Triumph Over Affliction
Deborah Eisenberg and Shira Erlichman fought inner conflicts in search of personal peace.
Deborah Eisenberg is an award-winning fiction writer, known for her distinctive short stories exploring themes of trauma, powerlessness, and the struggles of contemporary existence.
Born in 1945 and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, she attended Marlboro College in Vermont but left during her sophomore year. She moved to New York City in the late 1960s, where she completed her bachelor’s degree at The New School and worked as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books. She published her first short story, “Flotsam,” in her late 30s. It appeared in her first collection of stories, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986). Her fifth collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, was published in 2018. Her play, Pastorale, premiered in New York City in 1982, and she wrote the original screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s film Let Them All Talk (2020).
Among her many accolades, Eisenberg has won a Whiting Award for fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her collected stories.
She is a professor of writing at Columbia University.
Shira Erlichman is a writer, visual artist, and musician whose poetry has been featured in PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series, The Huffington Post, The Seattle Times, and The New York Times, among other major publications.
Born in Israel in 1984, Erlichman moved to Massachusetts at age 6. She earned her BA at Hampshire College and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 20s. The condition informs much of her poetry, notably her acclaimed collection Odes to Lithium (2019).
Known for her confessional poems that explore mental illness, self-acceptance, and the possibilities of language, her accolades include an Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, a Silver Medal for the Nautilus Award, and the James Merrill Fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center.
As a musician, Erlichman has performed across the United States and released five albums and two EPs, most recently Subtle Creatures (2017). She wrote and illustrated Be/Hold: a friendship book (2019), a work for children.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that helps us explain who we are, to ourselves and to others. 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.
Deborah Eisenberg: 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.
And Shira Erlichman’s bipolar disorder went undiagnosed for years. Naming it was just the start of her journey to self-acceptance.
Shira Erlichman: 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.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
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.
(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Days”)
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.
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.
Eisenberg: 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 continue to live with. And he was asthmatic. I thought—wonderful person, cigarettes. 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.
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.
Eisenberg: 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.
Looking back, Eisenberg believes she was the embodiment of her mother’s fears. Her lack of ambition or any aspirations worried her parents.
Eisenberg: 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.
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.
(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Rosie Gets a Soul”)
There must have been something in her mind which made it possible for her to leave: she must have thought that while she (as it had suddenly come to appear) was taking time out, the shuttle kept on moving back and forth; she must have thought that she could weave herself back into the web whenever she was ready; she must have thought it would be obvious what she was supposed to do next; she must have thought she’d just find herself doing whatever it was people did. Who knows what she was thinking? Whatever it was, she was wrong.
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.
Eisenberg: 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.
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.
Eisenberg: 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.
And with Shawn’s encouragement, Eisenberg finally began taking herself seriously, approaching the page, even when it required her to tolerate lingering insecurity.
Eisenberg: 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.
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.
(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Under the 82nd Airborne”)
“Excuse me,” Mr. Best said. “One slight correction.” He twinkled charmingly at Caitlin. “Honduras is a neutral country—the Contras are not here.”
“No the point,” Boyce said loudly to Caitlin, “the point is that Honduras is a highly sensitive strategic area. Of course we have financial interests in the region—we’ve never attempted to deny that—but the point is that, strategically speaking, Honduras is money in the bank.”
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.
Eisenberg: 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.
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.
(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Your Duck Is My Duck”)
There was always the feeling that one would get around to being young again. And that when one was young again, life would resume the course from which it had so shockingly deviated.
Now Deborah Eisenberg is still looking forward, still hand-in-glove with her wonderful man, Wallace Shawn, her partner of 50 years.
Eisenberg: 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. It doesn’t, people think, oh, well it must get boring. It does not get boring.
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.
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.
Shira Erlichman: 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.
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.
Erlichman: 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.
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.
(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)
Get in, George Eliot. 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.
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.
(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)
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.
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 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.
Erlichman: 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.
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.
(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)
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.
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.
Erlichman: 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.
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.
Erlichman: 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.
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.
Erlichman: 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?
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.
(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)
I’m not going to say it
again: buckle up, put a daffodil behind my ear, touch
my shoulder from the backseat, 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 K. The baffling intelligence
of starling and uteri—front seat. I’m only five feet tall,
too many strangers pick me up as a gag, my recurring dream
is that I choose this life again—keep your hands inside
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.
Erlichman: 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.
(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)
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.
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.
Erlichman: 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.
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.