Author Rex Ogle returns to discuss his second memoir, Punching Bag, which is a follow-up to his debut memoir, Free Lunch. Rex and Zibby talk about the moments in Rex’s childhood that ended up being so significant as he grew older, why his abusive past is important to talk about even though doing so is often painful, and the ways in which he is trying to reach kids who might be in similar situations today. Rex also shares the book he’s working on next about his grandmother who remains such a powerful force in his life.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rex. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Punching Bag.

Rex Ogle: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Actually, I’m holding this up, but I have another copy of it somewhere. Sorry, I’m holding up the galley. That’s the one I was reading. As you know, I was such a huge fan of Free Lunch when it came out, along with a lot of other people, of course, because it was beautiful and poignant and moving and all the rest. Punching Bag is the next phase of your life and your past and how you got through so much of it. What is it like writing your way through these really painful moments? Why keep going back to it? Why the continuation? Not a continuation, but why keep going from Free Lunch? Why another volume, essentially?

Rex: That’s a good question. With Free Lunch, I felt there was such an important need to talk about living and growing up in poverty. It was really important. It was hard to write, but it felt necessary. With Punching Bag, it actually came out of Free Lunch. Free Lunch was originally about twice the length. When I was writing Free Lunch, I kept coming back to my sister. My publisher and my editor basically said, “This is such an important story. It doesn’t feel like it goes in Free Lunch. It feels like it deserves its own space.” I agreed to it not realizing how much more painful it would be to write. Free Lunch was difficult. Punching Bag was probably ten times as hard. With Free Lunch, I’ve done school visits. I’ve gone to libraries. I’ve met so many people who reached out and said, thank you for writing the book. That helped me through the darker times of writing Punching Bag because it certainly was not an easy book to write.

Zibby: Wow. You wrote at the beginning how it might be triggering for some people. There was sort of a word of warning. Why include that?

Rex: I talked about it with my publisher. Again, it was one of those things that, it just felt — there’s a lot that happens in the book. There’s a lot that’s really heavy. We wanted people to kind of know what they were getting themselves into ahead of time. He came up with the idea. I was one hundred percent on board. I thought it was a good idea because it’s not an easy book to sit down and read.

Zibby: No, but so powerful. Isn’t that one of the goals of a book? For me at least, it’s the ability to create such an intense feeling. I could be going through my day. Then I sit down to read a few pages of your book, and I’m immediately horrified, engrossed. I feel so bad for you and all the stuff that you went through and yet at the same time so impressed that you’ve overcome all of this. Even, Rex, at the end, your afterword — can I read part of this?

Rex: Yeah, absolutely.

Zibby: I guess it’s not a plot spoiler that you survive because here we are talking. In the afterword, you wrote, “I survived. Repeating that is good. It’s important to remind yourself after something truly awful has happened to you that you are still alive, that you are still kicking, that you can keep going, that you survived. We are all survivors. We all have a past. We all have tragedy in our lives. We all have dark moments that we want to forget or, at the very least, forgive, and forgiveness is important.” Then you went on to explain some of your decisions in terms of forgiveness and various people in your family. You say, “As it hard it was, I chose to let go of toxic relationships and focus on positive connections. I have new friends, new family, a new partner, and a good life. I am learning to be happy. I am telling you all this because I want you to know, again, that I survived and that whatever you’ve gone through, you’ve survived it to be here in the present now, but if you’re anything like me, you’re carrying a lot of pain. My advice, let it go. Let the past be the past. Move forward,” which is so beautiful and inspiring. How do you really move forward from this? How?

Rex: For me, it’s been a lot of therapy. I’m on anti-depressants. I still deal with anxiety and depression every day. I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not easy. Even this morning, I woke up and I was just — it’s a little gray here in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I had to just push myself to get out of bed and remind myself that it’s going to be a nice day even if it’s cloudy and just to stay positive. It’s not something that comes naturally to me. I think that a lot of people struggle with staying positive. It’s not easy, but I put in the work. I think putting in the work is so important.

Zibby: I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning either, if it makes you feel any better. I think there are a lot of people who could relate to that feeling. The amount of violence that you not only witnessed, but were the recipient of, there’s two pieces to it. One is watching the violence between your stepfather and your mom. Another is when you were caught in the crossfire so many times or the subject of it yourself in so many ways. It’s your own pain, but it’s also what you saw. There’s two pieces to it. Is it worth even teasing them apart, or is it all just one big thing to you? Do you know what I mean?

Rex: I feel like they were separate instances because witnessing it happening to my mom made me feel so helpless and so powerless. Then also, receiving it kind of did the same thing, just in a different way. For me, looking back, it’s just such a hard thing to deal with. I can’t even wrap my head around it sometimes. It feels like it happened to a different person, but it so viscerally happened to me.

Zibby: All right, bad question.

Rex: It’s not a bad question. It’s one of those things where as I recall it, it’s just so visceral. It’s not one of those things that I’ll ever be able to forget.

Zibby: As I was reading, I kept sort of hoping you would be saved, that somebody was going to swoop in and it would all end and everything would be great and whatever. The one scene where the police came towards the beginning, you had just moved. I guess your new neighbors must have heard the violence and reported it. They came. There was that moment with you and the cop crouching down — at least, that’s how I remember it — looking into your eyes and you thinking, should I say something? and then being like, no, I can’t leave my brother. What would happen if I said something? That decision right then, I felt like that was such a turning point. You were like, I’m in it. I’m in it because we’re a unit. This is just how it has to be. I wondered, what if? At these different turning points, is that how you look back? I’m sorry, we can change the topic on this gray day and try to make it more happy.

Rex: No, not at all. talk about the book. Even as a little kid, I had fantasies of being rescued by my real parents. I kept thinking, these aren’t my biological — or my mom. Obviously, I was with my stepdad. I kept hoping that secretly, I had a different mom somewhere and that she would come and rescue me. I also had dreams of going to live with my abuela, which I ended up doing. I moved out when I was sixteen and moved in with her to finish high school. It was one of those things where it was hard because I would see other kids at school dropped off by their parents. Their moms would give them a hug and a kiss. It instilled in me a sense of envy. I was just like, I want that. The truth is that you never know what other people are going through. For all I know, those kids were going through something similar.

That’s the thing. I’ve chatted with some of my friends who I went to high school with since the book came out. A few of them were like, we suspected. We knew. You came to school with bruises all the time. Then I had other friends who were like, I had no idea. You were always such a happy person. I was a clown. I was really putting on a show for people at school. I think I needed to fake until I make it. That was what I did back then. That’s still kind of what I do now. I put on a brave face, but inside, sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart. I think a lot of people do that. I know a lot of young moms who are dealing with that. My sister-in-law just had a baby. She’s struggling right now, but if you look at her Instagram, she looks like she’s having the best motherhood ever. It’s one of those things to keep in mind. It’s easy to think other people have a better life. Until you really engage with them, you don’t really know.

Zibby: That’s true. I also think what you’re lacking, there’s an extra spotlight that goes on that particular thing. Yes, they might have had something terrible going on at home, but you were so desperate for that hug that it became in marquee lights and Times Square type of thing because it’s what you were so lacking. It just was magnified. That’s the word. It becomes magnified. It’s true. That’s the crazy thing about people. We decide what to show, who and when, at any time. You can just, essentially, act. I went through a period of time where people were surprised to hear stuff that had happened. I’m like, well, that’s what I do. I could be crying an hour ago. Then I could be on the news, and I’m going to be fine. There are all these different parts of us that enable us to really navigate the world. I don’t know if they’re coping mechanisms. I don’t know what it is. You never know what’s going on behind closed doors, I guess is the point.

Rex: You really don’t.

Zibby: To put a more positive spin — I know this is such a dark place. I am hesitant to take you back into it. I know we’re here to talk about the book. It is powerful. It is raw and so, so worth reading for everybody out there. For anyone who hasn’t been involved in a family situation or hasn’t seen violence but has only heard about domestic violence in some way, this is so important. Your work is so important in aggregate to know the effect, what it looks like up close and the effect on the child. Of course, you’ve done the work, and here you are. It shouldn’t be taken lightly. Especially now with everybody being home, that was one of the things I thought about a lot in COVID during lockdown, in the beginning in particular. What about families where it’s not safe for kids to be locked in all the time? Did you feel like that at all back then too?

Rex: As soon as the quarantine started back two years ago, my heart started aching. I was like, there are kids who are now trapped in their homes with their abusers. If their parents are laid off, I can’t imagine. I thought it was bad, and I had the escape of school. School was a Monday-through-Friday escape that I got where I could go and feel like a normal kid or focus on educating myself, focus on reading, focus in on being social. It was an escape. When COVID started, I was just like, oh, god, there’s going to be so many kids who are stuck at home with these parents who are, I don’t want to call them monsters, but abusers. My heart breaks thinking about what that’s like. I really hope that these kids are having some outlet. I will say that there’s so many resources now. Kids have easy to access to Wi-Fi and internet and etc. Hopefully, they are taking advantage of those 1-800 numbers because I didn’t know stuff like that existed. Given, I was a kid thirty years ago. That stuff existed, but it was not easy to find. I’m hoping that kids are taking advantage of these resources that are out there.

Zibby: Have you thought about any way to prevent it? Are you involved with things to help other kids? Are there charities you like? Is there, aside from 800 numbers, anything you’ve clung to? What about people who want to help? What can you really do? What can we all really do?

Rex: I speak to so many schools and so many libraries. That is kind of my gateway to kids, reminding them that there are resources out there that they can take advantage of that are anonymous, that are free. Some of these kids just need someone to talk to. In visiting these Title 1 schools, I remind them, you need to take advantage. Please take advantage if you or someone you know is going through that. I talk to a lot of teachers and a lot of educators. They’re like, what do we do in these situations? I hate to say it, but I tell them to call child protective services. I had it called on my parents several times. Nothing came of it because it was Texas and it was thirty years ago. It is what it is. I still think that there’s generational violence. This is how some kids are raised because this is how their parents were raised, because this is how their grandparents were raised, because that’s how their great-grandparents were raised. It’s a generational thing passed down from generation to generation. People who are abused as kids are much more likely to abuse their kids. It’s a devastating fact that this is the truth not just in America, but in the whole world. I think it’s a silent thing that we don’t talk about. I encourage teachers and educators to use those resources and to reach out and try to be there for these kids going through this stuff.

Zibby: Have you done — you probably have and I just didn’t see. Have you done any videos of you talking just like this on YouTube, just to the child who’s out there, the young you type of person?

Rex: I haven’t because the discoverability is weird. I don’t know that people would be able to find it. Maybe I should. It’s one of those things where it feels arrogant for me to step out of my shoes and be like, oh, I should be doing this stuff. I know that the books give me a platform, and I should utilize that. It’s just — I don’t know. I’m like, who I am? I’m just a writer. I’m not a therapist or a psychologist. I’m a survivor. I guess that gives me a reason.

Zibby: I think you could just say that. Maybe I’ll just put this on YouTube, and there you go, with my swollen, red nose. Let’s just say one boy finds it. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Rex: Yeah, that would be.

Zibby: He’s like, oh, wow, if he got through it… Maybe that boy doesn’t have access. Maybe he can’t read that well. I know you have other ways. Maybe just in your spare time.

Rex: This makes me think I should do my homework and get on YouTube and see what is on there and see if there’s something that I can add to the conversation.

Zibby: Everybody has their own story. You’ve written it so beautifully. Maybe just get out there. Now you put that visual of the kid stuck at home and looking online only for help and not in the library because the library’s closed and they can’t afford books and all that.

Rex: It’s a fair point. I like this.

Zibby: You’re so good at talking. You’re so articulate. I’m not sure everybody is as comfortable being able to talk about it.

Rex: Being in therapy for the last twenty years helps. It was also one of those things where when I started writing, I didn’t want to write about this stuff. I was writing sci-fi and fantasy and scary novels. It was one of those things that I avoided like the plague. Upon writing Free Lunch, I realized that it is important to tell these stories. I need to take out that feeling of, who am I? Again, I do feel arrogant and I feel awkward talking about myself. Then I get so many emails and so many Instagram direct messages and I get so many Facebook people saying, I read this to my class. I read this to my son. I read this to my daughter. These people are thanking me for helping spread empathy and for talking about this stuff. There’s even a lot of librarians who reach out and say, I went through similar things when I was a kid. Thank you for writing this. It breaks my heart. At the same time, I think it’s important for these people to feel sane. As hard as these are to write, I’m glad that I wrote them.

Zibby: This is your homework on this gray day in LA when you don’t want to get out of bed. We’re going to get off. You just do a quick video to the kid. Just say, I’m a writer. I don’t feel like I have any right to do this, but I’m going to do it anyway. Maybe somebody out there will find it. Then if that one person writes you back, then you can write me and be like, it was all worth it. Okay?

Rex: Okay.

Zibby: Okay, fine. Anyway, so what else do you have going on? You have these two books out now. I know you’re always doing a thousand projects. What else is going on?

Rex: Right now, I’m working on something called Abuela, Don’t Forget Me, which is about my grandmother. If you’ve read my books, you know what a powerful force she was in my life. She was always there for me. She was a support system. She was always encouraging me to do better, to get out, go to college, etc. Both my parents are not great, but she’s always been amazing. Right now, she has dementia. It started a few years ago. It’s been getting worse and worse. She got COVID early on and went into a hospital for three weeks. This was at the very beginning of COVID. They put her in a room for three weeks by herself and basically locked her in there because she kept trying to escape. She didn’t know what was going on. She kept forgetting hospital. She didn’t know what COVID was. She declined really, really horribly. She’s just forgetting a lot. I try to visit her as often as I can. She’s down in Texas. Every time I see her, she’s a little more diminished. I’ve been writing down all the memories I have of her, but I’ve been writing it down in free verse because I wanted her to be able to sit down and read something very quickly and hopefully remember it.

I started it as something for her, but now I showed it to my editor. He’s like, “Let’s make this into a book.” It’s very much a love letter to her and to all grandmothers out there who help their grandchildren. I don’t know that there’s a lot of books about how great grandparents are. Even if your parents aren’t great, grandparents can really help change your life. That’s what I’m most proud of that I’m working on. Then I have a lot of other books that are graphic novels and prose that are fantasy. I’m very excited for those because it’s a little bit lighter fare. One of them’s called Supernatural Society. It’s about three kids who live in a town full of monsters, myths, magic, and mad science. Only they can see it, so it’s up to them to save the town. I have another graphic novel called Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms coming out. That takes the ballet and turns it into an action/adventure/fantasy. I’m working on a lot of books. They’re all so fun. It’s really great to get out of my head. The books that I’m writing under my own name that are facts, that are memoirs, those are the hardest, but in a way, they’re the most rewarding.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read the one about your abuela. You should take lots of pictures and stuff. I’m sure you are. I feel like you should put that in the book, her life.

Rex: I just sent a bunch of pictures to my editor the other day. I was like, “We have to include these in the back of the book.”

Zibby: All right, good. I actually talked to my editor of my memoir that’s coming out in July. I was like, “I think after this, I want to write about my grandmother.” She was like, “Okay, yeah. Let’s talk grandmother stories.” I was like, all right, put a pin in that. I had such a great relationship with my grandmother. She was so funny. She was such a character. I feel like the problem with me is I can’t remember. My memory is slipping so fast. Do you ever feel like that? I’m asking my husband all the time, I’m like, “Wait, I know she said something funny during that visit. What did she say at that dinner? Remember? What was it?” I’m like, how can I write more memoirs when I can’t remember anything anymore?

Rex: It’s one of those things. I feel like I’m dumber than I used to be. I used to have such a big vocabulary. Now I’m like, I don’t have a vocabulary anymore. COVID has been hard, too, because I feel like for two years, I wasn’t being as social as I used to be. That makes conversations hard. It’s just a weird time to be alive.

Zibby: You could start a podcast. You’d be talking all the time. I haven’t left my house much in two years, but I’ve had lots of conversations. There you go. Not to say my vocabulary is any great shape, but better than it would be, probably. Memory, I don’t know. I got nothing. What advice would you give? I know you’ve given this before, but I like to ask, especially after projects. Maybe advice to someone who’s trying to write something that’s really hard for them or they’ve been avoiding. How do you get them to go there?

Rex: That’s an awesome question. I would say, first of all, be easy on yourself. If you’re not in the right headspace, you’re not in the right headspace. There is something to be said about sitting down and forcing yourself to go through it. There were times when I didn’t feel like writing, but I was like, okay, I’m going to sit down and write. I’d give myself an hour. If I wasn’t productive, I would take a break. Then there were times when I’d be really depressed. I’d be like, you know what, this is the perfect mood to write it because I’m not going to get any worse than I am right now. I might as well just dive right in. Some of those were the best chapters because I was really pouring what I was feeling into the books, into the chapters. Then afterwards, sometimes I would have to have a good cry. Sometimes I would get outside and go for a run. Sometimes I would open up a bottle of wine and be like, okay, you can drink at least half of this. There was a lot of self-care involved. I think that’s really important not just in writing, but in everyday life. It’s so easy to forget to take care of yourself. It’s so important, especially if you’re busy, if you have a lot going on. It’s easy to be like, I’m going to put myself on the backburner. I’m going to focus on all these other things. Definitely, take care of yourself. When writing, just really focus on the important stuff. Make sure you address the five senses. I don’t want to do a Writing 101, but I would definitely say self-care.

Zibby: Amazing. This conversation, even if you don’t do your own YouTube thing, hopefully this will find someone who needs it out there, I’m hoping. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s so amazing. I have so much respect for you, seriously, in so many ways, all of it, the ability for you to write it down, the fact that you got through it all. You’ve had every disadvantage, from the withholding of maternal love, essentially, which is the most basic thing most human beings are given. That you come out of it helping other people, it’s really beautiful. It’s really amazing.

Rex: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Zibby: And that you’re such a great writer, which is awesome.

Rex: I’ll take it.

Zibby: All right, Rex, have a great day. I hope it turns around and that the sun comes out soon.

Rex: Feel better.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Rex: Buh-bye.



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