Wed July 10, 2013
'Blue Plate Special': A Generous Helping Of Life
Originally published on Wed July 10, 2013 2:56 pm
When novelist Kate Christensen was just a toddler, she witnessed her father beating her mother. It was a scene that would haunt Christensen for decades.
And so it's with a description of that morning that she chooses to begin her memoir Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. The book that unfolds is an examination of the reverberations of her father's violence in her life, and a meditation on how her love of food helped her cope.
As a child, she tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, she refused to identify with her mother in the scenario.
"I didn't want to be the person who got beaten up," she confesses. It was a coping mechanism, she says, a psychological distancing tactic with which a young child protected herself.
That unwillingness to accept her own vulnerability, however, served her poorly as she grew older, and the memoir chronicles her struggles to come to terms with her family and with others as she pursued a writing career.
Christensen, the author of six novels and a food writer for the Wall Street Journal with a personal blog, weaves recipes into the memoir. They're prompted, often as not, by vivid memories from her past. She even recalls the eggs she was eating that morning when she watched her father attack her mother.
On exposing her father's abuse
"I remember looking up at the group of grownups [at a dinner party], and feeling an upwelling of anger at my father. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I don't even know where it came from, what caused me to blurt out, 'My father hit my mother and she cried,' to the group.
"And there was a silence, and my father was ashen, and there was a sort of collective in-drawing of breath from the people in the group, and I realized that was just not cool, what I had just said. And on the way home my father yelled at me for it, and said, 'Don't ever do that again! Don't ever say something like that in front of my friends! You just really embarrassed me, and everyone was horrified and you should never do that again.'
"And my feeling wasn't righteousness or pride in having told the truth, it was horror that I had committed such a faux pas, and that if things like that happened you just weren't supposed to talk about them. And you certainly weren't supposed to announce it at a dinner party."
On being molested by a high-school teacher
"When you say I was a victim I say, 'Was I?' I don't really identify that way. I see it as, I was a young girl far from home, and this man, he liked to paw me, repeatedly. But ... I didn't allow myself to be upset by it. I didn't allow myself to really feel the full extent of the rage that might've been a more appropriate response than the passivity and the silence that I met it with."
On the narrator of her novel In the Drink
"I wrote the book to sort of right an imbalance, to sort of get my own back after being so humiliated in [a] job. I found humiliation a great goad and a great source of inspiration for writing my first novel — to sort of reassert my own pride and my own sense of self in writing this novel.
"But what the editor seemed to object to was that Claudia [the narrator] was not a heroine. She was not a sort of scrappy, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of narrator that everyone seemed to want to read about. She seemed so willfully self-destructive, as was I in those days. So I sort of took this a bit personally, like, 'What do you mean you don't like her? I like her!' "
On becoming estranged from her father
"The last time I saw him I was at [school] in my mid-20s. And I have not seen him since then. Saying goodbye to him, I didn't realize I was never going to see him again. But I haven't, and it seemed that part of my story and that part of my family was a door that closed."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest Kate Christensen writes about relationships and about food, and she's pretty good at it. Christensen has published six novels. Her fourth, "The Great Man," won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She writes an occasional drink column for the Wall Street Journal, and writes about food in her own blog.
Christensen's latest book tells her own story, growing up in Berkeley with a troubled father, moving with her mom and sisters to Arizona, and struggling to come to terms with her family and relationships as she pursues a writing career. Her love of food and its connection to her emotions is a recurring theme in the book.
Her memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." When we spoke, I asked her to begin with a reading.
KATE CHRISTENSEN: This is chapter one of the memoir, and it comes after an introduction in which I talk about my reasons for writing the book and refer to my lifelong obsession with food and food writing equally. And chapter one is called "Breakfast at McGee," which is the house in California where I was born and lived in the early part of my life.
(Reading) When I was a kid, on what passed for chilly mornings in Berkeley, my mother used to make my sisters and me soft-boiled eggs with pieces of buttered toast broken into them. We had egg cups, but we never used them. These soft-boiled eggs were so good, we'd lick the bowls clean.
(Reading) One such morning, when I was about two years old, my parents sat at the breakfast table with my baby sister, Susan, and me. The table was littered with cups and plates and bowls, eggshells and toast crumbs. The sun shone in the windows of the kitchen in our small bungalow on McGee Street in Berkeley. My father was about to walk out the front door to go somewhere - work, probably.
(Reading) My mother said in a high, plaintive voice, "Please stay and help me, Ralph. I just need some help. Don't leave yet."
(Reading) My father paused in the kitchen doorway, looking back at us all at the table. Something seemed to snap in his head. Instead of either walking out or staying to help my mother, he leaped at her and began punching her in a silent knot of rage. It went on for a while. He slammed his fist into her chest and stomach. He pulled her hair. He seemed to want to hurt her badly. She gasped with shock and tried to stop him, but he was much stronger than she was. Then he let her go abruptly and slammed out the door and left us there, the three of us. My baby sister was wailing. My mother picked her up out of her high chair and held her, weeping slow, silent tears, rocking back and forth. I remember being paralyzed with an inward, panicky terror, but I didn't cry, I'm sure of it. I just stared at the table, at the eggshells and toast crumbs, and then I looked at my mother.
DAVIES: Well, Kate Christensen, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write, right after describing this incident at breakfast, that you made a choice then about who you would identify with. Do you want to tell us about that?
CHRISTENSEN: I felt that I didn't want to be my mother. Obviously, if someone's doing the beating up and someone is being beaten up, it seemed to me, from a very early age - and I remember feeling this so clearly, that my father was - seemed to be - to me, when I was so young, to be the stronger one. And I felt an identity with him, anyway.
And I didn't understand his violence, and I didn't understand his meanness and his sudden rage at my mother. But I didn't want to be the person who got beaten up. And I think that it was a way of protecting myself as a very, very little kid, to identify with the person who was doing the beating up, even though it scared me. It was my way of sort of keeping myself safe from it by not identifying with my mother.
I thought: I will never be vulnerable. I will never ask for anything the way she has just asked for him to stay and help her. So I won't have needs, if that's what having needs means. And it wasn't a very effective plan, to put it mildly.
DAVIES: Which gives us an interesting memoir to follow. You know, you write then that you denied that part of you that was female, that you would try to be like some idealized version of a guy: tough, impermeable, ambitious, sexually aggressive, intolerant of weakness and vulnerability in yourself and everyone else. Is that something - when did you realize that, put that together?
CHRISTENSEN: I think I ran that about as far as it could be run.
CHRISTENSEN: There was - there's a scene towards the end of the book in which I relive that incident in a very, very visceral, powerful way. As my marriage is coming apart, and I'm - in that scene, I think I was 46 at that point. I'm 50 now, almost 51. So that was almost five years ago. And I think that was the moment at which I reconciled the fact that I was more like my mother, and I am female.
And this - I say in the book, describing this scene, a little later after the description, that he hit my mother, not me. So she's the one who was affected by it, not me. And that, of course, was not true at all. But it took me 44 more years to fully realize that.
DAVIES: Your mom herself is a fascinating story. She was, as you said, an accomplished person. I mean, she studied music, and she ends up in, you know, in California, where she meets your father, who was a radical lawyer. You're living in the Bay Area in the '60s. Do you remember what that was like? You were there until you were, what, about eight, I guess.
CHRISTENSEN: That's right.
DAVIES: I mean, what was life like then, and what impressions did it give you of adults?
CHRISTENSEN: It was such an exciting place, and I think I even knew it then. I was born in 1962, and we lived in the center of it all, in Berkeley, and my parents were politicos. My father represented Black Panthers and draft dodgers and conscientious objectors pro bono in court, and he was a Marxist. And he lived what he believed.
And we went to peace marches, People's Park when it was tear-gassed, when they rebuilt it. It was a really exciting time. And people came over to our house. My mother made spaghetti. They stayed up all night talking politics. I, however, was never political at all and saw it as - saw it through the lens of curiosity and what grownups were - I just thought all grownups were like that, bearded and wildly dressed with long hair and smoking pot and politically active.
So it was a real shock when we moved to Arizona when I was eight, in 1970, and I saw a whole other kind of population.
DAVIES: You know, this behavior by your father back in the '60s and '70s, I mean, this was, you know, the dawn of feminism. I mean, this can't have been cool among his radical friends. Did people know? Did they figure out what was going on?
CHRISTENSEN: Well, there was a night when I was visiting him, after third grade. It was the summer I turned nine. And I remember - I don't know how - if anyone knew. I don't think my mother ever talked about it to anyone, and we certainly didn't. But we were at a dinner party. I was visiting my father by myself, and he was living in Oakland.
And I was - I went with him to a dinner party with his political friends, and one guy was - I remember the peach burgers that he was making, and I was riveted by the combination of hamburger meat and peaches, which actually turned out to be delicious. But that's not part of the story, necessarily.
But I remember looking up at the group of grownups and feeling an upwelling of anger at my father, suddenly, out of nowhere. I don't even know where it came from or what caused me to blurt out: My father hit my mother and she cried, to the group. And there was a silence. And my father was ashen. And there was a sort of collective in-drawing of breath from all the people in the group, and I realized that was just not cool, what I had just said.
And on the way home, my father yelled at me for it, and said don't ever do that again. Don't ever say something like that in front of my friends. You just really embarrassed me, and everyone was horrified. And you just - you should never do that again. And my feeling wasn't righteousness or, you know, pride in having told the truth. It was horror that I had committed such a faux pas and that, you know, this - if things like that happened, you just weren't supposed to talk about them, and you certainly weren't supposed to announce it at a dinner party.
DAVIES: But he didn't say I didn't do it or - he didn't discuss it. Yeah.
CHRISTENSEN: No, no, but it - he didn't deny it, but nor did he address it.
DAVIES: And explain why you ended up in Arizona.
CHRISTENSEN: Well, my mother had been a cellist at Juilliard, and had left with a semester to go, realizing that she didn't want to be a concert cellist. She hated performing, which is a real drawback when you're a musician.
CHRISTENSEN: So, moved to Berkeley and met my father, and then in the course of their marriage, started taking psychology classes to figure out what was going on in their marriage. She knew there was something wrong, but she wasn't really sure what. So she started taking psychology at San Francisco State and became immersed in that, in the study of human psychology.
And after she left my father, she realized that she wanted to get a doctorate in psychology, and applied as a 30-something-year-old mother of three, divorced; she had just gotten her BA finally from Mills College. So there weren't a lot of schools in those days that were interested in not only accepting her, but giving her a stipend that she could live on.
And it turned out that Arizona State University in Tempe was the only one that did so. So we moved to Tempe in 1970, and she started studying psychology in the psych department there.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kate Christensen. Her new memoir is called "Blue Plate Special." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: You finished high school at a Waldorf school. Explain what a Waldorf school is. How would the curriculum and kind of the school differ from a traditional high school?
CHRISTENSEN: I think that it's much more classical, and the school that I went to had an extraordinary arts program. I think that's really part of the Waldorf curriculum. We sang kind of sophisticated choral music and played the Brandenburg Concerti in our orchestra and put on "King Lear" as seniors, and our creative writing class was with my teacher May Elliot(ph), who was my first mentor.
And, you know, we were doing - she was a great critic, and I feel like that's where I really started writing seriously and where I was really taken seriously and criticized as if it were a workshop setting.
DAVIES: You weren't very happy there, though.
CHRISTENSEN: I was very unhappy there. Part of it is that I was an adolescent, and I don't know that I would have been all that happy anywhere. (Laughing)
But part of it was, you know, it had to do with a number of things, one of which was that I was a stranger, and I was the new kid, and I was living with my English teacher and working for room and board instead of, as I had done all my life up until now, coming home from school, getting a snack, going in to read in my room until dinner was magically served by my mother.
Now I had to make dinner, and I had to babysit, and I had to clean the house. And so I was responsible in a way that I absolutely was not ready to be. I was very immature. I was probably about 11 emotionally, at 16. And all I wanted to do was sit and read and write in my journal and obsess about the boy I had a crush on and listen to Carole King's "Tapestry."
But instead, you know, I had to be very responsible. And since I wasn't really ready for this, she was - it's understandable that she was often not happy with me. So there was that friction.
DAVIES: And there was some very appalling behavior by some of the adults at the school.
CHRISTENSEN: Yes, when I think back to the '70s, to the late '70s in high school, and what it was like in that school and how the grownups acted and how the students acted, I feel like I was personally appalled. A lot of the teachers were sleeping with students. But the students - the student body in general, there wasn't a sort of outrage about it. And it seemed to be what was happening.
It was sort of trendy that the grownups were all having - I don't know if they're mid-life crises or if they just didn't have a sense of boundary that grownups are all expected to have now. And I think part of why they're expected to have them now is that all these stories are coming to light about schools in the '70s, one of which was mine.
But I now know that this was by no means unusual and that there was complicity on the part of everyone.
DAVIES: Well, I mean, you were a victim. I mean, this teacher repeatedly molested you, I mean not rape, I mean, but clothes were on, but it was - you know, there was contact that was, you know, utterly inappropriate, happened more than once, and you as a kid kind of were overwhelmed and couldn't resist.
CHRISTENSEN: Well again, it was that - it goes back to that first primal scene at the breakfast table with my father beating up my mother and deciding I was never going to be a victim. So when you say you were a victim, I think was I? I don't really identify that way. I see it as I was a young girl far from home, and this man, he liked to paw me - repeatedly.
But I didn't let it - see, I didn't allow it, and that was part of the problem. I didn't allow myself to be upset by it. I didn't allow myself to really feel the full extent of the rage that might have been a more appropriate response than the passivity and the silence that I met it with, in not - I didn't want to cause trouble. I was the new girl and far from home.
So I didn't - and it seemed to be what everyone was doing. So I, you know, I was 16 and naive and didn't - and I didn't speak up, and I didn't ever tell him to stop.
DAVIES: Right, but wasn't there a moment there where you told your mom, she told the school, and then nothing happened?
CHRISTENSEN: Yes, there was a moment when I finally broke down and told my mother. She was outraged. She went out there and talked to him and wrote a letter to the school, and nothing happened.
DAVIES: Do you think that was emotionally damaging to you? I mean, it's the kind of thing that today, I mean, the guy would be - spend years in prison for.
CHRISTENSEN: I know, I know. It was - it's so different now, and I'm glad it's so different because, I mean, I feel like adolescence is such a weird time. You feel like you should be more grownup than you are, and you try so hard to seem cool and grownup, at least I did. And I mean, so much of my energy was going toward acting like I had it all together when in fact I was falling apart on a daily basis and homesick and missing my mother and not ready to leave home at all.
And, I mean, the reason I left was to get an education because the school that was going to in Arizona just didn't feel like enough for me. So, I mean, I needed to leave, and I'm glad I did in that sense, and it was a wonderful school in many ways. But that part of it, I feel again like so much of what happened in the course of my life and so much of I think what this book is about is that I wasn't able to navigate things in the moment directly. And that caused a lot of trouble into my 40s.
The fact that I wasn't fully cognizant of my own vulnerability, and I wasn't in control of my appetites in subsequent years because of that.
DAVIES: And do you trace that back to your father's abuse of your mom?
CHRISTENSEN: I really can't - I can't escape feeling that there is, there was something set in motion by his violence in me. And it wasn't just the violence. It was also my refusal to feel that it had anything to do with me.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kate Christensen. Her new memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." A lot of the memoir is about your time in New York. When you went to New York, you had a lot of jobs, some of them interesting, some of them not so interesting.
DAVIES: That allowed you to write. One of them was you were a personal assistant to this woman that lived in a nice place on the East Side. Tell us about her and what you did for her.
CHRISTENSEN: She was a countess, and she had a...
DAVIES: A real countess?
CHRISTENSEN: She was a real - well, she had married a count, which made her a countess. She was American-born. And I was her personal secretary. And I would show up at 1 o'clock every weekday in my terrible outfits and probably hungover from the night before, having been out drinking and listening to music until all hours. So I would show up in a sort of - in a whirlwind of nerves because she scared the hell out of me.
And there would be a list of things for me to do on the dining room table. So I would set up my little office. And then she would blow in, very glamorous, very sort of raven black hair, impeccably dressed, very chic, and, you know, make sure I was doing it all right. And then she would dash out again and leave me in a sort of, you know, quaking puddle of fear.
And I was a terrible personal secretary in those days. I had no idea what I was doing. But the job was fascinating. I was fascinated by her. And she and I were sort of like two birds of totally different species, kind of I was the drab little brown sort of tree bird, and she was the glamorous bird of, you know, iridescent plumage and a sharp beak and talons.
And every now and then she would sort of attack me. (Laughing) It was a fascinating job, and it was the job that inspired my first novel, "In the Drink," which is loosely based on that job.
DAVIES: And what were your tasks for this woman?
CHRISTENSEN: Well, there were two sets - my job consisted of two very different personae. And the first was the meek little personal secretary who was constantly screwing up. And the second was the person who helped her write her books. And she wrote spy memoirs, and she hired me, in part, because I had an MFA from Iowa. And so she knew that I was a writer, and so I could sort of help her.
When I wasn't doing the secretarial part of my job, I could generate scenes that we had talked about and I could edit scenes that she had written, and that part of the job I absolutely loved. I thought it was so much fun and so entertaining, and her life was so colorful and entertaining. So that's what kept me working for her, and that is the relationship that we had that worked.
That was when I got her approval and delighted her, and we sort of were in collusion, as opposed to the other part of the job, which was this terrible power struggle that humiliated me on an hourly basis.
DAVIES: Kate Christensen will be back in the second half of the show. Her memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with novelist Kate Christensen, who's written a memoir called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." The book deals with her sometimes troubled, but always interesting family life and struggling to become a writer.
When we left off, she was telling us about one of her early jobs in New York, working as a personal secretary to a wealthy countess who wrote spy memoirs. She says the experience - interesting and at time humiliating - was in part the basis for her first novel, "In the Drink."
You tell us an interesting story about trying to get it published, and the way editors reacted to the book and to its narrator. Tell us about that.
CHRISTENSEN: Well, it's about a woman who was very much like I was in those days, a rather hapless, debt-ridden, hard-drinking sort of down-at-heels, but well-educated and ambitious young woman who comes to New York to be a writer. So there's certainly an autobiographical component right there, off the bat. But the editors' problem with her - her name is Claudia Steiner - the editors...
DAVIES: She's the narrator, not the rich woman, right?
CHRISTENSEN: Right. Yes. She's the narrator. And I wrote the book to sort of right an imbalance, to sort of get my own back after being so humiliated in this job. And I found humiliation a great goad and a great source of inspiration for writing my first novel, to sort of reassert my own pride and my own sense of self in writing this novel. But what editors seemed to object to was that Claudia was not a heroine. She was not a sort of scrappy, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of narrator that everyone seemed to want to read about, instead of this, you know, she was - she seemed so willfully self-destructive, as was I in those days. And so I sort of took this a bit personally, like, what do you mean you don't like her? She's...
CHRISTENSEN: I like her. And I had two books in mind when I was writing "In the Drink." The first was Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim." And I thought I was writing a female version of "Lucky Jim," and it was something that I hadn't seen done before in literature. So I thought I was doing something exciting and new to sort of use this book, as many novelists do. I mean, I think a lot of us have a novel or a couple of novels that we have as a touchstone for novels that we're writing, and that was mine, along with "Jane Eyre," because Claudia seemed to me to be the negative Jane Eyre - like, the opposite, the dark Jane Eyre.
And so, with these two books in mind, I felt I was placing myself solidly in a literary tradition. But the book came out right on the heels of "Bridget Jones's Diary," with a whole bunch of other books that were very similar superficially, about young women living in the city, drinking too much, sleeping with the wrong guys, in jobs they hated. And so, of course, naturally, what could critics do but - besides lump them all together and call them chick-lit?
DAVIES: You know, we began with this horrific scene of you as a little girl watching your father beat up your mother over breakfast. They separated and divorced. Do you want to just say a little bit about the contact you've had with him since, and kind of what your relationship - if any - is today?
CHRISTENSEN: He disappeared from my life seemingly forever when I was - I think I was 11, maybe I was nine - in another cataclysmic scene of violence, which is described in the book. And it was hard to write these scenes and - but they're part of my story, so I did. And then he would - I would reappear in his life periodically. I think I saw him three more times. And the last time I saw him I was at Iowa in my mid-20s, and I have not seen him since then. And saying goodbye to him, I didn't realize that I was never going to see him again. But I haven't, and it seemed that that part of my story and that part of my family was a sort of door that closed.
DAVIES: You close the book by wishing - silently wishing him a happy birthday.
CHRISTENSEN: Wherever he was.
DAVIES: So you've...
CHRISTENSEN: And - I think...
DAVIES: Yeah. So how do you feel about him today?
CHRISTENSEN: You know, I don't know him. He's a total mystery to me, this man who I adored so much as a little girl and who so shaped my life and that of my sisters and my mother. And my memories of him seem so far away and so sort of - so sort of vague. And it's so strange to have a parent that you don't know, who's still alive. I don't have strong feelings about him anymore. My life has gone on, and I've lived half a century and I haven't seen him in a quarter century. So almost my whole adult life, I have had no contact, and he hasn't been part of it. And, you know, it's a sad schism to me, because any schism is, and especially when it's a parent. But it's not anything I think a lot about anymore. I certainly thought about it in writing this book, but I think much more about my mother, of course, who I'm very close to and am in frequent contact with, and also my sisters.
DAVIES: Well, Kate Christensen, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
CHRISTENSEN: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure talking to you.
DAVIES: Kate Christensen's memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.