Brad Phillips on Trauma, Memory, and the Myth of the Self
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Brad Phillips is the guest on this week’s Otherppl. His new story collection, Essays and Fictions, is available from Tyrant Books. The late Anthony Bourdain calls it: “Searingly honest, brilliant and disturbing. Brad Phillips peels back the skin and bone and stares right into the human soul.”
Born in 1974, Phillips is also an accomplished visual artist known for dark work that engages with themes of eroticism, depression, and mortality. His paintings display stylistic breadth, from text-based to photorealist, referring in many cases directly to his daily life. He lives in Toronto.
“The only thing that’s immutable is that everything is changing constantly.”
Brad Phillips: It’s all relative to experience. In Syria, your tolerance to pain and suffering is a certain amount. Here in the west, my trauma or suffering definitely pales in comparison to, like, someone working in the diamond trade, but for me relative to what I know, I don’t really make the distinction. I shouldn’t have to complain because people are starving in Ethiopia . . .
Brad Listi: We all have our stuff.
BP: For us, it’s as real for someone who lost their kid in a drone strike. Obviously, objectively that seems more tragic, but my shit feels just as real to me.
BL: There is this absurdity and probably fallacy in grading or rating suffering.
BP: I remembered as a kid I wouldn’t finish my food, and my mom would be like, you need to finish your meal because there are kids starving in Ethiopia, and I was like, are you going to FedEx it to them? You know, this isn’t going to help them that I put some Brussels sprouts in the garbage. You’re not going to pick this up and send it over to them. I’ve had my own amount of trauma to selfishly look at news footage, like the Syrian gas attack, and feel that that’s horrible, and I think about that briefly and then go back to myself.
BL: The traumas you’ve been through, do you feel like they’re organizing principles in terms of your own sense of identity and that story you tell yourself about who you are?
BP: Yes, I do. I’ve been reading a lot of autobiographies. There is this idea of the self, so unstable and kind of inherently false, so the idea of who we think we are is really based on the narrative of what we build our lives, which is contingent on memory. Memory is so unstable and prone to nostalgia, so really what we have is an idea of a self instead of a self.
BL: The book you wrote really plays to all of that.
BP: I was reading a book about Alzheimer’s. If a person forgot the names of their kids, you’ll say that she’s not really herself today, but in a way she’s not herself because she doesn’t know the story of her life anymore. Who is she now? She’s not really the same person. Or when I think about who I was at twenty, I had the same vessel but everything has changed except maybe the residual effects of trauma. I don’t feel like the same person per se.
BL: I can’t even remember.
BL: I can’t remember either.
You have these big memories that you hold onto or you keep retelling yourself: well, this is when this happened, and everything changed when I was twenty, or whenever it was, but the day-by-day is gone. It’s like a vapor. I suppose who I am now contains all the past iterations, but it’s always changing. You say it’s unstable, but . . . irrespective of that, it feels demonstrable. Where is the self? Is it your body? Is it your skin, or your brain?
BP: It’s not even a thing. People say that people can’t change. The only thing that’s immutable is that everything is changing constantly. What’s frustrating is that intellectually I can grasp this idea, but the past is not real and the future is not real. I’m still hung up in the past. I have this certain philosophical awareness, but it just doesn’t match up the way that I try to create a story about my life. I’m stuck in the past too much. I told my therapist, because she constantly talks about the inner child, I don’t constantly want to be mollifying this inner child. I want to slice its throat, curb-stomp it and throw it in the garbage, and be done with it. Why am I at forty-five being bossed around by a traumatized nine-year-old?
“The minute I do a press release I’m starting to manipulate people or direct or limit their experience the work.”
BP: Because I’m writing about mental health and addiction, I think people see a self-help aspect, or people are like, you’re telling my story. I’m not; I’m just telling a story.
BL: But you kind of are. People don’t have the vocabulary or the time or inclination or the talent to put this stuff down. It comes as a powerful relief to people to have their own experience reflected back at them.
BP: I just don’t want them to see me. There’s a lot of projecting. Susan Sontag, in 1962, saying it’s a grave error to associate the author with the subject. For me, it’s also about the polysemic aspect. I did as little press release as I could for art shows because I thought that I made this painting and it means a certain thing to me. The minute I do a press release I’m starting to manipulate people or direct or limit their experience the work.
I would like to put the work out there as soon as it’s out of my hands. What I feel about it is irrelevant, and if people say this painting is good then it is good. If they say it is bad, then it is bad. It’s whatever they want. It’s whatever they see. That’s what I like about writing and art is that it is polysemic. It’s open to as many interpretations as possible, and I think it’s the birth of the reader. Everybody’s reaction is correct. My intentions are irrelevant once it’s out there, but the problem is I’m having trouble getting drawn back into the intention must be true. This must be a true story.
BL: It’s done. It’s yours. Take it.
BP: I’ll just never write a book again where the character is named Brad. Never.