I’m a full-time author and independent scholar. I’ve published twenty books and I’m the creator and editor for seven book series. I’ve been very fortunate and humbled to receive numerous awards for my work, in both nonfiction and fiction. I deliver keynote addresses at conferences and publish blogs and op-eds. I also have a very active presence on social media which is how readers usually contact me. I use social media for a mix of sharing news related to my work, promoting positivity and what I hope are inspirational messages, and sharing things in my life that I’m excited about. I share all of this so you can understand the email interaction that happened via Facebook, which this letter is responding to. See my author Facebook page often features career moments I’m really excited about, the wonderful travel opportunities my work has afforded me, or cool life experiences, like going to concerts and having a chance to meet the artist. I also post about social issues of import, but more so on my personal Facebook page than on my author page. Like everyone, I have day to day annoyances and worries, from grocery shopping to house repairs to dealing with a teenager daughter, but for the most part, my Facebook page is a stream of “highlights” because I intentionally focus on the positive in life. And quite honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time learning to live with intention and sculpt the life I want to live. So generally, that’s what I have to share, especially on my author page. That is my life. However, I recognize that by presenting your “highlight reel” people may have a false sense of your life, and how you became who they now see. This was made clear to me recently.
A couple of years ago a woman emailed me a few times through Facebook to tell me how much my academic text Method Meets Art and my first novel Low-Fat Love meant to her. They helped her forge her path during a difficult time in her studies and her life. She said I inspired her. When my novel Blue came out she emailed me again to see if there was a way to get a signed copy. It was the end of her email that really struck me and that I couldn’t let go of. She wrote: “I envy you. You’ve written these incredible books and I follow you on Facebook so I know you’ve also met Tori Amos and I love her. Your life seems perfect.”
This letter is my response to her email.
Social media can have the strange effect of skewing how our lives appear. I don’t want to contribute to any false sense of perfection. You’re right that my life is great, but not because I don’t have challenges, but rather, how I choose to deal with them. That could take a few letters to cover. For now, I’d like to tell you about how I came to write each of the three books you mentioned, which were each written secretly, and how I came to meet Tori Amos.
Let’s begin where I was when I promised myself I would write Method Meets Art. I was in jail. I was looking at the bars in front of me and a dirty metal toilet bowl to my right. The toilet bowl was out in the open in my cell. Police officers could walk by at any time. They had already treated me horribly and I was scared of them. I wondered what I would do if I needed to go to the bathroom. What would happen if I went in my clothes instead of using the toilet?
This was in the fall of 2006. I was an assistant professor at Stonehill College, a conservative Catholic school. I was up for tenure and promotion, a year early, and thus the youngest person at my institution to ever be considered for tenure. I had numerous publications, including several books with a colleague. My daughter had just turned six. Imagine how my life appeared.
We need to go back years earlier for you to understand how I got to that cell. I had my daughter Madeline when I was in graduate school. She was unplanned. Her father was an artist and writer. We were in love. He was so talented that I used to wish it would rub off on me. I was chasing his talent, his muse. Unfortunately he had no desire to earn a living which became untenable once I was having a child. He was also a recovering heroin addict with a history of self-harm, which haunted him, and us. We broke up when Madeline was a month old and I raised her on my own (with help from family). Juggling an infant, graduate school, and multiple jobs kept me busy. By the time Madeline was five I had built a decent career but by going through the motions. I didn’t feel good about any of the books my colleague and I had published together. My voice was lost. Days of creative free writing were long gone and I had lost my spark. I was also lonely. Profoundly lonely. I ended up getting back together with my ex and inviting him to move into my apartment. Everyone said I was a fool. I had no one to talk to. Honestly, I think more than anything I wanted him around in the hopes his creativity would rub off on me and that would bring me back to life.
My ex spent the next year living off of me. He was writing, painting, creating art, and everything I wanted to do, but doing nothing to earn a living. I was working my full-time job, teaching extra winter and summer session classes, and doing awful paid writing jobs to support all of us. With no time or energy for creativity I grew bitter. Eventually I wanted him out. Embarrassed, I didn’t talk to anyone about what I was dealing with. When I found out he took my ATM card and stole money out of my account, causing me to bounce a rent check, which he later admitted he did to buy drugs, I knew the time had come. I told him to leave. He refused. Things escalated into screaming and then a physical altercation in which I was forced to defend myself, all while my daughter was in her bedroom. I was shaking so hard I felt like I was having an out of body experience when I managed to leave the room in which the battle occurred to go clean up in the bathroom.
The next thing I knew the police were in my apartment. He had called them and claimed I attacked him. I was shocked and confused. When the police asked if he had assaulted me I lied to protect him. I said I just wanted him out of my apartment. I was trying to deescalate things, while unbeknownst to me he was telling a very different tale. Soon the police brought me outside where, with neighbors standing and watching, they handcuffed me. I was in shock. I didn’t understand what was happening. One cop boasted, “Nine out of ten cops would have arrested him, but I’m taking you.” I said they should be arresting him and that I had lied to protect him. They didn’t believe me and said if I did want to press charges against him, they would arrest him too but my daughter would go to social services. I pleaded with them to let me call a nearby relative to get my daughter. They refused. “What about the downstairs neighbor?” I asked. They said no. I begged them, trying to explain my daughter might not be safe. They said my only choices were to leave her there with him, or to have him arrested for assault as well, and then social services would take her. I left her. The police station was only a few minutes but the ride seemed to last an eternity. I looked out the windows at neighbors gawking. My daughter’s elementary school was on our block. How would I ever show my face there again?
There are many details from the jail: fingerprinting, mug shots, removing my belt, when they cuffed my arm to a pole but the cuff was too large for my slender wrist so they tightened it over and over again bruising me, the male officers making jokes to each other while I stood there. I begged the one woman who had come in especially for me to please have the police check on my daughter. They refused. When I finally got my phone call I didn’t know who to call. I was traumatized. I called a professor from graduate school who had become a close friend. I knew she wouldn’t judge me. Then I was put in my cell.
As I sat on the bench in that cell, looking at the metal toilet bowl, at first I was obsessed with thoughts of my daughter and her safety. But as time rolled on my thoughts scattered. Would my employer find out? Would I be denied tenure? Would I lose my job? I had spent my entire adult life in higher education, getting a Ph.D., would it be worthless now? How would I support Madeline? I had to apply to 80 jobs just to get the one I had. What if I lost it? Then I started to think about short term things. The next day Billy Collins, my favorite poet, was coming to speak at Stonehill. I had called in a favor with the Provost to wrangle an invitation to the dinner. I had been so excited. Now I would miss it. What would my excuse be? Then I started wondering about bigger things. How had I gotten here? How did I wind up in this cell? How did I wind up in a situation where I could lose everything I’d worked for? What was my role in this? Then in my mind I pleaded, Please let me get out of this. Please let me get out of this. Let Madeline be okay and let no one find out about this. Out of nowhere a Tori Amos song, “Caught a Lite Sneeze” came to me. I heard it over and over again in my mind. “Boys on my left side; Boys on my right side. Boys in the middle; And you're not here… Maybe she will; caught a lite sneeze; Dreamed a little dream; Made my own pretty hate machine.” When you’re experiencing trauma, all kinds of thoughts can come to mind. As I heard these lyrics on a loop in my mind I had three clear thoughts. If I get out of this I should go to a Tori Amos concert. And if I get out of this I’m going to make my own pretty hate machine. I am going to write the book I want to write. I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. And if I get out of this, I should try to meet Tori Amos so I can tell her about this. It may sound silly but these thoughts were all I had to hang on to.
Eventually my friend posted bail and I was released. The police escorted me home and kicked my ex out of my apartment in a horrid scene I will never forget. I had a court hearing the next morning, with a lawyer who had been hanging out in the court that morning by my side. A pretrial date was set. The details of the next few weeks aren’t important but suffice it to say, they were the worst time in my life. My attorney was convinced the press would find out and as a result my employer would find out. I could see the headline now, “Feminist Professor Arrested for Domestic Violence, Catholic College Cuts Ties.” I was convinced I would lose my job. Social services came to my home as a result of both the assault charges and my ex’s drug use and I was also sincerely afraid of losing my daughter. I was violently depressed. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I lost so much weight my bones were sticking out. At night I lay in bed thinking about suicide. I thought of every way I could do it and whether or not I would leave a note. I couldn’t manage to talk with anyone, or even watch TV or listen to music except for “Caught a Lite Sneeze” which I listened to when I was so depressed I couldn’t get in the shower. It was my lifeline; my reminder that I had goals. I wore a domestic violence sticker on my suit at my court date. My female judge dismissed the case. No one outside of my immediate circle found out anything about what happened. Social services dropped their investigation. I had made it out. That was in November of 2006.
In spring of 2007 I received tenure and promotion and until this letter, no one in my professional life ever knew about any of this. In summer of 2007 Tori Amos went on tour and my daughter and I went to four shows. We had the time of our lives. It was such a cathartic experience I bawled my eyes out leaving the last concert. In 2008 I published Method Meets Art. Only two people knew I was writing it. In the years before my night in jail I had told people I wanted to write a book about arts-based research practices, which involves researchers in any discipline adapting the tenets of the creative arts. Everyone said it was a stupid idea. Method Meets Art became my first bestseller. It enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success. It was then that I promised to always stay true to myself and trust my own creative vision. Every chapter of that book opens with a quote. The poetry chapter opens with a Billy Collins quote as a reminder of the dinner I missed. In 2015 when I released the second edition of Method Meets Art I changed all of the opening quotes, except for that one. I like to remember where the book and I come from.
By the time the first edition of Method Meet Art came out in 2008 a few things had happened. My daughter’s father was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. He asked to see me many times which I declined but I made his favorite homemade soup several times and sent it to him when my daughter visited. She told me he cried when he ate it. In happier news, I had tapped into my creative spark again, and it wasn’t dependent on anyone but me. I think that’s why I was also open to finding a partner, someone with whom I could become the best version of myself. After I fell in love with Mark, the man I later married, I started to think about relationships, those that help us build ourselves up and those that make it easy for us to fall down. That was the impetus to take the interview research I had been collecting for years with women about their relationships and identities and transform it into a novel, Low-Fat Love. The novel explores how some women settle in life and love. I wanted to tap into the loneliness we may feel as we privately struggle with poor self-esteem and dissatisfying relationships. When I released Low-Fat Love people asked me if it was scary to write my research up as fiction and put it out there. I never said it but I always wanted to say, “Dude, I decided to write Method Meets Art in freaking jail. No, writing a novel wasn’t scary.” The truth is that taking on new challenges is always a little scary. But it’s also exhilarating. It makes you feel alive. Mark was the only person who knew I was writing a novel until after I finished. When it came out it immediately struck a chord. It resonated. It was raw. Low-Fat Love also became a bestseller and some have called it a “landmark” publication. I recently released an anniversary edition of Low-Fat Love.
After Low-Fat Love hit I had an opportunity to meet Tori Amos. My daughter and I spent about twenty minutes alone with her in her dressing room after a concert. I told her how her music was my hero and I brought her copies of Method Meets Art and Low-Fat Love. When we were talking about our work she said, “I feel like we’re kindred spirits.” She gave me contact info to keep in touch with her and I’ve seen her since. She’s read my books.
Once I had fulfilled all three promises to myself from my jail bucket list, something remarkable happened. I realized I was capable of manifesting things in my life, good or bad. We all are. From then on I believed in myself in an unshakable, uncompromising way. I came to believe we have the power to write our stories every day; we have the power to build the lives we want to live. I made sweeping changes in my life including eliminating all negative relationships, getting out of book contracts that didn’t serve me, changing how I approached collaboration with colleagues, spending ample time every week with my close friends, and thinking about my energy and what I want to experience each day.
My ex beat the odds and lived for six years after his diagnosis. When he was admitted into the hospital, near the end, I spoke to him for the first time since the altercation in my apartment. I forgave him and told him I was sorry he was so ill. After that he decided to stop all care other than pain management. He was ready to die. That weekend my daughter and I listened to a Tori Amos song called “Garlands” over and over again. The song is about a painter and his girlfriend who are on the verge of a breakup. They’re supposed to meet at Washington Square Park in New York. In the song, there is a half open window, symbolizing the state of their relationship. When they took my ex off of everything so that he could pass, the half open window took on new meaning for me. Days later, I was home alone when I found out he finally passed. It hit me hard. Much harder than I thought it would. I was overwhelmed by what I came to think of as messy grief. In more than one way, he was one of the greatest forces in my life. How could it be that he wasn’t alive? I was completely overwhelmed. After he died I turned on “Garlands”, opened a midnight blue notebook, and started to write. I was just looking for a way to get through the day. I wrote Washington Square Park and then I wrote down all of the shades of blue that were flooding my mind. The next thing I knew, I was writing my novel, Blue. Notwithstanding the grief that caused me to write, or maybe in some ways because of it, Blue is the most hopeful thing I’ve ever written. At the core, it celebrates the possibilities in each of us. Writing it was the most joyful experience of my life. I would forget to eat or drink, so immersed in the storyworld. Only three people knew about Blue. I was writing it for myself. It’s absolutely my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I love it so much.
I’m not surprised the books readers approach me about the most are Method Meets Art, Low-Fat Love and Blue. I think when we hit a nerve within ourselves, we’re more likely to impact others. I guess what these books have really done for me is woken me up to my own life, my own voice, and the possibilities inside of me. And in that way they are my greatest teachers. Through my work, I have carved a life I truly love living. Along the way I found things that are available to all of us: engagement, purpose, and joy. What you see on Facebook isn’t perfection; it’s enthusiasm.
Author’s note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2016 International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry Conference in the “Women Who Write” panel. Thank you to my fellow panelists and the generous audience for your kindness during what was very difficult for me.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College). She is widely considered an international leader in the fields of arts-based research and qualitative inquiry. [...]