Author Q&A:
Michele Kirsch

Clean (Short Books, £12.99)

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When she leaves home in New York to go to college in Boston in the the 1970s, Michele Kirsch – an anxious 19 year old with a growing Valium dependency – takes on cleaning jobs to help make ends meet. This funny and painful memoir proceeds from there through her career as a journalist, life as an addict, wife and mother in London, a return to cleaning and, finally, coming out the other side of rehab.

When you were cleaning houses in Boston, did you ever imagine cleaning houses would much later be a way to get your life back on track?
I cleaned often great big, almost mansion-style houses in fancy neighbourhoods for people who had a lot of money but very little time. The kind of houses where there are rooms only used for parties, houses with pantries for the butler, you know. Marble floors with special imported from Italy marble floor cleaning potions to be used with electric marble floor cleaners which vibrated through my whole body. Not sexually like.

I got these jobs because I undercut all the other house cleaners by charging way less money than they did. I’m not saying it was right, but I got the gigs and they were generally pretty easy: dusting, polishing, Hoovering, washing the floors. I’d listen to the radio as I cleaned or, if they had what I considered good taste in music, I’d play their records. I listened to the whole of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy at a very ritzy house in Boston. I always thought this is just a job I am doing right now, while I am a student. Eventually I’ll get a great job and be able to live in a house like the ones I’m cleaning, and I will have a cleaner and have the best records for them to listen to while they clean, because I know how boring it is to clean without music and I am considerate like that.

You write that one of the reasons you like to clean is because you “crave the memorabilia of others, for it tells a story you don’t really know”. What do those stories mean to you?
When I started cleaning again many years later, in London, generally in much smaller flats, often cramped, shared accommodation where everyone was too busy to stick to a cleaning rota, I was living on my own. I had left my family because I had developed an increasing drug and alcohol dependency, which turned me into a nightmare to live with. Eventually, when I was able to come off of the drugs and alcohol that were not only destroying my life but the lives of my family and closest friends, I needed to edge my way back into functioning life as gently as possible. Cleaning was second nature to me, because I was a wife and mother, but that is not to say I was particularly good at it. I was very good at observing the objects I had to lift to clean under, or behind. These things that people have on display: photos, holiday memorabilia, family hand-me-downs, those bloody Keep Calm and Carry on mugs, posters, etc – all of those things spoke to me. Not literally – that would be nuts – but they all told me a story, a short story, about the lives and values and artistic preferences of the people I was cleaning for.

Some flats I felt more at home in than others. One of my favourites was for a jazz singer. She freelanced so she was there a lot when I cleaned, and I would hear her practising her scales and scats and I could see she was going to go somewhere, be really successful. As far as I am aware she does make a living from her band, so in that case it was less of objects imbued with memory, more with sound.

Several years after my father was killed in a train crash, my mother took up opera lessons and she was very good. So the sound of practising scales, as my mum did, was very comforting to me. The memorabilia, the shit that parents collect for their kids, this was very familiar to me as I had been a mother of young children, once, and I got all that shit as well, the sticker books, the comics, the toys, the Legos you always tread on in the middle of the night when they are having nightmares and you are effing and blinding at the pain in your foot while trying to comfort your child. That was my life too, once. Now I was cleaning up the houses of people leading similar family lives, only they didn’t have a drug addict mum.

You were prescribed Valium at an early age and your mother took tranquillisers too after your father’s death. Was grief too easily medicated then?
Grief came way too easily and dramatically to me. My whole family (I mean the family I was born into, not the one I raised) was on one thing or another to cope with the death of my father, though my sister didn’t get into that stuff until she was a bit older. I was very grief stricken and not really functioning, eating or sleeping. This is when I was six. They gave me something, not sure what, but by the time I was in my teens I was on benzos, which were extremely popular in the early 1970s in America, mother’s little helpers, and it was very normal to take them.

No one judged you. They were not thought to be addictive. They thought this until people tried to come off them and experienced horrific side-effects, worse, I am told, than heroin withdrawal, and I know this because I know many people who have come off both and said benzos were harder.

I do not resent the medical profession as they thought it was best practice at the time. It was a miracle drug. It got people who could not function to function. I was severely school-phobic and agoraphobic but when I took Valium I was fine. Here’s something funny. I could not actually swallow a pill until my twenties. I just could not let the pill slide down past that little hanging down thing that triggers the gag reflex, so I had to crush them up in blackcurrant jam. I was a pill popper who could not actually take pills. By the time I was properly addicted I could swallow two or three with no water at all. I’m not bragging or anything.

You had a love of reading and became an intern on an NY arts mag in an unusual way. How did that come about and was Buzzy right to persuade you that you should be doing something more noble like teaching instead?
As it says it in the book, I got my internship on a newspaper at 17, when I had just gone in there to ask where I could buy the paper closer to where I lived. They mistook me for an intern and I played along with it, to see what would happen. I fell in love with writing and all things to do with writing and the whole lifestyle. My mentor was this guy called Buzzy. I think it was the Reagan years, maybe Ford, it was definitely the Republicans and they had just won another term and when Buzzy found out I had a prescription for Valium he told me I should stockpile them, for four years of Republicans. I did my best.

We had so much fun at that newspaper. I could not believe people got paid to do this. But Buzzy was a poet, not a journalist, and he did not hold journalism in high regard. He thought it was a bit trashy. So when I went up to college in Boston, I started on a journalism course but had to drop out as my anxiety was so bad. When I was put on more drugs, I went back to school but to be a teacher instead. I thought even if I got anxious I could hide it better from kids than adults. That was totally wrong. Kids pick up on it before you do. Buzzy though was happy I had chosen this career path. He felt it was a noble profession and journalism was a bit scummy. In the end, when I moved to the UK, I decided to join the scum again and was a journalist for nearly 30 years.

Leaving your family must have been an incredibly difficult decision. Do you think it was for the best?
Leaving my family was literally and metaphorically a no-brainer. I was unable to contribute anything worthwhile to the family and the drugs I had been taking started to have a paradoxical intention, which meant that instead of calming me down, they revved me up to be nasty, impatient, irrational, shouty – all bad, hard to live with things. And when I was not behaving badly, I was passed out. It was very unhealthy for my family. My plan was to leave for a little while, to get clean by myself. That did not work , and by the time I did get clean, something like a year later, too much damage had been done. But I have very good relationships with my children and my ex-husband now. We are all friends and I see my kids frequently. They both have keys to my flat and come whenever. It’s all good.

Were you able to write in your worst years and, if not, what was it like to resume again?
I was always able to write, even at the worst of my addiction when I was drinking heavily on top of the drugs. I was living in a tiny bedsit with no wifi or computer so I used to go to an internet shop every day and write. I wrote a very early, very bad, very unfinished version of the book that eventually got published. But I still wrote. I would put on the headphones they had in the shop and listen to old Jackson Five songs, which would rev up my memory, and then start to write about my childhood. I would like to say it was therapeutic, but I was still taking drugs and drinking so it could not have been that therapeutic. It was just something to do to kill the day. The days go by awful slowly when you are not working, not seeing your family or friends and just sort of live from one pill to the next. I don’t mean this in a self-pitying way. I take full responsibility for my actions, which were selfish and stupid. I did, however, make friends with the guy who ran the internet shop. He used to call me Michelle Obama because I still had or have a trace of an American accent. That was our little in-joke.

There have been relapses along the way but the book ends on an optimistic note. Tell us something of your life now.
My life now is unrecognisable to how it was when I was using. I have great relationships with my children, which is the biggest gift of recovery for me. Sadly we could not rescue our marriage but my ex and I are good friends and I am still very lucky to have all my old friends. I have an amazing job at a centre that supports people living with the effects of brain injury. It is a real eye opener and I learn something new every day. The centre is a happy place and it feels like a special club I’ve been invited to join. It’s hard to explain. I’ve done so many different jobs but by far this is the best and happiest place I have ever worked. I learn a lot from the people who come to the centre. They have overcome the most awful circumstances and are trying to make the best of their lives, despite living with some very debilitating conditions from their injuries. Every day is a gift.

And yeah, the book is just the icing on the cake. I was extremely lucky to get a publisher who believed enough in an earlier version of the book to see it through several rewrites until it became something we felt people would really want to read. My daughter sent me a photo of it in WH Smiths, and I got such a kick out of that, cos that is where I used to go as a kid to buy comics and sweets. Now I have a book in a proper bookshop. It’s all exciting and I have no notion of what might happen next, but I know I have to keep writing, and in order to write well, I have to stay clean. I have far more important reasons to stay clean, but it’s nice to know that I didn’t fry my brain permanently and can still string words together, words that people seem to like.

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