From suicide to sexuality, Gayle Brandeis braves it all

Gayle Brandeis, author and
professor at SNU, in a photograph
for her website.

Photo credit: Rachael Warecki

Gayle Brandeis, author and professor at SNU, in a photograph for her website.

Nicole Larsen, Reporter

In the beginning stages of her writing career, Sierra Nevada University English Professor and award-winning author Gayle Brandeis hid her life story behind the characters in her books.

“I realized I didn’t know how to face my own story, and it was confusing because of her mental illness. I started writing these mother-daughter stories that weren’t about me, but there was some subconscious emotional truth that would creep in. I wasn’t being transparent at all; I was hiding behind these characters,” Brandeis said about how her mother’s suicide impacted her life and writing career.

Now, after almost five decades of writing, Brandeis bares her soul in all she writes. A little more than six years ago, she was invited to SNU to be a guest speaker for the Writers in the Woods series held by the college, which monthly welcomes authors from around the globe to share their works and fuel the fire of aspiring writers.

The invitation had been serendipitous for Brandeis, who had been living in Southern California prior to her move to the mountains. Brandeis wistfully remembered how timely the request was from the college.

“I was obsessively looking for cabins in the San Bernardino mountains, and there was just something in me like John Muir says, ‘The mountains are calling me, I must go’,” she recounted.

Because of an intimate connection of growing up by Lake Michigan, Tahoe feels like home to Brandeis, where she currently teaches creative writing in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. Aside from teaching, she is currently working on a young adult novel, another writing guide, and a book of poetry on Marilyn Monroe, who spent a weekend in Tahoe before she died.

For many people, expressing the details of their life and emotions publicly is a terrifying thought. Brené Brown, a research professor and distinguished voice on the topic of vulnerability, defines this as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

When Brandeis dared to put the aftermath of her mother’s suicide on-page in “The Art of Misdiagnosis,” she hung up her childhood fear about her inner world being exposed and stepped into the transforming light of honesty.

“Writing has always been my way of processing, even if it’s not head-on; if it’s sideways through fiction,” Brandeis shared about her writing process.

Understandably, it took Brandeis time to pick up the pen and write about her mother’s death. Her mother died in 2009, and the book was released in 2017. When her mother was alive, she had asked her daughter not to write about her. With her father’s permission and a newfound boldness, Brandeis began to write down the details of what happened during this time of grief in a notebook she carried around with her.

“I had the foresight to take notes around the time of her death,” Brandeis said. “Just what happened, a journal of everything we had gone through. Both grief and childbirth can really wipe out your memory. I am grateful that I had that journal to refer to as I was trying to write.”

The book is a compilation of the notes she took during this time, a letter to her mother, and a transcription of the documentary her mother was filming near the time of her death

“At some point, I realized I could weave those things together, the letter to her, the transcription of her memoir, and my own first-person present-tense narration of what happened around the time of her death that created a collage for me, that shared the visceral experience of grief along with the contextual experience of our past together and letting her speak for herself,” Brandeis said.

She recalled how she wept as she watched the documentary, seeing her mother, and hearing her voice for the first time since she took her life. The well-thought-out collage of Brandeis’ painful emotions has left a deep impact on anyone brave enough to read past the cover.

Cati Porter from The Press-Enterprise says of the book, “This is a difficult read, as well as to put down. There is frankness, openness, and vulnerability. The weaving of ephemera into the text adds a layer of detail that you can’t get just recounting events  . . . What we are given is a complex portrait of a beautiful, talented, brilliant woman, one who struggled against her own inner demons, and lost.”

While “The Art of Misdiagnosis” tackles the grueling topic of suicide, Brandeis’ book of poetry on the female body rips the curtain wide open on sexuality and body acceptance. There truly is no end to Brandeis’ fearlessness when it comes to topics others often shy away from.

“‘The Selfless Bliss of the Body’ is a collection of my poems written over many years – I actually wrote the title poem when I was an undergraduate, which was a long time ago – and are very much about living in a body in the world and all that entails – sexuality, illness, and mortality, as well as simple pleasures and fears,” Brandeis said. “I’m grateful for the women who came before me and broke centuries of silence about women’s lived, embodied, experience. Muriel Rukeyser wrote: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.’ How lucky we are that so many women have split the world open with their words – they gave me the courage to split my own world open.”

There is an empathy and compassion in Brandeis’ voice, both in person and in writing, that leaves a profound affect upon the person. Many authors have their own personal touch they hope to leave behind, and Brandies is no different.

“I want to leave a legacy of love,” she said. “I want to help people feel empowered to write their own stories. I want whatever courage I have to inspire courage in others. The one quote from Brené Brown’s quote on vulnerability, an early meaning of courage was, ‘To tell one’s story with all one’s heart.’ That is the kind of courage that other writers have given me, and I would like to pass that on, for people to tell their own stories without shame and break their silences, to love themselves and others.”