Unsentimental, unexpectedly funny, and incredibly honest, Tragedy Plus Time is a love letter to every family that has ever felt messy, complicated, or (even momentarily) magnificent.
Meet the Magnificent Cayton-Hollands, a trio of brilliant, acerbic teenagers from Denver, Colorado, who were going to change the world. Anna, Adam, and Lydia were taught by their father, a civil rights lawyer, and mother, an investigative journalist, to recognize injustice and have their hearts open to the universe—the good, the bad, the heartbreaking (and, inadvertently, the anxiety-inducing and the obsessive-compulsive disorder-fueling).
Adam chose to meet life’s tough breaks and cruel realities with stand-up comedy; his older sister, Anna, chose law; while their youngest sister, Lydia, struggled to find her place in the world. Beautiful and whip-smart, Lydia was witty, extremely sensitive, fiercely stubborn, and always somewhat haunted. She and Adam bonded over comedy from a young age, running skits in their basement and obsessing over episodes of The Simpsons.
When Adam sunk into a deep depression in college, it was Lydia who was able to reach him and pull him out. But years later as Adam’s career takes off, Lydia’s own depression overtakes her, and, though he tries, Adam can’t return the favor. When she takes her own life, the family is devastated, and Adam throws himself into his stand-up, drinking, and rage. He struggles with disturbing memories of Lydia’s death and turns to EMDR therapy to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder when he realizes there’s a difference between losing and losing it.
Adam Cayton-Holland is a tremendously talented writer and comedian, uniquely poised to take readers to the edges of comedy and tragedy, brilliance and madness. Tragedy Plus Time is a revelatory, darkly funny, and poignant tribute to a lost sibling that will have you reaching for the phone to call your brother or sister by the last page.
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Tragedy Plus Time includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Adam Cayton-Holland. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Tragedy Plus Time, Adam Cayton-Holland tells the story of his sister Lydia’s suicide. He brings you into their shared childhood, in which Lydia was the most sensitive of the three Cayton-Holland kids, through their memories as adults beginning to find their place in the world.
From a young age, Lydia felt the pain of the world deeply and intimately. Whether she encountered the loss of a family friend, the body of a dead animal on the side of the road, or even a mugger attempting to rob her at knifepoint, Lydia responded with the utmost empathy. After struggling with mental illness for years, she ultimately took her own life.
As Adam grieves Lydia’s death, he works to accept that there will be so many successes, joys, and even sorrows that he won’t get to share with his little sister. He comes to understand that grieving is not necessarily a process with a beginning and end; it’s a constant state of being with its own paradoxical highs and lows. As Adam says, “I like to remember her constantly; I try not to think of her at all.”
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Adam recalls his childhood with Lydia, where they were “always running new bits, playing new characters” (p. 31). Discuss some of their bits. What is the appeal of comedy to them and to you? How do these comedic routines help Adam and Lydia navigate the world and relate to each other?
2. Wade Blank’s death is a formative experience for Adam and his siblings. Describe the way that each of the Cayton-Hollands reacts to this tragedy. How does Wade’s death affect Adam’s understanding of death and his worldview?
3. Discuss the chapter titles in Tragedy Plus Time. Why do you think that Cayton-Holland choose to include them? Did they affect your reading? If so, how? Were there any chapter titles you found particularly affecting? Which ones and why?
4. Patton Oswalt praised Tragedy Plus Time, saying “This book is so heartfelt and brilliant that I’ve informed my lawyers not to proceed with the lawsuit for plagiarism against the title.” Oswalt previously released Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time, a one-hour storytelling comedy special. Discuss the meaning of the book’s title, and the special’s title. Why do you think that Cayton-Holland chose this title for his memoir? How did it inform your reading of the book? What impact, if any, does time have on tragedy?
5. Of his freshman year in college, Adam writes, “I couldn’t shake the feeling like I wasn’t doing college right” (p. 44). What do you think “doing college right” means to him? How does Adam’s confidence suffer during his freshman year? How is Lydia’s campus visit a watershed moment for Adam? Why doesn’t he want to appear lost in front of her?
6. Adam writes, “That’s the thing no one tells you about depression. How exhausting it is to those around the person suffering” (p. 138). How does Adam convey these feelings of exhaustion? Have you had any similar experiences? If so, how did you deal with them?
7. What, according to Adam, is the purpose of a funeral? Why does he feel that they aren’t for the family of the deceased? What do you think? On grief Adam writes, “there’s just too much. Especially with a suicide” (p. 146). What do you think he means? How does reading about other people’s experiences with loss help us process our own ecounters with it?
8. Think about Adam’s relationship with Katie. Were you surprised that they got back together? Why or why not? How does she help him deal with his grief?
9. Why does Adam’s family insist that he make his previously scheduled trip to Los Angeles after Lydia’s suicide? How might it help them? We see a moment from this trip in the prologue and then again later in the story. How does revisiting this trip again later in the narrative help you understand Adam’s state of mind?
10. In “Litost,” Adam talks about the history of mental illness in his family and how little he and his relatives spoke of the details. What do you think makes suicide and depression so difficult to talk about, even generations later? How do you think your family would handle, or has handled, a similar situation?
11. After Lydia’s funeral, Adam talks about self-mythologizing, and how it’s easy to get caught up thinking of life as a storyline with a defined arc. He realizes, “All that time you spent thinking it revolved around you, you weren’t even the main character, you idiot. [Lydia] was” (p. 147). What might be the central arc of your own life story? Do you consider yourself the main character? Why or why not?
12. Toward the end of the book, Adam writes that he understands Lydia’s pain was unbearable because “she knew she would destroy us but she had to do it anyway. . . . And if that’s the choice she had to make to end the misery, then I have to choose to love her for that choice” (pp. 224–225). Do you relate to Adam’s conclusion? Why or why not?
13. After Lydia’s death, Adam was visited repeatedly by a hawk. When he shared this with his mother, “she looked at me with wide eyes and we both just knew. That was her. That was Lydia. . . . She was trying to reach us. She was trying to show us how beautiful and strong she still was” (p. 210). How did this experience hold a measure of healing for Adam as he felt his sister’s presence again? Do you believe that people who have passed may visit loved ones in some form after death?
Enhance Your Book Club
1.Tragedy Plus Time has drawn comparisons to Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Read both books and discuss them with your book club. Do you think the comparisons are apt? Were there any similarities in the ways that Adam Cayton-Holland and Dave Eggers came to terms with their grief?
2. Learn more about the mental health resources in your area and on a national level. What therapists, medical practitioners, and other mental health professionals are available near you? Research national mental health organizations and suicide prevention centers, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (https://afsp.org), that can be vital for those struggling with mental health and share these resources with your community.
3. Adam’s comedic trio christens themselves the Grawlix. What does the name mean? Watch their Web series at http://www.funnyordie.com/thegrawlix and discuss it with your book club. Adam says that the name of the trio “was perfect, obscure, and pretentious” (p. 92). Do you agree? Why or why not?
4. To learn more about Adam Cayton-Holland, listen to and watch some of his routines. Find out when he will be in a city near you by visiting his official site at adamcaytonholland.com
A Conversation with Adam Cayton-Holland
Congratulations on the publication of Tragedy Plus Time. In your memoir, you talk about working on Those Who Can’t both for you and for Lydia. Did you feel the same about writing this book?
Absolutely. I suppose it was more for me than her, though. I mean, I wanted the book to serve as a sort of tribute to her, but it wasn’t like she necessarily wanted or needed that. Though I think she would really like it. But it was something I needed to do as part of my mourning process. I think that’s why my family was okay with it, even though it’s hard to have all we went through aired publicly. We all respect whatever the others have to do to grieve.
As your career progresses, you “learned to read an audience . . . and [you were] giving them what they wanted” (p. 89). When you were writing your memoir, was there a specific audience that you kept in mind? Can you tell us about any notable differences between writing stand-up and writing your memoir?
There was no audience I kept in mind, other than my family. The last thing you want when you go through something like this is to bring more pain upon the family. So they were the only ones I was thinking of when I wrote the book. And Lydia of course. But she’s family. Writing stand-up and writing a memoir are obviously quite different experiences; for one you have way more time to explain what you’re getting at. Stand-up audiences aren’t as patient. But I’ve heard people describe stand-up comedy as “a search to sound like yourself on stage.” Writing a memoir could be described as, “a search to sound like yourself on page.” So in a lot of ways, I suppose, they’re similar.
Early in your memoir, you talk about giving a mandatory ninth-grade speech, saying that the experience was “so unilaterally terrifying that [the speeches] were off-limits from standard ridicule” (p. 38). What prompted you to approach your speech in such a different manner than your classmates? Were you worried about how it would be received? Can you share parts of it with us?
Ha. I wish I could find that top ten list. I tried for the book, but it’s long gone. I think I just knew that I was funny—or at least I was sick of being totally ignored. I think I was coming out of my middle school shell. I was really resenting the kids I was going to school with and just sort of done with it. So there was a certain I’ll-show-you-assholes edge to that performance. I don’t think I was even worried about how it was received because I was already so low on the social ladder. Worst case scenario, I was right back where I was. I didn’t have much to lose. I cared more about what Dave Letterman thought than my peers.
At your first open mic night, you describe sitting “at the bar nervously sucking down PBRs . . . [having] memorized [your] material so as not to appear amateurish” (p. 72). How has the experience of performing changed as you’ve advanced professionally? Is there anything you miss about the early days of your career?
What I miss about those early days is what every comic misses about those early days: everything seemed so damn important. Every set was crucial. Every opportunity was enormous. You were so caught up in this amazing new world of stand-up comedy that you didn’t even realize that you kind of were terrible, or at least not as good as you thought you were, and that you wouldn’t start really doing anything of note until five-plus years in because it takes that long to even get remotely decent. You had blinders on to that fact. It’s this glorious ignorance that every comic goes through, and my love of the profession was never as intense or pure as it was then. I still love it with every fiber of my being, but back then, them were the glory days.
Do you have any advice for aspiring comics? Or for aspiring authors, for that matter? Is there anything you wish you had known about the process when you began writing your memoir?
For aspiring comics it’s always the same: go to an open mic, get on stage. There’s this tendency to deify stand-up comedy, like oh I could never. But you can. Lots of terrible comics do it every night. Go to an open mic and watch bad comedy; you’ll be surprised by how much funnier you are than half the people already. I just wrote my first memoir, I have no idea what advice to give anyone. Buy my book? That’s my advice!
Throughout your memoir, you describe being influenced by various comics, including David Letterman and Patton Oswalt. Are there any other comics who have been particularly influential you? Did you draw inspiration from memoirists, too? Which ones and why?
I’m lucky enough that the people who inspire me and are influential to me have become my dear friends, or at least acquaintances. I admire Ben Roy and Andrew Orvedahl, my partners in Those Who Can’t, for their insane senses of humor and their work ethic. That means so much. Rory Scovel inspires me to take risks; Kyle Kinane inspires me to do comedy the way you want to do it, and let everyone else catch up. I’m influenced by Tig Notaro, Maria Bamford, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Kumail Nanjiani. As far as memoirists go, I’m in love with David Sedaris and Dave Eggers. They’re two of my favorite Davids. I’ve always really enjoyed reading Roddy Doyle as well.
In describing the acts that characterized Greg’s open mic nights, you write, “Were we to come up ten years later, in 2014 as opposed to 2004, we would have been HuffPo’d into shamed silence" (p. 77). Have the larger societal changes that have taken place informed your comedy? If so, how?
I think there is a tendency for young comics to push the boundaries of what they can joke about. It happens at most open mics. It’s like a comedy toddler seeing what they can get away with. It makes sense, but I’ve seen many comics get trapped in that place. They just use shock value as a substitute for creativity, or good writing. And that’s lazy. Also, at some point, you have to ask yourself what it is that you’re putting out into the world. I’ve always done that in my act. Early on I had a joke that made fun of panhandlers—most comics have a homeless joke because that’s something you observe all the time—but I dropped it early because I was like, “Why am I making fun of homeless people? I have the microphone and this is what I’m doing with it?” I quickly and naturally started demanding better of myself; thinking about what it was I was saying on stage, or projecting. I think any good, intelligent comic should do that, regardless of societal changes. If current societal changes force more comics to do that, that’s fantastic! But a good comic should be doing it anyway. When you start out, it’s about survival up there on stage, anything to get a laugh. But that is the realm of amateurs. Once you start figuring out how to be on stage without getting booed off or drowning in silence, then you have to start thinking about what it is you’re saying, and what it is you want to say.
You describe Denver as “the little city that could,” (p. 94) and, in many ways, Tragedy Plus Time reads like a love letter to the city. What’s the lure of Denver to you? Are there any places in particular that you love? Can you tell us about them?
The secret is out on the little city that could. When I was growing up all my friends and I would tell everyone we know, “Denver is cool! It’s like a Portland or an Austin!” We half-believed it, but it was the power of positive thinking. Now the city has exploded and we’re like, “Denver’s not cool! We’re not like Portland or Austin at all! Please, go away!” But it’s too late. And now I’m the old hipster at the end of the bar bitching about how everyone should have been here back when. But Denver is incredible. Eat at Illegal Pete’s. Go to TRVE Brewing. Walk around the neighborhoods, stroll the alleyways. And for god’s sake don’t move here.
Your descriptions of Lydia are so vivid and vibrant, it’s likely that many readers will come away from Tragedy Plus Time feeling like they know her. Is there anything else that you would like your readers to know about her?
She was so damn funny. So funny. No one could make me laugh like she did. I want readers to feel a sense of joy when they think of Lydia, like I do.
Tragedy Plus Time is so tightly entwined with your personal family history. How did your parents, Anna, and Katie respond to the book?
They all responded differently, but well. As I said earlier, my family kindly understood that this is part of my process of healing. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is necessarily comfortable with the worst experience of their life being trotted out for public consumption. And I hate that. I hate that someone is going to come up to my mom in the grocery store and talk to her about Lydia, when really, she’d much rather not have that conversation. She’d like to grieve alone, thank you. Anna is much the same. My dad is a bit more open to it, but he still gets heartbroken. It’s devastating. We all get sad every time. And now I’ve given people an excuse to talk to my family about their most intimate, private hurt, and if I could take that part of this experience away, I would. But my mom read the book and she told me it felt like she was hanging out with Lydia. And it made her cry and it made her laugh, and she felt like she spent time with her youngest. That’s the highest compliment I could possibly receive. I’m glad I gave my mom that, if only for an afternoon. Katie was cool with it all. She loved the book. And she said she felt like she got to know Lydia better, which is an important part of knowing me. She met Lydia briefly, but they never spent time together. Katie also had to live through me being an emotional basketcase, and she had to coax me out of it, through painful breakups, but she never gave up on me, so I think she enjoyed reading about how it all worked out for us two. Obviously she knew that, but I think it was nice for her to read.
Is there anything that you have found particularly gratifying about publishing Tragedy Plus Time? If so, what?
That Lydia comes to life. That more people get to know how special she is.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m working on adapting the book into a movie. And I’m out there doing stand-up. Always.