If you have lost a time, a person, a means of knowing yourself – and let others know your grief, you have most likely heard this response: “It is time for you to move on.” Laraine Herring, writer, teacher and loss survivor, would disagree. Her new book, A Constellation of Ghosts is both a fiercely tender memoir – and a guide for those of us who grieve. And, it is a conversation with the reader, an invitation. I interviewed Laraine – both of us writers, both of us women who have grieved:
ms: 1. I read A Constellation of Ghosts in a mildly disassociated post-second Covid vaccine state. That detachment made it easy for me to dance with, to mirror your writing. Here are my questions: The voice of Constellation is, in fact, multiple voices. Did you craft that – or did the voices insist on being heard?
lh: Both. I made very conscious choices about how I wanted to work with the voice in the “normal” part of the narrative–the lyric essays. I wanted to use pronouns to create the state of dissociation that I felt when I was diagnosed with cancer, and then expand on that in the subsequent “reconfiguring” of self that happens throughout the book. I wanted to show a dissolution and a confusion around identity and self, and I even argue with myself and in some parts with Raven over the pronouns to use. The second person turns out to be a way of keeping myself safe–of hiding–and Raven calls me out on it, but I still can’t break apart enough until the end. The “you” becomes a way to keep the experiences at arm’s length–a way to keep my feelings away–and that’s part of what is fueling the complicated grief. Until I could move into it, it would remain a knot. Cancer helped me learn to do that. I had to move into cancer–what it was, what it meant, what it did to my beliefs about myself, about health, about bodies–it gave me no choice, so I practiced with cancer what I had to learn to do with grief.
The speculative parts of the book, in the stage play black box format, came together quite differently. In fact, it wasn’t until I heard Raven’s voice in my head that I finally understood how to construct the book and how to weave the stories together. I had all kinds of essays and parts of the book, but Raven’s voice was the unifier. I wanted a voice that was just a little off–so Raven’s words are almost one long prose poem in (almost) iambic pentameter. Raven’s voice came through SO CLEARLY it required almost no tweaking. The voices of Raven’s Mother and Raven’s Father are of course based off my own grandparents’ voices, and they aren’t “off” like Raven. Raven is a dark haunting–a spectre–and not really my father, as he reveals. He’s the dramatization of complicated grief.
ms 2: I found this observation remarkable: “Pain is its own narcotic, and its waves and crests are surfable once I find their rhythm.” Please tell us more. Are you writing about emotional pain, physical pain, intellectual pain, political pain????
lh: In that literal part of the book, it is physical pain because I am still in the hospital refusing the morphine because I could take the pain better than I could take the loss of control. But of course, it expands out into all types of pain, and in the context of the theme of the book, it’s the emotional pain of grief, and how that can be its own narcotic–a thing we can become addicted to, like sticking your tongue in the hole of your gum to make sure the absence is still present.
I had become addicted to that grief. I had held it (as represented through all the references to “commitment” in a variety of contexts throughout the book.) It was familiar and I knew its waves and crests–and more importantly to the development of the character in the book, I did not know who I would be without that addiction–and that was the scary part–the part that needed to dissolve.
ms: 3: I have been hospitalized four times over the last four years. I, too, refused to disappear into the notations on the white board at the foot of my bed. Again, please tell us more.
lh: I needed to assert: See me. Remember me. Help me.
It didn’t take long to realize that, although being in the hospital with a foot of my colon missing was a unique and major experience for me, it was another day’s work for everyone who cared for me there. I had to do what I could to stand out so they would not forget me, or mistreat me (I don’t mean abuse, I mean literally give me someone else’s meds by mistake because they’re overworked). If they saw me as a human, I thought they’d be more likely to help. It’s a trauma response, I think, too. Here–let me make myself valuable to you, my captor. I know I need you to get out of here, so let me become what I must so that you help me do that.
I also could feel the vacuum-pull of the hospital and how easy it would be to just let it win. The way it sucked people in and if you just went along passively through it, it would consume you and own you. I would not give it my agency. I would not play into their narrative of patient. I watched my dad in and out of medical situations most of my life, and I learned that you only have you–when you can no longer advocate for yourself, or when you no longer want to, it’s game over. In meeting several doctors along the way who were horrible, like the scene with the ghost-me and the red shoes in the oncologist’s office, I learned very clearly that being nice is overrated, and that I had to stand up for my own body and health, and even more importantly, stand up for my own intuition about what my body needed. In many ways, I think that was the most important thing I learned through cancer–how to advocate for me.
ms 4: I particularly loved and was intrigued when the monkey stole your gold earring. I know what your jewelry means to you, what adornment means. Please tell us a little more.
lh: Jewelry! Monkeys! I was thinking of the myth of Inanna and her descent into the Underworld, and how at every step, she was stripped of something valuable, until she was just herself–no masks, no adornments, no layers of protection. That’s what I felt was happening with the cancer dx. I was going underneath, whether I wanted to or not, so I wanted to write into the story of that and see what could happen if I were present and a participant in the underneath, rather than swept in by surprise.
ms: 5: The slipping back and forth into personae – how do you see this. What do you want the reader to take away from this?
lh: I think we all have multiple personae, and when we have crisis moments, we have an opportunity to sort through them and let go of the identities we’ve crafted or the identities we’ve been labeled that don’t serve anymore, and we have a chance to create new ones. People wanted me to go back to who I was before cancer—just like when dad died–they wanted me to go back to who I was before. When people say, “Why aren’t you over it?” what they’re signaling is “why aren’t you who you used to be?” But you’re not who you were before. You’re someone else, and to go back to who you were is going backwards, not getting better. This is a manifestation of a grief response. I think, because my dx corresponded with perimenopause and now menopause, that I was already primed to go through an initiation and a reconstruction of self. Cancer hurried it along, and cancer made me unafraid of aging.
ms 5: Is Grief a gift?
lh: Yes. Every experience is–but every experience is not pleasant, and every expression of grief is not a release. Grief can be tight. It can be hot. It can be the coating over rage. It can be a moment of a love-memory with tears that are quick and cool, followed by a smile. It can be manifested in overwork, in deflection, in addiction. But one thing it must do is move through. The complicated grief experiences, as I address in the book, are the result of refusing to feel it all, not as a result of grief itself.
I don’t think gifts are necessarily pleasant, but they are necessary tools and teachings to help us continue to grow emotionally & psychologically. All our emotions carry energy and carry information about our psyches that we can use to keep peeling away the layers that aren’t working for us. But I don’t think it’s like–oh yay it’s your birthday here’s a present!–I think grief’s gifts are often in the form of the dark teacher, the one that carries the knowledge that only comes through being willing to look into the night and step into it with only your own light in front of you.
— A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens is available for preorder now!
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