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Medical crisis is such an important part of modern life that it’s no surprise that scores of new books about illness, loss or recovery appear each year. The majority are painful, private accounts, akin to the bad poetry that Randall Jarrell compared to amputated limbs with “This is a poem” scrawled on them in lipstick. You cannot doubt their sincerity, but they don’t always work as stories. They have nothing to teach us. Every now and then, however, a good writer produces a book with the artistry and objectivity to bring a reader deep into a personal experience and render it soul-making. I am thinking of classics like Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, Borrowed Time by Paul Monette and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The Bone Bridge (Dagmar Miura, March 2015) by Yarrott Benz is an account of a medical experience that is strange and special, yet so clearly written, involving and human that it achieves the same power as those other titles.
Benz grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, the youngest of four children. His father was a doctor, his mother a former nurse. In 1972, when Benz was sixteen, his brother Charley was diagnosed with aplastic anemia. His bone marrow wasn’t producing the platelets needed for his blood to clot normally; the slightest injury could produce serious internal or external bleeding. Yarrott’s blood matched Charley’s. The doctors began an experimental procedure where blood was taken from the healthy brother, the platelets removed with a centrifuge and then given to Charley. The procedure lasted from four to six hours and was performed twice a week. Initiated as an emergency stopgap, the doctors thought they needed to do it for only a short time before Charley’s body stabilized or a better solution was discovered. But the blood letting continued for weeks, then months, then years. Benz became a prisoner of medicine, stuck in his hometown when he wanted to go away for college, and bound to a very difficult brother who didn’t always appreciate what his sibling was doing for him.
Benz tells this story with quiet realism and honesty. He brings the medical details fully to life, describing the science as well as giving us portraits of doctors and nurses. He also takes us inside a recognizable family with its own weight and daily dynamic. And he gives us the experiences of a flesh and blood teenager in all their complexity, including adolescent pride in his good deed followed by frustration and resentment. Benz went through his own important changes during this period, discovering his vocation as an artist and his identity as a gay man. Coming out is difficult for everyone, but was even more challenging in this taut, hothouse situation where duty and intimacy left little private space. It is a rich, complex story, and Benz tells it beautifully, in concise, dramatic chapters and eloquent prose, without self-pity, false drama or overly easy answers.
I’ve known Benz for many years—he’s best friends with my partner, who met him in kindergarten—but I first knew him as a sculptor and photographer. He is a visual artist who writes, a fine tradition that runs from William Blake to Joe Brainard. Benz studied art in Philadelphia and Italy before living in New York City and Los Angeles, where he taught high school. He also lived for a time in New Mexico. He is currently on a farm in Kentucky near his sister, Angela, who raises goats. I interviewed him by email.
Your background is in visual art. Could you talk a little about that?
Yes, I have a Master’s degree in sculpture from Penn. I’ve always had one eye focused on a word and the other on a shape. Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened had I made the decision at an earlier age to focus on writing. I’m grateful, though, that I’ve had the experiences in the studio because it has helped me develop a particular way of interpreting. For example, I enjoy collages, groups of images (or suites of stories), sometimes disparate pieces collected to form a powerful whole. The Bone Bridge was made that way: sixty-nine episodic chapters, many of which can be pulled out as single stories. They are singular moments stitched together like a quilt to more fully describe a time and place. Likewise, I’ve taught architecture for twenty-three years and seen how that discipline is akin to writing a book. Structural intent is essential in architecture; you build with blocks.
This is your first book, but it doesn’t read like apprentice work. You’ve written before, right?
In the past, I’ve only written seriously for purposes relating to visual art and architecture. In New Mexico, I occasionally wrote art criticism for an arts paper and in New York. I also wrote an experimental teaching book for the National Architecture Trust, an organization that doesn’t exist any longer. More recently, I’ve written a few short stories that have been published in a few places.
Is this a story you’ve been wanting to tell a long time or did it suddenly catch up with you at a certain point in your life?
Whether I like it or not, the story of The Bone Bridge is the defining story of my life. I knew it at the time it was happening, and I hated that fact. A story you are living at sixteen is the most remarkable thing you’ll ever do? I hated that. For years after my brother died, I buried the story in my mind. I did once try to write about us in 1984, when the story was fresh, but I couldn’t do it. I would get three or four pages into it and suddenly feel sick to my stomach. I couldn’t step back into it. I needed to get away from it. Twenty-five years passed, and my life was then full of people who had no idea about my brother and me…and I liked it like that. Then, I saw the reading of a play that was based on a few conversations with me about my brother’s illness and my role in it. I realized then that I had given only a glimpse to the playwright and that I owed it to myself and to my brother to tell the full story. I also knew it would have to come from me—that I was the only one who could write it. That’s when I decided to give up my teaching job in New York City and move full-time to New Mexico in relative quiet so I could make this book happen. I promised myself that I would get it on paper if it meant that I had to tie myself to the desk for ten years. I had so little confidence that I could do it. It turns out I finished it in eleven months and had so much material bubbling up from the well that radical editing became essential. The original book was half as long.
One of the things that impresses me about The Bone Bridge is that it feels neither self-indulgent nor coldly clinical. I think Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking overcompensates for her strong emotions, and her book often has a cold, brittle feeling, for me anyway. But you found a middle way. The emotions feel natural and real, as they do in a good novel. Was that hard to achieve, or did it come naturally?
Interesting you would say that. Magical Thinking was one of the books I read before starting The Bone Bridge. What is fascinating to me about Didion’s book is the view inside her mind, so recently traumatized. She obsesses. She perseverates; she repeatedly relives painful details, as if, in doing so, she will gain the power to rearrange them and render them harmless. The ultimate controller is the magical thinker. Perhaps it was the very immediacy of the events in Didion’s life that caused the overcompensation you speak of. While hers was still a very fresh trauma when she wrote about it, I had a twenty-five year buffer and the advantage of that many years’ perspective.
I also read, among many other books, Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir and Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, both so elegantly written. It was important to read memoirs of tragedy to build up the courage to reenter the story of Charley and me, buried as it was for a quarter of a century. I figured if those writers could survive the dive back into it, I could, too.
Our story developed over thirteen years, from childhood to adulthood, and I tried to let myself speak as honestly as I could from those various periods in the past. Although I was strongly discouraged from doing so because of its potential clumsiness, I used italics for the inner voice of Yarrott-of-the-moment. I’m glad I did because I think it provided a sure way to show Yarrott’s personal truth plus his emotional evolution. There was so much going on around him, outside the italics, that ignored what was happening inside him.
You have taught high school students in both New York and Los Angeles. Did your work with adolescents help you see yourself more clearly as a teenager when you were writing this?
Without a doubt, teaching has helped me gain insights about myself. High school years are about separating from family and home, about discovering an interest or talent you wish to develop, and about gaining independence. Those years for me were turned upside-down. I write in the book how enlightening it has been to watch literally hundreds of my students deal with their obstacles and to see how very large my own were at the time and what it took to survive them.
You grew up in Nashville, and you now live on a farm in Kentucky near your sister’s home. But in between, you’ve lived everywhere, from Philadelphia to Italy to New York to New Mexico to Los Angeles. Where have you been happiest?
Every place has its pros and cons. No place has all the answers. While I’ve established some roots in each and enjoy returning to visit friends, I think the ability to grow deep, permanent roots was ruined in me during the time of The Bone Bridge. It’s hard to force a freed animal back into a cage. While remaining in one place is stabilizing to most people, it is unsettling to me. The world is a big place, and I want to know a lot more of it, not by visiting, but by living in lots of different places for a time. It’s definitely a neurosis of mine. I can just hear my mother: “What are you running away from?” The longest time I’ve lived anywhere in adulthood was the sixteen years in New York, but even there for the last few years, despite how wonderful things were for me, I was chomping on the bit to leave. I do have a place in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles and probably will go back there for a while after the writing of the next book is more established. In the meantime, I’m keeping things very simple here, in a tiny, spare cottage on my sister’s goat farm. As long as I can enjoy the rural isolation, I can come and go easily and quickly.
You are dealing with your own health issue right now while you are getting the book about your brother’s out. How is that going?
Right. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with a relapse of a relatively non-virulent form of lymphoma. At the moment, I’m halfway through chemo, which is pretty brutal at times. I’ll be done with it by the middle of June and will be able to put it behind me. But this is why I’m not doing any readings until the fall. I’m missing the typical three-month window given to authors to make their public appearances. I think people will be pretty understanding about it. It’s a good thing that sales of books depend more on social media now.
What do you plan to write next? Do you have an idea for another book?
I do. I’m starting another family story, but this time, I’m not in it. It revolves around my nineteenth-century family in Germany. I uncovered some pretty colorful information that explains why my great-great-grandfather fled his baronial stature to create a very different life, as a tailor, in the United States in 1860. What we always heard growing up was a simple story: the young baron met his love, a commoner, married her despite the protests from his own parents, then was, by duty to tradition, disowned, so he emigrated to the U.S. However, what I discovered about the aristocratic family he left behind—the family he fled—is bone-chilling. I’ll be spending more time in the archives at Münster in the fall, hopefully finding more to the story to fill in some of the blanks. Stay tuned.