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Author Talk: October 29, 2020

GROUP is November’s Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine Book Club pick. Here, Chicago-based writer and essayist Christie Tate details how she reluctantly chose to get psychologically and emotionally naked in a room of six complete strangers --- her psychotherapy group --- and in turn found human connection, and herself. In this interview, Tate discusses what inspired her to share her daring, exhilarating, painful and hilarious journey with the world; how her fellow group members have reacted to being featured in the book; her evolving relationship with her eccentric therapist, Dr. Rosen, and how she would encourage skeptical readers to embrace some facets of his unique approach; why she considers her memoir to be a bildungsroman; and her decision to end GROUP with a “Ten Years Later” update rather than with her wedding.

Question: This is not only your debut --- it’s also an extremely vulnerable memoir about how you learned to be vulnerable with others. What inspired you to write GROUP? Did you have qualms about disclosing your life to an even wider circle of strangers?

Christie Tate: I started GROUP in November 2015 after writing a novel that was a mess I didn’t know how to fix. The worst part about the novel is that it ended with a terrible sex scene between the protagonist and her therapist, and Dr. Rosen had me bring the manuscript into group and read the sex scene. I can still hear my group mates’ groans. With my disastrous novel on my hands, I took a month off from writing and read everything I could get my hands on about how to write a novel. Then one day, I could see the whole arc of GROUP: from driving around dreaming of death to dancing at my wedding with my new husband, family, friends, Dr. Rosen and my group members. Because I could see it so clearly, I had the courage to begin writing.

Oh yes, I did have qualms. Honestly, I still do at times. I wonder if I’m making a jackass of myself by telling the world how I acted like a fool all those years. Most days I’m grateful for the qualms because they remind me that I’ve told the truth. Hemingway emphasized the importance of “writing hard and clear about what hurts.” The qualms tell me I’ve done that. As I was writing, fears would rise up, and I would turn to my literary and artistic heroes who write candidly about themselves and their bodies. Lidia Yuknavitch, Kiese Laymon, Roxane Gay, Samantha Irby and Sarah Hepola. And beyond books, I felt inspired by women writers and comics like Ali Wong, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Leslie Jones. Their stories about their bodies, desires, sex lives, sorrows, struggles and ambition have entertained and comforted me. They’ve also made me uncomfortable. They’ve changed how I understand myself and my body. True stories are a gift to the world, and I committed to offering mine because I’ve loved others who did it before me. It’s scary, of course, but it should be. I respect readers enough to tell them stories that scare me.

Q: In chapter four, we meet the first group members who will accompany your journey to a scored heart. By the book’s end, you’ve participated in volatile confrontations, called members to confess when you binged or masturbated, and dished the unsavory details of many romantic duds. How do friendships created in group differ from friendships you make outside of therapy? How have group members featured in the book reacted?

CT: When I think about my relationships with my group members, I want to invent a whole new language. When you’ve screamed into someone’s gaping mouth or called them while still naked after disappointing sex with a man you don’t particularly like, the word “friend” feels too flimsy --- it’s too “Snoopy and Woodstock on a Friendship Day” greeting card. The word “family” isn’t right either, because there’s no one in my family I’d call under those delicate circumstances. The people in my group have seen me literally yank the hair out of my head and cry until my snot ran into the ugly brown carpet in Rosen’s office. None of my friends outside of group have seen that. Sure, I can describe it after a session, but it’s not the same as being a real-time witness. Once you’ve been in group with someone, you have hundreds of inside jokes and a shorthand that is hard to develop in friendships where you don’t sit together for 180 minutes each week learning to get real. It’s very hard to recreate that deep-in-my-bones intimacy outside of group. I’ve done it with my husband and my children, but hardly any other people.

I sent my group mates an early draft. They all seemed vaguely amused I wanted to tell this story. Only two of them read it. None of us thought it would go anywhere. Once I revised the manuscript three more times and got an agent, I sent them an updated draft. In group, we discussed what it would mean if my book about our group was published. Several members were worried that I’d outed them or disclosed their personal issues. I revised the manuscript again, excising anything personal about my group mates. I wasn’t willing to put a book out that harmed my relationship with any of them. Four of my group mates read the updated manuscript and reported feeling relieved how I protected their privacy. One guy reported feeling hurt he wasn’t featured more prominently, and another member didn’t read it because he doesn’t want it to get in the way of our relationship. At times, it was excruciating to hear their projections or fears that I would exploit them or hear them wish I wasn’t writing about group at all. But as you would expect, we worked through the issues over many sessions, and they, along with Dr. Rosen, helped me navigate the issues of privacy, disclosure and truth telling.

Q: Dr. Rosen is many things: Harvard-educated, infuriatingly confident in his unconventional methods, and a stickler for his “no secrets” directive. What was it like to reckon your evolving relationship with Dr. Rosen on the page? Would you encourage skeptical readers to embrace some facets of his unique approach?

CT: In some ways, writing about Dr. Rosen was the easiest because he’s so extreme and unconventional. Those early memories and conflicts are seared into my brain because they were so strange. I remember the white shirt he was wearing when he leaned in and told me to pray that he dies. A writer dreams for someone as startling and peculiar as Dr. Rosen to enter her life. And because his entire life’s work is to help addicts and stuck people let go of their secrets, I always knew I had full permission to write anything I wanted to about him. That kind of radical freedom allowed me to pour my memories onto the page. Plus, I still see him twice a week and get a front row seat to his mannerisms and personality: the shrugs, the mazel tovs, that laugh.

He’s so uniquely and consistently himself --- so odd, so unashamed of his unorthodox methods, so arrogant, and so committed to his beliefs --- that he never grew hazy in my memory. He’s entertaining to write because who could believe this guy? Get a henna tattoo on your belly that says “I hate my breasts”? Bookend your masturbation? The stories almost write themselves.

I know from the reactions I got from friends outside of group or writers who read early drafts of the book that people will have very strong reactions to Dr. Rosen. The word I hear most often in relation to him from outsiders is abusive. Someone once wrote me to explain how abusive it was for Dr. Rosen and his wife to attend my wedding, even though John and I invited them. I hear all the time that it was abusive for him to “allow” me to date Reed. Other therapists who hear these stories and practice differently give me major side-eye when I share how Dr. Rosen operates. And I totally get it. I know the Rosen-world is not familiar or comfortable for everyone. I’ve had friends schedule a session with Dr. Rosen, see him once, and then decide he’s not for them. Too weird. Too out there. Too intense. Some people, because of their history, do not feel safe in a therapeutic setting that does not offer strict confidentiality. And I totally respect that. I’m certainly not advocating this therapeutic setting for everyone.

I would encourage skeptical readers to consider whether an additional amount of disclosure --- whether a group of their own choosing, a friend, a spouse, an individual therapist --- might bring them a measure of freedom and release from shame. I truly believe that the closer we hold a secret, the sicker we become. The secret takes over our lives and separates us from other people. The deepest, most crippling secret I carried had nothing to do with breaking laws or hurting animals or sexual deviance. My secret was my nightly binges on eight to 10 apples. I believe I could have leaped forward in my life if I could have told someone from my 12-step program about my Red Delicious addiction. But I had too much ego, fear and shame to tell the truth before group. There’s no reason people can’t practice self-disclosure outside of a formal therapy group. And anyone can turn over their food --- or spending, fantasizing, masturbating, gambling --- to another person. You just need a cell phone or email address and a consenting witness.

Q: Much of GROUP is devoted to the embarrassing, painful pitfalls inherent to navigating sex and relationships, and you don’t hold back. How does it feel to share intensely intimate moments --- sex dreams, bad dates, messy breakups --- with a large audience? Did finding John affect your perspective as you looked back on bad exes?

CT: When I was 19, I fainted in the shower while bingeing and purging leftover pizza rolls alone in my dorm room. I thought I would be dead within the year. The fear drove me to a 12-step program for disordered eating, and the first thing I learned there was that telling the truth in meetings or to my sponsor could literally save my life. And it did. The only reason I was able to let go of purging every day is because I became willing to disclose my most deadly food secrets to other people in meetings and listen to theirs.

In group, I landed in another community where telling the truth was a transformative, life-saving act. While I resisted at first, I learned that the more I shared about myself and my history, the more my group understood and knew me. That’s how they came to truly love me. My relationship with them, myself and my body began to change for the better. It was a messy and uncomfortable process, but my life was undeniably better.

Not surprisingly, I ended up in a writing community that also values telling true stories, particularly stories about the body and how it moves through and experiences the world. Because so many writers I know through Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing program write stories about their bodies, it no longer feels radical or scary to write about my Luther Vandross dream or the bad sex I’ve had. The more I have healed from sexual shame and body hate, the more I can celebrate all of my experiences. It is an act of self-love to transform those experiences into stories.

From my first day in treatment, Dr. Rosen assured me that I would find the partner who fit me one day, and I would be grateful for each so-called failure I had along the way. I wanted to believe it, but I didn’t fully. How could I? I was still chasing married men in group or dating a guy who couldn’t have sex while looking at my face. But when I started dating John and no longer silenced my voice or hid parts of myself, I understood how much I’d changed. I understood what gifts each of the relationships had given me. Only then could I join Dr. Rosen in being grateful for them. My relationship with John is in a different stratosphere than what I was doing with any of the other men. But I couldn’t get to John without the gifts from the other relationships.

Everyone asks how John feels about GROUP. From the beginning, he’s been fully supportive of all my writing. When he read the latest draft of the book, he offered three pieces of feedback. First, he said that he loved the book and was extremely proud of me. Then, he urged me to be sure I felt comfortable with all the privacy issues so that I could enjoy the publication journey without fear of hurting someone in the process. Finally, he said that our children would not be allowed to read GROUP for many years. Those responses perfectly capture John. He’s generous with his love and praise, while also considering practical issues and long-term goals. And of course he’s a devoted father.

Q: From battling bulimia to coping with the Hawaii memory, you outline the origins of significant trauma throughout GROUP. What was it like to return to that headspace during the writing process? Was it at all cathartic?

CT: Writing about Hawaii makes me tremble and weep every single time. I think of the three of us kids on the beach --- Jenni, Sebastian and me --- and I want to huddle them up and hug their terrified, broken hearts. I want to be the adult on the beach who could have held them while the tragedy was unfolding. When I wrote the scenes about Hawaii, I felt such deep respect for the grief that lives in me forever from that experience. I’m so grateful that Dr. Rosen and my group mates have never once minimized the experience or suggested I get over it or stop dwelling on it. It was absolutely cathartic to write about it and tell the full story. Writing about the experience helped me forgive myself for the ways it in which it’s still hard to attach to people because I’m so afraid of one day losing them.

As for my eating disorder, I found it much easier to write about my active bulimia because it’s been so long since I purged. It was harder to write with specificity about the other parts of my eating disorder --- weird food rigidity and bizarre habits with fruit --- because I still do those things. These days, I do a weird thing with orange peels that I’m super ashamed of, but I can’t seem to stop. Interestingly, when I asked readers for feedback on early drafts, I expected them to comment on my sexual shenanigans or about what a weirdo Dr. Rosen is. But every single woman who read GROUP mentioned the apples. And the more people ask me about it, the more human I feel about all those apple binges. My writing about those nights has opened the door to intimate conversations with other women about the things they do with food. So writing about disordered eating was one kind of catharsis, but the real change inside me happened when I discussed it with other women.

Q: As readers, we watch you secure professional success, persevere through mature --- if flawed --- romantic attachments, and settle into the rhythms of Dr. Rosen’s world over the course of nearly a decade. In your opinion, how much of GROUP is about growing up and knowing yourself?

CT: I absolutely think of this book as a bildungsroman. When I showed up in Dr. Rosen’s office, I was a child in so many ways. I didn’t know how to eat or speak up, and I had no idea how I felt about anything. I was missing very basic skills and self-knowledge that “normal” people learn by the time they reach their mid-20s. There’s a saying in 12-step recovery meetings that the moment you begin your active addiction, you stop growing emotionally. I began actively bingeing in fifth or sixth grade, and I didn’t get into recovery for bulimia until age 19. I missed a huge chunk of emotional growth during the years I was stuffing Girl Scout cookies and crescent rolls into my mouth. Plus, even after recovery, I still held on to secrets and buried trauma, which didn’t leave much room for building skills in healthy relationships. Emotionally, I was still a teenager when I started group.

So much of knowing oneself happens through being in touch with your feelings. I was 27 years old before I realized the word shame applied me, even though shame had driven most of my choices all my life. Before group, I’d never expressed anger directly to anyone. I’d never told anyone I was hurt, and I had no idea I was lonely. How could I possibly know myself when I was so emotionally shut down? The process of learning what I felt with my group as my witness introduced me to my true self. And if group therapy had given me just that --- a true, intimate relationship with myself --- it would have been enough.

Q: While memoirs about the therapy process are less common, there is a huge canon of nonfiction books by women who took risks to pursue pleasure and more meaningful connection. How do you think GROUP enriches this genre? Do you have any favorites?

CT: Oh, all praise the women writers who came before me. This subject also makes me weep with gratitude. Samantha Irby’s writing about her body, particularly her experiences with IBS and digestive distress, have changed the world. When women tell the truth about their bodies --- that they cramp, shit, explode, orgasm, tremble, shudder, release --- it allows the rest of us to release the shame we’ve been taught to carry about those functions. Her three essay collections are favorites. Of course, my favorite all-time book is CHRONOLOGY OF WATER by Lidia Yuknavitch. Until I read her memoir in March 2016, I had never read female desire written with such specificity and corporeality. And oh boy, no one writes a sex scene like Lidia Yuknavitch. Her fight to reclaim her life from the drowning waters of her past and her abusive father inspired me so much that I read her book once a year. I also love the work of Melissa Febos, who also writes about female desire and sexuality in WHIP SMART and ABANDON ME, both of which are sacred texts to me. Roxane Gay’s HUNGER also stunned me and made me consider questions about how we make our bodies safe after trauma and what the cost of that safety is.

And I love a good recovery memoir. Erin Khar and Erin Lee Carr both wrote excellent books about addiction and recovery. As I was writing, Sarah Hepola’s BLACKOUT was a north star, because she too was unflinching in her depiction of her alcoholism and the dark places it took her. Esmé Weijun Wang’s THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS is another favorite for its combination of both the scholarly and personal investigation of a much-misunderstood diagnosis. I love Wang forever for letting us into her experience of living with schizophrenia.

GROUP opens the door to a room that many people don’t know exists. I like to say that group is just really crowded therapy. People are familiar with traditional one-on-one therapy. “Sopranos” fans went to therapy with Tony Soprano. Lorelei Gilmore went to therapy with her mother. “In Treatment” showed how intense the therapeutic relationship can be. But there aren’t many cultural depictions of out-patient group therapy. Before I joined a Rosen-group, I thought group therapy was only for hospitalized people. I pictured Angelina Jolie and other adolescent girls, smoking and screaming in a sterile hospital rec room like Girl, Interrupted. I had no idea that group therapy was a transformative tool that a lonely, high-functioning law student could use to address her misery and untreated trauma. I hope GROUP offers a realistic depiction of true change, which for some of us takes many years of learning new skills and unlearning bad habits and modes of thinking.

Q: Instead of ending GROUP with your wedding and first group session as a married woman, you include a postscript. In it, you describe how being a Dr. Rosen “lifer” helps you deepen attachments and provides you with a community to bear witness to your evolving life. Why did you decide to include this “Ten Years Later” update?

CT: I ended with the epilogue for two main reasons. First, I didn’t like concluding with a wedding because it suggests that the route out of my difficulty was solved by finding a man. We as a culture are actively working to undo the damage that “just snag a man” stories have wrought. Second, I wanted readers to know that I still attend group. Twice a week. As I’ve evolved in group, I dreamed new dreams, and now I want and need support for those new dreams. And I still go because I love those people. In addition to my husband and my children, Dr. Rosen and my group mates are the loves of my life. I’m attached to them, and I want to continue to show up as their witness and to allow them to witness my ongoing evolution. The last thing I want a reader to think when they close the book is that I’m cured and now just live my best life, going to work and sailing through life. No, I still go to group. Sometimes, I still gnash my teeth and pull out my hair. These days my distress isn’t about loneliness or lack of attachment. But I’m still me --- I still get overwhelmed, I still have an eating disorder, I’m still impatient about dreams that remain out of my reach. I still need Dr. Rosen and the group. I still have a lot to learn about attachment, commitment and vulnerability.

Most of the non-Rosen-world people I know who go to therapy eventually graduate and move on. With Dr. Rosen, the goal of therapy isn’t graduation but deepening attachments. I started group therapy desperate for help with relationships. Now my life is full of relationships, but I have new challenges. Like how to deepen the relationships I have. How to balance my professional and personal life. How to show up for aging parents. How to manage family conflicts. How to parent my children without passing along my shame and fear. Just because those challenges haven’t driven me to suicidal ideation does not mean I don’t need or deserve help with them.

Q: If you could give the Christie we meet in chapter one a single piece of advice, what would it be and why? If you told her that she would publish a memoir about her experience in group therapy, how do you think she would react?

CT: Oh, sweet Christie from chapter one. I drove her so hard all those years of chasing achievement and approval. I recently found a note I wrote to myself --- mostly likely a Dr. Rosen prescription to write to my former self --- making amends for how mean I was. One of the lines was: “I’m sorry for putting time tables on your head, for trying to strangle you, pressuring you to hurry up and be okay already.” If I could give her advice, the first thing I would do is tuck her into bed, nice and snug, and then rub her forehead softly, assuring her it’s okay to relax. I’d promise her it’s really, truly going to be okay. In those days, I never, ever talked to myself like that. I was more like a psychotic college basketball coach, frothing at the mouth, shouting at myself to “fu--ing get myself together.”

As for bona fide advice, I’d also tell her that she has exactly what she needs to move forward: her voice. “Use it, and keep using it to let people know what’s going on with you. Tell the whole truth, like about the apples. Holding back isn’t working, so you might as well speak from your darkest corners.”

Chapter one Christie would never believe she would one day publish a memoir. If you told her that, she’d blather on about how she was a nobody who went to Texas A&M University, insistent that publishing belonged to “real artists” who live in the East Village and graduated from Sarah Lawrence or the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you insisted it were true, chapter one Christie would assume you were joking. I was a ninja back then --- I could make compliments and well wishes and affirmations disappear before they landed anywhere near my heart.

Q: What are some lessons or ideas about identity, community, love and therapy you hope readers take away from reading GROUP?

CT: Foremost, I want readers to know that group therapy is a potential tool for life transformation. I’ve seen it in my own life and in the lives of my group mates. These days, there are so many options for healing and finding meaning: energy work, individual therapy, drum circles, acupuncture, meditation, sound therapy, biofield tuning, EMDR, ayahuasca jungle retreats, rock climbing, tai chi and other options I’ve never heard of. Group therapy is the process that stuck for me, and I hope that readers who feel similarly stuck might feel hope in knowing about an option that might work for them. When I joined group in 2001, I had very little money and bare-bones insurance --- I couldn’t afford individual therapy. The lower cost of group therapy made it possible for me to participate after telling myself for years that therapy was out of the question for me financially.

Of course, not all readers are going to race to group therapy when they finish the book. But the principles I learned in group can be applied to anyone’s life. Someone struggling with food could ask a friend if they could call them every night and tell them what they ate. Asking for a witness before whom you can tell the dark, scary truths haunting you is something anyone can do. Dr. Rosen taught me that sharing my feelings, including anger and hurt, was a way to draw closer to people. At the time, that statement blew my mind. I thought the only way to have a healthy relationship was to hide all the “unpleasant” feelings. For readers who are watching me learn that lesson in GROUP, they might be able to experiment with telling someone in their life that they feel angry or hurt instead of swallowing their feelings in service of keeping the peace.

I learned how to love others and to let myself be loved in group, and it happened because I showed up day after day and asked for help and let out my feelings, as messy and loud and painful as they were. Dr. Rosen and my group mates witnessed it all. But there are other places that people can find witnesses who will hold them with love and attention when they are hurting. I can imagine finding witnesses in school or church groups, writing groups, book clubs, sporting groups. Conceivably, there are infinite ways to find another soul you trust enough to expose yourself. Even if it’s just one other person, I believe transformation is possible.

When I came into group, I had a rigid sense of my identity. I knew I was a go-getter who strived to be the valedictorian in every situation. I saw myself as a baller on the outside, but hopelessly broken around relationships. I believed I could have recovery from bulimia and a good career, but that was it. That was all I was getting. Dr. Rosen and my group mates challenged that story from the moment I started group. They never signed on to my vision of dying alone surrounded by law firm pay stubs and feral cats. I hope readers believe it’s possible to find people in their lives who will help them let go of the old, false stories holding them back.