Exploring Spaces Between Experiences and Stories: Rachel Aviv and Chloé Cooper Jones in Conversation
The Author of Strangers to Ourselves Discusses Diagnoses, Introspection, and the Collaborative Process of Writing about Real People
When New Yorker writer and author Rachel Aviv was 6, she stopped eating and drinking. In the prologue to Strangers to Ourselves, her first book, Rachel details being hospitalized and assigned a diagnosis: anorexia. But this term, along with its social context and attendant narrative, never seemed to quite fit Rachel’s ambiguous childhood condition, the exact nature of which remains unclear to her still.
This was, for Rachel, the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the mysterious space between our “original experiences” and the stories we’re later told or tell ourselves about those experiences. The questions yielded by this fascination can be found in much of Rachel’s journalism where she often writes about people who are caught in liminal spaces between systems, ideologies, histories, versions of themselves, but in Strangers to Ourselves this fascination with the relationship between “pure” and “theorized/narrativized” experience is as much a subject as any of the people she writes about.
“I think about loneliness a lot,” Rachel told me over dinner in Brooklyn. “The effect of loneliness is under studied in the history of psychiatry and I’ve noticed that, in some cases, the thing that might help a patient recover the most is a connection to someone who understood what they’re going through.” We were talking about what readers might take away from the experience of reading Rachel’s book and we both agreed it would not be a lot of concrete answers nor magical solutions. “I’m content,” she said, “with the possibility that it might, hopefully, just help someone feel less alone.”
I’m lucky and I got to read an early draft of Rachel’s book a year and half ago. I’ve read it twice since then. Each time I come back to it, I am struck and moved by Rachel’s disinterest in formulaic causation—by which I mean that there is no “if x then y” thinking about mental health in this book. Rachel does not write to discover fixed causes, nor does she prescribe to us any easy answers. If she explains and engages in binaries in psychiatry, it is to dismantle them and reveal how that kind of thinking constricts, judges, leaves behind the individual.
And Rachel writes to discover the individual. Strangers to Ourselves argues in the most elegant way possible that people cannot be reduced down to simple explanations so, if we want to better help and understand others and ourselves, we’ll have to become more expansive in our thinking. This is a difficult and time-consuming challenge, but if we can rise to it, it has the power not only to make us feel less alone but also to significantly improve our lives. This is the gift Rachel Aviv’s Strangers to Ourselves gives to readers and I could not be more grateful for it.
Chloé Cooper Jones: Your writing is always so thoroughly researched and considered. When you are sifting through ideas, how do you decide which ones are worth your full effort and investment?
Rachel Aviv: I have to tell myself a story about each idea, to justify why I am the person to write it, even if it’s not a true story. I don’t want it to feel arbitrary, or undeserved, that I am immersing myself in the subject, so I create a little internal story for myself, about how the story intersects with questions or concerns that I have.
CCJ: What’s the story you had to tell yourself to pursue the ideas in Strangers to Ourselves?
RA: That story came pretty naturally. I had this personal experience as a child that I had never really understood–so much that it probably shaped many of the questions that I’ve been writing about for the last fifteen years.
CCJ: How would you articulate these major questions?
RA: They have something to do with the mismatch between theories of human behavior and a human’s actual experience of the world, and the degree to which these theories, by giving us a story of how we ought to be, or how we ought to see ourselves, change the underlying experience. And then, in a broader sense, what happens when institutions or policymakers embrace these theories but they don’t suit people’s lives?
CCJ: Yes, this seems to be the central tension of your book, which is full of people—yourself included—who are in a complicated relationship to the narratives that are being told about them.
RA: Yes, I realized I had this desire to access some sort of pure unadulterated experience—before expert theories, before interpretation—and probably, no, there isn’t any pure unadulterated experience. But I was interested in whether the ways we describe distress—and diagnose and explain it—can shape it into a different form than it might have otherwise taken.
CCJ: Were you always aware these were your driving questions or was this something you learned about yourself through the process of writing your book?
RA: I noticed early on that I was writing about troubled kids or about, say, court systems that were intervening in people’s lives in ways that had unintended consequences. In the process of writing the book, I did have more clarity on the fact that maybe, because I was uneasy with the classification I had received as a child, I had become more curious about the space between a person’s experience and the way that it is named and treated.
CCJ: I want to ask you just some questions about craft. This book is so propulsive. I ripped through it twice. I felt like I was reading a great detective novel. You’re so great at probing the mysteries of each story and also layering them with a kind of suspense, which comes from a withholding of judgment and allowing the reader’s perspective to widen and shift with new information. Are you thinking about propulsion and mystery when you’re structuring the book?
RA: As a reader, unfortunately, I’m not someone who can push through a book that I’m not enjoying–with the hope that I’ll get to a part that I do enjoy. I will put the book down, and it’s over. So when I’m writing I’m very aware of myself as a reader, a judgmental one, and I think about what would cause me, the reader, to stop reading my writing.
CCJ: Tell us.
RA: Oh, I lose attention when things feel like they’re going horizontally, when I’m getting more of the same as opposed to movement forward, or movement that builds or complicates. I am always thinking about when the reader might put down my writing and I will try to preemptively thwart that impulse by restructuring or cutting something.
CCJ: In line with this—I’ve always admired your ability to bring in other perspectives, quotes, theory in such an efficient yet never reductive or decontextualized way. How do you achieve that balance?
RA: I try not to give the reader contextual information until they want it—until they are involved in the story to the degree that they desire broader context—and I try not to give much more context than the narrative requires. Part of this, though, needs to be resolved when I choose who I am writing about. For instance, Naomi’s chapter beckoned for context about the history of how psychiatry has treated Black people. There are other people I could have written about where that history would not have felt as relevant—it would have felt like an add-on. But I chose to write about Naomi because you need that context to understand why psychiatry didn’t initially feel like an option for her and her family.Psychoanalysis was like this rigorous training to be introspective and to not take people’s behavior at face value.
CCJ: I want to ask you about the process of bringing yourself into this book. There’s a quote about you as a child from a therapist—
RA: I know which quote it’s going to be. It’s the one that’s like, “Rachel can control the interview”?
CCJ: Are you controlling this interview?
CCJ: No, it’s the quote that reads “Rachel attempts to look inside herself to understand and resolve her intense feelings related to the external world with an overcomplicated thought process.” If we agree with this characterization of you, is this the thing that makes the work you do possible? This compulsive looking within?
RA: It’s funny because the first time I read that quote I thought it described me, but then I was like, no, wait, that describes pretty much everyone.
CCJ: But do you think that looking in is of higher interest to you than most people? The essential mystery of one’s internal self and the internal world and the impossibility of ever fully resolving that mystery is what animates this book.
RA: I don’t write about this in the book, but after my hospitalization, from first grade to fifth grade, I went to a psychoanalyst three times a week. I hated it, but it also taught me a way of understanding myself and my relationship to the world. It was like this rigorous training to be introspective and to not take people’s behavior at face value.
CCJ: What’s the training? Giving a language and terms to abstract interiority?
RA: The assumption that there’s a subtext, a deeper reality that can be uncovered. I remember one time I was seven or eight, and I told my therapist that she smelled like a beaver. She said, “Can you go into the dictionary and look up the definition of beaver?” I was thinking about the animal, though I’m not sure why that animal had come to mind, since I’d probably never interacted with a beaver. She made me read the definition aloud to her, including the slang definition. I was humiliated. It made me see that anything we say might have a hidden, secret meaning, produced by some deeper, less controlled part of ourselves, that can be detected.
CCJ: And you like searching and detecting these secret meanings in the subjects you write about?
RA: I like to think about it as a collaborative process. Not infrequently an interview ends with a person saying to me, “This feels like therapy” and I’m so glad and feel so lucky it feels that way for them.
CCJ: And now that your book is out and people ask you questions about it, will you be good at collaborating with your interviewers?
RA: No. No. No. Maybe if I had a drink. But, no, not really.
Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv is available now via Farrar, Straus & Giroux.