Catherine Cho, INFERNO

Catherine Cho, INFERNO

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Catherine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Catherine Cho: Thanks, Zibby. I’m so glad to be here.

Zibby: I really cannot wait to discuss this book with you. Ever since the publicist sent me the title of this book, I was like, ooh, I’m going to love that. I really did. I couldn’t put it down. It kept me up at night. It was just great. Can you just tell listeners a little bit about Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness and how this came to even be a book?

Catherine: Inferno is about my postpartum psychosis when my son was three months old. The title comes from my psychosis, actually, when I thought I was Beatrice in Dante’s Inferno and that my husband was Dante. I started writing the book very soon after my experience when I was in the process of recovery. I’d never heard of postpartum psychosis until my experience. I was initially thinking of writing an article, maybe. Then I realized that in order to know the full context of a mental breakdown, perhaps then you need to know what was there to be broken. I thought, actually, you need a full book to get that kind of picture. I started writing it in the summer after my experience. It all came together very quickly, actually. I was just very focused. I really wanted to share the story.

Zibby: Wow. You had a notebook that you reference many times throughout the book where you were actually writing in it while you were in the inpatient unit. Did that actually get into the book, some of those notes? Or were they more just notes?

Catherine: Yeah, some of it. My husband had left me a notebook in the ward which I was really grateful for. It really helped me figure out who I was and ground me and give me something to do while I was there. Some of the bits that are in the book from the notebook like the passages about who I was, what was real, what was not real, that was from my notebook. I tried to take as many notes as possible. It gave me something to do, to observe. They were mostly notes, so obviously are kind of fragmented. I had to work from them to put them into the book.

Zibby: You said in the beginning of the book that when you were first pregnant, because this all happened obviously postpartum, you were so focused on all the things that were happening to your body. It never occurred to you that anything could happen to your mind. Tell me a little bit about that and all the preparation that went into the pregnancy and how this threw you for a loop.

Catherine: That’s something that I did want to talk about in the book. It’s such a physical change, what happens during pregnancy. For me, I know my preoccupation was with how I would recover after birth, what could potentially go wrong like preeclampsia or prolapse. I had an emergency c-section, so just recovering from that. I was so focused on the physical aspect that I didn’t consider that kind of mental or psychological shift of actually becoming a mother and how it would change you and your identity.

Zibby: I was glad when you said in the book when your son Cato was born that you didn’t feel this instant connection and instead it felt like someone was handing you a stranger because I have to admit that kind of happened to me as well. I was like, who are these kids? Why is everyone calling them by the names that I’ve picked out for these fictious kids who are in my head who don’t look like these kids who are now in my arms? I was like, am I supposed to feel this way? It was nice to hear that I was not the only one who had a moment to get used to the whole thing.

Catherine: I think because in your head you expect when the child is placed in your arms, you’ll feel this rush of connection. I’m guessing it does happen to some women, but it definitely didn’t happen to me.

Zibby: It wasn’t so much the lack of connection as the surprise at meeting a total stranger. I didn’t expect my babies to feel like I was meeting somebody because they felt such a part of me when they were brewing. I had twins to start. It was more like, where did these guys come from? By the way, I feel like in this book you have had every complication of everything from getting sepsis during your pregnancy to mastitis and thrush when you were nursing. I just feel like every bad thing that could happen as a byproduct, you had. It was terrible. I felt terrible for you as things kept unfolding physically, oh, my gosh.

Catherine: I think because I had such an uneventful pregnancy, everything just started happening once I was in labor. Then it just kept going from there.

Zibby: You also wrote so hauntingly and beautifully about your horrific abusive relationship with Drew. One of the things you said in the book that I found so interesting is at the beginning how everybody kept telling you how he was such a good guy. He’s such a good guy. He’s such a good guy. He’s so popular. He’s so this. You said, I wish that I had paid attention to that and heard it as a warning. Why were people saying that so much? Do you think people were really covering up for what they kind of knew about him? Do you think everybody knew that he was abusive in his relationships?

Catherine: I think they did. It’s something I thought about a lot in retrospect. After I left the relationship, I did talk to some of his friends. They would all say he’s not a good boyfriend, but he’s a good friend. They would make that distinction which I always found a bit surprising. I do think they were trying to warn me without — I guess they wanted to give their friend the benefit of the doubt that actually maybe he could be a good person. Actually, he wasn’t. He was violent. He couldn’t help that. It’s such an interesting thing to me in that I was so puzzled at how someone could be so popular and have so many friends but just be such a violent, abusive person to his partners.

Zibby: The way you talked about even his mother’s response to his abuse was also interesting. I feel like nobody ever writes about that. That you had even the compassion after all the stuff he put you through and being knocked unconscious, essentially, oh, my gosh. I was reading this book and I was like, . My husband’s like, “What? What?” I was like, “The girl in my book, she’s being beaten up. It’s awful.” After all that you went through to then put yourself in his mom’s shoes and say, what would it be like to know you’ve raised a child like this and what do you do in that scenario? Tell me a little more that and the empathy you’re able to have for his mother.

Catherine: That’s the thing. Often when we think about abusers or people who are violent, you tend to think of them one-dimensionally. Actually, Drew is a son. He’s a brother. He has a family that really loves him. They know about his very serious . I thought that was really fascinating. His mother, I could tell how torn she was because it really upset her that he was this way towards women. She also loved him unconditionally. At the end of the day, he was always going to be her son. She just wanted him to be happy. That was a very strange thing for her to come to terms with. As I say in the book, I kind of used her as a scapegoat often. When I probably should’ve been blaming him, I was blaming her. As I was pregnant with my own son and thinking more about that and how I would deal with it if, god forbid, he was that type of person, it just made me consider her more and think more about how she was trying to process it. Of course, she couldn’t abandon her son or turn her back on him. I’m sure the way that she dealt with it, at least I hope I wouldn’t deal with it like that.

Zibby: Wow. You rebound from this abusive relationship and probably did not get a lot of therapy, I’m guessing, because you spent your weekends going to the arrivals terminal just to see the connections other people have and that emotion and then got a job at an Alzheimer’s facility. You said something so beautiful about why, and maybe you didn’t realize at the time but when you reflected on it now. Hold on, let me just get to this page which of course I can’t find at the exact time I want it. You said, “I was drawn to their stories. But mostly, I was drawn to this place where time didn’t exist. It was a place of memory, of loss, but each memory lasted only for the moment.” It’s so interesting that when you’re trying to forget a traumatic event you end up surrounding yourself with people with no memories at all. Tell me a little about that.

Catherine: I do think as I was reflecting on it, it is part of the reason why I included that, those experiences in the book. It was such a strange place. It was, as you say, a home of people who didn’t have any memories, who didn’t have any stories but were in this place and . They were definitely trying to remember things, but they couldn’t. I definitely didn’t get any therapy after the relationship. I tried to put it behind me. I just thought, this is a chapter in my life that’s closed. I don’t really need to talk about it with people. At the time, I felt it didn’t affect me that much, which in retrospect was very naïve. I do think I was really drawn to this retirement home. It was specifically for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. I could really sense that they were untethered from the past.

Zibby: Then you meet the love of your life. I feel like now I’m giving away the book. Maybe this is too much. You and James meet, fall in love, have Cato. Then next thing you know, your baby has demon eyes and the walls are closing in and spinning around. You’re seeing refractions of everything. Everything just breaks in your brain. I know you wrote about it so vividly, and that’s amazing. To go through this experience, just tell me a little more about that moment, especially when you could feel your brain slipping but you didn’t know what was going on.

Catherine: It was completely terrifying. I can’t lie. I had a sense that something was wrong. I describe it in the book as the trigger is when I look at my son and his face wasn’t his face. It was a devil’s face. It was so strange because I kept trying to right myself. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know what was real. I didn’t know if I was imagining something. I didn’t know if I was dreaming. This all happened within a period of a little over a day. Throughout that day I just kept trying to reposition myself and be like, this is fine, it’s not fine, until so much of what I was seeing and experiencing convinced me that actually I was in hell and in a simulation. That thought or belief where eventually I did lose all sense of time and reliving things again and again and again where I thought I was stuck in this hotel room, it was completely terrifying. At some point, you just kind of have to surrender to it. For me, I just felt like this is my reality. I’m actually dead. I’m in a simulation. There’s nothing I can do.

Zibby: Then you spent a bunch of time in a facility where gradually we see you coming into your own mind again and righting yourself enough eventually with the help of medication or whatever that you could leave and pick up your life again. Here’s my question. I want to know what happens after the book. What happened when you went back? What’s happened since? What has happened with your relationship with your son? You obviously became a beautiful memoirist. What else has gone on? Give me the unwritten epilogue.

Catherine: It was a really long recovery. I think part of the reason I didn’t write that much about it is it’s so hard to write about because it was so gradual. I came back to London. I’d gone through this psychosis. Then I had fell into a really deep depression where I was essentially bed-bound for several months and went on medication. During that time, I really couldn’t interact with my son at all or touch him. That’s something I really sometimes grieve over because it’s just so sad that I didn’t have that bond. I would say it took a good year before I started feeling that relationship and connection with him again. I ended up going back to New York pretty soon after the experience.

Zibby: Wait, I’m so sorry. My phone is ringing. This never happens. I’m so sorry.

Catherine: That’s okay.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Of course, it’s just my daughter who’s calling me from upstairs. Anyway, I’m so sorry. Say that little part again if you don’t mind. I apologize.

Catherine: It took a good year for me to have that bond with my son again and to connect with him. I went back to work pretty soon after and classically didn’t tell anybody I’d gone through it, what I’d gone through. I just showed up and did my job. In the meantime, I’d already been working on my book. I’d found an agent for it. My son is almost three now. We have a really good bond, a really good relationship. I’m expecting another baby.

Zibby: Yay!

Catherine: Yes, thank you. That’s been a whole process as well, talking with my husband about whether or not we should have another child. I’m expecting a baby in November. That has made me think again about what we went through, what I went through, and how to prevent it from happening again. It’s been incredibly positive. The whole process of publishing the book has really shown me how much the things that I went through are actually very universal and very commonly experienced by so many women and mothers, obviously not to that extent. Just the fear and changing your identity I think is very universal.

Zibby: Not to be totally overstepping my bounds here, but I hope you have a really good therapist on your case this time before you go —

Catherine: — I do.

Zibby: Okay, good. Phew. If not, I was going to introduce you to some people and maybe make sure the psychosis doesn’t happen. Are you worried about that? I would be so worried.

Catherine: I remember they told us that the statistics are fifty percent if you experienced psychosis the first time. When my husband heard that, he was like, “We’re not having another baby.” I have a very great psychiatrist who the NHS — once you’ve gone through this kind of thing, they assign you to a team. It’s just incredible what they do. She was talking me through it. Actually, the fact that my psychosis happened three months in makes it more situational and more stress-induced versus for many women, it happens a few days after birth. I feel much more prepared and aware that I could at least control some of the factors in the surroundings to prevent it from happening again.

Zibby: I’m taking it you’re not taking a big United States trip this time?

Catherine: No, I’m not jumping around.

Zibby: Although, I felt terrible that you kept blaming yourself that this trip was the cause of it. I feel like you have so much guilt and self-flagellation going on in your brain about your decision. It could have had nothing to do it, really, right?

Catherine: Yeah, I think the guilt is kind of inevitable. I really felt the trip would be such a great thing. Then once we were on the trip, we were like, five cities with a two-month-old, that’s a great idea. I still feel a bit like, that was just really silly.

Zibby: Who knows? Who knows what would’ve happened if you had stayed? You just don’t know. Now that you’ve written this up, is writing something that you fell in love with doing, that you’d want to keep doing? Was it more like you had to get this story out?

Catherine: I’ve always written. I do work in publishing, so I work with writers a lot in my day job. I have really enjoyed the process of writing. I’ve been thinking I would love to write something else. To be honest, my mind is just blank. I don’t know what else I would write about. For the moment, I haven’t been writing anything. I do think for the book, it was very purpose driven. It was about sharing that story. It came much easier.

Zibby: Especially given your position in the industry and as an author and both sides of the fence essentially, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Catherine: I’m an agent during the day. That is my day job. Still, very much my primary role is to help authors and writers showcase their stories. It’s very much a privilege to do so. One thing this whole process has taught me, and it’s been a very humbling one, is that it’s so vulnerable to put yourself out there and to share your writing. I definitely have a greater sense of empathy for any writer who submits something to someone. I guess just to keep going. For me with finding an agent, obviously I knew how the process worked. That definitely gave me very much a head start. I ended up revising the book half a dozen times, maybe even more than that, even once I had my agent. It was just about pushing it and making it as best as it could be. That really showed me how collaborative the writing process can be. The whole rewriting and editing process is just as important as the initial phase of putting it down on paper.

Zibby: Do you have a type of book that you gravitate towards as an agent?

Catherine: Most of my books that I work with are fiction. It’s funny because I was thinking about this recently. I think almost all of them deal with some question of identify, often. The genre doesn’t matter as much as it’s very character driven, voice driven. Usually, at the heart, at the center of it is a question of identity.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll send you my novel. No, I’m kidding. I have an agent. I’m kidding. Maybe people will listen to this and you’ll be getting floods of submissions. Watch out. Thank you so much. Thank you for this book, which I really could not put down and was so immersive and emotional and just awesome, and for telling me more about it and coming on the show.

Catherine: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Bye.

Catherine: Bye.

Catherine Cho, INFERNO