Many writers find memoir especially challenging because they are living in a story that does not have a set ending. Librarian Vivian Conan says that in writing her memoir Losing the Atmosphere: A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood, the conclusion of her decades-long project changed as her life and relationship with multiple personality disorder (MPD) shifted.
The memoir follows Conan as she begins to unravel several distinct personalities who occupy her mind. With the guidance of therapists, Conan would later learn that the loving personalities inside her head acted as coping mechanisms to protect her from the emotional trauma she experienced as a child. We talked to Conan about her new book (which comes out September 29), her experience with writing about traumatic events, and what living with MPD is like.
Narratively: You’d written articles about living with multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder), including one for Narratively, but what first made you interested in writing a book about your life?
Vivian Conan: I wanted to write an article about how hard it was to live in the world and go to work and do regular things when you have multiple personalities. But I wasn’t going to make it about me. I was going to make it generic. I brought in this article that I’d started to write [to a writing workshop]. I was mortified. I was really upset. I said, “No one’s gonna like this. Who’s gonna be interested in me?”
And all of a sudden, the class said, “Wow, this is so interesting!” And [my teacher] said, “Oh, this is so interesting! But we want more about you. Why don’t you put more about you in it?” And then she said, “Why don’t you consider writing a book, not an article?” And this whole thing was just mind-boggling to me. But the class helped me come out of the closet. It helped me not be ashamed. I saw they were interested, and it was like a shot in the arm.
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Narratively: The book is quite ambitious and spans many years of your life, from growing up in a tumultuous home in Brooklyn to healing your relationship with your mother toward the end of her life. What was the writing process like?
Conan: If I had known ahead of time that it was going to be 25 years, I don’t know that I would have done it. I had an article about MPD come out in New York magazine under a pseudonym. I got a lot of requests from major publishers, but, the problem was, I was still working in corporate America at the time, and I didn’t want to use my real name. Because I wouldn’t put my real name on the book, only one publisher would take it. So I signed a contract with them, and I was supposed to have it ready in 10 months. And I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a breeze!” In 10 months, I was not ready. So, my agent requested more time, and I was not ready the second time. And finally, they said, “This is gonna be a good book, but we really can’t wait.”
I am a different writer than I was 25 years ago, and I’m in a different place in my head — in my healing. So at the time, the story I was going to tell is not the story that I eventually did tell. The journey is interesting; it’s not one that I knew I was going to take when I started out.
Narratively: You’ve mentored young writers through the organization Girls Write Now. What advice do you give your mentees or others who hope to write about their own lives?
Conan: The writing of a book is different than the writing of a journal. In the writing of a journal, you spill out your guts and emotions, and you can get really upset. When you’re writing a book, you need to make art out of it. Are you presenting the story so that the reader is going to get it? If not, you have to change your sentence. You have to change the shape of your chapter. So in that sense, it forces you to step back.
This is another thing I tell my mentees: They say, “Well, nothing I write is any good. I’ll never be a writer.” And I say, “My first drafts stink, and my second drafts stink, too.” You know, maybe by the fifth or the sixth draft it starts getting good. So just write out how you feel, and then you can edit it later. But if it’s not on paper, you have nothing to edit.
Narratively: In the book, you write about some deeply troubling and traumatic moments in your life. How did you stay safe and protected while writing about those events? How did you pace yourself?
Conan: [Having] multiple personality helps because you have internal divisions. The writer part of me doesn’t have to feel what the other parts of me are feeling. I could cut off my perception or my feeling about [an event]. Like, I could know it happened, but I could not be upset about it at all.
A lot of my parts were frozen at the age they were. I had 6-year-olds and I had a teenager, so I had more recall than most people do. People do say to me, “How did you remember all of that?” Right now, when I’m much better, I don’t have much recall. It’s not that I forgot, but I don’t have the fly-on-the-wall recall, as if it’s happening now. But I did, before [my personalities became] more blended.
But the other thing is — and I was very lucky in this — my mother, toward the end of her life, really wanted to make friends with me, and she really wanted to make amends. And I asked her if she would share her memories with me, and she was more than happy. She found it cathartic for herself. And she asked me many times did I forgive her? And I said, yes, I did. And I came to genuinely like her and care about her toward the end.
Narratively: There’s a stigma surrounding mental illness, and MPD/DID, in particular, is often misconstrued or exaggerated in media depictions and news reports. What do you hope readers will learn by reading a more nuanced perspective about what it’s like to live with MPD/DID?
Conan: What I want people to take away from this is that the girl next door has MPD. I’m an ordinary person who things happened to, and this was my way of dealing with them. It’s basically a memoir about having a mental illness and healing from it, but it’s also a story about growing up in Brooklyn, having a family, going to college, having a boyfriend.
The way I look at it, there are some people with a chronic illness like diabetes. They need to have treatment for their whole life, but they can live a regular life as long as they have it. So if someone’s in therapy and they get “better” but they still need maintenance, it keeps them on a steady track.
Insurance companies don’t understand that. And, you know, I had a lot of problems with money paying for therapy. Insurance says you have six sessions. “Your therapist is gonna figure something out in six sessions, and then we’re cutting you off.” People don’t heal on the schedule of insurance companies.
Narratively: How have you come to understand your illness? What do you appreciate about the way your mind works?
Conan: When I first realized I had multiple personality, I was in awe of myself. I said, “Wow, I have all of these people inside of me — there’s a whole world inside me.” And also, all of the literature kept saying how adaptive multiple personality was. It was a creative solution to get rid of a problem that a kid can’t get rid of any other way. I did not think of that as a disorder. I did not have empathic grown-ups around me, so I created my own empathy. This was all self-preservation.
And so yeah, I am in awe of it. I mean, I was not always happy. It also created a lot of turmoil. But I don’t wish this never happened. If I look back on my life, sometimes I say, “Well, I never got married. I never had kids.” You know, I could moan about that. But on the other hand, I have three wonderful nephews and I have these two girls [whom I mentor]. And it is what it is. I can’t cry over spilled milk, and I’m happy with who I am.