“The Witnessed Self”: A Conversation with Molly Peacock

Molly Peacock is a poet, editor, biographer, essayist, and short fiction writer. Her latest poetry collection, The Analyst (Biblioasis), addresses her decades-long relationship with her analyst, Joan Workman Stein. Peacock’s other books include the memoir Paradise, Piece by Piece and the best-selling biography The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.

Myra Bloom is a critic who writes about confession in literature, and Heather White is a therapist in private practice. Their respective curiosities about The Analyst are coloured by their work in these different (related) fields.  

Bloom White Peacock

This interview was conducted over lemonade and a spread of epicurean snacks in the cozy living room of the condo Peacock shares with her husband, Michael Groden, in Toronto. Meeting us amid the stuff of her life and autobiographical art, Peacock treated us with a warmth that she’s attributed directly to her experience in therapy and analysis. Though we spoke for the length of time therapists might describe as a “double session” (1.5 hours), this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Myra Bloom: Many of the poems in The Analyst reveal highly personal details about your life, such as a near affair with a friend’s boyfriend:  

                        Katie’s the one
whose boyfriend I fell in love with and almost
lept into the gorge with, but didn’t—

Or a gynaecological emergency:

The power goes out. A fog comes in.
We’re trying to identify a pain
that sharpens and fades. A blunt knife, a pin?

stuck between the clitoris and its hood?
The power is out. The gray fog is in.

What are the risks and rewards of self-disclosure, and do you think that the stakes differ for male and female writers?

Molly Peacock: The bargain that I’m making with my audience is that if I’ve gone some place emotionally, I can’t be alone. Other people have gone there, too. Now that doesn’t mean that they’ve had my same gynaecological emergency, for instance. Or that they’ve contemplated an affair with their best friend’s husband, although my guess is that that’s somewhat common. The risk is that people will say, “How can you reveal these things? I don’t want to read a book just about you!” But I do think that what I’m doing is art: I’m creating a lyrical meditation, anchored in these everyday experiences, in these emotional experiences. And if you’re writing about therapy, how can you not be personal? Especially because not everyone has been in these therapeutic situations, and they need to have a context for it.

The woman question is really interesting. When I began writing seriously, which would have been probably in the early 1970s, I thought that I wanted to write about experiences that I was having but that I didn’t read about anywhere. For me, then, it was my own sexuality. I think that sooner or later if a woman’s using her own experience, she’s going to experience some kind of backlash from male authority figures. And there are various ways to respond to that: you can ignore it; you can respond directly; you can accumulate your own power base. It hasn’t been something that has stopped me, and I don’t feel that I’ve been disrespected for what I do. But I have to tell you that that’s in the back of my head. When I see a woman critically castigated for that kind of subject matter—you know, “just some girl thing”—my gorge rises very quickly.

Heather White: I wanted to follow up on this idea of self-disclosure. Self-disclosure means something different in the literary field than in the therapeutic field, where it always applies to the therapist or the analyst. There’s a lot of debate in the field, but in general, you have to be very careful about self-disclosure; it’s about upholding boundaries and really preserving possibilities so that the client or patient can have different fantasies that become important. So, I’m curious about Joan’s self-disclosure—and her boundaries—how that influenced your capacity to express.

MP: Hm. People have been surprised, for instance, that Joan and I had dinner together. And that’s something always that therapists pick up on. Like, “WHAT?” Oh heavens, I think we had dinner in 1977 when we really thought I was done with therapy. And I don’t know if having dinner with a former patient is a decision she would have made later on. The blurring of boundaries came from being in a really small place [Binghamton, NY] where everybody knew everybody. But I was disturbed by the blurring, because I did know things about her, and I said to her in one of our early sessions, “I can’t know more about you. Because it will make me feel like I have to take care of you, and I can’t do it.” Now, I was not as articulate about that as I am sitting here, well-therapized over decades. I was probably weeping.

She had to figure out moments when she was going to disclose something about herself because it was going to be important in the therapeutic or analytic relationship, and I think she was pretty judicious about that.

As decades went by, I became more secure in not feeling like I had to take care of her, and not feeling like I had to take care of a lot of people—even though it is my first response to any situation. But as I gained confidence, I was able to take in more, and she shared more. I asked her about things.

When she started painting again in her fifties, cautiously, she would hang one of her own watercolours in her living room/therapy room. I would notice, and say, “What’s that?” Then I would discover that she herself had done the painting. She would say, “You know, it’s very unusual. My patients don’t usually come in here and comment on these things.” And of course I adored it when she would say, “Oh, none of my other patients would ask that!”

HW: You were the only one to notice this painting, and there are other examples that show how watchful you were of her the whole time; you really clocked what she was doing. It sounds like you’re able to distinguish between watching her and caring for her. Is there a kind of curiosity that wasn’t caring for her, at least in the way that you feared you’d have to?

MP: That’s a nice distinction. I didn’t think of that at the time, but I think that’s true.


The analyst


MB: You state in The Analyst and elsewhere that as a young woman Joan was critiqued so bitingly for her representational or “confessional” style of painting that she abandoned art for many years and only returned to it after her stroke. Given that your poetry is likewise both confessional and representational, I am curious to know, first, whether you have ever been criticized along similar lines, and then, more broadly, how your writing is affected by positive or negative reviews.

MP: Yes, I am a diehard representationalist. I love figurative art and the figures of formal poetry. That doesn’t mean I don’t respond to abstraction—of course I do. But representation is hard. You have to make a real commitment to technique in order to replicate the world that you see. Not, of course, that abstraction doesn’t require a commitment, but there’s a kind of commitment to a skill set, to expertise that attracts me.

Yes, I can be criticized for acknowledging that there’s a reader reading my work. I hope there’s a reader! I have a poem in another book, The Second Blush, that actually addresses the reader, and I remember a young critic finding that I’d broken the contract. She seemed horrified that I had stepped out of the frame.

I wrote a biography about the eighteenth-century collage artist Mary Delany, and at the end of each chapter I put in a section about myself as I’m tracking her down, and my relationship as the biographer to the subject. There were people who loved that, and then there were people that were absolutely outraged that I had broken the contract—I mean, to the degree that editors have said to me, “Oh, don’t do that again!” Their reservations have given me pause. Angst! But also angry stubbornness. I put my mental hands on my hips and think, “How dare you say I can’t do that!” And then I dig in my heels.

Just a postscript about rejection: like everyone else, I can be deeply affected by the amount of rejection that any artist, even the most celebrated writer, has to take. It takes a long time to pull the knife out of your stomach sometimes. But at the same time, I’ve never not pulled it out. Has it made me better? I don’t know. I think it’s made me … determined.

HW: You were very struck by how Joan handled that painting critique—so distinct from how you’ve handled creative rejection. With so much less resilience. You felt she kept the knife in her stomach a long time. But it seems her resilience was strong in the therapeutic space?

MP: She took my rejections of her very well! Inspiringly! I mean, yes. She took a lot from me in terms of my acting out, and I learned that I didn’t destroy the relationship. It gave me a lot of courage in terms of endurance in relationships. I think I’m always surprised when a relationship doesn’t go on. Many of my friendships are lifelong. Part of what I learned [in therapy] is that in a successful relationship, and by that I mean a flexible one, there’s a lot of tolerance for the full range of emotions. And showing a full range of emotions allows a person to last in a relationship. Because there are always, always crises. Always! It’s hard to be candid, because I’m always worrying about the other person. But if I just find that little jot of courage to say what’s bothering me, well, it’s like the same gamble of confessionalism. The gamble is that the other person has experienced the same emotions that I’m expressing.

HW: Is Joan one of your readers now? How much does she understand the collection?

MP: She’s not one of my readers now. This book is too hard, and formally it’s all over the place. I tried reading her a couple of the poems, and I knew that she wasn’t really getting it. And I kind of stopped; also, there’s a part of me that’s glad. I don’t know what her take on all of this would have been. I don’t think I did anything that would have offended or disappointed her.…

I’m not so sad about the fact that she’s unable to react to each poem, because the poems have been responded to by many others. As I’ve given readings, audiences have really responded. People have recognized themselves because they, too, have been helped by someone. And there isn’t that much art made about being helped. Is it because we all fantasize we are the sole courageous figure in our artistic lives?

MB: I wonder if it’s because the confessional mode is active, but there is a passivity inherent in the idea of being helped.

MP: There’s a lot of overcoming that you have to do to be vulnerable in artmaking. It is not easy for a young person claiming artistic life, and artistic persona, to just sort of lie down and let those thoughts happen and exist in those vulnerabilities. It just takes a lot of self-work and living. And being rejected. And going on. And making mistakes, you know. And living with that, a tapestry of mistakes that you’ve made.

But vulnerability has to be there. That’s what my art is made out of.

MB: How has your analysis or the end of your analysis affected your poetic practice?

MP: I am wistful about that. I think “Oh, I have no one with whom to engage in that incredibly satisfying mental play.” And I don’t feel exactly like going to somebody new and saying, “Hi, I’m here for the mental play of analysis.” A new analyst would likely be interested in mental health, and I’m interested in aesthetic play! Deciding not to go on with another therapist has me thinking a lot about playfulness in artmaking. I have been drawing, well, kind of cartooning, and enjoying it. One of the benefits of having made a lot of art over a lifetime is that I don’t feel like there’s a next big thing that I absolutely have to do—other than “finish this biography I’m writing!” I can just play a little bit. And it feels very childlike to me, quite positively connected to my childhood.

HW: The poems have a real sense of urgency, even though you’ve obviously worked on them and they’re refined.

MP: I feel that I’m a better poet if I have that urgency, and it’s not something that you feel all the time in your life—that there’s something so powerful that you have to get it out. Joan’s stroke pressed the poetry button in me; I just could not stop writing these poems.

I have a well-therapized friend with whom I go away in the summertime, and we write together. I knew that she’d respond to these poems, and that I could keep writing them knowing that she would hear them. And so an important part of writing them was that I had a listener.

The urgency also came from seeing Joan more regularly. When I would go to New York I would visit, and then we would do something together, like, go watch monks make a sand painting. And I would watch her. I’ve always been a student of what she looked like and what she did; I’ve always been a student of my teachers in that way. And I kept being that student, that observer; only now, we were in la-la land. I mean, our interactions, because of her memory and language deficits, could be bizarre. And trying to describe them can be bizarre. But for me, that’s what poetry is about: getting at these ineffable, indefinable things. So while I am confessional, my aim is toward the ineffable. And it’s also toward figuring out what happened—asking, “What the hell happened?”

MB: You’ve written in many different genres, including poetry, biography, and memoir. Do you find that the kind of aesthetic and ethical considerations that you weigh are consistent across genres? Or do they change depending on what mode you’re working in?

MP: The public discussion about memoir is so fierce that a writer really needs to be quite sure about her facts. But in a so-called confessional poem, I can be free to interpret. I have no compunction if I want to claim a wall is turquoise, and it really wasn’t turquoise in real life—I don’t care! But in a memoir, that wall needs a verifiable color; there’s a journalistic aspect to that kind of writing. The imagination has to toe a certain line in memoir and certainly in biography. I have to play by different rules in different genres. Yet, at the same time, my impulses are from a central concern about what it is to be human and alive and lead a human life with all its frailties. That’s at the core of psychotherapy, and at the core of confessional poetry, and that’s certainly at the core of memoir and biography.

HW: I was thinking about how poetry can convey speech, and want to ask you about the rhythm of the dialogue that ends your poem, “The Pottery Jar”:

Thank you for repeating
“I know
I can’t
speak the right words”
(for your stroke erased many words),
“But I want
you to know…
(Thanks again for warning me about the cane.)
…how much I
care about you,”
and thank you for forgetting you’ve said it.

I wonder if you can talk about the pacing of the two voices—the kind of counterpoint and contagion of their rhythms. How consciously did you pursue that as you wrote?

MP: Those short lines [that Joan speaks]—that’s very conscious. I really wanted to get her hesitation there, her difficulty in speaking, and then, when the lines in the parentheses become longer and more fluid, that’s me coming in.

But I did something else with this poem and others throughout the book. For Joan I used the pronoun “you.” For myself, I used the pronouns “I” and “she.” I didn’t want it just to have a litany of first person, “I did that,” “I felt that,” “I thought that.” When I looked back on my younger self, I realized I could become a “she,” a character, and so then the “I” would be a witness to the “she.” That, for me, is also part of the therapeutic process; it led me to become a sympathetic witness to myself.

Once I asked why a certain poet wasn’t invited to some panel, and the person in charge of the panel said, “Oh, well, she’s so confessional.” And I said, “But wait a minute—I’m on your panel.” And then he said, “But you’re not confessional.” I wondered what difference he could be perceiving. Then I thought, “It’s the idea of the witnessed self, as opposed to the always-acting self.” Part of what’s happening in “The Pottery Jar” is that there’s a witnessed self: as a poet I’m able to witness my “self” as a separate entity, which leads me to gratitude that I’ve become capable of doing that.

HW: The phrase “thank you” repeats in this poem:

Thank you for asking me not to smoke,
thank you for the extra ten minutes no charge.


Thank you for warning me on the phone
that you’d be walking with a cane.


Thank you for filling
the pottery jar with mimosa.

It’s interesting what you say about avoiding too much I, because it would have been possible to say “I am grateful for”—but it’s a different thing to say “thank you.”

MP: I’m a big thanker in real life. I’ve been thanking people who helped me since I was a child. When I was younger, it would bring me to the verge of tears if somebody did something nice for me, because that kindness would contact this terrible, hollow, empty place that hadn’t been built up by a lot of nice things happening. Now I’ve had a lot of nice things happen, so it doesn’t hit me in the same way. But still I’m a thanker. Acknowledging kindness makes you aware. If you thank people, you’re aware of them; it contextualizes both of you. It also makes you smaller. Which, to me, proportionalizes things.

HW: I think that’s what I was trying to get at in the formulation of the “thank you”; it has another person in it.

MP: It does have another person in it. There really is an I and a you. And that other person isn’t just a projection. That was a big thing for me: when I was younger, I just projected myself onto and into everyone! I had to learn through hard experience that just because I thought something didn’t mean this other person thought the same thing. Those were huge lessons for me—just enormous.

“The Pottery Jar”—where I threaten to break the jar, and Joan says, “You will not!”—was a huge experience for both of us. That was a person leaping up out of that chair; that was not the therapist! But I recognized that she was both the therapist and the person. How important that was. We both still remember that—even after all her brain damage, she remembers that.

MB: Did you feel a documentary imperative consciously when writing The Analyst?

MP: Not even remotely. Formally, it’s all over the place: multi-level, going back and forth in time. I didn’t want to write a series of straightforward poems that began when I was 26 and ended when … I’d be so bored. I couldn’t possibly do that! Yet, at the same time, these poems were pouring out of me; I didn’t have a lot of control over them. But I did have control over the different approaches. I didn’t understand it in a documentary way at all. But then afterward, I thought, “Oh, she’s understanding it that way, as a document. Her kids are understanding it that way.”

MB: What have her sons said to you about the collection?

MP: I think they were very pleased. One of them read the collection immediately. The other couldn’t read it for a long time, and I’m quite sympathetic with that. I think he read it after he listened to Alisa Siegel’s documentary about my relationship with his mother, on the CBC. I’d sent him a link. By then, he had decided to approach it, but …  it’s tough.

HW: I had wondered if this book was a gift to Joan, and then I was thinking about the way that you don’t have her as an analyst anymore—and this book is called The Analyst. I was wondering if it’s maybe not a gift to her but somehow a stand-in for her.

MP: The whole experience of losing her as a therapist threw me into retrospective gratitude. Does gratitude have to be retrospective? No. I do think there’s a special category of retrospective gratitude, though, that is unexpressed in the ongoingness of a relationship, that only happens after the relationship is over. And that’s what occurs when somebody dies, even if you’ve been able to express that gratitude toward them. I know that Joan is still alive, but in some important way, she died, and for me, writing this book helped me figure that out.

And I think you’re absolutely right: it is a stand in. I have contacted her less frequently; I haven’t reached out as much to her since this book was published. I had kind of wanted to begin easing away. But the book has given me my freedom. I’m glad to be in possession of my own time and space and not always thinking about Joan, her stroke, and her life. I’m grateful that our analysis worked! Both that and the book itself has freed me. So I guess, in some ways, this book is a transitional object.