July 2015

Jill Talbot


An Interview with Amy Butcher

"There are stories," writes Amy Butcher in Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, "and then there's life." The story: Amy Butcher had a friend, Kevin, in college who joined her one night in April of 2009 for a celebratory drink and then walked her home. While she slept, Kevin stabbed his girlfriend twenty-seven times, then waited outside for the police to come.

There are stories, there is life (lost or irrevocably altered), and, as Amy Butcher so deftly reminds us, there is memoir. Visiting Hours opens with Butcher in a hotel room in Edinboro, Pennsylvania in the pre-dawn hours looking through the fog to the State Correctional Institution in Albion, where she will see her friend for the first time in two and a half years, years in which they've exchanged monthly letters, but because they never talk in those letters about what happened that April night, Butcher is compelled to piece together what happened and why.

"These memories are ghosts," she worries, "once present but now lacking shape, lacking specificity, lacking a sense of conviction." Thus begins an interrogation into what we remember and why, an investigation into the uncertainties of depression and PTSD, a memoir about the stories we come to tell and the endings we never wanted.

Memoirs are usually grounded in a writer's direct experiences, but your memoir centers upon an event that took place while you were sleeping a few blocks away. What do you see as the challenges and ethical considerations when writing about what happened to other people?

The biggest challenge, I think, is coming to terms with the fact that you have a story to tell that necessitates and warrants telling, and yet will also inevitably affect and even challenge the narrative others have ascribed to those very same events. In the initial years after this murder happened, I felt myself strongly a part of two narratives: one that felt deeply traumatized and scared and grief-stricken and angry and in need of exploring and vocalizing why, precisely, that was, and another in which I felt hesitant and indulgent and at times even reckless that my need, at least in some way or in select moments, seemed of a greater priority than the needs of others.

But the fact of the matter is this: a young woman was murdered because a person I cared about was struggling and felt ashamed and that sense of stigmatization kept him from seeking effective care, allowed his condition to reach such a level of severity that he became unaccountable for his actions and incapable of acting upon right or wrong. Now she is dead and his life is, for all intents and purposes, over. And so, too, are the lives of so many who cared about these people. What do you do with that? For my part, I felt my immediate response and increasingly escapist relationship to Kevin following his arrest -- coupled with my own level of familiarity with depression and suicidal ideation -- made any inclination for silence, frankly, painful. I was struggling and others struggle more, but this hierarchy fails everyone if we can't look at these events and take from them a greater understanding.

I had the opportunity recently to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak, and he noted that the job of the writer is to make the reader understand "the beast that they are facing." And what Kevin endured is a beast, a national and global epidemic, a part of a larger conversation, absolutely, however unique it may be to him. This a murder that I feel was, in many ways, preventable, and the very conditions that led to this woman's death repeat themselves with frequency; silence, it seems to me, affirms these conditions as acceptable, as unavoidable, as preferable to discomfort.

Beyond that -- and this is where the memoir part comes in, because to attempt to write an objectively capital-T true version of this book would be to fail immediately -- I wanted this book to evidence the ways in which violent crime fractures whole communities, establishes a ripple effect that essentially moves outward to affect individuals, social and familial relationships, whole identities, whole lives. I am not the same person I was in my indirect experiencing and processing of this event, and the same is true for many others. To hear from them, as I have, and to hear from many that they, too, struggle with this one night six years removed is to be reminded of why this story matters and continues mattering. But that's not to say that it's not difficult, that at times I feel moored to a place of ethical uncertainty, and that I struggle with knowing others must relive these events through my narration. It seems to me the task of a writer to consider and weigh all of this and then determine if they feel comfortable wading into such uneasy waters, which is all writing about other people is, truly.

Your choice to tell the story rather than remain silent reminds me of an early part in the memoir when you describe the way you find yourself "navigating to the subject" even with strangers, drawn to voice what you describe as "this story that is not mine." But what I hear you arguing here, and what I see you addressing in the memoir, involves the connection between this murder and the alarming epidemic of PTSD, major depressive disorder, and mass violence.

To that end, your memoir includes extensive research (evidenced by your three-page bibliography) covering studies, statistics, and articles on mental health, anti-depressants, and violence. You write, "I have a difficult time, even now, separating what is and is not connected." Is the research your attempt to understand Kevin's sudden actions? Or is it a way to address these larger issues?

Both. As I write in the book, my earliest attempts at making sense of this murder -- a thing that defies logic, defies understanding, is in fact the very result of mental capriciousness -- involved modes of thinking that put this event beside others and drawing parallels. It's a very natural tendency to recreate narrative in the wake of any major life event, tragedy most especially; we want to think, This happened, but something good will come of it. A charity, a protest, a rallying cry. It feels unfathomable to know someone died or someone was incarcerated or lives were ruined and that is the end of that. We want to do something. For me, it meant highlighting these issues and placing this crime back into conversation with all the issues that surround it: our global epidemic of debilitating depression, for one, but also the link between mental illness and violence and the way in which so many terrible things that happen could very well be prevented if we saw an increase in mental health advocacy and care. I write in the book that I both love and fear Kevin in equal measure, and what I hope is conveyed through that is how I feel a great sense of empathy for him; I feel very strongly that what happened to him happened to him.

This idea of the "recreat[ion] of this narrative," of "my narrative," reminds me of your explication of Oliver Sacks's 2013 essay from The New York Review of Books, "Speak, Memory." You point to Sacks's discussion of false, or constructed, memories and his conclusion: "The only truth, then, he writes, is narrative -- the stories we tell ourselves."

The memory research you include is crucial to your interrogation of your friendship with Kevin and your desire to communicate with him after the murder and his incarceration. David Shields, who chose an excerpt from Visiting Hours as the winner of the 2014 Iowa Review Award, has referred to the fragments of contemporary memoir as "anti-memoir," the blurring of what you refer to as "cold facts and data" with the "lies we tell ourselves [that] begin to feel more, in time, like truth."

There's a chapter in the memoir that centers around a night you and Kevin wander the haunted battlefields of Gettysburg, though you introduce it by admitting you're not sure it's a "true" memory: "In an attempt to justify our ongoing communication, my mind began to form new memories of Kevin -- a whole archive of moments we may or may not have shared -- and to this day, I have no idea whether they happened with him or with someone else."

What do you see as the role of "false memory" in memoir?

In a lot of ways, I see the admission of what we don't remember to be every bit as crucial -- if not more so -- than what we do. Memory speaks to history, certainly, but it speaks especially to emotional history, to how it felt to exist within a particular moment, to how it feels now to recollect a moment or a year or a decade and see which flickers stand the test of time. That it can change and in fact creates itself anew with every recollection -- that it shapes itself to defend and support the story we want to believe, or the characteristics we want to recall in the ones we love or markedly don't love -- is fascinating. More specifically, as Kevin was one of nine or so close college friends, he and I certainly shared a handful of moments both private and populated, but I wonder often if I haven't conflated him with others, if I haven't -- in my search to defend the person I knew him to be -- remembered what I want to remember.

Let's say we spend three nights a week, give or take, with someone for four years; six years later, only a dozen or so memories of that interaction remain. How do we account for this? Why those moments? Why not others? What is it about those memories that lend them permanence? The subjectivity of memory is not something we especially want to believe or defend, because there are ramifications -- moral, ethical, legal -- in false memory, but it also seems to me unavoidable. Sacks speaks specifically to the idea that if we mistakenly believe something in earnest for a long enough period of time, it takes the shape -- neurologically -- of real memory, even after it is exposed as untrue. How is this not relevant to memoir, to nonfiction more generally?

This to me is an opportunity within the genre, not a threat. I admire writers willing to engage in the complication of memory and truth and see them, in fact, as vital. John D'Agata's The Lifespan Of A Fact generated such a vitriolic discourse because some see his way of writing -- and thinking -- as a threat, as a deviation from the work of the generation of writers who came before; I see it as a return to origin. I'd argue that much of the work produced by some of our genre's most foundational authors is far less concerned with disseminating information as it is capturing experience. We needn't look further than Orwell's elephant, than Woolf's moth, both woefully unverifiable. Do we take them at their word? Do we place an asterisk beside their essays? And what, exactly, does it matter -- time of day, time of year -- when what Woolf was working towards most was the conjuring of an emotion and the universality of mortality? The primary gesture of nonfiction was once to document and recreate experience -- this is overwhelmingly evident in the works of Sei Shonagon, of Plutarch, of Natalia Ginzburg and W.G. Sebald and Truman Capote, to name a few -- and so the recent hysteria has me, frankly, perplexed.

Beyond D'Agata, no writer that I've yet read does this more effectively than Sarah Manguso, who in her 2013 The Guardians: An Elegy For A Friend writes of a conversation with a friend, now deceased:

Harris called one day to ask whether he should clean his toilet seat or just buy a new one. I told him to clean the old one, described with agitation a vision of a landfill occupied only by toilet seats, their owners having thrown them away rather than cleaning them, a mountain of cream-colored plastic rings flecked with dark yellow. I don't know if he ever cleaned it. Then: Why do I remember this?

Here is one of Manguso's remaining memories of this friend, in all of its mundane glory, and it seems to me she writes with a sort of indignation present, an almost laughable disbelief. I read that passage and felt awestruck -- how true it is, how often we expect a climatic moment in real life to mirror that we'd find on a page, and how often our memory fails to deliver.

Your phrase, "the story we want to believe," reminds me of Pam Houston's title story from Cowboys are My Weakness, in which she describes a story -- one that isn't true -- that she tells often: "I've been telling it for so many years... it has become a memory and it's hard for me to remember it isn't true." I'm thinking of this current generation of essayists and memoirists who are upfront about the slipperiness of memory, the Tim O'Brien "How to Tell a True War Story" idea regarding the difference between what happened and what seemed to happen.

You mention Sarah Manguso's The Guardians. What are some other books you admire due to their "complication of memory and truth," and how did they influence you in your own examination of those issues in Visiting Hours?

I welcome the complicated memoirist, the story that recordings or even known facts fail to verify. Manguso's work was pivotal for me, as she was one of the first I'd encountered who actively sought to engage this in-between space, to use failed memory or false memory to deepen the text's emotional significance. And, of course, it's beautiful. Dinah Lenney's Bigger Than Life also returns, again and again, to failed or else painfully lasting memory; her memoir is an interrogation as much as it is a telling. I recently read a passage, too -- one I believe you also noted, Jill -- in an advanced review copy of Lucas Mann's Lord Fear in which he writes, "What can this story be but fragments? Lies? Little packages of what we want to remember, what we want to tell?" Mann and I were classmates in graduate school, and when I read that passage, I felt everything inside of me sort of surge; I was envious of his boldness, in admiration of how much he owned that truth, one ascribed -- as far as I can tell -- to any writer who works in this genre.