Navigating Broken Systems: Taylor Harris on Writing a Memoir of Medical Motherhood
Lynn Steger Strong in Conversation with Taylor Harris
I’ve long been wary of memoir’s content descriptions. Lots of people have experienced things that might seem interesting, but that has nothing to do with whether or not they can shape that experience into art. Taylor Harris’s experiences are complicated, fascinating, many-layered: there is so much in This Boy We Made that feels essential: to see a Black mother navigate so many broken systems, medical but also educational, also spiritual, to think about the ways we must continue to move through certain experiences instead of working toward or even ever knowing there might be an end.
But it’s the skill with which Harris is able to depict this, the artistry with which she threads the complexity not only of being mother to a child with no diagnosis for his struggles, with being the wife to a young pastor, a Black woman with anxiety, navigating a system that has so often done Black women wrong, but also: the care with which she complicates and engages with each situation, the way she seems to know intuitively when to press on what is difficult or painful about a moment, and when to give us humor or grace, love and stillness, incandescent joy as well.
Lynn Steger Strong: One of the (many) aspects of this memoir that I admired is its ability to engage with the slippery impossibility of causality: is the doctor reacting to the narrator this way because she’s a woman? Because she’s Black? Because the narrator is (understandably) upset? Is the narrator worried because of her anxiety? Because her concerns are legitimate? Because time and experience has taught her to be concerned and so she is? All of this feels so deeply true to almost all human experience, and yet, it can be very difficult to get down clearly and coherently in language. How did you think about navigating this idea of cause and effect? How did you navigate exploring all the various aspects of this experience in a way that felt not only true but all-encompassing?
Taylor Harris: I’m sure a perfect term exists for this burden related to cause, but I tend to approach it through a barrage of questions. Imagine I’m standing in line at the grocery store, and the white man behind me pushes his cart past me, grazing my back, never saying “excuse me,” even though it’s not yet his turn to check out. Why is he in such a hurry? Does he treat everyone this way? Did he even see me? I shoulder the burden of discerning the why; he goes on with his day. I can certainly disrupt or respond to his actions if I have my wits about me that day, if I think on my feet, but no matter what, I spend time and emotional energy contemplating him. I don’t know how to outsmart or out-pray that.
In his essay “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” Ross Gay laments the way black and Brown people were treated under New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. He writes: “Isn’t it, for them, for us, a gargantuan task not to imagine that everyone is imagining us as criminal? A nearly impossible task? What a waste, a corruption, of the imagination.” The clarity of his language here—this is why poets remain undefeated. How much time do Black women like me spend considering the thoughts, perceptions, and intentions of others? Many are more adept at navigating this than I am. But the answer is always too much. Too much time. And it affects our bodies.
So I wanted to write about microaggressions and systemic racism within hospitals and schools, in particular, but I couldn’t leave out my own insecurities and struggles with mental health. I don’t think it weakens what I’m saying about discrimination “out there” to also explore what I carry with me every day, as someone with generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety is central to who I am. That’s not a statement of shame or pride, it just is. I would rather move through the world without it, but I don’t. So my anxiety, and the way it causes me to question, had to come along for the ride in this book. As did racism, and my expectations for marriage, family life, and success. And my faith. I took a risk by inviting all these threads to the page. In some ways, it would have been cleaner, neater to separate them. To focus only on race or disability or faith—to investigate each one in a silo. But that wouldn’t have been right or good or true to my story.
As for the practical aspect, my husband, a big-time planner, painted a dry erase wall in our office, and I wrote out all the major pieces and questions I wanted to consider in this book. I started connecting those pieces, finding places where they overlapped, and events I wanted to highlight. And then I’d send a draft to my brilliant editor, Julie Buntin, and even if she wanted to burn it all, she never told me so. Instead, she asked me a lot of questions and gave me time to process and tighten the connections between the threads. In the end, the point of this book is not answers. You have to be willing to engage and sit with the questions—that impossibility of knowing also fuels the story.In the end, the point of this book is not answers. You have to be willing to engage and sit with the questions—that impossibility of knowing also fuels the story.
LSS: Moving from cause to effect: Tophs does not have a clear diagnosis at the beginning of this memoir, and he does not have a clear diagnosis at the end, and yet, we, as readers, have shifted with regard to our relationship to what the experience of parenting Tophs and loving Tophs is: in the absence of a clear endpoint for this story, how did you think about the journey you wanted to take the reader on? In what ways have you experienced smaller moments of revelation or discovery through loving Tophs, even as that larger more tangible discovery has so far remained unreachable?
TH: Oof, this was so frustrating as a mom and writer, but also central to the book. Very kind people said, “You’ve got a great story, but we need a clear ending with a diagnosis.” And I was like: I WOULD VERY MUCH LIKE THAT TOO, XOXO. I’m thankful to Catapult for publishing a book that cannot possibly end the way we all naturally want it to.
That said, readers deserve a shift, a hum, some layers pulled back, a thing undone and then reimagined. Writers are in the business of making cosmos from chaos, as Madeleine L’Engle said. I knew I needed the reader to be present with me as I searched Google for a diagnosis and visited doctors; I wanted those scenes to unfold as though we were there, side by side. The reader learns medical terms as I learn them. They feel the possibility of relief and diagnosis within their reach right before it slips away. But I also wanted them, over the course of the book, to learn Tophs—how he adores My Little Pony and creates funny sayings out of nothing. How, as he gets older, he and I start to have conversations about his body that we couldn’t have before. He asks questions about his seizures, and, while I hate that he has them, being able to discuss them together is sacred. I want the reader to feel that shift. I want them to hear Tophs asking to get baptized, and watch with me as the water covers his body for just a moment, before he’s lifted up into the air, high above the pool’s surface.Very kind people said, “You’ve got a great story, but we need a clear ending with a diagnosis.” And I was like: I WOULD VERY MUCH LIKE THAT TOO
All of us live our lives between two really important points, so while liminality might be a buzzword in some circles, the idea isn’t actually new to us. But maybe my experience mothering Tophs has really magnified this idea of living in the between. As a writer, it’s my job to highlight that tension and also share points in our story when we did cross thresholds, including when I made a decision about my own genetic results. And there are multiple points like this throughout the book. But what I know by the end of the book—it’s not so much like a lightbulb turning on. Not like a bomb going off. It’s a tried and true knowing, deep down in my bones. A knowing that can only come through living.
LSS: Something you explore beautifully in this memoir and that I feel like we see less of in contemporary writing is an active and engaged relationship to faith. I loved this not least because it is foreign to me, because sometimes, when I hear people talk about faith, I feel unable to engage with it, but you presented it in a way that was so accessible, so elemental to the narrator and her family and how they moved through the world, that I felt like I could understand and deeply admire how it functions in their life. How did you think about the book’s engagement with faith for a reader who might not have their own experience of it?
TH: Thank you. Maybe the scariest, most intimidating task for me is bringing my faith to the page. I don’t often think of Christians as the cool cats on the literary scene. Honestly, I think people have many reasons to be upset with the Church. I’m often upset too. Take a look at who I follow on Twitter: mostly writers, educators, scientists/doctors/people who didn’t skip out on every science class in college, and a few ice cream vendors. I follow a handful of Christian leaders, and they must be able to comment on white supremacy, not just when members of their congregations have begged them to. I look at someone like Jemar Tisby, a historian and Christian, who is wicked smart and not here to please anybody’s white evangelical neighbor, and I think, “Okay, there’s space for me here.” Writers like Danté Stewart and Austin Channing Brown give me hope.
I grew up celebrating holidays, including Thanksgiving, birthdays, and Hanukkah with my neighbor and first friend. We had sleepovers, ate chicken nuggets and drank flat Coke together. We puffy painted t-shirts (shoutout to the 80s). We spent summer afternoons watching and re-watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory after swim lessons. So why wouldn’t we share in each others’ celebrations? I also spent most weekends in middle school attending Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as the only Black girl. These experiences shaped me. It doesn’t mean I have any less love for Jesus, or that I haven’t missed worshiping among fellow believers during the pandemic.
It does mean that I’m very aware how my beliefs and actions might come across to others. I’m not trying to simplify what’s complicated. I’m not saying if each of us has dinner with one friend of a different religion, or if I just hold hands with enough agnostics, everything will be fine. I am saying relationships matter, even—maybe especially—when it comes to our core beliefs.
I’ve made mistakes as a Christian, said or done things in my past I wouldn’t say or do now. I’m more aware of all the gray spaces that exist as I get older. I’m still learning and questioning. I hope that when someone picks up my book, they’ll be comfortable enough in my words to stay a while. They might not see scripture the way I see it, or they might not read it at all, but maybe they’ll think, “This is a place worth visiting.” Maybe they’ll sit with me as we try to understand what it means to be here, to experience the privilege and despair, the rage and beauty of being alive.
LSS: The book can be sad in moments because it is sad—it is infuriating and difficult and continually consternating to have a kid who is struggling, but the book is also incredibly funny; it also possesses moments of incandescent joy. Talk to me about this balance and the writing of these moments. Were they always an important part of the project and how did you think about navigating between all the various extremes of feeling that live inside of parenting?
TH: I don’t swing between humor and sadness all day every day, but I think I’m an introverted writer prone to melancholy and quips. Like I hear the sarcastic remark in my head before the person across from me can finish their sentence. It’s self-centered for sure, but I try to pay attention to what makes me sad (a lot of things) and what makes me laugh until I cry. A sure bet for the latter is a phone call with my cousin Brandie. We grew up in Ohio racing to the back of the church after mass to grab the best doughnuts, and honking at strangers, then ducking behind our seats, when my parents left us in the car while they went shopping.
When I went to grad school, I asked my favorite instructor, David, if an essay could be literary and funny. He said, “It’s hard, but if anyone can do it, I think you can.” Each of us needs a David. He didn’t know if I would ever publish a book, or if it would be any good, and sadly he passed away in 2020. But he saw something in me, and was willing to bet his time and wisdom on me. He encouraged this strange tension that had captured my imagination.
I knew this book would be sad. I could write three hundred pages on how watching my kid seize guts me every time. Or maybe it would be one page, with one word: gutted. And a lot of white space around it. But were there funny parts to include? And were they appropriate? YES. Squeezing colostrum onto a plastic spoon is strange and kinda funny. The way lactation consultants bust through your door at the last minute with clogs and confidence is funny. Tophs borrowing the words of the Virgin Mary at the dinner table? You guessed it, funny. So this might be a boring answer, but the book is a pretty accurate reflection of how I perceive the world. Yes, the scenes and memories are handpicked, and you don’t have to be there for every moment, like when my dad bought half a cow and we ate steak every night for dinner for months, but the book sounds like me, only a little less socially awkward, and I’m happy about that.