Erika Schickel, THE BIG HURT

Erika Schickel, THE BIG HURT

Zibby is joined by author Erika Schickel to talk about her new memoir, The Big Hurt, and the journey she took to reclaim her story. Erika shares how her whole understanding of herself changed when she was prompted to reevaluate a traumatic memory and what she learned about her family when she began to reflect on her past. Erika and Zibby also discuss how best to deal with the hurt we may each carry with us, why Erika’s notorious affair was so compelling, and what feedback she has received since the book’s release.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Erika. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Big Hurt: A Memoir.

Erika Schickel: Thanks for having me, Zibby. It’s really exciting to be here. I love this show.

Zibby: Thank you. I want you to tell listeners what it’s about and what made you decide to write this memoir. In the memoir, there’s a character writing a book called The Big Hurt. Is it really okay for you to call this book The Big Hurt too?

Erika: Yes, that needs a little explaining. To answer your first question, I wrote this book because I absolutely had to in order to understand and save my own life, just at a very visceral level. I started writing it in 2008 after my first book, which was a funny mom-oir called You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of A Modern Mom. That came out. It was time to write my second book. What am I going to write about? Oh, I’ll write about my very colorful, fun, zany, bohemian boarding school. As I began to look at that story where I did have an amazing growth experience — from 1978 to ’82, I was sent there, had an amazing time. Then six weeks before graduation, I was seduced by a music teacher there. The school found out. He was fired. I was effectively expelled from the school. I wanted to write just sort of a funny boarding school memoir. Suddenly, this story bit back at me because I had been ignoring it for all of my adult life until that point.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me about happened from 2008 to now.

Erika: I started writing the book. We will recall that around 2008 and ’09, Facebook came into full flower. It was a time where people were finding each other who had been lost to each other over years and decades. One of the people I reconnected with was my best friend from high school, a man named CJ Dallett, who was the only person who had known about the affair. He comes back to me and tells me his version of the story, a version in which I had been abused by the school, by this teacher, and that a traumatic event had happened to me. Suddenly, the scales have fallen from my eyes. Rather than actually do the work of confronting this incredibly painful story and a past that was too big and deep and scary to fully parse, I thought it would be easier to have a love affair with a notorious crime writer who I had met and had been holding in the back of my mind for a couple of years. I had made him sort of the locus of my lost eroticism, my sense of myself as a bad girl, which is this burden I have been carrying my whole life. This affair blew up the marriage. I was married. I had two kids. It just turned my life upside down. As I became more involved with this man, I began to realize that what I was doing was repeating the story from high school with him. I was reenacting it. I’d found another inappropriate pedagogic man to take over my life. That forced the book into an even deeper level of inquiry and trying to trace the patterns of my experience and then also connect them to larger patterns in my family, in the culture I was raised in, and in the history of our culture at large at that time, in the late seventies, early eighties, which was a very predatory time.

Zibby: The way that you wrote about how this affair began and the transition from it being an inkling in your mind to being something on which you acted was so well-written. The way you used metaphors and all of this, the writing itself was so powerful. It was just amazing. I was hoping I could read maybe a line or two if that’s okay with you.

Erika: Please, thank you. I would love it.

Zibby: Let’s see, all of these were so good. This was funny too. “We held the vertical line like the good WASPs we were, but the horizontal beckoned. Slowly and inevitably, the boundaries began to crumble. We wondered whether it wouldn’t be more comfortable to work in the living room side by side on the sofa. After a few days of this, we discussed the pros and cons of lying down next to each other on the sofa so that we might rest. We needed to know what it felt like to lie next to each other, and after all, it was just a sofa, not a bed. In our cockamamie construction, it seemed acceptable. And so it came to pass on a late summer afternoon that I first lay my head on Sam Spade’s chest and felt I had finally found home.” I loved that, but it’s not even the most beautiful. Hold on, there was this one analogy you had that I have to find. Give me two seconds.

Erika: A writer will always wait to hear her work read back to her.

Zibby: Where is it? I’m sorry, I thought I had it all ready. I will find it in a second. It was basically about that feeling of the person winking at you and feeling like you could ignore this person sort of tapping on your shoulder, but ultimately, you couldn’t. You had to succumb. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Erika: Yes, I do.

Zibby: I will find that as we are chatting.

Erika: I think you’re referring to a passage where I first meet the character I call Sam Spade in the book, who’s the lover in the book. When I met him, it was as though, I think I write something winked on inside of me. The inner girl that I had once been that I had been running away from for thirty years, she sort of woke up and smelled her prey and tossed her hair for him.

Zibby: Yes, that’s exactly right.

Erika: That was very much what the experience was like. I had held a version of myself at arm’s length. What I needed to do was go back and I needed to confront that girl. When I did, I found out that not only was she, yes, naughty, rebellious, sensual, all of these things that teenage girls just get to be, automatically are, but she was also a hurt girl. That was the piece of it that I had never understood. When I saw that hurt, it was like falling down a well. I became incredibly sad for a period of years as I wrestled with the betrayal of my family, of the school I had gone to. Every adult who had been in charge of me had betrayed me, essentially. That’s trauma. I had to understand my own trauma. So much of this book is about that. One of the conflicts or the tensions in the book is that I don’t want to be traumatized. I never saw myself as a victim of anything. My identity is very wrapped up in my self-sufficiency, of course, because I was raised by narcissists. I don’t want anyone to help me. I can do this. I really had to let that go and fall into the sadness inside of the hurt in order to process it and write about it.

Zibby: That passage, I do have.

Erika: Oh, please.

Zibby: That one, I can find. You said, “The problem was the story wasn’t funny.” This is about how you were starting to write that other book. “The more I rummaged through the memories I had put away three decades ago, the sadder it became. This wasn’t the story of a rebellious bad girl. This was the story of an abandoned child. Worse, the climax, my expulsion from boarding school which I had imagined writing as a kind of sexscapade gone awry, was neither fun nor romantic. I was forty-four years old. I had two daughters nearing the age I had been when my family got rid of me. The idea of abandoning either of them in any way was revulsive and unimaginable to me. What if every decision I had made since 1982 was built on the faulty premise that I was a bad girl? What if all along I had just been a very hurt girl trying to survive in a predatory world? My story wasn’t comedy. It was tragedy. The minute I understood that, I stopped writing.” Aw.

Erika: It was hard. One of the things that I grapple with in telling this story and in talking about it, the trauma piece is huge. One of the things that’s coming up is the ubiquity of it, of how we carry it around with us and how it can happen inside of very privileged lives, which is the life that I had and that I’m describing in the book. I grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of a well-known film critic, Richard Schickel, and a novelist, my mother Julia Whedon. I went to the best schools. I was sent to the best camps. I was given a beautiful education, but I was emotionally abandoned by my parents. Teasing that piece of it out in the book and then putting it back into context is really what I’m trying to do here. This is not special to me. This is something that people can experience anywhere.

Zibby: Can you talk a little more about how you were abandoned by your mother at age fourteen and what that looked like to you?

Erika: Yeah, I can. What it looked like was her basically — my parents had an ugly divorce when I was about twelve. By the time I reached puberty, I was acting out. Because I was doing a little shoplifting and lying and sneaking around, as unsupervised girls will do in the seventies, my mother decided that I was a danger to her. There was something about me that was threatening to her. Now I understand that that is her own trauma and that she was actually handing down to me a hurt that had been engendered in her by her parents. I have come to understand that what I was suffering from was epigenetic trauma. I actually am able to illustrate that in the book. I am a third generation of women in my family to sleep with a teacher. That’s when I understood that my mother’s no longer on my side. Then I got sent away to London to be an au pair when I was fourteen. I did some shoplifting in London subconsciously to get myself sent home. It worked. I was sent back to the States.

Instead of being brought back into the bosom of my family and going back to The Dalton School in the fall, which is where I had been going, I was told that I was going to be sent off to boarding school. That’s how I ended up at Buxton, at the boarding school, in the fall of ’78. Then the boarding school story is one of me keep trying to go home over the summers and over breaks and stuff. The time in the culture was one of, people becoming adults suddenly were given the car keys to their own lives. My parents were raised in the fifties, or actually, in the forties and the fifties. Suddenly, here was the sexual revolution. Everybody was wanting to get a piece of that action, including both of my parents. My father went out and swung big time. My mother ended up falling in love and moving in with my best friend’s father. Everything was just insane at that time. Kids got lost. One of the things this book, The Big Hurt, has done has really connected to that vein that was happening for Gen Xers. Really, what I am is Generation Jones, which is that generation between the Boomers and the Gen X. It ends at ’65. I’m pretty much in the pocket for that.

Zibby: You had an amazing, by the way, chapter title about the three generations of teachers. As I was reading it, I’m like, this is definitely not one I’m going to listen to in the car with my kids because of all the curse words, which is fine. It served the story very well. Hold on, I’m trying to find this section. I’m sorry, I’m seeming so disorganized today. Oh, here, it’s called A Brief Family History of Teacher Blank-ers. I’m just going to bleep it out.

Erika: I don’t mince words in this book.

Zibby: You don’t mince words. You know what? The rawness of your story comes through. There’s a lot of anger underlying a lot of this. It’s all coming out. It’s not just sadness. It’s madness.

Erika: Yeah. Remember that while I’m having these revelations about the truth of what happened to me and my generation in that period of time, I simultaneously have two children who are the ages I was when all this stuff happened. I think a lot of us have this experience as parents, as mothers where suddenly, we see our parents with our children and we get this weird window seat into low-level abuse or the ways our parents talked to us or dismissed us. It was a very intense time figuring all this stuff out. Yeah, I was angry about it, for sure.

Zibby: There was that one scene where you saw your mother with your daughter, I think. Your hackles went up. Oh, my gosh.

Erika: My mother was sort of terrible with my kids. My kids loved her because they’re such dear people, but my mother was very dismissive with them and sometimes a little bit physically abuse with them. It was horrifying to see.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Are you glad you’ve gone through this whole — you say it saved your life, but it sounds like it was very painful in the process of doing it. Are you glad you even went down this path? Are you super grateful?

Erika: So, so, grateful. It’s funny. I finished writing this book over a year ago, edits and so forth for publication. In the time since I finished writing the book, I’ve read Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score about trauma. I was just listening to an interview with him with Krista Tippett. He was talking about how trauma is healed by these non-direct approaches. He was talking about yoga. Trauma victims need to anchor themselves in their bodies. I fell into a very intense yoga practice at the same time I was dealing with this. I didn’t put it together until, like, yesterday. I also began experimenting or working with psychedelics. There’s a piece in the book where I drink ayahuasca. I go back and I actually visit my mother, my father, Sam Spade, and myself all as small children. It opened my heart up to them and to myself to a degree that was deeply profound and changed me. Then finally, the act of writing, telling the story, it took me twelve years to write this because I had to understand it in order to write it, live through it in order to write it. That is profoundly healing. One of the messages I’ve come away with is people need to write about themselves and to reparent themselves by retelling their stories, taking their stories back from the people who told them who they were when they were kids and look at what was really going on and what stakes people had in that and say, you know what, I’m now going to tell my own story. Even if it’s just to yourself in your own private diary, it’s a really helpful, important thing to do.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. You also, in the book, talk a lot about your having an affair with an author. You’re an author yourself. You had just come out. You track the literary community and some of the inside stuff that happens among different writers and different scenarios. Do you think relationships between two authors have a certain color, tint to them because of the introspection or anything? What do you think about having a relationship in the context of the greater literary scene, or at least as it was at the time?

Erika: First of all, my literary career suffered terribly because of this affair. There is so much misogyny in literary culture. It’s kind of staggering. Because this man was a famous novelist, I was sort of labeled as a coat-tail rider and all of that. I will not deny that there was something in his literary being, presentation that was very compelling to me because it was an Oedipal bond. Let’s not forget my father was a famous, prolific, first-draft writer. While people thought maybe I was trying to level up my career by being with this man, actually, I was being just deeply Oedipal, as both of us were. His mother had been famously raped and murdered when he was ten years old. He was looking for the pale-skinned, red-headed woman to replace her. That little section you read, Zibby, about me lying down and putting my head on his chest is kind of ground zero for that relationship because it was a trauma bond. It was so much bigger and deeper than any kind of literary ambition. If it had just been that, I might have gotten out of it sooner, but it was a really deeply emotionally compelling relationship.

Zibby: No, no, I didn’t mean to suggest it wasn’t.

Erika: I know.

Zibby: You can tell that from the outset. Even just from his first response to you when you reached out to him in writing, he’s this guy who’s like, whew. It’s intense. The whole thing, it’s very intense. I can’t imagine — it would’ve been very hard for anybody to resist some of that stuff.

Erika: Ugh, it was impossible. Here’s the thing that was interesting about it. This was an ongoing thing in our relationship. He had this identity as being a conjurer. He was a man who would lie in the dark and think about women and wait for the phone to ring. He was a lothario. In this case, I conjured him. I had met him, and I understood that there was a connection between us. I sensed it first. I thought about him for two years. Then I conjured him. I friended him on Facebook. It wasn’t, this bad man took advantage of me kind of a story at all. Although, he was sort of a bad man in the end. He did, in many ways, take advantage of me, but it was mutually assured destruction. We both had a deep agenda that we weren’t that aware of that was compelling us through the relationship.

Zibby: You did a really good job of showing that. You wanted to click the button to start whatever on Facebook. You went outside in your beautiful garden or whatever and puttered around. You’re like, and then I hit the button. We’re like, okay, now it’s getting good. What’s going to happen next? First of all, it’s one thing to have the kind of introspection and the level of self-analysis that you possess, which is really notable and amazing, but it’s another to put it out there for everyone in the world to join you in that process and also to have the real characters of your life exist. How has that been since this book has come out?

Erika: Mostly, it has been good. In terms of writing about real people, there are some real names in there, but mostly, those are people who are either dead or have given me permission and read the pages. There’s been some backlash in my personal life from former friends who betrayed me even further as regards to the book, a man who works in the literary world who betrayed a trust. Anyway, there’s been some bad stuff. Mostly, it’s been really, really positive. As to the question of, how did I put all of that truth onto the page? I’ve always just been that person. I’ve always been in the truth, in the power of the truth. I even say in the book, and it’s a childish belief on some level that I keep hanging onto, that the conscious application of love and truth can solve any problem between people. It may not actually be true, but I still cling to it. That’s the spirit in which I wrote the book. I needed to tell the story I understood. It was a story that was bigger than me. I had to leave everything on the page if it was going to work.

Zibby: Wow. The end result was fantastic and so immersive. Thank you for taking me on your journey, the ups and the downs. It’s intense and amazing. Thank you for putting it out there and not keeping it to yourself. It’s going to help a lot of people and raise awareness about lots of things, and particularly what role we play when things happen. Is it a part of me? Did I cause this?

Erika: I’m very interested in that question. The answer is yes, but we are acting on things that we don’t even understand. I also just want to say for your listeners too, this is a big, heavy book and it’s full of truth and it’s full of uncomfortable things, but it’s a funny book. It’s got a good plot. It’s a page-turner. It came out with the voice I wanted to have out in the world. I wanted it to be a good read. Luckily, or not so luckily, I was given plenty of material to make it a good read.

Zibby: Yes, absolutely. I hope I didn’t paint this as too dark.

Erika: No, no, not at all.

Zibby: What now? What are you going to do with your life?

Erika: God, that’s the question, Zibby. I’m wondering myself. I’m a little bit suffering from a combination of having given birth to the big book of my life and having survived a pandemic. The literary world has changed. The larger world has changed. I have an understanding of what my gifts and my message is. Right now, I’m going to keep writing, of course. I’ve begun another book. I’m really trying to figure out where I can have the most impact with the rest of my good life ahead of me. I’m in my fifties. People in our fifties, we like to say we’ve got twenty good years left. I really want to use them to the best to get other people to open up to their own healing and self-love and understanding.

Zibby: There’s no lack of work in that arena. That’s for sure, unfortunately. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Erika: My advice to aspiring authors, everybody always says, just sit down and write. That’s always the good first piece of advice and sometimes the hardest for us to take on a moment-to-moment basis. In terms of writing memoir or telling your story, I urge people to look at the story and just write down the first version. Then look at it again and go, I need more detail here. Then look at it again and go, okay, that story is about that, but what is it really about? What am I really trying to get at here? Just digging deeper and deeper and deeper. That takes many versions. I wrote and rewrote this book many times to get it where it is. That’s not because I didn’t write it well the first time. It’s just that I needed to go deeper and learn more.

Zibby: That’s great advice. Excellent. Erika, thank you. Thanks so much for chatting today. I hope we stay in touch. I’ll be following along to see what you decide to do.

Erika: Me too, Zibby. Congratulations on all your success. Thanks so much for having me on.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for coming. Buh-bye.

Erika: Bye.

Erika Schickel, THE BIG HURT

THE BIG HURT by Erika Schickel

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