Alice Carrière’s Everything/Nothing/Someone is the most resonant memoir I have read all year, a compelling, visceral, and breathtakingly moving book.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“Creatively exceptional . . . This isn’t only about Carrière’s life. It’s also about how people make art and build family, how philosophy . . . intersects with lived experience, and how people try and fail to connect.”
I like to think of my book as a coming-of-age story about identity and human connection; a survival thriller about dissociative disorder and psychiatric malpractice; and an unlikely love story. I tell the story of growing up in downtown NYC as the child of two self-absorbed, self-destructive artists who lived in an alternate universe where the power of their minds could shape reality, where everything was abstracted or turned into art. My mother was a renowned painter whose implanted memories of ritualized child sexual abuse and murder made her hide in work and made her unable to connect emotionally with other people. My father was a European film star and intellectual who treated parenthood as a radical experiment in the total annihilation of boundaries. I was flooded by the force of their desires and became everything — a child, a mother, a wife, an idea. Adolescence brought with it a dissociative disorder that shredded what patchwork scraps of identity I had — I couldn’t recognize my face in the mirror, I didn’t know where my voice was coming from, I was convinced I did not exist. I was nothing. I responded by self-harming in the form of cutting, burning, substances, and destructive relationships, and psychiatrists responded by prescribing more and more medications, until the cocktail of 9 different psychotropic pills triggered a massive psychotic episode that lasted nearly a year and almost killed me. The only tethers to reality and myself I had were writing and, later, my husband and partner of 15 years, Gregory, a musician and recovering addict and alcoholic. The fastidious care and optimism he brought to my life allowed me to slowly turn outward and be able to help care for and connect with my mother when she was diagnosed with dementia, with the elderly nanny who raised me, and to reunite with my father and listen to his story. I managed to free myself of the overprescribing and shed the diagnoses, and I wrote myself into a place where I could feel and feel for others. I became someone.
This playlist is a combination of songs mentioned in the book and the music that helped shape it.
“Moritat von Mackie Messer” and “Die Seeräuber-Jenny” from Die Dreigroschenoper by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
I wasn’t around music much as a child — I listened mostly to audiobooks. My father introduced me to The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill when I was seven. I memorized all the lyrics and performed them for my grandparents, who lived in the small German town of Lübeck. I loved the broken-down quality of their voices and that each song was a complete story. I liked that the opera was populated by outsiders — the stars were sex workers and beggars. I never knew who I was supposed to be rooting for (even the villains could be sympathetic). It felt familiar in my family where everything could be what it was and also the exact opposite. In art class in high school, we were allowed to bring in CDs to play and between the undifferentiated gloss of aughts pop, I would wedge the gritty sounds of Weimar Germany. The other students balked and demanded I turn it off. It’s a poignant example of how isolating it was to be a part of my family, how the peculiarity and particularity of our tastes and inclinations kept us separate, and how interesting and edifying it could be.
“Waltz #2” by Elliott Smith
After a week in a locked ward, when I turned 18, I ended up in the ER with three deep, self-administered cuts, having almost overdosed on Dilaudid and alcohol. They released me on the one condition that I put myself on the wait list for a fancy mental hospital in Massachusetts, Austen Riggs, where I would stay for over a year. I would wander around the campus in the snow listening to “Waltz #2” on repeat. I saw myself in how it was put together — this poppy melody supporting the collapsing ceiling of the story. I was in the throes of my first major dissociative episode, and was convinced I didn’t exist. This song captured my suspended animation and my mistrust in my aliveness. When he sings, “I’m here today and expected to stay on and on and on,” he spoke to my feeling of incompatibility with life but my inability to do anything about it. I’ll admit, at the time, the way he died held a fascination for me. I felt a profound connection with my dead uncle, whom I’d never met and who killed himself at 26, a death that seemed to deify him (my grandmother had shrines to him). In my troubled young mind, I saw suicide as a form of liberation and self-expression. A lot has changed since then, but it’s still one of my favorite songs.
“Power Ballad” and “Pop Life” by Thin Lizard Dawn
This is my husband’s band from the 90s. They were signed to RCA, toured with The Verve Pipe and Lenny Kravitz, and had a pretty cult NYC following, despite having the worst band name in history. It’s the absolute perfect subversive, alternative 90s power pop. I listened to it non-stop when we were falling in love, as he was drinking himself out of heroin addiction and into death, and I was on the cusp of a near-lethal, medication-induced psychotic episode. When he sings about there being “no rehearsing for the insanity of getting well,” he speaks to my experience of being overmedicated. The very doctors and medications that were supposed to be helping me were slowly killing me, and while I was taping bedsheets over my windows thinking I was being surveilled, hair falling out, I thought this must be part of getting well, that anything that went wrong was just my stupid body and mind. Gregory and I have been together for 15 years, and he is largely to thank for how much I’ve healed. Gregory is violently optimistic, which is in direct proportion to the swirling depths of despair under his feet, and his music perfectly captures that dissonance. That dissonance is also a tremendous gift in a partner — being with someone who understands what I mean when I say I don’t exist and am ill-suited for consciousness but who can also show me how to keep existing despite it.
“Buonanotte Fiorellino” by Francesco de Gregori and “Fidelity” by Regina Spektor
My half-sister is eleven years younger than me. She was born in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up in Venice, Italy. I spent a lot of time with her before I was made sicker and sicker by the gross overmedication I was subjected to by my psychiatrist and I fell victim to a similar brainwashing as my mother. I loved being a big sister, even though I’m not sure I was very good at it. I don’t remember how I came across this Italian lullaby, but we’d listen to it together, and she would decipher the lyrics and teach them to me. In return, I taught her the lyrics to “Fidelity” by Regina Spektor. We’d wander the streets of Venice or Hamburg or Berlin singing them. I love having artifacts like this that unite us. We’re gradually finding our way back to each other as adults. It makes me so happy when she remembers these moments that I treasure, when we share the proof of our connection, despite how time, circumstance, and distance have tried to attenuate it.
“Good as Hell” by Lizzo
After my second major dissociative episode in 2019, I was fighting to stay alive. I was utterly fragmented, with no cohesive center, the most Nothing I had ever been. I was in a chronic panic attack — my heart pounding, and my limbs tingling. This whole record helped keep the panic at bay. The force of her voice was like a battering ram that managed to make a dent in the dissociative carapace that had grown over me. When I felt my body reacting to the music, something as simple as tapping my foot, I felt for a moment that I still existed and had a brain and a body upon which stimuli could act. I started self-harming when I was seven and continued for twenty years. This was an act of anti-self-harm, a way to make contact with myself, a way to wake myself up from the dissociative torpor that wasn’t destructive.
“Poses” and “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” by Rufus Wainwright
I introduced my mom to this record when it first came out when I was in high school. When she got sick with dementia, I would play these two songs for her, and we would belt them out. She was known for her muchness — her loud voice, her excesses, her ambition, her fucklessness — and when she sang the chorus so loudly and unashamedly off-key, I recognized that woman again. She was also known for the scale of her remoteness, her discomfort with emotions and intimacy. Her dementia took away the implanted memories of being used in a sex cult, the memories that had kept her so closed off, and their absence allowed the tenderness and vulnerability that lay dormant underneath to flourish, which left us finally able to connect on an emotional level. When she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia a year ago and given two weeks to live, I’d play these songs to calm her down, and even in the throes of her panicked disorientation, she’d start humming. She was always very curious about what Rufus looked like, and every five minutes she’d ask me to pull up a photo of him on my phone, and then she’d critique his outfits, which was also very true to her. I haven’t been able to listen to him since she died.
This is what I listen to when I write. Usually, it’s silence, but sometimes I need something playing. It’s a podcast of a WFMU radio show that plays old field recordings of gospel songs and homemade congregational tapes. Because of the scratchy, faded quality of the recordings, it feels far away in time and place. I like that many of the songs aren’t professional performances; they’re just snapshots of regular people who love to sing. I like the fervency of their worship, even if I don’t share it, and I think of my relationship to writing in the same ecstatic, devotional terms.
“True Love Will Find You in the End” by Daniel Johnston
This seems like a good way to end. My book is all about human connection, hope, and turning outward amidst the grotesqueness of being conscious. It’s about moving from abstraction to actualization. He sings in a quavering voice of unwavering hope. He sounds like he’s about to pass out but keeps going, buoyed by his faith in love. I see true love everywhere now, it’s chasing me, and I let it catch me. It’s in my friends who never gave up on me even when the psychiatric medications turned me into an insufferable person; it’s in my family who have embraced this book despite its challenging honesty; it’s in my partner who knew all along that I could tell this story and people would want to listen; it’s in this book that continues to connect me with other people. This book gave me back my father, it gave me a relationship with my sister, and it brought me to a place of deep, deep empathy for my mother. I edited it by reading the entire thing aloud to my husband seven times, which brought us even closer together. I almost died a few times throughout my mental illness and its subsequent misdiagnosis and overmedication. I didn’t want to wait around for the good stuff, thinking it couldn’t ever come, but my love of writing (and eventually, just love) made everything matter and make sense. Johnston made a name for himself handing out one cassette tape at a time, continuing to write music in and out of mental hospitals. I relate to that stubbornness that borders on delusion because the good stuff does come, just never when or in what form I think it should, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize. But it does come.
Alice Carrière is a graduate of Columbia University. This is her first book. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and Amagansett, New York.