"To Walk Out Into the World": An Interview with Joy Castro
by Steve Charles
January 26, 2006
The Truth Book chronicles the childhood of the Wabash English professor and her brother, Tony: their upbringing among Jehovah’s Witnesses; the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their stepfather; and her adopted mother’s acquiescence to her husband’s brutality.
But the book opens with stories Castro’s birth mother told her after the writer found her several years ago. It resurrects a flawed but loving father, whose suicide was a catalyst for the book. In telling her story, Castro redeems the relationships that matter most to her, breaks the chains of shame that shackled her parents, and dares to wear her "history on her sleeve, come what may," with a courage that inspires.
As reviewer Caroline Leavitt wrote in The Boston Globe, "Gorgeous, disturbing, and grippingly alive, Castro's book offers the kind of hope her background never supplied."
The book is being adopted as a text in college courses nationwide, and Castro is donating a portion of her earnings to Childhelp USA, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the treatment and prevention of child abuse and neglect.
Castro taught the College’s first class on memoir in Fall 2004, and in a Chapel Speech last spring, Castro told students: "You are redefining the word "gentleman" with your actions and your discourse. There is nothing gentle about violence, whether enacted or joked about." To her stunned amazement, the hundreds of students gathered gave her a standing ovation.
WM spoke with Joy Castro several weeks before the publication of The Truth Book, just after her essay "Turn of Faith" appeared in the New York Times Magazine.
WM: You’ve said that your life has been sheltered, even saved, by books. Now a book of your own is about to be published…
Joy Castro: I feel faintly nauseated by the prospect of so much exposure. (laughs) Of course, for someone who stood up in class when she was six years old and said, "I want to be a writer," it’s also the culmination of a long-time dream.
In The Truth Book, you write: "Sometimes you want to leave the jeweled perfection of your privacy, to walk out in the world, among people, with your history on your sleeve." Why, and why now?
The flip side of privacy is isolation. When my father killed himself because he was too proud to let anyone in to show that something important to him—his marriage—had failed, I started writing the book to help me figure that out. And I realized that this appearance of outward competence combined with such reserve was probably not something I wanted to adopt.
I’m lucky to have close relationships with my immediate family. And I have a couple of extremely close friends. That’s sustaining, but also, like the line says, lonely, and I was ready to be a more open person.
In the book, you mention that your husband also encouraged you to write this.
James was the only person who was ever interested in the fact that I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness— the only person who wanted to know more. He always said, "You should write about that." And I always thought, No, this is a bizarre, unacceptable portion of my past that makes me weird and unacceptable to others.
I think there’s a sense of what’s acceptable to say professionally and socially, and I had always been keenly attuned to that. For me, it was always like passing—like racial passing: the sense of being an imposter and trying to watch how people are relating and what they’re saying because I just had absolutely no practice, you know. It was never natural; it was not something I grew up doing. So my way was to observe carefully, then imitate, and don’t cross any boundaries that might alienate others.
Had you read memoirs that shaped your own approach?
Memoir was not a genre I had really explored. I didn’t know what the rules were, and I hadn’t encountered a model.
So when I was considering writing my own, I went out like a good student and got Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, read them both, and was in absolute despair. I thought, This is what you have to do? Take something mildly awful and make it funny? I thought, How do I sit down and write this and try to make it funny? If the only book people will read is one that doesn’t take this experience as seriously as I take it, I don’t think I’m going to write it.
But [author] Earl Shorris visited campus, read my essay "Clips of My Father’s House" (WM Spring 2001), and said I should send something to his friend Colin Harrison at Scribner’s. Then I got The Kiss, the memoir Colin Harrison’s wife, Kathryn, had written. Wow! It was serious, intense. The language was crystalline, moving. It’s very image dependent, a lot of sensory stuff, and the reader has to work to put this together. I thought, Well, okay, then—this I can do.
Were there any sections of the book that were particularly difficult to write?
The whole thing was tough to write emotionally.
I was really lucky to have the solitude to go do that by myself. I wrote the first draft in three weeks up at Norcroft, a writer’s retreat on the northern shore of Lake Superior. I sat in my little studio and wrote it out longhand, and just didn’t stop. It was emotionally intense. But I didn’t feel like I was striving for it. It felt like finally I was writing something that I’ve known all along, and just putting it on paper for the first time.
The dialogue in the book rings so true. Did you ever hear your adoptive mother’s voice when you were writing this?
Yes. Yeah, I do hear the voice.
Some of the things that I wrote did surprise me, because once you’re there remembering, you realize, Oh yeah, that happened—I hadn’t thought about that for a while.
But capturing the way she talked, and the way my stepfather talked—all of a sudden I’d realize, Yep, that’s what he said, that’s how he spoke. My editor would say, "You need to change this," and I said, "No, that’s how he talked. We were in rural West Virginia, he was a mean man, that’s exactly what he said and I would swear to it in court."
But to hear that voice again was unnerving, and I did have a lot of nightmares when I was writing this. A lot of them.
Did that voice ever say, "No one wants to read this?"
Sure. I think that negating voice is always going to be there when you grow up being told that your views don’t count, that you see things the wrong way, and that you whine about yourself all the time. A lot of reviews of contemporary memoir berate the whole genre for whining, or exposing, or complaining. That made me very reluctant to write in the genre, because that critique corresponded very closely to the voice of my mother and my stepfather in my head.
Passages in the book recall your childhood with such clarity and detail. Most people just don’t have that kind of vivid memory.
I have that kind of vivid memory.
I was workshopping a section of [the book] at Bread Loaf [Writers’ Conference] and a couple of the people were saying, "No way—you’re making this up. You cannot remember stuff from when you were three." But there was a professor of psychiatry from Yale in the workshop, and she said, "Oh, yes, you can!"
For me, it has always been vivid and accessible. I wrote from a very young age, and I was always fascinated by sensory experience. Robert Olen Butler talked about that when he was here as the Will Hays, Jr. Visiting Writer in 2003—how writers are hypnotized by sensory experiences, and what they do is make meaning out of it; they find patterns in it.
I think I was just born to do this. That’s how my brain works. I’m built to do it.
Some writers say that if you have a powerful story inside of you and don’t tell it, there can be consequences in your life. This story strikes me as one of those…
I don’t know. I think I was doing a pretty nice job of having a life before I wrote this—personally, professionally…
But your father died, and that upped the ante.
It did. I know that children of suicides are sometimes plagued with suicidal thoughts. My parents were both so driven by shame that neither of their paths looked appealing to me. I thought, I really need to make a new path, and keeping things concealed seems to be detrimental to people. So let’s just try it and see where it takes me.
If I had just written this at Norcroft and no one had ever seen it, I think it still would have been good for me, very therapeutic.
But my faith in the edifying effect of the constraints of art was really reaffirmed by writing the book because the last chapter—about "coming out of one’s jeweled privacy"— wasn’t in the first draft. But the book just didn’t feel finished. My agent agreed.
So I went back to the metaphor that opened the book and thought, Okay, you started with this damned wall metaphor—what does it mean? And that really pushed me. And following the demands, the dictates of art, made me grow. It made the book grow into something different and more widely valuable to more people because of that ending.
One of the most inexplicable moments of the book comes when, at a particularly vulnerable moment after your own child was born, you called your stepmother to thank her for treating you so well. She responded: "I didn’t do it for you; it was all for your father."
So many people have reacted to that stepmother moment, when she’s so strangely cold in a way that, as a parent, I find hard to fathom. I think she had a unique idea about honesty and integrity; I’m sure she had some sort of fidelity to her own notion of fidelity of being truthful.
I started wanting to find my birth mother after my son was born; I think that people, when they become parents, feel a greater need for their own parents in a totally different way from the dependency needs of childhood. But after my stepmother said that, I started to look for my birth mother in earnest. So maybe it was a kick in the right direction.
Tell me a little about meeting your birth mother for the first time.
The moment was just huge—like an earthquake. I had such a lack of knowledge about where I might have come from. You have all these hopes and fears riding on this moment. Finding your biological parent is up there with giving birth or falling in love. In my experience, people who aren’t adopted can’t really relate to it.
Was anything she said particularly memorable?
It’s all really memorable. To hear that, despite the fact that she gave me up for adoption, she had wanted me, she had felt this maternal longing, that she had grieved me, was a big deal.
When she told me that over the phone, I remember going out and lying in the hammock in the backyard, just staring up and thinking. I mean, how do you digest the fact that you were wanted when you’ve built your identity on, "Okay, nobody wants me? Well, fuck them! I’m going to want myself, and I’ m going to want my family and my life." Then you hear you were wanted, and something sort of softens and dissolves in you.
Are there teachings you learned as a Jehovah’s Witness that benefit you today?
An ability to study, to focus, to work hard with very little recompense for a long time is great training for graduate school. (laughs)
In my teens and twenties, I pretty much rejected all the values I grew up with; then I came to realize some were good.
For example, I grew up with racial equality. I had no idea that racism existed until I was in college. We were very close to people of all races in the Kingdom Hall; it was like this little haven where we talked the talk and walked the walk, and it was a beautiful thing.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are also sort of a version of the people of the book. Their books are not, in my estimation, very complex. But there is a focus on the book, and the idea that reading is absolutely essential.
Environmental ethics were also implied. The goal we were to set our eyes on was a paradise earth; not heaven, but a restored earth, clean and beautiful.
Being a member of a community somewhat divorced from society gave me the freedom to imagine a better kind of living. Perhaps having been a Jehovah’s Witness and reading a lot of fiction meshed and gave me the freedom to make up how I thought things ought to be, and then try to make them real. The freedom to dream, and then to believe that those dreams could be enacted.
Are there teachings from the Jehovah’s Witness that still haunt you?
Sure. Armageddon, The Apocalypse. I grew up thinking that Armageddon was going to happen any day. It’s very immediate for me. I’ve had apocalyptic nightmares on and off my whole life.
It’s very personal?
Very personal. When you live in that sort of ideological worldview, it’s all about whether or not you’ve been a good person. Have you followed all the rules? If not, this huge conflagration is going to wipe you out. You care about other people, but you follow the rules so you’ll live.
There’s a sort of subtext in the book—a link between fundamental religion and abuse.
I can’t speak to fundamentalism generally—only to my experience.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are very committed to passivism. If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness child and you get beat up, you’re to turn the other cheek. We were like a walking target.
There’s also a strong emphasis on obedience: the children are obedient to the parents, no questions asked; the wife is obedient to the husband; the family is obedient to the elders in the Kingdom Hall; it’s very hierarchical.
I respect and admire passivism, but it can become a dangerous passivity. No one says, "Hey, if someone messes with you, fight back, or tell, or do something about it."
So even though most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses I knew were sweet, gentle people, they were sort of ripe for a predatory individual like my stepfather.
Your stepfather is the monster of the book, but your adoptive mother’s acquiescence is alarming. The collusion is chilling. Yet in the "Gratitude" section you write: To my mother, who did the best she could. How did you come to that?
The process of writing this book helped a lot—imagining how it might have felt for her to be in love with someone who had multiple affairs: be poor and trying to raise two children; being committed to a religion that’s very odd in a number of ways and to have two children clearly straining against that; to be working full time, feeling unlovely, unlovable. And then you meet somebody who is a classic abuser—as I wrote, I could see it develop incrementally as he isolated us from any outside support, and then derogated her until her self-esteem wore away. It was just a terrible situation, she’s just extremely anxious, and things went very, very badly and out of her control. She handled it in a way that I wouldn’t, but I do believe that it was her best.
Have you found forgiveness for her through writing the book?
Yes, weirdly so. Writing it also made the positive memories come back, and I know that she viewed herself differently, as someone trying to be a good mother and a loving person.
What else did you gain personally from writing the book?
It gave me a chance to commemorate my father’s life—where he came from, his family, his struggles. Lots of people very painfully lose a parent, but not very many get to commemorate their lives in such a way. And it allowed me to write about my wonderful brother, who is my personal hero,
What do you hope others take away from it?
It kills me when I see parents being unkind to their children. My mother believed that children don’t remember things, they’re not really human in some way, they don’t have feelings and perceptions that they can process at such an early age. This book is proof that’s not the case. I think children are so much more than a lot of adults and parents think they are. Maybe some readers will get that, too, and won’t slap their kids in Kroger anymore.
While The Truth Book was being considered for publication, you taught the College’s first course on memoir. How did that go, and how did writing the book inform your teaching?
The students were amazing. The course was a senior seminar, like a grad school prep course, and working the creative part in was something new; we’d never permitted the creative into our seminars before.
So doing something creative was new to some of these guys, and one of them told me early in the course that it gave him the willies. But he ended up doing a fantastic job—a fantastic memoir and fantastic critical piece.
They were working in a white heat, some of them, and most of them found something in their lives that was meaningful to someone other than themselves, and they put it out there.
I could tell them [The Truth Book] was out at publishers, and I told them that I had always thought that my story was something to keep concealed, and yet it turned out to be the thing…well, the thing you think is most irrelevant and shameful could be the thing that is most useful to others.
Professor Bill Placher ’70 said that your Chapel speech "reminding our students of the rules of civility in conversation"—and the standing ovation students gave you for that—was one of the most memorable moments of his past 10 years at Wabash. Did the student reaction surprise you?
Did that surprise me? I thought I was going to be run out of town. I was so nervous when the Sphinx Club was introducing me that all I could think was, Don’t throw up! When I said "thank you" at the end, there was a heartbeat when I was wondering, Is someone going to do something angry now? So that was a very happy surprise for me, probably the most movie-like moment that I’ve had here.
Was there any connection to the person in the book who wrote "Sometimes you want to leave the jeweled perfection of your privacy" and your stepping up there and giving that speech.I couldn’t have given that chapel speech if I hadn’t written that book.
The book wasn’t available then, but having gone through the process of writing, and knowing that, soon, everyone in this community would have access to it, made me come to terms with that. I thought, Okay, I am going to have my history on my sleeve, why not use tenure and use this newfound desire to not shut-up any longer and do something good with it. I gave the speech I longed for someone else to give the first six years I was here. I thought, I’ll just give the speech I want to hear, be the person that I wanted to be there for me.
It sorts of reminds me of the little girl in the book who had to be a smartass because it was the only way she had a voice. Here, you have a voice.
I think I’m mature enough not to be a smartass, if it’s not called for. I used a little bit of humor in my chapel talk, but in that case, it was a strategy for connection, not for being superior or rejecting or rebelling. I wanted the students to know we’re in this together—I’ve been there, so have you—to make fun of myself. That way, when I said something serious, they knew it was because it really was serious, and not because I’m humorless.
You had to care about this place to take such a risk.
If you’re just passing through, there’s no reason to stick your neck out or make people angry at you. And I think there’s a place for constructive criticism; if there’s a place for it in the classroom, then there’s a place for it in our public rhetoric, as well. Always being a rah-rah person doesn’t serve the campus well.
I tried to be respectful and empathetic.
That empathy, especially toward your father, infuses sections of this book. Where does that come from?
I think that empathy comes from imagination. I was exposed at a very early age to so many people’s stories, so many people’s situations, problems, and different responses through reading.
You can’t know exactly what it was like to be a sailor at the turn of the century, but if you can read a book, you can start to get at how it felt to somebody to be that sailor. I think being a lifetime reader of fiction—I ate it all up, all kinds of stories— helps me with empathy. Empathy and imagination go hand in hand.
And I feel really sympathetic toward my father and his behaviors. I think he adopted them to negotiate the world he wanted to be a part of, and part of being a man in American society is to judge women. It’s a kind of blind adoption of something that makes you feel good. I empathize with the things men have to wrestle with in our culture. I can also see the damaging effects of sexism, and having lived those, want to help people understand why it’s a bad idea.
College was forbidden to most Jehovah’s Witnesses, yet your father was, in a way, your introduction to academia.
When we were living in West Virginia, our father would drive up every other weekend and Wednesday evenings to be with us. My stepfather had instituted rule that, because my father was disfellowshipped, we were not allowed to eat or speak with him. So he couldn’t take us out to dinner or converse the way we had before. He didn’t know what to do, and it was really horrible.
What he settled on was taking us to the library on the West Virginia Wesleyan campus in Buckhannon. It was a very traditional campus. It had the red brick, the lovely lawns and trees; it was completely foreign to me.
But we could walk around the library and read books. We could even sit very close to my father and read a book in silence.
So there’s this place for me that’s been safe; a place of books. A different kind of utopia that encourages ideas, where you get to discuss things, argue them. You don’t have to take everything on faith, though you could if you wished.
So I went to college at Trinity in San Antonio—a place with red brick, lovely lawns, and pretty trees. There’s a "little city on the hill" mentality about a college campus.
My father introduced us to that. I think it’s the romance of education, and there’s a real magic in it. I feel thrilled to have made that freedom and questioning a daily part of my life to share with other people.
The reaction students and your colleagues gave you after your Chapel speech suggests they’re glad you’re here, too.
I’ve wondered a lot just why I’m here at Wabash. Why did I end up here?
Maybe it’s a lucky thing.