Mona Simpson on the Dissonance Between Reality and Memory
“Maybe a person is everyone she’s ever been, not just who she is at the present moment. With those we love, we see overlays of their best selves.”
“Second Life” is a new story by Mona Simpson, adapted from her forthcoming novel, Commitment. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Simpson and Katherine Hu, an assistant editor for the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Katherine Hu: In your short story “Second Life,” a young man named Donnie ends up in rehab, at the same hospital where his mother has been staying for some time. At one point, Donnie wonders if he is “marked.” Do the lives of our parents inevitably shape our own?
Mona Simpson: I think we’d all agree the answer is yes, but people react to their parents’ lives in different ways, both consciously and unconsciously. Certain mental illnesses are associated with specific gene expressions, so there are literal “biomarkers”—an article in Science in 2019 reported findings directly linking 10 genes to schizophrenia, with names like GRIN2A and SP4. But Donnie is using the word marked in the biblical sense.
Hu: The hospital is a very particular setting—closed and confined, yet animated by the hope of returning to the world beyond. Why did you choose to set the story there?
Simpson: This story, and this book, are about people who are separated from those they love and feel they are living in two worlds. Donnie is living in the same place with his mother for the first time in years. That’s important to him. But Donnie’s unit is also animated by the hope of returning to the world, unlike other units, like his mother’s, that see less mobility. The case workers integrate his unit with the outside community through the gym and 12-step meetings in churches.
Hu: Even as his mother fades, Donnie insists on remembering her at her best. Is there a point at which the dissonance between reality and memory becomes too strong? When we choose to freeze the person we love in a certain time of their life, do we sacrifice the truth of who they are?
Simpson: Is there an absolute truth about who someone is? I’m not sure. After reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, I try not to overvalue endings. Maybe a person is everyone she’s ever been, not just who she is at the present moment. With those we love, we see overlays of their best selves. That’s probably what accounts for the reunion syndrome, when people we haven’t set eyes on for years look decades older than our friends do.
Hu: “Second Life” is adapted from your forthcoming novel, Commitment. How does the story fit in thematically with the novel more broadly?
Simpson: Donnie is the youngest of his mother’s three children, and his story comes last in the book. He has the simplest relationship with her, and, in some ways, the closest. As the youngest of the three siblings, he’s a bit protected, but also spent less time with his mother before she went away. He was also most able to accept Julie, his mother’s friend, who steps in to help.
Hu: Donnie and his mother both embrace strict routines as a part of their recovery, and even end up “loving” them. Is stability an underappreciated form of freedom for them both?
Simpson: Many people find structure to be soothing and nourishing and thrive with a regulated schedule. Some artists’ programs fix schedules with the regularity of a boot camp: Breakfast is served at the same time every day before the artists go off for a day of work. Dinner is served at the same time too. No distinction is made for weekends. And for many, this regimen works. People are astounded by how much they get done.
In a 2009 essay called “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum,” Oliver Sacks writes about the salutary effects that “order and predictability” had on patients in mental hospitals. These hospitals provided “control and protection for patients, both from their own (perhaps suicidal or homicidal) impulses and from the ridicule, isolation, aggression, or abuse so often visited upon them in the outside world.” Sacks remembered “how some patients, no longer violently psychotic or on locked wards, might wander tranquilly around the grounds, or … could be found reading quietly in the hospital library or looking at newspapers or magazines in the dayrooms.”
Hu: After Ida receives a clipped phone call from her daughter for her 91st birthday, she tells Donnie that she wasn’t a good mother. It’s a particularly resonant moment. How does Donnie define a “good mother”?
Simpson: I’m not sure he does. He finds Ida’s admission startling and thinks she’s probably being too hard on herself. He isn’t especially critical of anyone but himself, and sometimes Walter. Donnie considers his mother to have been a good mother. He considers Julie to have been a good mother to him too.
Hu: The end of the story is hauntingly beautiful—Donnie realizes that his mother has chosen a “second life” for him, living on even though she does not want to. Whom do you imagine Donnie’s second life will be lived for?
Simpson: I imagine Donnie’s life will be lived for and with the people closest to him. One wouldn’t know, really, from reading this excerpt, but Donnie will have a love story too—one that surprised me. He’ll remain close to his sister and his brother and he’ll discover work that’s fun and easy for him, but what will be central will be the small family that becomes his own.
Hu: What projects are you working on?
Simpson: I’m working on a short book in two parts, about people helping other people: the limits, the frustrations, the ironies, the inadequacies, and the consequences.