Eilene Zimmerman, SMACKED

Eilene Zimmerman, SMACKED

Zibby Owens: I’m excited to share this episode with the fabulous Eilene Zimmerman with all of you, but I have to say I recorded it at a live event and the microphone did not do as good a job as I might have hoped. Bear with me for the quality of this content. I know it’s not up to my normal quality. Don’t blame my sound guys. They did a great job. Thank you.

Welcome, Eilene. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Eilene Zimmerman: Thank you for having me. I’m really happy to be here.

Zibby: This is a very special event because we’re doing this live for the New Victory Theater, which is super exciting. Here we go. I’m so excited to talk about your memoir, Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, and Tragedy. I’m going to just read your bio so that everybody here knows all about you. Eliene Zimmerman is the author of Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, and Tragedy. She has been a journalist for three decades including as a columnist for The New York Times Sunday Business Sections for six years. In 2017, she started pursuing a master’s degree in social work. She currently lives in New York City. Welcome.

Eilene: Thank you.

Zibby: Can you please tell everybody what Smacked is about?

Eilene: Yes. Smacked is the story of what happened to my ex-husband Peter. We were married for twenty years and divorced and separated for about six when he died. When he died, he was a partner in a very prestigious Silicon Valley-based law firm. We were living in San Diego. He had been acting really strange for about a year and half. His behavior was odd. He was late for things. He wasn’t showing up for anything for our kids. He was writing texts that were incoherent. He didn’t make a lot of sense in emails. Actually, when we would try to make plans together, he was always late or there was something that came up. In addition to all of that, which was different than what had come before, he was also losing a ton of weight. He was losing his hair at an accelerated rate. He looked really jaundiced and then kind of gray. I noticed he had sores on his hands and on his face. All of this was going on and I was saying to him, “What’s wrong with you? You need to go see a doctor.”

He kept saying, “No, I’m fine. I’m not sleeping. I’m working a lot.” I’m sure you all know lawyers and partners at that level. He was an intellectual property attorney. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of stress. It had always been. Probably for reasons I don’t even understand, I dismissed all the symptoms of what were very obviously, in retrospect, drug abuse and injection drug abuse. He wound up dying of an infection related to injection drug abuse. It’s called infective endocarditis. I found him because I went up to his house to figure out why I couldn’t reach him for two days, why none of us could, my kids, his friends. I called his secretary. We just couldn’t reach him. He had been very sick the last time my son had seen him at his house. It was the weekend. I thought, that’s it. I’m going up to his house and I’m going to drag him to the hospital. When I got there, I found that he had died.

From that and the shock of learning that it was not a heart attack from working too hard as I thought it was, that it was actually this infection from drug abuse and that he had been addicted for at least a year probably, I started to examine what happened in terms of what happened to him and how I missed it. I am a journalist. I’m used to asking questions. I’m a smart person. Yet I decided it was not that, whether consciously or unconsciously. I decided it was going to be everything else, bipolar disorder, a cognitive disorder. Maybe he was psychotic. Maybe he had an eating disorder instead of the very obvious thing; oh, he’s a drug addict. He’s struggling with a drug addiction is a better way to say it. The book grew out of that investigation and also looking at myself and my own culpability and what was happening to our family, the fallout — we had two children — and then an investigation a little bit into what’s going on in the white-collar professional world that you know so well in terms of unhappiness, depression, anxiety, substance use, and substance abuse. It was a very sobering exploration for me. I ended the book sort of looking at what’s coming for all of our kids in the next generation of white-collar professionals and societal leaders and judges and lawyers and things like that.

Zibby: Wow.

Eilene: Big explanation.

Zibby: No, that was great. It’s a fantastic book. You have been a journalist for a long time. You researched things like a pro. Then you turned that lens onto yourself and your own life. What did that feel like to look at your kids and your husband and your past and then turn it into a book?

Eilene: That’s such a good question. It was a very humbling experience because I’m not used to writing about myself. I’m not used to examining myself in that way. If I was going to do it, I had to really be honest about my own, I want to say, involvement in this in some way. I was very enabling for Peter. I made it possible for him to meet dealers and shoot up all night because I was going to take care of the kids. I took his excuses as the truth and took care of things. I think he knew if he fell apart that the kids would be okay because I’m very straight pretty much in terms of my substance use and my sense of responsibility. It was very humbling. It was also very illuminating. I realized, for instance, that I have a lot of implicit biases. I consider myself very progressive. I’m studying social work now. Yet I thought somebody that was white and wealthy and well-educated would never become addicted to drugs or any substance like that. Maybe he’d drink a little bit. I was so wrong. It really made me understand that I did have these biases and that I needed to educate myself about what someone struggling with a drug addiction looks like, which is basically like any of us. It was really hard to look at my kids that closely and see what happened. When I think about the day that I found Peter, the trauma is around the body because I’d never seen someone who had died. Actually, the worst part was, as you can imagine, telling my kids because they were in as much denial as me. They were young. They were sixteen and eighteen. That was the worst part. Having to examine that and relive that and look at how I handled that was instructive and it was good, but it was very hard and flexing a different writerly muscle.

Zibby: I found it interesting that day — I guess nobody knows what they will do in a trauma situation like this. You found their dad and then decided they should come to the house and see him too. There would be grief counselors around. If they came, you could tell them with the support of everybody around. Take me through that decision. Would you do it again that way?

Eilene: The way you say that question is interesting because for so long Peter worked so much. He wanted to make partner. He was number one in his law class. He was a really smart guy. He’d been a scientist before that. He had a master’s in Chemistry. He absented himself from family life. I was so used to kind of not having a partner that when I was at the house, even though I was freaking out and there were all these people around, I thought, I can’t do this alone. I have all these people here to help me. It felt like, okay, I’ll have them come up. Like you say, I didn’t know how they were going to react. My daughter also was kind of going to come up to his house no matter what I said. She was eighteen. She was frantically worried about him. There was the decision to tell them and the decision to tell them that it was drug abuse, which was totally the right decision now in retrospect because it relived them of a lot of personal responsibility for not — I think as adults we could see they could not save their father, but they really believed that they were responsible for him not surviving, that they should’ve taken him to the hospital.

Zibby: Your son even articulated that in the book when you told him it was drugs. He was like, “Oh, this makes sense. So I really couldn’t have saved him.”

Eilene: Right. In the book of course, you can’t go into everything, but that kid, he was only probably fourteen and a half when Peter, I think, really started using heavily. He saw this disintegration of his father and just thought his dad didn’t love him as much as his sister because my daughter had just gone to college when it really — he never said it to me until after Peter died. He’s just watching this spiraling down not understanding, as you can imagine. He was just a kid. Then when his father dies, he’s thinking, oh, my god, I was watching it and I didn’t save him. I think understanding that it was beyond anything any of us could control, huge relief.

Zibby: I think you were in such an interesting position. I am also divorced and remarried. When the kids go with the other parent —

Eilene: I have read what you’ve written.

Zibby: — you can’t really control what they do. You just have to trust that they’ll take care of the kids because they’re also the parent and they love them. Really, you don’t have legal or any sort of say in what goes on, whether it’s what time they go to bed or if they’re having more ice cream or if they’re doing drugs.

Eilene: Oh, my gosh, that’s so true.

Zibby: What do you do? Then this is like every ex-wife’s worst-case-scenario book. This is like the cautionary tale of divorce. What happens because you can’t — what recourse do you have? Tell me about it.

Eilene: I was thinking that I have read interviews with you where you’ve talked about how hard it was to not have your kids for the night. That was so hard, and that was so hard the whole time. Then now knowing that while I didn’t have my kids all this was going on, it was insane, Zibby. I felt so bad as a mother and as a protector. My son told me stuff afterwards that was going on. I remember I went away one weekend. I came back to New York. I was living in San Diego because my mom was moving into a senior housing. She’s disabled, so I came back to help move her. I said to my son who was sixteen, “Just stay with Dad. Just stay with Dad for the weekend.” He was like, “Why can’t I just stay by myself?” I’m an overprotective Jewish mother. I was like, “No, stay with Dad. It’ll be better.” It turned out Peter was gone the whole weekend — my son was like, “I could’ve been at home” — and also was acting bizarre. In retrospect I thought, why didn’t I just let him stay at home? all those things.

Zibby: You can’t beat yourself up.

Eilene: Right, I didn’t know.

Zibby: Hopefully you got some good therapy after this.

Eilene: I did.

Zibby: Okay, good because it’s not your fault. I’m sure I don’t have to be the one to tell you.

Eilene: But it’s good to hear it.

Zibby: How do your kids feel with this book? Did you have to talk to them about, “I’m thinking of writing a memoir about this. How do you feel if I involve you?” How do they feel now that it’s out? How did you handle that whole thing?

Eilene: That’s a great question. I wrote a piece in The New York Times in 2017 called “The Lawyer, the Addict,” which wound up going viral, whatever that means to you. It got about two million shares.

Zibby: I think that counts as viral. I’m going to give that a viral nod. That counts.

Eilene: That counts as viral? I’ve never been a viral person. I think the big hurdle for us as a family was that story. That had happened because I was really afraid to say anything about how Peter really died for about eighteen months. Some of that was this kind of John Grisham-like fear of his firm which was very large and powerful. I’m a writer. My ex-husband was a partner in a law firm. The income disparity was huge. I needed them to help me initially because I couldn’t access any of the money that Peter had in his savings or whatever just to function. They were very fair and kind. I also felt like they had kind of erased his existence very quickly. Within forty-eight hours, they packed up his office. They took him off the website. His boss asked me, “Are you talking about a funeral?” He sent me that email less than twenty-four hours after Peter died. I felt this unstated but implicit pressure to make this go away. I kept quiet. Then I started to become really not well. I was really depressed and anxious. My hair was falling out. I couldn’t eat. I just felt like I had this big, awful secret. I didn’t understand why I had to keep it.

Then one day I was talking to my daughter on the phone. I had just run into someone that Peter used to work with and told again the lie that I’d been telling which was — “How did he die? He was fifty-one.” I said, “He was just living a very unhealthy life. He was eating wrong. He was smoking. He was taking stuff to sleep.” I started to cry to my daughter. I said, “I’m so sick of not being able to say the truth.” She had been very protective of her father’s reputation, whatever that means after you die this way. I think she felt a lot of shame for our family. She said, “Well then, why don’t you say something?” I said, “I’m going to investigate this for The Times about the legal profession. I want to write about Dad.”

My kids felt like — at that point, it had been almost two years — it was kind of a way to make meaning out of something that seemed very meaningless. I said, then what happens? Then Dad dies. They basically roll over his body. The firm had its most profitable year, I think, the year after he passed away, not that it’s their fault. I just said, there’s no lesson from this. Nobody learns anything from this. It almost felt like, what was the meaning of his life then? He had a family. He provided for them very well, but I don’t know. It just felt like maybe we could do something more with this. They were on board. That story was the hardest. Then when the memoir came, they were kind of already on board. They did read it. They read The New York Times story too. I tweaked it a little bit to make them comfortable. I changed their first names. I didn’t have the same last name as my ex-husband, so that kind of, sort of protected — in the age of Google, you can find anything.

Zibby: I thought it was interesting what you did in the book about law and the legal profession in general because your theory before you found out he was a drug addict was that he was being completely overworked. He would go visit one child in Michigan and then have to leave because of work. You’re like, “Nobody else can handle this? This thing is late. Can’t someone else file this whatever?”

Eilene: Right, there’s always a work crisis.

Zibby: You kind of thought for a long, long time that his job was the cause of all of his issues. Then you found out it wasn’t. Then you had that moment even with the partner at the law firm when you were like, “You’ve been working him so hard.” He’s like, “He’s barely even been here,” which was such a turning point.

Eilene: It was. I was like, “What do you mean? He’s there all the time.”

Zibby: And he wasn’t. Then you go into all the statistics. I feel like you put your reporter hat back on in the book. You’re like, duh-duh-duh-duh, legal profession. I felt like in a way you were, not blaming the profession, but pointing out the correlations between some of these mental issues and having a high-pressure job at a law firm. Just tell me a little more about all that.

Eilene: Right, and correlation is not causation. Peter had a lot of other issues. He was adopted at four months. He’d spent four months in foster care, in a foster home with other infants, so wasn’t held that much. That can be a big problem in development. A lot of our problems as adults, I say this now having been studying social work for three years, have to do with the attachments we make early on. His parents were evangelical. I think there was a sense, at least from what I heard from Peter and what I’d felt from them, that although they loved him, they kind of loved God first and then everything. I think in other ways he felt less than. I think he had a lot of depression. When I met him, I thought it was this sexy, still waters run deep. Ten years later, you’re like, oh, my god, this guy’s always depressed. There was all that, but that profession is chronic stress. He was sleeping in his office. He was beholden to partners. You have no autonomy.

What happened was I also heard from a lot of other lawyers after The New York Times story, especially young associates in their thirties wanting to be partners who said, “I don’t want to wind up like Peter, and I’m afraid I will,” really depressed, really anxious, binge drinking, doing a lot of stimulants to stay awake and then having to take benzodiazepines like Xanax and Klonopin to sleep at night. Their marriages were falling apart. It was a lot of men. It felt really bad. It was really interesting to look into the profession. In fact, American Lawyer magazine just published a week ago, their study of lawyer mental health and well-being. Even though we’ve been talking about these issues in that profession for two years, lawyers are more depressed, more anxious, using more substances than they were two years ago. I just looked at it this morning. Almost seventy-five percent, when they were asked “Do you think the profession contributes to your depression and anxiety?” seventy-five percent said yes. Chronic stress, we know from research, can change the brain and the dopaminergic reward system and everything. I think he was suffering from some of the cognitive and physical effects of that constant stress. As you point out very well, it isn’t all that. He also brought a lot to that equation as well.

Zibby: Then you have to wonder, and I always wonder too, what are you bringing into a job like that? You’re already predisposed, perhaps, to certain things because you’re looking for a career or you’re looking for that type of intensity in what you’re doing.

Eilene: Exactly, and that intellectual intensity. His ego was very wrapped up in being able to say, “I’m an intellectual property partner at Wilson Sonsini.” They did Google’s IPO, Apple’s IPO. Larry Sonsini, who’s a founder of the firm, was offered the job as the head of the New York Stock Exchange. Especially on the West Coast, that really means something. People were, rightly so, impressed. He had thirteen years of schooling behind him, but that arrogance can cut both ways. He also figured, I can do this recreationally and I’m not going to become an addict. I can hear him saying that. Of course, those drugs are far more powerful than people think.

Zibby: Even how you couldn’t believe when the paramedics came and everything, and you’re like, “No, no, no. It can’t be drugs. This house is two million dollars,” or something.

Eilene: I’m like, “Look at this place. He went to Cornell.” They were like, yeah, okay, get over yourself. The medical examiner said, “We actually see a lot of this now.” That was when, as a journalist, I did think there’s story here, but obviously I’m going to have to put that off for a few years because right now everything’s falling apart.

Zibby: My takeaway is that I’m not sending my kids to law school.

Eilene: I’ve heard so many moms say that.

Zibby: I’m like, all right, let’s be the first doctors ever in our family. What you do think? Maybe.

Eilene: Maybe by the time they get there, the profession will have changed a bit. There does seem to be a much greater awareness in law school of law student mental health and the effects of stress.

Zibby: The whole other part of the book that I found super interesting was your mental health and how you basically went back and revisited how you got to this place and why you chose him, which is an interesting question. You had a quote in the book. Hold on, let me find it. First of all, you grew up in a crazy household with two sisters. I just love this quote. I want to read it. “The place feels like a halfway house for women who lack the ability to emotionally regulate. Instead, we all just scream at one another.” That’s how you grew up, so maybe you —

Eilene: — Maybe some of you recognized that.

Zibby: Then you described yourself as “the kind of woman who gets married because she needs health insurance, who does not expect a romantic marriage proposal, who gets married because she’s afraid if she doesn’t the man she loves will change his mind and then no one will want her.”

Eilene: I know, it’s sad. I kind of knew that about myself. Every evaluation I’ve ever had, like at a job or in school, has always been like, “I wish Eilene had more confidence. I wish she was more self-esteem.” I’ve always been like, well, I don’t know where that comes from. I think I learned by looking back that I felt like an outsider growing up. My family was Jewish. We lived in Northern New Jersey. We’re from the Bronx. We were around a lot of Irish and Italian Catholics, big families. That was the cool thing to be. It wasn’t cool to be the one who didn’t celebrate Christmas. My family was kosher. I had really fat hair. I was very different, and I felt that. I was really underweight, so I think all of that. Then I had a father who threatened to send me to a skinny kid’s farm if I didn’t eat more, who said, “It’s a good thing you’re smart because you’re not very pretty.” I think it was that era of father. He was like, “Oh, I’ve got these three kids,” as if he didn’t want them. Basically, his goal in life was to get us married and out of his hair. I felt that. I think my parents didn’t have a very happy marriage. I saw that. Then I was attracted to a man that sort of was — I was like, my therapist is right. I married my mother or my father. You sort of are, I think, often attracted to people — I think what I was trying to do was resolve that. Now I’ll marry somebody like my parents, but I’ll prove to them that I’m really valuable. I didn’t. I never got the validation.

Zibby: That never works.

Eilene: It never works, right? I’ve certainly talked to therapists. They say that’s a very common thing. You’re trying to fix it in your marriage. Of course when Peter and I split up, I remember thinking, I’m the same age my mother was when my father left for the same reasons. I was like, oh, my god. It was so obvious then. Maybe you learn in the second marriage. You’ll have to tell me.

Zibby: Second marriages are great.

Eilene: Everybody says that.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about writing this book. How long did it take you to write? Where and when did you write it? all that process good stuff.

Eilene: I started doing some of the research when I was in San Diego. My son was a senior in high school, so I was kind of focused on figuring out his therapy and dealing with his grief and trauma. He did some of the same — we did this EMDR therapy for trauma that’s in the book. Then when he left, I had already started doing some of the research for The New York Times story. I moved back to New York. I live in West Harlem, Hamilton Heights. I did most of the writing there. I had already done about a year’s worth of research for The Times story. I did another year’s worth of research. I took a break from school. I took two semesters off so that I could travel around the country going to high-end addiction treatment centers talking to addiction psychologists and therapists and also people in recovery. I also did something kind of unusual, very twenty-first century. You can’t really get high-placed people in finance or in law to talk openly about drug use. I posed queries on forums like Hacker News which has about four hundred thousand unique hits a month. It’s for technologists, scientists. There are some lawyers on it, people in the medical profession, a lot of technology and hard sciences. And just said, “Tell me about what you’re using, I’m not judging, and what you see around you.” In ten hours, I got six hundred responses.

Zibby: Wow.

Eilene: I know. Then I got a bunch of people saying because they’re in technology they didn’t trust an anonymous forum. They said, “Get a secure and encrypted email. I’ll email you.” I did the same thing on a site called Top Law Schools.com, which is actually also for the legal profession. They have all these forums where attorneys talk. I got about seventy-five responses, which shows you how nervous lawyers are about talking about it. I met with some in person. I talked to some on the phone. Some I just took the information they provided on the forum. That took several months, probably seven or eight months. It was really interesting to get a picture in my own way — it’s certainly not a systematic or a scientific survey — of the suffering kind of at the top. Some people were like, “Well, why do you care?” because people have lots of resources. I just thought, so we’re not supposed to have compassion for people? Everybody is struggling and suffering from something. Everybody has something that they’re struggling with that becomes addicted. I felt like, sure, we should have compassion for people from the top of the socioeconomic ladder down to the bottom no matter what color. I tried to focus in on what’s happening at that top.

Zibby: Does that contribute to your social work degree pursuit?

Eilene: Ironically, I think I was always kind of interested in social justice. I had volunteered in San Diego with this great school for homeless children. It’s the largest in country. Most of them were Mexican. Some were African American. Some were African. I was politically — I’d volunteer. I sort of felt like I was already kind of in that world. Yes, I did learn a lot about — I learned about attachment theory. It helped me understand Peter’s trajectory and also what’s going on in the larger society.

Zibby: What’s coming next for you now? Would you want to write any more? Do you think this was your thing and now you want to go help people?

Eilene: I do. I think I’ll always be a writer. It’s the way I go through the world. I’m hoping that I will write another book. There’ll be something second next. I’m not sure what that is. It’ll be informed by social work because I’m really interested in those issues, like the bigger issues of what it means to human, what it means to be here and now at this point in this country at this time, all that kind of stuff. I feel like if I can work part time in social work and also write, that’s the ideal.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Eilene: I would say the thing that helped me most was reaching out to people that I knew were better at this and had a lot more experience and asking them for help. One of my good friends is someone I think you know, Adrienne Brodeur who has a terrific memoir called Wild Game. She was a huge help to me. She also lived like nine blocks from me at the time. We would often talk about structure and form and also just the angst that comes with putting yourself out there. I had a great editor at Random House. It really helped me to talk to other writers that had already done this and ask them very basic things like, how did you structure it? Did you use an outline? When did you write? That would be my advice. Seek advice from those who know better than you do.

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

Eilene: Thank you for having me. Thank you for listening.

Eilene Zimmerman, SMACKED