Survival and More: Mary Jo Buttafuoco

August 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsmakers

mary-jo-buttafuoco-book-cover_321x482For many of us, the name Mary Jo Buttafuoco brings on a swirl of uncertain memories, a tangle of tabloid headlines from the 1990s and a jumble of questions we’d half-forgotten. This summer that swirl can cease with her book Getting It Through My Thick Skull: Why I Stayed, What I Learned and What Millions of People Involved with Sociopaths Need to Know. We caught up with her last week, mid-way through her book tour, and decided to forgo the usual questions — about the 1992 shooting by her then-husband’s teenage lover, her subsequent fight with drug addiction and the six surgeons who gave her a “life lift” just a few years ago. For those answers, pick up a copy of the book (and maybe start with the video clip below). Meanwhile, we asked her about survival, homes and unexpectedly finding herself — yet again — the parent of teenagers in her new marriage.

After I read this book, I thought: That’s the photo that should be there when we go to the dictionary and look up the word “survivor.”

Though you know, it’s taken me some time to think of myself that way: not a victim, but a survivor.

Thick Skull_engagement!It’s also a book about  growing up, yes? I look at those early photos of when you and Joey first married, him in that Mod Squad hair and you just out of braces. Do you feel like a different person now?

Yeah, I really do! I look at myself and I’m surprised at how I was — so young, so afraid and fearful. People don’t believe me now, when I tell them I used to be quiet and not say much, and be worried about what people thought. People in my life now — my fiancé, the kids — they know me as someone who says exactly what I think.

H5564 Hazelden Insrt Sprg 2006Talk to me about all the houses in your story: that little starter house, your dream house in Massapequa where Amy Fisher shot you, that house Joey bought in Chatsworth when you moved to California with him.

The little house in Baldwin, that was great in its own way. We had our children there;  we had money in the bank. But it was where Joe’s drug use escalated.

The Massapequa house, that was my dream house. We were big boaters and beach people, and the location was what it was all about. We almost didn’t get it, as you know from the book: The money we’d saved for the down payment, it was gone to drugs, so Joey’s father bailed us out. But it still looked like my plan worked: Joe got sober, and the kids were happier. I was painting a part of the back deck the day, the day everything changed.

After Amy Fisher shot me, it turned into a nightmare house. People would drive by, laughing. We had to move.

Those little houses we rented in California never felt like home. Then he found that huge house in Chatsworth. That house personified evil. I only lived there for six months. It’s where he was arrested, too.

On this book tour, everyone asks: Why did you stay with him for seven years after? But we know that abusive spouses can just keep talking, painting a picture where what you thought happened didn’t, where if anyone’s at fault it’s not them. They kind of wear you out for a while.

Exactly! After I was shot, I was on a lot of medication, in a lot of pain. So I believed Joe. I would question him, and he always had an answer. He had a way of talking that suddenly made my doubts seem absurd. It took myself getting sober and figuring out what was truth and what were lies.

By “getting sober” you mean the Betty Ford Center, where you went when you realized you were addicted to painkillers.

That was a big pivotal turning point in my life! It was there that they made me begin to understand it was my job to take the next step. I thought I had moved on, but I obviously hadn’t. I was carrying around so much pain and rage and not dealing with it. They got me walking the walk, not just talking. That’s when I decided to forgive Mrs. Fisher, forgive Amy.

That kind of forgiveness — it’s mixed in with so many other emotions, ne?

It’s for your sanity, not for them, for her. It’s I have to forgive you for what you did to me, because otherwise you’re taking up too much space in my heart and my brain, so much passionate energy.

It was your son that finally put a name to Joe’s behavior: sociopath. Can you briefly talk about how he fits that description, and what we should look out for in those we might love?

They’re very charming, very charismatic. They say things that make you believe things’ll change. They can mimic the behavior of a normal person, saying what he thinks I need to hear, saying they’re sorry, when they really feel no guilt at all. If you see these traits in someone you’re with, run run! This is important to know: There is no curing a sociopath. We think we’re helping these people, but it’s an illusion. Get out even when they say to you, “Oh, please!” It’s hard, but within a few weeks you’ll feel a lot better.

Do you think Amy Fisher is a sociopath?

No. I think she’s got a lot of issues. She was sexually abused as a child — she got her education on sex the wrong way, a skewed and warped sense of sex that she’s kept to this day, with her new career as a pole dancer and the sex tape. It’s her business, but it’s sad. She has three children, and two of them are daughters.

MJBnewfamilyMeanwhile, you’ve had a total body makeover, a new love and family, and a best-seller. Has the book’s reception been all you’ve hoped for?

I have been so blessed. I’ve been getting hundreds of emails from women who say, “I’ve been with someone just like that,” or “I’m so impressed by your bravery,” or “Thanks for showing us the truth behind all that tabloid stuff.” It’s just been incredible.

You’re also a nearly  full-time mom again, at 50-plus. How is it different now?

My fiancé says to me: You were so good at it the last time. Why not now?” He means that Paul and Jessie are great, and they are. I think they saved my life. But I don’t know. They were just little kids when I was shot, they were traumatized by that, and when they were teenagers I was very sick. I’m not sure they got what they needed from me. Now I’m healthier. I’m more present. I’m older. Maybe I get tired more easily, but I have a better sense of what to say when it gets tough.

Poetry Friday: Just Before Bed

August 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Poetry

susankphotosm1We’ve long been promising you an interview with perhaps our most faithful Voice in Verse — whose poem below is among the seasonal series with which she’s gifted us. The interview appears just after this week’s Poetry Friday poem, “Just Before Bed.”

JUST BEFORE BED

Late one night walking across my lawn, I pitched
a large pinecone back at the trees and startled
some sleeping birds. Out of the branches they came
flapping, chirping with fright, then flew away
into the dark disquieted world, deranged as bats
at noon. There’s nothing more to this, only the old
discomfort of wondering how to be acquainted with
the night without disturbing its peace. And where
does one go to nest again, or (perchance) to dream?

Kinsolving’s books include The White Eyelash, Dailies & Rushes (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award) and Among Flowers. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications including The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, Yale Review and The Paris Review. She has taught at numerous universities, including Bennington and CalArts. Several of her poems have been set to music and performed in the United States and abroad. WVFC finally caught up with her last week: We can draw nearly as much wisdom and beauty from her answers as from her poems.

What is your favorite season? Or favorite season to write about?

There’s not a favorite; I just enjoy the changes. Living in New England, as I do, the seasonal changes are profound. The natural world presents a great drama of transformation, reminding us that we are part of it, by day, by year, and by decade. So I’ve written poems titled “Summer Storm” and “August Island” as well as “Some Snows” and “Walking After Winter.” I’d like to have more expertise about the weather, to be able to understand better the cloud formations, dew points, pressure systems. I think the Weather Channel is one of the best things on television, though it cannot compete with simply going outdoors. Who isn’t stirred by a tempest?!

What are you working on now?

I am reading Hawthorne in preparation for a class I will teach on American Lit this autumn. I am fascinated all over again by Hester Prynne. Hawthorne created a character who informs so many time periods. She’s an icon, embodying women’s issues, past and present.
My recent poems have concerned glass eyes. I’ve been working on a series regarding the history and other aspects of prosthetic eyes. The subject matter has been rich with science and anecdote. My fourth book will be titled My Glass Eye. I see it as a great metaphor for poetry. Elizabeth Bishop did too.

Like many poets, I write light verse as well as so-called serious poems. Light verse has an impressive literary history, though one that is often misunderstood or forgotten. T.S. Eliot is an example: “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and “Old Possum” came from the same pen. (Light verse is not doggerel.)

Who are the writers whose work you most admire?

Too many writers to name. In April, 2010, I’ll be honoring the great poet Thomas Hardy with a program at The Mercantile Library in New York. Hardy was a genius in both prose and poetry so his work will lead off a new reading series, Chapter and Verse, celebrating writers who were accomplished in both genres.

What question do you wish people would ask you in interviews?

Valuable questions that are seldom asked are those of specificity, questions that regard a specific poem and wonder about its form, images, metaphors, title, and so on. Those questions can begin a deeper dialog because the work has been read and considered.

Final Day, Interview with Ginnah Howard

August 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

ginnahNYTLasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in the New York Times Book Review. Now, we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her  for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herself.

We’ve been sharing that conversation over four days. In today’s final installment, Ginnah talks about her mixed feelings about the honor of the Times review of Night Navigation, and her hope that readers will have a more nuanced response.

What was it like for you to see your first published book, Night Navigation, reviewed in The New York Times Book Review?

Since I graduated from college, one of the highlights of the week has been going out on a Sunday morning to get The New York Times, to spend most of that whole day curled up with The Book Review, the news of the Week in Review, Arts & Leisure, the magazine…so it was a special thrill to learn that Night Navigation would be reviewed on July 5. Who would review it? How much space would it be given? Would it appear in the first half of the Review? And, of course the main concern: Would it be basically positive, with no “kisses of death?” “We don’t know,” the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publicity Manager said.

Of course it is a great streak of good fortune to have my first published novel reviewed in the Times, to have it be considered a positive “take” on the book, to have my picture included, to be on page 13. Further, the next week, to have Night Navigation be picked as one of the Editor’s Choice books. Beyond the pleasure that such recognition brings, beyond the fact that this recognition is likely to improve sales and, perhaps, add some energy to the chances that Rope & Bone may more easily find a publisher in the fall, there has been the joy of hearing from writers I’d met in workshops and residencies these last 20 years, but whom I’d lost track of over time [because of] changed addresses and emails.

All of that said, I must add that I was disturbed by the reviewer’s “angle”: that the mother in Night Navigation was as addicted to enabling as the son was to heroin. “Mark’s mother’s drug of choice is the drama her son brings to her life. She can’t resist the urge…to indulge in ‘supermom’ exploits.” That’s a conclusion that a careful reading of the novel would negate.

NAMI-30years2cAs a longtime member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I was moved to voice a protest in the form of a Letter to the Editor which may or may not be published. I wanted to speak up for the many parents in this country who have adult children with the co-occurring disorders of both mental illness and substance abuse, especially where suicide is part of a family’s history. When to let go and when to hold on becomes very complicated under those circumstances. These families need no additional drama in their lives. Readers who’d like to see a full copy of this letter can contact me through my Web site.


The Full Dream: Interview with Ginnah Howard, Part Three

August 9, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

ginnahNYTLasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in the New York Times Book Review. Now we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herself.

We’ve been sharing that conversation over four days. In today’s installment, Ginnah continues her precis of the sweeping, ambitious trilogy of which Night Navigation will be the central core.

Would you mind telling us about your work so far on the other two books of the trilogy?

Night Navigation opens in March 2002, on a black-ice night in upstate New York. Through the four seasons, this novel focuses on what is left of the Merrick family after the suicide of the father and the younger son. The novel follows the losses and gains of the remaining son, Mark, who has a bipolar disorder and who, throughout that year, is in and out of treatment for a heroin addiction, and his artist mother, Del, who anxiously tries to help him with the hope that once and for all she can let go. Though this sounds like a bleak tale indeed, many readers have stated that the buoyancy of the language has lifted much of the darkness  (see the Amazon and Bookbrowse reviews.)

Book 1, Rope & Bone, focuses on Del Merrick and Carla Morletti, and their families. The novel is made up of 34 linked stories covering the years from 1955 to 1993. Many of the stories concentrate on the friendship between Carla and Del―their misadventures as they try to raise their kids, get their old cars started on subzero mornings, and put in enough wood to get through to April at the same time they’re testing their theory: a good man’s hard to find. In addition to these friendship tales, all of the other characters―their children, their husbands, their lovers―have stories as well. Reading Rope & Bone, after finishing Night Navigation, would be like the way we get to know people, first in their present lives, and then as we spend more time with them, their pasts slowly surface. Rope & Bone is “finished”; it’s now with my agent, ready to go out to editors this fall.

I’m mid-way in working on the third book, Common Descent, which picks up a few days after Night Navigation closes in March 2003. It focuses on Carla Morletti and her daughter and son, Tess and Rudy, all of whom are also important characters in Night Navigation. When Common Descent opens, Carla is on her way to visit Rudy in jail and Tess is refusing to go in, stating that she’s had enough of Rudy’s troubles. Since I work from only a vague plan and often do not know where the story will go next, I can’t say for sure, but I’m hoping Mark and Del don’t come knocking on Carla’s door, that the Merricks will only be seen on the periphery, in a “what they’re up to now” way.

All three novels are written to “stand alone.” Ten of the Rope & Bone story/chapters have already been published. Several have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The published stories are now available on my Web site, each as a Story of the Month.


An Interview with Ginnah Howard, Part Two

August 7, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

ginnahNYTLasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in the New York Times Book Review. Now, we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herself.

We’ve been sharing that conversation over four days. In today’s installment, Ginnah finishes telling her story of how she got started as a writer, and starts describing the sweeping, ambitious trilogy of which Night Navigation will be the central core.

Early on I began to send work to literary magazines, and every now and then a story was accepted: North American Review, Blueline, Permafrost, Water~Stone Review…. But publishing has always been an “extra,” not what made me sit down day after day. What makes me face the blank screen is the excitement of the words moving along on that emptiness—very similar to the thrill I felt as I hurried to get my shoe skates out of my metal suitcase and laced up to move out on the rink to throb of the organ. To leg-over-leg make the turns when I was 13. What I still feel when Bob Dylan tells me, “Don’t think twice; it’s all right,” while I’m peeling the potatoes for dinner.

Up until around 2005 or so, when I finally got an agent, Alice Tasman of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, I did not have a major work published because the work wasn’t quite ready. My experience has been that most of the satisfaction, the joy of writing, has to be in the process itself: the making, the revision, the critiquing, the passion of talking about the work with other writers, the thrill of reading, reading, reading…the work itself.

You say Night Navigation is actually the second book of a trilogy-in-progress. Would you mind telling us about your work so far on the other two books of the trilogy?

Night Navigation opens in March 2002, on a black-ice night in upstate New York. Through the four seasons, this novel focuses on what is left of the Merrick family after the suicide of the father and the younger son. The novel follows the losses and gains of the remaining son, Mark, who has a bipolar disorder and who throughout that year is in and out of treatment for a heroin addiction, and his artist mother, Del, who anxiously tries to help him with the hope that once and for all she can let go. Though this sounds like a bleak tale indeed, many readers have stated that the buoyancy of the language has lifted much of the darkness. See www.amazon.com and www.bookbrowse.com reviews.

Book 1, Rope & Bone, focuses on Del Merrick and Carla Morletti, and their families. The novel is made up of 34 linked stories covering the years from 1955 to 1993. Many of the stories concentrate on the friendship between Carla and Del―their misadventures as they try to raise their kids, get their old cars started on subzero mornings, and put in enough wood to get through to April at the same time they’re testing their theory: a good man’s hard to find. In addition to these friendship tales, all of the other characters―their children, their husbands, their lovers―have stories as well. Reading Rope & Bone after finishing Night Navigation would be like the way we get to know people, first in their present lives, and then as we spend more time with them, their pasts slowly surface. Rope & Bone is “finished”; it’s now with my agent, ready to go out to editors this fall.