Cassandra Jackson, THE WRECK: A Daughter's Memoir of Becoming a Mother

Cassandra Jackson, THE WRECK: A Daughter's Memoir of Becoming a Mother

Zibby interviews English professor and author Cassandra Jackson about The Wreck, a luminous, lyrical, anguished, and wise memoir about her quest to understand a family secret–a car crash that killed her father’s mother, sister, sister-in-law, niece, and first wife before she was born. Cassandra describes what her childhood was like, not knowing what had happened, and then explains how, years later, she put the tragedy together, piece by piece. She was shocked by how little she really knew about race and segregation in America – from colored ambulances to segregated obituaries. She also talks about her journey with infertility and the appalling, inhumane way she was treated by medical professionals.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cassandra. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Wreck: A Daughter’s Memoir of Becoming a Mother.

Cassandra Jackson: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it so much. I really wanted to do this. Thank you.

Zibby: I’m really glad. Your memoir was — oh, my gosh, all the research that you did and going through all the microfiches and the articles and reconstructing the whole thing — I shouldn’t jump right in. It was so moving. I can feel how haunted you are by what happened because I felt myself just going over it and over it and over it. It was really good.

Cassandra: Thank you. Thank you for reading it in that close way where you can also experience some of what was hanging over me in that moment. That was one of the parts of the book that I worried most about, that people would understand that this wasn’t mundane research. You worry that people don’t understand how that part fits. Especially as an academic, nobody cares about your research. That process, to me, it was really central to the book because it was so central to understanding myself in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Let’s back up for a minute. Tell listeners about your memoir and what it’s really about and then when you decided that this is something that you had to do.

Cassandra: When I think about what this book is about, I really feel like it’s about a collision between two moments in my life. I’m thirty-six years old. I’m trying to get pregnant. I’m not having any success getting pregnant. It forced me to think so much about legacy. Also, experiencing that kind of quiet grief was incredibly familiar to me in that it was a kind of grief that I had lived with throughout my childhood. That moment really took me back to my childhood and a loss that my father experienced before I was born but that we lived with every day. Before I was born, my father lost his mother, his sister, his sister-in-law, his niece, and his first wife in a car accident. We did not talk about that accident. We didn’t really talk about that part of his life. When I asked questions about missing relatives, all he would ever say was “the wreck.” That was the explanation, the wreck. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what had happened, when it happened, where it happened. Yet so much of our lives were determined by that accident. I exist because of that accident. It was something that I think my family was constantly working very actively and sometimes unconsciously to repress. Everything was about this new life that they had built. As I was trying to get pregnant, I found myself reflecting on this grief that has no site for expression, especially with infertility because it’s not like there’s some ritual around it. It’s very much a kind of invisible loss that you’re experiencing. What this book was really about is what that grief took me to in terms of the other kinds of grief that I’d experienced in different parts of my life. This was my story, but it was also about having to reflect on the past in a way that was really painful. Asking my dad to engage in that was really hard as well, asking him to reflect on that moment, to tell me about that moment.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Let’s talk about the infertility piece first. When I read it as you laid it out, it seemed like you were swept away — you were so not treated like a person by the medical establishment. All these little things, even just them not waiting for the cysts or whatever, to give them their time, everything was like, here’s what we’re doing. There was never a moment where they were like, honey, I think you might be suffering from infertility, and here’s what we’re going to do. Instead, they were like, this is what we’re trying. You’ve got to get this. You wrote so well about just being totally knocked off your feet and being like, wait, what? What’s going on?

Cassandra: To add to that, the fact that you’re taking drugs that are making you process and think differently, I’d be sitting there with people talking at me and thinking, wow, I smell strange. These drugs are transforming your body in ways that are unimaginable to you. I just remember feeling so swept up in it but also, in reflection, realizing that I was incapable of fully participating in that process, and no one was asking me to. As you said, there was no moment where anybody said, you know what, let’s sit down and talk about it. I think you’re suffering from infertility. Let’s talk about your options, your choices in this moment. It was, this is what you need to be doing. These are the drugs that you need to be taking. No one really discussed any sort of alternatives with me in a way that would’ve been helpful. I felt like my body was separate from me sometimes in these moments in the way that sometimes people describe when they’re talking about abuse. I felt like there was some disassociation that was necessary.

In many ways, I’d already learned how to do that in women’s health care even from the time I was a teenager, those early experiences of going to a gynecologist where you endure these, often, incredibly invasive procedures, and it’s a given that you’re just going to lie there and do it because it’s good for you without any real conversation about why you’re experiencing this discomfort. Is your discomfort different from someone else’s discomfort? There’s a moment in the book where I’m talking about this particular doctor because she’s ordered a procedure that was very painful. I come back to her, and I say, “This was really painful.” She kept repeating what I was saying back and editing out the word pain. She kept saying, “Some people experience discomfort.” I’m saying, “No, no, no. I was screaming on a table experiencing a kind of pain that made me feel out of body.” She keeps saying, “Yeah, some people experience some discomfort.” It was a way in which I felt like I was being treated very much as this objectified body that no one was living in at the time.

Zibby: Wow. Even the codeine, you’re like, “I’m allergic to codeine.” They’re like, “No, you probably aren’t anymore.” Next thing you know, you’re vomiting like crazy. Nobody is listening to you.

Cassandra: My sensitivity to that particular drug, I’ve actually had multiple doctors tell me, “No, you can take it. You just need to eat more. You can take it.” At this point, after you’ve projectile vomited a half dozen times, you can’t take that drug. I even had a doctor tell me I needed to take that off of my record very recently. “You should just take that off of your record because something could happen, and you could really need — people won’t understand.” It says so much, though, about the way in which health care works. I grew up with a mom who, she worshipped doctors. You go in. You do what they say. I can remember hearing her on the phone talking about doctors later on. Doctor so-and-so said… When my father became ill later in life, my parents would be very proud of the fact that I could go in and talk to the doctor in a way that made it seem as if me and the doctor were equals. That was meaningful to them. We have this educated daughter who can talk to the doctor. Quite honestly, I think that I imbibed a lot of that. It’s not that I didn’t know the ways in which medicine has treated women, the way in which it’s treated people of color. It’s not that I didn’t understand that, hey, there’s a power differential here. I think I had imbibed this idea that I could control it, that if I presented myself in a certain way, that if I made myself look like a person with insurance, if I made myself seem like somebody who was educated enough to understand what they were talking about, that somehow, this would skip over me. That’s why it’s called systemic racism. These things are systemic. It’s built into the system. It doesn’t skip over anybody. If it does, it’s by accident. That’s a fluke. You don’t talk your way out of systemic racism. It doesn’t work that way.

Zibby: Awful. You tied it really well with the present and the past and all of that pain. As you’re going through your excruciating, pain-filled current moment, you hear the screeching brakes or whatever of what’s going on back in the past, those screams echoing through that as well. Even the way that you wrote about it slowly — here’s what happened. Then how you took us through as if we were living through it — then here’s what happened on day one. Here’s what happened on day two. Then Mama took me aside and told me this. You have to remember this. Everything kept unfolding. It wasn’t just, the totality of casualties was this. It’s like we were there in the hospital with you. Not even you. You weren’t there, but with your family. How you reconstructed that and even how your aunt didn’t even remember it, all of this stuff I found absolutely fascinating and horrifying, but like they say, rubbernecking. The book is one big rubbernecking delay.

Cassandra: I feel like that was so important to me, that what happened around the accident unfolds in that way because that’s how I experienced it. I learned about it, really, a piece at a time. It took forever for me to even begin to recreate a chronology of what happened. Remember, this is a child taking this in when you first hear about the accident. In my mind, there’s an accident. Poof, everyone dies. I don’t even know who the everyone is. I could never keep straight who existed in that moment because it’s twelve years before I’m born. As I was learning about it, one of the early conversations with my father, he tells me his mother died ten days later. He keeps saying, “Mama said. Mama said.” I’m like, “How did she say anything?” He said, ” Oh, she lived for ten days.” That’s when I understood this as a fuller kind of narrative of what happened. This wasn’t something instant. It was so important for me to frame it that way because when you think of it as something instant, it’s something that doesn’t happen in time. It’s just something that kind of exists without this context.

The context was everything with this accident. It happens in 1960, and that’s critical because it’s still segregated health care. One of the things that was most shocking to me in my own research was, frankly, how little I knew. I’m supposed to be a professor who focuses on the history of race in the United States. I don’t think I understood what segregation meant in health care on a day-to-day basis. If you’re in an accident, who comes to get you? You’ve got to wait on a colored ambulance. Not every ambulance service is going to service Black people. If you’re living in that context where you were considered so inferior that everything needs to be separate for you, what happens when you get to a hospital? How can you trust that you will receive the best care available in that hospital? In my mind, they all died at the site of the accident. The idea that there was an aftermath was something that had completely escaped me because no one had ever really talked about what happened. It was always just the wreck. Died in the wreck.

Zibby: It sounds like — you don’t say this specifically. You’re not like, I think the hospital covered something up. The way that you write the story leads the reader to think, why did the mom pass away when she was fine for ten days and then overnight, dies? What was that? Who’s not catching something? Was there internal bleeding? What was really going on? What could be avoided? What could have been avoided? What losses could’ve been reversed?

Cassandra: That will always be on my mind. It was certainly something I was thinking about throughout the book. As I’m uncovering, I’m looking at death certificates. I’m looking at these different materials. I’m reading these newspaper articles that really demonstrate how embedded segregation is in this moment. I can’t find obituaries because you can’t publish Black people’s obituaries in the same column as white people’s obituaries.

Zibby: That was also crazy.

Cassandra: You got to go to a section of the newspaper called News about Negros in order to even find an obituary. When you see that, it raises certain kinds of questions about what could happen in a hospital with “colored” signs all over it, what can happen in a hospital with a whites-only waiting room. I think oftentimes when we talk about segregation, we are so often fixated on things like water fountains because they do demonstrate something about the day-to-day. I think that oftentimes, we miss the terror of that. We miss the idea of walking into a hospital, and it’s kind of a given that your life is not as important as the lives of the people around you. I do find it hard to believe that in a situation where you’re rushed to an emergency room in Alabama in 1960, that your care would be a priority as a Black person in that moment. I do find it hard to believe. If they missed something, I think some of it was probably just careless disregard. The newspaper articles, when they’re listing the names of the victims, all the white names have to be at the top. They have to say Mr. and Mrs. The Black names are just listed at the bottom, and behind them, “Negro.” There would’ve been no consequences for missing something. There would’ve been no real impact for no treating Black people in the same ways that they would’ve treated a white person in that hospital.

Zibby: It makes it clear that — there’s all this talk about inherited trauma. There is such a huge trauma that you have inherited. How does any family pull themselves upright after something like this has happened, especially when it pervaded so many branches, so many pieces of history? Then here you come. How do you make sense of it? How do you integrate all this information? Writing the whole story and digging deep and finding out all these facts, how do you make sense of it all now? How do you think about it, not repackaging, sort of rewriting your own narrative after changing some of the past that wasn’t quite in order?

Cassandra: That’s a great question. I feel like I have so many more tools at my disposal than my dad had at that time. I don’t know if my father could’ve done anything other than what he did. I think that one of the things that he was trying to do, in some ways, he was trying to go on with his life, but he was also really trying to reproduce, to create an idea of family, and yet still being haunted by the past. I too have been haunted. I’m not sure if you so much have this moment where you’ve made sense of it. I’ve had periods in which different moments include different kinds of healing given the ways in which it comes to me. I guess what I mean by that is that I feel like there are ways in which I am always working through the significance of that past to this moment now. I’m always planning for disaster, for example. I’m always planning for disaster. I don’t have a bomb shelter or anything. It’s not that. In my mind, I’m planning for it because you can’t control it. This idea that these devastating losses are part of our lives in ways that we don’t necessarily have control over, I’ve had to temper that. My husband likes to talk about the fact that I will point to a disaster and tell someone, really, “You should be careful because…” Then I’ll go into this horrible story of someone being dismembered by something, usually. He will say, “You do realize other people do not talk like this.”

I know that that’s coming from a place of loss. I don’t know if I so much make sense of it as I give myself the space to process it, to let it come to me when it comes to me and to process that grief. I do think there is something to what my father did, which was really a kind of recreation of family and moving on and taking real pleasure and delight in that. I think that’s something that I do as well. It’s always sort of in progress. I don’t think it’s ever finite. I know for me, one of the things that was really important was the knowing. I know that some things could not be recreated. There are some things that remain unknown. It was really important to me that I gather the information and that it would be there for my children when they needed to know more. So much of my life was so much about family secrets and the things that you don’t talk about. I wanted to create a space where I could not only talk about it and process it out loud and process it as a writer, but also to create a space for my children to be able to process it. I don’t think it’s a kind of loss that has some sort of final ending. It is deeply embedded in who we are.

Zibby: It’s so true. Tell me about the process of writing the book and when you fit that in with your motherhood and life and work. When did you do all of this? How did you get it done?

Cassandra: I feel like I should ask you the same question. When do we get it done?

Zibby: Maybe that’s why I’m asking you. I’m like, advice, please.

Cassandra: When do we get it done? With this book, I remember writing pieces of this after I had my first child. She was nursing a lot. Not just a little bit. She was a kid who nursed all night, it seemed like. I can remember being up at night. Literally, feed the baby, put her down, write a little bit, feed the baby, put her down, write a little bit. There wasn’t a lot of sleep in there anyway. I figured I needed to write it down too. There was something therapeutic about that process, I’m sure. I felt so compelled to be writing about this. There was that. It took a long time. I had two children. There were times in the process where I just didn’t know if it was a book. I kept looking at it. I was thinking it’s really two stories. It’s not one story, but I can’t tell one story without the other story because they’re so connected in these intimate ways for me. Some of the writing took place in the wee hours. Then in later years as my kids were getting even a little bit older, I would still get up at four o’clock in the morning and write really, really early. I look back at that now, and I’m like, how did I do that? You think that should’ve been torture, going without sleep. I don’t necessarily recommend writing that way. You’ve got to be up before they’re up, the kids. You’ve got to be up before they’re up anyway.

It also took a long time to find the form. I tried to read as many memoirs as I could that really broke the rules. I didn’t know how I could make these stories fit together in terms of the form. I was obsessed with it because I do feel like form is the place where I feel most vulnerable as a writer. It’s the thing I worry about the most, the form. Is this going to make sense to anybody but me? It wasn’t until I found the form that all of those pieces I had been writing for so long started to fall into place, or I would kind of nudge them into place to try to make it work as a book. I’m an everyday writer. At least, I try to be an everyday writer. What I discovered is with little kids, talk about not being able to control anything. They get sick. They get sick all the time. They have needs that need to be met that definitely make it hard sometimes to find the time to actually write. It was tricky. It took way longer than I thought this book was going to take. I know everyone says that, but it took way longer than I thought this book was going to take. Part of it was that I started this book at a time where I then subsequently had two children after.

I had this conversation a long time ago with the poet Claudia Rankine. It really helped me deal with how long this book took. I was having dinner with her one night when she was visiting this area. I don’t really “know her” know her. I was just invited to this dinner. I ask her a similar kind of question about, how did she get Citizen done? She talked about the time it took her between books, and then she mentioned the age of her child. She said, “You do notice that those are the same.” She was like, “My kid had to get old enough for me to get the space to actually do this, to finish this.” I just thought, wow, that’s so helpful. When you’re talking to somebody and you’re like, oh, this is a literary genius, and they’re telling you it’s hard to write with children, things take longer with kids, it was so helpful to me. Honestly, I actually felt a little bit of shame about how long this book took me.

Zibby: How long did it really take?

Cassandra: I think I worked on this book for ten years. That’s not including when the book finally gets picked up, and there were edits to do after that. I want to say it was a ten-year period of time. I got other books out during that time. I started this book right after I had published a scholarly book and then published a book with some friends in between while I was still working on this one. It took some time. You know the deal.

Zibby: I know the deal. I also feel like this book is so important for you and your family. It’s not like you’re just cranking out a novel about a car crash, even. There’s a lot of stuff there. I feel like, how great that you did it, though. Now it’s done.

Cassandra: I honestly think one of the reasons I couldn’t finish it was, in part, because some of the stories of the people in it weren’t finished yet in a way that I needed to happen in order for me to really understand the meaning of their lives. I think that was one of the things that was also making this book hard. I didn’t have answers to all the questions that I was really posing in this book. I was asking big questions about survival. I was asking huge questions about how people survive something like what my father survived. It took real reflection and time and spending time with people. There are relatives in the book that I had never really had conversations with about this either because we’d all been taught not to talk about it. I was stunned when — you mentioned earlier, when I go and talk to my cousin who was in the accident. She tells me she has no memory of it. It was stunning to me. It was as if the not talking, in some ways, for me, it required a book to break through that kind of silence.

Zibby: Wow. Look, you got it done. It’s great. You still kept everything else in the air enough. I think it’s wonderful. I really do feel like this book, a lot of it is about your search for control over all these things that were just out of grasp. Hopefully, even though it took a while, the fact that you took it back makes you feel empowered going forward with all the other stuff.

Cassandra: It does. It really, really does. It also feels very good knowing that it’s going to actually be in the world. I didn’t know that. When you’re writing a book and you don’t have this long history of having published something like literary memoir — I was largely writing scholarly books.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Cassandra: You’re awesome. I really appreciate you doing this. Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: Thanks, Cassandra. Thanks so much.

Cassandra: Take care. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Cassandra Jackson, THE WRECK: A Daughter's Memoir of Becoming a Mother

THE WRECK: A Daughter’s Memoir of Becoming a Mother by Cassandra Jackson

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