Interview: How Jessica Jones Elegantly Fell Apart
I used to hate memoirs. I thought they were self-indulgent and lacked a certain composition in the writing. But when I was twenty, I read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and something shifted. In the past year, likely since I’m working on my own, I’ve devoured memoirs. I’m fascinated at how other writers portray themselves (writing about your ugly moments is not something that’s easy to do) and how they write those that are close to them. How much do you give away of yourself? How honest are you about your feelings towards those in your life? How much of their lives can you give away?
Many authors, particularly when it comes to topics involving illness and grief, tend to go a route full of melodrama, saccharine and cliché. Thankfully, I would not use any of those words to describe Jessica Jones’s memoir The Elegant Art of Falling Apart, the review of which you can read here. Her memoir made me want to talk to her more about her experiences, so I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed.
Even though I only met her through Skype, Jessica is easily likeable. She’s warm and present, and is prone to punctuating her sentences with laughter. It’s comforting to see someone who has gone through so much in her life exuding such ease. See, breast cancer hasn’t been Jessica’s only major health crisis. When she was 25, she was struck down with a rare neurological disorder, which left her effectively locked in her body. I’m intrigued to why this was something she hadn’t written about before. Why a book now, as opposed to then?
‘I think its experience,’ she explains, ‘I don’t think at age 25 I necessarily had the insight or confidence to write a book.’
Even though she clearly has insight and confidence now, I wondered if there was a particular section in the book more difficult to write than others. ‘It was reliving all the experiences with my boyfriend,’ she replied ‘ I found that difficult because in order to write honestly about something like that you have to be in touch with your emotions and that was very very hard. I did spend a lot of time not writing about that and then writing a paragraph then finding myself on the floor beating the carpet and sobbing. But then I went back to therapy and that really helped me to just get some perspective and break the work down to manageable little chunks.’
Jessica speaks openly about her experiences with therapy; does she still find it’s somewhat of a social taboo in today’s society? ‘I do and that is really unhelpful. The one thing I learnt out of the whole experience was to ask for help. I learnt it the hard way, it wasn’t my natural mode of behaviour. I think a lot of people suffer unnecessarily because they try to do things that are insurmountable on their own.’ I ask her why she thinks this is, is it pride? ‘It could be, but I think it is more fear of rejection, that’s what underlies it. It’s the idea of “if I ask somebody for help, they might say no, and then I’ll feel worse.” I think that a general lack of understanding in our society leads people to feel they’ll be rejected by their friends or their family because they are having therapy. But talking is the most natural thing on Earth.’
Since her memoir is drenched with the pain of losing Nick, I wondered how Jessica feels about the demise of her relationship now. Does a part of her think Nick was a lesson she had to learn? ‘Quite possibly. Everything in life is a lesson learnt, and that’s great. But I don’t think it’s preordained. These things happen, and it’s a bit like getting cancer….’ we both laugh, realising that out of context what she’s said could sound quite horrifying. But there’s truth to her statement: life is so big and so messy that we have no choice but to roll with the punches and take our lemons with a shot of tequila. ‘The only choice one has is what one gains from it,’ she elaborates, ‘it can be easy to fall into a defensive pattern where we never take a risk in life or in a relationship because we don’t have a crystal ball and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. That is classic avoidant behaviour. There were some warning signs with Nick, and I ignored them. But aren’t there warning signs with everybody? Nobody knows how someone else is going to react to a crisis until there is a crisis. But the reality is that had I not got cancer, there would have been another life crisis somewhere along the line. And at that point, Nick would have always run.’
Chances are all of us will know someone who goes through a serious illness. And many of us find illness and grief difficult to approach: what should we say? What should we do? What should we be doing? ‘Try and offer concrete, practical help,’ Jessica offers ‘don’t just say “if there’s anything I can do let me know”. That puts the ball back into the court of the person who is freaking out, who is unable to make decisions, and doesn’t know what they need – while they actually need everything.’ She explains that it can be the small things that make a difference, ‘Sit down with your friend and write a list. What needs to be done? Food needs to be cooked. Appointments need to be got to. Really be there in a practical way.’
Our conversation takes a serious turn when I ask her what she would say – time machine permitted – to herself on the day she was diagnosed with cancer. She takes a lengthy pause to consider, and when she speaks, it’s without the self-deprecation of our earlier conversation, ‘the one piece of advice I would give myself is to take it easy and let what will be will be.’ This isn’t said without blasé – she is being pragmatic, and taking ownership of what is happening to her. This is echoed in what she says next, ‘there’s no point in trying to fight one’s way out of an illness like this. People talk about battling cancer and fighting cancer, and to me that seems so inappropriate. I think the more you can embrace it and accept it; the easier it will be to work with it.’
Girls, generally, are somewhat unnervingly attached to our hair, so it’s fitting that one of the parts in the book I found most devastating is when Jessica loses her hair. I ask her why she thinks losing her hair was so traumatising, was it because it made her illness real? ‘It really was the most shocking, it really was. This was a physical manifestation of the fact that I had cancer, I couldn’t look in the mirror and pretend it away anymore. The interesting thing about being diagnosed with cancer is that one day I was fine, and the next day I felt fine. I didn’t feel ill. But losing my hair made it real. It made it very very real. Apart from that, our hair is very much part of our identity, and having that stripped away is really traumatising and very confronting. It was very difficult.’ Jessica’s hair was replaced by wigs, ones she still keeps “as souvenirs”. She laughs when she tells me this, just like when she laughed when she told me that getting the wigs was a trauma in itself; ‘I realised I was up against a machine really, one hopes that one will get ill and everyone will just elect you the most important person in the world, but of course there are millions of other people who are also ill and are trying to get wigs.’
The pink associated with breast-cancer has become so iconic, it’s almost like a life in itself. I ask Jessica how she feels with the pinkness that is now associated with breast cancer, does she think it somehow makes breast-cancer, well, fluffy? ‘I don’t think that matters. If people want to be fluffy, be fluffy. Breast cancer is serious and it’s on the increase. When I was a young girl, breast cancer was something to be ashamed of. All the pink explosion has really addressed that. There’s less shame attached to having breast-cancer now.’ Jessica explains that the pink campaign is not without its faults, but it’s in a way that we may have not initially realised, ‘it’s not so bad in Australia but in America it’s insane. They put pink ribbons on buckets of fried chicken, on poisonous household cleaners and most of all, on a plethora of cosmetics that contain substances that are known or highly suspected to promote the growth of breast cancers. I find that objectionable. It’s like a hijacking of the whole thing.’
I ask her a question she has undoubtedly been asked many times: How does one elegantly fall apart? ‘With organic lipstick!’ she says instantly and brightly. She considers for a moment, ‘When we fall apart, it’s messy, it’s always messy. The only way to come out the other side with any grace is to really engage with the process and to dive into it and get rid of all those defences that keep us cold and separate from other people.’
And how is Jessica doing now? ‘I’ve got my hair back, I’m looking forward to spending the summer in Australia, and just having a very nice time. I feel that I’m really on the road to recovery now and that feels great. I feel like I’ve regained a sense of hope.’
In the introduction to her book, Jessica speaks about how your perspective on life changes at each moment. Where is hers at this moment? ‘My perspective on life now is back in line with reality. I think for quite awhile my perspective was based on a perceived catastrophe, I felt everything was going to go wrong. Now it’s much more realistic. There’s a Buddhist concept about how a mountain is made up of a gazillion grains of dust and our life is made up of moments. Just as each grain of dust creates the mountain, so every moment creates our life. I really feel that getting back to living in right now is fantastic. Life does change from moment to moment, but life is beautiful is this moment.’
Image Credit, Jessica Jones.