Burning Girl

Sarah Harrison Smith on August 09, 2017

“I’m somewhere in the sprawling mess of suburban New Jersey, sitting on damp earth,” begins Cree LeFavour’s new memoir, Lights On, Rats Out. The scene is chilling: As her teenage daughter plays on a soccer field nearby, LeFavour, hiding behind cemetery gravestones, wrestles with an almost ungovernable impulse to burn herself. She resists, but 20 years ago, she didn’t: Bulimia and self-harm led her, after college, to seek treatment from a psychiatrist she calls Dr. Adam Kohl. The two worked together in his office in Vermont for three years, untangling her complicated feelings of alienation and depression. That period included two months as an inpatient at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Maryland.

Cree LeFavourLeFavour wrote her memoir “using all evidence at hand,” including the file Dr. Kohl kept during her treatment and handed to her when she moved to New York with her future husband (and current New York Times book critic) Dwight Garner. She went on to earn a doctorate in American Studies from NYU and to write several cookbooks, including the James Beard award–nominated Fish: 54 Seafood Feasts. She answered questions about the process of writing Lights On, Rats Out by email.

Amazon Book Review: Publishing this book seems very brave, though you also seem, in it, to be a very private person. How did you become so courageous?

Cree LeFavour: I’m not at all sure I did become courageous. I just did it, which is to say I wrote this book because I needed to write it to figure out what was going on with me at the time—I was depressed and lost and writing was the only way out of it. I am a very private person. I guess when you suggest publishing the book is brave, you’re making a comment on how much I expose myself in the book—down to the most gritty details. Maybe what makes me brave, if I am at all, was the knowledge that if I didn’t tell the whole truth, no matter how unpleasant or unflattering, I would be failing in one of my central goals—to write a good book or at least a book I could be proud of. I felt the subject needed that raw, confessional quality that refuses to blink at the worst parts of the self—in this case, myself. In a sense, this raw confessional style is an extension of what I believe goes on between the patient and therapist—nothing is out of bounds, nothing is too private to be turned into language.

Lights On  Rats OutWhat was the hardest part of writing Lights On, Rats Out?

Writing the book was difficult. It brought me straight back to the confusion, longing, and misery of those days 20-plus years ago. Delving back into these emotions was emotionally shattering, but perhaps the most difficult part about it was realizing just how much I missed Dr. Kohl. I began writing this book as a kind of love letter to him, a way of getting closer to him when I was too afraid to find out if he was alive or dead. (About three-quarters of the way through the book, I did finally find out he is dead.) Reading my psychiatric file (which he gave me but I’d never read) was a bit like reliving my treatment with him—and yet he was gone.

I have to ask: In the book, you give your psychiatrist a pseudonym, “Dr. Adam Kohl.” Is “Kohl” a pun on burning—or it is a reference to the fact that he instilled an ember of warmth in you? Maybe both?

Yes, and yes, which is to say, both. Choosing a pseudonym was tricky. I wanted it to “feel” right and yet the idea that it might have some Dickensian significance appealed to me. I went back and forth about whether or not to use a pseudonym. He is, after all, the only person in the book I’ve shielded in this way, and he’s dead. I guess it felt like the right thing to do in light of any remaining family and former patients who might read the book. As it turns out, the pseudonym has given me a degree of remove from the book and from the way I write about him in it—as if I’ve still kept something for myself.

I wonder, as a parent, if you felt that telling your story might inoculate your children from going through something similar?

Well, I certainly hope it does, although I don’t think it works that way, do you? They will fall down however they fall down, and more than likely it will have no resemblance to my experience. None of us like to mimic our parents. The thought that either of them would be as cruel to themselves as I’ve been to myself horrifies me. Fortunately, they are far more mature, balanced, and happier than I ever was a teenager.

Lights On, Rats Out has a fairy tale quality: an abandoned child, great danger, a good fairy, then a happy ending. You mention that you read the Grimm fairy tale “The Goose Girl” for comfort sometimes. What was it about the that story, and about fairy tales, that spoke to you?

I’m so pleased you see a fairy tale quality in the structure of my book. I think you’re right but I hadn’t really thought about it carefully. It doesn’t surprise me, I suppose, since that archetype is firmly embedded in my mind from years of reading fairy tales. Their predictable structure and happy resolution has always been comforting to me. I also find the magic in them—whether the horse Falada speaking wisdom out of her severed head or the white bear in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”—extremely comforting and somehow familiar. (There are practically endless examples of mute or innominate objects speaking truth and wisdom in all sorts of myths and fairy tales.) I used to read and reread fairy tales as a kid—for the same reason I love them now: They provide a predictable, rigid moral universe of right and wrong, good and bad.

When you checked into Sheppard Pratt, you hid razor blades in the copies of Anna Karenina and The Magic Mountain you brought with you to the hospital, which lead me to wonder, did books ever do you harm?

What a fascinating question. I’m not sure how to answer. If books have done me harm they’ve done so by keeping me from real experience. I spent many, many years reading to the exclusion of socializing or forming relationships. Maybe that’s harm? I’d also say that books may have romanticized illness for me—The Magic Mountain not least, which in my reading glorifies giving up on life, which is a little bit like what being in the hospital felt like and what I felt I had to escape there.

You discuss Alice Miller’s classic work, The Drama of the Gifted Child. Are there other books about psychoanalysis you have enjoyed and found meaningful? I wonder if you read Dan Menaker’s The Treatment, or Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.

I have read both. Malcolm’s Impossible Profession was the first book my now-husband, Dwight, gave me. I think he was, and perhaps remains, a bit suspicious of the process. As for the Menaker, I found it very compelling and even wrote him a fan letter! In my experience, there aren’t a great many works of fiction or light nonfiction (not that Malcolm’s book is light) on psychoanalysis. For the book, most of the reading I did was the work of important analysts in the field, including those I quote: Freud, Heinz Kohut, Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, and D.W. Winnicott. I’d say my reading was less systematic than intuitive but it was essential in formulating some of the complex mechanisms that I tried to articulate in my own mind and psychopathology as well in transference-countertransference dance Dr. Kohl and I engaged in.

The number 11 has “magic” for you. You write, “The way a Jesus fanatic sees an outline of the Virgin Mary burned into a slice of toast once in a lifetime I repeatedly see 11s.… When the 11s appear I read them as a reminder directed at me from an unknowable, vaguely menacing power that must be placated.” Where does this fascination with 11 come from? Do you have a favorite number now?

The significance of the number is as random and illogical as the working of the human mind. I can’t explain it other than to say that I think my preoccupation with it has something to do with my fairly significant obsessive-compulsive tendencies. The sort of magic I attribute to the number is, I think, a very primitive way of ordering chaos. As for a new number, I remain loyal.

Thanks so much, Cree. This is a fascinating and encouraging book. I hope many other readers will enjoy it as much as I did.


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