I had the great pleasure of speaking with Kelly Carlin last week about her memoir release, A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up With George, published by St. Martin's Press in September. She has been running around doing all sorts of interviews and publicity for the book, but took the time here to share some insights about her creative process and how she discovered her own techniques for writing the more challenging and painful parts of her story. She also had some wise and enlightening thoughts on why women in particular are coming together in creative spaces to write and share their personal stories.
Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1963, KELLY CARLIN grew up watching her father, George Carlin, become a counter-culture hero with his comedy. As a child, Kelly explored her own creativity by writing skits and doing imitations (her Ethel Merman was quite good for an eight year old). She began her professional life in her teens working behind the scenes with her mother, Brenda, on various shows for HBO that continued into her twenties.
In 1993, at the ripe age of 30, she graduated from UCLA, Magna Cum Laude, with a B.A. in Communications Studies. While at UCLA, Kelly discovered her voice as a writer, which led her to a career in writing for film and TV with her husband Robert McCall.
After her mother's death in 1997, Kelly found her true calling - autobiographical storytelling- through her first one-woman show, “Driven To Distraction.” In 2001, Kelly stepped away from the entertainment business to pursue her masters in Jungian Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate institute. She studied mythology, Jungian psychology and the intersection of art and the sacred.
Kelly is a speaker, hosts The Kelly Carlin Show on SiriusXM, and "Waking from the American Dream" on SModcast Network, and has been touring her present one-woman show, “A Carlin Home Companion,” since 2011. Her memoir, A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up With George, was published by St. Martin's Press in September 2015.
Karin: Could you start by sharing in your own words how you would describe your memoir, “A Carlin Home Companion?”
Kelly: Oh yeah absolutely. And I love that phrase “in your own words.” My dad made fun of that once; like “who's words would I possibly be using?” is his response. It's such a great little thing in speech that we do that we don't even think about.
So this book for me was really put into motion by my desire to share what they say in AA, “My experience, strength and hope.” I went through so much in my life and ended up on my feet, and with a sense of myself and some wisdom. And I really wanted a chance to share that and to give people who might be stuck in some of these similar situations a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel to walk through. So that's really the impetus of where it came from.
And then since my dad died, what also has come up for me is to be able to share aspects of my father that he never shared with his fans so that people could get a real idea of the whole human being that he was; the father, the husband, the artist and the man. And then of course the dance we did; the father-daughter dance we did, putting aside my mother for a moment, around me finding my own power and strength and voice. And the dance I did in relationship to him and his career and his personality and my own expectations; I really wanted to share that, too.
How did you go about balancing his story versus your story? When you talk about it now it just seems so clear. Was it always that easy to distinguish?
I've been privileged to have had done some real work around this stuff because four-and-a-half years ago I began developing a solo show with the same title. And Paul Provenza, my director, helped me a lot; really us just trying to find the clear narrative. Now in the solo show, we do focus on my father a lot in the first half and I played videos of my dad's career. So he's on-stage in video form and then I'm telling family stories around those different eras. As the show progresses, less and less of the George Carlin shows up and more and more of my story shows up, which is somewhat similar in my book. My book's structured a bit differently, but what I've come to tell people about my solo show is people come for the George and they stay for the Kelly. So I have some experience around balancing these two narratives.
But I knew I wanted this book to be my book and my editor wanted it to be my book. The fact that it's Carlin and there's a picture of me and my dad on the cover, yes that gets you more attention in a world of books where there are thousands of titles a year. To find a little niche on a bookshelf somewhere is important and to catch someone's eye is important, but it's not a biography of my dad.
I knew that this was my story. I knew that I would tell it from first a daughter's perspective, a child's perspective, and then adolescence, teen and then my twenties and then a maturing adult.
Actually when my dad's autobiography came out, we posthumously published it. It's called Last Words and it was really based on taped conversations with Tony Hendra who was a friend of my dad's and a great writer in his own right. And when I got the galley and there was a chapter on my mother, there was a chapter on some other different people in my dad's life and there was no chapter on me, I was heartbroken. I thought that my dad hadn't even talked about me. I was really confused. And Tony even said to me at that time, “I decided not to put a chapter in there of you because you have such a rich story to tell in your own right and I wanted people to be curious enough so that when your book does come out there would be a real hunger for it.”
Wow, that's great motivation, and endorsement.
Totally. And that's when I knew; it was like, “Oh yeah I do have a great story to tell and even Tony Hendra believes that.” So yeah that was part of my motivation.
During the process of writing the book, did you ever struggle with him upstaging it?
It's always been a delicate balance, and I spent a lot of my years defining myself up against my father and still do. I mean it's just a natural part of what happens. I think having the book out now I feel very relieved because it's done. It's like my story with my dad is done, you know? In reality it's about our whole family; my mother is a huge part of the story too. So it's really about a family struggling through some things and how we all end up healing each other as well as we can. And we're all humans; we don't heal perfectly. But the reality was, I knew what my narrative was; I knew where I wanted to end up, which is who I am today. The scaffolding of my solo show helped me with this a bit; I had to go back to really decide what do I put in? And I had to put in the things about me where I was giving myself away. So a lot of my story is about giving myself away and living through my dad's shadow and having no sense of self and fighting for it and discovering it and finding my way.
So it's all in there; the part of being stuck in the shadow and the part coming out of it. But I was really, really lucky that I had a publisher and an editor that said to me, “This is your story.” I don't think I would have signed up for anything else.
Does it feel exposing?
It feels a little weird at times, but as my friend Sara Benincasa reminded me the night before my book was published and I was absolutely freaking out, no matter what “I” in your memoir is a character and that every person in you memoir is a character and you are not that person and you are not your book and that it is after all a constructed reality like everything else is in our lives. And that really helped me. Yeah of course there are particulars out there, but I know that I shared those particulars because they were pertinent to my story and what obstacles I needed to overcome and how I overcame them. But I've always been a person strangely enough who's felt more comfortable telling a room full of strangers my secrets than sitting among my dad or my mother. That's part of our story in the Carlin family. Here my dad was this great truth teller on stage and yet because of the nature of the dysfunction and the alcoholism and the drug addiction we were all in denial all the time and we were all pretending. We were all really good at pretending everything was okay and just the irony of that. So that was my training in some ways. It's very strange.
Did it really make a difference that it was published after your dad had passed away?
For me yeah, absolutely.
In what way?
I've had freedom. I feel a real freedom. I think people who have parents who died understand the freedom that comes with that. Even if your parents are not famous and even if you're not looking to tell your story out in the world, there's something that happens. Obviously there's grief and loss; that is very real and very deep, but at the same time there's a little more space for a person on earth without your parents there. Part of the work to do after a parent's death is not only to understand that they are physically gone from your life and they're not there to kind of watch over your shoulder, but that whatever you have internalized about them whether real or not your job then is to get right with that internalized version of them, too. Because if it's an internalized negative version of them, their negative voice is still going to haunt you and it has nothing to do with the person; it's the thing that you've internalized. It's your inner work to do. So even after my mom died and then even after my dad died, I had work to do around that kind of stuff to really get into a right relationship with them and own up that the negative voice in my head from my dad even when he was alive which thought that, “Oh he's not going to like it if I write about this or I tell about this,” might have been true on some levels, but that was really my negative voice that I'd put on him. So it was just easier for me for him not to be here with me to do that work because of his fame and his place in the culture. He's such a force of reason and wisdom and truth-telling and all of that - that that was a lot for me to compete with while he was here.
If you were to point to the most challenging aspect of writing this book, what was it for you?
I think it was having to slow down enough to go into some traumatic themes in my life and to slow down enough so that I could articulate them as a writer so that the audience and the reader could really live it with me. And therefore then having to go into the pain of my past and re-live it, not just as a witness narrator but as a person living it in order to really be able to use language to describe what it feels like to be in the room with a person when your mother's angry and drunk. Or you're in the room with your abusive boyfriend; you're not sure what's going to happen kind of a moment. And really having to slow down and feel those things again and realize that, “Ah, ugh,” you know? So those were hard moments to do and not fun chapters to have to dig into, but I found a way certainly to do that and was lucky to have some kinds of exercises I could do that helped me do it in a way that was safe.
Can you share those exercises?
Yeah, one of which is an NLP exercise, which stands for Neuro-linguistic Programming. And what it is, is you do a visualization of yourself and become a witness to yourself, as if you're looking at your life and you figure out which direction is future and past for you. For me, my future is forward and my past is back; some people it's left and right. It changes for whatever your wiring is. And so you see your future laid out in front of you, you see your past laid out behind you, and you turn around and you go into your past. And I would go into my past and see the numbers, the years ticking off. And so whatever event I was writing about, say it was my mother's alcoholism when she was really, really sick with it, you go back to a time before you were affected by the trauma and you're trauma free. And so it's not in your body and you connect to that feeling in your body as being trauma-free and then you take an angled trip down into this traumatic scene you want to be witnessing. So I did that and I was able to go into our family's home where we lived up in Tellem Drive in the Palisades where both my parents were crazy on drugs and alcohol and my mother almost died from alcoholism; it was like the darkest years of the Carlin life. And I was able to walk around the house trauma-free and go into every single room and remember all the furniture, where everything was. I mean it was absolutely an incredible experience of memory. And that allowed me then to feel safe enough in that space to go and find my alcoholic drunk mother in a room.
Yeah. And then be able to really let the little girl be there with her and be able to write about what that feels like; what that feels like, what's in the air. So I wasn't re-traumatizing myself by doing it some other way. And it was a really effective tool for me.
No one had ever recommended doing it that way. I just decided, “Well I'm going to try this,” because I knew I had to go back in this house and I was resisting writing that chapter. I was like, “Aggghhh! Who wants to fucking write about this shit,” you know? Because really all of your resistance comes up in your body and it's healthy and smart because it's trying to protect you. And so I kind of figured out this little mind game to do.
Thanks for sharing that.
As you know, I have been offering memoir workshops for a few years now, and I've been struck by how the participants are nearly all female. I know you feel strongly that there is a larger cultural shift going on in the 21st century around women owning and telling their stories. Can you speak to that?
Yeah sure. I think women, especially our mothers and our grandmothers and then all the way through the mother lines, haven't been part of the grander narrative of civilization. We play supporting roles; we play roles behind the scenes. Essential roles, I mean Jesus Christ we birth the babies. And through the millennia we supported the men who were the warriors and the leaders and the business tycoons and all that kind of stuff. Not saying that there weren't important women in history certainly, but history was written by men and therefore our stories have not been accessible to us. And so I think even we don't feel like we have stories. And so I really believe, especially in this Oprah-age, you know Oprah was one of the first women on TV in the mainstream media to start giving us a voice about our internal lives and what we're living and empowering women to come forward and tell their stories. I think about Phil Donahue also; he was doing that, too. But that was really the beginning of it.
There is this claiming; so much I hear women saying the phrase finding my voice. “I want to find my voice. I want to live my authentic life. I don't feel like I can express all of myself.” And I think this just comes from these unspoken, unseen, invisible rules of our culture, even though it is 2015 and we have come a long way baby, as they say. When you think about the full scope of human history, this is just the beginning of women finding their voices. I mean it's been a hundred years since women got the vote in this country, so it's not a long time. And so I think women are in great need to connect to other people's stories, to find a room safe enough to tell our stories. Virginia Woolf is the one who talked about a room of our own, that you have to feel safe in order to come out and tell these stories. Not only have we not been allowed to tell our stories, but that when we do come forward to tell our stories, we're then defined by the mainstream culture and we're seen as whatever; too emotional or too this or too that or whatever it is. But this is all changing and it's really actually an amazing, kind of a golden age for women.
Most of the heroes in our mythology and comic books and the media are these kind of male versions of heroes. But how heroic is it for a mother who will do anything to protect her children? Or the sacrifice that women have made in order to keep the world spinning forward? These are just as heroic.
I think it's really a unique time, so it doesn't surprise me that women are showing up in these rooms and wanting to do this work. Part of the reason I write is to understand myself, so it's not surprising that women are turning to writing classes to find out who they are and to figure out their own relationship with themselves and what they believe, and who are they in the world and in our culture.