Writing a Memoir to Honor My Younger Self
Casey Legler in Conversation with Hanya Yanagihara
Casey Legler is an artist, restaurateur, former Olympic swimmer, and is the first woman hired by Ford Models to exclusively model men’s clothing. Godspeed is her memoir, available now from Atria. She recently corresponded via email with Hanya Yanagihara, author of the bestselling novel, A Little Life.
Hanya Yanagihara: I have so many questions about your strange and irreverent memoir (both good things!), which in so many ways upends what we think a memoir is supposed to be. There are many ways you could read it, and one of those ways is as a sports memoir. And yet unlike most books of that genre, it glides over the moments of supposed triumph—your time at the Olympics (the denouement of many similar memoirs), for example, is addressed almost glancingly, and the book ends not in victory, but with ambiguity.
One of the most fascinating things is your ambivalent relationship to the sport at which you so excel—water is a haven, but competitive swimming is a kind of torment. And yet some of the most beautiful, disobedient language is about the sensation of being in the water. As a fellow swimmer (though a blobfish compared to your shark), I have to ask: Do you even like swimming, or is swimming more a means of escape, a sanctuary from the stimulation and noise of land?
Casey Legler: I’m obsessed with cephalopods, and last week was cephalopod week (what does that even mean besides me getting a steady stream of octopus images on my “feeds”?). In any case, I recently re-read a line in my favorite book about them that elucidates. Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is written by Peter Godfrey-Smith who does teach at CUNY and if I ever met him (which sometimes happens in NYC) I would fan-person much like I did when I met you.
On page 18 of his beautiful book, laying the groundwork for a full story on the octopus, Godfrey-Smith discusses the ingenious single-cell organism, the eukaryotes—their “eye-spots” and with these their ability to ‘use’ light: “Some seeking out light when it is not too strong and avoiding it when the intensity becomes too dangerous; some following light to take in energy and others avoiding it when their energy levels are full—in all cases, there is a control system connecting the eyespot with a mechanism that enables the cell to swim“—driven by light it seems—as I was. Totally immersed in the silence that was the underwater, entirely enveloped in the light shimmers for hours at a time—this quiet may have saved my young autistic life. Was I compelled to do it? It seems so. But did I like it? Absolutely not.
I am still made fun of by my friends at the agedness and tentativeness with which I, former Olympian (insert some deep narrative voice here when saying that), approach a swimming pool water entry: first it must be warm, secondly it must have stairs and third—I must be able to wear whatever outfit I have decided will be my stand-in for a bathing suit that day. Finally I proceed with exceeding caution, entering one toe at a time and become willing to endure an excruciatingly physical transition that explodes my mind into loud caustic pieces (that while training was exacerbated by hours of physical exertion and effort) because the quiet underneath and the light triangles and columns is an absolute home to me and I can breathe there. I couldn’t help myself but swim it seems and today on most summer days you can find me in a pool floating around, my ears underwater and my eyes looking up at the sky—but really is floating, swimming? So: while Godfrey-Smith does eventually connect the eukaryote to the octopus I am going to make the jump here—I am basically an octopus.
How long did it take you to write Little?
HY: It took 18 months, and at its best, it felt like surfing (a sport I can’t do, by the way)—like I’d caught a long, steady wave and was riding it for hours. It was tiring but exhilarating, too.
Second, that’s a fascinating comparison, but it makes sense. I don’t know much about octopi, but I know they are some of the more intelligent, conscious sea creatures (you know we’re not supposed to eat them anymore, as they’ve been determined to be more sentient than most sea beasties), and I know too that they’re highly adaptable and deeply solitary. And resourceful. They can live without company, without light—they prefer it, in fact—and without disturbance (they prefer that, too). I love this idea that swimming was a reprieve from excess stimulation. . . that the racing part of it was incidental, not the point itself.
And this brings me to my next set of questions. As I mentioned, one of the most interesting things I found about this memoir is its absences. Anyone who knows a little about your public life knows that you have enough material for a very different kind of book—or books, really. You were an American in France, a groundbreaking model (I still remember seeing you in Time, the first woman to model men’s clothing, and thinking how beautiful you were), queer, and, as you discuss and as we’ll get to later, on the autism spectrum. And yet this memoir chooses to go deeply into a narrow section of your life, in a narrow timeframe. How conscious were you of disobeying the conventions of the memoir, and why did you decide to tell this story versus all the others you might have?
CL: Oh my god, H, you should have seen the first draft of Godspeed. It was an interdisciplinary study in the space-time continuum, taking a stab at collating in the one physical space of a three-dimensional book the ephemeral experience of a brain. I was absolutely wed to stretching the tradition of memoir and the recounting of memory to its edges, its limits in book form. It was 85 pages long and I did not care that it punched below the rib cage repeatedly for a knock out—this was the point. I hand-printed 5 copies myself, with original photographs glued onto the specifically hand-cut out 5.25x8in pages and hand-delivered a copy to Bill, my agent. And he read it! And in the words of one of my dear friends, Eric Dean Wilson: “The world isn’t ready for this.”
So—I began the long journey of holding the edges, pushing the language, while creating a series of life-rafts (at times in the form of literal oxygen) throughout the book so that my reader could come along on the tragedy and resilience of this young girlchild in a girlhood in the 90s living in the most unusual circumstances.
Now to your question of the content—the book ends on April 23, 1998—the first day of my sobriety and the beginning of the rest of my life as I live it today. 20 years forward from then, when I began the book, it seemed the natural ending to the point of this memoir which was to offer hope and company in the darkest nights of the soul. Not in its content (I mean, admittedly the book punches hard and dark), but in the way songs kept company to my melancholy when I was in it—they didn’t necessarily offer a solution but rather a visibility to my heart in a world that seemed bent on ignoring it.
From a technical storytelling perspective it was the content I was the furthest away from and on which I had the widest perspective gained over years past. Aside from an initial skepticism when meeting new people, my life today is nothing like the one I describe as the years of the young teenager in the pages of Godspeed. With this distance I felt assured to be able to write—actually, technically, write. Why would I waste a reader’s time unless I felt certain that I could make it crystalline?“One of the most fascinating things is your ambivalent relationship to the sport at which you so excel—water is a haven, but competitive swimming is a kind of torment.”
HY: I have to say the obvious here: you have to keep that original manuscript and resurrect it as a performance piece or orchestral work! You could have different Caseys come up and perform different parts of it. Feel free to steal that idea.
I love that you consciously included a “series of life rafts” for the reader, but I also admire books that are almost defiant in their refusal to help the reader, that exist as a sort of challenge: If you can read me, you are one of mine. There’s some element of that in this book. On the other hand, the author’s note also makes it clear that this book is an invitation—yes, it’s a story of your life, but it’s also a story of many of our lives, especially those who can’t quite, for whatever reason, tell the story of their lives. So let me ask you this: does a memoir (and, by extension, the writer of that memoir) have any responsibility to her reader? Or, more broadly, what is a memoir for? Is it an excavation of the writer’s past, or/and is it a way of offering solace to others? For whom did you write this memoir? And who did you see as the reader? You alone? Or someone else? And what do you hope it means for your readers?
CL: I couldn’t agree with you more—my favorite part of the documentary The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine is when the documentarist asks Louise Bourgeois about the Red Room sculptures and she says “I made the work, I never promised you answers—you do some work, too.” She’s so French. I get it and that was pretty much my thinking.
I finished the first draft of Godspeed at a time in my work practice when I had zero interest in bringing readers along who couldn’t “hang”—not because I wanted them to be mine but because I could give two shits. It was in that same spirit that I told both Bill and Peter that I wouldn’t give any interviews. In my mind I had done the work and now it was the reader’s turn. I agree, that middle finger is definitely still up in Godspeed and I kept it up because of the spirit of the young one I was writing about—she would have accepted nothing less. So I partially wrote this in her memory—the miracle that I made it out alive from my girlhood never ceases to amaze me.
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HY: It’s always fascinating when artists make work with, as you say, the middle finger extended. On the other hand, I’ve come to appreciate the generosity of spirit that it takes to be a consumer of art, whether that art takes the form of a play or poem or visual work or performance: the reader or viewer comes to the book or the painting ready to surrender themselves, ready to be humbled and provoked, and that is an act of vulnerability and therefore something to be respected. I don’t think it means that you have to try to cater to them, mind you, but you do become more aware of the exchange between you, the creator, and the people who give themselves to your creation—whether they like it or not is almost incidental.
And yet, as you note, you hope “young ones” will. As you know, I completely (somehow) missed the author’s note that precedes the book, in which you discuss being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum—a recent diagnosis. It would be too easy and too reductive to say that explains some of the turmoil, the grief, the out-of-bodyness, that you detail in the book (though it also explains the wildness, the synesthesia, the distinctiveness of your vision). But was this diagnosis a comfort at all? Did it help explain you to yourself? Was there a feeling of “ah—now it makes sense”? (I wonder if the experience of reading this book for the first time was different for me because I didn’t know this information.) How has this knowledge changed your own understanding of yourself as both a person and an artist?
CL: Indeed—this element of respect. It was interesting writing the wildness and anti-authoritarian spirit of this teenager whilst holding respect—exactly, great word (I also like dignity)—for those who were showing up to read the book. By the time I got to the second draft I didn’t find it interesting to write with disdain about disdain—doesn’t work.
Ah—the diagnosis. I love talking about it. I went back and forth about including that forward. At one point it was an appendix. I wanted people to read Godspeed (as you had) and then find out I was spectrum. I initially I felt like including anything about autism detracted from the book, the wildness of the writing, and feared that it would suggest as you write a reductive and incorrect explanation to my writing and my life. I mean, I also didn’t think it was anyone’s business—which is admittedly my first response to everything: no.
Then my wife re-read the book. And so did my close friend and reader Eric Dean Wilson, and they were the ones who ultimately convinced me to include it on the basis of its potential usefulness. And by usefulness I mean the insight it might bring into the experience of the brain of a young girl on the spectrum. A potential comfort not only to those being shot through their teenage life as regular neurotypical teenagers (which is major on its own), but also for those who are autistic, and for those who are walking next to them. In the end it felt unjust and incorrect to not include it. It felt like I was denying a key to the reader that they had the right to have if they wanted it. I rarely read the author’s foreword (perhaps like you I skip to the meat of the work and figure any explanation should come after)—so I figure about half of my readers will jump over the note and half will do what you and I do—skip it.
As an artist, as a writer, being on the spectrum always helped—nothing much changed when I got the diagnosis. I simply now have a word for how my brain technically works—an understanding which I dig. It also helped me feel a little less self conscious about the degree of silence I require when I’m working for example.
So with the diagnosis came an ironic understanding for me that nothing was wrong with everyone—that I was the common denominator and people just “liked music” and “noise” and “talking” and that this doesn’t make them weird or wrong. . . you get where I’m going with this? I thought everyone else was strange—not me—and I was okay with that. Getting the diagnosis explained some of my cool “super-powers” like my proclivity for repeating sounds, my ease with languages, my phenomenal focus, my photographic memory, why I love birds and octopi and know a lot about them, why I collect sticks, and why, left alone, I prefer to be left for hours in my map library.
It also explained some basic, pretty standard things you expect someone on the spectrum to need or do: why I wear sunglasses basically all the time, why I love my noise cancelling headphones, why hugging is so loud, why I say no to basically everything even if I might kind of be into the idea, why my wife is an exception to all of this. . .
HY: What a wonderful explanation of why you included the note and how the diagnosis both does (and doesn’t) help you better understand your place in the world. I can imagine that in some ways, receiving that diagnosis must be akin to hearing that you’re actually part of a tribe that you never knew you belonged to; that suddenly, and in the context of that tribe, you aren’t in fact strange. You’re not in fact the other. It’s the so-called neurotypicals who are indeed the strange ones after all. I think so much of what defines successful adulthood is our ability and opportunity to find the people to whom we belong, whether that tribe is based on race, or sexuality, or gender (or lack of it), or disorders, or even just shared proclivities or interests. (I can also imagine that managing a restaurant plays well—counterintuitively, perhaps—with autism: it’s a place with lots of stimuli, of course, but it depends as well on order, systems, regularity, and consistency. along with an understanding that all of that can be upended in an instant.)
Have you felt yourself part of a larger community since this diagnosis? You could argue that this memoir is, in a way, a search for some kind of people to whom you might belong. Natural talent gave you access to one tribe—the tribe of competitors, of athletes—but it wasn’t a society to which you necessarily wanted to belong. And by the way, it speaks to both your confidence and, perhaps, stubbornness that you assumed you were the normal one. . . and everyone else bizarre. I love the sweet, almost childlike cluelessness of that conviction!
CL: I love restaurants—they were one of the first places where I found work after I retired from swimming. In many ways work is where I learned to grow up. You have to remember that as a swimmer I basically showed up on deck, flipped everyone off, maybe swam fast, maybe didn’t, and still got paid. This made for a very poor start into the work force—it took a long time for me to understand what was happening in this day to day “thing” that everyone around me was doing.
Part of that adjustment was having been a young professional (like young actors there isn’t much written about what the fuck we’re supposed to do once the cameras stop shooting) and part of that adjustment though was surely autism. And restaurants worked for me—they still do. It’s where misfits come to settle. I get to celebrate and encourage young ones who are slinging dishes until their next play, show, editorial, book. . .
And you’re right, restaurants are totally unpredictable and that’s what’s predictable about them—I’ve worked in kitchens that have caught on fire, I’ve had a gang fight in another, and in one (many, many years ago) a saucier stabbed the grill guy—and recently I had the privilege of sending one of our servers off to law school and have him thank us, his managers, for teaching him dignity in his work—any work. That’s a win for me and it actually all happens in one day, in the same building: fires, alarms, food, passion, dignity.
Now to your question of tribes—typical of an aspie, I tend to stay close and alone (there’s a phenomenal book called NeuroTribes—it’s excellent). I like being by myself, with my wife and, on occasion, with my closest friends. So finding out I was on the spectrum didn’t really change that. It’s not like I suddenly went out and found a huge group of other aspies and we all hung out in the same room—not talking to each other.
As you know, I’m finishing A Little Life and I’m obsessed with so many things about it, but one thing I’m most struck by is how intentional you are in building this heartbreaking story of relationships and friendships, heartbreaking not because of the content but simply because these relationships exist at all and you have written them. I agree, one of the deepest pleasures of my adulthood has been my friendships.
While being on the spectrum certainly contributed to the wildness with which I experienced my girlhood, and my subsequent love for words has compelled me to stretch the limits of a neurotypical language in order to write it, what feels particular about Godspeed is that what I’m storytelling (to your loop back to your first question) is universal—its heartbreak and resilience. That I get to write a girlhood from this vantage point, and with the gifts of autism, is exciting and thrilling—the details are mine, but the story of life is absolutely ancient.