The journalist grew up on New Yorks Upper East Side with her mother, a celebrated poet who partied with Andy Warhol and Saul Bellow. Now shes lifting the lid on a deeply unhappy childhood
This is the first time I have ever been interviewed. Ariel Leve sits opposite me in a cafe in Manhattans West Village. Her childhood memoir, An Abbreviated Life, is about to be published and she looks vigilant like a soldier who has done everything to prepare for battle, but understands that unforeseen perils may strike at any time. I imagine this is Leves stance for every situation, not only interviews. On many occasions shell say, I would like you to explain exactly what youre asking, and, What do you mean? I want to have that clarity.
Her need for precise information is a legacy of her outlandish childhood, she says. Im very meticulous. If Im having a conversation with somebody and they get a fact wrong, Im, No, you said that on Wednesday, not Thursday. It drives people nuts. But when youve been on the receiving end of gaslighting, a compulsion for accuracy can be a survival mechanism. Before you read my book, had you heard the term gaslighting? I had: gaslighting means, To manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
Leve, now 48, is a journalist. She has written columns for the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times, where she was also an interviewer. She grew up an only child in a penthouse in New Yorks Upper East Side. Her mother was a poet, her father a diplomat. He retreated to Thailand when the marriage failed and so, for much of the year, it was just Leve, her mother and her mothers party guests. There were frequent raucous parties, attended by the likes of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, belly dancers, balloon magicians, Andy Warhol and people she met in the elevator, Leve says. It was very eccentric. Sometimes the guests had to wait hours before her mother would appear, wrapped in a towel and covered with bubbles. If they were beguiled, her daughter wasnt: At 11pm Id hear, Everybody! Stop talking! Its time for the music! And Id be lying in bed, panicked, because I had to go to school the next day. I didnt care who these people were. What mattered to me was that they were behaving inappropriately and they were inconsiderate to me. I needed to set my own boundaries, because nobody else was setting them.
Invariably, Leve would storm out of her bedroom in her nightgown and shout, Can everybody please be quiet? And her mother would reply, Ariel! Come and join the party!
Had it been my childhood, this would be horror enough. Ive always thought how terrible it must have been for the person on the next table to the Algonquin Round Table. But for Leve there was much worse. There were the times she would arrive home from school to find her mother naked in bed. Lets play being born! shed announce. I want to relive the happiest day of my life! And so Leve, who was five or six at the time, would dutifully curl into a ball between her mothers thighs, her mother would pant and groan, and suddenly the covers would be yanked back. Birth! One time, she had a friend around for a play date and her mother had them take turns being born. The girl was never allowed back.
Sometimes her mother would be in a dangerously frivolous mood, lounging around the apartment naked and gossiping to her young daughter about her new boyfriends huge cock. (Leve once asked her to stop using the word cock and her mother replied that she had never used that vulgar word. This kind of chronic, accumulative gaslighting was worse, Leve writes, than being slapped, punched, kicked, pinched and attacked during arguments. What did the real damage [was] her denial that these incidents ever occurred and the accusation that I was looking to punish her with my unjustified anger. The erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse.)
During her giddy romantic times, Leves mother would often disappear for the evening, promising shed be back after dinner; the next morning, her bed hadnt been slept in.
My anxiety is very, very corrosive, Leve says now. I work on that quite a bit.
On other occasions, life in the apartment turned dramatically less romantic. Leve once heard her mother scream, Im bleeding! Ariel, call the police! She flung open her bedroom door to see her mother physically assaulting her boyfriend, his face bleeding from her scratches, clumps of his hair in her fist.
Then there were the panic attacks. When an optician told Leve she needed glasses, her mother shrieked, Ariel is going blind!
It wasnt about me, Leve says. It was about her anxiety and I had to reassure her. I was the parent and she was the child. But it did, of course, give me an anxiety as well.
You developed a terror of sudden blindness, I say.
Not sudden blindness, she says. Blindness.
By the time Leve grew up, she was, she says, exhausted.
There is a story in An Abbreviated Life about how Leve recently ran into a writer she recognised from one of her mothers parties. She had always put the guests indifference to her down to their bohemian lifestyle: In that febrile scene, works of art excused misconduct, she writes. Narcissism flourished. Bad behaviour was indulged. Poets were dramatic and vivacious and histrionic. Non-bohemians might have contacted child services, but not her mothers friends. Now, she was face to face with one of them. How would he respond when she told him who she was? He involuntarily recoiled. My God, he said. I always wondered how that little girl would survive. I thought her only choices were suicide or murder.
When I read that passage, I tell Leve, I thought, Actually, she went for a third option. She wrote a memoir.
Thats true! Leve laughs. Which is suicide.
Or murder, I say. Im thinking about just how unsparing the book is; there are passages about her mothers incontinence, how shed arrive home and cheerfully announce, I had an accident.
The book was a lifeline, Leve says. I always clung to it, knowing I could tell my story. It was like a sibling.
Would you sit in your bedroom as a child and write it in your head? I ask.
Yes, she says. I was always logging events, partly to keep track of reality, having had my reality challenged so many times. She pauses. I do credit my mother very much for championing me as a writer. That was a gift she gave me that I could truly use.
Leve says that even while writing the book, she wasnt sure shed actually publish it. Im glad she did, because it is riveting and evokes with clarity the emotional turmoil of being subjected to the constant needs of a narcissistic parent. Im sure it will help other people in similar circumstances. But then there is her mother, who is still alive.
They are estranged now. Leve broke off all contact three years ago, for self-protection. The last time she saw her was from the window of a crosstown bus, the M79, that goes back and forward between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. She looked dishevelled and was limping. Leve was struck with panic and crouched down in her seat to avoid being spotted.
I live in the Upper West Side and so, on the Saturday before we meet, I walked that same route, east across Central Park, to see the neighbourhood where Leve grew up. Its a world of prewar apartment blocks with uniformed doormen. There are fine art galleries with exhibitions of Viennese paintings, florists and plastic surgeons. Its a place of privilege although privilege, as Leve writes, would have been falling asleep at night without fear about what would happen as the night went on. Lots of ordinary families live around here, but there are also wealthy people without boundaries, whose peculiarities flourish in ostentatious ways. I recently walked these streets with my dog when a woman in her 70s approached us, bent down as if to stroke him, but instead screamed in his face: Youre an asshole! I sometimes think of the Upper East Side as a place where rich people yell at nothing.
Not long before Leve stopped talking to her mother, she tentatively raised the subject of child abuse. Oh please, her mother snapped. What about mommy abuse? No one ever talks about that. Around that time, Leve went on vacation, but didnt tell her mother where she was going; she reported her as a missing person to Interpol.