THE BLOG
08/14/2014 06:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2014

Rita Zoey Chin: Running Toward the Storm

Very early in her memoir, Let the Tornado Come, (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Rita Zoey Chin finds herself at an exclusive dinner held by her husband's colleagues from the Boston Medical Center where he is the chair of neurosurgery, during the course of which she reveals that she is working on a memoir. The former interim chair voices the incredulous and, frankly, derisive "at your age?" that younger memoirists often risk when they take on the genre. Chin, whose energies by this point are entirely focussed on avoiding panic attacks, responds by blushing and falling silent, but as the conversation moves on, she reflects on what else she might have said:

I could have told him that by the time I was six, I'd known violence the way some kids know bedtime stories. I could have told him that the first number I ever dialed was 911 during what would be one of many vicious fights between my parents; that, to save myself, I started running away when I was eleven and then spent years living between state-run institutions and the streets, where I wandered around looking for a safe place to call home but instead ended up sleeping in staircases or empty cars or, more often, the questionable beds of men and women. I could have told him I'd been a stripper, a junkie, the kind of girl who would never be welcome in an elite place like this. I might have also mentioned that I'd put myself through college and grad school summa cum laude, that I'd taught college students how to write, and that I did these things after dropping out of junior high in the eighth grade. I could have said that in my short life, I had teetered at the abyss of death more than once. But a charming doctor's wife wouldn't tell him any of that.

It is true that there is a large swath of practitioners of the art of memoir who inflict, rather than gift, the reading public with the banal minutiae of their lives. Scott Russell Sanders once introduced a reading of his work, A Private History of Awe (FSG, 2006), with a self-deprecating remark that he had sworn he would "never commit memoir." It was a nod to critics of the genre who hold that one must live a remarkable life, before presuming to recount its vagaries and glories between the covers of a book, though, indeed, what Sanders did was to recount what would be considered a quiet life, with great literary aspect and to lasting spiritual import. Chin's account of her life, so far from the lower-key evolution of the young boy Sanders was into the adult he became, nonetheless, strikes the same poetic beauty. Let the Tornado Come is not a litany of all that went wrong, but a near euphoric ode to the human spirit that pulls a little girl through each wrong toward a light that makes sense to her and, equally importantly, to each of us. It is one thing to have lived a life worth writing about, but it is a talent to search that undeniably particular life for the moments that can ring true to those who will never know even a second of the darkness that fell so insistently and relentlessly upon her, first as a child, and later as a young adult. Here, Chin talks about some of the affirmations that she came to know through often brutal experience.

It has been said that "a ship in harbor is safe but that is not what ships are for," and in your case you seem to be both the ship out at sea seeking harbor and the ship in harbor looking out at sea. Do you believe there is a single harbor for each of us? 
 
RZC: That's a great quote! And here's one from my favorite poet, Mary Oliver: "When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms." I love the feeling of reversal here; I love thinking that we can embrace the world, and that imagination and wonder can serve as the ultimate harbor. What I've found is that, unlike a ship out at sea that needs eventually to find a port in order to repair and replenish, we can find our harbors in the midst of motion, even in the midst of chaos, almost anywhere. I have found some of my greatest harbors in nature, in books, in strange small moments that might not mean anything to anyone else. I think we're often led to believe that our harbors exist within the walls of our homes or the constructs of our closest relationships, which they can, but I believe the most important harbors are those that we build for ourselves, within ourselves, as we move through the world.
 
You write that you eventually decide to shrink the scale and make a daily choice to be grateful for your home with your husband but also acknowledge that you can be equally at home anywhere. When you say "home" what do you mean? 
 
RZC: I think my definition of home has changed quite a bit over the years and is still changing. When I was a runaway, home to me was a very specific place, and I was determined to find it. At night I walked through neighborhoods and stared shamelessly into other people's windows, as if somewhere was that one family who would take me in and claim me as theirs and tuck me into bed and say, "you're safe now, this is your home." Not surprisingly, I didn't find that place, but even well into adulthood I carried a notion of it, and a child-like hope for it. And then I married a loving man and had the perfect house to call home, in the safest neighborhood I'd ever lived, and I breathed that long-awaited sigh of relief, and then I sort of fell apart. I began having panic attacks that left me paralyzed in a constant state of terror. So suddenly this thing I thought I wanted all those years was proving not to be the panacea I thought it would be.
 
In this case, what I needed wasn't a place but a feeling. When I was fifteen, I was court-ordered to what would be the eighth, and last, institution I lived in--an adolescent treatment center in the mountains of Western Maryland--and one evening I stepped outside just before dusk (which itself was a privilege, considering that several of the institutions I'd been were hardcore lockups), and I sat on a small hill and looked out at the mountains and watched the sky change and deepen while everything turned golden and the insects and birds hummed, and I thought, I am a part of this. I was alone, and yet I had never felt more connected to the universe than I did in that moment. In turn, I had never felt more connected to myself--to my own sense of awe over it all. When I think of that moment now, I realize that this feeling of connection to the larger world, and of harmony within it, is what "home" means to me. And that's the home I needed to return to when I was panicking.

You write beautifully, poetically, about hands. Your yearning for your mother's hands, the way in your father's hands you broke free with the touch of an elephant's trunk on the palm of your own hand. Later your own hands soothe the muscles of your horse, giving him something - as a caregiver - you never received. Do you think the grace we learn to give comes from having gone without? 
 
RZC: Thank you, Ru. I do like hands! And yes, I do believe that going without can make us keenly aware of others' needs. For me, this recognition has resulted in an "empathy problem," as I jokingly call it, which is something I continue to struggle with--because if I'm not careful, my concern for others can quickly consume my life. So that grace in giving requires a kind of balance, like most things. But I think that when we find that balance, giving to others what we never received is also a way of giving it to ourselves.
 
In the case of my horse, Claret, what many people saw was a "bad" and "dangerous" horse, but what I saw was his need. And that served me well because, though I was a novice horseperson, I knew what it meant to go without and to be stuck in a whirlwind of fight-flight as a result, so I was able to veto what the experts were telling me and trust in a deeper truth, which turned out to be one of the most extraordinary experiences of grace in my life.
 
One of the most heart-breaking things in your book is the love you have for your little sister, Joanne. Your description of her dancing in the mist outside a grocery store, spinning to "music box dancer," and your understanding even then at the age of 8, that this was the last moment she would be happy. You write, "If I could have, I would have cultivated it. I would have handed it back to her, a field of pale purple irises that smelled like candy." Toward the end of the book you describe your sister as she has become, the "fight" to your "flight." If you could, would you still "hand it back to her?" Would you have stayed and fought with her? Or would you have taken her with you? 
 
RZC: Ah, tough question! Well, I mean, the first part is easy: yes, of course, I would always hand that moment back to her if I could. But the thing about that moment that was so painful was my awareness not only of the fragility and transience of her joy, but also of my own powerlessness to do anything other than watch it disappear. It's the kind of prescience a child shouldn't have to grapple with, though sadly, many do.

Looking back, I understand how impossible our situation was: my parents hit me but not Joanne, and I think it was as hard on her to watch as it was on me to be the target. So while running away and leaving her behind never stopped being heartbreaking, in some ways it spared us both. And once I was on the streets, I knew I could never subject my little sister to that world. But for me, running was my only shot at hope, and it revealed a strength I might not have otherwise known I had. I don't know if I would have found my way through panic, or through my troubles with my horse, if I hadn't taken my life into my own hands at such a young age, if I hadn't been fierce about what I believed in.

One of the therapies you went through - and one of the most successful - was your training to understand that as adults we are sometimes triggered into "child space" that takes us "home." In the process we return to whatever difficulty or trauma we experienced then, and become paralyzed. You literally visit with your child self and lead her to safety. Do you use this in your work with teenagers now? How successful is it? 
 
RZC: I do try to keep the essence of that therapy present when I work with teenagers now, in that I encourage them to believe in themselves--in their own voices, their intuition, and their strength--because one message they hear a lot, whether from the rule makers at the treatment facilities, their own families, or their own belief systems, is that they're not trustworthy. So I want them to understand that they are, in fact, trustworthy, and that they have a lot more answers inside them than they even realize. Every time I take a girl out with me, I'm showing her that I trust her, and I am never disappointed.
 
But mostly I just try to be a friend to them. I am, after all, a fellow rebel who climbed out of some of the same trenches they're in, and I want to show them that life can be bigger than what they've seen so far--there is pain, yes, but also so much wonder and love and beauty to discover--and that they have the power to cultivate their own happiness. Ultimately, I think I'm trying to give them my sense of "home."
 
I loved your faith in your horse, Claret, the way you instinctively know exactly what he does and does not need. Having been around horses do you think that human beings and the animals they care for reflect each others psyche? 
 
RZC: Yes! I don't think it's a coincidence that while I was struggling with the fight-flight of panic, I decided to perch myself on top of a large flight animal--and this after having never ridden a horse in my life. I also don't think it's a coincidence that I ended up falling in love with a horse who had serious panic problems of his own. I don't know how all these mysterious laws of attraction work, but it does seem like we're invariably drawn to creatures who mirror us in some way. For instance, in addition to our shared flight habits, I identify with Claret's sensitivity, his playfulness, his sense of fairness, his big heart, and the part of him that will always be wild.
 
One of my favorite stories of him involves a late-night escapade, during which he and another horse got out of their stalls, then somehow managed to open the huge sliding barn doors, unlatch the security chain, and take off. The barn manager who lived above the barn was awakened by the sound of galloping hoofbeats, so he went outside to find Claret and his friend running joyously under the stars. Thankfully, they were safely brought back inside, but as someone who once broke out of a two-story group home window with a frying pan, I was secretly delighted.