Book Club: Q&A with Mirinda Kossoff
By Hannah Larrew
“I don’t have to do this, I don’t have to please other people.” — Mirinda Kossoff
This idea sits at the center of Mirinda Kossoff’s "The Rope of Life," a deeply moving memoir detailing her upbringing within a Southern Baptist community in a small southern town. Kossoff’s story describes the complicated relationship she had with her family throughout her past, with one of the main events being her Jewish-turned Southern Baptist father’s struggle with mental health, later committing suicide. It also explores social justice, racism, antisemitism, and sexism in the 1950s and 60s.
Her story encourages the exploration of boundaries, growth, getting to the other side of pain, and ultimately how we become who we are. I have always been drawn to ones that take you deep into the taverns of the human heart and show you where we grow. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been trying my best to get my hands on as many books like this as possible. I wanted to read literature that spoke to our relationships with identity and mental health — two things that I think most of us struggle with at some point in our lives, especially as we navigate this strange and scary time. This book does exactly that.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with the author personally over Zoom and pick her brain about mental health, how to navigate confusing familial relationships, and writing in general.
HL: "The Rope of Life" takes a deep dive into several important, but difficult themes. Can you describe the range of emotion you felt while writing your story?
MK: Oh, sometimes very sad and emotional. The book centers on my family, so the stories are very close to me. I was working with a high-level writing group at the time, and they wanted me to go deeper emotionally, write more scenes and include more dialogue. So, I meditated, imagining myself in the actual scene in order to remember and write it. Initially, I was skeptical, but this worked for me and writing was actually very therapeutic.
HL: You have a complicated relationship with your father, which you describe in the book. Were you aware at the time that your relationship with him could be considered psychologically abusive?
MK: No, not at the time. Abuse wasn’t even in our vocabulary then. It wasn’t until writing this book and dredging up memories that I was able to see the thread of dysfunction. My father minimizing things, and my mother being upset with me because I liked being around my Jewish grandfather. Writing helped me put together a lot of things that affected me and contributed to my depression.
HL: Can you describe your parents’ relationship with faith and the impact it had on you?
MK: My father was a Jew from New York who converted to Southern Baptist, like my mother. I knew that my parents wanted me to make a profession of faith. They were really into this way of life and did whatever they could to turn me into the same kind of person. My logical mind was thinking this was kind of weird — someone had to die for me two-thousand years ago so that I could go to heaven. It tugged at my emotions. The thought of somebody dying for me. It brought me to an emotional place. God would love me if I accepted Him. It was the kind of love I was looking for from my parents. It was a way to please my parents. But it never sat well with me. It’s strange, while you’re growing up, you still have a foot in both doors. You don’t really get into your becoming until you’ve put your family into a compartment. I still wanted them to love me, it was never very obvious the way they loved me. But I also wanted to be my own person.
HL: Your parents exhibit discriminatory views, as you describe in "The Rope of Life." Did you ever feel like their views influenced yours to see things the same way?
MK: No! It only boosted my sense that I’d caught things that were wrong. These views aren’t even Christian, if you take the teachings of Jesus literally. He wouldn’t have discriminated.
"Her story encourages the exploration of boundaries, growth, getting to the other side of pain, and ultimately how we become who we are." — Hannah Larrew
HL: Do you think your father knew who he was?
MK: No, he completely lacked introspection. He would enumerate, I felt and thought this often. He kept everything at the surface level.
HL: You said that part of the reason you wrote this book was to get to know him more. Do you feel like you do?
MK: Not really. I think I understand that I’ll never truly know him now, though. And that isn’t my fault. He didn’t let anybody in. Including my mother. It took me years of therapy to reach this point of understanding. I needed therapy to figure out how I felt.
HL: Tell me about your relationship with your name growing up and how it affected your sense of identity. In the book, you share that you went by Jean for the earlier part of your life. Now, you are known by Mirinda. Is there a Jean and is there a Mirinda?
MK: My first name, Mirinda, was the name of my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother. My parents decided to call me by my middle name, Jean. There were plenty of Jeans growing up, the name blended in. When I turned 40, I had a mid-life crisis. I was depressed and lonely. I met with Tomiko Omichi Smith, a Japanese intuitive who was in Durham, NC at the time. She had me write my name, Mirinda Jean Kossoff, on a piece of paper. She took it in her hands and held it. She said, “Mirinda is the magical child, Jean is the dutiful daughter.” It was a pivotal moment for me. I realized that the magical part of myself was repressed while I was growing up. I wanted to reclaim that part of myself, and the first step seemed to be reclaiming my first name. I went to a writers’ camp in little Switzerland and said to myself, ‘nobody knows me here. I’m going to introduce myself as Mirinda instead of Jean.’ Since then, Jean has faded away. I realized throughout the process of choosing which name I wanted to go by, ‘I don’t have to do this, I don’t have to please other people. I can choose what I want to be called.’
HL: When it comes to writing nonfiction about your own past, how do you begin?
MK: For me, I started with making a list, writing down the memories that stuck with me. The memories that haunted and tormented me. Events, things that my parents said or did. For some psychological reason, particular moments have hung on to my mind. I wrote these more pivotal, emotional events in the early part of my life that I really believe to have played a huge role in my development as a person. Ultimately, I asked myself: what’s really going on? That’s how you begin, you remove the layers.
HL: One last question about writing in general. Where do you write?
MK: I sit down at my desktop computer every morning in my office and write! Since the release of The Rope of Life, I’ve taken to writing pages in the morning. I access memories as I’m writing in real-time. I set my iPhone timer and write. I tell my husband it’s best to leave me alone — if I’m doing my morning pages, don’t speak to me!
About the Author
Mirinda Kossoffhas been a chameleon in her work life — from medical social worker, assistant managing editor The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, communications director in academia and nonprofits, freelancer, to metalsmith and jewelry designer. Her essays and creative writing have been passions she pursued alongside her day jobs. She penned a weekly column for a newspaper, was an essayist/commentator on NC public radio, and taught essay writing at Duke University continuing studies. She has written for newspapers and national magazines. The Rope of Life is her first book.
"The Rope of Life"was published byLystra Booksand is available to order from online retailers or from your favorite indie bookstore. Charleston, this means fromBlue Bicycle BooksorBuxton Books!Kossoff will be celebrating the book's launch with a virtual event hosted byFRANK Galleryin Chapel Hill on Sunday, February 21. Join the event by heading toFRANK’s Facebook pageon 2/21 at 2 p.m.!