Deborah J. Cohan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina- Beaufort whose work has appeared in numerous academic and non-academic publications. She is the author of the popular blog “Social Lights” for Psychology Today, is a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, and is frequently quoted in major media outlets. Here we ask her questions about her new sociologically inspired memoir, Welcome to Wherever We Are. Learn more about her at deborahjcohan.com.
BJR: What made you, a sociologist, decide to write a book about your own life experiences caring for your ailing father?
DJC: I have been actively reading and formally studying memoir in earnest since I was at the end stages of my dissertation in graduate school. I found myself growing impatient with various aspects and profound limitations of academic writing and was looking for a creative outlet. Ever since I was a child, writing was something that felt available and important to me. However, growing up, I was less of a reader because all that was shoved down my throat in school was fiction. And, my dirty secret is that I still don’t read fiction! Once I discovered memoir though, it all made sense. At its best, memoir is essentially a very creative sociology.
The analytical and interpretive properties of both sociology and memoir are quite similar. Sociology is about giving people the tools and the vocabulary to seek multiple truths about individuals, societies and the social forces that constrain and support their very being; sociology offers us the opportunity to then take this information to question, reflect, re-evaluate and put the pieces of our own lives together again, to see how the private “I” fits into the larger public “eye.”
Memoir involves possessing the sociological imagination, connecting biography to history, and understanding how private troubles of one’s personal milieu are indeed public issues related to the social structure. Memoir is about excavating identity and salvaging a sense of self. It is also about the power of finding and using one’s voice.
It is qualitative and ethnographic. The best memoir writers take the particulars of their own lived experience and write their hearts out in a way that connects with others and the larger project of what it means to be human.
Sociological theory, and feminist analysis, which I rely on heavily, helps us to uncover truths no matter how discomforting or disquieting they can be or how deeply one must probe to discover them, and yet this journey toward truth is often enlightening, magical, and transforming. Sociology gives us the opportunity to re-think our place in history, to imagine the future direction of the world, and perhaps to dream about how we might engage in tikkun olam, a Hebrew expression for repairing and healing the world. Memoir has become an extension of all of that for me. The writer Dorothy Allison said: “…Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”
Long motivated by a continuous thread I have followed since I began college, both my academic writing and my memoir tell stories at the intersections of gender, family, home, identity, race, class, violence, trauma, grief, loss, rage, creativity, social justice, and social change. These tend to be the issues I write about regardless of genre, and I have published a book, academic articles, book chapters, essays, articles for the mass media, and poetry. The breadth and depth of my writing showcases fluency and versatility with genre because of my belief in the promise of sociology and how we must make ourselves relevant in public discourse. I consider myself an interdisciplinary sociologist, a feminist sociologist, and a public sociologist—creating and applying sociological insights for public knowledge and for the public good.
BJR: Are there any sociological lessons that you can share from the story you share in this book?
DJC: That’s a great question and there are so many!
In sociology, we often say that things are not always as they seem. This is most definitely true. My book sheds light on how abuse is not black or white, and that there is multidimensionality to abusers. In my case, my father was both adoring and abusive; both are my lived realities. Also, in the book you learn that I was raised in an upper middle class Jewish home, and domestic violence is still very much cloaked in silence, secrecy and shame in households like that. The book punctures assumptions around abusers, survivors, marriage, divorce, social class, etc.
Back in college, I got interested in homelessness among children and adults. I wanted to understand the structural conditions that lead some people to a life on the streets. We know there is a connection between homelessness and violence. As time has unfolded, I have found myself compelled by how traumatic experiences of violence leave us homeless, even metaphorically, in our bodies, in our relationships, and just in our very existence. Writing memoir about family violence became a way to come home to myself.
Sociologists are concerned with how relationships come together and break apart. Sociology consistently asks how we form connection and community with one another and how we become alienated from each other. Studying intimacy and violence provides rich ground for examining these dynamics and processes.
Also, in sociology, we aim to understand why people are cruel to each other, especially in a context of intimacy, sexuality, family, and love. Domestic violence cuts to the core of human experience of intimacy, vulnerability and relations of domination.
Furthermore, many of us have an interest in social justice and social change and operate from the assumption that sociological writing is not just about creating knowledge for knowledge’s sake but that it is also about forging solidarity with suffering human beings. Domestic violence and violence against women offer us the possibility to think about the nexus of relationships between social problems, personal healing and recovery, and social change. As sociologists, we are trained in asking questions and observing the complexities and nuances of human behavior, and domestic violence cases like what I experienced provide an opportunity for deep, ongoing sociological inquiry.
BJR: Given the connection between the personal and the political, can you help the reader understand if there are any implications for social policy from your experiences as a caregiver?
DJC: I hope that the book compels readers to think about ways that we can talk more honestly about domestic violence, and especially how to have those conversations intergenerationally. When I began caregiving for my father, I was in my thirties and not yet on the tenure track and cobbling together a series of contingent academic jobs back and forth in two states. I spent a lot of money I didn’t have to travel to see him and I remember thinking how fabulous it would be if there were grants for people in my situation, simultaneously doing public service with teaching and also intense caregiving. I felt choked by my living expenses, student loan debt, and caregiving bills. It was clear to me then—and remains so—that we need a much greater, supportive infrastructure in our social institutions to help people navigate this and to buffer against the extreme loneliness that people face in these distressing and grief-filled circumstances. Growing up, I was one of very few only children with older parents. Now that this is an increasingly common demographic, it seems like as a society we will have to better offer support as people reconcile the dilemmas of aging and caregiving from the complicated context of tiny and tender family dynamics.
Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.