Cindy House is a writer, mother, and visual artist from Connecticut. She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and earned an MFA at Lesley College. Currently, Cindy travels the country alongside her mentor, friend, and former professor, David Sedaris, as the opening act for the humor writer and satirist’s show. I was drawn to Cindy’s memoir, Mother Noise because Cindy and I have a lot in common; our lives were derailed in different ways by heroin. I lost a brother to heroin addiction—Cindy nearly died from it. The stigma that surrounds addiction informs us both as readers, writers, and (especially) as mothers. In Mother Noise, Cindy shares her hopeful survival story with her son, Atlas, so he will know his mother’s history and therefore know his mother, completely. She explains, “I lived almost like my twenties were another life. And then I had this very bright kid I was raising, and I realized I owed it to him, to be honest about my past struggles . . . that informed the book more than anything, I think.”
Mother Noise is not a reckoning, a redemption, or an admission. It’s an examination of survival, a gathering of shards to create one prismatic light, an acknowledgment of the loved ones who supported and inspired House, including Sedaris and Atlas. Before gathering her past in her memoir, House feels she was “splintered.” She adds, “I was compartmentalizing everything. And I had a lot of fear about who would find out [about my past heroin addiction].” Through writing her memoir, House now feels free. “I just feel like nobody can throw this at me. I’ve said it. It’s out there. And there’s less shame.”
Jennie Burke: Timeline and structure in memoir is a challenge many writers face while pinning down their work in progress. Mother Noise opens like a memoir, then shifts to graphic memoir, then reveals itself as memoir-in-essays. Can you discuss your decision-making process for the structure of the book? Did anyone guide or support you with regard to your structural decisions?
Cindy House: Mother Noise began, in my mind, as an essay collection about mothering and addiction. It started with a few essays that were self-contained but seemed to belong together. I never really entertained a linear chronology, partly because the way I was thinking about the story of my past was more about the way I lived with it in my present rather than as a linear journey. For years, I had put the past behind me, but as my son approached adolescence, I realized it was important for me to integrate the person I had once been so I could tell him the truth.
I first looked at ordering the essays chronologically, but it wasn’t really working. Then a writer/editor friend suggested that I open the book with the essay about realizing I had to tell Atlas about my past. It sort of set up the entire book, and it was a brilliant suggestion that I just didn’t see on my own.
After that, my editor at Simon & Schuster, Marysue Rucci, said that the book needed a piece about the moment when I actually told my son about my drug use. That was the second brilliant suggestion. I remembered how in those minutes of telling Atlas about my past, I just stayed focused on his face, trying to gauge how he was taking the news. And it seemed like a natural way to tell the story of that moment would be by drawing his face. That’s really when graphic narrative seemed like an important part of how I portrayed the story.
JB: Many writers of trauma carry their stories for a lifetime before putting pen to paper. At what point in your 20-year sobriety did you decide to write an addiction memoir, and were there events in your life that nudged you toward a book-length manuscript (outside of an editor seeing you open for David Sedaris)?
CH: I thought my first book would be a collection of stories or a novel. I never imagined it would be a memoir. I never felt like I wanted to write a memoir. But then I found myself in grad school wanting to only write about addiction. We had to do a project in my MFA program that was outside of our genre. I was there for fiction, so I decided I would write a nonfiction piece about my long friendship with David Sedaris. That really cracked something open in me, and I couldn’t stop writing nonfiction after that.
I think part of your job as a writer is to tell the truth, the truth as you know it, your own truth. Even fiction writers need to tell the truth. As Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried, “Story truths are truer than the truth.” I had spent 20-plus years hiding this significant part of my life, so when I finally decided to take my work seriously by getting an MFA, the thing that insisted on being written was my addiction and all the ways it affected my life years later. It was a lie to keep hiding it, living life as if it never happened.
JB: A friend of mine has a saying about motherhood and professional life: “Keep the glass balls in the air and let the rubber ones bounce.” As a mother in recovery, you have earned an MFA, toured with David Sedaris, written a memoir, and are now parenting a teenager and putting a book into the world during a pandemic. Please share pearls of wisdom for those of us who are mere mortals. What choices support your professional and parenting lives?
CH: The choice to have just one child really helped. I’m not sure I had it in me to parent more than one.
I also had an army of mother mentors, just incredible women who made the job easier over the years and who supported me and inspired me so much. When Atlas was four-months-old, I started teaching writing workshops for teens in a home school community, and those mothers taught me so much. My students were incredible young people, and getting to know their families, their mothers, in particular, affected my parenting in such a positive way.
Everything I did professionally in the years since my son was born was in honor of him, a way of modeling the kind of life I wanted him to find for himself. Working that hard was so much easier with Atlas watching me. I wanted to act, not lecture him. I’ve known since he was very young that he was smart and creative and that can make it hard to find a place for yourself. I wanted to show him that there are ways to do it. Everything I do is for Atlas. The times in the last few years when I found myself welling up with tears have involved some version of career success with my son by my side. I look forward to seeing him find his own path creatively.
JB: In Mother Noise, there is little mention of your family of origin or characters/acquaintances that were part of your life during your opiate spiral. However, you don’t hold back in the development of your son’s cruel stepmother. Can you share writerly choices or ethos that came into play as you decided who you would (or wouldn’t) include in your story?
CH: I am more interested in telling the parts of my story that happened in my adulthood. I want to stay away from any kind of blame or childhood analysis. I think the people in my family were doing their best with their own baggage and the times were different, so it just isn’t something I want to get into when looking at my own struggles. Mother Noise was really more about my desire to try to do everything possible to give my son the best chance of not feeling compelled to cope with life by using substances. How can I be honest with him and create a relationship, a family for him, that makes him feel respected, valued, and seen? I think the biggest predictor of addiction is not a genetic inheritance but instead the kind of wounds and lack of coping skills that can make life unbearable. And to write more about my family of origin and my childhood would be to do as Melissa Febos suggests, to “author the public version of a story that has as many true variations as persons involved.”
On the other hand, once you make my child cry and/or feed him pistachios knowing he has a nut allergy, all bets are off. Unfortunately, my son had someone in his life who put him through a lot. In that situation, with my child going through what I consider abuse, I would say my choices were more in line with the Anne Lamott quote, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
JB: Since memoir is an act of service, can you illuminate the minds of those who aren’t familiar with addiction? Do you think addiction is a choice? What would you want writers to know, briefly, about the daily choices of those in active addiction and recovery?
CH: I don’t think addiction is a choice. It’s a compulsion and a faulty coping skill. I’ve never met an addict who had a wonderful life and then just decided to abuse substances. I often think that I would have died from suicide at that time in my life if I didn’t pick up drugs. I was depressed in a way that was incompatible with life. Heroin kept me in my skin. Granted, it almost led to my death anyway, but I was lucky enough to survive.
I recently started going to NA meetings again. Not because I feel tempted or in distress, but because I want to remember where I came from. And I hadn’t been to a meeting in almost 20 years. The thing I’ve been struck by is the honesty in the rooms, the earnestness, and the incredible self-reflection. And the kindness and love. Addicts can get better with meaningful connections to other people.
JB: Writing a book about a terrifying era in one’s life requires a commitment to vulnerability. How does sharing your past in a public way influence your relationship with your son? Do you have any advice for mothers who want to share part of their life’s history with their children?
CH: I have to believe that I am telling my son that I embrace all the parts of myself, all of my flaws and mistakes, and I am not ashamed to tell the truth. This means that I am capable of the unconditional love I profess to have for him. I am showing him that he is allowed to make mistakes and fail and I will love and accept him just the same.