Of Past & Present: Jessica Teich on ‘The Future Tense of Joy’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m honored to welcome Jessica Teich.

Jessica is the author of the newly released memoir, The Future Tense of Joy (Seal Press). Her previous book, Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World, appeared in Vanity Fair, People, Us, and The Chicago Tribune, and was featured on the Today show. For almost a decade, she worked as a literary manager at the Mark Taper Forum, commissioning and developing plays. Jessica subsequently received a grant to write and direct a movie for the Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute. She served as head of the Biography committee for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. An alumna of Yale and Oxford, Jessica lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two daughters, and dog.

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Author Jessica Teich.

Praise for The Future Tense of Joy:

“Provocative in its questioning of what female success really means. An honest, compassionate memoir about shaking off personal demons.”—Kirkus

“Teich looks at motherhood, depression, the effect of damaging relationships, and the challenges placed on successful, driven women. She does so with grace and openness, even while exploring painful parts of her past.”—Library Journal

“A dazzling debut. Teich moves immediately to the first ranks of memoirists. Her book is wry and poetic and deeply moving. This story of hope and healing will lift your heart.”—Harlan Coben, #1 New York Times bestselling author

From the publisher:

“‘No one was less likely to take her own life.’

That’s what her Oxford thesis advisor wrote. From the moment I stumbled across the obituary, late at night when I couldn’t sleep, I was captivated, and it wasn’t the terrible details of her death: That she leapt from the balcony of a high rise in Century City. That she was 27, and a newlywed.”

So begins Jessica Teich’s quest to unravel a mystery: the suicide of someone she never met.

Bright and accomplished, with a loving family, Jessica knows she should be happy. But a violent childhood has left its mark. Jessica fears she will never be free of her past—until she discovers the obituary of a young woman, whose life is a ghostly echo of her own.

Can Jessica discover what drove this brilliant young woman to kill herself? And will discovering the truth save Jessica from the fissures tearing apart her own life?

A deeply intimate psychological memoir, The Future Tense of Joy is the luminous account of one woman’s efforts to free herself, and her family, from the demons of the past. Witty, brave and suspenseful, the book has been hailed by Meryl Streep as “beautiful, compassionately imagined.” Steve Martin called it “a daring and intimate journey into the soul of motherhood.”

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Now, Jessica Teich offers readers an intimate glimpse into the past, and present …

John Valeri: What first inspired you to write The Future Tense of Joy – and did you find there to be catharsis in the process?

Jessica Teich: I wrote this book because I’m here, I’m alive, and I’m so grateful. Many victims of sexual abuse die at the hands of their abusers, or descend into decades of depression or drug abuse. It took me a long, long time to tell my story—almost forty years!—but I did it to free myself, and because I thought it might help free someone else. I knew what it was like to feel trapped by the past, despite all the happiness, coziness, of life in the present tense. My book is partly about the time it can take to heal.  That’s why there’s a reference to time in the title, from a wonderful poem by Robert Penn Warren:

This

Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness

May be converted into the future tense

Of joy.

I wanted to write about the process of converting “the pain of the past” into strength, into solace. It can take a very long time to forgive.  But I know now there is no freedom without forgiveness. And that’s where the catharsis comes.

JV: To what do you credit your courage in being able to share your story publicly – and how do you hope that doing so might benefit others who have either been victimized or made vulnerable?

JT: You’re very kind to call it “courage.” I think of it as a desire for transparency. A willingness to be vulnerable, and to embrace that vulnerability as a strength.  I didn’t want to carry these secrets any longer.  They had become such a burden to my family.  When my older daughter approached the age I was when I was abused, my fears swarmed around me like furies.  I was afraid of everything: pit bulls and doorknobs and computer screens. Then one day I saw her trying to open a door with her elbows.  I had passed on to her—overtly or by osmosis—my fear of germs.  I realized that I had to free myself in order to liberate my children.  I didn’t want them to be trapped, isolated, as I was. I wanted to demonstrate to them what it means to go into the world with confidence and vigilance, but to be open, too.  To be curious.  And kind.  I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores with my children, and I remember seeing a bookmark in a little bookstore in Del Mar that said: “You are bigger than anything that can happen to you.”  That’s what I believe, and what I want my daughters—all our daughters—to know.

JV: Tell us about your discovery of Lacey Cooper-Reynolds. In what ways did putting the pieces of her life puzzle together help in discovering your own truths?

JT: Finding Lacey’s obituary was one of those casual, incidental events that ends up changing your life. I kept returning to it, re-reading it late at night when my family was sleeping. The obituary in the Oxonian, a journal about Rhodes scholars, was so tender; so broken-hearted. It was clearly written by people who adored her. Even in death, they were captive to her charms.  But I sensed, beneath the lines, that all her accomplishments—the prizes, the accolades— didn’t matter, or matter enough.  They couldn’t reach the part of her that felt out of place, out of sync. I think that’s one of the important themes of the book: the pressure so many young women feel to be perfect.  In some way, Lacey was most herself when she was by herself.  That’s a feeling I knew well.  But I think she wanted to feel part of something bigger. I think that’s what everyone wants.

For weeks Lacey’s story tugged at me with a kind of tidal pressure.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her.  So I went in search of her survivors, and they all had differing theories about how and why she died. But in every conversation, a single theme kept emerging: “She couldn’t do the math.” That phrase recurred, almost verbatim, like the chorus of a song. People used it to describe Lacey’s insecurity at her new job, but I began to realize the phrase meant something more: that Lacey felt she couldn’t measure up. She couldn’t pretend to be the radiant, extravagantly talented person everyone knew her to be, needed her to be. As I did more research on suicide, I learned that many people kill themselves to “save” the people they love.  They feel they’ve become a burden, a disappointment.  And they’re in such terrible pain.  But —and this is really surprising, and crucial to anyone who may be waging a mighty struggle—most people whose suicides are thwarted never try to kill themselves again.  After thirty days, their crisis has passed, and they fight on.

JV: How did you endeavor to balance candor with discretion in the telling of your story – and in what ways do you hope that this book will serve your own daughters?

JT: My daughters are the reason I wrote the book. They both are incredibly curious and sensitive and fun to talk to. I love spending time with them.  I mostly worked on the book in those interstitial moments many mothers know: jotting down notes on the backs of restaurant receipts and on scraps of paper while waiting at the bus stop.  Or late at night, after my children and husband had gone to bed.  Sometimes I worried about the hallucinatory effect of all those late nights in my attic office!  But my family seemed to believe the writing was worth doing. Both my daughters want to be teachers.  They thought my book might help someone.  Teach someone.

As for discretion, I probably should have been more discreet!  Often people can’t believe I used our real names.  But in the Internet age, we would have been pretty easy to identify.  I used the names of my family and friends because it helped me write them accurately.  But I did change the names of people who might not wish to be identified.  And in each case, I altered one defining feature or characteristic, to further obscure their identity and free myself.

In Lacey’s story, I changed everyone’s name, to protect the privacy of her loved ones.   As for revealing my own phobias, I didn’t hold back, even though by nature I’m a very private person. I thought I owed readers the truth, especially if they, too, were searching for answers.  And I didn’t shy away from moments that were challenging or inane, like visits to this crazy psychopharmacologist, who kept asking ludicrous questions like Does it often seem that shadows are really people or animals, or that inanimate objects are speaking to you?  For me, there was only one question: how can I make the pain of my past count toward someone else’s future?

JV: On a more global level, your story reflects themes – including violence against women, the high suicide rate of young women, and gender bias – that, sadly, remain all too familiar. How can speaking up help to perpetuate truth – and what do you hope that your story contributes to the national discourse?

JT: At the moment, our national discourse seems dominated by tyrannical public figures on kamikaze campaigns.  People for whom rage is a primary motivator.  You know, there’s a warning at the head of a hiking trail near my house, where a mountain lion was spotted. “Make yourself bigger,” it says, as a way to protect against attack. But in our national life, “bigger” has come to mean louder, nastier, more violent or vulgar. It turns out that what soothes a person suffering from rage is participation, collaboration, to say nothing of the benefit to others. Psychobiologists say you have to disable the brain’s “rage pathway” by engaging the “seeking” one. (Both cannot fire at once.) Doing research for the book, I learned that girls who volunteer are less likely to be self-focused, self-critical.  Engagement soothes and animates the self. Often our kids are encouraged to volunteer for the minimal number of hours required by their schools.  They may meet their “service” requirement, but they don’t have a chance to let the experience, the relationships, take root and grow.

It’s interesting, because when I finished writing my book, my younger daughter asked if we could do an activity together. And she didn’t mean shopping or getting our nails done, although we love to do that too!  She’d found a program called Reading Partners and she signed us up and we went every week to a school in Carthay Circle to work with kids. One day when we were in the front office, I pointed out a sign that said, in effect, “It doesn’t matter if you live in a shelter or a parked car; if you’re awaiting foster placement; if you were abandoned.  You deserve an education.” I think in that moment she realized the “reach” of what she was doing.  I think that’s how each of us can combat the rage that seems to be consuming our culture.  What was it Robert Kennedy said? “We must tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”  Making gentle. I think that’s our job.

JV: What words of encouragement would you offer to others who are struggling to find peace and purpose?

JT: There is joy.  There is safety.  There is freedom.  Anyone can walk this path to peace.  Be prepared for setbacks, for moments of frustration.  You may even feel the occasional tsunami of despair. Again, it goes back to that bookmark I found: “You’re bigger than anything that can happen to you.” Sometimes you can find inspiration in a bookstore without even opening a book!  I keep these words, from the writer Colette, above my desk, and they greet me whenever I sit down to write: “Be happy. It is a way of being wise.”

***

With thanks to Jessica Teich for her generosity of time and thought and to Laura Rossi, Principal / Director of Publicity Laura Rossi Public Relations, for making this interview possible.

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