Vol. 111 (2021)

Stay Thirsty Presents:

A Conversation on Clubhouse
with #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
Adam Mansbach 

Moderated by Dusty Sang

Recorded: Wednesday, May 19, 2021 @ 7pm



DUSTY SANG: Good evening and welcome to Stay Thirsty Presents: Conversations on Clubhouse with Fascinating People presented in conjunction with Stay Thirsty Magazine, whose guiding manifesto is to keep our fingers on the pulse of contemporary expression and to introduce you to some of the most interesting and accomplished people on the planet. I'm Dusty Sang, Publisher of Stay Thirsty Magazine, and I will be your moderator for this program. Please note that the program is being recorded and will appear in the next edition of Stay Thirsty Magazine.


It is now my great pleasure to introduce tonight's guest, Adam Mansbach. Mr. Mansbach is the award-winning author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Go the Fuck to Sleep, which has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, and novels Rage is Back (named Best Book of the Year by National Public Radio), Angry Black White BoyThe End of the Jews (winner of the California Book Award) and a dozen of other books. Most recently, he co-wrote with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel the bestselling, A Field Guide to the Jewish PeopleMansbach wrote the award-winning screenplay for the Netflix Original BARRY, and his next feature film SUPER HIGH, starring Andy Samberg, Craig Robinson and Common, is forthcoming from New Line Cinema. His work has appeared in The New YorkerNew York Times Book Review, Esquire, The Guardian and on National Public Radio. 


Mansbach is a graduate of Columbia College and received an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts. He was the 2009-11 New Voices Professor of Fiction at Rutgers University, a 2012 Sundance Screenwriting Lab Fellow, and a 2013 Berkeley Repertory Theatre Writing Fellow. 

His latest book, I Had A Brother Once, A Poem - A Memoir, is what brings us together tonight. It is about the death of his brother and all that it entailed for him and his family. His book has been described as a: “... heartbreaking, brutally candid memoir, where Mansbach employs long stanzas of free verse to recount events surrounding his brother's death, struggling through anger, sorrow, and confusion."


Now it is my great pleasure to welcome Adam Mansbach for tonight's Conversation. Thank you, Adam.


ADAM MANSBACH: Pleasure to be here.


DUSTY SANG: First, a little backstory. Adam's publisher, Penguin Random House, suggested this book to us for this program. And I chose it because of the loss of my son Ryan, our only child, who passed away at the age of 24 in 2004 from bipolar disorder. Loss is a universal part of the human condition. And it was Ryan's philosophy of life, to "stay thirsty" for things of the creative mind. That became the clarion call upon which Stay Thirsty Magazine was founded. In that Adam and I share our own grief. The last lines of his magnificent poem memoir read about his brother, "You cannot leave entirely. I will not let you go." And with that, let me start from the beginning. Adam, can you tell us a little bit about your brother David, who was he?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, my brother David was three years younger than me. He was a scientist which made him kind of a black sheep in our family because words are very much the stock-in-trade. For my family, I'm a writer. My grandmother was a writer, my father's an editor, my mother was a journalist and so forth. My brother was a very thoughtful and kind guy, and very eccentric wore, you know, shorts throughout the Boston winter. He was not an easy guy for me to connect with necessarily, he tended to answer questions, one might expect to elicit an emotional response with something other than an emotional response, a litany of facts for example. It certainly crossed my mind that he might have Asperger's. It never crossed my mind that he was anything other than incredibly gentle and giving of himself. What I didn't know about my brother is that he was deeply depressed because he very deliberately kept this a secret. And only after he committed suicide did I learn that this had been the defining factor of his life for many years. And that his wife knew and was essentially sworn to secrecy. And in the final months, it got so bad that our parents knew, but I never did. So part of the book is me kind of grappling in retrospect with who my brother was, given this profound thing about him that I was kept in the dark about.

DUSTY SANG: Who kept you in the dark? Was it your brother? Or your parents?


ADAM MANSBACH: No, it was his choice to keep everyone in the dark, really, not a single person knew that he was dealing with this outside of his wife for a few years. So yeah, there was a lot of shame surrounding the depression, as there often is around such things around mental illness and depression. And for him, he chose a certain kind of isolation. There's a way in which it almost seems to me that this secret was more important to him than staying alive. And, as a writer, and as somebody who grapples in this book to tell my story, tell his story, grapple in this book with my own sort of conflicted feelings about taking on the authority to tell his story, and the necessity in some sense of whittling that story down into something that I have to act as if I understand in order to convey it, it's all very twisted and gnarled for me in a way. But yeah, there was a tremendous amount of secrecy and shame around what he was going through.


DUSTY SANG: What influence as the older brother did you have on him growing up?


ADAM MANSBACH: I think I had a fairly significant one. A lot of the music that I listened to, a lot of the books I read, he would also listen to and read. I was a senior in high school, and he was a freshman. So we were close enough in age that he knew my friends and I knew his. We also had a lot of friends in common and a lot of families where there was like a kid my age and a kid his age, and there were, sort of these multiple strains of connection. So I think on some level, an older sibling always has a lot of influence on the younger ones. I mean, I watch my own kids now. And it's sort of inescapable. It would be no matter how different you might be or how solitary an existence you might want to lead. I think that influence permeates. There are a lot of things that I think he took an interest in because I did. I think also there was a way in which the depression that he was dealing with was so consuming that it's like he didn't have time to fully flesh out his own personality. So there was a sense in which he seemed to borrow things from others, like other people in the family, borrow my taste in music, borrow our cousins way of doing this, or my mother's way of doing that or I could see in him these sort of, these images or these placeholders, if you will.


DUSTY SANG: How old was he when he passed away?


ADAM MANSBACH: Let's see. He was like 32.


DUSTY SANG: You turned to the arts, to literature, to writing and he turned to science. Did he ever aspire to go into the arts or was he always interested more in scientific pursuits?


ADAM MANSBACH: No, that was always his bent. I mean, he was a very ... he was a very good writer, and I remember him doing some journalism. There was a time in which he worked for a newspaper in India for a summer, for example. He was a very adventurous and well-traveled guide, but he had a different skill set in a different trajectory than me. He's very good at languages. He spoke fluent Portuguese and Spanish ... traveled a lot in Latin America. But science and math were always sort of a lane that he shined in and a lane that I did not.


DUSTY SANG: What was what was your relationship with your parents growing up? And what was his?


ADAM MANSBACH: Mine, I think was a ... it was very combative, that they want you to get a real job. No, they didn't want me to get a real job, they wanted me to like stop hanging out with criminals and doing criminal things, which is in retrospect very understandable. But I was ... I was in the process, like many kids, of defining myself and staking out my own ground, I was a rapper. I was a DJ. I was very politically active. Growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the late '80s and becoming an aficionado of hip hop in 1987, '88, '89, '90, '91, meant that I was sort of the rare white kid who was very attuned to, very frustrated with the state of race in America, and I spent a lot of my time feeling pissed off at other white people and trying to figure out strategies and political interventions around those issues, and writing rhymes and DJing parties and doing some other things that are less constructive than that. And my parents were generally pretty supportive of all of that, like my politics were not different from theirs, but the passion that I brought to it, led me down a certain path, I was like leading protests and leading ... leading walkouts, from my high school and things like that. And getting into fights with the Mayor of our town and this kind of thing and keeping a lot of older company. I was pretty precocious. I was a writer and a rabble-rouser from a young age, and I had mentors who kind of took me under their wing and introduced me to wider and wider circles of folks. So when I was 14 and 15, I was hanging out with jazz musicians. I was arguing about jazz and hip hop with Delfeayo Marsalis, and I was driving up to New Hampshire to see Wynton Marsalis play and going to New York to go to hip hop shows and rhyming and trying to make records. And all this kind of stuff. And arguing incessantly with my teachers. I looked at education as a battleground. And I came as equipped as I could, often with a secret stash of knowledge that I had gained by listening to records by people like Boogie Down Productions, and X Clan and Public Enemy. And I came into school every day ready and eager to have political fights with my teachers because they were emblematic to me of a school and a system that was biased and hypocritical. So, that was me as a kid. And I got in a lot of fights with my parents. And I was out of the house a lot and I was just running around doing my thing. I think my brother, by contrast, he learned from the conflict that he saw me getting into with my parents, and basically, his approach was to be monosyllabic. He didn't give a lot up. They'd be like, how was school? He'd be like, "good," and he'd keep it moving and go to his room, you know what I mean? Which was probably a very wise strategy on his part.


DUSTY SANG: Where did your anger come from?


ADAM MANSBACH: My anger came from the feeling that I was surrounded by injustice and around people too hypocritical to admit that that was the case. My anger was really based on observing the level of segregation in my town, the attitude toward the black kids at my high school, who were largely bused in from inner city neighborhoods like Mattapan, Roxbury, Dorchester through the METCO busing program, which was Boston's unilateral form of school integration and Bostonians were brawling in the streets over it in 1973. Nineteen years after Brown versus the Board of Education. And I saw a lot of people paying a lot of liberal lip service to an idea, to certain ideas, but not actually living them or actualizing them. I saw a lot of racism. I saw a lot of fear. And my community increasingly was mostly not white. So I felt like I was sort of in this liminal space where I could see very clearly the hypocrisy of these institutions from a different kind of vantage point. And I pretty quickly started trying to figure out what I could do about it.


DUSTY SANG: Did you ever think of going into politics?


ADAM MANSBACH: No, because I was really always kind of an artist by disposition, by inclination. I did a lot of ... I did a lot of political stuff in high school, like I got myself elected to all of these, in some cases, statewide offices. There was this whole infrastructure in Massachusetts, where each high school had two delegates to a body that was some sort of student body related to the Board of Education, like an advisory board. So I got myself elected to that. And then when you got to the big meeting, you realized that you could keep running, you could run for a regional position, and then you could run for a statewide position, then you could run for a leadership position in the statewide organization. And I went all the way to the top. I had one of the highest positions in that statewide organization, which meant I was never in school, my junior year, I was always in Quincy, Massachusetts, or at a retreat somewhere. But at a certain point, I began to realize that this organization was not just powerless, but ornamental and intended to make it seem as if students had a voice when they really didn't. And I kind of confronted the head of the Board of Education about why his kids were in private school. And then made my exit. But I got involved in all of that after leading a walkout from my high school in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. So I was on some political stuff for a minute there, but I got pretty disenchanted with it. Pretty quickly.


DUSTY SANG: Do you still have that anger?


ADAM MANSBACH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the world has gotten not significantly more just, and I feel if you're not angry, you're not really paying attention.


DUSTY SANG: You wrote a book called Angry Black White Boy which was a satire that, "spoke about violence, pop culture and American identity." What were you trying to accomplish with that book?

ADAM MANSBACH: I was trying to broach ... I felt like the conversation about race had come to a standstill, had stalled in my lifetime and become almost unapproachable. And really, that white people were unwilling to come to the table, and Angry Black White Boy is a satire, which attempts through the use of humor and absurdity to jumpstart that conversation. It's a kind of a postmodern race novel if you will. But it's also very squarely focused on white on whiteness. The protagonist is a white kid who develops a critique of whiteness based on listening to the music I just described, like the hip hop of the late '80s and early '90s. He's really angry and he channels that anger into robbing white people who get into the taxicab he drives in New York City. And he takes their wallets and their neckties and hits them with these little mini-sermon diatribes about the evils and the invisibility of whiteness and throws them out on the street. But there's this disconnect, because these people can't actually wrap their minds around the idea that a white cab driver is committing racially motivated crimes against other white people. They literally can't see it. So instead, the word goes out that some kind of militant radical black cab driver is robbing white people. And New York City is kind of thrown into a panic. White people won't to take cabs anymore, which means cabs will finally stop for black people. It's like the Montgomery Bus Boycott on acid. And eventually the protagonist gets arrested and uses this platform he has to launch something he calls the "Race Traitor Project." And he calls for a national day of apology based on something that Malcolm X says in his autobiography about how the nature of racism in this country is so persistent, so malicious, so historically grounded that really all white people should just walk up to black people and apologize, which is, of course, a tongue in cheek statement in Malcolm X's book. This kid is like, we're going to do it on Friday. So people flood into New York City from all over the country to participate in this kind of well intentioned, ill-considered and ultimately completely disastrous day of apology. And things go from there.


DUSTY SANG: You've written about the Jewish experience. Is your rage the same? If you look at the percentage of Jewish people in the United States, do you find any discrimination there? Or are you looking at the Jewish experience more from a satirical point of view?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, I mean, one of the things I think about a lot and have written about a lot is the process by which Jews in America have become white. Certainly, we were not always considered white. Certainly within my parents' lifetime, the Jews in this country were not considered white. And there's been a process. One of the insidious things about the way that whiteness operates is that it recruits when it needs to. So most of the quote-unquote ethnic white people who immigrated to this country were not seen as white until whiteness needed them to reinforce its numbers. Whether that's Jews or Slavic people or Italians or Irish, all these people were at one point not considered white. And there's kind of a devil's bargain that each of those peoples, including my own, the Jews, have made in pursuing and accepting the idea that we are in fact white. In the case of Jews in this country, one of the most interesting periods for me is looking at what happened between the kind of civil rights alliance of the '50s and '60s in which Jews were the most progressive, quote-unquote, white folks in the country, and very much on the forefront of that movement. And the way that that alliance fell apart by the '80s, and the specter of black antisemitism, as personified by people like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, was used as kind of an excuse for the Jewish pull back from that civil rights alliance. I've written about that. And think about it a lot because I lived through it as well.


DUSTY SANG: They say the demographics is destiny. What do you think about the current climate and temperature of race and demographics in America today? And where's it going?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, when I think about the demographics, I think about the fact that we'll be a majority-minority country, so to speak, by what 2040-2050. We're seeing a moment in which the Republican Party, and those who think along those lines, are raging against the dying of the light. They are no longer able to exert a hegemonic influence over the culture or the politics of this country. And it's reaching a crescendo. It's reaching the kind of violent death throes that hopefully will birth something more equitable in the future. But it's going to be very hard to get through that and get to that point, as we've been seeing, certainly for the last four years. So, that's what I think.


DUSTY SANG: How are your children reacting to this era versus how you reacted to the era when you were their age? When you look to the era when you were a teenager versus today, do you sense the same anger out there?


ADAM MANSBACH: My four-year-old and my two-year-old have yet to examine ... okay?


DUSTY SANG: Give them time.


ADAM MANSBACH: My 13-year-old, on the other hand, I'm happy to say is very tuned in and is developing exactly the kind of critical sensibilities that I would hope to see. I think it's a very different climate, I mean, the decline of public space and the rise of social media and the virtual world, it's impossible to overstate what a difference that makes. Anything that I needed to figure out or wanted to do, I had to do in a physical world. There was very little information available to me that I didn't have to physically seek out, as a young kid who was into hip hop. I had to physically seek out these records, or I had to figure out what the radio station that played this music was and go get blank tapes and make tapes and then trade these tapes with other people who had other tapes, and had cousins in New York who were taping KISS-FM, and it was an entirely different moment in terms of our physical relationship to space and what it meant to gather. But, I see my oldest daughter developing the same kind of critical sensibilities that I did, and I'm just trying to feed that, I'm trying to give her the fuel she needs. I come from a newspaper family, my father was the Front Page editor of the Boston Globe when I was a kid and until he retired a few years ago. So, the newspaper landed in the driveway every morning, and we all read it, and we all talked about it. And I'm trying to keep that alive. It's hard, because so much of the way that we acquire news is different now, even the difference between reading the newspaper online and reading a physical copy is so different because you don't stumble into things. If you're flipping through the New York Times or the Boston Globe, you're going to end up reading stories that you didn't necessarily seek out deliberately. But they pique your interest. So you pause and you read them, and you get a fuller picture of the world that you're living in than if you simply sort of scan the front page and click on the one article that interests you. Just the way that we consume is so different. And of course, the news sources, and I think this would ... with younger folks, both my daughter's friends, and the students of friends of mine, who teach kids that age, the media literacy required to navigate a landscape filled with questionable news and outright lies and propaganda ... it's incredibly difficult. And I'm realizing more and more than I take for granted my own ability to determine what is legitimate news and what is not. But there's no way in the world that a 12-year-old coming in with no advanced skills in that arena is going to be able to do that. So it's a battle, I think, just to get folks, younger people to the level of literacy where they can get good information.


DUSTY SANG: Let me circle back to your family for a little bit and your book. You mentioned your brother's depression. In other interviews, you talked about depression in your family. Can you tell me a little bit about that illness and how it affected your family?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, it's largely hereditary and my brother was certainly not the first person in the family to be depressed. I think I grew up very aware of the fact that various relatives were also depressed ... had also been depressed. My grandfather, on my mother's side, my grandmother, on my father's side, various uncles and aunts and cousins. And it was just sort of a fact of life. And if anything, I think it encouraged me to think of depression as something that people live with rather than something that could kill you. That is certainly a position that I've revised since losing my brother.


DUSTY SANG: Were there other members of the family that had mood disorders that had difficulty with their lives?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, yeah, I mean, absolutely.


DUSTY SANG: When did you first realize that there were issues in the family? And did it impact you at all? Or did you say, "Well, that was them, that's just who they were," and you carried on with your life.

Adam Mansbach

ADAM MANSBACH: I've been very lucky. I've never been depressed. I'm lucky enough to have a very kind of stable brain chemistry. So I don't remember ever having fear that that was going to be my future. I don't remember looking at my grandfather and saying that could be me. Or feeling like there were matters that were out of my control. Perhaps if I thought more deeply about it, that might have occurred to me, and it might have had a deleterious effect. But by the time I came around, I wasn't really witnessing a lot of depression that was so severe that it prevented people from being functional. There were sort of whispers and stories of a past in which that had been the case. Like my grandfather's brother, who I knew as a just a sweet and wonderful guy. I sort of vaguely knew that he had stopped working sometime in the '60s or '70s and had never gone back and that his wife had to like take over and make money. But I didn't think too much about it. I didn't ask too many questions about it. I certainly heard that he was depressed. But the evidence in front of me didn't suggest a guy who was despondent or unable to function. And the same with my grandfather, I knew that he had mood swings, I knew that there were problems sometimes between him and my grandmother, but it was all very, pretty deep. Not that it wasn't talked about, but that there wasn't over evidence of it. So I didn't ... I didn't really spend a lot of time thinking about it to be honest.


DUSTY SANG: Do you worry for your kids?


ADAM MANSBACH: Absolutely. I spend a lot of time thinking about what tools I can give them to mitigate against whatever they may or may not have inherited genetically. I spend a lot of time in the book sort of musing on that as well. And really, what it comes down to for me is trying to give them the language to say whatever they have to say, the authority to tell their stories, claim their stories, articulate whatever it is they're going through without fear of stigma, without fear of shame or embarrassment. Because to choose silence, could be a death sentence.


DUSTY SANG: You talk often about tradition and faith and ritual in your life. When did you first really come to understand the importance of those things?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, I mostly talk about it in the context of my own, my own ambiguity, and distanced from it. I'm afraid my family is made up of folks who I think feel very culturally Jewish and very connected to what that means. But nobody in my family, for generations, has willingly set foot in a synagogue. I wasn't bar mitzvah, but I'm still an elderly boy, in the eyes of the Jewish community. My father would probably rather undergo eye surgery than attend a bar mitzvah or a wedding that took place in the synagogue. So what I found when I needed ritual, my relationship to it was fraught at best. And that the parts of the Jewish tradition that I connect to ultimately are not the parts that have much at all to do with ritual. They have to do with inquiry and argument and humor and the art that comes from the margins of community. The Jewish artists and the Jewish artistic tradition that I look to and feel a part of are made up entirely of people who felt marginalized and ambiguous. Judaism is like the Hotel California of religions. You can check out, but you can never leave. So the margins where people feel dislocated and ambivalent and fucked up over the fact of what they're doing, that's where I live. And that's where everybody that I grew up reading and looking at –the Saul Bellows and the Philip Roths and the Lenny Bruces – that's what I know and understand, not the here's how we sit Shivah. Or here's how we say the Kaddish. Or here's how we mourn. Or here's what we do when someone dies. And here's how we bury people. And here's how we revealed a gravestone a year later. I didn't have all of that to fall back on. So I found myself spending a lot of time in contemplation of ritual from a place of not really having anything that felt natural to me. I'm wondering whether a ritual was a ritual if you were just making it up as you went along. Wondering if a ritual was meaningful if you were just learning it as you performed it. And my experiences with that were extremely varied. There were moments when certain Jewish rituals hit me very hard. You know a year ... a year ... that on the first anniversary of my brother's death, I had kind of a gathering in my house. And one of the guys I invited was an older Jewish guy and he took me aside and asked me if I wanted him to read the Kaddish. He had brought a prayer book. And I was like, yeah, do it. You know, let's see how that feels. Now, I don't know what this prayer is. I don't know what the Hebrew words mean. I don't understand them. But there's still a resonance to them. There's still a way in which those words have been used to mourn and remember millions of people for thousands of years and just hearing them brought me to tears. There are also examples of moments when rituals left me utterly cold and unmoved. So it's been a very mixed bag over the years.


DUSTY SANG: How have you psychologically reckoned with the ghost of your brother?


ADAM MANSBACH: I guess one of the things that's been difficult for me, I mean, you use the word "ghost," and I understand you're using it sort of, metaphorically, but his utter absence has been striking to me. I've lost other people and been able to feel their presence, in some sense, feel like there was a lingering of the spirit of that person. I've lost grandparents and had dreams about them. My brother, I don't know. And this is certainly something that is probably entirely in my head. But due to his decision to leave, it's felt like he left entirely, it felt like he was decisive and unreachable in a way that other people that I've lost don't feel, it's like, he feels farther away. It's like he removed himself more completely because of the deliberate nature of his death, if that makes any sense. Sure. So on one hand, there's that, on the other hand, suicide has the effect of utterly rewriting someone's life. So the things you thought you knew about them, you begin to doubt whether you did or not, because it goes backward through the entire life. So another way that I've sort of reckoned, as you say, with his ghost, is by having to kind of reconsider whether anything meant what I thought it meant, at the time that it happened. Assumptions I made about things we shared or things that I assumed he felt ways, I interpreted things that he did. They feel different now. And that's an insidious feeling. That's a difficult thing to deal with because it kind of calls so much into question. And shakes up your sense of having had a relationship, a connection with the person in question.


DUSTY SANG: How did the stigma of suicide play into this?


ADAM MANSBACH: That's a good question. I think that for me, it's largely been about my perception of other people's discomfort. Certainly, there is a stigma. But for me, I don't feel shame over it. I don't feel like it's something that I need to be quiet about. But I am very clear on the fact that it is. It's kind of ... it's an island in terms of grief. And in terms of people's reaction to it, there's no clear path there ... is very different than other forms of death and other forms of grief. A lot of the truisms and the platitudes that we offer people don't apply, right. Like, it's hard to grieve for someone who chose to end their life. And it's hard to celebrate the life of someone who felt that their life was so unworthy of celebrating that day ... decided to end it ... that cuts you off in certain ways. It's very isolating. I'm always very aware of the position that I put someone in when I tell them because it's not something we're used to hearing, it's not something we have a standard sort of stock response to, it tends to throw people off. And for a long time, I was very reticent to tell anyone, not in the sense of not wanting them to know, but in the sense of wanting everybody to know, but not wanting to be the one who actually told them because reading it back on people's faces was so troubling to me. The not knowing how to react, the not knowing what to say, the breaking of the news. So for a long time, I avoided it. I had, when he died, I had friends make a bunch of phone calls for me. So that by the time I got back home, I wasn't ... I live in California ... but when he died, I was on the East Coast. I was traveling for a straight year because of Go the Fuck to Sleep and being around all these new people, I wanted to make sure that by the time I got home, I didn't have to be the one bearing the news for anybody. And in that year of traveling and being around all these new people, I got really, really good at sort of seeing where a conversation was going to go before went there, knowing whether it was going to kind of pivot toward family and whether somebody was going to ask what to them was certainly a very innocuous basic in question like, "Do you have any siblings?" and figuring out a way to divert the conversation before it got there so that I didn't have to make a decision about what to say, because I never knew what to say, there were moments I had. There's a moment that I talked about in the book, for example. I'm doing a gig for Go the Fuck to Sleep in DC, and a publicity firm has hired me to come give a talk and have a dinner in my honor and all that. And it's run by a woman who I don't really know. But I know that, like her pitch to my publisher was that we went to the same high school, and she knew me, which meant that she probably knew my brother, I knew she was younger than me. And it's like, I spent the whole evening telling funny stories and being my public self, but knowing that at some point, she was going to ask me how my brother was, and this was only a month after he died. And when she finally asked me, I said, "He's great. He lives in Brookline with his wife." And I still remember doing that. I just, it seemed at the time, like the best alternative, that dinner with 25 people, that it was no place to be like he killed himself a month ago. And I didn't want to put her through that. And I didn't want to put me through that. So there I was.

DUSTY SANG: For a man of words and language, you chose silence?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, in that instance, I chose to tell a lie.


DUSTY SANG: So when you were having such success with your Go the Fuck to Sleep book, you were also in mourning for your brother?



DUSTY SANG: Are you still in mourning?


ADAM MANSBACH: I think in a sense, sure. I mean that changes shape over time. It changes intensity over time. And actually, the state of mind mourning and the state of my relationship to him, to his death, has actually changed profoundly since writing this book [I Had A Brother Once]. It took me eight years to be able to write the book. When I finally wrote it, I wrote it extremely fast. And it was really good for me. There was some catharsis involved. There was certainly some learning involved. It wasn't just like I sat down and all the stuff that I knew and thought poured out to me. I was actually making connections in the writing of that book that had never occurred to me before. Some of them, in retrospect, seem very obvious. But they were still revelatory to me. There were a lot of moments where I was like, "Holy shit," I never thought of this before until I sat down to write this. There was a lot of composing myself through the words that I wrote. And the hardest days of the year, for me, are always his birthday and the anniversary of his death. I started writing the book two years ago, a couple of days before he would have turned 40 on April 18. And as I said, I wrote the book extremely fast and was finished with it by the time of the anniversary of his death on May 28, and I was able to face that day in a very different way. Normally, I never know how to spend that day, whatever I do, ends up feeling very wrong, whether I'm with people or alone or doing something or doing nothing, I feel the day creeping up on me. And it's kind of agonizing to watch it approach and feel powerless and unable to figure out how to spend it. And the first time around, when I had the book in hand, it felt different. I felt like I could face it, I felt like I had done a certain amount of work. And that feeling has persisted, not to romanticize the book or the process or anything, but there really is a way in which it's been transformative for me in terms of my ability to feel some sense of, I don't want to say closure, but just a sense of having completed some kind of cycle. I had a lot of fear that I wasn't mourning correctly, that I was mourning in some incomplete way. And there was this fear that if you don't fully mourn, the grief goes away and gains strength and hides in a cave and does push-ups and drinks protein shakes and comes back stronger and bigger and unbeatable. And I remember it like someone put that in my head. In the early days of the grieving process. The idea that if you don't confront it, if you don't fully grieve, your fucked, you're even, down the line, you're in serious trouble. And that was ... that's not a helpful thing to tell somebody, it's kind of the opposite of anything I would never tell anybody, the idea that there even is one way. But I definitely internalized that. And worried that that was or would be the case and also worried that this would be like this mysterious black cloud hanging over my children and I didn't want it to be the skeleton key that unlocked me when they finally fully knew what happened and understood what happened. These were fears of mine. And now I've sort of put everything down on paper. And there's also a symmetry to the fact that ten years ago when Go the Fuck to Sleep was out, I was desperately afraid of talking about this, being put on a spot. Every interview I did, there was a small part of me that was afraid that I would be asked about it, which doesn't really make any sense. I'm out here promoting this surprise runaway fake, obscene children's book. Nobody wants to blindside me, nobody's wants to ... I'm not going to go into today's show and get blindsided with a question about my brother's suicide. But at the same time, everything about that shit was surreal. It doesn't make any sense that that book would do what it did or that there'd be a censorship battle in New Zealand or that Sam Jackson and Verner Hertzog and 15 other celebrities would be like doing readings of the book, none of it made sense. So it didn't seem that far-fetched. But there is a nice symmetry in my mind all these years later, being out here actively talking about it, wanting to talk about it. There's nothing to blindside anymore.


DUSTY SANG: So when did you decide to write I Had A Brother Once?


ADAM MANSBACH: Well, I never stopped thinking about writing about my brother. I mean, in the eight years that I didn't write about him, I was always thinking about how I might do it, talking to friends about what it might look like, different forms. You know, was it going to be a novel? Was it a screenplay? Was it some kind of long form nonfiction piece? To a certain extent, all the work I did in those eight years, and I did a lot of work, I've been fairly productive and prolific in that time. In some sense, it all felt to me like an avoidance of writing the book. But I continue to not write it. I continue to take on all these other projects. And you know, the architecture of the piece really stymied me, the idea, what would the scaffolding look like? How would I structure something like this. And I think a combination of sort of being emotionally ready and remembering this form, which is one that used to be a primary form of expression for me, but had not been for a long time. The first book I ever wrote was a book of poetry. And I've not written poetry really since. And it's so happened that about two years ago, my friend Marc Bamuthi Joseph asked me to write a piece for a performance, a week of performances that he was curating at SF Jazz in San Francisco. And it was going to be a bunch of writers performing with a live band, which put me in, in mind of poetry, because in that kind of setting you want the words to sing, a prose piece probably isn't going to work as well. So I wrote a poem and it happened to be an elegy for Phife from A Tribe Called Quest who had recently died. And I performed with the band. And I spent the week hanging out with a bunch of poets that I love, both as poets and as people, who happen to be just a lot of my friends involved in that week. And also I was a roadie for a jazz drummer, for Elvin Jones, for seven years. So I'm very comfortable in jazz clubs. And jazz musicians are very comforting and familiar to me and there's a continuity, like the jazz community is such that hanging out with a 25-year-old jazz musician is not that different from hanging out with an 80-year-old jazz musician. And I've been hanging out with jazz musicians and kicking it in green rooms and stuff like that since I was like 19, or really 14. So all of this kind of took me back to my roots and reacquainted me with how powerful poetry can be as a form when it's done at its best. And when that week ended, I came back and it was shortly before what would have been my brother's 40th birthday, and I just started writing. And all those ideas and concerns about scaffolding and structure kind of fell away because this form allowed me to move very quickly, from scene-to-scene, from thought-to-thought. You can sort of make a lot of connections through proximity alone in poetry, whereas in a novel or a screenplay, there's sort of much more structure and maneuvering that you have to do. And I really just locked myself in a room and wrote to the exclusion of all else, very intuitively. And in a zone, I really trusted myself to take it where I needed to take it. I had no idea where it was going, how long it was going to take me. I was elated to be doing it, and an emotional wreck because I was doing it. And kind of couldn't wait to get to the end, and also kind of never wanted to get to the end. And three weeks later, I had a manuscript.

Adam Mansbach

DUSTY SANG: You also did the recording of the audio version. You were the narrator. It sounds like either a rap or like the beat poets of the '50s reciting their work in Greenwich Village. It's really spectacular. Maybe you could read a passage from your book?


ADAM MANSBACH: Yeah, sure. I'll read a couple little sections here. I found out that my brother had died when I got a phone call from my father at about 12:30 in the morning. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred ... this is not me reading, this is just me sitting up there reading ...  ninety-nine times out of a hundred I would have been asleep in that hour. But I happened to be DJing at a nightclub in Philly. With a friend. I had been living in Philly for a couple years and bought all these records. And this was kind of a farewell party. A lot of my grad students were there from the program I was teaching in. And I ignored his first phone call, thought it must be some weird mistake or that he was just calling because some weird Go the Fuck to Sleep related thing had happened, because that was what was happening at the time. And I took a second call and he told me, so I'm gonna read from that moment.


"My father's sentence was unrecognizable, a cluster of words spinning in a void ..." [Mansbach continues reading from his memoir.]


DUSTY SANG: Thank you, it's really moving. Has your book helped others?


ADAM MANSBACH: I'm happy to say that from the emails that I've gotten, I think it has. It's interesting, because obviously, I'm sort of touring this book, this memoir, virtually. I'm not out in public. I'm not doing readings at bookstores or art spaces. I'm doing stuff over Zoom. So I'm not having those interpersonal conversations I normally would. I'm not in the situation that I might otherwise be, where I'm sitting at a table signing books, and somebody gets to the front line, hands me a book, and then tells me their story. Instead, it's happening in the form of emails, and I have gotten quite a few from folks who have read the book and have told me about their own losses, parents and siblings of folks who have died from suicide. I've heard from a lot of people from my past that I've not really been in touch with, people who knew my brother, people who I went to school with a long time ago, friends of my parents, all kinds of folks. And from what they're telling me anyway, the book is helpful. I mean, the most I could hope for really would be that it would give some language to things that folks felt but didn't know how to articulate or suggest some avenues. I mean, the book is in no way a guide to overcoming grief or anything like that. It's very resistant to drawing any conclusions at all. But it has been very gratifying to get the kind of responses that I've been getting.


DUSTY SANG: Have you thought as the pandemic comes to an end ... have you ever thought of doing a live performance to music?


ADAM MANSBACH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean that was my plan before the pandemic hit. The book got pushed back a couple of times in terms of when it got published because we didn't want to publish it before the election, because there was no oxygen. The pandemic as well. So I first started thinking about how to tour this book before the pandemic. And I absolutely envisioned reading the entire thing, which only takes about 60-70 minutes with some sparse kind of musical accompaniment and maybe some visual accompaniment like projections or something. I don't know if I would have done that in thirty cities, but I did very much want to perform it in its entirety at least a few times and build it out so that it felt like a full experience. And hopefully in the future, at some point, I'll be able to do that.


DUSTY SANG: I certainly hope so. I think it would be spectacular. We have unfortunately come to the end of our time tonight. Stay Thirsty Magazine wishes to thank the members of Clubhouse for being part of tonight's program and our special thanks goes to tonight's guest, Adam Mansbach, for letting us into his life and for being so frank and so forthright about it.  


Adam Mansbach



Dusty Sang is the Publisher of Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.