Triumph Over Affliction

Deborah Eisenberg and Shira Erlichman fought inner conflicts in search of personal peace.

AIRED: November 26, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Voiceover] Articulate with Jim Cotter is

made possible with generous funding from the

Neubauer Family Foundation.

(suspenseful music)

- Welcome to Articulate,

the show that helps us explain who we are,

to ourselves and to others.

(suspenseful orchestral music)

- [Jim] And on this episode, triumph over affliction.

Feeling like an outsider has been a driving force

in Deborah Eisenberg's life, and in much of her work.

- I was always a weirdo.

Also, I came from a suburb where everybody

was blonde, and you know, I was a weirdo

in the house and I was a weirdo out of the house.

(suspenseful music continues)

- [Jim] And Shira Erlichman's bipolar disorder went

undiagnosed for years. Naming it was just the start of her

journey to self-acceptance.

- If you go into the burn, the pain,

the struggle, the vulnerability, the shame, whatever it is,

you're going to come out refreshed.

Now that's not easy to believe if you haven't done it.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.

(rousing orchestral music and choir)

- [Jim] When she turned 30, Deborah Eisenberg

moved in with the love of her life and quit cigarettes.

An epic rage followed her withdrawal.

She spent her days alternating between physical exercise

and near complete paralysis.

- I had never known what I was like until I stopped smoking,

by which time there was hell to pay for it.

When the hay is cleared over the charred landscape,

the person I'd always assumed to be behind the smoke was

revealed to be a tinny weights-and-balances apparatus,

rapidly disassembling on contact with oxygen.

- [Jim] She didn't know much, but she knew she was

falling in love.

And because the object of her affection could not tolerate

secondhand cigarette smoke, she decided to quit her

three-pack-a-day habit, cold turkey.

- I really loved it. I loved every cigarette

and I loved everything about smoking.

But I'd started to live with the wonderful man I

continued to live with.

And he was asthmatic.

I thought -

wonderful person,


My sense of self was absolutely constructed

by nicotine.

I mean, to be able to sort of emit

a smoke screen between you and the world.

I mean, it's, it's a costume, it's a full costume

and there really wasn't anything aside from the costume.

I was really hollowed out by that time,

and I didn't feel that I could do anything.

I mean, I didn't think I was able to do anything.

(rousing string music)

- [Jim] 50 years on, she's kept the love of her life

and only some of the rage.

Now her anger fuels a keen social conscience.

Turns out that while Eisenberg thought she was

doing nothing, she was observing everything.

In five short story collections and one play

spanning 32 years, she has examined multi-generational

immigrants, young transplants to New York,

people adversely affected by US Foreign Policy,

the blissful ignorance of entitled Americans,

and the wisdom of age.

Eisenberg takes her time, famously writing

one short story per year,

but she has steadily built an impressive output.

She's won a MacArthur Genius Grant,

a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2007 was elected to

the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Eisenberg's grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe.

As first-generation Americans, her parents valued success,

and her mother, always anxious and in chronic back pain,

led Deborah to cultivate her own fears.

- I was temperamental.

I think I was considered

sort of

somebody who couldn't manage

very well on her own.

Something was considered lacking in me.

- [Jim] Looking back, Eisenberg believes she was

the embodiment of her mother's fears.

Her lack of ambition or any aspirations worried her parents.

- They had worked very hard to be middle-class assimilated,

unexceptionable. They were also very decent people,

I have to say, with a lot of integrity.

But there was a lot of pressure to be credentialed

and so on.

And you know, I was always a weirdo.

I mean, I didn't want to be unusual.

I suffered for it, but, but in other words,

there's a kind of special status

given to the pariah.

And I had that. I feel.

- [Jim] At Marlboro college in Vermont, she met a guy,

dropped out after two years and traveled the country with

him until he took off.

But at the suggestion of her mother, she moved to New York

to study social sciences at the new school.

(Deborah recites)

- [Jim] At 26, she met her wonderful man,

the actor, playwright and essayist Wallace Shawn.

They spent their first date arguing passionately about

Chairman Mao.

Wallace Shawn was the son of New Yorker editor

William Shawn, and had been educated at the finest schools:

Dalton, Putney, Harvard, and Oxford.

- He was extremely aware of his privilege.

I mean, he was, I would say over-aware of his privilege.

And I think that he still,

he still attributes to his privilege

virtues that

were absolutely his own and cultivated by him.

He has a sunshine around him and he also has a dark night

around him.

I would say he is very, very courageous,

morally and intellectually.

I had not much been taken seriously and I didn't take myself

seriously. I said, you know,

I'm not a serious person at all.

And he said, no, you, you are a serious person,

but there aren't that many people you can really talk to.

And you realize that more and more as you get into your late

teens and early twenties.

And this was somebody I could talk to

more than I'd ever been able to talk to anybody else.

And that was amazing. I mean,

we were just able to

talk into our complete selves.

(suspenseful music)

- [Jim] But in the 1970s, as Deborah Eisenberg

continued to suffer through nicotine withdrawal,

Wallace Shawn suggested she might try writing her feelings,

a journal of sorts.

- I mean this wonderful man I was living with said, well,

you're not going to lose anything now, you don't

have a thing to lose, you might as well.

And it wasn't that I'd ever said, oh, I want to write,

or I, I wish I could write, or,

but I guess it was so obvious to

anybody who knew me well

that it would be a reasonable thing for me to think of

trying to do.

- [Jim] And with Shawn's encouragement, Eisenberg

finally began taking herself seriously,

approaching the page, even when it required her to

tolerate lingering insecurity.

- It is extremely awkward to

just write a simple, clear sentence

With the exception of very few people,

you really have to struggle to do it.

It's definitely glacial because I don't start with ideas.

I've never had an idea in my life.

So I find the whole thing

as I'm working.

But even though that's a glacial process,

it's abominable, what I end up with.

So I do write sequentially and it does get,

it does layer up and get better.

And I go back as I go forward and go back as I go forward.

But I go through, also,

many drafts.

And I think that that's inherent to the process to,

even if I only write

a paragraph or

less in a day,

I sort of think, oh, another job well done.

How wonderful.

- [Jim] Three years and many drafts later,

'Days' became her first short story,

and her most autobiographical -

a slightly fictionalized first-person account of her battle

with nicotine. Eisenberg's stories, including 'Days', were

first commercially published in the mid-eighties.

Her earliest collection in 1986's

'Transactions in a Foreign Currency'

reveals a certain Manhattan life.

Those arriving, striving, apartment sharing,

attending parties, hoping.

The seeds of the title piece of her second collection,

1992's 'Under the 82nd Airborne' were prompted when

she and Shawn visited Central America in the 1980s and

witnessed the impact of US Foreign Policy under the

Reagan administration, in El Salvador,

Honduras and Guatemala.

(Deborah recites)

- [Jim] Deborah Eisenberg thinks a lot about

what it means to be an American and

the responsibility its citizens bear for their country's

actions around the world.

Coming from immigrant stock,

she sees America's promise of the pursuit of happiness as

double-edged, and in most cases, fantastical, unobtainable.

- The implicit assumption is probably that

most people don't have

the circumstance to pursue happiness.

And that that would be the premise of this new country.

And of course, Americans are

marked or cursed, you might say,

by this burden of feeling that happiness is

owed to them.

And that might be at the expense of all other people.

That certainly does,

certainly is how that idea is

enacted globally.

- [Jim] The six stories in 2018's

'Your Duck Is My Duck' are less political and more about

uneasy relationships, generational differences, aging,

and who will bear the brunt of climate change.

(Deborah recites)

- [Jim] Now Deborah Eisenberg is still looking forward,

still hand-in-glove with her wonderful man,

Wallace Shawn, her partner of 50 years.

- There were some very hard times, we spent time apart.

Yeah, I mean the first quarter of the century was

kind of rocky,

but I mean, it's just so great.

I can't tell you, it's -

I highly recommend

being with somebody that you love

for a long time,

because it just keeps getting more interesting.

Doesn't, people think, oh, well it must get boring.

It does not get boring.

- [Jim] It's unlikely Deborah Eisenberg has said

all she's going to say.

She will no doubt continue thinking deeply about

the generations proceeding and following her own,

and having so far witnessed, survived and documented

an ongoing period of unprecedented change

and upheaval in the world, she's unlikely to become

stuck for fresh ponderings anytime soon.

(bright orchestral music)

- [Jim] Shira Erlichman isn't afraid to ask

questions that may not have answers.

When she does, they often lead her back to

life's everyday mysteries.

But with practice, subjects she once avoided

now ignite her curiosity.

- I'm going to look at mortality.

I'm going to look at the brain.

I'm going to look at these things that I've been protecting

myself from, sheltering others from,

and instead I'm going to investigate it.

- [Jim] Even when what she finds in herself

is difficult to witness, Erlichman tries to accept

uncomfortable inner realities for what they are

with self-compassion.

- You just respect it,

you know, you say, I respect - this is the energy,

this is the language, this is what you're coming with,

part of me. I mean, you're not going to drive the car,

but you can be in the backseat and you can be talking about

however you feel like a toddler.

You know, I'm not going to like dah, dah, dah, dah, you.

And I'm not going to pretend you're not there. You're there.

- [Jim] But Erlichman's journey to self-acceptance has

taken years of reflection through music, visual art,

and poetry, and it's a journey she's still on.

- [Shira] Get in, George Elliot. I packed PB&Js.

I'm bringing that rainbow parachute we held hands under

as eight year olds.

Get in, right beside Autumn,

beside every manic pixie dream girl screenplay

written by a man,

beside "bad weather",

beside Allegra's pomegranate

split into five uneven offerings,

beside Allegra herself, she's a mother now, as I write this.

- [Jim] Erlichman was six when her family moved

from Israel to the United States.

During English lessons, she wrote poems with the fluency

that shocked her teachers.

But her parents weren't surprised.

They had, after all, named her Shira,

the Hebrew word for poem and song,

and had created a home full of music for

their children to explore.

Yet little Shira struggled with bouts of depression,

surrounded by a loving family,

but still a child of the Gulf war they had fled.

As she got older, she took comfort in creative pursuits,

keeping busy with writing and painting,

and band rehearsals with neighborhood friends.

- [Shira] Get in, television

and all the extinct hardware of the nineties.

Montel, Jerry, Ricki, get in. I'm driving.

Get in, exes. Tell me about life without me,

pick the music,

Thread a threat through my dumb brown hair,

something like 'you were always so'

then let the rain finish your sentence.

Get in rain, but don't hog the air.

I'm running away.

I'm tired of not being a monk.

- [Jim] At 22 years old,

the people around Erlichman had gotten used to her

doing things her own way.

By her senior year at Hampshire College in Massachusetts,

she had toured the East coast to perform her own music.

- [Shira] ♪...outside and show you off ♪

♪ A bicycle ride, get lost..

- [Jim] and taught writing even as she studied it.

It was a dizzying pace,

but Erlichman had plans for herself,

often leading with imagination and

insisting on her independence.

So when her first signs of mental illness began to show over

several months, her friends and family nearly missed it.

- And it was totally unprecedented.

It was like, what the heck is going on with Shira?

And that was probably about seven months of slow,

like a snowball of depression.

- [Jim] Looking back, there were signs that

she was unraveling in college.

Everyday obstacles became breaking points.

At the time, Erlichman was seen as somebody

who is still in control,

but she needed help that those closest to her

didn't know how to give.

- [Shira] Get in, "You're So Vain," and

five o'clock shadows and how hard it is

to not talk to my brother.

We went a whole year and a half. Get in, year and a half.

Get in therapist with the good haircut and bad advice.

You too, Michael Jackson.

I'm so sorry you had to be Michael Jackson.

The kind of snow that only fell when I was young, get in.

Or maybe it's just how I saw it, get in.

I'm trying desperately not to sound cute,

which is, of course, adorable.

But, please.

Eleven siblings killed in the camps,

get in, next to my grandfather.

Pillheadedness, get in.

- [Jim] On a visit home during her

senior year of college, Erlichman's mother

noticed that she wasn't herself

and that she might be in trouble.

Her own mother's bipolar disorder went undiagnosed and

untreated two generations before, in Israel.

It resembled what her daughter was now experiencing.

- There's this whole range.

When someone says they're bipolar,

they could be falling into a whole different point on the

sphere of what that looks like.

So just speaking for myself, it looks like almost these

long stretches of unrecognized depression,

where it's just, I guess life just is gray.

I guess life is just heavy.

At times I woke up with a kind of heaviness on my chest.

And then the mania aspect of it is really deceptive

because, at times, it is this great source of energy.

For me, at least, there is this almost

unhandleable quality to it.

Like maybe I do have a straw into something powerful and

wild and at times even spiritual or ecstatic.

- [Jim] When she sought treatment,

Erlichman was initially misdiagnosed and prescribed drugs

that exacerbated her illness,

but a reaction to what didn't work led to her

finally receiving a medication that did: lithium.

Despite the relief it gave her,

she internalized the fear that even some of her doctors had

about her disease and its remedy.

Erlichman was ashamed that she needed it.

- I had family members that said,

please never say that you have bipolar.

There was a time where I was writing poems and saying

pill, pill, pill, but I would never say lithium.

- [Jim] It took one of her first loves, writing,

to help her discover the beginning of another.

One with her medication.

Erlichman began writing odes,

poems of praise to her treatment.

They helped transform fear and shame into acceptance.

- It's different than other medications

it's far more serious, far more severe.

Meanwhile, this is my boo.

This is my honey.

This is like a medication that's saving me

and treating me wonderfully,

but I'm ostracizing it because of culture's

boogeyman-ing of it

and just saying, wait, wait, wait, wait a second.

What are you? And then I found out,

you know, it's pure salt.

I'm like, well, that's fascinating.

Where do you get it? You get it from mines? Where?

So I looked at Bolivia and see these incredible -

it's called the world's largest mirror.

It's just this beautiful water with these

flamingos that are nearby.

And I'm thinking, okay, so wait, beauty is right here.

Beauty is in the salt.

There's no man-made thing here.

And I'm starting to get interested, curious.

And I, I'm forgetting stigma a little bit just to get

invested in this thing that I,

this intimate little friend that I take in every day.

And so as I started doing that,

the questions became more beautiful.

What is this thing, really? Elementally?

How does it nurture me?

- [Jim] These questions turned into poems.

Those poems became a book, 'Odes to Lithium'.

It was part of her life-saving practice to write,

and the process affirmed her experiences,

in a way no one else could,

by working to embrace the parts of herself

she once believed were unlovable.

- [Shira] I'm not going to say it again:

buckle up, put a daffodil behind my ear,

touch my shoulder from the back seat, write my will for me,

tell Mary Ann Evans I can hear her humming,

it's fine except it's driving me nuts.

I'm aware that I'm crying, get in,

sit next to khaf.

The baffling intelligence of

starling and uteri - front seat.

I'm only five feet tall,

too many strangers picked me up as a gag,

my recurring dream is that I choose this life again -

keep your hands inside the vehicle.

- As Erlichman began to change her mind about lithium,

her life changed too.

She found she had more to give.

She began teaching again, but this time with

insights about honesty and change

she had gained from her illness.

All the while her book was becoming

the company she once needed, for her readers.

Those who were entering and leaving mental hospitals,

in need of stories from someone who'd been through the same.

- If you go into

the burn, the pain, the struggle,

the vulnerability, the shame, whatever it is,

you're going to come out refreshed.

Now that's not easy to believe if you haven't done it.

But if you have gone into some of these achy places,

not to become happy, which is what

culture tries to say, right?

Like go into these vulnerable places and

then you'll be a superstar or like you'll, you'll be healed.

It's like, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Just to respect them, just to honor them,

just to touch them elementally, to be a full human being.

- [Shira] Lucille, get in. Dead family, get in.

I want to show you something:

I had no map when I started

And now here I am,

somewhere real called loving you, get in.

- [Jim] Now Shira Erlichman is

taking stock of all of her old shames,

making room for other people to accept

more of themselves along the ride.

- For me, everything changed when I could look and say,

let's just stop running, stop being like,

I don't really have mental illness or

I have mental illness, but I can kind of run it off.

I can kind of eat differently and run and that'll do it.

Sort of negotiating, it's like that part of grief

where you're bartering. You could do that for years.

There's just a difference when you sit in the truth of,

you know, am I okay with this?

If I have this, am I okay?

I often think of truth as just where I want to be.

And that's because for me, you know,

there's a nourishment in being in reality,

especially as someone who has lived in

deep distorted delusion.

- [Jim] Today, Shira Erlichman's curiosity about

the unknown grounds her.

And by accepting her life with bipolar disorder,

she's able to guide every part of herself

to the truth of her journey.

(suspenseful music)

- [Jim] For more Articulate,

find us on social media or on our website,

On the next Articulate, it took David Gray

10 years to achieve global success.

It took him even longer to come to peace with it.

- To an outsider, it looked like I had everything,

but ultimately there was a false economy being had

because if I just kept pressing the accelerator,

I was squeezing myself out of my own life.

- [Jim] And exiled from his homeland,

writer Alexander Hemon with us from afar,

the horrors of the Bosnian War.

He vowed to never let the world forget.

- For displaced people the primary mode of agency is

telling a story.

I get to tell the stories and not about myself necessarily,

but about the world that defined me.

The world that can perish just like that,

based on a decision by some, you know, big shot.

- [Jim] I'm Jim Cotter, join us for the next Articulate.

(exciting orchestral music)

- [Voiceover] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(upbeat music)


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