Making Sense of Trauma: The Millions Interviews Melanie Abrams

September 17, 2020 | 2 books mentioned 9 min read

The title of Melanie Abrams’s second novel, Meadowlark, evokes something peaceful, tranquil. From the first page, however, readers are thrown into a series of increasingly volatile scenarios. It soon becomes clear that the idea of tranquility, while indeed present in the novel, is always just out of reach, buried under the complexity of power, cults, motherhood, and childhood trauma. The tension in the book has an immediacy to it that might prompt most readers to speed along, riding the fast-paced narrative to its stirring climax. To do so, though, would risk missing an intricately layered tale that forces us to untangle trust from obligation, care from fear, and devotion from affection.

In her debut novel, Playing, Abrams tackled the lofty subject of kink and alternative sexuality with precision and subtlety. Here we get that same meticulous eye turned to the world of spiritual/communal life and alternative parenting.

I caught up with Abrams via Zoom, and our discussion, through its medium of isolation and social distance, felt very much attuned to the current chaos of the world around us.

coverThe Millions: In the novel, two of the main characters, Simrin and Arjun, grew up on a compound called Ananda. Throughout the book, the reader can’t help but think about what is or isn’t a cult. By the novel’s end, we may have an idea of what is, but we’re still unclear on what isn’t. Do you think of Ananda as a cult?

Melanie Abrams: I thought a lot about this both during the writing of the book and after, and I really struggled with what to call both Meadowlark and Ananda – cults, intentional communities, communes, counter-communities, and (specifically for Ananda) an “austere spiritual compound.” Labeling either of these communities as “cults” felt reductive and unnuanced, but there’s no doubt that some of the more nefarious aspects of cults are present in both.

I did a lot of research on cults and there’s agreement that a cult generally has three features: 1) a charismatic leader who eventually becomes the defining element of the group, 2) some sort of brainwashing that eventually leads to members doing things that aren’t in their best interest, and 3) economic or sexual exploitation by the leader or higher ups. By this definition, Ananda probably wasn’t a cult in the early days, and you can even see members actively resisting this definition when, post-Waco, the kids are “drilled to answer prying questions about their lifestyle with, ‘Ananda Nagar is not a cult. A cult maintains totalitarian control over its members and is led by a self-appointed leader who has complete authority.’” But by the time Simrin, Arjun, and Jaishri run away, it does seem to adhere pretty closely to the above definition of a cult.

TM: What kind of research did you do on cults to write this book? Were there any specific examples that you used in your writing?

MA: I’ve always been fascinated by cultish environments—from outright cults (like The People’s Temple) to intense self-improvement courses (like Lifespring) to fundamentalist religions (evangelical Christianity)—so being able to justify going down the rabbit hole of research in service to the book was incredibly fun (although, clearly, also painful).

Eventually, I narrowed my focus to cultish environments with either a large population of children or where children were somehow the focus of the ideology of the group. This took me all kinds of places. The saddest was probably researching The Children of God who believed sex with children was a divine right, but I also branched out into learning about more benign communities. Living in Northern California was great because we’re at the epicenter of where commune life began, so I was able to interview people who grew up on Adidam and Black Bear Ranch and hear about what it was like to be raised in these environments.

I also was interested in alternative ways of raising children, so I did a lot of research on families who subscribe to untraditional philosophies like unschooling, where children don’t go to school and instead let life be their teacher, or who believe in concepts like indigo children which is a New Age theory that believes some children possess supernatural abilities. You can definitely see these childrearing ideas at play in Meadowlark.

TM: And how was the novel shaped, or perhaps how did it change based on some of that research?

MA: When I talked to people who were raised on some of the Bay Area communes I mentioned, I was actually surprised to find most of these people had almost exclusively fond memories of their time growing up (or they were refusing to engage with the negative memories). I think this is partly why I was reluctant to make either Ananda or Meadowlark “too” bad, that and the fact that both communities grow out of a very altruistic place and only begin to devolve when the characters are about to leave.

I hope both communities come off as nuanced, but…I can’t ignore that my initial nuance was probably too nuanced. Ananda was always the strict spiritual compound that Simrin and Arjun bristle against, but in early drafts, it lacked the harsher punishments that are now in the book. Luckily, I had some fantastic readers, and both my agent and editor said, “yeah…you got to make this place worse.” Narrative-wise, it was just difficult for readers to understand why two teenagers would run away from the only world they’ve known without some kind of pretty significant inciting incident. And they were right. With students, I’m always talking about how whatever you write must be in service to the story. Characters need to want something and something has to be at stake. You can’t make a spiritual compound relatively bad and expect your main characters to want to get out. Not much is at stake if running away just earns some extra cleaning duties.

Likewise, I also have a habit of idealizing characters (at least in early drafts), and this happened with Arjun. He is a golden boy, and it was easy for me to see him exclusively through Simrin and Bethany’s rose-tinted glasses. Harder was seeing that in order for Simrin and Bethany to have the epiphanies they do and the narrative to really work, Arjun couldn’t just be misguided, but had to also be intentionally manipulative and narcissistic.

TM: For your first book, Playing, we did an interview that focused primarily on kink and sexuality. This book doesn’t touch on those subjects, or at least not in overt ways. But I wonder in what ways interpersonal power dynamics, similar to those in Playing, are still at work here.

MA: The novel I’m working on now is all about sex, drugs, and rock’n’ roll, so the more Dionysian elements will be back soon. But yes, I do think there are power dynamics at play in Meadowlark, and for those looking hard enough, even some pain/pleasure.

I hope Arjun is more nuanced than just being the charismatic power-hungry player at the center of the book, but he is definitely intoxicated by attention and spends much of the book either jockeying for or occupying a place of control. When he’s young, you can see him trying on what it feels like to be the “chosen one” and rejecting Simrin when she doesn’t tow the line. And, of course, as an adult, he’s very comfortable sacrificing a whole community of people so he can advance his agenda and stay in the spotlight. I think the difference in this book is that although the women surrounding him allow for some of his grandiosity, they are ultimately the ones who refuse to submit to his vanity. They are firmly in control, direct the narrative, and determine what happens to them, and Arjun.

And, maybe, I can never completely get away from the idea of pain and pleasure as cohorts. Ananda, the ashram Simrin and Arjun run away from as teenagers, hold this idea as a central tenet: “‘Pain and pleasure revolve like a wheel.’ If you didn’t like something, the grown-ups would say, wait patiently for the wheel to spin. They hadn’t liked a lot of things, but they had endured. Pain, then pleasure; pleasure, then pain.”

I’ve always been fascinated by this binary—whether in a sexual context or while moving through the world. We’re constantly moving from pain to pleasure and back again. Even motherhood travels fluidly on this pain/pleasure continuum, and you see this in the book. Simrin and Bethany were constantly hurt by their own mothers and are constantly trying to course correct with their own daughters. Sometimes they succeed, but the truth is there is always pain in being someone’s mother, and in being someone’s daughter. As well, I was really interested in exploring what it means to connect and disconnect which maybe exists on its own wheel—the pleasure of really knowing someone, of really feeling seen, and the pain of losing that.

TM: You have this really impactful way of positioning adages or aphorisms as both clichés and as deeper truths within the world of the characters. Simrin’s mother, in a scene that is both terribly sad and almost comical, says “to want is both to desire and to lack.” Do you think that balance of seriousness with something like absurdity plays a role in the way your characters develop?

MA: I’ve always loved writers who are able to capture both the tragedy and the comedy of life in their writing (think: the unrivaled Lorrie Moore), so I’ll happily take the compliment, but I think it has more to do with the idea of connection and disconnection, or feeling seen and feeling invisible. Simrin’s mother, the higher ups at Ananda, even Arjun espouse these very self-helpy truths. When Simrin’s mother says the above line, it’s ridiculous. She’s completely blind to Simrin and what Simrin has lost, but the comedy (I hope!) stems from this—from being completely invisible to the people who should see you most clearly while also being able to see the absurdity of this.

Even Juniper, at 11, sees this in her father. She’s most uncomfortable with her father’s idea that Meadowlark kids have “the power to do anything” because she’s pretty sure it’s not true. But what do you do with the knowledge that your parent is outright lying to you? It’s very hard for children to see their parents as deeply flawed. Much easier for children to internalize and see themselves as flawed. It’s why childhood trauma is so insidious. It makes the victim feel at fault, which is of course tragic, but when victims are able to finally see, there’s anger of course but also a kind of perverse humor that comes with finally being able to see clearly because how can it not be absurd? To have been told your whole life the sky is green only to find out it’s the blue you were pretty sure it was to begin with? If you don’t also find it absurd, it would kill you.

TM: Motherhood, in this novel, feels central to understanding the full breadth and depth of how you’re exploring attachment. How did you navigate both critiquing and embracing the concept of attachment, and how important did it feel in crafting this book?

MA: It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that I didn’t really know I was writing a book about motherhood until it was very much done. I did know that I was writing a book about connection
and disconnection, being seen and unseen, basically about the effects of childhood trauma (which, for better or worse, seems to be what I write about). But obviously, this is a book all about motherhood—the relationships we have to our own mothers and the relationships we have to our children. Both Bethany and Simrin have mothers that are checked out at best and abusive at worst, but both Bethany and Simrin are determined to not repeat this. They’re, unequivocally, much better mothers than their own, and their attachment to their children is much healthier, but even “good” mothers are flawed.

And good mothers see that their attachment to their children is strong, but not everything. Simrin can help Quinn navigate the world, but she can’t make it easy for her. In fact, she’s partly to blame for passing on the synesthesia that complicates Quinn’s life. And Bethany, despite attempting to distance herself completely from her past and the world that hurt her, can’t alleviate Juniper’s pain. She sees “her own hypervigilance in so much of how Juniper approaches the world, the same cost-benefit analysis of nearly every situation” and is taken aback by the fact that “so much of what she has always assumed is nurture–she is surprised to find–is nature.”

TM: Since you mentioned how you often write about childhood trauma, one thing I’ve noticed is how frequently other writers, even very talented, thoughtful writers, default to easy explanations regarding the subject, instead opting for puzzle pieces that fit nicely together. You don’t seem content with that though, and I’m wondering if that nuance is something that came naturally to you or if it was something you had to work at?

MA: I think all writers are interested in nuance. Even in genre fiction where “good” guys and “bad” guys are expected, good writers hope to create multifaceted complicated people. I think the problem comes when writers try to make characters fit perfectly within a narrative. I was aware of this in my first book. The main character is fundamentally shaped by a single childhood accident that dictates much of her life, but she also comes to see that whom she is has been shaped by more than just one incident. She’s shaped by nature, nurture, trauma, etc.

In Meadowlark you can also see the characters shaped by their childhoods. Simrin and Arjun grow up under strict dictates. Still, this trauma allows an incredibly strong and tender bond to develop between them, and it’s both the trauma and the connection that drives them as characters and allows the book to unfold the way it does. I think the key is to allow your characters to drive the narrative, not the other way around. If you create complex people, you’ll (hopefully!) create complex, compelling plot.

As well, I think most writers have experienced some kind of trauma in their development. Why else would we feel propelled to do this excruciating work if not partly to make sense of some of our wounds? Still, I wasn’t raised in a cult (like Simrin) or forced into the entertainment business (like Bethany), but I think that’s the joy of writing. You can channel your own trauma and make narrative sense of it, something harder to do in real life. I’ve always loved the Lorrie Moore quote, “The proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook takes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what is in the cupboard.” I think good writers take what’s in their cupboards and make lovely, messy sense of it.

Bonus Links:
Cultic with a Chance of Rain: The Novel and Cults and Novels About Cults
From Father Divine to Jim Jones: On the Phenomenon of American Messiahs

holds a PhD in English/creative writing and has taught at Illinois State University and San Francisco State University. He has editorial experience working for Dalkey Archive Press and Fiction Collective Two. Previous writing can be found in The Rumpus, CutBank Literary Magazine, and American Book Review, among other places.

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