The reporter asked me if I’d ever been clinically depressed.
We were talking on the phone. I was walking through a more depressive stretch of Gowanus, a semi-depressing neighborhood. The sky was getting darker. The canal stunk.
I didn’t say anything for a long moment, then I repeated her question.
“You’re asking if I’ve ever been…diagnosed?”
I wasn’t exactly surprised. She’d just read my book, a story about a woman’s mental dissolve, and was tasked with writing a profile about me, a woman who wasn’t (somehow!) mentally dissolved. This was my first introduction to the particular frustration of being conflated with a fictional character. I’d never worried that my family and real friends would confuse me with Elyria, the unhinged woman at the center of my book. And I didn’t particularly care if total strangers assumed the novel was, like many first novels are, memoir in dark sunglasses and a headscarf. But it was this moment in Gowanus when I realized that when reporters tease out similarities between novelists and their protagonists, it’s not only boring and lazy, but offensive to the whole point of writing fiction.
To tell the reporter that I’d never been ever clinically depressed might discredit the veracity of the emotional experience of the main character, but to tell her yes would be to feed into the idea that novelists are just a blink and a name away from their narrators. This is especially true of those who dare to write in first-person voice, and extra extra true, it seems to me, if you’re a woman — as if all we can birth is more of ourselves.
Put on the spot by that reporter, I said I believed everyone experiences depression at some point, diagnosed or not. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with a 2-year-old should know there is a depthless rage and sorrow in every human, and anyone who thinks they’re exempt from this is either lying or emotionally ignorant.
But she persisted, telling me a story about her neighbor who couldn’t get out of bed for days when she was at her worst. Had I ever felt something like that?
“I can always get out of bed,” I told her, and that ended it.
In later interviews, some form of this question kept coming up: how much of the book is real, or based on a true story? How much of you is in the narrator and how much of the narrator is you?
I created a mental Venn diagram — Elyria, Me, and Elyria/Me. We’ve both been to New Zealand. Both hitchhiked. Both default to being solitary. But Elyria has no sense of humor; I’ll laugh at nearly anything. She sleeps in public parks and garden sheds and dilapidated barns; I’ve never been that adventurous or desperate. Elyria has almost no ability to take care of herself, but I do. She despises being social; I rather like it. And though I can occasionally be a killjoy, or semi-dysfunctional, or anti-social — well, who isn’t sometimes? The one difference I believed to be certain was that I’d never disappear on my family without warning, which Elyria does on page one. Disappearance had no appeal to me.
I believed this was true. I thought I was certain.
The title for the book, Nobody Is Ever Missing, came after a string of not-quite-right working titles, until I realized that this line from John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29”, a poem I knew almost by heart, was perfect. It’s a blanket statement taken out of context that’s true in some ways and deeply false in others, and after choosing it my attention fell more acutely on who and what does, it seems, go missing.
My neighborhood is occasionally speckled with flyers describing those who have disappeared and they always draw me in. I stare at the faded, xeroxed photographs, try to find something in their fuzzy eyes. It’s been 19 days. She has a tattoo of a sphinx. He was last seen in Carroll Gardens. I could know him, I think; I may have seen her, years ago, in line at a grocery store. Though I know it’s unlikely, I like to imagine that there was no crime or suicide, that the people in these soft photographs have gone missing of their own accord.
Recently, a friend at a dinner party mentioned that Agatha Christie went missing for an entire year only to return to her husband, refusing for the rest of her life to tell him where she’d been.
“No!” I said, “That’s my fantasy!” It was only then, hearing myself say it, that I realized it was true. I didn’t want to go missing in the way that necessitated a flyer or search party, but I’ve always loved the idea of just going. Why hadn’t I seen this before?
In truth, I later learned, Agatha Christie was only gone for 11 days before being discovered at a hotel registered under a false name, but the idea of being gone for a year, of having a year’s worth of unobserved time, all those solo days stretching long and soft, the meditative state of barely speaking, when everyone who sees you is a stranger, when you know you’ll be forgotten by most anyone you come across — well, for as much as I love my friends and family it almost doesn’t make sense that I long for that variety of aloneness as much as I do. How ephemeral everything becomes — it’s some kind of holy.
It was after the dinner party that I realized how high vanishing has been on my list of pastime fantasies; it’s probably the thing I have the most in common with Elyria, not the least. If I could somehow disappear for a while without making any loved ones anxious, I would. Even for only a few months — which is something I’ve actually approximated several times over the years in New Zealand, Japan, Europe, and Central America. (Though everyone has always known where I was going, dampening the thrill.) While gone I’ve tended to eschew calls home or internet or even speaking to locals when I can help it. Instead, I relish the temporary permission to vanish.
Why did it take trying to separate myself from the novel’s protagonist to see one of the most basic similarities between us? Hidden in my purported wanderlust was a true love of being unfindable.
We tend to look back at our younger selves and say, “Oh but I was just young and stupid,” but claiming stupidity is the easy way out. The more frightening possibility is that our younger selves have a higher capacity for self-delusion, to be both the dealer and the buyer of a mirage. However, to accept this means accepting the strong possibility that you are currently engaged in self-delusion, that something you staunchly believe at this moment is actually a lie.
When the reporter’s piece came out, I was described as “no stranger to despondency.” In addition, nearly a quarter of her profile was spent unpacking an article I wrote five years ago about being an egg donor. That experience had nothing to do with the novel or my present. But in the reporter’s eyes, I was a downer egg donor who had written a book. Another reminder that everyone sees the story they want to see.
What I should tell anyone who might ask again is that no fiction writer can honestly tell you what parts of her characters are mutations or facsimiles or pure inventions of the self. There’s no master Venn diagram, no clean delineation between invention and reality. Everyone writes fiction.
Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing. Her work has been published by The New York Times, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, The Atlantic, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and others. She has received fellowships from NYFA and Columbia University, where she earned an MFA in creative nonfiction.
To learn more about Nobody Is Ever Missing, click here.