Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn, LOOSE OF EARTH

Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn, LOOSE OF EARTH

Debut author Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn joins Zibby to discuss LOOSE OF EARTH, an arresting memoir and bold exposé of love, unbending religious fanaticism, disease, forever chemicals, and one family’s desperate wait for a miracle that never came. Kathleen describes her childhood in a conservative, evangelical family in Texas and the diagnosis and eventual death of her father. She touches on her family’s obsessive quest for faith-based healing over conventional medicine, the broader environmental issues tied to her father’s illness, and the responsibility she bore as a young caretaker. Finally, she describes the challenges—and cathartic power—of writing about such a painful past.


Zibby: Welcome, Kathleen. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss Loose of Earth, a memoir. Thank you. 

Kathleen: Delighted to be here. I've just been so excited. I love the podcast and I'm, it's sort of a dream just to be in conversation with you. And I'm so grateful for all that you do for books and Love your work.

So thank you for this conversation. 

Zibby: Thank you for saying that. I read your book in basically one sitting and at the end, I was crying and my kids like came over and were like, mom, are you okay? And I was like, I just had to sit there. And I was like, you guys, I just read this so sad. I mean, it's happened. I was like her, you know, or, I mean, it's not a spoiler to say your dad died and that's part of the book, but it was so moving.

I just, I haven't cried, like physically cried at a book in a long time where I just had to sit there and like kind of recover and not to say it was all tear, you know, not to say it was like, Okay. you know, an unpleasant reading experience. You know, it just was so moving. Anyway, you're a beautiful writer and the book was so moving and oh my gosh.


Kathleen: Oh, that means a lot to me. Thank you. You know, one of my writing heroes and teachers was the great writer Dennis Covington. And he said when he would lose kind of hope in a manuscript he was working on, that if he picked it up and it made him, it still could make him cry. There was something there.

So, so I think of tears as one of the, um, it certainly wasn't, I, I didn't want to manipulate, you know, in any way, but I do think I take tears as a compliment. If I can see you. 

Zibby: Yes, it is a compliment. It is a total compliment. And your writing is so beautiful. I mean, I know I just said that, like maybe I could read a few passages as we're talking, but just the way that you explain even the most.

Like, I was thinking about it after. Like, what did she do? Basically, you told the, well, you should describe it, but the way you told about a period of time in your life, which could have been told in 8 million different ways, right, but you told it through like the beauty of language and English. All these specific little details and moments, but then you used words to make it like art.

Anyway. Wow. That's beautifully said. Thank you. Tell everybody about the book, and I'm sorry for just, you know, dumping this. I just, it was just very, very moving. 

Kathleen: Oh, oh my gosh, no. Every word you've shared is a gift. I'm grateful to you. You know, I'll talk about what the book is about, but I also just. I just want to quickly say that I feel like The only way I got through writing it was just by holding on for dear life to the language and to the sentences and the craft of working on those sentences.

Um, so it means a lot to hear you, you say that. This is a memoir about growing up in West Texas. I was 12 years old. It's the oldest of five kids. My family were white evangelical conservatives. My parents homeschooled us and they extended that skepticism of public education to a lot of institutions, including the medical industry, even though they themselves had backgrounds in the sciences.

My dad was a pilot, a former air force pilot gone commercial with him. Bachelor's in civil engineering and my mom was a veterinarian. Um, my dad was also really robust, a marathon runner. And about six months after he completed actually the New York City marathon with an average of an eight minute mile pace, he was suddenly and shockingly diagnosed with late stage early onset colon cancer and given a very short time to live.

And this diagnosis kicked our beliefs into high gear rather than. Following the medical advice to start rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, which the doctors said might extend his life a little bit, but we're talking at the month's level, my parents wanted a cure. And when the doctors couldn't offer that, uh, we, Started seeking out faith healers all across West Texas, of which there were no shortage.

And what we didn't know at the time was that my dad, like I said, he had been in the air force. He was third generation air force. He had grown up in and around military sites most of his life. And in researching this. Book and writing it, I discovered that the groundwater, which was the source of the drinking water at most of the military sites where he lived and worked, um, have been contaminated by really dangerous amounts of carcinogenic chemicals that don't break down once they enter the environment called PFAS or forever chemicals.

So this is a story about my family's desperate attempt to save my dad's life. But it's also about this environmental context that we had no idea about and sort of, you know, I think doing what a lot of us do as we, uh, become adults, we, we, you know, try to make sense of a past that didn't make any sense at the time.

Zibby: And the environmental element to the story was just the, like, the, the, the straw that broke the camel's back, you know, that this could have been prevented and then to extrapolate and think, Oh my gosh, how many families. Went through exactly what you were going through with this 38 year old dad. I mean, she was so young.

Kathleen: Yes. Yes. I know. I'm, I'm 39. And in that age, I was talking to my aunt, my dad's sister, who was really instrumental. And she's a character in the book. And she was very instrumental in me kind of finding this larger context of my dad's life and story. And I said to her the other day, The older I get, the younger he gets, he just turned 70.

And she said, tell me about it. You know, yeah, it was, that was part of what was shocking was that he was 38. I was 12 and our, my youngest sister at the time of his diagnosis was just one year old, you know, this was not. How he saw his life going and you're right that, you know, part of the really overwhelming at times and troubling part of the PFAS story is that we, I mean, this is, you know, there's a lot of more coverage of this now, but there are millions of people living in the U.S. who have been exposed unknowingly. PFAS that have been released into the environment with impunity. And so there's, you know, there, there's a lot of work to be done, address the issue. 

Zibby: So one thing that you did in the writing was from time to time, you would take your dad's perspective, even though it was a memoir, right?

So you have scenes like where he is looking at himself in the mirror at his, at your grandparents house and reflecting on. You know, why is he bleeding and, you know, what are these symptoms? Could he keep ignoring them and realizing that, you know, his His sometimes even verging on, you know, husky, if he didn't watch it body was actually for the first time thin and realizing, Oh my gosh, I think something's actually wrong with me.

And you're not even in that moment. Like that's just a moment with him himself, like, and yet it becomes a piece of the narrative that deepens sort of all of the suspense, because even though you tell it from you as a child, there are so many scenes where we have this sort of. older person's narrative and, you know, different viewpoints.

So talk a little bit about that. 

Kathleen: Yeah. Oh, I'm so glad you asked about that. So, you know, one of the challenges of writing about him is that, uh, he had been gone 19 years when I started this book, it's now been 25 years and I wanted to The reality of his life. You know, I think sometimes grief can create a sort of glowing nostalgia around a person.

They can take on sort of mythic proportions. And my dad's. Did he was, you know, talked about as almost like an angel, um, and he, and he was a very gentle, kind person, but, um, certainly had his flaws, but one of the ways of, of exploring him on the page was. I thought, I became so curious about just the reality of living in his physical body and what was it like for him to feel physically and witness in all the ways we are aware of our own bodies, the changes that were happening, even as he was claiming, God is going to heal me and I'm not dying, which was the dissonance.

That he was living in because of the way my family had decided to pursue like this idea, honestly, of a literal miracle. So, you know, I don't know about you, um, Zibi, but when you have a family, sometimes the only private place you can find is a bathroom. When I was, you know, I have a two year old now and, and I was the oldest of the, all those five kids.

And, you know, sometimes my only, the only alone time anyone in our house had. Was in a bathroom if you're lucky, you know, the toddler didn't follow you in. And so I, I wanted to, I thought, what, what were those moments in the bathroom? Like for him, where he had to face the symptoms of his cancer and look in the mirror and see the changes that were happening.

What did he tell himself in the privacy? when he didn't need to be strong for my mom or for my siblings and me. And I gave myself the creative license that a fiction writer gives themselves to use the imaginative act of storytelling to empathize with my father, to think about it. And I definitely let the reader know, you know, this is something I'm imagining, but I felt that it was one of the Ways I could honor the texture of him actually having been alive and not just this golden boy memory was Physicality of being alive and inhabiting a body and I am I'm just I'm just thinking about those ways we are in private where the contradictions we hold can really surface and I I think that I Can't help but think that must have been happening there and my his sister You Told me that occasionally he would call her privately while he was looking in the mirror and say, you know, I can see that I'm changing.

So that helped to give me a window into exploring that, you know, even though I can't verify that's, you know, exactly what was going through. 

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you had one passage where you say that until you wrote about it, You hadn't even thought about it. And this is the whole codeine scene, which I know is just very powerful for you and everything.

Can I just read these two paragraphs? Is that okay? 

Kathleen: Oh, I'd be honored. Thank you. 

Zibby: You wrote, I will never know if my father took the codeine again. I hope that he did, though when I think back, remembering signs of his physical discomfort, I doubt it. The answer is locked within the privacy of my parents marriage, where I wish the question had stayed from the start.

Within an hour of my calling her, that wretched afternoon, my mother came home. I remember seeing her stand next to Dad, and I can recall the two of them murmuring together, my father nodding wanly, though who was reassuring whom is unclear. As adults, my sister Carson admitted to me that in her memory, Mom once told her that Dad asked her to hide the codeine from him, knowing his temptation would become too great.

The two versions don't seem irreconcilable to me. Twenty years passed before I could put language to that afternoon. My shame has been so great. I was at work on this memoir for a year before I could write about it. I can look back now and see that denying my father relief from his pain was an inevitable consequence of my beliefs at the time, though this recognition offers little comfort to me now.

It is ironic, though, that by completing a test of my faith without wavering, I felt the first cracks in my identity as an evangelical Christian, though the fissures were subtle and the breach would widen slowly over time. When my father was not healed that afternoon, I began to view the reality of my situation with dual vision.

Seeing that he was dying allowed me to recognize he was full of life. I should have been filled with fear, but instead I felt, for the first time in a year, the comfort of my father's presence. Though I continued to speak the script of healing as needed, mystery found room next to certainty. Oh, so good.

Thank you for sharing that passage. So good. So interestingly, not only did you decide to put this in, and you can talk about the scene with Cody and why this was, you know, a point of shame for you, but then you reflect in the memoir itself about thinking about it in the memoir in this, in this very sort of meta moment.

Talk about both sides of that. 

Kathleen: Yes, I will. You know, I think that, I think it was Freud that said that, you know, when in dream interpretation, the interpretation that you most resist is the one that holds the most truth. And this memory around denying my father coding, because I loved him, you know, he was my safe person.

We had a good connection. One of the things that filled me with a kind of terror about this story and about myself was the ways in which there are moments of, of tenderness in the story, but there's also, there are also moments where we see people denying the people they love the most. Acknowledgement of what they're going through and relief from their pain.

And so like, you know, the passage that you just read, I can, what I believed, what we believed was that the cancer, the cancerous symptoms were actually symptoms of like a spiritual test and that we just had to face. and deny them and it would, it would save his life. So I was, as I wrote the story, I could feel the gravitational pull.

Absolutely. The narrative was heading toward this moment that I Least wanted to go. I, this is the place I least wanted to go. And then, as I say, it took me such a long time to write or to even talk about, but it was crucial. It was crucial for making sense of what, what was happening at that time. And it also like, just, it happened, you know, it was, it happened and it belonged in the story.

That was part of my contract in honesty. Embarking on this memoir in the first place was being willing to go anywhere it took me. So, the meta sort of quality, that reflective quality, the most interesting tension to me in any memoir is the tension between the past and the present. I, uh, you know, I'll read something that has the most dramatic material.

But what I'm looking for is that tension and I'll read quiet memoir. And I, that's what I want is that they want to know, how are you making sense of the past in the early drafts of writing this, I didn't have the reflection. I just had to write the scene and spend kind of some, you know, sit in it, see how long I could sit in it.

And with each sort of I revise a lot. And so in each sort of revision, I'd expand the scene more and more for me revision and for a lot of writers. It's a process of discovery. So it wasn't until I got that coding chapter fully on the page that I could even know what to reflect upon. Oh, so that reflection came in really much later in the writing process.

And it was not a reflection that would make everything that happened, okay, and easy to live with. And it was my editor, the brilliant Casey Cottrell, who, who invited me further, he said, you know, can you talk about what this memory means to you now, because I was only doing that at very key moments and then a little more.

So not only did I sort of flinch at writing the original memory, I was really uncertain of where, What the reflection would be, but that's what that's, that's what the page is there for. And uncertainty is part of memoir, you know, we don't have to write, we don't have to write with certainty, um, you know, so, so yeah, that's how I thought about that part.

Zibby: Another piece of the story that I was struck by continually is how much responsibility you were given at such a young age for all of your siblings and when your parents had to go to the hospital for the diagnosis and when they were in the NICU with your sister and just all these periods of time when they're like, okay, you're in charge age 11, you know, like, oh my gosh, you guys here, like my, I have a 10 year old.

I'm like, yeah. Asking me for cheerios. I'm like, seriously, like, get your own. I'm not getting you cheerios anymore. That is, I'm laying down the law. You can do that yourself. And you are taking care of an army of, of children and, and they're not listening to you. And you're so frustrated and you're just like, I can't.

And you keep calling the NICU to be like, Ratting on your siblings because you're a kid. So the contrast of, of that. And like putting such an out sized responsibility on someone so young and bearing the weight of that, and then also contending with the fear and, and, and. unknown of all the big deal grown up things that were first in the hospital and then literally brought into your home in a way where you experienced it so much that your sister became a nurse.

I mean, it's a lot. I mean, how do you, how do you, how do you, how do you think about that now? And I know you, you reflect on it in the book, but. You know, now you have a kid. Like, how are you thinking about that? 

Kathleen: Oh, wow. Well, I'm going to be completely honest. Having a kid at the age of 36 and actually being his mother has been a lot easier.

Zibby: Watching five kids at age 11. I can't imagine why. 

Kathleen: No, uh, you know, there was just It was so interesting. I felt, and I know, you know, talking with so many women who have kids or, or care for someone else, I know that this is not a unique feeling I felt. Like I was failing at every turn as an 11 year old and 12 year old with, with my siblings in terms of just, because I wasn't their mother.

And, you know, I now know that even if I had been, they wouldn't have listened to me, but at the time, and it was, there was no way to succeed. There was no way to. Give them everything that they needed. And before I had my, my son, I started to feel a lot of fear. The failure that had, that I had experienced as having such a large caretaking role in my siblings lives extended into what kind of mom am I going to be?

And it was really strange. It was like, I had this thought, like, I'm going to fail again. I now know like that accompanies motherhood, this fear of failure, this. Endless and bottomless love for another person that it, again, it goes back to this theme in a way of like, how can we love someone so, so much and still be inadequate in moments for them?

And that to me, this is one of the conundrums of, of motherhood, but I felt it pretty early. With my siblings that said they were the best part of my childhood to, we were friends. I had just, you know, three sisters and a brother and we played together. We also seriously bonded and we lived as a kind of by comparison with some isolated life, you know, we were all homeschooled and we learned everything together.

Writing about them in this book was such a joy. I loved remembering, I laughed thinking about my sister, who's two years younger than me, telling me she was not going to help set the table. Because and only because I asked her to, you know, and I loved remembering what it felt like to sleep next to them at night, their warm bodies.

So it was really, it's really been an, it was really interesting to kind of hold the fact that this was a, it was hard and I, I wouldn't raise my kid this way. And yet some of the most sacred, beautiful memories I have. are from the closeness and care we had for one another, you know? 

Zibby: What has happened in your life between then and now?

I mean, there's kind of some blank spaces, you know, in the narrative. So what happened after, you know, in the, I mean, in the immediate aftermath, I feel like we get a glimpse but what did you end up doing? 

Kathleen: There's such, I mean, there's a, there's such a, that's such a good question. And the original manuscript actually went several years beyond the point where my father passes away.

As you say, I have like this epilogue that leaps forward to the present day and I try to catch people up to speed. To an extent, but there is, you know, I do think that the story raises this question of what's going to happen to this family now, it doesn't feel auspicious, you know, feels it there's, um, what does a family do when they have completely built themselves around a belief system and that thing they were believing for.

Doesn't come through. So I am working on the next memoir that is about that aftermath about grief. What it did to my family. You know, that there's a, the first line of the last chapter is when does faith turn to grief, it's thinking about that. It was hard, you know, the, we, we clung to each other. My, I, like I said, I'm the age that my.

Dad was when he died. I'm the age that my mom was when she became a widow with five children and she lost the love of her life. And, you know, I was traveling with my two year old and his dad couldn't come. And he kept asking, where's, where's dad. And I thought so much about my mom, the grief, it was an unbelievable blow.

So, and, and just like in this story, there were moments, I think, Profundity and there were moments of, of, uh, of brutality. I know that's a little vague, but that's, that's sort of what happened. We're all in touch now. We love each other. We have varying degrees of relationships to the past. I left West Texas when I was 25 years old for graduate school.

My sisters felt like I was abandoning them. I felt like I was abandoning them. And that was at the age of 25. I mean, the, the, the bond. It was complicated, but very strong. I will say this, my father has felt closer in the last six years of working on this book than in the 19 years prior.

Zibby: So you left West Texas, you went to grad school for writing, I'm assuming.

And then what did you do? 

Kathleen: I went back to Texas. Okay. I was homesick. And I thought, you know, I thought I, you know, to evoke a cliche, I thought I could go back. So I moved back to West Texas. I moved back to Lubbock. There was a man in my life at the time that gave me a good reason to do so. But the reasons were way more complicated than just a bad relationship.

They were, they were, um, They were about, that was the beginning of kind of sort of feeling the true severing of my present self from my past self. And when I moved back to West Texas, I felt like I was inhabiting the ghost town of my childhood, if that makes sense. I could like, I could remember parts of myself that were attached to different places, but I myself Was changed to some extent.

I didn't feel that I belonged there in the same way. I still think of it as home, but yeah, and then in a purely practical sense, I lived there for two years, met the person who is my husband now. And then we moved to Chicago and we've been there for eight years writing and starting a family together.

Zibby: Well, I could talk to you all day about this book. There's so much. I feel like we just scratched the surface and, you know, congratulations on writing it. I hope it was helpful for you. It's going to help a lot of people. I didn't, I couldn't find you on Instagram, but I, there is a book. By Genevieve Kingston about losing her mother at age 11.

And I want to put the two of you in conversation together because you have very different perspectives, but both had to deal with terminally ill parents. And it sounds like a walloping good time, but I really do think it would be an interesting conversation that the two of you would have. 

Kathleen: I would love to be in touch with her.

Um, you know, I, I think it's amazing. I know you've been experiencing this with your movement through the world, that the way that when you tell a story, You hear other people's stories. Our stories start to resonate together and form a more complete picture. And that's the power of it. So yeah, I would, I would love to meet her.

And then I'm at the quiet wildlife. That's my Instagram handle. Yes. Yes. 

Zibby: All right. I will find you. All right. Well, thank you so much. And we'll be in touch.

Kathleen: Thank you so much. 

Zibby: All right. Bye. Bye.

Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn, LOOSE OF EARTH

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