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The Art of a Boring Diary, The Point of a Memoir: An Interview With Alice Carrière photo

Whisking life into a formation is arduous, gorgeous, and manic. I’ve arranged a breakfast with Alice Carrière, author of EVERYTHING/NOTHING/SOMEONE, to witness the person who wrote a memoir that is a great mass of color. One could understand that her life, from its very nascence, existed to become a story, her triptych. 

She is the daughter of iconoclastic artist Jennifer Bartlett and actor Matthieu Carrière. Her childhood home glows as a literary talisman to me, 134 Charles Street, a mansion in the West Village, more of a studio, an “experiment in the radical annihilation of boundaries,” as she calls it, rather than a typical family home. Three stories, with an indoor pool on the top floor. Normalcy has no moment to collapse because it is absent from the start. Only adults surrounded her; at times, the Didion-Dunnes attended her mother’s parties. Didion’s frail body found its way into Alice’s teenage arms after several vodkas on the rocks. A full-time nanny, a chef, her mother’s studio hands. The house contained a world, which, for an only child, blistered reality. 

Every year, her mother’s gift to her was to rearrange and redesign her bedroom. Any moorings to self were reinvented. No mess was hers to clean up, there was a force that tidied everything. At 16, she drops an ornament at home and it shatters. She freezes, eyes wide and asking, “What do I do?” Her mother’s friend says to get a broom and clean it up. Here is one of many cataclysms that show the privilege and neglect of Alice’s life, leading to her episodes of dissociation. 

But like most teenage girls with divorced parents and ample bedroom space, time, and books, Alice romanticized her mental troubles, then more extreme habits of cutting, her admission into wards, grinning as the attendants searched through her copies of The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to ensure no razors were stashed between the pages. 

Eventually, her overmedication on psychotropic drugs led to a year-long psychotic break in which she became a recluse, fighting off nefarious forces from inside her computer. Soon, there were FreshDirect deliveries, then oversized garbage cans… all to ensure stillness, and therefore safety. These delusions circled her, her own self obliterated, prey. “Somewhere, invisibly, wirelessly, in the air around me, fatal distortions were occurring.” 

It is impossible to distill this novel into a handful of paragraphs; from an unusual relationship with her father to the false implanted memories her mother suffered, her life holds so much within these pages. And it is the language that she found that elucidates all of the madnesses. “I recogniz[ed] that urgency, how things only became real when they were turned into language, how that language was often the only thing left when reality fell apart.”

On the ninth page of your book, you write that “if I had the right words for things, everything could feel okay,” and that they “helped me recognize where everyone else ended and I began.” How did you come upon this feeling? 

It comes from being tasked with describing the dissociation, but also, from one of the audiobooks I used to listen to compulsively when I was little: The Giver by Lois Lowery. The book begins with Jonas, the main character, struggling to find the right word for his emotions. This preoccupation with the precision of language always really moved me, and I related to it deeply. I’ve always loved the drama and the significance of the process of finding the right words.

I asked Alice, while she believed her diaries contained the everyday to the point of torture, how she used them in illustrating the individual mental episodes throughout her life: 

The madness translated aesthetically in a really interesting way. I have one journal that I drew a lot from when I was in the locked ward dissociating and cutting. The handwriting is different on every single page because I had no core identity. The identity diffusion translated into handwriting, into muscle memory. One page looks like a kindergartner wrote it. One page has handwriting that is tight and neat and tiny. I like to draw faces, so there are just random faces throughout the notebook. Maybe that also has to do with the dissociation, wanting to only draw faces because I can't recognize my own.

In the book, she pastes a file from the ward, describing how her drawings contained no body, just a head, because her body felt immaterial to her.

When did you find yourself writing the most? 

When I started dissociating and when I would have periods of depression, that's when I would write the most because it was my only tether to myself and to reality. But during the psychotic episode, I was too busy fending off invisible, imaginary threats to write. 

My delusions were influenced obviously by my internal landscape, my experiences. But the actual state of being delusional was entirely a result of these pharmaceuticals I was being overprescribed. Since I'm no longer on those medications, I don't have any lingering symptoms of psychosis. But having lived in that space for a year, every time I get a computer spam email or something I experience a visceral jolt and am immediately brought back to that time.

How did you keep track of the litany of medications you were on?

I have kept every pill bottle I was prescribed since 2001. They’re in garbage bags in my attic. I called my former psychiatrist and I asked him if he could give me a list of all the meds he had ever prescribed me and he said, oh, no, I destroyed those files after seven years. I called Walgreens. I said, can I have a list of all the meds I've been on? They said, oh, we only keep them for a year. So these pill bottles are the only hard evidence I have of what was done to me.

Would you consider publishing your diaries?

I think the assumption is the diaries are salacious and fucked up and twisted, but the truth of the matter is that they're often soporifically boring.  For instance, during Covid, when I was in isolation for two years in my house with my husband, Gregory, I was still really diligent about recording the mundane, boring life that I was leading. I'd be like, had breakfast, brushed my teeth. A huge bulk of it would be just completely mind-numbing. So I would never publish them. Besides, the good bits are in the book. There are certain things that I didn't include just because there was no room for them, but maybe they'll show up in a short story or fiction later. 

We spoke about phone addiction, how it fragments the mind. I asked for her wisdom in dispelling the addiction with which we both struggle. 

I've discovered jigsaw-puzzling really helps because it mimics the scrolling and then the dopamine hit when you get a piece. Oh my God, I'll just do that for hours. [My addiction] got really intense after my mom died in 2022, so I’m working on trying to find a little stillness now.

On Alice’s Instagram, you can see the giant, colorful puzzles she’s completed (sometimes she does them naked). 

From various sources, from the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, to the Barnes & Noble podcast, and interviews across publications, I knew Alice had spoken about her foray into fiction. Since these interviews were done in late summer, I asked her where these ideas are at now: 

If I talk about an idea, it atrophies the moment I say it and then I can't play with it anymore. It's not that I'm being cagey or secretive; it’s this very special compound or substance that if it reacts to the air of someone's scrutiny, it'll just tarnish.