Writing the family story behind a tragic headline: "What felt so personal to me was already public"

Salon talks to Ashley Marie Farmer about her memoir "Dear Damage" and the act that put her family in the spotlight

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published April 16, 2022 10:30AM (EDT)

Hospital corridor with police tape (Getty Images/Joos Mind)
Hospital corridor with police tape (Getty Images/Joos Mind)

Ashley Marie Farmer's debut collection of essays, "Dear Damage," opens with a straightforward description of an act of violence that shook her immediate family and shocked their Nevada community: "On January 19, 2014, my grandfather Bill walked into my grandmother Frances's hospital room with a loaded gun he'd purchased that morning." Her grandmother had been injured after a fall at home that left her paralyzed with "a type of neuropathy that causes an unrelenting pain that the strongest drugs don't touch." Frances had said more than once that she wanted to die. In what was meant to be a final act of love, Bill shot her in the hospital bed, then tried to shoot himself, but the gun broke, and he was arrested. It was deemed a "mercy killing," with all the sensationalized press coverage and impassioned public debate a case like that tends to spark.

This cataclysmic event is the axis around which Farmer's meditations and explorations of family, place, grief, loss and violence revolve, in essays that take both traditional and experimental forms. "Remembering an act of violence born not out of malice, but love," Kat Chow writes in the New York Times, "Farmer's narrative is melancholic, but still full of hope." 

I interviewed Farmer recently about "Dear Damage," which was published in March by Sarabande Press. 

Your book begins with a startling scene of violence. In the opening paragraph of the essay, "Mercy," you describe the steps your grandfather took to shoot your grandmother, and then try and fail to shoot himself. There are places many readers' minds will go — considering what we know about men and women and guns and violence — upon reading such a scene, though the truth of his motivation was much different. How did you decide on that opening?

"There was so much more to them than their final moments or any headlines."

What you highlight in your question — that the shooting could conjure different thoughts about motive and intention — is part of the reason I opened with "Mercy": I wanted to be upfront about the turn of events. It felt important not to hint at it or generate suspense in order to surprise readers at page 40 — I think that would've felt disingenuous to me, especially when the shooting was the impetus for this book. Instead, I wanted to lay down the facts (or my experience of them, at least) from the first paragraph as clearly and honestly as possible so that I could use the rest of the book to zoom out and explore a constellation of various peoples' perspectives on it. Basically, I felt like I was saying to the reader, OK, let's just get this out of the way — here's what happened. Then I could write about my family and guns and art and love, all within the context of that January morning.

And on another level, I suppose I'm making an argument that, while this troubling, tragic event happened at the end of my grandparents' lives, there was so much more to them than their final moments or any headlines. 

When a personal tragedy becomes a public event for consumption, that transformation is also a kind of violence. You write that you were reluctant to tell this story. Can you say more about that, and maybe how you overcame that?

My reluctance to write this book came from a place of wanting to do right by my family while simultaneously conveying my own complex thoughts about this incident — I didn't know how well I could do that. But I was ultimately compelled to write this, frankly, because other people already had done so in news stories, journals, books and online comments. What felt so personal to me was already public.

For instance: The morning of the shooting, they let my siblings walk inside the locked-down hospital. A news crew filmed this and, from my laptop in California, I watched my sister, sister-and-law, and brother hurry inside — a moment almost dreamlike in its weirdness. Not long after, a couple of reporters appeared outside my grandparents' house to broadcast near their driveway. I know this because I was Googling the story from my sofa — since I couldn't fly there right away, my instinct was to look it up online and obsessively refresh. I watched in almost real time how other people perceived what my grandfather had done or speculated about his motives. Then, months later, an excerpt of a letter I'd written to the public defender appeared in some articles about the case and it was jarring to see my words quoted. I hadn't known it would be part of a public record. 

"I thought I could challenge or complicate the knee-jerk assumptions and offhand comments strangers had made."

So even though I was initially hesitant, I wanted to convey my own understanding as someone who knew these two people well. By doing so, I thought I could challenge or complicate the knee-jerk assumptions and offhand comments strangers had made. I also had an impulse to create something about my family that could last, to make something beautiful about who they are and were. Because there's an irony in having a personal event in the news: Just as it's a shock to see people you know in a broadcast, it's also a shock to see just how quickly the story disappears. It's so fast how the world moves on. Which is exactly like grief: You're stopped in time, but everything around you continues.

Related to that public consumption of personal tragedy, do you have thoughts on true crime as a pop culture obsession?

The fascination with true crime in pop culture is interesting to me. I'm sure a psychologist could explain why we're captivated by things that scare us or repel us or force us to face darkness. And from a storytelling perspective, this stuff makes for layered, dynamic narratives. But I think any interest I've personally had boils down to curiosity about how or why a fellow human does something they shouldn't do. I mean, I didn't write a true crime book here or anything, but I've spent several years trying to understand a trespass committed by someone I actually know. When I think of true crime podcasts I've been hooked on, it's always been much less about the crime and more about wanting to understand the person.

Given my experience, when I listen to crime podcasts or hear about these events, I often think about the family and friends connected to these true stories. It's kind of hard for me to tune in now without thinking about all of the people in the periphery and how they view the crime or were affected by it.

"Dear Damage" employs many different forms in this collection: transcripts from interviews with your grandparents, court documents, even online comments on news stories. Did you set out to write in this assemblage form? How do you decide when to present material as you found it and when to adapt it into narrative? 

"I was at my grandparents' house for the holidays. ... Eighteen days later, everything changed."

I knew I wanted the audio transcripts threaded throughout the book. The fact that I even had them was kind of amazing: a few weeks before the shooting, I was at my grandparents' house for the holidays. I told them I was writing a book about California and I wanted to know about their experiences. Eighteen days later, everything changed. So I felt from the start that their voices could bind the book together. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was also fascinated by other peoples' voices — strangers' voices — and originally included a lot more commentary from people who'd shared their takes on things through various lenses (religious, medical, political, etc.).

Ultimately, it made sense to use these available materials to convey my ideas about what happened: I was assembling my understanding of things as I went along, maybe. I'd had Anne Carson's "Nox" on my mind in those early days of this project: I admire how she explored her brother's life via her incredible mixed media book. Plus, I have to say that the kaleidoscopic approach is fun in this technical way — despite some of the seriousness of the content, there was real pleasure in moving text around, cutting things up and rearranging pieces. 

Your essays take place in Nevada, Kentucky, Syracuse, and California, but it's California that has the biggest psychic hold — a character more than a place, even. How would you describe the role California plays in this book?

The ocean, surfers, Venice or Huntington Beach: all of this is my grandmother and mother's California. I grew up romanticizing their experiences as I sat on the floor in Kentucky or Nevada, flipping through my mom's old high school yearbooks and wishing I was a hippie kid back in her era. It's the same with Frances: I loved her version of Los Angeles with the streetcars and big bands and orange groves, these rolling green hills. Their stories about California and the several generations of family I never met who'd lived there were so precious to me. I was born there, too, though my parents moved when I was six months old, so I liked imagining I was tethered to it.

What's funny, though, is that even though I've lived there a few times — had my own California eras as an adult in many of the very same spots my relatives had lived — I hadn't set out to go there intentionally because it's California. It was school or a relationship or other external factors that brought me there. Almost by chance, I once had an apartment right down the road from the shipyard where my grandfather worked and I'd sometimes happen to drive through neighborhoods where my mom lived as a little girl. I'd call them up and ask about this beach or bridge or landmark, send them photos of The Queen Mary docked right down the street, a ship my grandfather worked on when it came in for the last time. So maybe it was inevitable — maybe I really am tied to the place after all. And though I don't know that I'll ever live there again, it's still this dazzling, complicated place I love, one that tugs at me sometimes.

"Like so many other adjuncts, I'd hustled until I couldn't any longer."

One of the California-set essays, "American Dream Job," is about adjunct teaching. In it you detail the pain of a path that is familiar to many who perform the on-demand labor that universities now run on. Can you talk a little about why you wanted to write about the adjunct path in this collection?

The adjunct essay came about because it's another type of grief that basically showed up at the same time these family events transpired. Like so many other adjuncts, I'd hustled until I couldn't any longer and then arrived at this moment of clarity about the system. The realization came with heartbreak — it felt like a loss because I loved (and still do love) teaching.

There are a lot of goodbyes in this book — to family, to California, to ideas about motherhood, to my belief that my life would look much like my parents' or grandparents'. Making a living in academia was another idea I said farewell to — almost literally when my husband Ryan and I packed the car, put the cat in her crate, and drove out of the state.

This book tells a love story within a love story, too — your grandparents Frances and Bill, you and your husband Ryan. In a book about pain and suffering, there are many moments of beauty and light written in. How did you know when you had found the right balance?

Thank you! All the credit for this balance goes to Sarah Gorham, Sarabande's brilliant and generous Editor-in-Chief that I had the privilege of working with on this book. In earlier drafts, I hadn't written as much about Ryan and our life together — I think I'd be less inclined to write about romantic love if not nudged to do so, because it feels personal in a way that the heavier stuff somehow doesn't. But Sarah helped me see early on that there were opportunities to create greater contrast and brighten parts of the book, which was originally much darker. I'm grateful for her advice. I learned a lot from her that I'll carry into future writing projects.

You're a poet and a fiction writer, too. Can you talk a bit about how — or if — poetry and fiction have helped shape your nonfiction writing?

In poetry and short fiction, I'm always excited by voice, language, and momentum. I tried to modulate across the book so that more lyrical essays bumped up against starker prose-poem-ish studies of people or geographies. The poet in me also enjoys compression: I never really envisioned this as a big book. Instead, I wanted it to feel distilled in some spots, urgent in others. I like the challenge of conveying big ideas and images within short bursts. As a reader, that's the kind of writing that leaves a strong impression on me.

Memoir-plus and the linked essay collection feel like they're having a good moment right now. I'm reading so many good books in those veins. As a reader and a writer, what draws you to this mode of personal narrative?

I agree! There are so many fantastic collections right now. As a reader, I appreciate the generosity of essays and memoirs — the fact that people let you into their lives and brains that way. From a writing/craft point of view, it feels like there are endless possibilities in terms of forms or approaches. There's so much potential for experimentation and forging your own unique style, something I'm floored by in my peers' work.

And finally, who and what are you reading these days?

For a project, I just reread "Night Rooms" by Gina Nutt, a friend and essayist I admire. She explores grief and loss through the lens of horror films. I've also been excited about poetry lately: I have on my nightstand the brilliant "Dear Weirdo" by Abraham Smith and Tyler Friend's "Him or Her or Whatever," which I got after hearing them give a wonderful reading. I just started Kat Chow's "Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir" — so captivating. And I love anything from The Audacity, Roxane Gay's newsletter that often features essays by emerging writers. Some of the writing I've loved most across the last year or so has shown up in my inbox that way.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Read more Salon interviews with writers on memoir, grief and true crime: 

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

MORE FROM Erin Keane

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authors Books Gun Violence Interview Memoir