By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
“Certain horrors exceed our capacity to understand. Their concrete reality mocks theory, and language itself falters before such towering monstrosity.”
I ran a small indie publishing company, called GreyCore Press, from 1999 to 2005. Back in those days people sent manuscripts by mail. I tried to read through everything I received, but it was an impossible task. My manuscript stack was always higher than my computer tower. One day I came across a fiction manuscript that I absolutely loved. I felt I must publish it. I panicked when I realized it had been in my stack for several months. I called the author immediately and learned he had another small press considering it. I begged; he yielded. In 2003 I had the honor of publishing Rocco Lo Bosco’s first novel, Buddha Wept: A Novel of Terror and Transcendence. And now, all these years later, I have the honor of interviewing him about the twists and turns his life has taken.
Joan Schweighardt: Buddha Wept tells the story of a woman living in Cambodia during the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge. What inspired you to take on such a painful subject?
Rocco Lo Bosco: When I was 14 I found a government-issued book describing the Second World War in photographs at the bottom my stepfather’s “forbidden box” along with his medals and other war memorabilia. Short captions beneath the pictures explained the scenes—many of which were quite brutal. But I was not shocked until near the end of the book where there were photos of a death camp that had been liberated. Until that time I only knew “camp” as a place where kids who were not poor went in the summer. I confessed to my stepfather that I had looked at his book, because I had to know whether the pictures were real and, if so, if he had seen such scenes in person. He said he had. I asked why the people in the pictures had been killed and he said they were Jews and the killers hated them. But he couldn’t say why they were hated. He told me not to try to make sense of it, that doing so would only lead me down a dead-end street.
I did everything I could in the years following to prove him wrong, but ultimately I came to believe he was right. Certain horrors exceed our capacity to understand. Their concrete reality mocks theory, and language itself falters before such towering monstrosity. I’ve read so much about genocides over the years, deeds that spill blood past all the margins of thought and text. The answers, however well argued, cannot exhaust the question of why. But we know what to look for now, meaning we know the signs beforehand—the scapegoating of a target group, the progressive dehumanization of that group, the changes in the law which deprive the group of rights while consolidating the power of their persecutors, the attacks on the press and the suppression of information, the militarization of the police, the call to reclaim what rightfully belongs to the “true” patriot. All of these regressions are led this by the man of action frothing at the mouth while inciting fear and hatred at every opportunity. He usually appears in times of sociopolitical crisis and develops a cult following that celebrates him, often with religious fervor. Soon after his appearance a period of barbarity follows whose extreme end is genocide.
JS: Among the many genocides you studied, how did you choose Cambodia for your book?
RLB: In my twenties, I made a friend from Cambodia who eventually told me how his family had been executed by Pol Pot’s soldiers. Somehow he managed to live with a sense of optimism and enthusiasm. But his wife told me that he was sometimes plagued by nightmares and fits of somnambulistic screaming. Years later, I read an article describing an inexplicable blindness common to Cambodian women who had lived through the genocide. The women claimed they could no longer see because they had witnessed too much killing and evil. I wanted to write the story of one of these women, someone who transcended the worst possible terror I could imagine, because I wanted to believe that if I was in that situation and survived it, I would find a way to live beyond it.
I wrote Buddha Wept while I was in my 40s. I didn’t know at that time that if a trauma impact is horrific enough, it can overwhelm a person permanently. Even if one finds a way to live “beyond it”—meaning that one can still find joy and connection among others––a deep scarring remains.
JS: Your second novel, Ninety Nine, is a gritty story of a young boy growing up in a highly dysfunctional blended family in Brooklyn in the 1960s. Do Buddha Wept and Ninety Nine have anything in common?
RLB: Perhaps Ona, the protagonist in Buddha Wept, is the person Dante in Ninety Nine would like to be. Dante is at war with his fear and often feels like a coward. He envies his wild, risk-taking stepbrother and wants to be brave. Moreover, he wants to somehow be free in his situation. He wants answers that he can count on, so he turns to physics only to find that however their laws might describe physical reality, they offer no hope in understanding human reality. Ona, on the other hand, seems attuned to a sacred dimension in which she is able to make sense of the worst possible human situation. She transcends her suffering. At best, Dante manages his.
JS: Your new book, Staying Sane in Crazy Town: A Monologue of Rude Wisdom (Waldorf Press), is nonfiction. You spill your guts in this book, telling readers exactly what it is like to hit bottom, sharing stories that are both devastating and humorous (sometimes simultaneously) about your personal life in the context of the times we live in. What do you hope readers will get out of Crazy Town?
RLB: Crazy Town is a combination of memoir, philosophy and humor that addresses loss, trauma and mortality. I wrote it several years after I lost just about everything in my life, and if I had to sum it up in a few words, I’d say it is about what remains after everything—family, friends, money—is gone and one’s basic faith in human reality is woefully damaged. Without recourse to the typical bromides common to narratives that address human suffering, Crazy Town takes the reader down the darkest, meanest streets of life, while telling them what I believe to be straight-up truths, truths hidden in plain sight. I argue that only the courageous acceptance of such truths—the truths we flee—can set us free.
JS: You have made your living as a deep-tissue medical massage therapist. Can you talk about touch, about what it means to you and what it means to your patients and how it relates to your writing?
RLB: Touch is critical to the development of a newborn. Without sufficient caring contact, babies do not develop physically or mentally. Deprived of caring touch, they may even die. That alone indicates how important touch is, not only at the beginning, but throughout our lives. I remember seeing a ward of men dying of AIDs, long before effective meds were developed, and some of them were clutching teddy bears. I worked in a nursing home for a time and saw firsthand how much physical contact with pets, teddy bears, baby dolls, and gentle massage soothed the elderly and dying. Without going into the neurology behind touch, suffice it to say the need to touch and be touched is essential to humans as well as to many animals.
I will only mention one other thing in relation to massage therapy. It allows the practitioner to also “touch” people through dialogue. What I write is an attempt to “touch” the reader as well.
What does seem to me to be the most rare form of touch is the kind that wishes to give something to the recipient without necessarily receiving something in return. Even massage does not fall into this category since it is done for money. But in those moments when one human being touches another only with the intent of comforting that person, that is always a healing encounter. To see someone, to listen to them, to touch them because you wish to witness, acknowledge and facilitate their life, while you put yourself aside for a moment, this to me is a gesture to the infinite.
JS: In addition to your own projects you have cowritten an award-winning book called The Age of Perversion with psychoanalyst Danielle Knafo. Can you talk about the subject matter of this book and what part you played in writing it?
RLB: The book is an existential and psychological account of perversion in the 21st century. Traditionally perversion has been discussed solely in relation to sexual enactments that violate some cultural norm or rule of law. We demonstrate, based on the universal perversity of human beings, that perversion has a social dimension that powerfully impacts law, society, and culture. In fact, there is no hard boundary between the intertwined domains of the sexual and social, as every social act has an erotic dimension, and every sexual act a social one. Nor is there any hard line between the perversion and “normality.” Each one determines the other. We also show how the perverse upsurge—that is, the impulse to transgress, violate boundaries, express trauma, seek novelty, and so on—is as much a part of the scientific revolution as it is any sexual revolution. In addition, we demonstrate how technology and sex are now partnering in the dissemination of new sexual and social norms.
Except for the actual cases in the book, I contributed heavily to the theory, especially the idea of expanding perversion theory beyond the sexual domain. I also played a strong theoretical role in connecting the universal aspect of human perversity to factors beyond one’s particular personal history; to wit, the perverse upsurge is inherent to the existential plight of being a conscious animal who is aware of his or her mortality but in denial of it at the same time. That itself is a perverse situation. I know I will die, but, still, I do not believe it. Of course hearing this, many people would say, “Of course, I believe it!” We surely may believe we believe it. But then the reaper in some terrible form enters the room, and what we really believe becomes obvious as the repressed terror of death explodes from the depths of its repression.
JS: What are you working on now?
RLB: I have no current writing project planned, though I have just completed another book with my coauthor titled The New Sexual Landscape and Contemporary Psychoanalysis, soon to be published by Confer Books, in London. I am currently studying in depth a book titled Incomplete Nature, by Terrence Deacon. It is a year-long project and requires a lot of research. I feel this book is one of the most important books I have ever read. After I learn this book, I may write something again. Or not.
Thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of Before We Died and other novels. Her first children’s book, No Time for Zebras, releases in October.
Landing Page photo: MichaelDooleyPhotography.com.
Interview portrait photo: Jessica Voltaire