James Braly: "If you can’t tell the truth, you can’t do this work"

The aching – and achingly funny – narrative that became James Braly’s memoir Life in a Marital Institution took its original form as stories meant to be heard in the dark.  On the stage at the storytelling performance forum The Moth, and later in an Off-Broadway one-man show, Braly deftly unpacked his own life, and his high-intensity union with his wife of two decades, and used the pieces within to construct a mirror for modern anxieties, dreams, and discontents.  The result is an unsparing work  that captures the mismatch between our fantasies of committed, familial bliss and the reality of our fears and appetites, marked by a standup comedian’s zest and a novelist’s hunger for insight. 

The surprise for readers prepared for a performer’s smoothness — less so for anyone who has been in a conversation with the author — comes in how frequently scenes that look at first like comic setups go in unexpected directions, and deliver opportunities for provoking reflection rather than an easy resolution. I asked James Braly to talk with the Barnes & Noble Review about what happens when the complexity of the real world meets the two dimensions of paper, and about the changes both Life in a Marital Institution and its author went through on the journey from performance to the page. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation, which took place earlier this month, via email. –Bill Tipper


The Barnes & Noble Review: There’s a ruthlessness attendant upon the writing of any memoir, but particularly when what one is anatomizing is one’s prior marriage. Was telling this story hard to take on because of that?

James Braly: I experienced several uniquely unpleasant challenges in writing this book, distinct from those I’d already experienced writing the theatrical monologue based on this same material. In the course of developing the show, my wife’s friends might sneak into my audience and report back to her. So on any given weekend, when I got home (I was living in a storage unit in the city during the week, performing at night, returning on weekends to my wife and children upstate) I might get a smile for writing what one friend had described as a Valentine, or a not-smile for writing what another friend had reported as being a poison pen. In other words, the material was in a volatile state, as was our marriage, one reason why I forbade my wife to see it until I figured out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. By the time the show had stabilized, we had destabilized. When I suggested that the show might tell her many things I had been unable to tell her in person, she said she knew what it was about. It was like having my own personal Jerry Falwell, judging The Last Temptation while never having seen it, but knowing lots of folks who had.

Now, one of the challenges of doing a show like this when you end up going through a divorce (which the show was partly a catalyst for) is having to relive, over and over and over again, the most painful episodes of your life — the ones so outrageous and mystifying that the only way to survive them is to transmute them to humor. It’s like Groundhog Day, only it happens in your storage unit, where you’re rehearsing all the time, and on stages across the country. But many years of rehearsals and performances later, I’d finally found a way to separate the show from the life that inspired it, i.e., mine. I was a pure performer, no longer required to delve into the material as a writer.

Then I had to write the book. That meant exploring my marriage all over again, in much more detail. My show was a little over 10,000 words — 20 years of monogamy in one terrifying hour. The initial book contract stipulated 20 years of monogamy in a terrifying 80,000 words, which I negotiated down to 70,000.  That was still seven times longer than the show, and to clear that bar I had to not only anatomize or even atomize my marriage — I had to perform subatomic analysis. The book represents the fruits of my emotional supercollider — and all the potentially terrifying energy that releases.

I also became aware in the course of writing the book that my children could now actually read, even though they were being raised in a Waldorf school on a leftist biosphere farm where illiteracy in young children is viewed as normal and sometimes even as a sign of pedagogical triumph. When I began performing, they couldn’t read; plus my show seemed somehow ephemeral, invisible to them, even though it had a presence online. But a book I knew they would one day actually read – and their friends would read it. And discuss it. With them. To their faces. And behind their backs. This introduced a whole new level of paranoia, and I am already paranoid. So I really struggled with how much to reveal.

But I have always been guided by two principles. One is that I reveal my own secrets, not those of my characters, i.e., my wife, my children, and other members of my family. (This is a memoir of my family as well as my marriage, tracing two parallel lines: a day in the life of my sister who is on her deathbed, alternating with scenes from my 20-year marriage.) For example, if you were my wife, and I were to tell the world, “You love broccoli,” I’d do so knowing that this is not a secret of yours. I’m not telling people anything about you that you haven’t already made public. I am however telling a secret of mine — unknown to you: I’ve hated every single bite of it for 20 years! That might be painful for you to discover. The second and related principle comes from a conversation I had with the director Gregory Mosher years ago, who saw an early version of my show that was essentially a collection of sunny, funny stories. “You get to tell your story on stage because people are afraid to get up and tell theirs. They go to those places in their emotional lives through you. If you can’t tell the truth, you can’t do this work.”

BNR: This book originated as a performance piece, a one-man show drawn from the experience of your marriage, and you’ve credited the storytelling series The Moth for helping shape your memoir.  How would this have been different if it hadn’t been performance first?

JB: That advice from Gregory Mosher — which came after a performance — changed my approach to my work: I should hit harder, not pull punches. The fact that this advice came from a Tony Award–winning director of Spalding Gray, who basically invented this art form, was hard to ignore. The man knows of what he speaks. As for The Moth and performance in general, performing onstage gives you an instant feedback loop. You see immediately what audiences respond to and why. You understand for whom you are writing. You get to the heart of the story very efficiently. On the other hand, what I didn’t know then and learned only through the course of writing the book (or did not learn — readers will be the judge) is how to “replicate” on the page the function that I as a narrator served on the stage. I have — or like to think I have — a fairly non-threatening stage persona. Lots of different kinds of people (from nose ring–wearing undergraduates at NYU to white sneaker–wearing senior citizens in Palm Beach) are willing to go with me on what amounts to a wild, no-holds-barred ride into the dark corners of an intimate relationship; to be Dantes to my Virgil on a guided tour of the circles of my darkly humorous romantic hell. When you do this on the page, there’s no me there – no non-threatening, quasi-professorial, insurance salesmany guy reassuring folks that everything is going to be okay. To go from a monologue to a memoir, that purely physical presence has to be replicated in words, and the fact I developed both the material itself and my writer’s voice on stage ironically underprepared me for the major leap I needed to make in order to make the material work on the page.

BNR: At the outset of a story about a very large personal change, you suggest that our typical conception about changing ourselves — that it can be accomplished in the same way we undertake the renovation of a house — is likely to fail. “If I wanted to change myself,” you write, “I would have started a long time ago. I may not like my life, but I love that it’s predictable.” Instead, you seem to suggest that the only real changes visit us without our volition.

JB: No, no – I believe people can change. They just often don’t change unless they have to. I studied Shakespeare in college and graduated a big believer in the Shakespearean forest — the idea that you can go into the woods one way and emerge another — restored to your better self, purged of your small-minded ways— be it your desire to strip the crown off the rightful king’s head, or to do whatever it is that led someone to steal your crown. That said, I also believe it’s hard to change, because of the discomfort and anxiety associated with growth, which in the short term is way more intense than the discomfort and anxiety associated with stasis i.e. maintaining an acceptably unhappy life – coming to terms with the devils you know, befriending that extra five (or ten) (or twenty) pounds rather than joining a gym — is stressful, yes, but way less stressful in the short term than changing the behaviors that led to the problem. It’s not until you let your undesirable behaviors go on for years that you realize the pain of stasis is far worse than the pain you would have experienced had you tried to change them years ago — the moment when it hits you, Oh my god, that five-pound chunk of flesh is hanging off me! To avoid this personal Waterloo takes abstract thought, the ability to predict consequences, and the lizard brain inside us all – the part of us that would willingly cook ourselves in a slowly boiling pot of water – doesn’t always do the math and jump. There is comfort in sitting in that warm little pot of water, in predictability, thereby avoiding having to confront your problems. That’s why so many of us do it, I think, and avoid changing. The best of us, or the best in each of us, can see that in the long run we will be unhappy if we don’t change; we do the math, and change before we are forced to. The rest of us wait until we are forced to, until we feel ourselves being cooked, hopefully while there’s still time to recover.

BNR: In a very early scene, you describe your relationship with your ex-wife in terms of withholding and control — but it’s food that proves the battleground, rather than sex, which might have been more expected.  Arguably we’re in a moment where “food issues” have been given their greatest sway over the culture than since Leviticus jotted down a few rules for savvy diners. Are we substituting fights (and obsessions) over food for more substantive issues?

JB: Point of clarification: she was my future ex-wife! (As a rule, I have debilitating arguments over the right to eat drive-thru hamburgers with my kids when we’re all starving only in the context of a marriage.) But to answer your question: yes, I agree with you that conflicts over food may be proxy wars masking a deeper issue. As for what that issue is…in fact it may be sex…and love.

Years ago, on vacation in Germany with my half-German future ex-wife, I read a little article in the International Herald Tribune about a meeting of the German parliament that had determined that the rash of fatal auto accidents on the autobahn was being caused by sexual frustration. Men weren’t getting enough sex, and evidently were venting their anger by driving with excessive speed, with sometimes-fatal results; instead of the little death, they were getting the big death. Point being, and I know I’m being reductive here — but do we really need any more nuances in this overcomplicated world? — I believe that many human conflicts are rooted in unmet basic needs: for all of us, food and shelter; and for men, sex; and for women, love.

As much as men can feel sexually frustrated, I think many women feel emotionally frustrated. And a common result is that men shut down the love and women shut down the sex and all that energy gets played out in different forms of proxy intercourse, resulting in what I think of as bifurcated, polarized relationship, which you see in many variations, all the time. For example, I know a smart, slightly overweight guy who married a hot, slightly underweight woman. As things went awry, they reverted to their coping mechanisms: for him, eating; for her, exercise. Every Twinkie he ate drove her to add 5 minutes to her jogging routine, and every 5 minutes she added made him eat another Twinkie. Years of this later, he looked like Jabba the Hut and she looked like a POW.

In my case, our battleground was talking about food. And I firmly believe that had we been humming in the romance department, I could have easily driven past the drive-thru and let my kids starve if that meant getting more sex when we got back home. The quality of a family rests on the foundation of the relationship between the parents, after all. So in this situation, starving your kids is the responsible upstream parenting move. The problem in my marriage was, capitulating was hard for both of us, and on the rare occasions we did do it, it didn’t have much impact.

To be fair to the possibility that other points of view exist on this issue, I do think many of us are disconnected from the food supply. We don’t really understand where food comes from. (Many young children think hamburger is something that originates in a refrigerated grocery store aisle.) And so there is this nagging feeling that we are missing a connection to nature, and we want to somehow reconnect. I know in my case, before I moved part time to upstate New York, I started feeling guilty about eating meat. I felt that I didn’t have the courage to do the dirty work, that in effect I hired hit men, like John Gotti did, versus bashing my victim’s brains in with a baseball bat, like Al Capone. (When you live in New York City, surrounded by the history of the Mafia, it’s easy to think in terms of gangster metaphors. And I wanted to be like Al Capone when it came to food, as I can respect a man who does his own dirty work.) So I became a fishetarian: I figured I could kill a fish if that’s what it took to keep eating sushi, and therefore ethically I had earned the right to eat salmon, tuna, and yellowtail. Once a year, I would succumb to my appetites and eat a good steak au poivre; I was a part-time could-be Capone, I guess you could say, forgiving myself for my Gotti-like moment of cowardly carnivorousness by promising that when I had the opportunity to do my own dirty work, I would slaughter an animal. Then I had the opportunity: when I moved upstate, the enlightened locals ate locally — they’re locavores — and as there are no tunas etc. swimming in the Hudson that meant eating meat, which was standing on four legs all around us. Near my new house was a farm where if you wanted to buy their grass-fed beef you had to eyeball the very cow you were going to eat while it was still feeding on grass in their bucolic pastures, in order to share in the karma of killing it. That’s when I discovered how I was more like John Gotti than Al Capone; I didn’t want to look in that cow’s eyeball. I just wanted to eat it.

I also discovered a tribe of good people, who included my future ex-wife, who held passionate, progressive, but sometimes suffocatingly doctrinaire notions of what it means to eat “right” — many of which I shared, but in a quieter way and for sometimes different reasons. Sitting down to a meal of ingredients produced by people you know that tastes excellent and is produced at the highest ecological and ethical standards? That’s cool. The challenge is, how do you communicate the appeal of this way of eating (and producing) food to those who don’t share your values? I came to this realization — the appeal of local food — by living among these people and discovering that they were excellent at what they did. They were pros, in other words. Excellent produce, fruits, meats are in general not accidents — they are last step in a process managed by experts. Had the food these people produced tasted bad, I would not have embraced it, no matter how noble their values. I don’t see principles as an excuse for mediocrity.

BNR: I admit, having heard pieces of this book in its various pre-publication forms, that while I was expecting this book to be about many things — about the double-binds implicit in modern matrimony, about the consequences of gender-role-revolution whiplash — I did not expect it to be about, centrally, love and death.

JB: Well, what else is there, really? Yes, yes, I know, lots of things between those poles. But ultimately, it’s death that makes you consider, in the deepest way, who you love and why. And most importantly, on the material level, how you want to spend your time. We don’t have forever. Though we sometimes think we do. Sitting in a hospice, where success is measured in dying – versus a hospital, where the goal is to check out alive — you are hit with the incontrovertible truth that all this must pass. This leads one – or it lead this one – to examine one’s commitments, and to want to experience emotional success before succumbing to physical demise.

BNR: There is a wonderful moment — in the chapter called “The Last Sound You Hear” — where I think you capture the unreadiness of any of us have for certain discussions.  You’re with your sister Kate, in the hospital, and she asks you, “Am I going to die here?” You write, “I’m the baby of the family. I’m not qualified to have this conversation.” Your status on the family tree notwithstanding, I love the phrase, because it captures the bewilderment we all have felt in moments like this — and, perversely, this usually occurs in the moments where the most important conversations of our lives are about to take place.

JB: It may not surprise you to learn, I used to want to be a rock star. But the time never seemed right to do what it actually took to be a rock star – write songs all the time, and perform them all the time. I did it part time, waiting for the right time, figuring I had plenty of time. I was in my middle twenties, sitting at a café table on the sidewalk in New York City, when I began to suspect that I may have run out of time. A guy walked past me holding a black gig bag — like me, he was a guitarist in a rock band. Only he was a few years younger. That’s when it hit me how old I really was: Sinéad O’Connor — the Irish singer, whose first record I had recently bought — was younger than I was! As were the Beatles when they released their first record! As were most of the people in my record collection! All this hit me at once. All along, I’d imagined I would have to reach a certain level of maturity before I attempted to succeed in earnest, that there were would be some official indication that it was time to stop being a dilettante and push to the next level of challenge. It’s not unlike what happens to every young guy who reads Playboy, looking at those little handwritten “My idea of a perfect evening is…” answers on the back of the centerfold, where she dots her i’s with girlish circles and seems to wear pajamas with footsies to bed when she is not posing nude, not yet a woman no longer a girl, and you realize for the first time, looking at her handwritten birthdate, she is younger than you are. Then you look around, and you see that many cops are younger than you, too. As is the doctor in the ER when you dislocate your knee. And, as you say to your wife, suddenly gone into labor six weeks prematurely,“What do you mean you’re giving birth?!” — you begin to see that nothing is happening on the schedule it’s suppose to be happening on. Not the beginning of life. Not the end of it. I had no frame of reference to prepare me for my sister dying. She was the one who had survived every wound (many self-inflicted, but still…) and I had never considered that she might not survive, that she was vulnerable. It’s a childlike state, this perspective. And holding on to this state is a way of not growing up: if she’s not vulnerable, neither am I! And I, for one, was comfortable believing this, and uncomfortable challenging this belief. I wanted to stay a child as long as I could. But then, suddenly, I couldn’t. And that gets back to our discussion in question #3 — how I was forced to change.

BNR: A question from the fact-checking department: did you really have fourteen couples therapists?

JB: Yes, though many just for one or two sessions, after which we fired them or they fired us. And as I recount in the book, the first one was really named Mim. It’s the absolute best and only name for her. And the publisher’s lawyer allowed me not to change it, versus many of the other names. I actually met Mim’s next-door neighbor in New Jersey, after a show at a theater where I was performing. The neighbor recognized not only the name — in a city as big as New York, there may be two couples counselors named Mim — but my description of her hair style. It’s one of those styles that when you arrive at it — usually while very young — you never change it, like a favorite meal, or an iconic object from childhood, a tonsorial Rosebud.

BNR: I think that readers with poor nerves (raising hand here) should be warned that there are some surprisingly intense, suspenseful moments here, the risky home birth of your son Ben being one of them. What was it like to revisit that episode?  The account you give of your own actions in the end unsparing.

JB: It was deeply humbling, on several counts. It reminded me that one day I will have to answer to my son for the risk I allowed his mother to take. It also reminded me that ultimately, his mother was right — the risk paid off in a miraculous experience (that cost a fortune in both unreimbursed medical expenses and stress). Even though it looked to me like he could die, his little chest vibrating like a hamster’s, my newborn son did not stop breathing. Had I brought him in to a hospital, as the health insurance company and our pediatrician recommended, instead of to the private office of a physician (who could have lost his license for agreeing to see us), the experience would have been a different kind of nightmare: my newborn’s mother might have had a nervous breakdown, which might have brought down our family — all for (it would have turned out) no good reason, i.e., my son turned out to be fine. But it certainly didn’t look that way at the time, and both I and the homebirth midwife (and the nurse on the 1-800 line at the health insurance company and our pediatrician on the phone) agreed that with tiny lungs the size of plums, you cannot take chances. We needed an M.D. to eyeball my son. And the REALLY humbling thing in this whole scenario: had I taken my son to the hospital, I likely would never have known he was fine. The hospital would never have waited to find out. Standard operating procedure in a situation like this is to give him a spinal tap and antibiotics and observe him — a newborn baby — for several days in an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit and then pronounce him fine. His mother likely would have cracked. (She wanted a homebirth as an antidote to her traumatic first birth, in a hospital.) And I never would have known it could have been otherwise. Any way you slice this experience, once I agreed to a homebirth, it had to be a nightmare — and what this taught me is that sometimes a nightmare is the price of glory. My son is remarkable — one of the great gifts of my life. And given my wife’s needs, and my willingness to satisfy them, there was no way to receive this gift without living through a nightmare.

BNR:  In the final pages of your book you say, “It’s easy to mistake pain for pleasure, if you’re me. But I’m getting better at telling the difference between the two.” Writing is an activity famously in the gray zone where pain and pleasure get confused.  Was writing Life in a Marital Institution more of one than the other?  And what about what you’ve written since?

JB: I think it was Norman Mailer who said, “Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.” I would amend that to “…childrearing,” as the agony (and the ecstasy) are more emotional than physical.  When my sons were very young I often felt like I was trapped in an emotional double helix: inextricably linked looping strands of profound joy in the present mixed with the searing pain of the past. I believe all parents experience this to one degree or another when they find themselves telling their children things like, “When I was your age…” It’s at those moments that you, the parent, look at your kid as a mirror, reflecting back to you the memories of what you didn’t get when you were their age- — and the deprivation, long buried, gets exhumed. Writing my memoir felt like that. I really, really loved the act of trying to perfectly express a thought or a feeling or a story. On the other hand, this joy came at a steep price: remembering! (Yes, in my ongoing attempts to avoid this feeling, I was late in delivering my book.)

Consider also that while writing parts of this book I was going through a contentious divorce — the book came after the show. Meaning, one of the main characters in my hopefully entertaining book was my anything-but-entertaining real-life legal adversary. As a result, I might find myself in the morning writing a response to an affidavit trying to persuade a judge of the veracity of my point of view. (I wrote over 150,000 words of notes by the time we separated — twice the length of my book.) And then in the afternoon, I might write a chapter of a hopefully entertaining memoir whose success depends in part on presenting a balanced, loving perspective of my real-life legal adversary and, often, a self-deprecating view of myself. I had to switch into diametrically opposed headspaces — and then at night switch into a third space: centered boyfriend who was emotionally available to my girlfriend. (Yes, I was late in delivering that as well.)

My writing since then is much less fraught. I mean, seriously, could it get worse? I am developing a monologue called “The Monthly Nut (How Much Misery Does It Take to be Happy?)” — about loving your lifestyle but hating your life. It’s autobiographical too – so lots of memories are being mined. But those memories are not asking me to give them my house — and children! So the pain that this writing entails is more the kind of pain one typically associates with writing: god this is hard. And given what I’ve been through, it’s a breeze!