Author Rick Moody's first work of nonfiction lifts the veil on some of his own worst experiences from struggling with substance abuse and depression to surviving a destructive relationship with an ex-girlfriend. A sensitively written narrative in which he bares all about the discouraging times in his life, The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions is a departure for the 40-year-old author, who has carved out a successful career as a fiction writer. His first book, Garden State, won the Pushcart Press Editor's Choice Award, and his novel The Ice Storm was made into an acclaimed film by noted director Ang Lee.
Moody's stay in a New York psychiatric hospital as a result of his severe depression makes up the prime matter of this memoir with digressions, but it also serves as a jumping-off point for his meditations on topics such as fathers and sons, his New England family lineage and the pain of modern-day adolescence. Moody also touches on the very personal difficulty of dealing with his sister's sudden death.
Catharsis can have abject terror connected with it, Moody said in a recent interview. In this case, I wanted to write about things I'll never need to write about again. As any essentially introverted person might, Moody has his phobias. He's not keen about talking on the telephone, and he expresses anxiety about his upcoming book tour. I love bookstore appearances, but the media aspect can be demanding, admits the author, who lives on Fishers Island (off Long Island) and in Brooklyn.
What he's not phobic about, however, is engaging as a writer with emotionally demanding material. In The Black Veil, his alcohol abuse, his explosive, codependent relationship with an ex-girlfriend (called Jen in the book) and the psychic dark hole that resulted in his hospitalization in Hollis, Queens, is prefaced by incidents from his superficially comfortable upbringing in Darien, Connecticut. But these topics are informed and balanced by an investigation into whether his depression might be hereditary, which Moody probes through family diaries and field trips to the Maine of his forebears. In chapters that alternate with Moody's personal story, we are offered a scholarly deconstruction of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story The Minister's Black Veil, from the famed author's collection Twice-Told Tales. Hawthorne's lead character, the Reverend Mr. Hooper, is based on the Reverend Joseph ( Handkerchief ) Moody of Maine, who accidentally shot to death a childhood friend and lived out the remainder of his life veiled in a spiritual darkness. Sifting through the evidence of his ancestry proves time-consuming and revelatory for author Moody. He discovers that his clan, while related to Handkerchief Moody, actually descends from the other side of the Moody lineage.
I had thought, Moody writes, since I believed that I was related to Handkerchief Moody, that there was a genetic inclination that had been preserved across the centuries, a vulnerability, an insight, a recoiling, a burden, a Moody style. . . . But it was becoming apparent that the more likely and reliable assumption was that the simulated tendencies of families were bits of mythology by which a family constituted itself. Families were, in this view, nothing in nature, and everything in recitation. What else did learning about the Moody ancestry teach him? That maybe some of my disarming markers are much more prevalent in my family, he says. It made me feel more human and less eccentric. When I get a notion to learn about a thing, I'm lucky to be able to make it into something that is interesting. That's my job. In this case, my research took me personal places. In light of Handkerchief Moody's grave childhood sin, Moody was also led to consider the social phenomenon of Columbine and similar horrific incidents. All through that rash of schoolboy killings, he says, I felt like, if I was in high school then, they would have had a 24-hour watch on me. I definitely would have fit into the category of socially awkward.' Then there are some things that hit home even more directly, as when Moody's sister died six years ago without warning, the victim of a cardiac seizure. Yeah . . . that's a lifer, he says somberly. She was fine one day, then gone the next. But beyond the sadness and the depression and the emotional challenges, Moody's volume functions best when it charts the interesting journey through the mind of a man trying to deal with who he is and achieve wellness at the same time. When I was at my worst emotionally, he says, it was as if I didn't want to get better. I figured neurosis and eccentricity were part of my creativity. My issues are always gonna be there, but I know how to handle them better. I also feel I'm more compassionate than ever about other people's pain. Writing such an intensely personal book can often have real-life consequences, especially where real people are concerned. In Moody's case, the reception was surprisingly positive.
Everyone important in the book had read it in manuscript. They were all fine about it. My father and my ex-girlfriend were extremely supportive. In fact, Jen' wanted me to use her real name in the book. She wanted it to be the truth. My dad was very positively struck by the book, which was a relief to me. I've found that most people are not taking it as a kiss-and-tell memoir. It's more an anatomy of what makes me tick. As for the ghosts of bad behavior, Moody says: They're still there. The historical legacy and genetic tendencies are there. But I know how to act today. And I'm not a drinker anymore. I've been clean for 15 years. And with that, Rick Moody's own black veil has for now anyway been lifted. I've found that most people are not taking it as a kiss-and-tell memoir. It's more an anatomy of what makes me tick. Martin Brady writes from Nashville.