Patricia Lockwood & Mallory Ortberg on Religion, “Daddy,” & Bananas
"I both love and feel sometimes mystified by the way in which I was brought up"
Patricia Lockwood: MALLORY
Mallory Ortberg: Let us OFFICIALLY BEGIN. Hi, how are you? How has your tour been going?
PL: My tour has been RUDDY MENTAL because I’ve only gone to London so far. But I kick off the US tour on the 2nd. Come to my reading in Oakland if you’re free! [Readers, I wasn’t free. It was very sad.]
MO: Would it help you stay in the appropriate touring mindset if we talked like London lads for the rest of this interview? You are an absolute ledge and a right cheeky Nando’s. LEEEDGE.
PL: How are YOU? How is your life in the book cave? Did God give you a hot little lion like he gave to St. Jerome?
MO: MY SECOND BOOK IS DONE, but you cannot interview me about my book while I am interviewing you about your book. This is too close to a Russian nesting doll of an interview already. (My book is fine! I am glad I wrote it. Also I have cut off all my hair. I am also glad of that.)
Let us return to your book. You must know that the ham-dangling seminarian became very precious to me, and that line about how “somewhere along the line I got the idea that the most fun you could have with intelligent, studious men was teasing them” was the most true thing I have ever read, I think. I feel towards such men the way Gilbert Blythe felt towards Anne of Green Gables, and I must call them “Carrots” until they break their slates over my head, but then also I later get to rescue them from a riverboat. How far away do men have to be from you in order for you to love them??
PL: pics of your hair first please
MO: [I sent her a picture of my hair]
PL: I mean the answer is contained in the question, isn’t it? You must have seen that the truth about me is “very very far, in space and in Australia,” or else you wouldn’t have asked.
Teasing is so interesting because it lets us maintain distance, it lets us maintain anger at wider ideas of female roles, but it also allows us to be affectionate, to take delight. I am someone who takes delight in other people very easily, even childishly.
And what else is there, for people who were raised the way we were? The intimacy we were permitted was just diagonal to the physical: it was to stay up long into the night talking. Also, at my reading last night I performed the least tantalizing striptease ever halfway through: down to my knockoff TJ Maxx Steph Curry jersey.
“The intimacy we were permitted was just diagonal to the physical: it was to stay up long into the night talking.”
MO: That last bit (“raised the way we were”) is, at present, killing me, because there is something in me that feels both relieved and oddly defensive that we have been asked to talk, in part, because we both spent a fair amount of our respective Midwestern childhoods appearing in someone else’s sermons and now are Weird and Female Online. If I had to guess, I’d say we probably both spent an equal amount of time having very serious conversations about the Incarnation at Denny’s as teenagers with other teenagers who were equally concerned with the Incarnation and Grand Slams.
PL: In Denny’s, drinking perfectly tan coffee; sitting on hoods of cars, leaving the earnest buttprints of our JNCOs; SMOKING, if we were bad, outside of soup kitchens on Thanksgiving morning; hackey-sacking, laser-tagging, paintballing; shouting to make ourselves heard over the thumping of live Christian ska . . .
MO: I have spent, I would say, at least Some amount of time trying to figure out the boundaries between “Dad Internet” and “Daddy Internet,” and I think this book might be at the exact center of the Venn Diagram. By Dad Internet I mean the sort of self-consciously Good Clean Dad Jokes on Tumblr, the dadbod conversations of yore, the gentle and eternal sorrow of @Coffee_Dad and moments in your book like the “enormous nude dignity” of your own personal dad dad cleaning his guns and playing Cheap Trick upstairs. Dad Internet delights in reassurances and softness and pliability and a certain kind of lovable uselessness.
And you know the Daddy Internet, you remember that joke you made last year or whenever it was that everyone started joking about that lady who wanted to preserve Daddy Culture, and Daddy Internet delights in making everyone tremendously uncomfortable and being just as full of self-consciously Unclean Daddy Jokes as its counterpart. Am I completely making this up? Does this make any sense? If we plotted a Dad v. Daddy chart what quadrant does Priestdaddy fall in?
PL: It falls RIGHT in the middle of the quadrants. It’s personally funny to me to mash up the two modes because my dad is, in his own way, so innocent. And speaking of, I just got this text from him, which I offer as proof that the man does not understand the finer nuances of the Daddling Chart whatsoever.
MO: YES. YES YES YES. And I don’t want to make it sound as if I resent our points of connection, or talking about them at all, so much as I have always, cannot help but, both love and feel sometimes mystified by the way in which I was brought up. And I am often bored by my own resentments! ANYHOW.
As an aside—The fruit-themed religious song you learned as a Christian Teen and include in your book is sung thusly:
He’s a peach of a savior
He’s the apple of my eye
And that’s why I’m bananas for the Lord!
Whereas the fruit-themed religious song I learned as a Christian Teen went like this:
The fruit of the Spirit’s not a watermelon
The fruit of the Spirit’s not a watermelon
If you want to be a watermelon
You might as well hear it
You can’t be a fruit of the Spirit
Cause the fruit is
[Sung as quickly as possible, as if it were all one very long word] love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-controooool!
I want to make sure I ask useful questions of you, beyond just “What is writing a memoir like” and “How is your book tour going,” although I am genuinely curious about both of those things. I’m also curious about what it’s like to go straight from writing poetry to an autobiography without even a comic novella to serve as a pit stop in between!
So, in addition to those two questions, what else I want to know, in no particular order, is:
1. Are Jason’s eyes better nowadays? (I hope so.)
2. I want to mail your dad a venison sausage that he will not eat every week for the rest of both of our lives. This is not a question.
3. That line where your mother’s voice “turned suddenly wonderful” when you asked if it was weird that you came out of your vagina made me cry. Also not a question. SORRY.
4. I think there is plenty of talk with memoirists about how writing about your family can involve a certain flattening, a certain selling out of something, that’s sort of inevitable (although your dad has sort of neatly sidestepped the like, David Sedaris Question by just never reading anything you write); I’m curious if there’s a sense that writing specifically about Catholicism and a religious upbringing, especially if you’re not presently a practicing Catholic, feels kind of odd. Presumably the majority of people who read this book won’t have the same affection for or history with either your family or Catholicism—does it ever feel strange to write about something that’s hard to explain, that is so often and so easily misunderstood? Sometimes I feel like a religious upbringing is the ultimate “You had to be there?” This question maybe is not fully formed.
PL: There is, for me, a sort of porcupine defensiveness, with the tender meat of love underneath it, that goes up when I am asked to talk about my childhood. It’s something I have to move past if I want to have a real conversation about it, an actual heart-to-heart about the way things were, which we could have because you know. That is what I meant. What happened to us was real, and intense, and easy to deflect questions about—with the prickles of humor or self-deprecation or glibness. Because the fact is that we did not choose it. If you had asked me what childhood I wanted in the womb, I would have requested to be placed in an itinerant French circus family.
“There is, for me, a sort of porcupine defensiveness, with the tender meat of love underneath it, that goes up when I am asked to talk about my childhood.”
MO: The meat of love underneath the porcupine of defensiveness! Oh, that is it right there. I once told my parents, in a moment of totally incoherent desperation, that I wished I had been born to a pair of vice-principals or someone whose job in no way involved the careful shepherding of souls, who went to church four times a year and mostly just cared less about everything, because I felt so profoundly overwhelmed by the kind of worldview that invited you to see every single moment as carrying with it a small but definite spiritual charge, that either led you toward or away from something deeply important. I am less overwhelmed by that now, and would in fact be inclined to champion in it were someone else to suggest it’s not a worthwhile way to live.
I would have been a very bad French circus child. I cannot, and never have been able to, touch my toes. I can get close, and I can sort of jab my fingers just to my toenails for a split second if I’m willing to hurt for the rest of the day, but that’s it.
PL: But that meant you could talk to your parents in that particular way, that you could bring them the desperation and the helplessness you felt upon looking into the world’s wound, which I could not. And Mallory, if you had been born of vice-principals, you probably would have felt that way about school administration. It is in the person, I believe. Either you feel that heaviness across your shoulders or you don’t.
Also as an aside: I want a Harry Smith type to travel from town to town and gather up an American songbook of these Youth Group Fruit Songs because they are absolutely terrible. (Though the self-controoooool bit, if you don’t mind my saying so, makes yours about 10% more terrible than ours. And watermelons didn’t even come into our consciousness.) But you sang yours with a sort of knowingness, as we did—in the same spirit in which we watched Veggie Tales. With baby irony for a baby Lord.
TO ANSWER YOUR SUB QUESTIONS.
1. Jason’s eyes! They’re about as good as they’ll ever be. He’s basically has tiny bifocal lenses INSIDE inside his eyes and just has to work around their limitations.
MO: I am glad that they are improved! I once had eye surgery that resulted in an infected cornea, and it felt like someone had sewn a small but active piece of the sun into my eyelid for about three months.
PL: 2. Darling Greg. Did you know he would only eat Round Steak, Flank Steak, and Seafood for the first several years he was married to my mom? Round Steak, Flank Steak, and Seafood. It’s like poetry. He would not eat chicken Mallory.
MO: Darling Greg was the opposite of a Chik-Fil-A commercial. “No chicken, please,” he’d say. “Only steak, and only the roundest of steaks, at that.” The round is the shape that is closest to God.
PL: 3. Often a mother’s voice will have a sort of curtain in it, that swings back from time to time to let the real light through.
4. This is, perhaps, where the prickliness comes in—because, for better or worse, Catholicism is MINE. I’ll still get mad if I watch a movie and there’s a Catholic priest in it and they give him a collar that’s three millimeters too wide, or he’s wearing a big rosary around his neck for some reason, or they make him say something that seems to me unpriestly. But it’s been a long time since I left, and things have changed. The responses of the mass have changed slightly; the version of the Creed we use has changed. I am no longer translating from the inside, but I’m not fully outside either—hence all of my heavy-handed references to Limbo.
MO: John Mulaney had a great bit about the change in Mass over the last decade and the loss of “And also with you.” I am right there with you in your unnecessarily keen-eyed movie-watching, I’m still frustrated with 7th Heaven which has been off the air for 10 years, because of their maddening denominational evasiveness. They had a Disciples of Christ logo (sometimes), Rev. Camden wore vaguely Low-Church-Episcopalian-style vestments, there were definite Methodist overtones, a vague “Community Church” name, and apparently no elder board of any kind?
I just looked it up, and Catholics also do not have elders.
That Limbo bit strikes me as so unique, because traditions like the LDS church and Catholicism will have big, significant retcons or general changes in continuity in a way that most Protestant traditions almost never do. I imagine it lends itself beautifully to memoir-writing! Oh my God, now that we’re talking about memoirs and Catholicism I feel like we have to talk about the Evelyn Waugh banana story. You’re familiar, yes? It is the most Waugh story of all time and I love it. Here are the relevant components:
– Evelyn Waugh
– Wartime rationing
– Three beautiful bananas of unknown provenance
– One wife of Evelyn Waugh
– Assorted English children
Evelyn’s oldest son, Auberon, who would later go on to write five novels before renouncing novel-writing (allegedly out of fear of being compared to his father but like, a little late for that, Auberon, after the five novels) claimed that during World War II that Evelyn Waugh’s second wife, Laura Herbert, somehow managed to get her hands on three bananas and brought them home for their then-five children, whereupon Evelyn sat all the children down, peeled the bananas in front of them and sliced them (the bananas, not the children) into a bowl, covered them with cream and sugar, and ate them all himself.
1. That is straight up raw Bananas Foster, that is horrible
2. Three bananas seems like a LOT
3. That feels a little over-the-top even for Evelyn Waugh
4. I think this is the opposite of Communion, can you confirm this?
5. This is the most English anecdote of all time because it combines withholding fathers, unspoken resentments, quietly desperate mothers, joyless desserts, excess without pleasure, public discipline, and peeling something.
Auberon concluded in his autobiography that “It would be absurd to say that I never forgave him, but he was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment.”
And I think that’s a genuinely beautiful line, and it struck me as really true of your book—that there’s a great deal of forgiveness in it, and not just the sort of forgiveness that really means not looking at bad things, I mean earned forgiveness, and forgiveness that isn’t based on the grace of the recipient. And there’s also more than a few moments of realizing that you have to mark someone down in your estimation, someone you love and want to be proud of, and it’s not the same thing as keeping score, but it’s painful and it’s necessary. This is not a score-settling type of book, I don’t think, although it is certainly possible to read Priestdaddy and feel very strongly that someone should be settling a score. Does that strike you as at all correct, or have I misread you utterly?
PL: 1. Offer it up, girl. Offer it up.
2. Is it the round, or IS IT THE SPIRAL, which Nabokov calls a “spiritualized circle”? In short: feed my dad the pig’s tail.
4. (you skipped 3 so I’m doing it too) Yeah, I always caught whiffs of Episcopalianism and Methodism from 7th Heaven, but then sometimes they would do things like pour alcohol down the drain while making freaked-out Baptist faces, so I never knew. And whenever stained-glass windows made an appearance—stained-glass windows are always a tell—they looked like little puddles of grape and cherry Kool-Aid, like the sad liquid evidence that your slightly dim child is not all you wanted him to be.
And then of course the actor who played the Reverend turned out to be the worst man of all time, like he possibly leaves the Ferris Bueller principal in the dust, which you have to go a far piece to do.
Also, I have this crystal-clear memory of reading a Television Without Pity recap of a 7th Heaven episode where the writer says, of poor Lucy, “Have you noticed that her mouth looks exactly like a cat’s asshole?” AND IT HAS STAYED WITH ME TO THIS DAY.
We do not have elders, no. And when I think of elders, I think of my first reading of “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” when I mistook elders for a kind of old horny elm, and read it as a poem about lovely Susannah racing back and forth between rapacious grasping trees with their claws out, I guess like in The Wizard of Oz. Considering the actual subject matter though, the poem is a little bit nicer my way.
1000. Yeah. My dad is by nature and inclination a Three-Banana Eater. Though as I say in the book, when this tendency is pointed out to him in passing, he begins carefully offering half his food to whoever is sitting near him, like a chimp. It is impossible to know what people know about themselves. We assume they’re operating with full knowledge of their defects at all times, are even wielding their defects against us, but if you sat me down right now and told me my most glaring character flaw, the one that is most apparent to everyone else in the world, I would burst into tears from the sheer surprise of it, and also why are you being mean to me.
No, it isn’t a score-settling book. I am not a Three-Banana Eater, but in my actual person, in my instincts, even in my body, I can be unforgiving. I can refuse to yield to the embrace. What that means to me is that I must seek to forgive in my writing; I must call back to that idea of forgiveness as a ritualized act that then enters into some other mystery. And I can feel it in the performance of that ritual, in the tips of my fingers and down to my pen, as I could maybe never feel it in my arms.
or in other words, (rap this part), love is a verb.
MO: Readers, that was the name of a very Christian-famous song by very Christian-famous rap-rock outfit DC Talk. It is also true.