Ariel Leve was raised on New York’s Upper East side by a single mother who didn’t wish to compromise any aspects of her artistic lifestyle to adapt to a child’s needs. A vivacious, beautiful, award-winning poet who mixed in circles that included Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Henry Miller and Saul Bellow, Ariel’s mother was also unpredictable and disturbed, and her daughter was exposed to erratic and often traumatizing behaviours that were utterly inappropriate for a child to witness. In adulthood, Ariel was told by a therapist that she’d suffered ‘brain damage’ as a result of having to over-adapt to her mother’s disturbances.
Ariel’s remarkable memoir, An Abbreviated Life, explores – with the precision of a psychic surgeon, and in clear, penetrating language – what happened to her in childhood and the lingering effects, in adulthood, of an early life such as this.
Ariel, your mother was abandoned to a boarding school by her parents at a young age, and it seems her psychological disturbances came from a deep, irrevocable wounding around this. You would trigger her fears of abandonment, often inadvertently and only by trying to live a normal life, and this would result in great outbursts of aggression.
What were the most profound psychological effects of not feeling emotionally safe at home?
I think the most fundamental thing that a child needs is to feel safe in the world. The circumstances that you’re in can be dangerous, physically – there are plenty of children who are in an environment that geographically isn’t safe, you know, in a war zone… but if your parents give you a feeling that you are safe, you never feel in danger. If you don’t have that feeling, you always feel in danger, even if your circumstances are physically safe. I grew up in a home that had a lot of privilege, but I felt in emotional danger.
In your memoir, you’ve written: ‘I had no choice but to exist in the sea that she swam in. It was a fragile ecosystem where the temperature changed without warning. My natural shape dissolved and I became shapeless.’ Could you describe that sensation of being shapeless?
I was always on guard as a child, because my mother’s moods were so unpredictable. I had to be constantly aware of how to manage her moods in order for me to feel calm. As long as I could soothe her anxiety then I could have some peace. That’s what I mean by being shapeless, because I was adapting to her moods rather than having my own moods come first.
‘I’ve seen her lash out with vituperative fire and unsparing claws. When she felt abandoned. Left out. Not cared for. Living for her was a crisis in progress that had to be shared. An emergency that had to be tended to. A calamity. A threat. A catastrophe. Unaware of the harm she caused to others.’
– An Abbreviated Life (HarperCollins, US edition, p 260)
What parts of yourself did you have to shut down, in order to avoiding triggering her?
I couldn’t be angry, because that was an attack. Even though I was acting legitimately to circumstances that would make anybody feel angry, my anger was disavowed. Or I was castigated or punished for having it. I had to tread carefully: one example that comes to mind is if I wanted to be with friends, she felt abandoned. So I had to cater to that. And when I say ‘cater to that,’ I mean I felt I was causing her to suffer.
It sounds like a lonely upbringing. You recount times when your mother scared your friends away, or your friends’ parents forbade them from visiting you. How did this affect your friendships – when friendships were surely what you needed most?
Actually my mother could be very magnetic and fun for my friends to be around, because she was essentially like a child herself. My friends would love to come over to my house and play, because there were no boundaries. Their parents were much more conventional, and they had all these rules. My house was an eccentric playground, or as one friend said, it was like ‘going to Disneyland’. But then it would flip. I never knew which way it was going to go.
Your mother was cultured and intelligent… from an outside perspective, your apartment on the Upper East Side, filled with books and art and parties with New York’s cultural elite, sounds like the kind of home many would have loved to grow up in.
You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. I think there’s much that I appreciated about my upbringing, but at the same time, emotionally, it was so stressful for me as a child. I didn’t care about these people’s accomplishments. I just cared about my needs being met – and they weren’t. It didn’t matter to me how cultured and how extravagant everybody was.
‘Warhol was a spooky figure with white hair and a black turtleneck who didn’t smile.’
– An Abbreviated Life (HarperCollins, US edition, p 112)
You capture the sense of the ‘shadow side’ of the art world in 1960s New York: in the book you have written, ‘Works of art excused misconduct. Narcissism flourished. Bad behavior was indulged…. she was surrounded by others who, like her, nested in the turbulence of living.’
It was a very indulgent time I think. People who came into that orbit were equally self-absorbed.
When you met one guest from your mother’s parties many years later, he said, “My God, I always wondered how that little girl would survive. I thought her only choices were suicide or murder.” Did that give you a brutal jolt of reality?
It did. Aside from the fact that it’s such a great line, it stuck with me, because it really resonated. Having had my reality challenged so much, to have somebody else say “this is the way it was” gave me a sense of “Ok, I’m not crazy.”
‘My mother made me doubt and question my perceptions.’
– An Abbreviated Life (HarperCollins, US edition, p 90)
Let’s talk about gaslighting. Some of the most chilling words in An Abbreviated Life are, ‘My reality was cancelled.’ How, as a child, did you reconcile the conflict between what you knew to be true, and having the opposite told to you by your mother?
As a child, I don’t think I was able to understand what was going on, because I didn’t have the intellectual capacity. It hadn’t developed yet. It was very confusing. But I was defiant, which is what saved me. “Don’t tell me this didn’t happen. This happened.” That rage, even though I didn’t know it at the time, was actually self protecting.
One of the most powerful scenes in the book occurs in a Japanese restaurant where, [in your early twenties] you meet your mother for lunch, and confront her with the words ‘child abuse’ for the first time. Her response is: “What about mommy abuse? No one ever talks about that.”
Did your mother believe that her behavior had been admirable at all times?
This is what was tricky, because she could take accountability and I would believe her, but then it would evaporate. It didn’t sustain.
Yet at the time you believed that she was experiencing remorse.
I did. I believe that when she said, “I didn’t mean it,” that she really didn’t mean it. And that’s where the tricky part comes in – because if someone is hurting you, and they don’t mean to hurt you, but they continue to hurt you, what do you do?
‘I hate you. I love you. You’re a moron. I never said that. You’re the most important person in the world to me. I wish you were never born…. You should be grateful. You should be happy. You’re a liar – I never did that. You’re jealous of me…’
– An Abbreviated Life (HarperCollins, US edition, p 4)
You’ve said that the cumulative effect of your upbringing was for you to hide, but by writing this book you couldn’t be exposing yourself more fully. Was writing the book a kind of ‘medicine’ that you needed, to break the habit of hiding?
First of all, as a writer, you’re always in control of what you choose to share. I wrote about it in a way that felt safe.
Secondly, there was something about this subject that compelled me to have to write it. It was a book that I felt had to be written, whether it was published or not.
At one point in the book you use the term ‘to slaughter the past.’
It was an act of redemption. The tyranny of the past no longer corroded the present. And then, once the book was out in the world, people responded to it; people who have had similar experiences or have had some kind of brush with this trauma. They said, “Thank you for helping me feel less alone.”
Do you find that a lot of readers want to share their stories with you now?
That has been absolutely the most gratifying part of this: the letters, the emails, the people who have reached out to me, shared their stories, said “my mother was like yours”, or my father, or my husband, or my wife…
You say that because of your mother, you are a writer. Do you have mixed feelings about that?
No. I don’t. She has said, “Thanks to me you’re a writer” – you know, she wants all the credit. I’m happy to give her the credit. Really, I’m my own person. I’m my own writer. But she was always a champion of my creativity and I appreciate and value that, because there were things that she could give me – and that was highly valuable. She was very generous that way.
Header image is by Yaeko Masada. All other photos of Ariel Leve are by Rio Helmi.
BRAVA List: Ariel Leve
Greatest fear: Having fear rule my life.
Greatest extravagance: Indulging procrastination.
Talent would you most like to have: To be able to sing.
Your greatest achievement: Writing this book.
Most treasured possession: My laptop, because it has my entire life on it.
Currently reading: Mary Karr’s The Art of the Memoir