Cover image for Gayle Brandeis The Art of Misdiagnosis, Surviving my Mother's Suicide
Gayle on her experience with writing about personal trauma as both catharsis and art.

Gayle Brandeis on Grief, Catharsis, and Healing

SNC creative writing professor Gayle Brandeis’s mother died by suicide shortly after the birth of Gayle’s youngest child. Her memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, explores the tangled mysteries of her family, her own experiences with misdiagnosis and illness, and the compassion that comes from breaking silence. Recently, the book has taken her into some unexpected new places, and we asked her to tell us a bit about them.

From Gayle –

I was invited by Elpida Rouka to speak at the Yale World Fellows program. Elpida has worked for the United Nations for over 15 years, most recently is the Chief of Staff to the UN Special Envoy on Syria. She was recently awarded a Yale World Fellowship, which draws change makers from around the world to learn from one another. She reached out to me last year after she saw my essays at The Grief Diaries; she had lost her brother to suicide the year before and was looking for solidarity and solace. I was so moved and grateful to connect with her – suicide loss can be a particularly lonely type of grief. It’s so important for us to share our stories with one another to help us feel less alone, and to help break the cultural silences around suicide.

At Yale, I read from my memoir, and was in conversation with her about coping with complicated grief. The event, on November 15, was a very moving experience. It led to a really deep and powerful discussion about loss and healing, especially using writing and art as a means of catharsis.

In a nutshell, for me the catharsis comes in the first draft, when I am just writing for myself. Catharsis literally means “purge”, and that first draft is about purging the story from my body and mind, getting it out of my system and on to the page. The “art” part comes in next, shaping that messy catharsis into something that will be meaningful (and hopefully beautiful) for others, and not just myself.

I was also recently invited to speak at the UCLA Conference on Art, Neuroscience and Psychiatry on Nov 2-3. I was on a panel on Writing and the Brain, where I spoke about writing about trauma as both catharsis and art. The other panelists were David Peterson, the creator of the Game of Thrones language “Dothraki”; neurologist and epilepsy specialist Dr. John Stern on language and the brain; and mystery writer Joe Ide talking about creating the minds of his characters. It was a really fascinating conference and I was very happy to be part of it! I love where my writing has been taking me.

The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide was published in November 2017 by Beacon Press. The paperback edition was just released in October of this year.

Gayle Brandeis is also the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver), Self Storage, Delta Girls, the children’s book My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award, and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in both the undergraduate and master’s degree creative writing programs at Sierra Nevada College, and in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.