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'An Abbreviated Life' Memoir Captures Lasting Impact Of Childhood Emotional Abuse

ARIEL LEVE: To cope in childhood was to be on guard at all times. Sentiment was not to be trusted. Hope would be met with disappointment. This was an operating system that allowed me to function and it carried over into adulthood. The result was to live a life within brackets, an abbreviated life.


"An Abbreviated Life" is the title of Ariel Leve's new memoir. It is a painful recounting of a lonely childhood and the emotional abuse wrought by a dysfunctional mother. It is both a universal story of abuse and a very particular story about this young girl and her mother. Ariel Leve joins me now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

LEVE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I understand this was - this was a long work in process. How many years did you work on this memoir?

LEVE: I started the book in my 20s. And I started it as fiction because I was not ready to tell the story. And then I like to tell people that I've been writing it all my life. So 48 years is the answer (laughter).

MARTIN: Your mom is a writer, a poet.

LEVE: Yes.

MARTIN: Can you describe her relationship with words and what her career looked like to you when you were growing up?

LEVE: Well, my mother passed down to me an appreciation for words and for language. But on the other side of that, the behavior undid all of the beauty of the message of the words. So it was a - I guess you could say it was a mixed message.

MARTIN: There's a scene early in the book where your mom comes to your school to read to your class.

LEVE: Right.

MARTIN: And as you get a fuller picture of your mother, you realize she is this incredibly glamorous woman. And she hangs out with Andy Warhol and she's got all these literary friends. And she's this beautiful kind of bon vivant. But in this moment, this is the other side to her - right? - this disheveled, chaotic side. Can you describe that visit to your school and the imprint it left on you?

LEVE: Well, she arranged to be able to teach poetry to my grade. And she showed up and, you know, she was very much a child herself in a lot of ways. And that obviously is a big theme of the book, of parenting my parent. But when she came to my school, it was very embarrassing for me to have my mother there. And she was wearing a T-shirt and there was no bra and she was doing jumping jacks.

And all of my classmates, of course, adored her. But she was reading her own poetry, and there were very inappropriate words. And one of the parents went ballistic because, you know, her daughter was asking what a vulva was. And it was just - you know, it was sort of like a microcosm of what it was like growing up in my home brought into my school environment.

MARTIN: When did you realize that your mother wasn't like other moms and that the deep craving she had for your physical proximity - not necessarily even your emotional investment, she just needed you near her - when did you realize that wasn't normal?

LEVE: Well, it happened over time. I was an only child, and I was very much alone in this world. And when I would go over to my friends' houses and I would feel calm and I would feel not in a state of panic all the time and anxiety, I over time recognized, oh, that's normal. And I would also have these respites where I would go spend time with my father.

MARTIN: We should say your parents were divorced and your father moved to Thailand, so not close.

LEVE: Right.

MARTIN: I don't know if you're going to think this is a melodramatic exaggeration, but in reading this, there are times you think that you - as this little girl, you really are imprisoned because she doesn't necessarily want to be with you all the time. She just wants you to want to be with her. I mean, there's this sad moment, this Christmas Eve, where you have made dinner and you want, like, this nice moment with your mom, and your mom just bails.

LEVE: It is sad because I don't think she ever saw or heard me as an entity separate of herself. It was always about her needs. And to survive my childhood, I had to acquiesce to those needs in order to get what I needed. So it was - there was always a feeling of having to put her first. If she felt calm, I could be calm.

MARTIN: There was another woman, though, who was a stabilizing force in your life. Can you tell us about Rita?

LEVE: Rita Wanerman (ph) met my father after the divorce and fell in love with - I was a little girl. I was - I think the first time she met me I was 3 or 4. And she really, really provided for me what I needed the most, which was - we were silly, we would play, she was there for me.

MARTIN: And we should say she and your father didn't have a romantic relationship anymore. He had moved. But she still felt connected to you to the degree that she kept putting yourself in your life, even though your mother was a complicating force, to say the least.

LEVE: Yes. I don't want to sound melodramatic, but I think that when a child doesn't have any real access to normal and stable behavior, that to have one person who's there really compensates for a great deal. Her love was felt. She didn't talk about loving me. She actually showed love. And that was a very tremendous grounding force.

MARTIN: She also - Rita also wrote letters back to your dad, filling him in on the things that she observed in your life. How did he take that information in? Did he know the extent to which you were suffering? And what did he try to do about it?

LEVE: I think he felt, as most people did, very helpless because he couldn't rescue me at that time. He couldn't do anything differently. He couldn't withstand my mother, and he couldn't stand up to her. You know, it was - he was in an impossible situation. He'd kind of gotten in over his head.

MARTIN: Years later, as an adult, you did find separation. You left and you started a life of your own in Southeast Asia. You eventually found love with a man named Mario. And in the book, you write about how that has brought you so much stability and a sense of security that you didn't have when you were growing up. But what is your relationship like with your mother today?

LEVE: Well, I'm not in contact with her at the moment. She has read the book. And I was hope - you know, it's a bit complicated to answer your question.

MARTIN: Do you know how she feels about the book?

LEVE: I believe that she's proud of it. I think she sees me as a writer who she was able to nurture and give that talent to. So that part of it is very gratifying to her.

MARTIN: Do you imagine a time where the two of you can have a nurturing, loving relationship?

LEVE: I can. I - yes, I can. I think - I'm not there yet, but I can imagine it. I don't know if it's real, but I can imagine it.

MARTIN: The book is called "An Abbreviated Life." It's a memoir written by Ariel Leve. Thank you so much for talking with us.

LEVE: Oh, thank you. It was really a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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