Emily Rapp wrote the blog Little Seal during her son Ronan’s life. She began the blog after Ronan was diagnosed at the age of nine months with a rare form of Tay-Sachs disease. Rapp says in her book about Ronan’s life, The Still Point of the Turning World, that she “…began to write because it felt like the only thing I was able to do.” Rapp writes in a visceral way from the core of her grief, and the result is beauty—a lyrical tribute to Ronan, an ancient story about a mother who is in love with her baby, a mother who is walking through unspeakably difficult terrain.
Rapp began her academic career with a strong interest in religion. She attended Harvard University where she received a Masters in Theological Studies. But Rapp decided she wouldn’t be an academic, and turned to writing. Her first book was Poster Child: A Memoir (Bloomsbury, 2007). The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, 2013) is a New York Times bestseller and an Editor’s Pick.
Rapp teaches creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and in the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program. Rapp was core faculty at Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program from June 2006 to July 2010.
Cynthia Rosi: What kind of writer were you on your first book, Poster Child?
Emily Rapp: I think I was an accidental one—I wrote the kernel of the first book in graduate school. Then I went to the work center in Provincetown for seven months and finished a draft, and I worked in a gross apartment in Brooklyn on the final draft after I sold it. I went into grad school as a fiction writer and but I had really become taken with the idea of non-fiction, because a lot of the things I wanted to say were said better in non-fiction. So it was very much a first book, it’s a coming of age story, childhood, things I’m not so preoccupied with now, but at the time I wrote it I was 25 and childhood was not so far removed. I have a degree in theology; I went to Divinity School and that has always informed my writing. I finished Divinity School when I was 23.
CR: How did coming out of Divinity School help you make the decision to become a writer? What things did you think you would be writing about?
ER: I went to Divinity School because I thought I wanted to be an academic and then I became a writer because I realized I didn’t want to be an academic…I was engaged [with my classes] but I wasn’t intrigued. I felt that anything I wrote in that context would be derivative and literally read by three people. I didn’t want to be in that small world. I wanted to be more creative. So I started writing stories in Divinity School and took a lot of classes. I decided that was the route I wanted to go, rather than the more traditional theological route, although I still do some work in that arena occasionally; but it doesn’t preoccupy my life as it would have done, had I stayed.
CR: Did you go straight into writing Poster Child, or were you playing with some other topics at the same time?
ER: I was writing a lot of fiction about ranching life in the West, fiction about my experiences in Ireland, poetry about my experiences in Africa, so I was really drawing from my experiences, pulling from my experiences to transform them into poetry, fiction and non-fiction; I was doing all three and Poster Child began as a series of essays that I wrote in class, and that were later shaped into an arced book with the help of an editor.
CR: Then you became a mom and had your little boy Ronan, and then Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease when he was 9 months old. You’ve said you began to write because it felt like the only thing you were able to do. What happened in your writing life during that time?
ER: I think that anytime anyone becomes a new mom you very much go down the rabbit hole of new momness and of course I’d never had a newborn or given birth—I was a complete newbie—so that took up a good portion of my time, but I also began to want my writing life more intensely. So I carved out time. I had all this time in my twenties where I would have like nine hours to write and I’d be organizing forks or whatever else I was doing: working out, or running around, or living on the beach. I just wasn’t doing it—I had too much time. I do better, I found out as Ronan’s mom, when I have less time. And then when he was diagnosed it turns out I’m even more prolific when I’m under a great deal of stress, which is disturbing. But then when he was diagnosed, the only thing I wanted to do was write—write and die. I felt like those were my options, so I chose writing. I feel like it kick-started me in a way I wouldn’t wish on anyone else…that was a consequence, an unexpected consequence of his diagnosis.
But I do believe in the power of art, and I think people make meaning out of meaningless, shitty situations and that’s the role. That’s all you get.
CR: How did your background as a writer help you make sense of what you were going through?
ER: It didn’t help me at all. Nothing could have prepared me for that: no education, no Bible school, or beliefs. That’s why as an artist I was starting from the ground up, because there were no resources. Writing helped me to weather it but it did not help me to withstand it. It’s not a withstandable experience. There isn’t anything that anyone can know, or do, that would help.
I wouldn’t say that spirituality has ever helped me do anything except think about things in a different way, which could be a coping mechanism, or could be a distraction. I don’t consider myself a spiritual person so a belief in God did not sustain me during that time.
I don’t even know if writing did—literally it was the only thing I could think to do. It was a very bare bones sort of support. It was something I felt compelled to do. It wasn’t pleasant; it didn’t bring me peace. But it brought me activity and I didn’t know what else to do with myself. It’s kind of a grim comfort, but the experience wasn’t comforting. It wasn’t being elated. It taught me work for the sake of work. I was writing because it was my job and literally it was the only thing I could do.
Spirituality for me has become way more complicated since Ronan’s diagnosis. I think any kind of spiritual being has a lot to answer for, and I don’t think there are answers. If anything it made me not spiritual at all. But I do believe in the power of art, and I think people make meaning out of meaningless, shitty situations and that’s the role. That’s all you get.
CR: The tiger mom book (The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua) came out, and you came up with the moniker “dragon mom,” for the mothers in your situation. How did that idea come to you?
ER: The tiger mom book had come out a couple years before from the same press that would eventually publish my book about Ronan, and it’s a pretty good book, but the idea of the Tiger mom is so American to me, although she’s talking about it from an Asian-American perspective. Then I read something else, it was “The Panda Dad,” and I said, “what is up with all these animal monikers?” At that point I felt completely ejected from the parenting world because no one wants to know about your dying kid, nobody knows how to talk about it, you’re a mother but you’re not really a mother, it’s like you’re in the dark corner where no one wants to look. So I had my other moms who had been through this and I thought, “These are the most amazing moms I’ve ever met and they have no animal, they have no voice. Everyone just wants to forget about them or feel sorry for them.” So I thought about the dragon because they’re so nasty and beautiful and protective and fierce and old and medieval. Tay-Sachs has its roots in Eastern Europe in the shtetls, in the pogroms and the violence against the Jews. I thought it was a fitting, medieval, weird, no-one-knows-what-it-is creature that suited us as a group. I didn’t go through a series of animals trying to decide—the dragon just came to me. I thought it was interesting to frame a discussion about parenting around an animal. I felt we needed a different symbol. I felt that people really responded to that idea, because a lot of parents felt the way I did because they didn’t have a voice in society. Parenting magazines are not for kids with terminal illnesses, they’re for kids who make cookies and will grow up and be fabulous—that’s the assumption.
The task of the writer is to make the unknowable, knowable in some way.
CR: You’ve said that writing was such a visceral part of you after Ronan’s diagnosis that you had to do it for your own sanity. Did anyone ever question that?
ER: People expect certain things from women as mothers that they don’t expect from men as fathers and it’s gross. I think it’s unfair. And I feel like never as a mother was I prepared to give up every aspect of my life just to be a mother. But I feel that there is still that expectation and pressure in society that women should do that or they’ve failed their children in some way—it’s ridiculous.
People would say to me: “I can’t believe you’re not spending all your time staring into Ronan’s face.” If I did that I’d kill myself, and then you’d accuse me of being a really selfish bitch for killing myself. There’s no way to win. I actually felt it was helping me cope and it’s a tribute to him and the book is such a memorial to him and people know about him that never would have known before about him. It was remarkable to me the anti-woman attitudes I got about continuing my life in the face of his impending death. I think that’s a remarkable expectation. It’s like we want people to throw themselves on the funeral pyre so that we can feel bad for them, and by feeling bad for them we can distance ourselves from them and convince ourselves it will never happen to us. That really hacked me off. Yo dude! Everybody dies! Spoiler alert—it’s happening to every single one of us. It made people uncomfortable, but at that point I just didn’t care.
I think it’s a huge judgment and I don’t think people would judge men for the same reasons—they just wouldn’t, and I think that’s fascinating and extremely disturbing. The paper towel commercial and laundry commercial is aimed toward women. Plenty of men do laundry. Our culture has not evolved that much in terms of gender roles around parenting.
[Sometimes] I just had had it—you’re raw, you’re broken down. I once had a teacher say to me: “’No’ is a complete sentence.” People would say “Don’t you feel like…?” and I would say “No, just leave it.” I don’t care if you think I’m a bad mother. If anything, yes, it’s true, I’m failing at the primary task of protecting my child. I am failing at that so maybe I am a bad mother.
All I wanted to do was to survive the experience, to make sure Ronan lived as fully as he could when he was alive, to make sure he had some kind of death with dignity—although whether that’s possible?—that was my task, and whatever else I chose to do I felt was nobody else’s business.
CR: You talk about society’s narrative of healing and transformation in The Still Point of the Turning World. You went through the crucible of transformation; what was that like?
ER: It was uncomfortable and hellish, beautiful and interesting and true and all the things that any sort of rock-to-the-bottom-of-your-life experience would be. It’s so difficult to describe. I just read this great book by Sarah Manguso [The Guardians] about the death of a friend through suicide and she was saying that about grief that you don’t even know what it is for yourself and you certainly can’t know someone else’s, but the task of the writer is to make the unknowable, knowable in some way. It’s a mysterious process. Crucibles are uncomfortable for a reason. Whether I gained anything out of it…I don’t think it builds character, that’s a cliché, it just changes you and then you’re different, and you might be more moral and more centered in some ways, and more manic and psychotic in other ways. It’s de-stabilizing. Things that used to make me mad go right on by me right now. If my kid isn’t dying…? I do find it interesting what people get upset about these days. I’m not above the petty stuff, but I’m more able to let things go as a result of having gone through something I didn’t think I was coming out of.
CR: Is your mind turning to new work? Do you feel in a fallow time or a resting time?
ER: I’m working on a novel and I’m still doing essays regularly for different outlets, which I like. It’s not easy for me, but it’s more available to me than fiction, because that’s an internal process. I’m writing fiction, but I’m kind of in a holding pattern because I’m teaching so much and it’s hard to find time to do intensive bursts of writing, and I did need a break. The experience of writing that book was so fast and furious and intense that my adrenal system needed to rest.
CR: What are you reading at the moment?
ER: I’m reading mostly novels, like Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men. I’m reading Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians about her friend who commits suicide. I pick up a lot of books and start them. Fiction is more on my radar in terms of what’s drawing me.
In poetry I really like the Eastern European poets—Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska. Meghan O’Rourke’s book of poetry about her mother’s death The Long Goodbye. When Ronan was ill I read Jane Kenyon and William Stafford. I love Seamus Heaney and have a big collection of his.