Marianne Dissard is the author of Not Me, a stunning and searing memoir of a life with bulimia and recovery through yoga. The eccentric musician is an artistic powerhouse, creating in every moment. Far from being a misery memoir, Not Me is a beautiful and deeply affecting piece of literature. I asked her a few questions about the book and her experiences.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Performing, writing, declaring my flamme are all things, to me, worth living for but they require at an early stage of the process a giant leap of faith on my part. Singing? I never thought I could or would sing. That day back in 2004—I remember the light, and looking out the double-hung window of my Tucson house toward the desert—, I felt chills down my spine as I realized that, without any question, I wanted to be a singer. Where did that come from? The thought—and the certainty with which I embraced it—surprised me but I knew myself enough to understand that the decision was terminal. Hence the chills, which I used as a yardstick in the following years to explore who I might be or become, daring myself in the process as an adventurer out to explore the unchartered territories of the self. The book? Of course, I was scared when I realized I had to tell the story I’d kept hidden for so many years. There was no backing down. You have to face the music at some point.
What have you learned writing the book?
I decided the best way to proceed was to keep a journal of that one year in Paris. The entries would form the basis of a book about my very secret disordered life. I learned to write while writing ‘Not Me’ and I learned that you have to speak up if you want to heal. No addict—and eating disorders are addictions—gets better on his or her own. We need a community, friends, a support system. Connections—being seen and heard, being recognized and allowed to take one’s place within a community of people— matter enormously to our wellbeing. We are social animals. It took me a while to find the right balance for myself. When I moved on from journaling to actually mapping and writing the book, I found that I needed to be quite isolated. However, still battling my self-harming habits, I couldn’t get better if I was too isolated. It was looking for my balance in this new life as a writer. It’s only when I moved to the harbour town of Ramsgate and found the community and supportive friendships I needed that I was able to take the final steps in my recovery… and finish the book.
Was it easy to write?
I had an obligation to write and an obligation to ‘surmount the repulsive’, as that famous Vienna addict once said about the analytical process. I wouldn’t say it was easy to write this book. I’d only ever written lyrics before, and a bit of poetry—I ‘started’ as a ‘poet’ in my pre-teens—but for the particular story I set out to share, I couldn’t get in the way of myself. I had to be perfectly understood, to fumigate the obsfucating habits of the song lyricist.
I had never been interested in writing short stories or fiction, content with writing lyrics, but I had written documentary scripts back in my filmmaking days. Film scripts and song are similar beasts, neither an end in itself. Not only are lyrics meaningless without music—and their performing—but they require a level of impressionistic haziness to achieve their effects. With a book however, I soon discovered that I had to write with precision—I couldn’t hand out the clay to the next person to finish the vase—, reacquaint myself with the rules of grammar I can so recklessly forego when writing lyrics.
Another important point is that most of my creative writing to this point was in French. My first three albums are written in French. This book is not. I pushed back the limits of my bilingualism but I don’t think I could have written it in French either—nor do I want to translate it myself now. Again, I had to be direct, I couldn’t—and didn’t want to—hide any longer.
What was the process?
From start to paperback, the process took a little over five years. I was still touring and recording, and moved around a lot during that time, from Arizona to Paris, to Matera, back to Tucson briefly, working in Berlin then finally picking a ‘home’—my sailboat—in Ramsgate.
I began the process by taking daily notes for a year, a short-hand form of journaling. A few short lines or just a couple words. What did I feel during yoga class? Was I tired, happy, dumb and dull? I noted bits of conversations, mapping the timeline of my settling in Paris, going through the yoga training, starting to teach yoga. The note-taking also kept me in check and focused. I wasn’t backing down from the project. It gave me hope and a license to really do what I needed to do to and with myself to get better. The grand purpose of writing a book justified the pains I’d be inflicting upon myself. I was documenting my descent into hell, a form of self-inflicted torture. Writing the book gave me the autorization to get worse before I could get better. No, it wasn’t easy on my body.
After a year, I stopped taking notes and started structuring an outline from those I already had. I was listening at the time to the audio archives of W.S.Burroughs’ lectures at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I hadn’t told anyone at that point what I was doing. When I wasn’t touring, I started spending time alone in a cave house in Matera. I would take long walks daily in the canyon wildnerness below town.
A first draft, followed by a second draft, followed by a third, each one shared with more people who helped me see what I had done. A quasi-final draft formed the basis of a stage play I performed in Tucson and Margate in 2018… before another round of revisions. I had neither editor nor publishing house—no one was waiting for the book, pressuring me to finish it—, and took all the time I needed. Where would I find a freelance copy editor? Whose blog should I read (answer: David Gaughran)? I drew on my experience with music—recording and releasing my albums. Where to find a cover designer—Jamie Keenan, lucky me—and how to work with them through the process of creating a cover—and what cover he created! Which bookshops would be carrying the paperback—physical distribution, something I don’t worry much about anymore with my music?
Some of the books that helped me early on were John Burnside’s captivating ‘Waking Up in Toytown’, his memoir of life on the edge—of London—, and Patti Smith’s memoirs. I hadn’t read many memoirs before and didn’t feel the need to at this stage, more inspired by Heinrich Böll’s more literary ‘The Clown’, the portrait of a guilty man, its causticity tempered by great humor, or my literary hero, Pierre Guyotat who rigorously puts his flesh under a microscope in order to ‘noyer cette angoisse de la chair’ (drown this anxiety of the flesh). Viv’ Albertine’s first book came out during that time but, although I could relate to her heartfelt story as a musician and woman, I didn’t feel as inspired by her writing style as I was by Böll’s, Guyotat’s or Burnside’s.
What do you want your readers to take from the book?
I want my readers to know I have their back. They have to trust me. What I describe in the book is not something anyone really wants to hear about but there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel. I want my readers to be reminded that we can’t know what someone else is going through, especially someone as adept at hiding in plain sight as a high-functionning addict. I had one thing to convey—the experience of someone suffering from an eating disorder—, and I had to say it as directly as possible, without shying away from detailing the more graphic details that can be glossed over in more clear-cut recovery memoirs à la Hollywood.
Beyond that, and more selfishly maybe as an artist, I wanted to investigate the flesh through these sensations I can so easily map out—my years of yoga, singing and somatics practice maybe—on my own body. Because I am deeply convinced now that writing is how I am set right in body and mind.
I want those who already know and love my music to understand it better through the book. I’m not talking about how the more lurid details of the life that is laid bare in the book might explain why it’s taken me so long to record a new album or why I wasn’t always singing and performing at my best but why, despite the humor and mischieviousness of most of my songs, they have, of late, actually become quite downbeat.
You always do a flip side project to your album – this time The Cat. Not Me – how does this enhance the creative process for you and for the listener?
In 2013, I recorded my third album, The Cat. Not Me. Until I changed its title to ‘Not Me’, this was also going to be the name of the book, which I had envisionned as the flipside project to the album.
A flip side project to an album shares its ‘energy’ or purpose. The Cat. Not Me was a very somber album, with nightmarish and creepy moods, and songs that toggled between dark humor and petulant self-destruction. I realized early on that the content of the book would be what was between the lines of the lyrics of Cat. Whether my readers or my listeners get through these layers of connections is not something that concerns me. You can approach and enjoy any of these things from a superficial point or spend days looking for the meaning of song lyrics and videos, ponder how the book and the album are related, but I truly don’t expect anyone to have that time or desire. Hopefully, each of those productions (writings, videos, music, stage show) can be enjoyed at some level without being aware of the ‘other’ stuff I do.
How did writing this book change your music?
I hardly think of myself as a musician these days, even though I sing every day and work on my craft with workshops from my NYC-based vocal teacher Robert Sussuma, but I haven’t released an album of new material since I started writing the book. I’ve toured and recorded singles and as collaborations with other musicians, but my music is now grounded in a different place than when I lived in Tucson. To speak frankly, I’m very confused about music at this point. I’ve been looking forward to finishing the book so that I can record another album but this time of transition is scary. What if I didn’t have it in me any longer? What if I didn’t find the collaborators I needed here in England? What if it meant having to go back to the States? I have new lyrics and songs, enough for an album (it’s called The Promise and will be my first in English) but what happens when I return to that place where I’ve always felt fragile and exposed, the studio and the stage? I think the next year will be full of (hopefully happy) surprises but for now, it all feels scary. After all, the last time I recorded an album, I was a sick and secretive version of myself. All masks off now.
How prevalent are eating disorders in the music and arts world? Why do you think this is?
I don’t believe they are any more or less prevalent than in the world at large. I don’t know that there are studies that specifically address that question. I know for certain that this conversation is louder in the UK than in the States. The concept of resilience has been at the forefront of programs in wellbeing but—and maybe it’s a given there—I don’t feel it’s been addressed in the same way in the States.
Some early copies of the book reached ‘friends’ who happen to be musicians—and ‘friends’ in that world is a term loosely applied to anyone who shares your sensibility, lifestyle or aesthetic, people you might call upon for a couch one night while passing through their town, a pre-social-media-like ability, based on shared interests and tastes, to connect—and was surprised to learn that they also had eating disorders and depression.
You rarely use the term bulimia in your book? Why is this?
I don’t like the sound of the word ‘bulimia’, how it opens with a full-mouthed phoneme, a consonant followed by a sticky ‘ou’, as if the word itself was retching. I also think that to narrow the focus of the story to that of a bulimic struggling with recovery is too limiting. This is a book that deals with a form of self-directed delinquency, of which there are many; alcoholism, addictions to drugs and other habits of mind and body. Plus, no one wants to read about bulimia. It’s a major turn-off and I don’t want people to limit the scope of this book to that of a recovery memoir.
There’s a lot of secrecy surrounding addiction and mental illness. Why have you chosen to speak out?
I chose to speak out for my own sake, first, but also because I learned (maybe when I became a yoga teacher) that I enjoy helping others. There is an abundance of books and information about addiction and mental illness if you choose to look for it. There is also a great deal of resistance to hearing about it. The two things are not unrelated.
How did yoga help your recovery?
Yoga was my one health-affirming practice. I started practicing at the time I decided to become a singer—supposedly, to learn to breathe, and sing, better. Yoga was ‘home’ to me through a separation and divorce, and through this dramatic refashioning of myself into a hard-working and in-demand—it’s all relative—artist. Once I decided to
Was it cathartic or beneficial writing about your bulimia?
It is highly beneficial to reveal oneself but, to quote a Serge Gainsbourg song, ‘il faut savoir s’étendre sans se répandre’ (you must know how to spill the beans without spilling over). Maybe the act of writing itself—whether about bulimia or anything else—taught me a form of discipline of thought which carried over into a discipline of life.
Why do you think we’re so reluctant to talk about eating disorders in older women?
We’re reluctant to speak—and hear—about anything related to older women: their mental health and needs (sexual and emotional), their menopausal mood swings and the physical changes that result from hormonal shifts. We’re reluctant to open up a space for older women to express themselves as if we couldn’t fathom any use for women’s bodies beyond reproduction and homemaking. We’re allergic to the idea that older women might not be as grateful as we think they should be of the advantages society is purported to have bestowed upon them: motherhood, families, responsibilities. Older women are not supposed to rebel and refuse, to be damaged. We’re reluctant to acknowledge the pillars of our communities might be cracked.
What does it mean to be a high-functioning addict?
A high-functioning addict is a bit like a mirage. You think you see the real person but that person is elsewhere, unreachable, an illusion. Our identities are constructions, no matter how much or how little we consider ourselves addicted to substances or lifestyles. A high-functioning addict flirts with being discovered for what they are. They’re thrill-chasers, window-dressing their truth. I absolutely adored the Patrick Melrose TV series. It nailed that bodily experience of being addicted, the emotional train wreck of keeping up with appearances, and the impossibility of true connections.
You’re quite nomadic, and have lived all over the world in all sorts of places. Why have you chosen this lifestyle?
My father loved traveling. He probably experienced it as a form of freedom, albeit much constrained in his case by the ceaseless and growing demands of work and family—he was no drifter but became a consumer of foreign lands, as we all did, growing up with the ‘democratization’ of air travel. The family would take summer trips through Europe in our camper van. Then we moved to America, an uprooting that, in hindsight, had dramatic results for me. For one, I got famliar with being a stranger—and liked it but I found myself living in Tucson, Arizona—I was married by then—when I originally had been aiming at NYC. Becoming a touring musician rescued me for a while from that horrible feeling of being settled somewhere and belonging—to someone, to a place.
What is it about the English seaside that has such a pull for you?
I was born in Gascony. A friend of mine, also from that region, has a theory about why we both relate so well to the English and the anglo culture. According to him, because that part of France has long been in cultural contact with England (and under English rule until 1453), we have the same humor and same eliptically-enclined minds (and, in the traditional ‘patois’ dialect, a similar way to pronounce—and swallow—our ‘h’s). I’m not sure I completely suscribe to that idea but I do feel at home in England. First of all, I love speaking English, as well as American-English and the version of it I spoke in Tucson (border Spanglish). I also have been living in border regions for several decades, and Ramsgate is a border town and harbour, a place where people have passed through for centuries and some of that dynamism remains despite the harbour’s very limited purpose as a trading point nowadays. I used to drive to the edge of the desert when I lived in Arizona and stare out into the distance toward the Mexican border. The Channel waters I see from the harbour are just as empty, alluring traitorous and inspiring as the Sonora desert. I also find in Ramsgate, where I chose to settle, an environment that reminds me of Tucson some twenty-plus years ago, when our downtown was a scary place for college students but a haven for artists and musicians who took over empty storefronts, warehouses and homes to create this utopic society where all we had to do was make art and play shows. Ramsgate has that, plus the melancholia of English seaside towns in the Brexit years. I’ve found my people in Thanet, many of us foreign-born defectors from London.
Do you think that living a rock’n’roll lifestyle impacted your health?
If by rock’n’roll lifestyle, you mean the life of the traveling saleswoman, yes, that lifestyle has impacted my health. As far as sex and drugs, there was never enough of it to impact my health—and none of the latter as I did little to no drinking from early on in my touring career, and don’t even smoke pot. My life as a touring, self-managing musician was one of little sleep and much angst. The timing of my first album release also coïncided with my divorce. Running away from Tucson to tour the world, I was left with little emotionnal support from a disintegrating network of hometown friends and with no close companionship to balance out the isolation of life on the road. Although liberating and empowering at first, being noticed and noted early on as a performer didn’t entirely fill in that gaping hole in my stomach.