Adam Mansbach’s new book, I Had a Brother Once, is the story of his brother’s suicide and the aftermath of shock and grief that the author experienced and continues to grapple with, a decade later. The book is written in the form of a long poem that details the complexities of writing about another person’s life and what it means to really be able to tell our own stories. I got to talk with Adam about the process of writing this book, how the writing itself was a kind of ritual, and how the poetic form of the book influenced and allowed for the delicate and emotive to come forward.
VA: I Had a Brother Once is so different from your other novels, screenplays, comedy and cultural writing. How did the notion or imperative arise to write such a personal book?
AM: I never stopped thinking about writing about my brother between the time he died and the time, eight years later, when I sat down and began to work on this book. I had been very prolific and productive, but there was always a nagging sense that I was doing all of that work in avoidance of writing some version of this book, of his death. And my grief loomed large and made me feel like everything else I was doing was relatively easy.
I could never figure out how to write this. Partly, I think I wasn’t emotionally ready yet. And partly, I found myself stymied by questions of form and architecture. I would stop myself before I started, because I would get caught up in trying to figure out the structure and the scaffolding of whatever this piece was going to be.
VA: How did it get to be a poem?
AM: Poetry was one of the first things I did; I used to write poetry a lot. I used to rhyme, and write lyrics all the time. And I also used to be a roadie for the jazz drummer Elvin Jones. So I’ve spent a tremendous amount of my life in jazz clubs and around jazz musicians.
A couple of years ago, my friend Marc Bamuthi Joseph commissioned me to write something for a performance at SF Jazz, so I wrote an elegy for Phife from A Tribe Called Quest who had died very recently. And then I performed it throughout the week with this band, and I was in conversation and communion with a bunch of other poets, and it got me back in touch with the power of poetry at its finest. I came off of that week on a poetry and performance high and it happened to be exactly the week that my brother would have turned 40. So I think the experience of spending all that time with that band and performing and getting back in touch with poetry, combined with the potency of that date, put me in a certain frame of mind.
There’s a consciousness that I that I’ve carried with me since (my brother) died, that every time I repeat a certain set of facts or talking points, whatever version I put forth, it concretizes that version a little bit more.
I wrote to the exclusion of all else for the next three weeks, and I wrote the book in that time. It was a very different process from anything else I’ve ever written. I don’t want to mystify the process at all, I very much dislike when artists shroud their process with some kind of mystery. I just wrote it fast: it took me three weeks, but it also took me eight years and three weeks.
I wrote very intuitively. I didn’t always know why I was beginning a section as I did, or how it was going to tie in. But I had faith that it would, that it existed there for a reason and that I would find my way into it by the end of that section. I learned a lot while writing. There were things I put on the page that I didn’t need to filter or process because they’d been with me a long time. Then there were other things that I discovered very much in the process of writing, connections I had never made, so it was a pretty intense process. I didn’t do a whole lot of high-quality parenting in those three weeks.
VA: How much do you think the structure of the poem influenced how you wrote the book?
AM: It allowed me to move very freely from idea to idea, from scene to scene. Poetry allows you to make a lot of connections implicitly or simply by proximity. Just by juxtaposing an idea with another, or a scene with another, the connection is forged in a way that would have to be much more explicit in an essay, or would be much more heavy-handed in a screenplay, or would have to be articulated somehow by a character or a narrator in a novel. So yeah, it allowed me to move very, very quickly. And it prevented me from having to slow down, to build it out in the ways that like fiction would have required of me. It let me be fleet and nimble and also pare it down to just what I wanted to say with nothing else, nothing excessive, nothing ornamental.
VA: And I think it really works. The book is so direct as a result of that decision not to answer to anything – it’s just the direct telling of the story. You wrote this: ‘Keeping this the steering wheel perfectly straight / not to make things legible and impose structure and plot / what are the rules of this endeavor?’ It seems like you struggled at the beginning of the book to try and figure that out. Did you arrive at an answer?
AM: I think part of the process for me here was the realization that paradox and the multiplicity of possibilities that I present in the book didn’t necessarily have to be resolved or hone down to one answer. Paradox can be something that you don’t resolve as much as just hold and be at ease with the holding of. There’s a lot in the book around my desire to tell the story; telling stories is what we do. It’s the single thing that makes us human. Maybe also cooking over a flame.
But I’m also at war with myself, because it’s butting up against the knowledge that if I do tell the story in this kind of linear, singular way, this is my brother’s story. This is the story of my brother’s death. It suggests that I could really ever have that one answer. And there’s a consciousness that I that I’ve carried with me since he died, that every time I repeat a certain set of facts or talking points, whatever version I put forth, it concretizes that version a little bit more. And there becomes this increasing risk that I begin to believe that version at the expense of whatever other versions or unknowns there are. It begins to whittle down something that I don’t understand and will never understand into something that it sounds like I do understand or that I risk no longer examining, because I have heard myself tell this story so many times that I’m now content to just go with that version, and it seems realer and realer.
Another thing that this form let me do was put out a number of ideas and then quickly, undercut them or deny that they were true, or suggest that they may be bullshit, and kind of build up a versioning series of ideas that can all exist in the liminal space of the book. So it’s building a narrative out of out of possibilities, and that’s both the narrative and the refusal to pick a narrative if that makes sense.
VA: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book for you?
AM: Writing the final lines of the book was very, very emotional. Just getting to that ending, knowing it was the end—it was painful, because I knew that I was done, and I didn’t want to be done in a way. And in another way, I was desperate to be done. Part of me wanted to continue writing the book forever, because I wanted to get everything in and I wanted to tell it as completely as I could. Another part of me felt like it was so draining and grueling that I couldn’t wait to be done.
(After suicide) There’s a sense in which every interaction that you remember with the person is now shaded differently, and you call into question your own perception, your own beliefs.
I can’t even read the final lines now without getting emotional. Reading the audio book was also very hard. It’s funny, because I had all of these elaborate plans about how I was planning to perform the book, pre-pandemic. The book is not very long; I had notions of performing the entire book with some kind of musical accompaniment and some visual stuff, mainly just me standing in front of an audience in maybe a theater space of some kind, reading the book. I thought that that would be an interesting journey to take an audience on, and it felt like part of the process to me.
But when I sat down to record the audio book in the sterile, anodyne setting of a recording studio, I was breaking down and close to tears every five minutes, and I was like, wow, this might be a little much to ask an audience to go through with me. Maybe it’s good that I’m not out there performing this in front of people. This might make everybody uncomfortable. And there’s also the risk that I would get so used to reading it, that I am no longer accessing those emotions when I do. Neither of those seemed great to me.
VA: From a medical point of view, your brother’s death was not mysterious: it was death by suicide. But for you and your family, there were only questions after David’s death. How did the process of writing this book start to answer those questions and were you able to come to an understanding, for yourself and also for other members of your family and people who love your brother as well?
AM: I’m getting a lot of feedback, both from people who knew my brother, and from strangers. I’m getting very intense personal emails from folks who have experienced this kind of loss, who don’t really want anything from me, they just want to tell me that the book meant something to them and to tell their stories a little bit.
The book rippling into the world has been both very gratifying and intense, and in some ways, unexpected. I mean, you never expect those emails, even if you expect to get them, you never expect them when they come. So that’s been quite something.
Making meaning is an interesting idea, and it’s certainly something I grapple with in the book, but in balance with that idea is the meaning that is upended, complicated and erased by the act of suicide and the way that it ripples backward through the life and the relationship that you felt you had some handle on.
There’s a sense in which every interaction that you remember with the person is now shaded differently, and you call into question your own perception, your own beliefs. You look at the artifacts, you look at photographs… there are photographs of my brother, where I used to think he was looking at the camera, or I used to think he was smiling. And now, I wonder if he’s doing either of those things, whether the expression on his face is painted on as a mask, whether he’s looking at the camera or gazing past it into a secret that only he knows.
At some point, someone presented me with the idea that if the grief was not properly dealt with and vanquished in some sense, it was going to like escape and go hide for a while, go hole up in a cave and lick its wounds, and lift a bunch of weights and drink a bunch of protein shakes and return at some later date, bigger, stronger, more fearsome, and then you would really be fucked.
When I went to his apartment and saw the photos he and his wife had for the first time after his death. It struck me that these were less mementos of a life lived as desperate reminders, messages from her to him trying to ground him in this life, and remind him that all of these things had happened, and that they had gone to all of these places.
There are stories that I tell about my brother, that I’ve always told about my brother. And now when I tell them, I’ve got to make a decision every time about whether to end them on a different kind of a note. Like, there’s a story in the book that I tell about him taking off his braces as a kid. That was a funny story about what a what a stubborn, yet competent, eccentric kid, he was. He had said he didn’t want braces, and our parents made him get them anyway. He was like, ‘Fuck that.’ And he took them off himself. He did a really good job, he sterilized all the equipment. Even the orthodontist had to admit that he was quite good at this.
That’s a cute story. But now I have to decide every time, how do I end that story? Do I leave it alone? Is that the story? Or do I also have to, as I do in the book, amend that with some notion about the fact that this was a kind of reclamation of his own sovereignty over his body. And that that act in some ways, is one that he repeats by killing himself.
That also goes to narrative and authority: there’s a way in which it feels appropriate, and that’s where my mind goes, when I tell that story. Now, there’s another part that’s like, ‘No, you don’t have to be the one to frame it like that. You don’t have to end that story.’ That way, you can let that story exist as it was. And that also goes to the framing of his life by him and the way that he chooses to position his life at the end of his life, and whether that’s reliable and whether it should be seen and accepted as such or not. And these are all things that I’m constantly arguing with myself about and arguing about on the page in the book.
VA: You talk a lot about masks in the book. The background to your brother’s death was that at the same time you had just released a book that had become hugely successful (Go the F**k to Sleep) and you had to show up to various publicity events and talk about it while covering what was really going on for you emotionally. I was thinking about the effect of being in the spotlight during such a fragile or vulnerable time of your life. How is it this time around? What has been the experience for you of talking about I Had a Brother Once again and again in a promotional capacity?
AM: It feels in a way like the closing of a circle. 10 years ago, I was doing a truly unfathomable amount of media. And for a solid year, it didn’t stop. It wasn’t always the same level of intensity, but it was media from around the world, because the book kept getting published in other countries and other languages and I would be doing media in those countries. It was relentless, and it was all over this little book; there are only so many questions that anybody wanted to ask.
And that entire time I was unreasonably frightened that someone would ask me about my brother. That was a persistent fear of mine, a fear that intellectually I knew was very unlikely to happen. Nobody does that level of research to interview the fuckin asshole who wrote ‘Go the F**k to Sleep’; nobody’s looking for a gotcha moment. Nobody’s gonna blindside you with the personal tragedy you just suffered.
It was a bizarre fear, but it wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. It was a world where suddenly I’m waking up to find that Jennifer Garner is reading my book on the internet, or Cardi B is on The Tonight Show reading the book, or a Christian group in New Zealand is trying to get the book banned.
To come full circle and actually be talking about this instead of desperately trying to avoid talking about this does feel good.
To come full circle and actually be talking about this instead of desperately trying to avoid talking about this does feel good. I feel very supported and loved in the publishing of this book—my friends and my community have been very supportive.
A number of people have asked me before the interview, ‘Is there anything you don’t want to talk about?’ That’s a level of care that I’m frankly completely unused to. And of course, my answer is, no, it’s an open book; the book exists, and I put everything I had into it. So there’s nothing that is off limits for me—I’m here to talk about this now.
VA: I think a lot about ritual. There’s formal ritual, which has its own uses, and informal ritual, which people can make for themselves in the wake of grief or in moments of pain. You go into that, and you talk about these daily activities and rituals that you had, like having your coffee, going to the gym, changing your daughter’s diaper. I was wondering if you could talk more about that, about how ritual manifested for you and how it moved you ever since your brother’s death?
AM: Ritual was something that was very vexing and confusing and in some ways, anxiety-producing for me because my family is Jewish, but very secular. The range is from actively hostile towards organized religion to grudgingly accepting of the existence of organized religion. I think I say in the book something like, Judaism is the Hotel California of religions: you can check out but you can never leave.
At some point, someone presented me with the idea that if one did not grieve or mourn properly and fully, if the grief was not properly dealt with and vanquished in some sense, it was going to like escape and go hide for a while, go hole up in a cave and lick its wounds, and lift a bunch of weights and drink a bunch of protein shakes and return at some later date, bigger, stronger, more fearsome, and then you would really be fucked.
Whatever the religious belief, it gives you structure and in the absence of that structure, I found myself casting around and wondering if ritual was ritual if you were inventing it.
If you didn’t mourn the right way now, then you would have to contend with this grief that was even worse.
The idea that there is a way to do things… I mean that’s what ritual is, right? It’s the way to do things right: mourn for 40 days, sit Shiva for a week, bury the dead within 48 hours if you’re Muslim, unveil the headstone a year after the death, don’t bury the body for seven days; whatever the religious belief, it gives you structure and in the absence of that structure, I found myself casting around and wondering if ritual was ritual if you were inventing it. Wondering if ritual was applicable if you were just going through the motions.
The moments when I come into contact with folks who have an uncomplicated understanding of ritual or of religion are big moments. I think about my friend Emery who took me to the airport the morning after my brother died and who is somebody with a strong Christian faith tradition who put his hands on me and prayed. And it was utterly comforting and utterly confusing and bizarre to me and underlined that assurance and how adrift I was.
The writing of the book itself was a kind of ritual. And as you say, also the daily motions of life that took on an air of ritual, of regularity and continuity. Ritual is something I still struggle with how much of it I want, how much of it I want to implement, what compromises I’m willing to make to allow my children to have more of it than I had.