Writer and activist Mary Sojourner returned to her old stomping grounds in Flagstaff Arizona, where, on Sunday April 18, 2010, Truthout’s Leslie Thatcher interviewed her about “home,” love, addiction, her new novel, “Going Through Ghosts” and the just-released nonfiction, “She Bets Her Life.”
My car pulled up right behind Mary’s at the trailhead; we waved, extracted ourselves from our vehicles, hugged, admired each other’s earrings, walked to Mary’s beloved Alligator Juniper, and talked about our lives and the strangeness for her of returning to a place she walked six days out of seven for twenty years before we could finally settle into something like an interview. But who interviewed whom?
Mary Sojourner: So are we going to talk about “Going Through Ghosts” or “She Bets Her Life”?
Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: What I’d really like is for you to talk about the intersection of the two books.
Sojourner: It is too fitting (literally) that the two books are, in fact, the opposite sides of the same silver dollar.
Had I not become a compulsive gambler, neither book would have been written.
Had I continued to be a compulsive gambler, neither book would have been written.
Another irony that ties the two books together: In 1993, when I first recognized what development had done, was doing, and was going to do to the West my heart holds sacred, to the exquisite web of life here that had given me comfort and solace as well as inspiration, I was like a child with a formerly nurturing mother who could no longer nurture because of injury. I could no longer take comfort, solace and inspiration from the land.
Only in casinos could I escape that feeling of powerlessness to help. Only by feeding money into that voracious maw for 4, 6, 12, 24 hours at a time, could I forget being in pain. I could walk out into the casino parking lot at dawn and be restored to seeing the beauty of the tremendously depleted Colorado River without the pain. And, of course, the casinos are ravaging the earth and waters of Nevada every minute they exist.
Now that I’ve quit, I have to face the pain again, but have recovered my original sense of the beauty.
Thatcher: How did you quit?
I think one essential element was reading Mario Puzo’s tender and endearing, “Inside Las Vegas,” the first book he wrote after “The Godfather.” Puzo adored Vegas and that is reflected in both the text and the pictures. There are photographs of the exhausted faces of the players, the 6-foot-tall showgirl with the 5-foot-6 wise guy. Yet in it, he writes, “You’re probably wondering why I don’t gamble any more. It’s because I began to realize that if I kept on gambling, I could not continue writing.”
That certainly made an impact, and subsequently I made nine attempts to stop gambling.
The second essential element was the ophthalmic migraine headaches that began six years later. I had quit eating chocolate – CHOCOLATE! – years before to stop the headaches and they were strong enough to provide the necessary impetus to stop. I’m not sure I ever would have stopped had the migraines not intervened, because, frankly, gambling was the most fun I ever had. My novel, “Going through Ghosts,” was largely written while I was gambling addictively.
Both books are love letters: “Ghosts” to casino workers and the landscape of Nevada; “She Bets Her Life” to Scheherazade’s Sisters and a love letter forward to women in the agony of knowing that they’re killing themselves with their gambling.
To continue with the love letter theme, as I wrote in the Flag Live! interview with Ryan, it’s become clear to me that the last two years of working on the book may have been medicine for me: all the characters in “Ghosts” move either from being blocked off from love or from having an exclusive and narrow romantic notion of love to a bigger conception of love and an openness to it.
In the course of writing it, I was refining my definition of love and love was refining its definition of me.
The Nevada landscape still knocks my socks off. How a woman who grew up on the shore front of Lake Ontario comes to have desert mountains in her body, I just don’t know.
So where is Home now?
It’s no longer in a casino. That would not have been my choice. I don’t have a groovy facile answer. I’m here and my heart is open again to my Flagstaff friends, but when I’m in the Mohave Desert and certain areas of the Basin Range desert, the cells in my body fall into place. During this visit to Flagstaff that had been my Home for 20 of the 22 years I lived there, I learned that Flagstaff, Arizona, is no longer my Home, but that there are pockets of “Home” there with my close friends and in the embrace of a clump of seven Ponderosa pine trunks and by the old Alligator Juniper on a mountain meadow …
I live now in a delightful town in central Oregon which is not Home, although my little house in that town is home.
When I was 5 years old, my Home became alien territory when my mother became psychotic. “Mother” is often supposed to be “Home” and when the shape of the mother doesn’t contain “Mother,” that is a profound dislocation.
What nurtures you now?
Reading for a couple of hours before I go to sleep at night nurtures me. My new sense of connection with my close friends; Trader Joe’s puffed potato chips; walking three or four miles; not always, but often enough: the present moment; conversations with kindred spirits; whatever is the opposite of “S” blank blank blank ‘H’, “P” blank blank blank ‘N’; certain mountains – like the Sacred Peaks we’re sitting under, Mount Hood, Red Butte near Grand Canyon … I like the river, twilight, always my work, my writing, 2 cups of high-quality decaf, my four cats, but especially Miss Chichi [the writer indicated she was under pressure from Miss Chichi to respond this way, although Bean was the kitty she thought of]. I really recommend the Trader Joe’s puffed potato chips …
How do you now understand addiction, Mary?
Because I know it in my body and I know brain is body – although we would like to forget that – I believe that the bottommost layer underpinning addiction is genetics and brain chemistry.
The women you write about in “She Bets Her Life” suffer from high levels of anxiety?
Present research indicates that a high percentage of addicts have an inherited liability in effectively utilizing a specific neurotransmitter. That neuro -transmitter is primary in our feelings of ease, well-being and pleasure.
Because early childhood experiences of fear, helplessness, being abused, being exposed to volatile adults also affect that neurotransmitter, we’re probably talking about PTSD here.
We humans will do just about anything to not feel terrified and helpless.
Many of the women gambling addicts I met and I responded to fearful childhoods by becoming caretakers and the most common statement I have heard and hear from compulsive women slot players is “when I am at my machine, the rest of the world goes away. I don’t have to take care of anybody. I’m there for myself.” It’s a myth that lonely old women go to casinos to make friends and socialize. They go to be free from responsibility and they go to be free from their “I.” In the hypnotic trance of the slot machine mandala, you lose your definition of yourself, lose your eye, lose your I.
[At this point in the interview, a woman with a young Down Syndrome adult walked by. The young person gave me and Mary each in turn two high fives, a hearty handshake, a strikingly wet kiss and a round of hugs. Mary spotted the legend on her cap, "We’re in this together” and we all enjoyed some happy laughter. At other points, our conversation was punctuated by Yiddish and Hebrew vocabulary lessons, a discussion with a distinguished European man who had found a clump of Flicker feathers, and a profoundly entrancing drumming session.]
So, to sum up, in addictions, there are:
- Genetic predisposition.
- Possible trauma, especially childhood trauma.
- Women’s condition as caretakers, particularly women now in their 40’s to 60’s.
The research I did into the neurochemistry of addiction is pretty supportive of the structure of Twelve Step programs because when the person with the predisposition uses the first fix, it sets off chain reactions. In the case of gambling, to stop, one doesn’t make the first bet and that sets off a chain of neuron-chemical reactions that is quite uncomfortable. You need to keep coming back to live with withdrawal. The group makes it possible to live with that discomfort – which is more than I could have done on my own.
I have had to accept that my brain is permanently broken.
It took me until I was 68 to grasp that no matter what I did, my nervous system was not going to permanently alter. That same nervous system is operating while we have this conversation, will operate when I wake too early, frightened about the day; it has operated when I’ve fallen insanely in love, and runs the show when my hands move words out onto the page.
Acknowledging our brokenness is part of our healing. For many of us, the brokenness itself is part of our wholeness.