Encounter: Lauren Slater

It’s hard to think of a writer whose work has consistently provoked such intense reactions as Lauren Slater’s does. Beginning with her 1996 memoir, “Welcome to My Country,” published when she was only 33 years old, Slater has been praised for her candor and for the power and immediacy of her prose, which can be both beautiful and unsettling. In 2000, “Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir,” was an elusive (and, some readers and reviewers said, infuriating) exploration of psychology, mental illness, genre and truth itself.

She has also attracted criticism, most notably for 2004’s “Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century,” a depiction of experiments narrated as stories, which triggered both scientists and some of the people about whom Slater had written to question her research methods and credibility. In a summary of the controversy over the book, Laura Miller observed in The New York Times Book Review that Slater “is not above manipulating her readers, while technically avoiding inaccuracy, if it will make the tale more potent. This recklessness is both the kernel of her talent and her nemesis; she is forever threatening to cross the line.”

Slater reflected on that line and the reactions her work has sparked in a recent conversation with Creative Nonfiction editor, Lee Gutkind, and journalist and author Pagan Kennedy. The excerpts below are taken from a relaxed, four-hour interview that took place at Slater’s home in October and which touched upon subjects ranging from Slater’s book-in-progress about animals to her writing process and her confusion at being labeled “a troublemaker.” —CNF

Current project

GUTKIND: You have not written about animals before. What led you in this direction?

SLATER: I wanted to write about my dogs. My husband has always said, “I’m afraid of the day that you’re going to write about the dogs.” My husband is not an animal lover. He embraces the Judeo-Christian concept that man is at the top of the heap and animals are underneath, which … There’s no evidence for that in Darwinian evolution whatsoever, but most of us embrace that idea. I so love the dogs that my husband was afraid I would write about them. He thought when I do write about them, it’s going to be this sappy, syrupy I-love-poochie kind of thing, or “Marley and Me,” or whatever.

But I wanted to know if there was a way of writing about dogs that could be non-sentimental. That was my question: Can I write about dogs in a way that isn’t sentimental? It’s so easy to have a sentimental relationship with an animal, and so I tried and was actually able to. … I sent it to my agent, and she was like, “This is brilliant. You should write a book.” I was actually writing a book about death; I was under contract with Norton to write a book about how we die, how baby boomers die, how in addition to being a biological concept, death is a cultural concept, as well. I still want to write it; I have all the chapters laid out and everything. My agent suggested, Why don’t you try writing about all the animals that you had throughout your childhood or whatever, and I thought that would be a really cool book. But could I do that? Would there be a way of writing about the rabbit I had when I was 6 in a non-sentimental way? What meaning do these animals have?

So, in each chapter, I needed to find a way to look at the animal. Each chapter is about a different animal, and I needed to find a way of looking at that animal and what meaning I would be able to ascribe to the animal. There are two chapters on dogs, but then there’s the chapter on horses, and one on bats, one on wasps and one on a swan that I once had a relationship with, a swan with a broken beak.

When I got out of college, I worked for a little while as a veterinary assistant, and I worked for this crazy veterinarian—Dr. Robb, I think, was his name. He was great, but he was very on the edge and had wild monkeys in the veterinary hospital, stuff he wasn’t supposed to have, and one day, this little girl and her mother brought in a swan, and its beak had been torn off by a snapping turtle. It had been ripped off, so the swan was bleeding profusely and was probably going to die. And you’re not allowed to treat wild animals—that’s a law that was in place then and is still in place now—but the vet took the swan in and saved her from dying. But the problem was she was just a baby. Without a beak she couldn’t eat, so he was tube-feeding her, and then he decided he was going to see if he could get plastic surgery for this swan. So he called a plastic surgeon, a very well-known plastic surgeon in the Boston area, and he told the plastic surgeon he had a patient whose nose—he didn’t say nose—had been damaged and so it needed a new one. I was on speakerphone, so I heard the whole conversation. For the first 10 minutes of the conversation, the plastic surgeon thought that Dr. Robb was referring to a human, and it wasn’t until 10 minutes into the conversation that Dr. Robb said, “I gotta tell you: This is a swan I’m talking about.” The plastic surgeon got pissed off. He was like, “You want me to operate on Donald Duck?” The vet was serious. He found a dentist to make a prosthetic beak for this swan. It was attached to the stump of the beak by tiny little golden hinges, and it worked. They could never put the swan back into the wild. The hospital had her for a good 30 days, but with the beak, she was able to eat on her own and also to sing. It’s not true that swans only sing once in their life. They sing all the time to each other. That’s the story of the swan with the broken beak.

At the time that that happened, I was having a lot of trouble writing, and somehow I connected—this is more of a personal story—I connected the swan with my own inability as an artist to articulate anything.

Loving Animals

SLATER: One of the chapters is about how the dogs have revealed my marriage to me. My husband and I have such different responses to the dogs. He says we shouldn’t have any animals in the house that we aren’t willing to cook. He says it just to get a rise out of me. He’s like, “If we’re willing to put them in the soup pot, then we can have them.” We have an ongoing argument: He doesn’t believe the dogs belong on the bed; the dogs rule that bed. There’s an essay in there.

KENNEDY: But the dogs do sleep in the bed?

SLATER: They do. He has a lot of resentment over the fact that the dogs sleep on the bed. This is an ongoing theme of our marriage—the dogs. It’s revealing something deeper than the dogs. We have a different orientation toward life in that sense. The bottom line is that although he claims he’s a scientist, I’m the true Darwinian in the relationship and he’s the old Judeo-Christian fart, because he believes man has dominion over all the other animals and is not only more intelligent but more important and I don’t believe that. I don’t see any scientific evidence for it. I see scientific evidence only for the fact that our frontal lobes are more developed, which has been both a blessing and a curse.

KENNEDY: What about the fact that we have designed dogs? Of course, you could say dogs have also designed us.

SLATER: Exactly.

KENNEDY: We co-evolved, but I feel as if we have designed them. If you live with a dog, you know that they’re very much designed around what you want: They learn commands so quickly; they’re clearly like this weird being that’s designed to—

SLATER: —I would say they’ve co-evolved. The fact that they managed to get so much out of us—Musashi (a 16-year-old shiba inu) has so much power over me. I carry that dog up and down the stairs at 3, 4, 5 in the morning because he’s too old to walk. Those dogs have evolved to get us to do unbelievable things for them. It’s been a mutual design, and I think that if you look at the history of dogs, you’ll see how they’ve co-evolved. There’s a synergistic quality to the evolution of humans and the evolution of dogs. Right from the beginning, I think the earlier human beings saw that dogs had something to offer them in terms of superior speed and hunting and that we had something to offer dogs, which was warmth and food.

I think the reason we love dogs is because people say dogs love us unconditionally. That’s why we love dogs, but I’m not convinced that dogs love us at all. They know that we’re a food source for them, but I think we love dogs because they show us that we love them and that’s ennobling: to be a human being and to be able to love.

And here’s the twisted thing about animals (yes, this is a huge question for me): In some ways, animals bring out our humanity, but then in other ways, some of the most inhumane people have loved animals. The Nazis loved animals. My mother loved her little lap dog, and yet she was vicious and cruel. The Nazis are the scariest example, and one of the things I sort of think about in the book is when is loving animals a sign of an enlarged humanity and when is it a sign of constringent humanity? And what’s the difference in the love? Because some people love animals and they’re sick individuals, and yet they adore animals, but their adoration is. … Well, there’s something twisted about it. I don’t think my adoration is twisted. I feel like I love animals, and I’m not going out and torturing people.


KENNEDY: What’s interesting is how the conversation always tends to go around to … if you care about animals and you want to protect them, then somehow you’re depriving children.

SLATER: I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, Clara, and I was so terrified that I wasn’t going to love her because I didn’t know her. It was kind of like having a blind date. Being pregnant is like having a blind date with someone for the rest of your life; it’s terrifying. But I also kept thinking, “What happens if I love my dogs more?” Well, that is a real sick woman who would love her dogs more than her daughter, but I kept thinking—I didn’t have the daughter yet, she was just in my belly; I didn’t know her—so I kept thinking, She’s going to be born and I’m going to find that I love my dogs more, and how am I going to live with myself?

What happened is she was born, and I eventually formed a bond to Clara, and I didn’t wind up loving my dogs more, but I wound up never loving Clara more, either. I love them differently. If I had to choose between Clara and my dogs I would choose Clara without question. But that doesn’t mean that I love her more; it just means that I believe that her suffering … that human beings can suffer more than other animals. If someone was holding a gun to your dog or your daughter, who are you going to choose? The dog is too dumb to know it’s a gun, whereas the daughter is terrified. So you choose the human being.

In the first essay about dogs, called “Fixed,” I directly deal with the question of what it means that I had my children and everyone was wrong about me: They said I was going to love my children more, and I don’t. Does that make me sick? Does that make me a human being who’s somehow incapable of love, of human love, or does that make me a human being who actually has an enlarged humanity because I can love other beings, beings who are really outside of us? I can love aliens because animals are aliens to us. We’ll never know their minds. Does that make any sense? If you have a dog and a daughter, and you love them both as much—differently, but as much—does that point to an impaired capacity for intimacy with human beings, or does it point to a larger love that you can embrace both beings, albeit in different ways? I don’t know the answer to that. My fear is that it points to an impaired capacity for intimacy, and that’s the traditional response: Oh, she loves animals so much because she’s afraid of human intimacy. I don’t find myself afraid of human intimacy. It’s just not the only intimacy I crave. I also crave intimacy with animals, although it’s of a totally different sort.

Research

SLATER: There’s been lots written about domestication, and animals that have become domesticated are all highly social to one degree or another; they somehow snuck their way in to human culture. How did they manage to do that? Actually, of something like 144 large mammalian species that are on this earth, only 14 of them have been suitable for domestication. We’ve tried to domesticate—starting from, I’m not sure, at least 2000, but maybe even earlier—all kinds of animals: kangaroos, hyenas, cheetahs. There’s been attempts to domesticate hundreds of animals, and they have all failed except for 14. Most animals are just not fit for domestication, and the animals that are fit for domestication, one of their things is that they’re highly social animals. They’re willing to bring it in captivity.

GUTKIND: Something I’ve always wondered about you is how you know so much?

SLATER: I’m writing a book.

GUTKIND: For the last 10 years, have you been reading books about animals? You know a great deal. There’s a lot more here than just animals.

SLATER: Right, because humans are so intertwined with animals.

I do feel—I can feel the fact that I’m 47. I forget the names of plants now, a lot, which really bothers me. I read a lot, but I’m not retaining as much as I used to. All that stuff with big time space, that’s just endlessly fascinating to me. Endlessly fascinating. Imagine 55 million years—that’s when horses first made themselves appear. I don’t know. This planet is 14 billion years old; 14.7 billion years ago, there was a millimeter-sized thing, and out of it, this universe, or multi-verse, exploded…

I don’t know; I just read.

GUTKIND: Do you read books? Do you stay online all night?

SLATER: No, I read books. I don’t actually stay online, but I read books. … I read just like you guys do. That’s my way of getting information.

KENNEDY: You are able to synthesize everything, too. Bring it together.

SLATER: That happens in the writing itself. I wonder about other art forms. I don’t think that that could happen in painting. Painting is just a whole different thing, I think. That happens on the page for me. That’s what makes writing so. … I mean, when it happens, it’s just incredible, and you realize how information can come together and all the various ways it can be connected. I used to make what I would a call a map, and that’s what I would teach my students: how to make a map of the piece before you write it, how to lay out the various elements of the piece. I still internalize that, though I no longer do it physically anymore, and so it’s really become. … Writing, for me, has really become this kind of exploration, because I don’t even have my maps anymore. Now, I’m going into it blind.

GUTKIND: Earlier, you mentioned laying out chapters. You don’t really do that anymore?

SLATER: No. I don’t do that anymore. I did it for years, starting in my 20s. In my teens and in my early 20s, I didn’t make any maps at all because I had this idea that if it was creative, it was spontaneous. There’s a lot in the culture that supports that notion. God forbid you should make an outline of a short story: You’re not really a creative person if you do that. I would never do that! And sometimes, I would produce these things that would be so “on,” and other times, I would produce these things. … It was just really hit or miss. And then I discovered—and I never told my writers’ group about it because I felt so guilty—that I could actually make a map of the thing ahead of time. And it’s not like the map laid out all of the ligaments and all the connecting pieces; it just laid out the general territory so that I knew where I was going, and it put enough parameters around it so that I could start to reliably produce good stuff. And I relied on that from the time I was in my mid 20s to the time I was probably in my late 30s, and then I gave up the map; I’ve given up the maps now. I suspect I’ve internalized them, is what I suspect, but I don’t have any conscious sense of having a map anymore. I just go into it, and I see where it takes me, and I’m on the alert for connections. I’m always pulling for connections, what connects to what, connects to what. … It feels like I’ve got 14 balls in the air. Let’s see if I can keep them up there and then pull them all together into one ball.

Finding the Story

GUTKIND: Is story as important to you in your work as it used to be?

SLATER: Oh, yeah. I like to combine story with a reflection with analysis. That’s why I love the essay form: it’s the only form I know that you can really do that in. Maybe to some degree poetry, but poetry is so condensed. The question for me that leads off and continues throughout all of my work and has since a young age is: What happens next? And that hasn’t changed. Sometimes what happens next is a thought or an analysis or a philosophical reflection or a bunch of quantitative data, but still it has to all be in the service of furthering the story. So the story is central, and I think that, in a lot of ways, I’m really a traditional storyteller. I like stories that have beginnings, middles and ends. Many essays are traditional stories, but they also contain these rivulets within them, where you can go outside the story or outside the strict show and tell. You’re taught in the M.F.A. programs, “Show, Don’t Tell”—that’s the whole thing. Show, don’t tell. That’s the ultimate Carver, Hemingway minimalism. I have great respect for writers like Raymond Carver. He’s an absolute genius. He’s the ultimate show don’t tell writer. But the essay can tell as much as it shows. The essay is story, amplified.

GUTKIND: Story amplified with information and reflection?

SLATER: Yeah. It takes a story, and it amplifies it. It’s more story, I think, because the essay and the reflection serve to produce echo and resonance. I don’t know if you guys have felt this, but I have always felt that fiction is at a higher place in the hierarchy than nonfiction. Fiction is harder to get published.

KENNEDY: Harder to write.

SLATER: That, I don’t feel.

We can get to the whole ethics of creative nonfiction, and it may mean I have no ethics or something, but I don’t believe that that’s true at all. There’s a huge amount of imaginative effort that goes into a story for me. It’s all about story, and whether it’s a fictional story or a nonfictional story, I don’t feel like there’s really any difference, because it’s always the same question of what happens next. In creative nonfiction, you can’t just sort of report what happens, unless you’re a newspaper reporter, in which case you’re just reporting. You have to transform what happens next; you have to discover its meaning to your piece or you’re just going to be reiterating shit. Do you see what I’m saying? In fiction you’re making it up, and in nonfiction, you’re having to make it up, too. You’re just not making up the literal event.

KENNEDY: But there’s at least a sort of scaffold; that’s what I find so hard about fiction: It can just go any way.

SLATER: I’m doing that autobiographical nonfiction, which is the kind of nonfiction that I almost always write, and it feels like it could go any way because your life can go any way, as well—and you’re thinking about your life. There’s a few tropes that stay the same. You’re a woman in her 40s who’s married with children, and that’s not going to change, but you have such a vast number of memories to draw upon that it can go—


GUTKIND: —but even non-autobiographical nonfiction can go—

SLATER: —any number of ways. Just any number of ways. The number of connections that you can make, the number of ways you can turn, it’s so. … Any event is infinitely prismatic. I guess that’s what I would say: whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s infinitely prismatic, and what you need to do is turn the prism and find one of those infinite facets that reflects in a way that makes sense to you. That’s what a writer’s job is, and the fact that it’s infinitely prismatic makes it sort of—or means it can be—an absolutely overwhelming task.

KENNEDY: At the same time, I remember reporting on something and following some person around, and I love the way reality can surprise you, because the details that are produced by reality are so much better than the ones…

SLATER: I totally disagree. When I’m doing a portrait of someone, I always get this feeling of, like, “Shit.” I’ve signed up for the assignment; usually, I’ve got a contract for it. And the person inevitably turns out to be not that interesting, and what am I going to do? That is the hardest part of nonfiction: What am I doing to do to make this person extraordinary? How am I going to find the extraordinary when, in fact, this is a pretty ordinary thing. And that’s why people get so fuckin’ mad at me: because what I do is go on the alert, because I start getting panicked. I’m like, “OK, they’re really boring people,” and I gotta write a book about them…

KENNEDY: But still, there are those moments when somebody says something, or you walk into their house and there’s something odd there, something strange.

SLATER: People get really pissed about that because it’s the only strange thing in their house, or there’s only five strange things in a house that’s otherwise normal, and you focus on those five strange things, and people feel like you told a lie about them. That’s a whole other ethical quandary that we get into. That’s why people get…

I’ve stopped doing portraits of people because I did a portrait of a couple for The New York Times Magazine, and they told me they felt raped. I was like, “You know what, if that’s what you’re feeling, then I’m not going to do this anymore.” I’m not going to do portraits of people anymore because I don’t want to be raping anybody. It’s partly how you—People will tell me anything, and so it’s probably their fault, in a way, if they’re spilling everything, but whatever. I’ve stopped doing it because I couldn’t believe it when they told me that.

Controversy

GUTKIND: Who’s going to be delighted? How can you do a good piece and totally delight the person you’re writing about?

SLATER: My editor at Elle says that if they ain’t mad, you ain’t doin’ your job. But on the other hand, when so many people have gotten mad at you. … So many people have become so angry with me, and I don’t know quite what that’s about, but it’s about something of import. I haven’t figured that out yet. I have caused so many people to get so angry.

GUTKIND: You touch them in the wrong places, places they don’t want to be touched, even though they open themselves up.

SLATER: The problem is they open themselves up and then they feel that they’ve been taken advantage of in some way. I think, I don’t know…

My best friend has just written me off. This is like a little saga. She’s written me off entirely: She wrote me a letter finally telling me why she was ending the relationship, and one of the reasons why is because I play “fast and loose” in my nonfiction. Now, this is something that she’s clearly gotten from the press.

GUTKIND: She’s writing you off? Did you write about her?

SLATER: No. For her, it speaks to the fact that I don’t have ethics, and that’s been the thing I’ve had to battle: the sense that I don’t have integrity. I find that people either think I have an enormous amount of integrity or that I have none at all. There’s no one that thinks I just have a normal amount of integrity—that it’s just a normal amount and that sometimes I’m a good person and sometimes I’m not a good person.

GUTKIND: Shouldn’t one of your best friends know that? Who you are, what you are?

SLATER: I wrote her back. I said: I wrote a book called “Lying” in which I played fast and loose with the truth. Otherwise, I have not played fast and loose with the truth. I have not played fast and loose with the truth in my nonfiction except in the book “Lying.”

GUTKIND: Which everybody knew.

SLATER: One of the criticisms of the book was that I made the lying so obvious. I have not been totally honest about my past in my nonfiction, not because I desire to deceive people, but because, as I’ve said, I’ve never found a way of writing about what really happened to me. I have not found a way of writing about that.

GUTKIND: Because?

SLATER: Because it’s so extreme. To me, it’s almost like it’s not in good taste. I don’t know how to do it. It’s like the question, “Can I write about dogs in an unsentimental way?” That was what propelled one of the chapters in the animal book. The question here would be, Is there some way of writing about extreme abuse, not in an unsentimental way, but in a way that isn’t talk-showy.

I have not been able to do that, so I tend not to get into specifics about my past. I don’t think that makes me a liar about it. I think that makes me someone who’s sort of skipping over the places where I haven’t learned how to apply art. I don’t know how to be artistic.

GUTKIND: Of course, readers don’t know. That seems to be a problem: If you’re writing nonfiction and readers don’t know that you’re avoiding or, in some ways, skating over things or changing them in order to not get into it, then readers don’t know you’re doing that. So, consequently, they say, “She’s misleading me. She’s not telling me the truth. And if she’s not telling me the truth about when she was 12, how do I know that she’s telling me the truth when she meets somebody else?”

SLATER: That’s the other thing: People have said there are inconsistencies in my work, when, in fact, it’s not so much inconsistencies as that I might decide to leave something out of the piece, and then. … I’m trying to think of an example. In this 120-page essay [about horses], I completely left out the fact that I had my own horse, which was a huge thing to me but just wasn’t part of this story. Then, I might go back and tell the story again, and this time, I’ll talk all about Tonya, the pony I had, and readers will say, “You must be lying because she wasn’t in that story and now she’s in this story.” And I don’t understand that: An artist, I feel, has to make choices in each and every thing they write. You’re never capturing the whole domain of the experience; you’re never doing that. Even “War and Peace” doesn’t do that. You’re always making choices about which things to include and which to leave out. That’s been something that readers have never really understood: In this essay, it says this, and in this essay, it says that; so which one is true? They’re both true.

GUTKIND: This is an interesting distinction between fiction and nonfiction. When you write an essay about a certain subject and it’s obviously nonfiction, people think that’s all you have to say about it. But short story writers and novelists tell the same story with similar characters again and again and again. Kathryn Harrison told the story of “The Kiss” in three different novels.

Fiction writers can do it all the time; so can poets. Nonfiction writers can’t seem to get away with it in the same way.

SLATER: Right. If you’re a nonfiction writer, I think that if you continually. … I can just hear it. … If this book gets reviewed, I’m dreading what the reviewers will say. I somehow acquired this reputation. I have to say—this is, like, very facile—but it’s exactly the same reputation I had as a child growing up. I had acquired this reputation as a troublemaker, as someone who is not responsible, not to be trusted, and, in fact, that wasn’t what I was like as a kid at all. That’s not what I’m like as a writer, but I dread the reviews because I can just hear them. They’re going to criticize me because that’s what people are used to doing at this point.

GUTKIND: When people think of you as a troublemaker, I think they think less of you as a troublemaker about other people and more of you as a troublemaker for yourself.

SLATER: Oh, yeah. They think I’m a troublemaker for myself. One of the things that I’m having to think about is why I get into so much trouble. What is it that I’m doing? The nice term for it is “lightning rod”: Lauren is a lightning rod,” I hear people say.

Which means what? That I’m just attracting—I attract controversy in some way, I guess? I don’t think that’s really what the answer is.

About the Author

Lauren Slater

Lauren Slater is a psychologist and writer. She has received awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Knight Science Journalism fellowship at MIT; her work has also appeared in The Best American Essays.

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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Pagan Kennedy

Pagan Kennedy has published nine books. Her biography Black Livingstone was named a New York Times Notable. Her novel Spinsters was short-listed for the Orange Prize and was the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award.

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