Margo Steines’s debut memoir, Brutalities (W. W. Norton, 2023) includes stories of her pandemic pregnancy and her past experience working as a dominatrix, tending farm animals with a brutal ex-boyfriend, and welding structural steel high above NYC. From this raw material, Steines sculpts a philosophical exploration of pain, toughness, and violence that exists alongside a touching story of falling in love and making a family. Leslie Jamison described Brutalities as “electric” and “propulsive.” Melissa Febos called it “brainy, elegant, erotic, brutal, funny,” and Ander Monson says Steines’s work is “alive, weird, dark, and electric.” Profiles editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper spoke with Steines over Zoom about neediness, becoming a parent, what you can actually learn in an MFA, and the problem of writing resolution in memoir. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: A large section of Brutalities takes place on the farm where you and your ex-boyfriend cared for a variety of animals. You wrote that “animals are inherently stabilizing to the people who tend them, because their needs are regular and predictable and relentless” and you admitted that sometimes you “felt suffocated by these demands.” To what degree do you find those stabilizing and suffocating forces in parenthood?
Margo Steines: The “I don’t want to lift a finger to assist anyone else with their needs” kind of selfishness didn’t really apply to my kid because, with my kid, she still felt like me. She lived in my body, and that connection isn’t just severed when they cut the cord. To me, parenting feels less like the labor of taking care of someone else, and more like the labor of taking care of myself.
But the relentlessness of caring for a child feels the same [as the relentlessness of caring for farm animals]—the feeling that you’re never going to get a break. The relentlessness helps you forget about the suffocation. My partner and I recently went on a vacation—three days by ourselves—and when I got back, I was like, “Parenting is so fucking hard. How do we do this?” The relentlessness of it carves out a space in you.
BAT: How else has becoming a parent affected you?
MS: My sense of mortality definitely evolved. I’ve softened a lot. I feel more emotionally affected by daily life. I just cry all the fucking time at anything tender. It used to take a lot to get an emotional reaction from me. So that’s terrifying . . . and also probably correct in the trajectory of my development as a human being. I feel like I’m becoming more human.
BAT: A fear of your own softness or neediness comes up often in the book. Have you noticed that fear rearing its head in your motherhood? How does it play out for you with your daughter?
MS: It’s the most secure relationship that is possible—to be loved by a child. That probably sounds a little pathological. That’s not why I had a child, but it’s like, “Oh, this is what safe love feels like. You’re always going to love me, and I’m always going to love you, and there’s no precarity there.” I am very conscious of the fact that she’s going to grow up and become a person and her autonomy will grow. She will separate from me in a lot of ways. I’m sure that will be painful, but I want to support all of her freedoms.
BAT: Are there any ways that caring for her has made you tougher? Toughness is such a strong theme in Brutalities.
MS: I’ve learned to speak up. I have very strong feelings about, for example, someone in a coffee line putting his hand on my kid’s arm. My initial reaction to anything like that is be polite, don’t say anything. At heart I am a people pleaser—though as someone once hilariously said to me, “The people aren’t pleased.” But I do not want that [passivity] modeled for [my daughter]. I want a wall around my child to protect her from the people who think they can touch her, or speak to her in a certain way, or tell her to smile—any of that shit. It’s all the protection that I wish I could give my young self. I’m not throwing my parents under the bus. They did their very best, and they’re great people, but there wasn’t a sense in my family that your physical boundaries were more important than being polite. For a long time I thought I had a perfect childhood because I wasn’t an orphan. That was the standard. But now looking at how [my partner and I] protect [our child] and how we take care of her . . . I see how harmful a lot of experiences that I had were.
BAT: In Brutalities you integrate scenes in which your partner trains fighters, scenes in which you shelter in place pregnant and fold paper cranes, scenes during which you hit others or ask to be hit in order to experience sexual pleasure. How did you bring all of these parts together while still maintaining so much forward momentum?
MS: I didn’t know how to make my material work in any forms that I could find modeled in other books. But I had a professor in my MFA, Ander Monson, who is just proudly a weird writer and that is the magic of what he makes. He gives really good notes, and they’re always like, ”Yes, and what else can you do?” Very maximalist. He really helped me see, “Oh, I can make a new form. It can be an idiosyncratic thing. It doesn’t have to be a roman numeral essay collection with nine essays.”
BAT: Monson gave you permission to imagine a new form, but how did you get from that sense of freedom to the specific form you actually produced?
MS: Originally, I was writing an essay collection because I have a lot of internalized prejudice about memoir. But I was also writing the memoir through line—the parts that are written in present tense that are chronological—not really knowing what I was doing with it as I was editing the essays. I was also doing a lot of background writing—stuff I know is not going to be in the text, but that I’m working out on the page. I can’t really think unless I’m writing. So I was taking my current experiences and holding them in a frame with the stuff that I was editing. I ended up thinking that that went in the book too, but I couldn’t figure out how. I’ve read a lot of books where there’s some interstitial material, and I like that. I like that there’s an aside, there’s another voice. You get to experience the narrator as a character in different contexts. I’m drawn to that. So I wondered if I could do that.
BAT: You told me previously that your editor pushed for you to write and include the “Scales of Hardness” essay about working as a welder. Can you walk me through how you wrote that essay?
MS: At the time I thought, “I cannot fucking write anything else.” I had written so much, and in a really short period of time. My kid was somewhere between one and two, and my brain felt like oatmeal. Melissa Febos helped me a lot. She was like, “Of course you can write this.” She told me to write a timeline, which was helpful because I did metalwork for so long, and so I didn’t know what to put in. I wrote it. I drafted it. Some of it was pulled from some material I had written a long time before. I adapted that and wrote a bunch of new scenes. I did a lot of research for that essay into metal science, which was fun. It had so much to do with masculinity and labor, trying to toughen myself and succeeding and recognizing the complete hollowness of that success.
BAT: You wrote an entire memoir before Brutalities that died on submission. How did you grow as a writer between these two projects?
MS: I’ve gained a lot of self-awareness in the time between the two manuscripts. I wasn’t able to see myself as much then as I am now. I’m sure in five years I’ll feel the same way about this book. At least I hope I will! When I wrote that first manuscript, I had never taken a writing class . . . that’s not true. I had taken some undergraduate writing classes when I was 18 and on a lot of drugs. But I had never read a craft book. My MFA (completed in the intervening years) was really transformative.
BAT: How did the MFA make you a better writer?
MS: Skills. I didn’t know how to research. Maybe the biggest gift of the MFA was being shown that you can just go do stuff and pay attention, and that’s research. As a writer of creative nonfiction, you can write a certain kind of book just on that. I [learned this in the MFA], and then I met the fighters [who are described in Brutalities]. If I had met them before, I would not have felt empowered to ask if I could hang out and watch. I would’ve thought that you needed to be on assignment from Sports Illustrated to do that. A lot of gatekeeping was revealed to me. It is less real than I had thought.
Also, I knew how to write a scene and I knew how to give you my opinion, but I didn’t know how to start with a question. There are all these questions in the book about the nature of violence and how context can determine what it means, and what is the difference between being punched in the face in an octagon versus asking a man to punch you in the face versus a man on the street punching you in the face as an assault? The action is the same. Why are they so different?
BAT: Your essay “Sick Gainz II” is about illness and chronic pain, and it comes toward the end of the book. It reminded me of sections dealing with physical healing that occupy similar positions in other memoirs I’ve read recently—The Leaving Season by Kelly McMasters, Under my Bed and Other Essays by Jody Keisner, Tango Lessons by Meghan Flaherty. The popularity of this content in this position makes me wonder whether memoirists are searching for ways to create resolution but struggling to make their ongoing lives fit.
MS: I do think we are primed [for a resolution involving healing] by all the media, all the movies, all the memoirs we read. “And then the missing puzzle piece was put in and now everything makes sense!” is a very familiar arc. But that is not true to my experience with my health, with my relationship, with anything. So I wouldn’t call it a healing chapter because I know the rest of the story, and if you know anything about chronic illness . . . there’s no arc. It’s not linear. So it’s not a resolved situation, nor will it probably ever be. I wanted to be careful not to make the ending too neat or too triumphant. I think there’s a lot of triumphs in the book, but having everything figured out is not one of them.
BAT: That absolutely comes through, for example at the end of “Sick Gainz II,” when you wrote, “One of the truths about complex chronic illness is that there are no neat answers, no final diagnoses, no simple treatments.” But it makes me even more curious about endings in memoir. What do you look for in memoir endings? What do you like?
MS: I like when it’s messy because otherwise I don’t believe it. Every time I read a memoir where you meet the man, or you get the job and everything’s great, my thought is always, circle back in five years and tell me what’s happening. Every time in my own life that I think everything is settled, I learn, no, life doesn’t really get settled. At least mine never has. So I’m suspicious of neatness. Knowing a little bit about what the marketing/editorial/publication process is also makes me a little suspicious of how much of the author’s lived experience has been elided to fit into an arc.
BAT: How much of your experience was elided to fit into an arc?
MS: Not much. I didn’t ever want to be like, “I was fixed by a man.” That’s not the story. It’s far more complicated than that. But my relationship is pretty rosy in the book. Mostly because that’s how it actually was at that time. We do have a really loving, honest relationship. But we’re both complicated people with damage, and the book was written before we had a child. We have less time together now.
BAT: Do you have any advice for artist-parents?
MS: There’s something I want to say about the time you have to take for yourself to make art, but the stakes are very different as a parent. Claire Dederer’s book, Monsters, has this one chapter basically about the opportunity cost to your art life of being a parent. I think it’s disingenuous to say that I haven’t diminished myself as an artist by having a child. I think that that’s the truth. Before I had my kid, I thought that wasn’t true. Now I feel like that is a fact. I will write fewer books in my life because I have this baby. I think there’s a sense that it’s somehow disloyal or unloving to our children to admit that. Is there some sense of, ”I wonder what I could have made under different circumstances?” Sure, but I wonder what I could have made if I didn’t have to have a job. I feel settled about it. I wouldn’t trade my kid in for 10 books.