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Writing on Eggshells

Memoir, Mental Illness, and Vacuuming in Squares



We all know the scene: Faye Dunaway garishly painted into a monstrous Joan Crawford, her children trying unsuccessfully to live up to the impossible, mercurial standards she sets for them. It’s become a bit of a cliché, “no wire hangers!" a catchphrase that instantly paints an over-the top Hollywood caricature of life with an abusive parent. But it also creates a smug sort of distance, doesn’t it? That sort of thing doesn’t happen here. That level of trauma, that specific kind of privilege tainted with profound mental illness exists far, far way, a rarefied condition affecting someone you’re not likely to meet in real life. Child actors, silver screen starlets, trust fund babies. Certainly not the girl-next-door. And definitely not in what many consider the definition of small-town USA: Lakewood, Ohio.


But the truth is, you don’t have to be the child of a Tinseltown legend to have a mentally ill parent. In the United States alone, roughly two-thirds of women and half of all men suffer from a serious mental illness. What does that mean? 4.2% of children are raised in households with at least one mentally ill parent. And many of those children suffer in silence until adulthood, when they diverge into two distinct groups: those cannot escape the inheritance inflicted on them by their parentage and those who survive and adapt. Statics say these children, and the parents that made them, are all around you. But what if you could open those picture-perfect closed doors, step inside the idyllic childhood of the girl in school everyone wanted to be? And what if in doing so, you discovered she went home every night to her own personal hell, a beautiful, perfect prison with constantly-shifting bars designed by her own father?


Suzy Remer is a survivor of such a childhood. Her memoir, Vacuum in Squares, tells the story of growing up in an affluent neighborhood with an exacting, mentally ill father who obsessively micromanaged every aspect of his family’s lives, from homework, to mowing the lawn, and yes, even vacuuming the floors. What does that kind of upbringing do to you? What kind of choices do you make to survive and what kind of coping mechanisms do you create in order to become a functional adult? In Remer’s case, the result is a determination to deal head-on with whatever cards life deals her and a wickedly dark sense of humor that is the hallmark of Vacuum in Squares. Remer is an example of the old adage, “the truth shall set you free” and she does it winningly, spinning the difficult tales of her Lakewood childhood with a blunt, wry sense of humor. You’ll never look at the girl next door the same way again.



Interviewer

Tell us about your new book.


Suzy Remer

My latest work is called “Vacuum in Squares." It was published at the end of 2020 by Sunny Day Publishing. Vacuum in Squares is an inside look at a family's dysfunction using humor as levity to soften the blow of spending over 50 years with a father who was unloving, combative and mentally ill.




Interviewer

Can you give us the first line?


Suzy Remer

"It is possible that when a person is troubled with mental anguish, know not which is the right or wisest road to follow, his mind has got to play peculiar tricks on him or his emotions may bring out things in him that are not true to his real self."



Interviewer

What inspired you to write your memoirs about your family and childhood in Lakewood?


Suzy Remer

After having read a book by author Augusten Burroughs, I realized that I had a great story to tell. That was confirmed at a cocktail party almost 15 years ago when my sister and I were discussing our father and his undiagnosed mental illness. A friend said, “This is some crazy, funny story. You sound just like Augusten Burroughs. Don't stop writing. This is gold.”


Interviewer

I think "don't stop writing" is the best sort of advice, both for a writer and anyone who aspires to be. How long did it take you to write Vacuum in Squares?


Suzy Remer

Eleven years.


Interviewer

What does literary success look like to you?


Suzy Remer

My goal in writing this book was to entertain and help people. I wanted to bring people into my world of having a parent who was emotionally abusive and trying to understand ultimately what makes people tick. I am hoping to open up dialogue about mental illness and make people understand that they're not alone in their struggles. Every family has dysfunction and at the end of the day, no one knows what goes on inside someone's house.


Interviewer

What is a common trap for aspiring writers?


Suzy Remer

I believe it's two-fold. First, write about what interests you and then learn to market your work to people who are interested in that genre. Second, don't write how you speak. Use full words and sentences otherwise you'll come off sounding ignorant.


Interviewer

What is your connection to Cleveland?


Suzy Remer

I was born and raised in Lakewood. For all but 12 years when I lived in Rocky River, I've lived in Lakewood within a block of my childhood home.


Interviewer

How long have you been writing?


Suzy Remer

I started writing 13 years ago when I decided to pen my memoir. In between, I started a blog last year about every day life.


Interviewer

What are the challenges specific to living and working in Cleveland?


Suzy Remer

There really aren't any. You need to give yourself a private, quiet space to create your work. You can do that on a beach, in a high rise, at the park or in your car if it moves you to be creative.


Interviewer

Do you believe in writers block?


Suzy Remer

I absolutely do. Some days your thoughts are disjointed. You may not be able to get a clear thought because your kids need you or work is calling. Set it aside and wait until you have a few moments to gather your thoughts. Keep a journal of the things you would like to include in your work and take your necessary breaks. Your words are not lost. They are just being temporarily used for something more important like reading a bedtime story to your child.


Interviewer

Does writing energize or exhaust you?


Suzy Remer

Writing energizes me. Writing has the ability to change your life and that of the person who has honored you with their time in reading what you wrote.


Interviewer

What is your favorite childhood book?


Suzy Remer

There were two. The first (which I still have after 50 years) is Harold and the Purple Crayon. The second is Where The Wild Things Are. These books are wonderfully imaginative and their central characters are brave enough to see the world from a nonjudgmental, carefree place. Both Harold and Max make friends along the way. They know they're different and learned that they can make good choices and ultimately good friends regardless of the challenges they face.


Interviewer

Do you find that your work has a theme? Is there something about this theme that has particularly drawn you in?


Suzy Remer

For some reason, I have always been drawn to books, TV and movies that deal with serial killers. This lead to me trying to understand mental illness as the reason a person leads a destructive life. When I was young, you never heard that a person could suffer from a personality disorder or even heard the term “serial killer” until 1981 when the term was coined by a criminal profiler while the police were hunting Wayne Williams. Of course, Ted Bundy was soon to follow. People started talking about the personality traits that push people over the edge to killing. I came to understand that not all sociopaths (those with personality disorders) are serial killers but all serial killers are sociopaths. Through all my reading and watching, I came to realize that my father did in fact have a major personality disorder and once I knew what I was dealing with, it became only slightly easier to deal with him. I think understanding mental illness was the driving force in how I ultimately laid out my book.


Interviewer

How has your role as a reader informed your role as a writer?


Suzy Remer

I enjoy twists and turns and the “gotcha” moments that can jump out at you in a story. With that in mind, I structured each chapter in my book by setting up a story and giving you an ending to each that you might not expect.


Suzy Remer is the author of Vacuum in Squares and is represented by Sunny Day Publishing. You can purchase her book online and through all major booksellers. Follow this link to attend Ms. Remer's author talk. For more information, check out her blog.



Dana McSwain is a bestselling author and principal at Webb House Publishing. @writersofcleveland is a project dedicated to amplifying the voices of Cleveland writers. 2021 All rights reserved.

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