by Natalie Sprite
Ariel Leve grew up in a New York penthouse. Her mother was part of a circle that included Andy Warhol, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth and Norman Mailer.
Michael Cathcart is clearly besotted by the notion of a New York childhood where Andy Warhol might stick his head into your bedroom while you’re doing your homework. “It sounds like a dream,” he says.
“I would have swapped it for a childhood where I felt safe,” says Leve.
They talk about noise. The lack of regular bedtimes. For a while, it sounds like maybe the problem was just too many parties. Too much glitter and noise. Too much Andy Warhol in the doorway when you just wanted to get your homework finished.
But then Cathcart says, “Tell us about the game, ‘Being Born’.”
Leve doesn’t want to talk about ‘Being Born’. She would prefer we read the book. This is a motif that will run through the whole interview.
It’s left to Cathcart to explain that ‘Being Born’ was a game where eight year old Ariel would be invited into her mother’s bed and given the role of reenacting her own birth.
The room zings with a boggled kind of curiosity. What exactly does that mean? Was there a naked vagina involved?
Apparently, yes. Her mother was naked. But Leve is clear that it wasn’t “titillating or salacious”. Just very, very odd. A massive lack of boundaries.
“And one day, you bought a friend over,” prompts Cathcart, “and the friend played Being Born as well.”
“That’s right. And that friend was never allowed to come over again,” says Leve and we laugh, although it can’t have been very funny to an eight year old.
Leve’s parents separated when she was two. Leve’s father moved to Thailand where Leve spent the summers for five years of her childhood.
Her father is sitting in the front row, now. Cathcart mentions this twice. Once before saying, “Your mother would say to you, if your father really loved you he wouldn’t have gone so far away.”
You can see Leve recoil at this, a psychic stumble. “Yes, my mother did say that. She said quite a lot of things you should not say to a child… I don’t know why you would say that.”
So why didn’t her father file for custody?
Leve’s response to this question is careful – as it would be, with Dad sitting right there in the front row. She talks very generally about how custody issues were different, then. How she doesn’t blame her father. He was a good parent.
As the interview goes on, her language becomes increasingly distant. She refers to her trauma in general terms. She uses the third person when talking about herself.“ Growing up with a narcissist, and having no boundaries as a child, does impact on one.”
I can feel the interview narrowing as she become less open. And you can see Cathcart trying to find a way through. He talks to her – journalist to journalist – about what they are doing here. “I’m not laying myself on the line. I’m creating an opportunity where you can lay yourself on the line.”
Except that Leve doesn’t want to lay herself on the line.
“Was she ever physically violent?” Cathcart asks at one point.
“Uh..Yes,” says Leve and then she puts the microphone down on tablecloth between them.
The room is very quiet. A breeze comes through. Overhead the lamps swing wildly for a moment, then go still.
“Do you want to talk about the ways that happened?” asks Cathcart. For the first time, he seems uncertain, “Or, or not?”
She picks up the microphone again, but really it’s only later, when she reads from the book that you feel her story in an intimate way.
It wasn’t the loudest and scariest explosions that caused the most damage. It wasn’t the discernible traumas – the sudden death of my surrogate mother, nor the physical violence I endured; being slapped, punched, kicked, pinched and attacked during arguments. It wasn’t the vile and abusive words that sprayed over me… What did the real damage was beneath the surface – her denial that these incidents ever occurred and the accusation that I was looking to punish her with my unjustified anger. The erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse.
I understand why she would prefer us all to read the book. Her writing is powerful. She can be open on the page.
Leve’s mother is still alive. In the book, she’s called Suzanne. But Google knows her as Sandra Hochman, American poet, novelist and documentary filmmaker.
Jon Ronson interviewed Leve for the Guardian, and then he interviewed her mother.
This is what Hochman had to say about An Abbreviated Life. “This book is humiliating. It’s made me cry. It’s made me feel suicidal. Parents are people. I’m a human being. I’m a great writer. And I devoted myself to her. She turned out pretty good.”
When Cathcart reads this out, Leve arcs right up. “Yes, you’ve read a part of it and you haven’t read the other…”
Meeting her challenge, he keeps reading her mother’s words to her. “I gave her the gift of the gods. I feel that she owes me respect. Such a slap in the face.” Cathcart looks up from the page, “Go on,” he says to her, “What’s the important part?”
But she won’t bite. Her body is tilted as far away from his as she can get without changing chairs. The shoulder closest to him is raised. A small round wall. “I think people should read the whole thing in context… She has the right to speak out… and I think readers can judge for themselves.”
This is what I do, later, and really Ronson is clear that the mother is not the victim here. That, as Cathcart does finally concede, Leve’s version of her is pretty accurate.
Just before the session closes, a young woman in the audience will ask Leve if she feels healed. “Healed is a very broad term,” says Leve. “I am changed. I no longer feel like I’m on guard all the time.”
Watching her body, it seems to me that she is still very much on guard, at least today. She doesn’t seem ready for the consequences of publishing this story.
Twice this afternoon Cathcart asks her, “We all understand why you write this book, but why did you publish it?”
She seems uncertain herself. “I wrote this book because I had to. I had not really thought about what it would be like to have the book out in the world, especially as my mother is still alive.” And then her shoulders drop. Something seems to settle and then she says quietly, clearly. “But I did not want to wait until she’d left this earth to feel free.”
Ariel Leve is an award-winning senior writer and columnist who was on contract at The Sunday Times Magazine in London for 10 years. Her memoir, An Abbreviated Life, was published in June 2016. Other books include: It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me (HarperCollins) and, with co-author Robin Morgan, 1963: the Year of the Revolution.
Guest blogger Natalie Sprite was shortlisted for the Australian Vogel Literary Award for her novel Grace Notes. She is the winner of several literary fellowships and awards. Her work has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Meanjin and Australian Award Winning Writing. She is currently in Indonesia on a 2016 AsiaLink fellowship.
Header image by Anggara Mehendra.