Friday, January 20, 2012
An Intriguing Interview with Theresa Weir (aka Anne Frasier), Author of THE ORCHARD
(On the night of January 11th, I sat down with best selling author Theresa Weir, who also writes thrillers under the name Anne Frasier, to discuss her latest major release--her memoir, THE ORCHARD. Although the book has gotten a great amount of attention for its study of American farm life and the environmental damage of pesticides, I saw it as something much more dark and personal. Read on to see just how deep we delved.)
Jason: Hey there! Great to see you tonight!
Theresa: Hi! This is my first time using internet chat, so go easy on me.
Jason: Piece of cake.
Theresa: I have my glass of wine, so I'm all set.
Jason: Excellent! We should all have a glass of wine. Maybe the Clarity readers would like a glass. Anyone??
So your book, THE ORCHARD, is a memoir. It touches a bit on your childhood, but mainly focuses on your life from your early twenties through your marriage to Adrian, an apple farmer in Wisconsin. I was very much engrossed in the book. The people were marked by a particular kind of isolation and darkness, which they struggled to understand and overcome.
I'm probably going to focus on very different things than most of the other interviewers you've talked to. Are you ready?
Theresa: Bring it!
Jason: At the beginning of the book, you establish a fundamental theme, an undercurrent, with two mini-stories. One of them is a legend, and the other is fact, because it happened to you personally. Tell me a little bit about the legend--the little girl whose father was a pesticide salesman. Set it up for us.
Theresa: This is a story I used to hear all of the time. About the pesticide salesmen who drank pesticide and herbicide to prove that it was "safe." You can Google it and find people who witnessed it. I don't know if Lily, his daughter, was real.
(BTW, the wine is EXCELLENT.)
Jason: Lily's father used to take her on sales calls, right? The father would speak to groups of farmers and try to sell the pesticide. The father said that the pesticide is safe enough to drink. So he drank it.
Theresa: Yes. The herbicide companies were so desperate to prove that the products were safe.
Jason: But he didn't stop there. He shoved the glass in the face of his little girl and tells her to drink it too.
Theresa: We all tend to do what we're told. (Until we wake up.)
Jason: In the course of the book, we learn that pesticides are anything but safe. In fact, apple farmers had a tendency to die of uncommon forms of cancer. But that's not why I find the legend so intriguing. Parents are supposed to nurture and protect their children, aren't they?
Theresa: Right. And children trust their parents to do what is right.
Jason: This father uses his daughter in a particularly devastating way. He puts his needs (financial/reputation) so far ahead of hers that he is willing to make her drink poison. And she does. Why? Is more than just doing what you're told?
Theresa: I think the father and his daughter represented what was going on in the whole farming community. People believing what they want to believe.
Jason: Lily has learned a terrible lesson. Not only can she not count on her father to protect and nurture her, but he is willing to directly harm her. She has learned that she is unsafe at the most basic level. That she is alone. She probably drank it because she trusted him. Even though her mind was screaming not to trust him in that moment. We don't want to believe such things are happening when they are. In midst of the storm of emotions, we default to the assumption of trust. We only tend to accept the horrible truth later.
Theresa: Exactly. And children in farm families are sacrificed for the farm. I don't know if I can say for money, because a lot of it deals with a lifestyle and culture. It might actually go back to when farmers had a lot of children in order to help farm.
Jason: ~QUIRKY QUESTION ALERT~ I want to ask you to put yourself in the shoes of that little girl for a moment. Imagine that your father, the salesman, is now very old and has dementia. One night sitting with him in a quiet, darkened nursing home room, your mind turns introspective as you watch him sleep. You are grown and married. You are not outwardly affected by your childhood, but may very well be internally. What do you say to him as he sleeps? What do you speak in that dark, quiet room?
Theresa: It's a tough thing to deal with a father who possibly abused and neglected you as a child. Because of the fact that now he's a vegetable, and you can't really say anything. There is nothing to say. You want to know why, but he's too far gone to even know that he's done anything. And it's funny that Alzheimer's patients often rewrite history and see themselves as the hero of their own stories.
Jason: I can see that. There is too much tangled up to even say. Even if it is just out loud to yourself, and he won't hear it. It doesn't feel like anything is worth saying, because it doesn't unravel the mess.
Theresa: I see everybody as victims. Maybe I'm too soft, but that's how I see it.
Jason: The second little story is something that happened to you. A neighbor, an adult woman, badgered you into eating wild mushrooms that she prepared. You didn't feel comfortable saying no to her. What happened afterward?
Theresa: Ah, yes. I ate the mushroom, then found out it was poisonous and that I would die a horrible death. (Of course, it wasn't poisonous.) So I waited to die. And I didn't tell anybody, because I figured they would be mad. The book was originally titled Waiting to Die, and it was broken up into sections where different people were waiting to die.
Jason: Not even tell your mother? Did you literally think that they would be mad?
Theresa: No, I didn't tell my mother. I thought she would get mad. It was years later that I told her. I guess dying was better than facing her anger.
Jason: Here's a basic question. Was it more common for you to have to address the emotional needs of your mother, or your mother to address your emotional needs? Which statement sounds more natural to you?
Theresa: Oh, yeah. The emotional needs of my mother. Definitely.
Jason: In your story, I see you as Lily after being after being made to drink the poison. Something taught you that you were unsafe and that adults were not there to nurture and protect you. Adults were a threat. It infuses how you describe that event. It is very natural for children who have to deal with an onslaught of emotional needs from their parents to have thin emotional boundaries, because they were denied the chance to fully form before having to deal with someone else's needs. The emotional state of the parents affects them very quickly and strongly. On the other hand, they feel like if they ever have emotional needs, that they are on their own. There is no one to help them.
Theresa: So true about how I thought of adults. They couldn't be trusted.
Jason: So with that childhood behind you, we find you living in Wisconsin in your twenties working in a bar owned by your uncle. Although it was an out-of-the-way place without much excitement, I feel like you were in a state of non-threat. Not especially happy, but not especially anxious or sad either.
Theresa: Yes, I was working in the bar and living at my uncle's. That was definitely a non-threatening environment. (Illinois.) My uncle was a softie. That was the other thing. I did have a lot of other people in my life who were very positive influences.
Jason: Adrian, your future husband, walks into that bar. How did Adrian interact with you differently than other men? What was unusual about him?
Theresa: That's a tough question. He acted somewhat aloof. That's what I really recall. But I knew better. He kind of treated me like one of the boys. We were both really young and inexperienced.
Jason: In the book, he seems to really draw your attention. And your uncle's. Adrian was even dressed differently. Just a really strong sense of differentness, if that's a word.
Theresa: Well, he was the golden boy of the community. People knew of him, but he rarely left the farm. And of course he walked into the bar dressed in a black suit after attending a wedding. He was knockout handsome, so people notice him.
Jason: Your final description of him in the book was the biggest tear-jerker-kind-of-moment for me, but I get ahead of myself.... The "courtship," if we can really call it that, was certainly unconventional, wasn't it?
Theresa: Yes. I certainly didn't have any interest in going on conventional dates. That just wasn't me at all. And it wasn't him. We got married 3 months later, lol!
Jason: How was he different than the people close to you who failed you?
Theresa: I'm not sure he was that different. In some ways, I think he did fail me. Weird to say, I know. He was never threatening. I guess I could say that. He never scared me.
Jason: That was my next question, actually. Could his aloofness be similar in some ways? Aloofness forces you to bend to another's emotional needs. They aren't necessarily there for you in return.
Theresa: The one thing I never touched on in the book was how funny he was. We were really funny together. Like a comedy team. But I could never make that work in the book. It didn't fit. I wrote some funny scenes, but removed them. That's true about the emotional aloofness.
Jason: After you were married, you were in for a shock once you moved into the "hired man's" house on his family's farm, weren't you? Adrian kind of disappeared on you.
Theresa: Yes, I felt like this toy he'd brought home. He didn't even move his clothes to our house. And he continued to eat many of his meals with his parents. Bizarre!!! It was like he didn't leave home and just came to visit me in that little house when he wanted to play.
Jason: When I first talked you about the book, I said that I felt it was about prisons. The traumas and threats suffered by the children in the story (Lily, you, and Adrian) create an emotional prison. If the world is inherently unsafe, then where do you turn? Where is home? What is happiness? Isn't happiness just the moment before the "bad" comes back and destroys the stability you were trying to build? The resulting anxieties, distrust, and isolation box you in and limit you. Most of these "prisons" are very intangible. It's impossible to see the bars. Even for the person trapped within it. But Adrian's prison was different, wasn't it? It was much more tangible.
Theresa: I think that was extremely perceptive of you. I don't think anybody ever mentioned the prisons to me. And when you brought it up, I thought, yes! That's exactly it. Because often when we write, we don't recognize the themes that are right in front of us. And yes, about Adrian's prison. He was trapped. It was tangible, but it was also mental. If he'd left the farm, which he wanted to do, he would have felt even more trapped because of the guilt he would have experienced. First born son and all that.
Jason: True, very true. He had a heavy emotional prison too.
Theresa: I think the prison observation could start a whole new line of self-help books. But you're okay, I'm the one in prison.
Jason: (It takes a prison to know a prison.)
Jason: (It took me a long time to measure the bounds of mine.) So, you found yourself alone in that house. It didn't take you long to say f-this. What did you do?
Theresa: (I think if a person decides to stay in the prison, they have to make the best of it. So one book could be don't hate on the prison.)
Jason: (Interesting! That's not a view that would generally be my nature to accept. However, if you break the bad forces that the prison is causing, you can be okay in the after-calm. It's when you are pushed and pulled and don't know why that is the problem.)
Theresa: Well, he had a lot of growing up to do. I couldn't accept being left alone in that house. Like a toy, like I mentioned.
Jason: You decided to leave the house and him.
Theresa: And some people get mad when they read the book and say, damn girl, how did you stand it? And why in the world did you stay? But I wasn't used to being treated well by anybody, so I really didn't think about it too much. It wasn't a big deal. But I did actually pack up a couple of times. But came back. And yeah, one time I hit and killed a horse in the dark. That was awful. Awful. And then I had no car of my own.
Jason: Right. But something changed not too long after. He opened up to you, didn't he? He stepped away somewhat from his family. He admitted that he had second thoughts and pulled back on the marriage initially.
Theresa: Yes. I think he matured. And he began to see that the "adults" in his life were very often wrong. This wasn't something he'd dealt with or questioned until I came along. So I suppose I brought that with me. That most people are full of shit. Or a lot of people are. Or that you have to be able to sort it out. He accepted it all without question.
Jason: In your book, if we look up at the stars from the prisons there, one mythical hope glimmers. One thing has the potential to save you and Adrian and defeat the hold his parents had over you. Of course, it's a tragic kind of hope. The kind that would make everything right, solve all the problems, and slay the dragons. But real events never live up to fairy tales.
Jason: And the name of that hope was "Sweet Melinda." Tell us what that was.
Theresa: Yes, Sweet Melinda. Adrian always wanted to prove himself, and the success of the Sweet Melinda apple that he was cultivating would have given him a voice on the farm. Because he was never allowed input and was always treated as the worker bee. He called himself the worker bee.
Jason: He grafted those trees. They were his creation. If he succeeded with the Sweet Melindas, he would rise up. He would have earned power for himself. The feel almost mythical in the book. Touched by the gods.
Theresa: Right. The sad thing is that he was one of the most intelligent people I've ever known, but his mother and father never saw him for who he was. He was just labor. Free labor.
Jason: The early indications for the apple were amazing. Your description made me want to eat a bushel. But when you finally got a full crop, and the moment of truth came, what happened?
Theresa: He'd been fighting the codling moth for years. His father had fought the codling moth. This was actually something he and his mother fought about. I didn't go into it in the book, but he tried to tell her that she was having him apply pesticide at the wrong time. But she wouldn't listen to him. They fought EVERY SINGLE DAY about it. And she wouldn't believe him. He told her the old trees were infected and they HAD TO BE CUT DOWN before they destroyed the rest of the orchard. She wouldn't listen. She refused to do it. And the codling moth won. He was right.
Jason: The moth got the Sweet Melindas?
Jason: You cut open the apples, and the moth larva had eaten the inside, right? Infected from within.
Theresa: But the Sweet Melindas actually represented the whole orchard, because most of the orchard was contaminated.
Jason: When you were faced with the loss of the Sweet Melinda trees, you were ready to do anything, to use any chemical, legal or not, no matter what the cost, to save them. That was your initial reaction.
Theresa: Yes. There was the contemplation of doing whatever it took to save these perfect apples.
Jason: Why aren't we so prepared to do the same for ourselves? Why aren't we so fierce in protecting ourselves? Fascinating question.
Theresa: I know. It is a fascinating question.
Jason: In a profound way, Adrian was relieved to develop terminal cancer. It was most likely from the pesticides he was constantly spraying and becoming drenched in. And his mother reacted with intense anger at him.
Theresa: She called him a coward and told him he wanted to die. The wanting to die part was actually true. It was his only way out. In his mind, anyway.
Jason: So much pathology in her statements, I can't even begin.... He did finally escape the prison when he passed, but it was also your liberation too. In a way, at the end of the book, you seem like a different person. Your children are clearly a solace to you. Like some of the wounds may have healed. (Although never all.)
Theresa: Yes, with his dying, we were all able to escape. The "kids" are a solace, but I do worry that they will always be somewhat damaged by everything that has happened. I think we all kind of feel that our lives ended when we left, even though we had to leave.
Jason: ~FINAL QUIRKY QUESTION BARRAGE~ What is the nicest thing one could ever have said to Adrian?
Theresa: That he was a wonderful father.
Jason: Did he worry that he wasn't?
Theresa: No. I think he knew he was a good father. He was everything his parents weren't.
Jason: Perhaps that's the key. Perhaps he would have very much liked to know that he broke the dark and abusive cycle. And I saw that in the book. For example, he never let your son spray the pesticides.
Theresa: Adrian's dad spent zero time with him. Adrian was with his kids all the time. And right about the pesticides. I think that's when everything solidified for him. He had to break the cycle.
Jason: Last. Lastly, what is the nicest thing that someone could say to you?
Theresa: I think the same thing would go for me. That I was a good mom. I think he and I took our dysfunctional upbringings and together we became really good parents. Or at least I like to think so.
Jason: I know what that desire feels like. In a strange way, maybe it's the opposite of the abuse cycle. Just as illogical though. By giving our children something we needed but didn't get, we seem to feel better ourselves. Like -1 + 1 = 0. We have restored balance to the world.
Theresa: Yes. That makes sense.
Jason: For the record, Theresa, I think you succeeded. You rose above the prison and become the mother you didn't have for yourself.
Theresa: I do adore my kids. And I always wanted them to have the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do.
Jason: Here endeth the interview! Your memoir is one I won't soon forget. I really think it should be read for its psychological content as much as its environmental content. I encourage everyone who was intrigued by our talk tonight to go out and grab it immediately! I loved the opportunity to talk about the book. And to hang out!
Theresa: Thank you! All the way around. Have a wonderful night, Jason.
Jason: You too! And thank you for sharing these difficult issues with the world.