Stephanie Schroeder is a queer feminist writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is an independent mental illness awareness activist and advocate for social and economic justice. Her political essays have been anthologized in the classic queer anthology That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation as well as Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage. Schroeder is a Contributing Editor at Curve Magazine. Her memoir, Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide, is her first book.
One of the things I’m really interested in as a memoirist myself is the process and documentation of memory. Did you have any of the clarity and self-reflection with which you write when you were actually experiencing particular situations, or only afterward when drafting of the book?
On the occasion I had a glimpse, a second, or maybe a minute, to reflect on a specific situation and think to myself “this is wrong” or “I don’t want to be in this position.” But, it took forever to get out of those terrible situations. Mostly because I didn’t have all the information — or any outside help. I was often isolated by my most intimate relationships, by design of others and for their own purposes. I think what you might be asking is how can memory ever be accurate or even how can any writer recreate the past through memoir.
I kept journals for the entire time span of my book and re-reading that documentation helped a lot in my writing process. I used a sprinkling of entries from one journal to locate folks in my world and in my mind at that time. I don’t think, though, that anyone needs prior documentation to write a memoir. Writers, storytellers and others know what happened to them and can recreate it on the page, including dialogue that actually took place. For me, this stuff was burned into my memory. My memory. It’s likely others I mentioned in Beautiful Wreck have different recollections of some of the same circumstances.
Your book is an autobiographical account. One of the things I know a lot of writers wrestle with is whether or not to fictionalize their stories. What made you choose memoir as the genre in which to tell your story?
I cannot imagine fictionalizing my life. With Beautiful Wreck, mainstream agents and publishers were already skeptical that my content was actually true. “All of this really happened to you?” they would ask incredulously. What charmed lives they must lead!
Meanwhile, I wanted my story to be what it was: raw, brutal, and darkly humorous, and I felt I could only do that with memoir. Plus, I hardly ever read fiction, so it’s not a genre I am at all familiar with. And, it paid off, the memoir part. I have received great reader feedback, folks write to me several time a week to let me know how much they enjoyed my book or how it has helped them rethink their own lives, relationships and health.
I received a particularly great review from Velvetpark editorial director, Marcie Bianco: “Beautiful Wreck was one of the most compelling, smoothly written books I’ve read this year. And it is arguably one of the better queer autobio-memoirs out there. Period.”
Positive response from both readers and reviewers is the stuff that makes i worth opening myself up and putting my story out into the world.
Since you choose memoir as the genre in which to tell your story, were you at all afraid about what might happen with those whom you write about in your book?
I changed everyone’s name except for one — a public figure who has blurbed my book. I didn’t really think beyond the fact that I needed to change names only to avoid a hassle, and to protect the person in the story who is still a minor.
Since you mention the minor, Michael, the child you raised with your former partner and left when you left the relationship with her, how has reaction to that part of your story been, either in the media or in responses from readers?
Actually no one has ever said anything about him or the situation. No press has asked me about it and readers have said little, maybe something such as “how dare that bitch force you into parenthood,” but that’s it. However, that is the part I worried about most. Because women who don’t want children or “abandon” them–for lack of a better term–are seen as monsters.
Though, when Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of Hiroshima in the Morning, admitted that she “didn’t want to mother anymore” and gave custody of her kids to her ex-husband, it made headlines everywhere and she sold a ton of books!
I never wanted to parent, I was under the influence of an abusive person and was also mentally ill without a diagnosis or assistance to stabilize my moods or my life. And, I haven’t sold a ton of books because of it, by the way!
Were you ever afraid to tell people you were bipolar and when you did, how did they react? What are people’s reactions to you when you disclose now?
Of course, it’s terrifying to come out as mentally ill, especially in the workplace. I’ve had some bad workplace experiences where I was discriminated against in ways that I could not prove legally, but I know to be the case. I’m out as a feminist, I’ve been out as a lesbian since I was 19, but coming out as bipolar is another beast altogether.
I haven’t even discussed the book or my illness with my boss. She knows I’ve published a book, but I don’t know whether she has read it or what she thinks about me or the book if she has read it. I’m certainly not going to ask her. Everything about me is now hanging out in my book, on my website, on my Facebook page, etc. I cannot avoid people knowing, and don’t want to either, and yet I still do not always disclose to people who don’t already know. It’s just a really, really difficult thing to do because of the stigma surrounding mental illness.
You mention in the book the staggering cost of medication and therapy, and call out the U.S. healthcare system. Can you talk about that?
You ‘d better believe it, sister. All that yakking costs money, but it’s so totally worth it. Seriously, without psychotherapy with an excellent therapist (and there are a lot, and I mean A LOT, of really bad therapists!) I wouldn’t be alive, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be happy! Meds are the same story. I need them, they keep me stable, and I don’t really have many negative side effects like a lot of folks do. But, I also don’t have health insurance and the anti-psychotic I take, Abilify, costs $1,000 a month and that’s down from $1,400 just a few years ago. It’s going off patent soon, but it will take years for the price to drop substantially. I cannot get along without it. I tried for a while and felt myself falling back into the abyss. My psychiatrist used to give me samples, but newer drugs are on the market now and there are no more samples of Abilify for me. I’ve put out a call on social media for people with leftover Abilify to get in touch. Several people have, and I have a stash, but it’s not going to last forever.
It’s a damn shame that in a rich country like ours we are, for the most part, denied healthcare unless we can afford it. And I can’t afford it most of the time. I am living paycheck-to- paycheck just like most people I know.
What are you working on now?
People keep asking if there is going to be more about me, another memoir, or something similar. I know my book is slim and there is a lot left out of my story, which spans more than 15 years, but the really important stuff is in the book. The rest are anecdotes: funny, horrible, beautiful, painful…. I can talk about hundreds of stories, incidents, scenes. I wrote exactly what I did to convey the essence of my life specifically, but also to illustrate what severe depression and wild mania feel like and how they manifest. There will be no more books about me. I don’t want to be a “disease author”, I have other fish to fry.
Currently, I’m trying to leverage my book and my work as a mental illness awareness activist into a paid speaking career. I also have another book in mind. It’s about a friend of mine who died a few years ago. He was a noted illustrator who worked at Grove Press in the 50s and only illustrated for progressive publications. He lived for 30+ years as an ex-pat in Holland and I think a biography or appreciation about him would be extremely interesting.