A Conversation with Chloé Cooper Jones
BY CAMPBELL CAMPBELL
Chloé Cooper Jones is a journalist, philosophy professor, and the author of Easy Beauty (Avid Reader Press, April 2022). She is a Whiting Award winner and was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Campbell Campbell: You worked in academia, studied philosophy for years, and even earned tenure as a professor. You describe several people who pushed you to study social and political philosophy and how it relates to disability, and you rejected it and studied aesthetics and Ancient Greek philosophy for years. Why did you turn to personal writing, and what did the memoir as a genre offer you?
Chloé Cooper Jones: I wonder if you have experienced this yourself. In academia, people often learn something about you—either your physical appearance or personal background—and want to place you into a category and leave you there. If you’re a woman, person of color, or disabled person, you are expected to work in social or political philosophy. It felt reductive to me to be pushed to theorize and philosophize on my identity. Perhaps because I was a contrarian by nature and I denied what role my identity played in my life, I rejected that aggressively and to my detriment. But I think the truth was that any serious intellectual practice in social philosophy or aesthetics would have forced me to a self-reckoning that I didn’t want because it’s awful thinking critically about how your identity is shaped by the way that people see you and the way that you see yourself. That’s just a painful thing to do.
I thought that I could successfully avoid it by reading philosophy of language and other topics that interested me, but I had a couple of events that changed that. First, I was at this bar with people who were my friends and who were philosophers, and one of them argued in philosophical terms that my life isn’t worth living. I didn’t have the critical language or cognitive fluency to try to understand what he was saying and to explain how offensive he was being. That was a big warning sign to me that I did not have a language for defending my life and that I may be complicit in these incorrect claims about my life. It felt important that I changed that.
Also, I became a mother and saw how my son was becoming a terrifying mirror of my behavior. He was four years old, and I could see he was mimicking my distrust in strangers and the way that I deflect in conversation. I realized that I needed to move past my resistance to be self-reflective. I could live the rest of my life like that as a single person, but it’s not a life that was worthy of my son. It was so important to me that I be better for him, and unfortunately, the only way as a parent to do that is to deal with your shit.
CC: You have received a lot of buzz in the literary world for your Believer essay and have now written a memoir. When did you realize that this was more than personal writing and would become public writing?
CCJ: I never thought it would become public writing, and when I wrote that Believer essay, I was working as a journalist and traveling for my dissertation. I decided to journal as a private project to sort through my feelings about being a disabled body out in the world and how people react to me. It felt like a crucial project for my sake and for the sake of my son to think through who I wanted to be and how I wanted to change, and my friend worked at the Believer and asked for me to write for the magazine. I looked at my journals and wrote an essay under the assumption that no one would ever read it, but people did read it and it has opened doors for me.
CC: It’s so unfortunate that the Believer is no longer running issues.
CCJ: Isn’t it horrible? I have subscribed to the Believer for as long as I can remember, and I had a lot of friends who were editors and contributors and whose careers began at the magazine. Publishing that essay changed my whole life— it helped me get my literary agent and my book deal.
I don’t think that there’s another magazine that can take up what they were doing. They were willing to do strange things and take risks on things. I have a hope that some rich person buys it and leaves it alone.
CC: The novelist Brandon Taylor has voiced skepticism toward the current trend of writing a novel about consciousness and has stated that he is more interested in writing that captures the body moving through the rhythms of life. I think that your memoir perfectly captures a body and mind moving through this layered form of time and memories in a new location. How were you able to capture these different modes of being in your writing? What did that mean for drafting the memoir and choosing which memories to layer?
CCJ: When I was pitching the book, there were certain editors that wanted the book to be chronological and begin with my birth. I didn’t want to do that and decided to make the book take place over a very short period of time, around eighteen months, but within the present of those eighteen months, my memory moves back and forth in time. I wanted to structure it that way because the book grows out of my journals. I had these raw documents that were never intended to be seen by anyone and that captured how my mind processes problems and life experiences. I had journal entries where I would discuss what had happened and let my mind run with quotations and memories that were occurring to me. That is how I think everyone’s minds work: we do not remember our lives chronologically, but it’s most often the case that we see something, we smell something, we taste something, and we’re thrust into a brand-new experience, and bits of our consciousness, bits of literature we’ve read, bits of conversations, and bits of our childhood come up. I think that’s the most honest way to represent our movement through the world.
But the question becomes: how do you make that not chaotic, and how do you build an internal logic? Part of the internal logic was that I was always coming back to this question of how my body felt in the world, how people responded to my body, and how I protected myself. How was constantly trying to separate my mind from my body to protect myself, and how can I resist that?
CC: This reminds me of the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who said that we should not separate thinking from the acts of the body and the course of life. I remember reading that and feeling so humbled by how limited I was in reading other philosophers who thought that thinking could exist in a vacuum.
CCJ: One thing I discussed in the book that is not specific to disability and that is true for being a body in the world, is how much pain filters my thoughts and my ability to be connected to the things I find meaningful. We are encouraged to hide our pain and anything that could be perceived as ugly or emotional, and we are told to pretend that our anxiety, hunger, pain does not exist. When you have a chronic pain disorder, you cannot do that. It is a tone that sounds in every aspect of my life, and it became interesting to me to look at the ways in which pain could become a sort of shield between me and the things that I wanted. Most often, the thing I wanted the most was to be at full attention in the presence of art, beauty, or ideas. If you’ve ever felt pain, which of course you have, you know that pain dominates those experiences. The most exciting things that you really want to do are completely dull, and pain takes charge of everything except for itself.
I went to so many museums and performances and always experienced this moment later when someone would gush and ask if it was beautiful to see the art, and the truth was that I would get halfway through a museum and feel so exhausted that I lost interest in the art. I remember I went to the Louvre and knew that I was surrounded by some of the most famous paintings in the world, and I was having such a bad day physically that the paintings held no charge for me. I’m someone who finds a tremendous amount of charge from aesthetic experiences, so I decided to write into that feeling of being in a museum with high attention and losing that power. I wanted to write about how the body forms such a tight lens on our reality.
CC: Writers may use theoretical language to bolster their arguments and objectify their viewpoints, but there is a long tradition of female writers using theoretical language from other writers to think collectively, which has been labeled as contemporary autotheory. Do you place your writing alongside other female autotheory texts? What were you able to explore in the autotheory genre that you may not have explored in a traditional memoir?
CCJ: I think that philosophy is a great training ground for any writer because you learn in the philosophic tradition that every idea, every theory, every piece of great writing is meant to be engaged with and pulled apart. Every single thing I read is an invitation for my mind to permeate and form a constant dialogue with other thinkers, and that is one of the best parts of being alive for me. My use of theory in this book is just an honest representation of how I think about anything, but I likewise use theories to push myself outside of my comfort zone and my own expectations. I wanted to use them as methods to challenge my own self and assumptions so that I couldn’t hide as much as I prefer to.
The practice of theory and the practice of art is an invitation to try to bridge a gap between disparate minds, so I think that the autotheory-tradition writers are using it to show how we can bridge the gaps between incredibly disparate—either because of positionality or time—minds. That asserts the importance of the collective and is an unbelievable act of generosity for the writer to show you their web of thought.
I think that one of my North Stars in terms of what I think is valuable in any type of writing is Tolstoy’s What is Art? Tolstoy has this amazing chapter in which he talks about going to the opera, how the opera is expensive, how the director is an egomaniac, how the auditorium is large and could be used for other activities. It seems that he is preparing the reader for the argument that art is pointless, but he takes an amazing turn and asks the reader how we can justify this constellation of effort, space, time, resources, and the consumption of people’s entire lives. Could anything possibly justify this constellation? He ultimately argues that what justifies it as art is the unique way of communicating with each other that goes beyond the ways that we typically communicate in our day-to-day lives, and it allows disparate minds to communicate over time.
We have all had the experience of looking at art and seeing your mind pulled so deeply from your consciousness. You are suddenly in a dialogue with someone you could never meet or talk to—that is the singular form of communication that only art can achieve, and I think that the most exciting theories can achieve the same transcendent form of communication.
CC: I felt that way when I read Roland Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel lectures last summer. I felt so seen and knew that that was strange considering he was lecturing fifty years ago.
CCJ: Do you know what it was like? How would you describe it?
CC: I have read intensely since I was a child and believed that, each time I read, I was encountering a mind as vividly as I would encounter a mind in a one-on-one engagement. In his lectures, Barthes describes his obsession with the diaristic writing by Flaubert and Proust and attempts to understand the mystifying process of turning fragmented thoughts into long novels. How can we explain going from fragments to thousands of pages of prose, and how might we understand that synthetic operation of the mind? He likewise discusses the reading and writing processes and how the pleasure of reading is transformed into the need to write.
CCJ: I don’t know if you’ve done any life writing or memoir writing, but doesn’t it feel as vivid as your mother? [Laughs] I am kidding, but as vivid as your life experiences? Writing about my life and family has felt as relevant to shaping who I am as those experiences. Moving through the world and thinking about it afterward through the writing process creates a consciousness and the arc of the book. There is a shift in the book from being withdrawn to being more present, and that shift came hugely through reading a polyphony of voices and thinking through what other people had thought.
CC: I am so glad that you mentioned the arc of the book, because as I was reading, I was thinking about how difficult it is to narrate a learning experience and what it was like to not know what you know now. I place your memoir in the conversion narrative tradition that is rooted in Augustine’s Confessions—it often begins with a singular narrative that has the status quo mentality and follows him as he learns and grows, and it is meant to give the reader a reflective experience and teach them along the way. What were your goals for the arc of the memoir, and what did you hope to give your readers by narrating your learning experience?
CCJ: When I was reading memoirs and starting to write my own, I observed how many memoirs begin with the narrator as a child and end with them as a full person. In identity or disability memoirs, the narrator is often speaking to the readers from the perspective of already being a fully realized person and being a great advocate for the community. That was not helpful to me because I wanted to write a book from beginning to end in a feeling of uncertainty and transition. I steal words from Vivian Gornick when I say: I wanted the arc of the book to be going from a slightly less coherent self to a slightly more coherent self. The book ends not with me having figured out everything, but with a shift toward a more coherent self and an awareness of myself and the ways that I can engage with others. The best memoirs are not about your tragedy, your whole life, or the best thing that has happened to you; they are about the human condition in which you have slightly shifted to a more coherent self. That is all that it needs to capture, because that is a monumental form of growth.
My mother read the memoir and asked why I didn’t include many harder experiences with my father. But it was not relevant. What was relevant about my father was that he instilled a romantic and withdrawn notion of life and that I shifted away from that mentality throughout the memoir and throughout writing the memoir. The best memoirs are rarely about the writer—I don’t think that this memoir is really about me—but rather they are about what can relate to the reader and what the reader can gain from reading.
I have this notion of the neutral room in the memoir, which is a place of peace, a place of growth and agency, a place of care, but it can be a place to withdraw from the world and one’s responsibilities. Do you have a neutral room, and have you ever struggled with limiting yourself to the neutral room?
CC: I think that my neutral room is in the reading process when I get so lost in a book that I undo the boundaries of myself and let another subjectivity in. I would say that until a year or two ago that was the only place I undid the boundaries of myself. It took me a long time to do that physically with another human being, and I think that it was only when I dated my current partner and he made me feel so safe that I let someone else in. But I had previously only encountered that safety within literature.
CCJ: When you fall in love, that fucks everything up. You probably dated other people before your current partner, but you can date people who don’t force you to open those boundaries or meet them in the present. It is safe and easy, and those relationships are often fun. But committed relationships require you to step farther out of your safe places. Nothing has done that for me like having a child and being married. Did it take time for you to feel that way about your partner?
CC: Yes, we met when I first moved to New York for school, and he was the first person I had met who cared as much about reading as I did, which is why I knew we needed to be friends. We were friends for a year and dated for a year before I felt I could exit the neutral room.
For readers, what is the history of the neutral room, and how has your relationship to it changed throughout writing your memoir?
CCJ: I was taught the neutral room when I was a child by a doctor to help me manage the chronic pain that I was experiencing. I learned later that marathon runners use this method to manage pain while running for long periods of time, but you could locate a place in your mind and build a room to enter and do certain techniques to separate your mind from your body. The benefit from that is a lot of pain we experience is anticipatory pain. For example, I would go to grocery stores and feel the anticipatory pain of walking all over the grocery store before I even got out of the car. The neutral room teaches you to stay centered in the single moment and count eight seconds while you walk to a goal post, and you only have to worry about where you need to go in the eight seconds, rather than where you need to go in the next hour. Marathon runners will count to eight seconds while they run to a certain goal post and restart with a new goal post, so that they are not thinking about all of the future miles that they have to run, but the few yards that they have to run in the eight seconds.
That was a great method for dealing with pain, and that helped me manage work as well. I did well in school because I was never worried about the years of work I had to do but the one task that I had to do that night. The neutral room is a place of agency and peace. But the other side of that is that I would separate myself from my body to the point that I would disassociate from my surroundings. I would lose track of my body and where it was; I could retreat so deeply into the neutral room that my husband could talk to me and I would not hear him.
I used it to navigate social pain as well; when someone said hurtful things to me about my disability, I would retreat into the neutral room and remember that the conversation would last only eight seconds. That allows you to abdicate responsibility. I think the act of locating your threshold is difficult and mystifying, but writing the book forced me to locate that threshold and keep myself on the side of the threshold that empowers me and gives me agency. I want to ensure that I don’t retreat into the neutral room for events that are productively painful and for conversations in which I need to form a language to discuss vulnerabilities. Those things seem worthwhile, and I don’t want to limit those experiences for me.
CC: Which literary texts did you consult in your writing process, and what have you read recently that you want to recommend to readers?
CCJ: There are writers whom I read for ideas and writers whom I read for the flow of their sentences. For intellectual engagement, I was reading work by Tobin Siebers, who wrote about disability aesthetics, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who wrote the incredible book called Staring on the political history of staring and being stared at. Those were books that I came back to again and again. For sentences, I was reading poetry and travel writing that is often dominated by white male nondisabled bodies. I was trying to find my own language for travel writing that is not found often in the tradition, and I kept returning to the writing of Gretel Ehrlich, specifically The Solace of Open Spaces. I would open the book and read random sentences to understand how she was observing events and how she captured the rhythms of movement.