The anguishing memoir he had to write
After Jayson Greene lost his daughter in an accident, the mourning process and the creative process were intertwined.
By Kara Baskin
In May 2015, two-year-old Greta Greene was sitting on a Manhattan bench with her grandmother, chattering about a play. Moments later, a piece of windowsill plummeted from eight stories above. She was gone.
What do you do when your toddler is taken from Earth by a brick boulder that drops from the sky? Jayson Greene, then a senior editor at music magazine Pitchfork, began writing immediately. He didn’t think that his grief would become a book, the new and critically lauded “Once More We Saw Stars.” He just knew that he needed words.
Is it possible for the mourning process and the creative process to coexist? Is it possible to promote a book — talk to interviewers, formulate articulate sentences — about the goriest, most anguishing trauma a parent could ever endure?
Yes, says Greene.
“It’s harder to not talk about Greta. She was my daughter, and she died. When do parents of dead children get to talk about them? Think about how much parents of living children get to talk about them. It is their single favorite subject. It gives them physical joy. She is still my daughter. I’m very lucky; people ask me about her all the time. But for the overwhelming majority, nobody speaks about that child to them almost ever again,” he says.
Greene began writing almost as soon as Greta died — a near-primal compulsion to chronicle the pain.
“The accident happened on May 17, 2015. We rushed to the hospital and got her fatal prognosis that day. On May 18, we had her declared legally brain dead. We stayed by her bedside,” he says. “The 19th, they delivered her to surgery and we said goodbye. On the 21st, I began writing down thoughts. I wrote every single day, multiple paragraphs at a time. I was keeping this journal, and it felt like survival. It was a survival act.”
“It’s harder to not talk about Greta. She was my daughter, and she died. When do parents of dead children get to talk about them? Think about how much parents of living children get to talk about them.”
Sometimes he recorded his thoughts using voice memos. Other times he wrote on the subway, lulled by the meditative casing of a capsule in motion.
“Writing is a compulsion, a tugging no matter what, and grief or trauma was leading me onto it,” he says. “I think I felt an immediate urge to move through grief, even in deep grief. It might sound overly cerebral to talk about something so ghastly in such clinical or intellectual terms, but I had this almost inhuman pull. I say inhuman because it felt like it was activating inside me alongside my softer emotions: crying, anger, sadness. I had this crazy strong pull to push through, and that meant writing. The act of writing felt like pushing.”
Greene’s wife, Stacy, later got pregnant with their son, Harrison. Around this time, the idea of a memoir began to take shape. He’d accumulated 40,000 words while continuing to work at Pitchfork, slogging through normal life as best he could.
“Emotion and craft were having a secret handshake in my mind. The therapeutic mingles with aesthetic language for me. Metaphorically, the act of telling your story properly is the act of therapy,” he says.
He contacted a friend at The New York Times Magazine, saying that he wanted to write a book but hoped to publish an essay about the experience first. The Times ran it; book editors clamored immediately.
Now, Greene says that talking about the book — and, therefore, Greta — is better than not talking. When he discusses the memoir, he has moments of peace, especially when others say that his story helped them.
“When people reach out about the book, I’m reminded that I wrote it for her. It’s a reminder of the love that made that book exist for me,” Greene says. “Grief comes in waves. It’s a trite formulation, but people stumbled upon it because there’s an element of truth. Denial comes in waves. Bargaining comes in waves. Acceptance. Anger comes in blinding waves. There are days I wake up so angry at the universe I can’t believe anything is allowed to exist…Anyone who has to make peace with their anger after trauma comes to a sort of detente with it. It doesn’t feel good to feel the anger, but ignoring it is worse.”