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Notes from Nethers (Academy Chicago Publishers)

Interview with author, Sandra Eugster

Jan. 16, 2008
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How did this memoir come about?

I thought that I had these wonderful stories about these eccentric characters in this very odd-ball situation of a rural commune in Virginia, so I sat down and I wrote about 12 or 15 of these little short stories and started telling people to read them and they all kept saying ‘this is cool, this is interesting but what about you?’ and gradually, after fighting tooth and nail the whole way, I realized that if I wanted to write about my experience of the commune I really had to tell my story and that meant I had to write a memoir, which was not what I had in mind originally. So I kind of took a deep breath and started all over again and wrote it that way…that’s the evolution of how it took this form.

How do you feel this subject has been written about so far?

Terribly. Terribly. First of all there’s not enough of it out there…I feel it’s a story that’s largely untold and I think that from the adult perspective there’s two trends; one is still the adult idealization and the other is quite the opposite—that this was just a bunch of rich dilettantes that were spending their trust accounts and defying their parents, and there was a lot more to it than that.

Why did you choose to place your recollection of the “placenta soup” incident at the beginning?

One of the themes of the book is the disorienting differences in how these commune experiences were perceived and later understood and articulated, particularly between my mother’s point of view and mine…and in jumping into this rather bizarre birth story I imagined the reader might have a similar feeling of dislocation.

What did you decide to leave out of the book?

I left a lot out. I very much didn’t want this to be an expose of my mother…it was very important to me that the difficult aspects of our relationship be very much within that context of a larger point I was trying to make rather than a laundry list of all the ills.

How difficult was it for you to separate truth from hype?

Because its so grounded in my memories, that was not particularly hard. I never did subscribe to the mythology of the commune and in fact it was such an enduring theme for me that I would sort of roll my eyes when people would start rhapsodizing about the commune…then again there’s a need to distil one’s own mythology about an experience and yes, that was very difficult to do at times.

Was there a positive side in commune life, perhaps gaining a sense of responsibility without constant adult supervision?

I think that what helped there was probably a character trait—a resistance to going with the group and a need to assert a sense of autonomy…often with people who’ve grown up in group situations there’s a real difficulty in developing a voice of one’s own, and what I realized that while I was there that was not a problem but when I left the commune and tried to mainstream myself I totally lost my sense of self, and was sort of swept away in the larger group thing for many years before I began to be able to extricate myself.

Click here to read the book preview from this week's Shepherd Express.

You can meet Sandra Eugster at Broad Vocabulary, Jan. 26, at 4 p.m.


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