Questions and Topics for Discussion
After a devastating breakup, Koren Zailckas retreats to her family home in Boston to lick her wounds and examine just what went wrong. During this time of introspection, she realizes that her inability to express and identify anger is a long–standing family tradition.
In the years following the publication of her first book, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, Koren begins dating a musician who lives in England while she contemplates her next book. After a year–long transatlantic romance, she moves to Brighton, England, to be near her boyfriend (whom she refers to as “The Lark”), and to work on her writing. Just as the couple is getting closer and the question of moving in together is raised, they have an explosive fight and break up. Rather than remain in England to see if the relationship can be salvaged, Koren flees back to the States, to her parents’ house. Ironically, she had chosen the topic of anger for her second nonfiction book, but what starts out as a more academic book about women and anger quickly becomes a deeply personal chronicle of her own pain and its origins. The more she is forced to examine her life and choices, the more Koren realizes that dealing with anger has always been a hot–button issue for her, stemming back to her childhood when she learned to “buck up and hush up” (p. 243).
Through much research and sessions with her therapist, Koren sets about getting to the root of her anger problem, and what it had to do, if anything, with her estranged boyfriend. She begins with a holistic approach, taking a series of homeopathic remedies recommended by a friend. She also attends an anger management seminar, which proves to be less than helpful. It’s through her sessions with her new therapist, Alice, that Koren makes the most progress and gains the necessary understanding of her own anger. To deal with it once and for all, she must confront the root of it—her family, especially her mother.
Along with the holistic and therapeutic methods, the research Koren had conducted for her original conception of her book provides many insights into this issue of anger and how we are taught to interpret it. A core theme that she discovers in the work of noted psychotherapist and author Virginia Satir is that she “can’t decide how my family relates to me, I can only control when and how I react . . . ’I own what comes out of me—my words, thoughts, body movement, my deeds. I might have been influenced by you, but I made the decision to act on that influence, so that part is my show completely’ ” (p. 293). Koren finally realizes that no matter where the anger comes from, it’s her decision, and hers alone, to break the cycle.
ABOUT KOREN ZAILCKAS
Koren Zailckas is also the author of the memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, which appeared on ten national bestseller lists and spent twenty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Fury is her second book. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter.
A CONVERSATION WITH KOREN ZAILCKAS
Q. How did the writing process for Fury differ from your first book, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood?
If this is any indication: I wrote Smashed in four months; Fury took me four years. Believe it or not, Fury is an even more emotional book and the insights that I come to in it were harder won. I glossed over a lot of childhood emotional pain inSmashed. (Although it still peeks through. I see it now in passages like, “A drink in my hand is a sign I’m hurting.”) It’s not that I was lying to my readers; I was lying to myself. When I wrote Smashed, I had a real emotional investment in believing that my clan was just like everyone else’s family. The flip side meant admitting the heartbreaking: that my childhood emotions were rarely heard or respected and I’d internalized that as proof that I wasn’t good enough.
Q. In the earliest stages, you intended Fury to be a book of essays about how different cultures deal with anger. Was there a specific moment where you ultimately saw more of yourself in your writing about anger than you’d originally planned?
My first real reality–check occurred at the S.A.P. therapy weekend. I was so uncomfortable with the idea of expressing anger that I almost ran away in the dead of the night. During group therapy sessions, I couldn’t summon the courage to say anything even remotely negative about my childhood or the way my parents raised me. To do so felt sacrilegious. This was a disconnect because I was constantly bullying my “inner child” in my mother’s tone of voice. Around me, people of various ages, ethnicities, and gender didn’t seem nearly as choked as I was. They were smacking the hell out of boxing bags. They were referring to their fathers as bastards and their mothers as bitches. I thought, “I don’t think I can generalize about feelings as they pertain to gender or culture. This fear of anger is my baggage. For me, anger management might be the problem as opposed to the solution.”
Q. Virginia Satir, the author and noted psychotherapist, was a big source of information for you. Do you remember how you first happened upon her work?
At the time I was writing Fury, my friend Alyssa was studying Satir’s teachings at Peoplemaking of Colorado. It was Alyssa who suggested I read up on Satir’s four styles of communication (the computer, the blamer, the placater, the distractor). Alyssa also explained Satir’s family reconstructions for me. Ultimately, Fury became one. The book became a way for me to examine some important events in my family history. I emerged with a clearer understanding of the repeat patterns and defense mechanisms that were sabotaging my adult relationships.
Q. How has this tumultuous experience of exploring the origins of your anger affected your marriage and other relationships?
I like to think I’ve become much more honest and communicative in my marriage and my friendships. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a beginner and it takes a long time to break old patterns.
In the past, a lot of my angry interactions with friends and boyfriends were self–fulfilling prophecies. I’d been conditioned from childhood to expect negative responses if I showed anger, so I approached conflicts with a lot of defensiveness. When arguments inevitably blew up, I’d clam up and retreat, taking it as proof that I should keep my feelings to myself because people wouldn’t be receptive to them.
In reality, my friends’ responses often had to do with how I approached them. Sometimes I went into the conflict believing a pal had deliberately tried to hurt me (this is a surefire way to raise someone’s hackles). Other times, I charged into the conversation anticipating splitsville—a total fallout or breakup. It never occurred to me that the other person might react warmly and helpfully if I presented the problem as a shared one. The pattern began to change once I approached conflict with a little less fear.
Q. One of the big takeaway lessons from Fury seems to be that “in reclaiming my anger, I could reclaim my life and my humanity” (p. 294). Do you still struggle with anger?
Although I was frightened of jumping in and truly feeling rage, once I finally worked up the nerve, I discovered my anger wasn’t as vast and bottomless as I feared. Anger is usually a surface emotion or secondary emotion. Beneath it, there’s usually sorrow.
Sadness is what I struggle with at the moment. Realizing your family is emotionally limited is a little bit like grieving a death. You run through all of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief: 1. Denial—of the fact that your childhood wasn’t typical. 2. Bargaining—thinking you can still earn your parents’ loving approval if only you say the right thing or achieve at the highest possible level. 3. Anger—when you accept that your emotional needs weren’t met when you were a kid. 4. Depression—intense sadness when you let go of the expectation of having an empathetic family. 5. Acceptance—when you practice accountability, stop being a victim, and responsibly manage your own feelings and behavior.
I’m told it’s normal to ricochet through all these stages, many times over. But occasionally, especially during holidays or rites of passage, I get a heavy heart. The best medicine (other than talk therapy) is speaking with other adult children of troubled parents or dysfunctional families. The Internet is a great resource for that.
Q. Has your family read Fury? How early on in the process did they see it, and what were their reactions?
My parents and my sister read Fury immediately after I finished the first draft. I wanted to leave plenty of time to talk the book over with them before it was published, to make edits and account for their feelings and perspectives.
Although my extended family—aunts and uncles, even second cousins I’d never met before—have been really supportive ofFury and even related deeply to some of the family patterns and repressed emotions that I write about, my immediate family did not like the book, understand my perspective, or see much value in it. The argument played out the way our family arguments often do: At first, my mother raged while my father avoided the topic and my sister gave me the silent treatment. Then, my mother tried to step in and play spokesperson for the rest of the family.
My mother’s biggest issue with the book was she thought I was accusing her of being her mother. She didn’t really understand that I’d needed to take my mother’s childhood background into account in order to understand and have compassion for the reasons why she’d raised me to be stoic and hush–hush about emotions.
When my sister finally spoke to me, she told me Fury was not a good book in the way Little Miss Sunshine was a good movie because even though I’d included everybody’s quirks, I’d failed to make these peculiarities seem likeable. My mom seconded this, adding that I’d made everyone look bad except for myself. My response was: Whaat? It’s not like I scrub myself up in Fury. I behave like a lunatic from page to page and wincingly acknowledge that insanity throughout. I kick cabs and scream down realtors. I write pages–long inflammatory e–mails to my ex. I’m like a woman gone rabid and it takes a lot of mortifying self–revelations before I can begin to change.
I’ve always understood that this book would be painful for my family, which is why I suffered so much writer’s block when it came time to put the story on the page. I didn’t write this book to “out” them or convince them of anything. I wrote it because I had to be honest with myself and my readers. My past alcohol abuse had a whole lot to do with numbing out painful emotions and family dysfunction.
Q. How is your relationship with your sister now? And your parents?
From my perspective, my relationship with my parents changed drastically once I stopped trying to change them, convert them to my way of thinking, or muscle them into acknowledging my feelings and giving me their approval. I had to accept that their painful childhoods affected their ability to empathize. I still visit them, talk to them on the phone, love them very deeply, but I try to set some boundaries and keep things light, civil, and polite. I don’t bring too much emotional information to the table—feelings that would be too painful for me if my clan discounted them. It’s not my parents’ job to heal my childhood wounds, only I can do that. I have to keep working to accept their limitations; grieve the fact that my parents’ emotional needs sometimes came before mine when I was a kid; separate psychologically from them; identify and reframe the negative messages they gave me; truly feel the backlog of difficult feelings that I choked down for two decades; get further in touch with my own feelings, values, and belief systems; and continue to identify which patterns and behaviors I don’t want to pass down to my own kids. If this sounds like a lot of work—a lifetime recovery—that’s because it is. But it’s my therapy, not family therapy, and realizing that has helped me find some forgiveness and accept my parents as they are.
Although I hope to continue to grow and heal my relationship with my sister, we haven’t had much of a relationship since the night of my miscarriage. I try to find some balance between giving her space and leaving her voice mails, between sending her e–mails that let her know that I’m here whenever she wants to talk things out and accepting that she doesn’t want to get emotional or be in heavy contact right now. These days, my mother is more of a “sister” to my sister, just as it was when we were young. That hurts, but it doesn’t mean that—in order to feel included—I need to step in and assume the role of my sister’s mother, the way I’ve often done in the past. I wronged my sister by doing so and probably perpetuated a legacy of emotional abuse. I hope one day she’ll forgive me for that, but I respect her feelings and acknowledge that she’s entitled to her space.
Q. In the book you’ve stated, “All my life, in almost all of my interactions, I had either selected people who were controlling and critical to begin with or withheld my emotions, catered to these people, and tried to trick myself into thinking they were self–absorbed and stifling” (p. 171). How has that pattern changed for you?
First, I had to realize that I tended to swing between being codependent and counter–dependent. I was very codependent with my mother and people who reminded me of her; I desperately wanted to prop them
up emotionally and fix their problems. With other people, I was really counter–dependent. I found it really tough to let people in, ask for help, confide my feelings, and feel safe being close; the more they demanded of me, emotionally, the more skittish I felt.
I also had to find a little compassion for myself, an understanding that anyone who’d been raised in a critical environment might emotionally withdraw or develop certain self–protective behaviors as a way of coping and diverting pain.
I’ve realized that the first step in opening up and sharing my emotional self with others is to acknowledge them to myself. Instead of using my childhood as an excuse to avoid getting close to anyone lest they hurt or abandon me, I can choose to really feel that past emotional pain. Because as much as abuse or neglect hurts, it can also give a person vast empathy and emotional intelligence. You can let the past be the wall that you put between yourself and other people or you can let it be a doorway to greater compassion and intimacy.
Q. What was the biggest revelation that you experienced from writing this book?
I realized that I was on a collision course—that I was destined to repeat a harmful legacy unless I was willing to do some serious healing work. I saw that it was impossible for me to be an empathetic mother, wife, or friend unless I was willing to revisit my childhood and feel the full breadth of my anger, loneliness, sadness, and shame. As long as I was glossing over my own emotions, I was doomed to inadvertently discount other people’s feelings as well. And I didn’t want to live that way.
Q. If you could teach your daughter one thing about anger, what would it be?
I always want my daughter to know that she has my empathy when she’s angry. It’s okay for her to express anger at me or her father. Even if we don’t agree with her, we will always, always hear her and respect her. We’re not perfect parents, but we hope to be the kind of good–enough parents who help her feel safe in the world and encourage her to develop her own sense of self.
As a mother, it’s my job to teach my young daughter emotional language, just like it’s my job to teach her letters, colors, and days of the week. When she’s furious, one of the first things I do is say, “You’re angry. I hear that.” Instead of using blaming language like “my friend so–and–so is bad” I try to teach her to explain the problem by saying, “I feel . . .” Then, I ask her to come up with a few solutions to the problem. In the beginning this requires help, but over time, she works it out on her own. I try to encourage her to feel, but also communicate those feelings and focus on compromise and problem solving.
Q. On your Web site (http://korenzailckas.tumblr.com/) you have been posting Fury–related essay contests, such as “What are you holding a grudge about right now?” and “If I were going to write my own memoir, the first sentence would be . . .” What surprising things have you learned from your readers?
I’ve learned that people are really relieved to have a space to vent about their conflicts with their families, friends, girlfriends/boyfriends, spouses. They’re eager to share how they process their feelings and manage their anger. It’s not all sob–stuff or self–help either. Much of it is hilarious. I’ve heard a revenge tale about a fifteen–year–old boy who left dead raccoons on the seats of his bullies’ cars. I’ve heard stories from people whose family holidays are so dysfunctional they call them “hellidays.”
Q. Your first book dealt with teen binge drinking and Fury deals with your quest to discover your anger and where it comes from. What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel at the moment. It’s a psychological thriller about a mother with narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissism is a misnomer. We think of narcissists as being full of themselves, but in reality, they hardly know themselves and the parts they do know they dismiss as worthless. Because narcissists need continuous proof that they’re important, they need other people to fear and revere them. Children, who are naturally dependent, make easy targets for abuse. The American Psychiatric Association estimates 1.5 million American women are “official” narcissists and millions more fall on the lower end of the personality spectrum.