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Interview with Kathryn Schulz: Of missing socks and fathers

by
22 July 2022

Her new book explores the overlap of grief and love. Interview by Susan Gray

Casey Cep

Kathryn Schulz

Kathryn Schulz

KATHRYN SCHULZ writes about big ideas. Her first book, Being Wrong, published in 2010, examines how it is possible to be mistaken about almost any aspect of our lives and still feel absolutely fine. It is the unwanted feelings of shame and stupidity that come in the wake of realising that we have been wrong which we try so hard to avoid.

On the other side of views so stubbornly clung to, Ms Schulz argues, lie creativity, expansion, and new possibilities, all abundantly available if only we could admit that we may not be 100 per cent right, 100 per cent of the time.

Five years later, Ms Schulz wrote The Really Big One, about the likelihood that an earthquake would devastate the Pacific coast of the United States, and won the Pulitzer Prize.

Dramatic personal events of 2015 and 2016, when The Really Big One was published in The New Yorker, form the basis of Ms Schulz’s most recent book, Lost & Found. In the spring of 2015, the author met her future wife, a fellow writer, Casey Cep. Eighteen months later, Ms Schulz’s beloved father, Isaac, died.

Reflecting on overlapping, bittersweet chapters in her life, she was drawn to unpicking the interconnectedness of loss and discovery. “I had thought about this very interesting category of loss, and how strange it is that we would put our missing socks in the same kind of container of experience as our lost loved ones,” she says.

“And I had thought about this mirror-image category of discovery, and the equally strange and fascinating range of things we can find in life. And those two categories are not in neat little separate drawers. We don’t experience them separately: we experience them and so many other things together, and the book came into being for me — because I did have this experience of losing my father and finding my partner in quite quick succession.”

Expanding on her motivation for the book, Ms Schulz sees the interplay of loss and discovery as one of the under-reported topics that she is so drawn to: “It struck me right away as one of these things that is absolutely defining of life and how we experience it, and yet a little bit invisible.”

 

THE book Lost & Found combines memoir and essay in the way that American writers do so well. The work is a meditation on grief, love, and the idea that most of adult life is formed of “emotional conjunction”, where we have to contend with contradictory emotional states and events simultaneously.

From a windswept Maryland Eastern Shore, where Ms Schulz moved from the Hudson Valley to set up marital home near her wife’s family, she explains: “As much as we long for it, it would be very difficult to have each emotional experience utterly unsullied by anything else. It would mean that, when we were grieving, there would be no way for anything else to get in; no way for joy to get in, no way for laughter, and no way for hope or a glimpse of the future again. I can’t imagine anything more terrible.”

Far from a stumbling block to happiness or cognitive burden, Ms Schulz views emotional conjunction as a salve for the trials and joys of being alive. “Depression is a condition in which emotional conjunction ceases to happen and you only experience the grim and the despairing, and that’s incredibly uncomfortable and dangerous. We should be quite grateful for the fact that this complicated, clamorous set of emotions is the way life always works.”

Reframing the relationship between loss and gain and discovery prevents its being irredeemably negative, she believes. “The gift of loss encourages us to cherish what we have.”

Aware that grief and love were far from untrodden literary paths, Ms Schulz says, she felt a duty to be scrupulously honest about her idiosyncratic experience of the two states. She captures beautifully the disconnect between the inner drama, heightened emotions, and upending of routine that end-of-life care involves for families, and the utilitarian, comfortless surroundings of hospitals.

“I was mindful [when] writing about hospitals that I didn’t want to simply be cranky. They are life-saving and life-giving. I have witnessed the incredible miracle that is modern medicine over and over again, most recently at the birth of my daughter. But when you’re sitting in one, day after day, and someone you love is dying, you’re right there in this dramatic disconnect.

“There’s a mission problem. The hospital exists to provide these incredible interventions, but medicine is a job like any job, and so hospitals are workplaces like any workplace. One wants to be letting go of one’s loved ones somewhere sacred — in a church, or a synagogue, or outside in the wilderness by the side of a river — or at home, so you have the sense of the solemn and holy and existential.

“For hospitals, providing this care is so far beyond their brief. And yet when you’re living through it, it’s quite striking, and sometimes quite difficult that they don’t, and they can’t.”

 

THE aspect of the book that Ms Schulz is most asked about is the boredom of grief, where she describes the grinding paralysis of being newly bereaved — unable to concentrate, uninterested in socialising, and at times incapable of completing the simplest task.

“Of all the passages about grief, I probably have heard the most about the tedium of it. So, I think I might not be the only person who was a little bit relieved to just put it in print or see it in print.”

Ms Schulz describes herself as a Jewish atheist. “There is not much emphasis within Judaism on an afterlife. It has a grand history, but not one that gets the kind of attention it does in Christianity.

“Layered on top of it is the fact that I myself cannot bring myself to believe in an afterlife. I wish I could — what a beautiful idea, and what a profoundly comforting one, but not one that has ever rendered itself convincing to me. This is probably a capacity or having some kind of faith, and I don’t have it.”

Ms Schulz’s wife is a committed Lutheran, and was a server in her home-town church. She studied theology as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Ms Schulz refers to their differing beliefs as “having our own cosmologies”.

“We do talk about it, because my partner does, and she is the most knowledgeable, vigorous, and interesting of theological thinkers, and in no universe subscribes to any simple notion of an afterlife or ventures beyond what she believes is offered in scripture.

“But she does have the faith that I don’t: she does have faith in a God and Jesus, and in an ultimately redemptive presence and the notion of an enduring essence of each of us. Casey does have a kind of peace about death that I gravely lack.”

Their daughter, born last year, will experience a faith embodiment of conjunction. “We feel strongly about observing both sets of traditions . . . and our daughter will be brought up in both faiths. And, yes, we talk a lot, although probably not as much as we should, about how to how to sustain both traditions in the context of our family.”

Ms Schulz describes Judaism as “much more than simply a set of a set of theological convictions: it is a long history, culture, and set of traditions. And I was raised in those. My father was deeply Jewish — not religiously so, but Jewish in the way that you have no choice but to be Jewish when you’re born in 1941, and part of the world is making a practice of aggressively identifying everyone who is Jewish and exterminating them.”

Ms Schulz’s maternal grandmother, one of 11 siblings, was sent from Lodz to Palestine as a teenager, saving her from the fate of most her family in the Nazi camps. “My father was very clear that Judaism was an identity that was core to his being, almost whether he wanted it that way or not.”

 

OPENNESS about their different class backgrounds was one of the most unexpected aspects of Ms Schulz’s account of her finding her life partner. Although both are staff writers on The New Yorker, and have published well-received books, Ms Schulz is the daughter of a Cleveland lawyer, while Ms Casey grew up in rural Maryland. Her parents worked in several manual jobs, taking the children with them when they could, for the family to survive.

Ms Casey was the first person from her high school to go to Harvard in 50 years, while Ms Schulz’s high school sends a couple of students to Harvard every year. “In adulthood, it’s striking the extent to which class continues to shape our perspective on all things. And it’s one of the ways I have learned the most from her, because, when you are the beneficiary of the benefits of being from the upper classes, class is largely invisible to you — that is one of the benefits!

“But when you are not, class is incredibly visible, and power and money and how they work are incredibly visible to you.”

One of Lost & Found’s most touching moments is when Ms Schulz brings her girlfriend to her family’s large suburban home for the first time, and is anxious about how Ms Casey will feel about her wealthy background. Ms Schulz explains this reversal of unease between the well-to-do and less well off as the way in which class works in America now.

“That is an interesting direction that our culture is tending. What Casey would tell you is that everyone she grew up with pretended to be richer than they were. And everyone she met from college onward pretended to be poorer than they were. And that is class in America in a nutshell for you.”

Ms Schulz concludes that bringing your partner home is always a time of “vulnerability and exposure”, whatever your economic background. But it is fascinating that she exposed a counter-current to the way in which the huge topic of class is normally portrayed. If only there was somebody to write a book about it!

 

Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz is published by Picador at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-52900-050-4.

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