Jody Keisner’s first essay collection, Under My Bed and Other Essays, debuted this month (September 2022) in the American Lives Series at the University of Nebraska Press. Combining research, personal narrative, and smart reflection, Keisner plots a chronological exploration of how fear and panic relate to love and care. She explores iterations of fear from girlhood to motherhood, unpacking stories of neglected children, angry fathers, and missing women. As a mother to two daughters, Keisner reflects on what it means to raise children in a culture of normalized violence against women. Randon Billings Noble, editor of the lyric essay anthology A Harp in the Stars, called the collection “vulnerable and smart, thoughtful and thought-provoking, gorgeously written and poignantly tender.”
Keisner is an Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where she teaches creative nonfiction. More of her nonfiction can be read or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books, Fourth Genre, Brevity, VIDA Review, Literary Mama, Hippocampus, and elsewhere.
Bridget Lillethorup: As I see it, Under My Bed is a collection of essays that questions the line between fear and love. I was so satisfied by the end of your collection; I felt I had been taken on a journey from childhood nightmares to concerns of parenting, health, and aging. When you set out to write this book, what did you hope to accomplish?
Jody Keisner: When I started writing the first essay, which also became the first chapter of the book, my main goal was to confront an irrational fear I’d had since early adulthood: a man was going to break into my home when I was alone at night and murder me. With that first essay, I set out to remove the unhealthy clutter of that complicated fear and its origins from my brain. Putting it down in writing allowed me to stop obsessing over it and gave me time and space to discover where the fear came from, which was a variety of real places: the prevalence of sexual assault and domestic violence in our society; a difficult relationship with my father and growing up in what was sometimes an unstable household; horror movies and media coverage of tragedy; and a patriarchal society that teaches girls to stifle their anger and rebellion in favor of politeness and obedience—at great personal cost. From that chapter, the book grew into a broader exploration of my greatest fears and those of other women and mothers too. I sought to give voice to girls and women who contend throughout their entire lives with this ever-present threat of violence from men and sometimes from our own bodies. But I also sought to explore fear’s opposites: curiosity, hope, and love.
BL: In the first third of the book, you set up language to describe your fear: the “Pain-Thing.” As we move through the collection, the “Pain-Thing” morphs from a Hollywood monster to a clinical diagnosis to fear for your daughters’ safety. Each essay builds on the next with technical beauty. The arc of your book is precise: when one essay poses a question, the next explores the answer. Yet each essay can also stand alone. Can you tell us more about these structural choices?
JK: As I was writing, I realized the “Pain-Thing” was at the center of all my fears: that I or my loved ones would experience pain and hurt during our lifetimes, and there wasn’t anything I could do to prevent it. We mothers want to shield our children from pain—which is an unpredictable, unavoidable slippery thing—but we can’t. It’s an awful truth we live with, an incredible vulnerability. I didn’t write these essays in the order they appear in the book, but I did arrange them mostly chronologically within three themes that represent my process for dealing with fear: Origins (seek out the origin stories of my greatest fears); Under the Skin (examine the scientific reasons for a human’s experiences of love and fear); and Risings (explore the ways I overcome or learn to live with my fears).
BL: In “Recreationally Terrified,” you write: “The idea that we have control over our own lives is seductive, though dangerously deceitful.” You are a self-proclaimed “armchair researcher,” and in this collection, you often use research in an attempt to control your fears (although it sometimes backfires). Research is not just tangential in your essays, but rather, integral to your thought patterns, like when you recognize the statistical unlikelihood of your newborn drowning in the tub but still struggle to let go of that fear. What was your approach to research for this collection?
JK: Like my youngest daughter, who is five, I’m constantly asking “But why?” in my writing. I love researching almost as much as I love writing, though some chapters don’t include research outside of me fact-checking personal memories. Research has always been my go-to for understanding things (for example, the psychological effects of horror movies, maternal anxiety, the role of hormones in romantic relationships). If my writing or personal experience takes me to a place where I have no answers, I intuitively turn to research so I can find some. In one of the very first fictional stories I wrote as a sixth grader—about a woman who is paralyzed after a fall from a horse (not very original! Haha)—I went to our small school library and read an encyclopedia entry on the Kentucky Derby because I had no real knowledge of horses. I have always turned to other books when I’m lost in my own life (or an essay). I’m grateful for the many wonderful teachers in my life who’ve taught me how to research. I was trained in critical thinking, research, and writing in my undergraduate and graduate programs in English literature; I discovered and then pursued creative writing much later in an MFA program, when I was twenty-nine(ish).
BL: “Firebreaks” is an essay about your parents’ move to another state. Here, you address the hurt you feel when they choose to move away from their first granddaughter. You note, “It is dangerous work to love another human being.” Building on that, most writers acknowledge the difficulty of writing about our loved ones, especially when their actions are unfavorable or just deeply human. What was it like to share these vulnerable memories about your family?
JK: In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola state, “If we are going to write successfully about family, our motives must be more than simple exposure of family history and secrets. We must have some perspective on our experience that spurs the essay beyond our own personal ‘dirty laundry’ and into the realm of literature.” I don’t want to hurt anyone with my writing. When you write nonfiction and investigate your own life honestly, however, sometimes people are going to feel slighted. When it makes sense to do so, I change names or omit them. If something I’m writing isn’t pushing “into the realm of literature,” I don’t include it. If something isn’t germane to the story or main insight I’m after, then it doesn’t need to be included. I have to check my motivations too: Am I trying to prove I’m right? Trying to make my narrator look better? Remembering something in my favor? Going for high drama? If the answer is “yes,” then I need to reevaluate. However, I admit it isn’t always clear what is and is not necessary. I asked my editor at the final hour if I could remove a paragraph about an incident with my father that I decided was needlessly hurtful to him and didn’t really develop the chapter, and thankfully, she said yes! I lost sleep over that one. I’m also mindful about exploring my own character flaws and contributions to failed relationships.
BL: Many of the fears expressed in your collection are about motherhood. You actually dedicate this book to your oldest daughter, Lily, and she appears in many essays. The privacy of others is always a concern for nonfiction writers, but it gets more complicated when children appear on the page. How did you approach sharing personal details about Lily?
JK: These are important questions, Bridget, and I’m glad you’re asking them. I write about my own life, my own mother-fears, so Lily appears in my essays. She appears through my eyes, from the perspective of my fear and love for her, and my interactions with her, but I’m careful not to tell her stories. She’s very young in this book—newborn through six years old—and the details I share regarding her life are mostly about the daily activities of mothering a young child. Bath time. Zoo trips. A family bike ride. The most personal stories I tell about her that overlap into being her stories are about the two times my father lost his temper with her. Shame loves secrecy—and so does intergenerational trauma. It was important to me to write about those incidents of anger that Lily and I both bore witness to. Lily knows I’ve written about her, and now that she’s older, I have turned my attention in my writing elsewhere. She may one day be unhappy that I wrote about my life and my tumultuous childhood and her grandfather with such honesty, as it’s her family history too. She may feel I revealed too much, and she will also be surprised to learn about some of the things her aunt and I experienced when we were growing up. This may hurt her, and that worries me, but I hope I’ll have the grace to listen and accept her feelings—whatever they are—if that happens.
BL: In an article for Women Writers, Women’s Books, you discuss how you wrote an entire other memoir before Under My Bed, a memoir filled with what you call “bloated scene after bloated scene.” That book never got off the ground but taught you valuable lessons on the importance of reflection and honest self-awareness in creative nonfiction. In the 12 years since you started that first book, you’ve become a mother to 2 daughters. How has motherhood changed your perspective on writing?
JK: What I didn’t say in the article you referenced is that in addition to my first book being sort of badly written, I became pregnant with Lily when I was ready to start querying agents. I asked myself: “Would I want this child growing in my body to one day read this book?” The answer was a firm “No.” The book was bad because I hadn’t really discovered my true voice yet, but also, I revealed aspects of my life that didn’t need to be revealed to tell the story I wanted to tell. I was telling part of my sister’s story. Becoming a mother has made me want to protect my privacy and my family’s privacy while also inspiring me to plumb the depths of motherhood in my essays. It sounds like a contradiction, but I don’t think it necessarily is. I understand much of the world through the lens of motherhood now; I’m always thinking about how things will affect my daughters—and children everywhere. Motherhood has pushed some of my essays away from my personal experience and into the sphere of social justice issues. For instance, I’m concerned about the frighteningly high number of girls and women who experience sexual harassment and rape. On-campus rape continues to rise. I hope the last essay in my book helps raise awareness in this area and calls people to action.
BL: Now that you have published your first book, what advice do you have for other writers with this goal?
JK: Find yourself a supportive writing group whose members are as serious about writing as you are! I have had the most amazing writing groups and mentors throughout the years, and though folks move away and groups come and go, I’ve been fortunate to always land among other writers who want to share in the publishing journey together—and who understand writing as a serious artistic practice that deserves serious study, time, and attention. Books are more of a community effort than some people realize. I’m here getting to talk with you about Under My Bed and Other Essays because of my writing community!