Despite a reported habit of running behind schedule, Daphne Merkin materialized in the doorway of the writing center at Marymount Manhattan College, on East 71st Street, only a few minutes late for a morning interview. After a cup of coffee, the renowned memoirist was ready to delve into the details of her life, from her struggles with depression to her spanking fantasies. We spoke with Merkin about her relationship with her daughter, her brother Ezra and an appearance at Marymount’s upcoming writers’ conference.
Q: You grew up and still live on the Upper East Side. Why did you stay in the neighborhood?
A: I didn’t always stay in the neighborhood. I lived on the Upper West Side when I was in graduate school at Columbia, and I lived on the Upper West Side when I was in my late 20s and early 30s until I got married and pregnant and found, believe it or not, that the Upper East Side was more reasonable. I find the Upper East Side is stigmatized by a certain liberal and intellectual—or maybe not even intellect-ual—New Yorker. So even if you’re living on Central Park West in a 10-room apartment, it speaks to some kind of essence of socialism that you don’t live on the Upper East Side. That I never bought into.
Q: Do you feel like the neighborhood has changed?
A: Yes. I was struck recently by the dire preponderance of baby stores. I shouldn’t say dire, but there are so many children’s boutiques and children’s stores, and I guess I noticed two more that somebody opened near me. I see families with only one or two children apiece and I think, “How many clothes do you need?”
Q: I’ve read that you view your life in terms of before the famous spanking essay in the New Yorker and after. Is that still a seminal moment in your professional and personal life?
A: One sure way of partially satisfying an itch is to write about it. In my personal life, I’m always a little leery if someone’s about to bring it up. Not women, but men would have a tendency to bring it up.
Q: Friends? People you just met?
A: Any of the above. Certainly in my sparse dating life I’m always leery.
Q: I was wondering if the essay had brought any viable suitors to you.
A: Years and years ago, a man called me and I met him for a drink. But it turned out he had a great, great passion to be spanked, which is not the exact same passion [as mine], and I think he wanted a nun, which I wasn’t—an ex-Orthodox Jewish nun. There is a space, in the end, for anyone who writes really personally and candidly, between what you write and what you actually are in your own life.
Q: You’re on a panel about memoir writing at the upcoming Marymount writers’ conference. Who do you think would benefit from that?
A: Ideally, someone who is already working on a memoir, or wants to write a memoir in an informed way. Even if you’re thinking about a memoir, it’s interesting to hear approaches. I think the marketplace aspect always comes up in these seminars. Even though people are always predicting the death of the memoir, like the death of the novel, the memoir has remained a very popular form for many reasons.
Q: Are you teaching any specific classes coming up?
A: I have taught here at Marymount. I also teach at the 92nd Street Y. I taught a course called “The Art of Reading,” which was learning to read critically, or rather, learning to read as a writer. And I taught writing classes in what’s called creative non-fiction. And this fall, after talking to Lewis [Frumkes, director of the writing center], I’m going to teach a course on the personal essay called “Truth or Dare.” I think one of the issues that comes up so often with people writing personally is, especially with women, can I tell this? How much can they hurt other people? What does candor mean? Does candor simply mean spilling out everything under the sun? I mean, even candor is very composed. But I think readers in general have good bullshit detectors. So if you’re not honest, even if you think you’re being honest, it often comes out in some kind of off-putting tone. I think the whole issue is one of how you write candidly without insulting everyone you know under the sun.
Q: Is it strange for your daughter to have a mother who is so candid and honest about her personal experiences?
A: She’s figured out an excellent way of dealing with it, which is, she never reads a word of what I write. I think the one piece that she read in full was a profile of Madonna and Taylor Swift. That kind of thing she’ll read. Several people have asked me if I’ve insulted her, and I say it’s a rather intelligent resolution.
Q: Does your writing bring up awkward conversations?
A: She’s sort of sophisticated. So she will allude to something I’ve written and say, “Well, we all know…” or something like that about something I’ve said. She sees enough of me in the flesh, she doesn’t need to know about what I say and don’t say. She’s an excellent reader. I just showed her the opening of a piece I’m doing for the Sunday Times Magazine called “My Life in Therapy.” And she said about one sentence—which [read] people who’ve never been in therapy and people who’ve been in therapy, there isn’t much difference in self-awareness—“You don’t actually believe that.” I think she’s right.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a piece for Elle about the always-interesting subject of money, probably one of the subjects that people are least candid about. It’s a piece about attitudes to money, you know, people who admire, envy, disdain [it], the complicated emotions the subject brings up. And I’m working on a book that’s based on this article I wrote about depression and being hospitalized for depression.
Q: Was writing that article therapeutic in a way?
A: I wish it were. I remember I said to the editor at the Times who kept saying to me, “Go deeper,” “If I go any deeper I’ll be re-hospitalized.”
Q: Your brother famously has been involved in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Most recently the attorney general decided not to dismiss the case against him. Has his experience shifted your views about money?
A: Not really. To be honest, that world isn’t that available to me. It’s not a world I know enough of. I don’t think I realized anything enormously new. I did write an op-ed about the case, where I said there was a lot of greed involved in the case as well as a lot of casualties. I honestly don’t think this had anything to do with my brother, I think I would read of any such case and think, OK, but these were people—they weren’t in it for the good of humankind, they were investing because they thought they’d do better than other people for mysterious reasons. And it’s a tragedy that money was lost on that level, especially for philanthropy. But I think distinctions have to be made, if that makes any sense.
Q: How is your brother?
A: I think he’s doing OK.
Q: Are you close?
A: We’re not that close, but then I have five siblings. I have a sister in Israel and two brothers who live in New Jersey.
Merkin is scheduled to participate in a memoir panel at Marymount Manhattan College’s all-day Writers Conference & Intensive, Thursday, June 3. For more information, visit www.mmm.edu and click “special programs” or call 212-774-0780 or 212-774-4810.
Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.