Discover more from Spirit
Under My Bed
interview with essayist Jody Keisner
Jody Keisner’s essay collection, Under My Bed (U of Nebraska Press), is an insightful reflection on the fears and anxieties that plague women. She deftly covers a wide-range of topics including how media portrays stories of missing women, how the female body is objectified and sexualized, and how mothers are expected to be perfect. She offers her personal experience with a captivating voice that is open, curious, and wise, while also giving astute cultural criticism of our society that expects young girls to be sweet and smile while denying their anger and rebellion.
The collection’s title comes from Keisner’s compulsion to nightly check under her bed, half-expecting to find a boogeyman or other intruder. She explores why she does this, where fear comes from, and how she lives with it in a writing style that is candid and beautiful.
She also cuts to the root of my own fears when she writes,
It’s dangerous work to love another human being. But we love anyway knowing that we will fear for our children, parents, loved ones, and for ourselves. Knowing that, as it is with all fears, this one, too burns.
Reading Under My Bed, ultimately, was a comforting experience, to know that even though there are many things to be afraid of, I’m not alone in my anxiety. It does what all the best books do: it made me feel a little less alone in this world.
On Thursday, August 3, 2023, I’ll be giving a reading of What Will Outlast Me? in conversation with Jody Keisner in Omaha, Nebraska at the Dundee Book Co. at 6 pm. I hope you can join us! Here are more details.
Here’s the interview:
We both grew up (and you still live) in Nebraska. Being mindful of place, landscape, plants, wildlife, is an important part of my spiritual and writing practice. Yet, for me, I didn’t truly fall in love with the landscape of my home state until I left it and started writing about it. You write about how misunderstood Nebraska is, and how when your mom moved away, her rejection of Nebraska felt like a rejection of your childhood. Do you consider yourself a Nebraska writer? How has your native landscape informed your writing?
We’ve had so many similar life experiences, Sarah! As a young adult I couldn’t wait for an opportunity to leave Nebraska, so I left in my twenties. I returned to Nebraska in my thirties and have since been smitten with its charms, culture, people, and landscapes. Omaha is the second largest city in the Great Plains States, so my experience of Nebraska is different now than it was when I was a child living in more rural areas with a small forest in my backyard. I don’t think most people realize that Omaha is a major city, something like the 36th largest in the nation. Which is to say: Nebraska has cornfields and the picturesque rural towns that most people are familiar with, but it also has urban living.
I’m less interested in the geography of Nebraska, however, than I am in the Midwestern folk who populate it. I was adopted as a baby into a working-class family, and the nuances of a working-class life continue to interest me and appear in my writing. I don’t want to romanticize working-class life because everyone in my family has suffered physical, emotional, or mental hardship from this kind of grind, but I guess I find the toughness of it a little romantic. The family I grew up around were (mostly) kind, nail-tough, generous, principled, and down to earth. I admire “Nebraska Tough” (as opposed to what were usually known for, “Nebraska Nice”), though I was fortunate to pursue higher education and am raising my daughters comfortably middle-class. I hope I’ve honored Nebraska in my writing.
Spirit is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I adored Under My Bed and Other Essays because it touches on the elemental theme of being afraid, as a mother, as a woman, and as a person living in a world under-going climate catastrophe. Your essay, “Firebreaks,” is about a wildfire in Washington state near your parents’ home, but it’s also about teaching children to have healthy fear. How did the juxtaposition of these subjects come together as you were writing? Did you immediately gravitate toward the drama of a natural disaster? How do you choose your subjects to write about?
I write about the things that I obsess over and have some passion or curiosity for. I don’t know if I choose my subjects or they embed themselves in my mind and I’m left with no choice but to put my thoughts down on paper.
When my firstborn, Lily, was young I became preoccupied with her safety. I wondered what or who I should teach her to fear, what age to teach her, and how that would affect her sense of well-being throughout her life. (One example: when do we tell our daughters about girls who go missing?) So, those questions were already on my mind when we visited my parents in Spokane and witnessed the wildfires. Human behavior interests me more than any other topic, and I used the framework of natural disaster to explore the things people do to try and keep safe from both rational and irrational fears.
Do you have a favorite essay in the book? Why?
The essays I most enjoy revisiting are the ones about the complexities of motherhood and my relationships with my two daughters: my mother-fears, the dual role adoption has played in my family, and the transcendent power of love.
However, the essay I most enjoyed writing is the only essay in the book that explores fake horror. It’s called “Recreationally Terrified” after Isabel Cristina Pinedo’s use of the term “recreational terror” to describe how horror movies offer women a safe place to experience emotions that we learn to suppress during our childhoods: fear, rage, and violence. I am a woman who has struggled with a lot of fear over the last forty-nine years, but horror movies offer me the pleasure of my fear. There isn’t anything real at stake when we feel frightened by a horror movie, especially if it’s a science fiction or fantasy horror movie that only loosely resembles reality. Our bodies might react as if we are really in danger—a faster heart rate, for example—but we also know we’re going to walk away from this horror unharmed and, in a way, triumphant.
I had so much fun writing about recreational terror because it didn’t require me to confront the real and present danger of sexual harassment of girls and women or school shootings. It goes without saying that these latter subjects are not fun to write about, but they are important and also appear in Under My Bed.
One of my favorite essays is “The Maternal Lizard Brain” because it mirrored my own experience of early motherhood, and you’ve used neuro-science research to universalize your personal experience. How is research part of your creative writing process?
The central research question for my book was actually posed many years ago by my then-new husband, who caught me on my hands and knees peering under our bed one night: “Why do you do it?” For well over a decade, I had been looking under my bed, whipping back shower curtains, and flinging open closet doors in search of an intruder. Why did I do it? Did I really think an intruder was under my bed? It’s strange to me now to think about how I continued my nighttime “checks” for years but didn’t truly investigate the origin story until I wrote my book. My memories obviously played a large role in uncovering answers, but so did my research into science, culture and society, gender studies, and psychology. In my Master’s program, I was trained to use research to support my opinions, and now incorporating research feels very natural to me. I instinctively turn to research when I encounter a dead end in my writing and want to know more. I knew my under-the-bed checking wasn’t merely the behavior of a “hysterical” or “neurotic” woman, which is how women are often viewed when they engage in certain safety measures or express fear or pain. My behavior had roots in trauma, early childhood exposure to horror, and the fact that all women (and even most girls) encounter violence from men. Research helps me bridge the gap between my personal experience and the experiences of my readers.
Essay collections—in my experience—are challenging to write because each essay must standalone, but together, all the essays must fit together into a coherent book. Can you tell me a little about your process for creating a collection? At what point did you discover your book’s theme? How did you choose a title?
There are so many ways to approach the process of writing a book, and mine feels a little random! I first wrote “Under My Bed,” the opening chapter, precisely because I had kept my nighttime “checks” a secret for far too long. Then I wrote another essay about fear, “The Secret of Water.” I was a new mother and grappling with fear about the kind of world I was bringing a child into and how I was going to keep her safe. The essays kept coming until I realized I could write an entire book on how fear has shaped my life and the lives of other women. Under My Bed presented itself as the perfect metaphor for examining the real and metaphorical boogeymen who have haunted me throughout my life. I mean, we have all peeked under the bed at some point. What do we think we’ll find? The image of someone peering into the darkness under their own bed is still a powerful one! Children especially have a sort of primal reaction to it.
I saw a lot of my own father (who I’ve also written about) in the descriptions you gave of yours: a hard-working, blue-collar man, but prone to violent outbursts and drinking too much. For me, it’s always a challenge to write about my loved ones acting badly. I wonder: maybe this isn’t my story to tell. How have you navigated writing about family members, especially when your portrayal might not be flattering?
Let me begin by saying it’s impossible to get to the heart of a memoir without examining the most memorable events of one’s life—the good, the bad, and the ugly. After I shared the rough draft of my book with my parents, they didn’t speak to me for a long while. When they were talking to me again, my mother used some version of the refrain she always uses—“Your father and I don’t remember it the way your sister and you do”—and then told me they didn’t want to talk about the book ever again. They also didn’t want me to share the news of my book with any of our extended family. I didn’t and we haven’t. I was a little surprised by their reaction because I considered my chapter “Runaway Daughter” a tribute to my evolving relationship with my father and the trains he loves so much. Then again, it can’t be easy reading about your own failures as a parent. I’m sensitive to my parents’ feelings, but I knew I had written the book I intended to publish, and I wasn’t going to remove chapters at their request. I would have made sentence-level edits, but they never asked for any changes.
I was recently on a conference panel with women who had been sued by family members or had endured long estrangements because they dared to write honestly about traumatic experiences. I don’t believe women should be silenced from writing about trauma they’ve endured. And when women memoirists first started writing more openly about sexual and physical trauma, male book critics were all too eager to criticize them in ways they didn’t criticize male memoirists. Women have always been told not to “air dirty laundry,” but at what cost? And exactly who are they protecting? Their abusers? Going public, so to speak, in a memoir can break the cycle of intergenerational trauma. I love this quote from author Jennifer Lang about memoir: “It's tough. It's human. It's revelatory. When done well, it's the full-body shivers or deep-buried sigh or unbidden tears.”
The trick is to write with as much empathy as possible, even for people who have deeply hurt you. I also don’t share aspects of abuse I’ve endured if they aren’t necessary for the story. I cut a lot of material from my book before publishing it because while it may have interested a reader, it wasn’t needed to further develop the story and it would’ve been hurtful to people. I don’t believe memoirists set out to hurt anyone, but it’s impossible to write authentically about our full and flawed human lives without writing about pain other people have caused us (and we have caused them). My relationship with my father is a messy work-in-progress, but it’s not without love and meaning. If I did a good job as a writer, then the reader will see all of this and understand we all deserve compassion.