“This is the first time I have ever been interviewed.” Ariel Leve sits opposite me in a cafe in Manhattan’s West Village. Her childhood memoir, An Abbreviated Life, is about to be published and she looks vigilant – like a soldier who has done everything to prepare for battle, but understands that unforeseen perils may strike at any time. I imagine this is Leve’s stance for every situation, not only interviews. On many occasions she’ll say, “I would like you to explain exactly what you’re asking,” and, “What do you mean? I want to have that clarity.”
Her need for precise information is a legacy of her outlandish childhood, she says. “I’m very meticulous. If I’m having a conversation with somebody and they get a fact wrong, I’m, ‘No, you said that on Wednesday, not Thursday.’ It drives people nuts. But when you’ve been on the receiving end of gaslighting, a compulsion for accuracy can be a survival mechanism. Before you read my book, had you heard the term ‘gaslighting’?” I had: gaslighting means, “To manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”
Leve, now 48, is a journalist. She has written columns for the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times, where she was also an interviewer. She grew up an only child in a penthouse in New York’s Upper East Side. Her mother was a poet, her father a diplomat. He retreated to Thailand when the marriage failed and so, for much of the year, it was just Leve, her mother and her mother’s party guests. There were frequent raucous parties, attended by the likes of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, belly dancers, balloon magicians, Andy Warhol and “people she met in the elevator”, Leve says. “It was very eccentric.” Sometimes the guests had to wait hours before her mother would appear, wrapped in a towel and covered with bubbles. If they were beguiled, her daughter wasn’t: “At 11pm I’d hear, ‘Everybody! Stop talking! It’s time for the music!’ And I’d be lying in bed, panicked, because I had to go to school the next day. I didn’t care who these people were. What mattered to me was that they were behaving inappropriately and they were inconsiderate to me. I needed to set my own boundaries, because nobody else was setting them.”
Invariably, Leve would storm out of her bedroom in her nightgown and shout, “Can everybody please be quiet?” And her mother would reply, “Ariel! Come and join the party!”
Had it been my childhood, this would be horror enough. I’ve always thought how terrible it must have been for the person on the next table to the Algonquin Round Table. But for Leve there was much worse. There were the times she would arrive home from school to find her mother naked in bed. “Let’s play being born!” she’d announce. “I want to relive the happiest day of my life!” And so Leve, who was five or six at the time, would dutifully curl into a ball between her mother’s thighs, her mother would pant and groan, and suddenly the covers would be yanked back. Birth! One time, she had a friend around for a play date and her mother had them take turns being born. The girl was never allowed back.
Sometimes her mother would be in a dangerously frivolous mood, lounging around the apartment naked and gossiping to her young daughter about her new boyfriend’s “huge cock”. (Leve once asked her to stop using the word “cock” and her mother replied that she had “never used that vulgar word”. This kind of chronic, accumulative gaslighting was worse, Leve writes, than being “slapped, punched, kicked, pinched and attacked during arguments. What did the real damage [was] her denial that these incidents ever occurred and the accusation that I was looking to punish her with my unjustified anger. The erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse.”)
During her giddy romantic times, Leve’s mother would often disappear for the evening, promising she’d be back after dinner; the next morning, her bed hadn’t been slept in.
“My anxiety is very, very corrosive,” Leve says now. “I work on that quite a bit.”
On other occasions, life in the apartment turned dramatically less romantic. Leve once heard her mother scream, “I’m bleeding! Ariel, call the police!” She flung open her bedroom door to see her mother physically assaulting her boyfriend, his face bleeding from her scratches, clumps of his hair in her fist.
Then there were the panic attacks. When an optician told Leve she needed glasses, her mother shrieked, “Ariel is going blind!”
“It wasn’t about me,” Leve says. “It was about her anxiety and I had to reassure her. I was the parent and she was the child. But it did, of course, give me an anxiety as well.”
“You developed a terror of sudden blindness,” I say.
“Not sudden blindness,” she says. “Blindness.”
By the time Leve grew up, she was, she says, “exhausted”.
There is a story in An Abbreviated Life about how Leve recently ran into a writer she recognised from one of her mother’s parties. She had always put the guests’ indifference to her down to their bohemian lifestyle: “In that febrile scene, works of art excused misconduct,” she writes. “Narcissism flourished. Bad behaviour was indulged. Poets were dramatic and vivacious and histrionic.” Non-bohemians might have contacted child services, but not her mother’s friends. Now, she was face to face with one of them. How would he respond when she told him who she was? He involuntarily recoiled. “My God,” he said. “I always wondered how that little girl would survive. I thought her only choices were suicide or murder.”
“When I read that passage,” I tell Leve, “I thought, ‘Actually, she went for a third option. She wrote a memoir.’”
“That’s true!” Leve laughs. “Which is suicide.”
“Or murder,” I say. I’m thinking about just how unsparing the book is; there are passages about her mother’s incontinence, how she’d arrive home and cheerfully announce, “I had an accident.”
“The book was a lifeline,” Leve says. “I always clung to it, knowing I could tell my story. It was like a sibling.”
“Would you sit in your bedroom as a child and write it in your head?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “I was always logging events, partly to keep track of reality, having had my reality challenged so many times.” She pauses. “I do credit my mother very much for championing me as a writer. That was a gift she gave me that I could truly use.”
Leve says that even while writing the book, she wasn’t sure she’d actually publish it. I’m glad she did, because it is riveting and evokes with clarity the emotional turmoil of being subjected to the constant needs of a narcissistic parent. I’m sure it will help other people in similar circumstances. But then there is her mother, who is still alive.
They are estranged now. Leve broke off all contact three years ago, “for self-protection”. The last time she saw her was from the window of a crosstown bus, the M79, that goes back and forward between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. She looked dishevelled and was limping. Leve was struck with panic and crouched down in her seat to avoid being spotted.
I live in the Upper West Side and so, on the Saturday before we meet, I walked that same route, east across Central Park, to see the neighbourhood where Leve grew up. It’s a world of prewar apartment blocks with uniformed doormen. There are fine art galleries with exhibitions of Viennese paintings, florists and plastic surgeons. It’s a place of privilege – although “privilege”, as Leve writes, “would have been falling asleep at night without fear about what would happen as the night went on”. Lots of ordinary families live around here, but there are also wealthy people without boundaries, whose peculiarities flourish in ostentatious ways. I recently walked these streets with my dog when a woman in her 70s approached us, bent down as if to stroke him, but instead screamed in his face: “You’re an asshole!” I sometimes think of the Upper East Side as a place where rich people yell at nothing.
Not long before Leve stopped talking to her mother, she tentatively raised the subject of child abuse. “Oh please,” her mother snapped. “What about mommy abuse? No one ever talks about that.” Around that time, Leve went on vacation, but didn’t tell her mother where she was going; she reported her as a missing person to Interpol.
“You’re laughing at that like it’s outrageous,” she says now, “but in the world that we manoeuvre in, it wasn’t that outrageous. It didn’t even surprise me. She said, ‘I called Interpol looking for you.’ I was, ‘Oh.’”
“Does she know your memoir is about to be published?” I ask.
“She knows,” she says. “I told her.”
“Over Skype. I was in Bali. She was in New York. I didn’t want her finding out from someone else. It was a matter of respect.” She pauses. “She’s always championed free speech and honesty, so I think she understood I had to express myself as a writer. On a personal level, she was, of course, probably wounded and afraid of what it might say.”
“Did she ask you what you’d written?”
“I didn’t want to discuss that,” Leve says, “because it would have led to a debate about the content, and I didn’t think that was productive. I told her I hoped she would read it. As a child, being heard was the wish.”
I tell Leve that, as I read the book, I found myself worrying about how her mother will feel when she does.
“Of course I worried about her feelings, too,” she replies. “That’s why I didn’t write it for so long. I was afraid of her feelings and how she’d react. But I’m 48 and I didn’t want to wait until she’d left this Earth to feel free.” (Jews, she points out, often live a long time. Her grandmother died when she was 97. Her mother is 79.)
“Might she respond dramatically in some way?” I ask.
“It’s totally unpredictable,” she says.
Leve never reveals her mother’s identity – in the book, she is given the pseudonym “Suzanne” – but she embeds big clues, such as the titles of her published poems. It took me about three seconds of Googling to work it out. (Leve has asked me not to name her in this article.) Warhol made a film of her mother reciting her poetry. She published seven volumes of poems and six novels, and was nominated for a Pulitzer prize in the early 1960s.
I’m sure Leve didn’t implant these clues out of malice, like breadcrumbs for sleuths, so why didn’t she endeavour to conceal her identity better?
“There were certain facts that I couldn’t fictionalise,” she explains. “The fact that my mother was a poet shaped my life.” She falls silent for a moment. “You’re a journalist,” she says, “so it doesn’t surprise me that you worked out her identity. Are you bringing this up because you think readers will?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “People in the media might. But somebody who lives in the middle of the country and just identifies with the feelings that come from the book might not care.”
“That’s true,” I say, “but I still think her name will come out.”
“Why?” she asks.
“Because of the parties with Andy Warhol and Saul Bellow,” I say. “That’s intriguing stuff.”
“I don’t know what point there would be, other than curiosity, to identify her,” she says.
“There’s mystery,” I say. “People like being sleuths.”
“OK,” Leve says, “you work out who she is. And then?”
She’s urging me to adopt the persona of the internet sleuth. This is a typical legacy of a childhood such as hers. As a psychiatrist once told her, “Children exposed to trauma become hyper-vigilant as adults, always scanning for danger.”
“Well,” I say. “I’d go on a messageboard and say, ‘I’ve worked out who she is.’”
“And then?” she says.
“Then I’d find a clip of her on YouTube from some old documentary and say, ‘Here she is.’”
Leve is scowling.
“I’m not panicking you, am I?” I ask. “When you leave the restaurant, are you going to dwell on this part of the interview?”
“I’m a dweller,” she says.
“Oh dear,” I say.
I tell her again that I’m sure the book will be helpful for readers who have suffered similar childhoods.
“That mitigates the anxiety,” Leve says.
Her father once asked her, “Why can’t you just beat those demons?” (They have a great relationship, by the way. She spent her childhood summers with him in Thailand and doesn’t blame him for not rescuing her. “A single lawyer living abroad in south-east Asia knew it would be impossible to gain custody of me through the legal system,” she writes.) She had no good answer to his question. She considers herself a rational person, not prone to bouts of self-pity, but despite leading a successful adult life, “many of my accomplishments have felt meaningless. There’s almost a feeling of being sequestered – alone and separate. I’d function, but not participate.”
She decided to research why she couldn’t just “deal with it in a sensible, mature way”, as her father put it. She learned that scientists have claimed connections between children who are psychologically abused and physical changes in the brain. Stress hormones flood and engorge the amygdala.
“At first, my book was going to be all about this science,” she tells me. “I wanted to understand, scientifically, why I couldn’t get over it. The main reason it changed was because of the girls.”
What she means is that she recently fell in love with a man in Bali named Mario, who has two happy, well-balanced daughters. “They came into my life just when I was writing about being their age,” she says. “I learned through them how deprived I had been. To see children who are happy and not anxious…” She trails off.
She underwent therapy, too. It is called EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) and is designed for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Leve focuses on a disturbing memory while her therapist waves a rectangular metal bar in front of her eyes that radiates a green light. She wears headphones at the same time, from which she hears a variety of beeps. The combination of light and sound is supposed to rewire her brain.
“I’ve done some research and it’s definitely a contentious therapy,” I say. “Some people swear by it and others think it’s just waving a stick in front of somebody’s face. Do you find it helpful?”
“I’ve found it very helpful,” she says. “If I hadn’t done it, I don’t think I’d have been ready to write the book.”
“So you’re happier now than you’ve ever been?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she says, and we laugh.
Our interview got a little dark at the midpoint, when I told Leve that, despite my admiration for the book, I worried about her mother’s feelings. And so we return to the subject.
“I was so anxious about this book for so long,” she says, “and of course I consider how it’s going to affect her – I’d have to be sociopathic not to. But managing her feelings before my own is a pathology I’ve had my whole life. It’s an extension of my childhood. In the balance of how it affects me versus how it affects her, I had to learn to put myself first.”
Leve doesn’t want me to, but I have to get her mother’s reaction to the book, and she reluctantly agrees to let me try. A few days after it is published in the US, I telephone her.
“You’re the first person who’s called me,” she says.
“Can I come over to see you?” I ask.
“Only if you bring Ariel with you,” she says, quite sharply.
There is a silence.
“You’d get something very deep and meaningful if we talked together,” she says, softening, “and a great story that I wouldn’t give to anyone but you. As a journalist, that’s worth a lot of money to you. It could be the interview of the century.”
“You definitely won’t let me come over if I don’t bring Ariel?” I ask.
“There are a lot of things she wrote that I agree with and a lot of things I’m not sure I agree with,” she replies, “so why not have both of us together, having an interesting discussion? If you had the chance to put Putin and Obama together, wouldn’t that be better than just speaking to Obama?”
“What do you agree with and not agree with?” I ask.
“I’ll only tell you when you bring Ariel,” she says. “I’m telling you, you’d have a great story – as big as the OJ Simpson story – if you bring both of us together. I’ll leave it at that and you’ll let me know. Thank you.”
She hangs up.
I call Leve. She says of course she won’t come with me to her mother’s apartment.
I call her mother back. She doesn’t wait to hear the news. She immediately says, “I’m ready to spill all the beans to you.”
“Can I come round at 4.30pm?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “Come right away.”
Leve’s mother opens her door with a smile I’d describe as playful. Her apartment is filled with mementos from her impressive life: posters for her musicals and poetry recitals and paintings of friends such as Mailer and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There are photographs of her and Ariel, too, from the 1970s and 80s. Both are strikingly beautiful. She leads me through to her bedroom, sits next to her bed, and eats a plate of ham and mayonnaise as we talk.
“What do you think of the book?” I ask.
“It came as a big surprise to me that she didn’t love me,” she replies. “I thought it was going to be, ‘Thank you, Mommy, for everything you gave me.’ I tried to make her life as beautiful as possible. I had a very famous salon in New York.”
“Ariel writes that those salons kept her awake on school nights,” I say.
“That’s so absurd!” she replies. “If she didn’t like the noise, she could have said, ‘I’d like to stay in your room, Mommy.’ Ariel’s bedroom was right next to the living room, she explains, but hers was farther down the corridor.
I ask about the being born game.
“We had so much fun doing that!” she says. “It was fun! In fact, we had a lot of fun. If you read this book, you think, ‘Poor girl – she had such a sad childhood.’ But let me tell you, it’s all lies. She was very privileged.”
“What about those physical fights with your boyfriend?” I ask.
“That’s a total lie,” she says. “My boyfriend was crazy about me. He stayed with me for 30 years! And he was worth about $500m. He stayed with me because I brought such joy to his life and I educated him. I think Ariel was very jealous. I think she wanted to be me. I had a very glamorous and exciting life. But she was part of it! I included her in it!”
During our hour together, Leve’s mother says the word “fucking” a few times. It’s incongruous to hear a sophisticated, 79-year-old Upper East Side woman speak like this. I’m reminded of Ariel’s complaint that she’d talk to her about her boyfriend’s “huge cock”, and how she was too young to hear those words.
“That was bullshit,” she says. “She was not some innocent child.”
“How old was she at the time?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. “About 10.”
“She wrote about the times you’d say you’d be home by dinner but wouldn’t come back until…”
“That was such bullshit,” she interrupts. “I was a single parent. I had to make a lot of money to put her in these private schools. Do you think that was easy as a journalist? I killed myself! I got sick working so hard! She never understood that.”
She pauses and does a whiny, mocking impersonation of her daughter: “‘Oh, I want you to be a mommy-mommy. Someone who doesn’t do anything.’ I was voted one of the 100 most outstanding women in America, and one of the 100 most beautiful women in America, which doesn’t mean much, except I was the only one who was in both categories. My dream was to have an interesting life.”
“Maybe you should think of this book as part of your interesting life,” I say.
“No, it’s not,” she says.
“I’m trying to put a positive…” I say.
“There’s nothing positive about this book for me,” she interrupts. “This book is humiliating. It’s made me cry. It’s made me feel suicidal. Parents are people. I’m a human being. I’m a great writer. And I devoted myself to her. She turned out pretty good. She’s polite, and smart, and compassionate. Who brought her up? I gave her the gift of the gods. I feel that she owes me respect. Such a slap in the face.”
“Can you appreciate how beautifully written it is?” I ask.
“She copied [the structural style] of one of my books!” she replies. “She’s a wonderful writer. It’s too bad that what she wrote about her teacher and mentor was so insulting. To say that I ruined her brain chemistry!” She pauses. “What did you think of the book?”
“I thought it was beautifully written, but I did worry about your feelings as I read it,” I say.
She looks surprised, then grateful. “Well, thank you,” she says.
I have a meeting across town. I tell her a few times that I really must go, that I’m running late, but she continues talking. Eventually, I just leave. I say goodbye. As I reach her door, I turn back. She’s still talking to the empty space where I had been sitting. I exit her apartment.
When I get down to the street, my telephone rings. It’s Ariel’s mother. She’s saying, “If I wasn’t famous, who would care about Ariel Leve?”
I think back on my lunch with Leve. Although anxious people often fidget a lot, I remember that she sat very still. Hers was the bearing of a person of resolve.
“I feel, right now, very tenderly to my mother,” she said, “because I know she couldn’t help herself. I have a great deal of compassion, but that’s different from feeling that I shouldn’t have written the book. I imagine there will be people who’ll say, ‘Why did you have to tell this anecdote or that anecdote?’ But when you’ve had your reality disavowed, asserting it is necessary.”
“So it was like a rebalancing?” I asked.
“A rebalancing of the scales,” she said. “Yes. It felt like I had to write this book in order to be free. Now I feel fully expressed, it has released me.”
• An Abbreviated Life, by Ariel Leve, is published by HarperCollins on 14 July at £18.99. To order a copy for £15.19, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
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