And even though this was very painful, it was also very exciting because I just thought, he’s still alive inside that person’s head. And I would draw it out as long as I could before they would find out that Roy was dead.
H: And did you ever think that maybe he was alive? I know that sounds really strange, but I’ve got to tell you, Alison, when my brother died, I had this belief that 17-year-olds do not die in car accidents suddenly. Healthy boys don’t die and I kept thinking maybe it was a mistake. Maybe someone kidnapped him and put another boy in that car.
A: Absolutely, Heid, the exact exact same feeling. My scenario was that he actually ran out of the car and ran into the woods where he was on the cross country team and he was a big runner and I just imagined him just in this verdant green valley running and running and that he was going to run home to me. Roy and I had a fort in the back yard and he was sort of the mastermind behind this fort. We built so many different forts because all he wanted to do was build them, wanting to be a builder and a civil engineer. The last fort was pretty extraordinary. It had windows and a real roof and two stories, a little rickety, but it was there. After he died, I spent a lot of time in that fort which was our secret spot. It was sort of the one place for the kids where our parents didn’t rule and I started thinking that Roy would come back to me in this fort and I started saving food for him.
G: Oh, Alison, yes, and we need to go to break now and when we come back, I want to talk more about that saving food that you were doing. We’re coming up on break.
Well, Alison, when we went to break, we were talking a little bit about something and you were naming it during the break, which is magical thinking, and also talking about your fort, and the magical thinking, I think, was thinking that maybe Roy had run off and would be back. Did you do the yearning and searching where you looked for him?
A: I did, but looking is so interesting when someone dies right a half mile from your house and that the world changes within the course of a few minutes and so my looking, I did look in his room every morning, of course, to see maybe if he showed up at night and I certainly wandered further and further into the woods in the gulleys and the gorges around the home where we grew up in the suburbs outside Rochester because he died on a hill that was surrounded by these beautiful woods so I searched the woods. And I also. I thought he would come back to me so as I was saying before the break, I started saving my food for him. I cut everything in half and would only eat half of it and the other half was put out in the fort, it was a little hideout we made behind the garage, and left for him every night, and I was aided in my magical thinking I imagine by a stray dog because the food was eaten every night.
G: You know, all I could think of when I read that was Santa Clause. You know how we leave things?
H: And the next day they’re gone, right?
A: Right, the cookies
G: And he’s been there and gone.
A: So and I had that experience with Santa Clause I’m sure because I was 15 I was drawing on all these childlike and childhood experiences to try to make this story work and the only way the story could work for me is if my brother came back to me. My brother could not leave and I think for siblings, especially younger siblings, it is a physical impossibility to imagine that you can exist without this other person in the world. I didn’t understand on any level, on a cellular level even, that my brother could die and that I could live. And I think everything in me revolted against that and the sad thing about my magical thinking is it led to an eating disorder because the saving of the food, I became more and more desperate and I ate less and less and I saved more and more for him.
G: Now can you tell people how you did it at the table and how did you do this?
A: I was aided by two parents who were very grief stricken and self-absorbed so they didn’t notice that I slid a lot of food off my plate and into a paper bag I kept on my lap.
H: You were talking about you couldn’t imagine how you could have lived and your brother had died. Was there any survivor guilt about why had it been him and not you?
A: Oh, my God, yes.
H: Because I had that tremendously.
A: Oh, I think that I will struggle with a version of that for the rest of my life. As a friend of mine once said, she said, do you understand how precariously positioned I feel in this world that my permit could be revoked at any minute? And I think I live with that still. This idea that you have to justify your right to live.
G: You know you talk about that in your book and I was asking if you want to read it on page 62. There’s something good about survivor guilt there.
A: Yes, it’s about survivor guilt and also a loss of faith. I grew up in a very religious household and I
G: Very religious may I say.
G: You had two things that you carried. One was the prayer card with your brother’s picture.
G: And the other was your bag for your food or something.
A: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. And it was a Catholic religious prayer card and I had been very close to Jesus when I was a child and I actually talked to him quite often, and he stopped talking to me the day after Roy died. I lost my faith that day.
G: And the interesting thing was your parents found faith or they embraced their faith.
A: Yes, they became even more religious if it’s possible. So this is a little passage at the end of a chapter.
Since I was the only one to lose faith, to stop hearing Christ’s voice, I thought perhaps it was my fault that Roy had left us. I thought I was being punished for some unknown sin. I had learned early in my Catholic career that one could sin silently in one’s heart. One could even sin without ever discovering what one had done or why it was wrong. What had I done? I asked myself, to make God disappear and take Roy with him.
H: That’s powerful, and, you know, Alison, I felt like I wanted to come in and protect you and I felt so bad for you when you admitted that you had lost your faith and your belief and your mom went into the room for three days and wouldn’t speak. I felt like you were so alone at that point.
A: Yes, yes.
G: Because you told her you didn’t believe in her God, right?
A: I know. My mother was so stoic that she couldn’t take this one piece of information. She finally broached the subject with me because the evidence was sort of mounting that I was no longer religious and I had a lot of trouble going to church. I felt like a hypocrite being there since I didn’t believe and when I said I’m sorry I don’t believe any more, she finally fell into despair for the first time since Roy had died. The first time I had witnessed it.
G: What, that was about a year and a half later, wasn’t it? Was it that long?
A: Yes. She walked out of the room and she went into her bedroom and she stayed there for three days. And you know my father was in an absolute panic and he begged me to go tell her that I had lied, that I really believed in God, but I couldn’t. I think that my grasp on reality was so tenuous at that point, I couldn’t tell a lie.
H: And was part of what you were going through, I mean, we hear this all the time and I felt this way, you were so angry, kind of angry at God and thinking if there’s a God up there, this couldn’t have happened. Was that going on at all?
A: Yes, I mean I had this relationship with Jesus when I was a kid that was a very sort of imaginary friend relationship, and it was a very childlike wonderful faith and I think the first time it was truly tested, it collapsed. The great test was Roy’s death and I think probably my imagination, I couldn’t face my own rage and so in my imagination, I made Jesus walk away from me when really I didn’t know how to accept that I was so angry with God.
H: And I’m wondering if by saying that out loud, it tapped into something that your mother was going through and that she was finally allowed to really grieve the loss of her son and get in touch with that she had some anger and outrage too that this could have happened. And, I don’t know, I felt like maybe she was tapping into something as well.
G: Yeah, well, I was thinking her feeling of being strong for the family. Like after he died she had to go completely rebuild the camper the way it was. I mean she was a woman of action.
H: She was amazing. She reminded me actually of the way that men deal with grief
H: as I read the book. I was struck by, like my mom said, she threw herself into full gear and wanted to make things okay in the family again.
A: She engaged in her own magical thinking but I have to say it was almost extraordinarily glorious like the level she went to to recreate the car, an exact replica of the car my brother died in.
G: Yes, and let’s talk about that when we come back from break.
Alison, this is such a great book, I want to say to everybody. It’s such a good read. I would highly recommend that everyone get it. Name All the Animals. I got it off of amazon, and you can, too. It’s also on our website, our blog, www.thegriefblog.com. Alison, I wanted to quickly ask you how you got the name for the book. That’s such a great name. Name All the Animals.
A: Thank you. The name was one of the first things that came to me and one of the only things that wasn’t revised a hundred times. My father is still a very religious man and as a Catholic and he came into Roy’s room and then my room every morning and blessed us with relics. It was a pretty extraordinary gesture of sweetness and oddness and very old worldliness to wake up to the laying of a relic on your skin.
G: What would a relic look like?
A: They’re about the size of a half dollar and these were sort of copper plated with a little filigree around the edge and there’s a glass plate over the top so that the depth is like a half an inch thick and inside under the glass plate, there’s a little pile of white powder which is supposedly a piece of a bone from a saint. So he had the bones of St. Gerard and the bones of St. John Neumann. He’s from another century, I know.
H: And it sounds like something that a priest would do, right? I mean it’s just amazing. It’s a wonderful thing to be blessed every day.
A: Yes, it was. The gesture is very loving but confusing for me as a kid and he would bless us and name the different parts of us, you know, bless her mind, and bless her hands, and bless her teeth, and bless her thoughts. And I went into my brother’s room one morning when I was about 8 after my dad had gone through the blessing and left for work and I crawled into bed with him and poked him and said, “What’s that about? Why does dad do that?” And he said he’s naming us like Adam named all the animals to keep track of them.
G: Oh, and that’s how you got the name for the book. That’s wonderful. Well, I wanted to ask you in the last segment you were talking about how you’d gotten an eating disorder saving half of your food for Roy and taking it in the fort and having it gone in the morning, and I wondered, I know we’ve got parents out there who are concerned because they have children who are losing weight, teen agers. Do you have any suggestions for them?
A: Well, I think the first thing to remember about food issues is it’s never about the food, and I think kids can sense tension about a hundred miles away and especially adolescents. They’re interested sort of in defining themselves often in opposition to you so if you start pushing the food on them, it could just set itself in a little more strongly, I think. So I think there’s another way to go at it. I would suggest the first things to do would be simply sort of saying, hey, do you want to make dinner with me tonight? What do you want to make? Or do you want to go out to eat? And sort of try something a little simpler in a more celebratory around food and the process of making food. If this doesn’t work, I really think probably the thing to do is just to talk to your kid more about everything else in their life because there’s some. Not eating or eating too much is about, I think it’s about grief and rage. So when a teen aged girl stops eating, she is basically not able to manage some emotion she’s dealing with.
G: And we’re particularly talking about grief here because this may be something. Some of the anorexic patterns are building way early but if it starts as a result of grief and you can kind of nip it in the bud in working with the problem, you’ll probably have a lot better chance of helping them. I know there were a lot of secrets kept in your family. Did you feel like that was part of what led to your eating problems?
A: I think that definitely there were so many secrets and there was enormous burden on me to keep a lot of secrets and also a burden on me to keep the secret that we were grieving, that my parents were sort of ashamed of public displays of grief, and ashamed of all the attention that was on them suddenly. It is really overwhelming that you’re a public figure in the most horrifying way because your child is dead and there’s newspaper articles about it.
G: Yeah, there’s a lot of shame and guilt connected with that. Would you read, I asked you to do something on description of grief because I think it’s so excellent, at page 61?
A: Yes, here we are on 61. There were so many wasted afternoons, so many useless, listless empty hours of staring and blinking and then staring some more. I passed entire days tracking the course of a single dust moat across the basement.
G: That is such a great example. And the other one I wanted you to read is about the high school. There were these runners that would come to your house and sit with your family and your mother would give them cookies or something in the high school running team that your brother was on. And could you read that on page 74 also because that also talks about what was going on with the grief in the family.
A: Right. This is right after the boys have left the house, and my parents just come to life whenever the boys come to the house, but my father sits down in a chair after they leave and says, “Those boys. They’ll live to be a hundred. They’ll live forever.” So he’s also sort of devastated by their presence, and I wrote after that: We bumped around the house for a good six months. Stunned, hungry, longing, waiting for the runners, unable to find the door back into our lives. I returned to school, grew two inches, and lost ten pounds. Mother climbed Mount Marcy twice. The new St. Jude joined us at the kitchen table but nothing really changed. Mary Elizabeth still mooned over Jimmy, the lead guitar player. I still sneaked out the back door every night and visited the fort. My parents said their daily prayers and every Sunday we all dressed up and went to Mass and after awhile even God’s long silence did not seem that strange. We remained removed. One foot in this world, one foot in the next with Roy. I checked his bed every morning. Just in case.
G: Ah, thank you, Alison.
H: That really captures what is going on behind closed doors with a bereaved family.
G: Absolutely. It’s wonderful. It’s time for us to go to break now.
Well, Alison, I wanted to say to everyone your reading is just so powerful. It’s really moving and I hope that everyone will get your book, Name All the Animals, and as I said, you can go on amazon and you can also go to our blog, www.thegriefblog.com. Alison, when we went to break, Heidi, you were saying you wanted to ask Alison about something?
H: Um, yes. I wanted to ask Alison. Unfortunately, we found out that Alison’s mom, your mom died of cancer what, in 2003?
A: Yes, 2003.
H: And so she was never able to see the book finished was she, or to see it published?
A: No, she wasn’t.
H: And how did you? She knew you were writing it, didn’t she?
A: It’s complicated. My mother disowned me when I came out as gay and I had not been in her life by her choice from the time I was about 23 until just before she was diagnosed with cancer. And then she was so ill and clearly she had been behaving in a selfish way. She really didn’t pay attention to what I was doing. She didn’t know until the very end that I was even working on the book and by that point, she was so ill because the cancer had metastasized to her brain, she wasn’t able to read.
H: It’s too bad because this is such a beautiful memoir and tribute to not only Roy, but to your family. I really think she would have embraced it, and I have one quick question. Your father says throughout the book, “You’re all I have left, baby. You’re all I have left.” And now your mother is gone. Your brother is gone. And you are truly all that your father has left and I was wondering how that is for you as a surviving sibling and child. How is that?
A: It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of pressure and to be perfectly honest, it’s a great burden in my life. I think because of the way he poses the question, it’s very centered on his need and how I’m going to meet his needs and so I want to find projects in life. My lifelong project is to learn how to love my father and be with my father and set a boundary and understand that he is a well that will never be filled. There will never be. I will never do enough for him.
H: And you can never be Roy and your mom and everybody. You are you.
A: Yeah, I’m at an extreme disadvantage.
H: We can’t replace our loss, our sibling. I can’t replace Scott. Even though I’ve tried to replace as much as I can, you can’t.
A: It’s not our job.
H: Right. So your advice to parents out there that are listening is with regard to all the pressure, trying not to put that pressure on kids.
A: I think it’s really important in our culture to remember that sibling grief is not, oh, yes, and then there’s this other grief. Sibling grief is an equal and I believe sometimes a greater grief even than parental grief if you’re looking at an adolescent’s. If you’re a parent, I mean I can only imagine the unbelievable horror of that grief.
G: But you know Alison, your grief is your grief and you can only know your own grief. So you can intellectually say oh well, maybe parents, but you know, the important thing is what is your grief.
H: Well, and I love that Alison is saying this, mom, because I cannot tell you the number of shows, Alison, since you’re a sibling I can say this, in that we have done where people have come on and said a loss of a child is the worst loss you will ever have. And what it does is it shuts me down because my loss of Scott is the worst loss I’ve ever had and that’s what I know and I know he’s not in my life and like my mom said, we can’t, we need to not put which loss is worse. All loss is bad. All loss is horrific. We’ve lost these people especially when we’re really close to them. It’s awful.
G: Well, it’s your loss of innocence. It’s a loss of so many things.
H: It’s a loss of your future.
G: And also the responsibility of siblings is coming up for me when I hear you guys talk about you feel like some kind of responsibility that you should be doing something to make it better.
A: I also think it’s culturally present. I’ve never met a sibling who’s grieving who hasn’t been said it’s your job to take care of your parents.
G: Or how are your parents.
G: Well, Alison, it’s time to close our show and I want to say thank you so much for being on and it’s just a wonderful thing and I would recommend people get your book. It’s just a glorious book. And do you have a comment that you’d like to make or a piece of advice that you could give our listeners before we close?
A: I know this is a small thing to say but people ask me who are just grieving and I’ve lost Roy about 22 years ago now and I’m still learning and I think the thing I say if you’re in the first months is your only job is to stay alive.
G: And that’s it.
H: Like you said, that’s our work.
A: Stay in this world with us and you can be guaranteed that there will be changes. Things will shift.
G: Oh, thank you, Alison, so much for being on the show.
H: Thanks, Alison.
A: Thank you so much for having me.
G: Yeah, it’s been great. Please stay tuned again next week when our topic will the Dealing with the Holidays and our guest will be Susan Van Vleck. She’s a National Board member of The Compassionate Friends, and in 1992, Susan lost her son, Marc, age 19. Join us on this show. And thanks for listening. I’m your host, Dr. Gloria Horsley, and
H: Dr. Heidi Horsley. Alison, Roy and your mother are gone but not forgotten. Their memories live on in your books and in all that you do. Thank you for being on our show.
A: Thank you so much for hosting the show.v