(Image from Koren’s tumblr)
We (the Editor in chief and Editor at large) met NYTimes best-selling author Koren Zailckas back in 2009 when she came to speak about her book Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood at our small undergraduate university in Maryland. Our feminist group, the now-defunct Student Activists for Gender Equality (SAGE), had arranged for her to come. We even have photographic evidence:
Her follow-up book Fury: A Memoir was then just in its draft stages. She explained to us, over dinner, at that time she was writing about the differences between the ways Europeans and Americans respond to and express anger. Fury turned out to be far more. It is an intensely personal account of how Koren experienced anger, the destructive ways she had been conditioned to express it and how she learned to overcome them.
Now the book has been revamped as a paperback and newly titled–Fury: True Tales of a Good Girl Gone Ballistic. Koren graciously agreed to our request for an interview.
Rhyme et Reason is beyond thrilled to share our exclusive with author Koren Zailckas! Below you’ll find the first in our two-parter.
Rhyme et Reason (RetR): Are there any differences between Fury and Fury: True Tales of a Good Girl Gone Ballistic apart from the binding? We understand the latter is available in paperback. If so, please explain! To what can we look forward?
Koren Zailckas (KZ): Up front, you’ll find a new essay about life after Smashed. In it, I’m finally able to admit what I couldn’t bring myself to own up to in Smashed: the fact that my early family life contributed to my long-ago binge drinking. It’s not that I was lying to readers in Smashed, I was lying to myself. I had a real emotional investment in believing my family was just like everyone else’s. The flip side meant admitting the heartbreaking–that my family was not an empathetic place and I’d internalized that as proof that I wasn’t good enough.Also in the paperback, readers can find a dialogue between me and the ever brilliant Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. Rachel totally gets that people work too hard to be “good” or “nice” are holding back their needs in relationships, and at risk for turning their anger inwards, against themselves. There’s also a list of my favorite angry songs, anger management advice readers have shared with me, and tips for talking about anger in a seemingly “over-emotional” or “emotionless” family.
RetR:(In my reading) Much of the book deals with you coming to terms with anger, that is how you experience being angry, why you are angry and with whom. You wrote about not wanting to give into your anger because you might be identified as an angry person–where “having a knack for it” was a bad thing. So, are you more comfortable with anger now?
KZ: Well, I’m much better at recognizing when I’m feeling angry. If you can believe it, when I first began writing Fury I was so repressed I sometimes couldn’t even recognize when I was feeling pissed off. I used to bypass anger completely and cut straight to feeling hopeless, ashamed of my lack of patience or fearful that someone I loved would attack or abandon me if I spoke up.These days, I know anger is a protest from a self whose interests need protecting. When I feel furious, it’s becoming second nature to step back and ask myself what boundaries have been violated? Which of my needs aren’t being met? I still have to psyche myself up sometimes. I need to remind myself that my husband isn’t going to divorce me if I say, “Hey, I feel kind of gypped and disappointed. You promised me you’d wake up with the kids this morning.” Anger is a secondary emotion. There’s always another emotion underneath it. Grief, usually. In anger, I’ve learned to make myself vulnerable. To calmly say, “I feel hurt…” As opposed to, “What the hell is wrong with you, asshole?” It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned as a kid. Anyone who made themselves vulnerable in my childhood home was bullied, and children’s emotions were viewed as a threat to the system.
RetR: Do you find yourself giving in to fury? Yelled at any brokers lately? (BTW, loved these parts and totally identified.)KZ: I still see red, but it happens less and less. When I fly into a frothing rage, it’s usually because I’ve been neglecting the hurt little girl inside me: the “inner child” I belittled so badly at that long-ago anger management seminar, the one who felt like she had to be her mother’s emotional caretaker and shelve her own feelings in the process. I still have a lot of healing to do. And by “healing,” I basically just mean journaling, remembering things I’ve forced myself to forget, feeling childhood feelings I’ve always numbed out, rewriting my family history the way I truly experienced it. When I forget to work on that, I transpose my mother’s face over everyone I have the smallest conflict with and rage against her to mortifying effect.
RetR: You are quite honest about how your “family blueprint” shaped how you (and your family members) experienced your own emotions. Indeed it seems redrafting them for (your own sanity’s sake) was your central task in Fury, which you managed to do by its close. What categorizes your new family blueprint now that you’ve become a wife and mother (2x–and congratulations!)?
KZ: For anyone who doesn’t know, your “family blueprint” is the family model you grew up with. When we’re young, we automatically and unconsciously think that the way our parents operate is the way all adults operate. For those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families, realizing that’s not the case is like un-brainwashing ourselves, like realizing we’ve been raised in a cult. It occurs to you that you don’t want your marriage to reflect your parents marriage. You realize don’t want to subject your children to some of the things you went through, but you don’t want to automatically do the opposite either because that’s still letting your present be ruled by past abuse. Rewriting your blueprint means mentally sketching out what you want your family and relationships to look like. Your family of origin can be an influence or not, and you can pull from relatives, friends, movies, literature, any other family that inspires you.Eamon and I are constantly redrafting and revising our blueprint together. But for the most part, we know that we want our family home to be a flexible and communicative place. We want our kids to feel safe in the world and we want to encourage them to develop their own sense of self. And we want to be an empathetic family. In times of conflict, we want our kids to feel, seen, heard, understood and respected, regardless of whether we agree with them.
RetR: How have you and the Lark/Eamon encouraged your children to express their anger? KZ: I’ve started doing this new thing with my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ayla. She’s in the terrible twos, and she does her fair amount huffing and puffing and screaming when she can’t get what she wants or make herself understood. She’s a really confident and, dare I say, ballsy little girl. I’ve never wanted to break her spirit or make her feel that I’m belittling her her anger. But at the same time, I don’t want her anger to spin out of control, to a point where it becomes destructive to her. So one day, it just occurred to me to say, “Ayla. I hear that you’re upset, but you don’t need to shout. You can just say, ‘Mommy, I feel angry and hurt when…’” Well, she got this thrilled glint in her eye and she did. It didn’t take away her anger, but it took the fury out of it. She was totally honest, in control and empowered. Now, every time she’s having a meltdown, we do the same thing. It instantly calms her down. I try to help her find the language she needs to express herself, the same way I would if we were having a conversation about anything–colors, zoo animals, days of the week. And sometimes she corrects me, “She’ll say, ‘No, Mommy. I’m not angry. I’m sad.’” She’s beginning to emote on her own and identify other people’s emotions too. The other day, Eamon was struggling with her car seat and probably cursing under his breath, when she told me, “Look Mom, Daddy’s frustrated.” Eamon was like, “Oh shit, our daughter’s more mature than I am.”
RetR: And are you conscious of any differences between the way your daughter and son express their emotions? (Editor’s note: We totally didn’t do the math but we LOVE Koren’s response.)KZ: Well, my son Peter is only 8 months old, so he just cries when he’s angry. He’s a little guy with a big appetite and big adoration for his sister. So he’s mostly pissed off when someone else eats in front of him without offering him a taste or when Ayla’s out of sight.
RetR: Is it important that girls get to feel angry?KZ: Well, girls don’t have a choice in the matter. Everyone feels angry on occasion. Absolutely everyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status feels fired-up from time to time. But it is really desperately important for girls of all ages to feel comfortable and confident expressing their anger. That goes for people-pleasing women who avoid anger at all costs and it goes for women who self-identify as “bitches.” Women who choke down their anger and women who engage in ineffective fighting–like name-calling, blaming, “fuck-you-ing” etc.–actually suffer from the same anger-management problem. Neither one wants to make herself vulnerable. Neither one wants to risk honestly exposing the differences between herself and the person she’s mad at. Women who deny their anger are more likely to have troubles with eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, avoidance or co-dependence. Ironically, women who fear anger because they worry it will make people get mad at them, leave them or hurt them, end up creating the exact situations they were trying to avoid: they get left; they get hurt; they hurt themselves. They don’t take healthy risks and they often end up in static, toxic relationships. When anger is clearly communicated, it is a positive force for social and personal change. It can bring your relationships to new levels of understanding and intimacy, and it can strengthen your sense of self.
Look for part 2 tomorrow! We discuss the impact of social media( that is how it’s changing the author-reader relationship), the first annual “Lose Your Shit Day,” and Koren’s future projects.