Sarah Polley, RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER: Confrontations with a Body of Memory

Sarah Polley, RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER: Confrontations with a Body of Memory

In celebration of movie director Sarah Polley and the two Oscar nominations she just received for her drama film Women Talking (Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay), we are re-releasing her podcast episode from last year! Zibby interviewed Sarah about her memoir Run Towards the Danger. Sarah shared how the title came from advice her doctor gave her as she treated a years-long concussion and why that experience shifted her entire approach to life. She also talked about the things her body has had to endure, why she is hesitant to let her daughter get into acting at such an early age, and the meticulous planning that went into the essay on her #MeToo experience.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory.

Sarah Polley: Thank you for having me. I love your podcast.

Zibby: Thank you. I appreciate that. Wow, your book, so good, so literary, so beautifully written. So much to discuss, everything from your Alice in Wonderland-themed stage fright moment at the beginning all the way to having your own children at the end, your family, child acting, your Me Too moment, so to speak. The way you dug into everything so deeply, it’s like you were doing a cat’s cradle. You were peeling back into every little detail of everything. It was really, really well-done.

Sarah: Thank you. I love that image. That’s what it felt like. It felt like a really complicated game with string that I could easily get tangled up in. It’s a good metaphor.

Zibby: Oh, good. Thank you. I kind of summarized some of it. How would you describe it? Let’s say somebody’s wondering what your book is about. How would you describe this? Why write it, particularly one of the essays which — although, I could hardly call it essay because it’s so meaty. You are open about the fact that you’ve been writing it and rewriting it and not being able to decide if you should tell it or not. Why now?

Sarah: If I was to describe the book to someone, I would say it’s a collection of six personal essays that are all through the lens of or a meditation on memory and how memories filter through us and the relationship between our past and our present selves and the way that pivotal moments, traumatic moments, momentous moments in our lives from the past can find these echoes in our present life — when they go a different and better way in the present, it can actually change our relationship — and on a molecular level, what those memories are and mean. I’ve always been aware that my past experiences have informed who I am now. I’ve certainly been in enough psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to understand that. For me, what became really interesting to explore and to discover was that my present life was also impacting my past life. It was this reciprocal relationship with the past and present we’re in. They could kind of push on and move each other. That felt like a big difference between how I used to think about memory and what it meant and how I view it and experience it now.

Zibby: Interesting. Then, of course, in one of the final scenes, you have a fire extinguisher fall on your head. Your whole relationship with the brain — the organ of memory itself becomes physically impaired. Then you have this awakening at the end. Now we have the book. It comes full circle.

Sarah: I think that the whole process of diving in and deciding this would be a book really came out of that experience. I had a serious concussion for three and a half years. There were times in there where I was functioning better than others, but I wasn’t myself, really, for three and a half years in terms of my ability to process things and function. I ended up finally recovering completely from the concussion through this amazing program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where the treatment was basically, not the opposite of everything I’d been told before, but certainly the opposite of a lot of what I’d been told and very different in tone from what I’d experienced in terms of various treatments I’d been through before. I had to, for the specific kind of concussion I had — I don’t want to give this as a prescription for everyone because I think he treats everybody differently. I had to charge towards the activities that were hurting my brain the most, so the things that gave me headaches, the things I was avoiding because I knew I couldn’t handle them, loud noises, a lot of activity, multitasking. The things that made me feel like I was going to have to go to bed for three days, I had to just keep doing. It was supported by a lot of specific physical and vestibular treatments and exercises to supporting charging into that kind of stimulus that was so aggravating for me.

The whole idea that to get better I had to do the things that were the hardest really did become this way of being in the world for me. It really shifted a paradigm in terms of how I’d been relating to my life. What came to mind for me as part of that process was, I have a lot of stories that I’ve half told or wanted to tell or written three quarters of or written a page of that I feel this burning urge to tell at some point in my life, but I’ve been too scared. If we’re talking about the brain responding well to running towards the danger, which is a quote — “Run towards the danger” is a quote from Dr. Micky Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — then why would that not apply to a whole bunch of other things as well? I went back to my computer and dug up these essays that I’d buried and decided to finish telling these stories that I was too scared to tell. I did find that it did alleviate a lot to do this. It was also excruciatingly hard, but really transformative.

Zibby: The essay in which you talk about your own sexual assault and you name the person, you go through what we don’t see a lot in the media, which is what goes into the calculus of whether or not to come forward. It’s not as simple as, I’m brave, I’m going to do it, or I’m not brave, or whatever. In your case, you got all this different advice which, as a new mom and a woman, you have to weigh, your personal life versus — what are you sacrificing? The most powerful one was the advice you got that it can make you almost want to take your own life at the end of it. Then you run into someone at the end. You were like, well, this is the advice I was given and why I didn’t do it. She was like, I wish I had been given that advice because I did come forward. I don’t want to monopolize the conversation with this because I bet this is going to draw lot of attention. I don’t know if you feel like talking about it or not. I found it incredibly intellectually interesting, the way you had to make that decision and all the inputs you got from all the lawyers and everybody, how you went through the process, but also, then how your body sort of metabolizes all of that and then move forward in the world, especially with the outcome of what ended up happening in the case. Respond.

Sarah: For me, I felt like what I could contribute at this late date having not come forward at the time to support those women, which obviously was a very, very complicated decision to make and one in which I was quite rigorous about — I consulted many, many lawyers. I talked to everyone I knew. I had a newborn baby. I had a two-year-old. Based on what I was told about how this would go down, I did not believe that I could handle it. What I felt, in writing this essay, I felt I could contribute was to shine a really harsh light and go into forensic detail about how and why women don’t come forward in these cases. I’m sure there are many listening to this right now who have made a similar decision. I think there are thousands and thousands and thousands of women. Far more women don’t come forward than do come forward. I wanted to give that voice and to look at what that looks like to weigh what kind of impact that can have on a life to make that decision.

Also, the way that people behave after an experience like this, the kind of interactions they might have with the person who is responsible for an experience like this can be really confusing to the outside eye. They’d certainly be confusing to judges and juries. I wanted to say everything. I wanted to cross-examine myself and go, this is how we look on a stand. This is how we look when we speak and have all of the embarrassing parts thrown back at us. There’s a lot of things that are really hard for people to process in terms of how people react after an experience like this. I just wanted to talk about what it means to stay silent, why someone might choose to do that, how it feels to have done that. This was the one I least wanted to put out into the world, but it felt like a burning ethical obligation for many, many years. It’ll be a complicated experience having it out in the world considering that I have kept it for many, many years. I’ve considered publishing this for many, many years at many different junctures. So here it is, I guess.

Zibby: So here it is. It was interesting how you, as you were just saying, in your examination of your behavior in the aftermath, how you were like, you know what? No, it didn’t make sense. I don’t know why I responded that way. I don’t know why I sent this email. I don’t know why I joked this way. So many people do that. You can’t predict, necessarily, the behavior. When you take the course of anyone’s dialogue, if you take it apart, you’d be like, what? Why did she do that? Normally, you don’t have every piece of communication with another person under a microscope. In this case, you have to. Sometimes you just want to deflect. By deflecting, it makes it seem like maybe you don’t care, but that’s not the case.

Sarah: Or people are trying to normalize things. People are behaving out of fear. That can come across as ingratiating or even flirty. I think that we can interpret things through a lens that doesn’t really fully understand trauma and the tremendous impact it has on behavior, and behavior that doesn’t make sense unless you understand trauma. I spent years thinking about every single word of this essay and exactly how to phrase it and talk about it and what I wanted to say. It is a hard one to talk about because I feel like one sentence could undo all of that careful work.

Zibby: We won’t even talk about it. Bravo for writing it.

Sarah: I also don’t want to avoid talking about it.

Zibby: You know what? I have a lot of respect for you for putting it out there and knowing, as you communicate there and now, how much thought went into it. Hang in there.

Sarah: Thank you.

Zibby: There really were so many things that happened to your body, not just the physical choking in that chapter, but your spine and how you had to correct that and the horrific surgery — oh, my gosh, that sounded really difficult — to straighten out your back and then your endometriosis and your placenta previa. You’ve had so much, and then the concussion too. Your body has gone through a lot. I’m wondering now as I’m looking, is this supposed to be the spine? Is that what the cover is?

Sarah: Yeah, it is.

Zibby: That’s so cool. You’re running towards the danger and trying to get it all out. Even your subtitle, maybe that’s why you talk about it as a body of memory, because you are — this is not some really astute observation, as I see in the subtitle, but it is all the things your personal body has gone through. Here they come in the written word. This whole movement of Your Body Keeps the Score and all of that, this is very of the moment. Talk to me about the relationship between your body and all of these traumas in many different ways and how you see it now.

Sarah: Again, I do think this treatment I went through for my concussion recovery was so pivotal for me because I feel really strong now. I feel like there’s a lot of energy moving through my body. I haven’t always felt like that. I’ve sort of been always waiting for, what is the next thing? I had really debilitating endometriosis for years and years. There was my spine. I’ve never felt like part of my body. I felt like there’s been my head and my brain, which is where I live, and then there’s this thing that hopefully won’t inconvenience me again too soon. We’ve been very separate. Again, in order to get my brain better, I had to move my body. I had to develop a connection with my body that I hadn’t had as much in the past. That’s a really exciting turning point for me, that we’re friends now. Yes, I’ve been through all of these things, but I do feel quite strong. I do think that any amount of pain that you have in your life is an opening and an invitation to and potentially a lesson in empathy, and I think physical pain maybe even more so. I do tend to find the more empathic people I meet are the ones who’ve been through the most. It also feels like a bit of a gift. I’ve been softened by these things. I’ve been strengthened by them, but I’ve also been softened by them. I think empathy is always a work in progress with all of us. I do feel like the point of life is connection with other people. I do think the things that have happened to me have been portals to that.

Zibby: That’s a beautiful way to say that, strengthened and softened. That’s cool. You also wrote about being a child actor and how many parents — you had some quote; let me see if I can find it — how they’re so quick to say, oh, no, but my son wants to do that. Then they don’t think about some of the ramifications of that. Oh, my gosh, and your mother too. Wait, hold on, let me find it. You said, “I’ve often been approached for advice by the parents of child actors as someone who came out of the experience successfully and therefore, evidence that it may be a good direction for their own child. As soon as I began to imply that the reason I came out of the experience without major addiction issues was sheer luck and privilege and that waiting until adulthood might be advisable for any profession or begin to recount some of the more damaging experiences I had as a child, I am met with combativeness, defensiveness, or a turning away. It has always given me a jolt to realize that most parents of child actors really don’t want to hear the truth from someone who has lived it. Only twice has this not been the case out of dozens of conversations with parents. The exchange usually goes something like this. ‘But he loves it so much. He wants to do it,’ to which I reply something like, ‘Yes, and lots of kids want to be firefighters or doctors too, but they must wait until they are no longer children to assume the pressures and obligations of adult work.’ It’s something our society made up its mind about a long time ago. Children shouldn’t work. Why this principle doesn’t apply to an industry known for its exploitation and self-serving nature bewilders me.”

Sarah: You’re really killing me softly by reading that back to me right now because I happen to have a child who’s desperate to be a child actor.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Sarah: Last night, I was like, how much longer can I withstand this pressure? I was like, okay, good, thank you for reminding me. I have a lot more empathy for the parents of child actors than I used to because I know what the pressure now feels like. Last night, I was given an ultimatum, which was basically — we’re resisting getting a dog as well. Eve, last night, was like, “You have a choice. We can get a dog, or I can be a child actor. You choose. Which would you choose if you had to choose? Is it the dog or the child actor?” I was like, “I guess it’s the dog.” I definitely feel, in all seriousness, that in general, this is not a great position to put a child in, to give them the pressures and obligations of an adult professional life. Now that I’ve had these conversations with my own kids so much, I’ve had to articulate it even more than I did in the book. They were so determined to visit me on set this summer while I was making a film. The only way we could with COVID rules was if they were background performers, so they kind of got their wish, which is to say they were suddenly on a set. It was interesting for me because I did have a bunch of kids in the background in a tiny part on this. I put every molecule of my being into making this a good experience for them. I think for the most part, they would probably say it was. I haven’t reconnected with all the kids yet. I tried to make it as much of a summer camp as I could.

The truth is, I could not control every aspect of that environment even as the filmmaker. Was it perfect? No. There probably were moments where they felt pressure. That’s someone who was traumatized by the impact of being a child actor putting all of their energy into it, and I still couldn’t make it what it probably should’ve been if it was designed around the experience of kids. It’s not an environment that’s designed for kids. It’s an adult professional environment that’s designed either to make something creative or to make a profit. A kid’s interests are never going to be the main interest in that environment. I can’t quite figure out why we would put kids in that position. At its best, it’s not great. At its worst, it’s really, really harmful. Kids are exposed to all kinds of things that we would rather protect them from. They’re with adults all day long who have no training or maybe even particular interest in being around children. It’s just sort of a ticking time bomb, I think, before a kid has a really hard experience. Even just the pressure alone of fifty to a hundred adults standing around making sure you get something right otherwise you delay their workday, again, that’s at its best. The experiences I had were extreme, but I think at its best, it’s still an enormous load to put on a child.

Zibby: What was the movie this summer?

Sarah: I made a movie called Women Talking, which is an adaptation of Miriam Toew’s novel.

Zibby: Awesome. Are you working on another movie now?

Sarah: I’m editing that one as we speak.

Zibby: Exciting. Wow. What do you like to read? You’re obviously a great writer, very articulate. You’re so thoughtful, so I’m curious about your reading stack.

Sarah: Thank you. I think the book I’ve loved the most over the last five years — I came to it really late — was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I’ve read more times than probably any other book. I love Middlemarch. I have been loving Deborah Levy’s essays recently. I think they’re amazing. Let me think. What else have I loved lately? I’m loving Matrix so much, by Lauren Groff.

Zibby: She was on this podcast.

Sarah: Was she? I didn’t get that episode. How did I miss that episode? When was that?

Zibby: I have to look. It was about Matrix. She was amazing.

Sarah: She’s just something else. I also love Florida, her book of short stories.

Zibby: I didn’t read Florida.

Sarah: Oh, my god, it’s so good.

Zibby: I know. I have to go — it was on September 8th, 2021. Not so long ago.

Sarah: Where are you? What part of the country are you in?

Zibby: I’m in New York. Where are you? Are you still in Canada?

Sarah: Yeah, I’m in Toronto.

Zibby: Awesome. My kids have said, for some reason, that’s the number-one on the wish list.

Sarah: Really?

Zibby: After China and Japan because I was like, “Well, that’s kind of far.” They were like, “Okay, how about Canada? That’s where we should go. Let’s go to Canada.” I’m like, “Okay, sure. Why not? It’s been a while.” With this book, what could happen that you’re going to be like, it was all worth it, or has that already happened, that moment?

Sarah: I love hearing other people’s stories. I think that if people feel that it resonates with some of their stories and I get to hear theirs back, that, for me, is all I could ever ask for. It happened with one film I made, with Stories We Tell. Usually, I don’t like the release of things. I like doing the things. I don’t like dealing with other people’s responses even if they’re positive. I remember the release of that film was one of the best experiences of my life because people would just come up to me and tell me their family histories. It was amazing. I would love that. Also, some of the things that I write about in this book are really intimate and vulnerable and difficult to talk about. If any of the essays make anyone feel a little bit like it’s easier to articulate words around some of their own experiences that might resonate, that would be a huge triumph. I just hope that it’s of service in some way.

Zibby: That’s so nice. Amazing. By the way, I couldn’t believe you were writing Little Women when this whole thing happened. Greta Gerwig ended up writing. I can’t believe it, oh, my gosh.

Sarah: She did such a great job, though. I have no regrets around it. She did such a great job. My kids love that movie.

Zibby: Mine too. Thank you. Thank you for this book. I really, really enjoyed it. It’s really well-done.

Sarah: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure.

Sarah: Good luck.

Zibby: You too.

Sarah: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sarah Polley, RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER: Confrontations with a Body of Memory

RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER: Confrontations with a Body of Memory by Sarah Polley

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