Denise Massar on “Mothers of Sparta” by Dawn Davies
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Host: Julie Strauss
Guest: Denise Massar
Books discussed in this episode:
Mothers of Sparta by Dawn Davies
Mary Karr, Author and Memoirist
Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller
Books discussed in Patreon-Exclusive Episode
Inside Out: A Memoir by Demi Moore
Me by Elton John
Episode 002 Transcript
Denise Massar on “Mothers of Sparta” by Dawn Davies
Julie Strauss: Hi, Denise!
Denise Massar: Hi, Julie.
JS: How are you today?
DM: I’m good. I’m good. How are you?
JS: Excellent, Denise. Thank you so much for being the first ever guest on the Best Book Ever podcast. You are my favorite person on the planet to talk books with. So it makes perfect sense that we’re doing this together.
DM: Thank you! Thank you. I’m so excited.
JS: This is going to be very good because I’m so excited to talk to you about this book, but why don’t you tell us first what is your reading life like? Like, how often do you read and how much, and where, and what’s reading all about for you?
DM: My reading life is I have three kids. [laughter] So, I read something every day for sure. If I had it my way, I would read like four hours a day. But I don’t have it my way. So I usually read at bedtime is when I can really get lost. I almost exclusively read memoirs, because I’m a writer and that’s what I’ve written. And so I just want to really learn and I want to hone my craft. And I mean, honestly, before I even wrote one, that’s what I read also because I just, I love hearing people’s stories. So that’s what I read. I read almost every day and I either get what I want to read from people I follow like on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, a lot of Twitter recommendations, or I just go to the new section of the library and I stroll around and I read book copy, and I just grab what’s good.
JS: Do you ever read fiction?
DM: I do. Like maybe one out of every, like, 15 nonfiction and then a fiction.
JS: Does it affect your own writing since you write memoir and then you read a memoir? Does it change what you reveal about yourself or about your story?
DM: Yes. Yes. And that’s a perfect question for the book that we’re going to talk about today, because this book that we’re going to talk about … I thought I was an honest writer and I would really pat myself on the back for how honest I was and people would tell me how honest it was. And then I read this book and I was like, I am shit. Like, I have never said an honest thing in my life. Dawn Davies has, and I’m going to follow her lead. It completely changed what I decided to include my memoir and what I didn’t.
JS: So how did you find this book? Is this one that you just came across in reviews or at the library?
DM: No, this is so funny. And it says probably something about my character, that it shouldn’t. When I was querying, that’s what you do to find an agent, obviously, and I read all these things that said before you query an agent, you’d better really know their books, certainly their best sellers know something about you can reference them or that you’ve read them. That you’re a fan of their authors that’s deluxe. So I went about doing that, but, honestly, sometimes I would say, Hey, I’m a big fan of blah, blah, blah. But I had not read it, but you know, when you’re querying 80 people, you can’t read all of their authors. However, that being said, when I queried Dawn Davies agent, (I can’t remember who she is right now, but she’s hot shit), Dawn’s book came up on her page and I read it, I read the jacket and I was like, I have to read that book. I am reading that book, whether, you know, I query that agent or not, that that book is for me. And that’s how I found it.
JS: You shared this with me quite a while ago. I don’t know if it was when you first read it, but I, I believe you gave it to me about a year or so ago. I cannot quite find the words to describe it. I just read whatever you put into my hands. I tore through it and then I re-read it before we were going to talk today and I still don’t have words to describe it. How would you describe this book?
DS: I don’t know how to describe it either. Okay. I would say it is a memoir. I’m trying to pull even what, how it’s described on, you know, different websites and maybe even Dawn herself, it’s a memoir in stories. They’re stories from this very unique and powerful and interesting woman all the way from her childhood. It had some really meaningful things happen in her childhood all the way up through where she is currently the mother of basically all grown children now. And she just tells stories throughout her life, and they are so powerful. And the interesting thing is though, is that it says mothers is in the title and, uh, whenever I finish a book, if it moves me either incredibly positively or negatively, I go straight to Amazon to read the reviews, to see like what kind of company I’m in. How did other people feel about it? I felt really strongly about this one way or the other. And it’s funny because people say like, if you’re buying this because it’s a parenting book, it is not. And it makes me laugh so hard because it is very dark in places. Which is completely why I responded to it because she was willing to go to that dark place.
JS: What would you have done if you’d have read this when you were pregnant?
DM: I honestly think that the magnitude of what she’s saying about in specific essays relating to her son, the magnitude of what she’s saying, you almost have to already be a parent, in the thick of it, for it to affect you. I think what she’s saying, wouldn’t have even, it would have been so out of the realm of possibility, and that’s not going to happen to me, but you have to be a parent to know like that fear of how fragile parenting really is. And of course it could happen to you. We’ve all been scared as hell with something and thought we were going to lose our children physically or mentally. So, I don’t know. I think when I was like, naïve and first pregnant, I would have been like, that’s not me. I would have thought, how could this woman think that?
JS: The thing that struck me, where I was drawn in immediately was the very first essay, The Night Swim, where she’s watching the girls swim in the moonlight. I was in a puddle on the floor because she captures that really specific way that we sometimes look at our kids and it makes us ache inside because their skin just glows. There’s one passage in particular where she is talking about when they leap off the side of the pool and in the arc of their body, she can see who they’re about to become. And the young woman they’re going to be someday. She can see it all in this child’s body. It was deceptive because, but I loved that she started there because this is a woman who clearly is passionately in love with their children. So there’s, there’s, it’s obviously intentional that essay’s there first. There’s never a doubt that she passionately loves these kids and, God, she captured that ache so well.
DM: I have something to say about how she closes Night Swim. Any of us know as writers that the hardest thing you can do is make something sound simple. Right? That’s so hard. And the way she ends this essay, it almost just makes me want to punch her. It’s so beautiful and so simple. I want to ask her how long it took her, and how many edits to get into these last, what is it? Six, eight words. Yeah. Okay. So I’ll read it. She’s talking about letting her daughters are, you know, teenagers now. And she sees them leaving her soon. And she says, “Let it go, let it go. It’s gone.” I was hesitant to read it because I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through it without crying, but so beautiful and simple. And I am absolutely positive she agonized over those eight words.
JS: Every time you are looking at your kids’ bodies and thinking about them as, as I’m seeing them as kids, but also as grownups, even as you’re looking, it’s already gone, they’re already grown past that moment.
DM: Yeah. It’s just, it’s just perfect.
JS: So now we’re already weepy.
DM: No kidding.
JS: And I believe the first thing, the one that really also drew me to it was the essay “Men I Would Have Slept With,” which is I think hysterical. And, and I guess we should say, as I understand from her biography, she is a happily married woman. But she wrote this very funny essay about men she would have liked to have slept with or would sleep with if she had the chance. And it kind of runs the gamut from the French exchange student in high school…
DM: Doc Holiday
JS: LeBron James. And then my favorite one was my favorite line was Tommy Lee Jones. Because He. Doesn’t. Bargain.
DM: So good. So good. I mean, it made me think, like I wanted to do a similar essay. Just to send it to you. Yes. Because it would be like, that guy in the Albertson’s line. Anybody who’s human can admit that themselves, you know, they’re just people that you’re drawn to and they can be historical figures. You know, she’s got Chekov in there.
JS: And again, that’s her being so completely real, because I know a lot of married women who would not have that conversation and would be like, Oh, that’s disruptive to my marriage to even say that. She’s just saying, Oh, I’m a human person. And it’s quite all right. I’m not doing anything. There’s nothing wrong with saying you would’ve slept with Doc Holiday.
DM: I’m sure your husband also has a list and yeah, it might be even longer, ladies. I mean, and then the most endearing one she says is that her husband that she’s with now is her second marriage. And so one of the people that she would have loved to slept with is their current husband, younger version of himself.
JS: That was so sweet.
DM: Yes. That one was adorable.
JS: I liked that one a lot too. It’s like when I like to look at my pictures of my husband in high school, God, I have dated you.
DM: That Camaro was so hot, honey.
JS: So do you have a favorite essay in here?
DM: For me, as far as being in awe of her as a writer, it’s “Mothers of Sparta.” The title of the book and the title of this essay. A very close second would be “Lies I Tell Myself,” where she basically talks about her first marriage and anybody who’s ever been in a bad relationship, the way the honesty with which she speaks about that. And it’s the little tiny things that let you know, you’re in a bad relationship.
JS: Yes. That’s the one where she’s there at a dinner party and she’s imagining, does the other couple argue about this? Does the other couple have sex? Does the other couple cook dinner together?
DM: Yes. Yes. And it was kind of, it speaks to that thing we do as women where, um, she’s, she’s comparing her relationship to their relationship all night long. And there’s just things in there that are so painful, like when they’re at this couple’s house and this couple is obviously in love and very intimate, just very naturally intimate. And when they sit down and the couple that they’re visiting, you know, the wife kicks up, her feet really casually on her husband. And so, Dawn thinks, well, I’m going to do the same, you know, I’m going to try to be cute and loving and intimate, and I’m gonna do the same. And then she says, without saying, she’s just has the most concise sentence where she says, um, you know, she kicked her feet up on her husband and her feet were back on the floor within a minute. She doesn’t have to say he found a way to do that, but it’s clear that he did, you know, that it just wasn’t natural. But we do that, right? As women I go out with, we go out with, other couples and I’ll notice something that another couple does and I might try it out, you know? Okay, is that we’re supposed to do? It’s so natural. Not as much as when we’re older, but definitely when we’re younger, like she was in that story.
JS: So, let’s talk about the title, “Mothers of Sparta,” which I can honestly say is one of the most shocking and real things I have ever read in my life. It is tattooed on my brain. I will never get these words out of my head. It is an astonishing piece of work. Can you tell us a little bit about what that essay is about?
DM: Dawn’s son has autism and also really severe frontal lobe damage. And so it makes him, she uses the word, a sociopath. And it’s unclear if the frontal lobe damage was something he was born with or something that happened as an infant. He lost oxygen a couple of times. But he’s a sociopath and he is violent with his older sisters. He kills animals with his bare hands. As a 16-year-old, he’s attracted to children sexually. He attempts to groom children. He watches porn, child pornography, and these are all things that he can’t control. And as a mother, she sees these things make him despicable to the world, but this is her son. And so in this essay, what she does is she compares the mothering of her son to the mothers of Sparta in ancient Greece, who their entire job was to just raise these sons who had to be warriors. And they had to be stronger than anything, and only the strong survived. She says maybe it’s true or not, but historically we believe it’s true that in Sparta, the council would come when the babies were brand new. If they weren’t strong, strong boys, if they had cleft palate or turned feet, or, you know, and they didn’t respond with cries when they were born, they would be thrown in a pit because they couldn’t grow up to be Spartan warriors. So they were of no good. So she juxtaposes, throughout this essay, these mothers of Sparta, where their one job was to raise warriors, and her own journey, raising this son society will not ever accept, but she says, mom, the most honest memoir I’ve ever read in my life and it is it’s breathtaking.
This was just a quote I literally saw last week, but I was like, that is why I fell in love with Dawn Davies. It was this quote on Instagram. I probably follow, you know, a memoir hashtag, and it said: For memoirs, what truths or what truth do you want to say? And what will it cost you?
DM: When you read a memoir you know when it didn’t cost the author anything. There’s really not much to get invested in. Right? You know, I read one recently. Um, I don’t even remember the author’s name and I wouldn’t say it anyway, but it was like, Oh my gosh, we were ex-pats for a year or so! Crazy! Right? And like school volunteering, what’s up with that? And I was just like, yeah, this is small talk. This entire memoir is the equivalent of small talk. And then it just really like threw into relief why I love Dawn Davies. She’s risks it all. She risks everything. She risks her reputation. As a mother, people condemning her for the rest of her life, judging her, her son’s privacy. Although she says in the acknowledgements, he agreed for her to talk about him in this way, but I know she wrestled with that for sure. She had to have.
JS: And she even says, in one of her really, really short, really concise, perfect lines when she’s talking about what he might do. You know, if we leave him in the home, in the house, he might do this. He might do that. He might molest someone’s young son, which he says he would never do, but come on. When I read that, but come on, I actually had to close the book because that’s not something moms say very often. That it’s probably inevitable.
DM: Yes. Yeah.
JS: It’s terrifying. God damn, to write that down about your kid and just to be brave enough to just say it out loud.
JS: And, again, to be clear, she’s very clear with how fiercely she loves this child. It’s never a question, but she sees him clearly.
DM: Yes. There’s. Um, Oh, my gosh, there’s this one… Riffing on exactly what you just said. Can I read a passage?
JS: Please do.
DM: Okay. It’s about bravery and about knowing your child. And she does not look away from what he is. Okay. “When my son was 15, we discovered a history of child pornography he had looked up on the internet. A few years before we had come to the absurd place of being able to laugh about the experiences we’ve gone through with this child, we would say things like, well, he’s broken into someone’s house, but at least he didn’t start any fires. When he grew attracted to fire, we would say, well, at least he’s not killing animals. When we discovered that he had killed animals, we joked a horrific joke. We said, at least he’s not into kiddie porn. Somewhere, during the discovery of the child pornography, something inside us died. We found we were unable to be shocked by anything.” That she can write that about her son, and this is what they know of him. And there’s something inside them died. There was, there was no more humor to be found. Right? But I think everything inside of her probably wanted to protect her son. And not write that first, not ever accept it. And then once she accepted it, not write it. And then she found the bravery to write it. And thank God she did because it’s the most beautiful, honest, not beautiful, beautiful in an honest way I’ve ever read. So I’m just, I’m like gobsmacked by her. Her ability to do this.
JS: Where were you in writing your memoir? When you came across “Mothers of Sparta”?
DM: I was done with it. However, I had pulled a part out of my memoir about my own drug use. Because it’s a lot to reveal and it’s a lot to be judged about. So I just pulled it. I just, I made my justifications on why I did that and I just pulled it. And then after I read Dawn’s book, I put it back in because I always knew it needed to be there. It serves a very specific part in the story. But I just didn’t have the balls to do it. I had a completed manuscript, you know, quote unquote, but, uh, it forced me to put something back in there that would cost me something because it took my breath away.
JS: So, I’ve never written memoir. Is it scarier, or is it freeing to rip up in your heart like that?
DM: It is terrifying. And I think I can’t even speak to that fully because I don’t think I’ll feel the full, terrifying, fetal position of it until just before it publishes. Because right now, you know, it’s still not out there. It’s still, you know, it’s just, it had just a few friendly readers and my agent, and obviously she loves it, but, it won’t be until, you know, my neighbor down the street reads it. It’s my life cracked open. I’ll be full of anxiety, absolutely full of anxiety. But there’s, I think this is a Mary Karr quote, but I don’t know, and I’m going to botch it so badly, but it’s basically: whatever you’re scared to write, write towards that with all your heart. And so I believe that. I totally believe that.
JS: Well, especially for memoir, right? Although I guess we can tell fiction writers the same thing. That’s what you’re going to tell me right now, aren’t you? Cause you know what I’m avoiding.
DM: It’s not just for a memoir. It’s that little thing inside of you that’s like, Oh, I don’t really need that. You probably need it.
JS: So tell me, what are you reading right now? Are you into, are you reading a book right now?
DM: I’m reading Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name.” I had put off reading that, thinking that it might be darker than I wanted to read. But then I heard Glennon Doyle, one of her posts said that she was just enraptured with this book. And so I purchased it and it came during the middle of Covid. And the beautiful thing about Chanel Miller’s writing is she is not ‘Brock Turner’s victim who wrote a book.’ She is a writer who is a victim of sexual assault. She’s a writer first, she’s sexual assault victim, in whatever order she cares to put that in her life. But, oh, she’s a good writer. Gorgeous. Beautiful, smart, funny, warm. Um, and to anybody out there I will tell you: go buy Dawn Davies, go buy Chanel Miller immediately. I love them both. Female voices and just really strong, beautiful writers.
JS: Well, Denise, even talking about this as absolutely wrung me out. So I want to thank you so much for first of all, being my best book friend and also for introducing me to Dawn Davies.
DM: Oh, you’re so welcome.
JS: And thank you so much for being here today. How can our listeners find you?
DM: They can find me at, uh, probably the best place where everything is on my website. I love memoir recommendations or book recommendations. If anyone has one, just shoot me an email. I do a Book Buzz on Facebook. I’m Denise Massar on Twitter. So any of those places, but probably my website is the best one. Send me your reviews or your recommendations. I would love to hear them.
JS: Thank you so much.
DM: Thanks Julie.