Part One of a Two Part Interview with Dr. Kenneth Weene: Fran Lewis and Irene Brodsky Interviewers

Fran Lewis and Irene Brodsky’s Interview with author Kenneth Weene

Part One of Our Two Part Interview with Dr. Kenneth Weene

Kenneth will be the featured author on a special edition of Book Discussion on Tuesday June 29th at 4 P.M. Eastern. Author Irene Brodsky will be joining me for that day for this important discussion. We will discuss Kenneth’s outstanding and eye opening novel: Memoirs From The Asylum. He will answer questions about his career, his book and his experiences working in this type of facility.

What made you decide to write this book? I realize that many of the situations you describe are based on real life incidents you have experienced in the field of mental health. Which one or ones are the most heart wrenching?

I’m never sure how I decide on a specific novel. They come to me from the muses; that’s the best answer I offer. Of course, as I mention in my author’s note, Memoirs is at least in part an attempt to deal with my own cousin’s death. His death effected me in some powerful and dreadful ways, and I have for many years wanted to give it some meaning.

The story of Jamul is perhaps the most heart wrenching. It is based in part on a youngster whom I knew when working in a state hospital; his parents had in fact used the system to rid themselves of the responsibility of raising him. I was, happily, part of a group who managed to reunite him with his grandparents and get him out of the hospital. It is also in part based on a teenager with whom I worked in my private practice. He was eventually hospitalized and murdered by two of his fellow adolescent patients – a not so happy outcome.

If you witnessed a patient being abused or mistreated how did you react or what were you able to do?

In many ways the hospital is abusive by its very existence. I was an intern for one year. I don’t know that I accomplished much to stop abuse, but I did help a few people who probably would otherwise have been kept in the hospital.

When did you decide to work in that field and why did you leave?

In my family I was the designated “care-giver”, the one who was responsible for understanding the emotional issues of others, particularly my mother. I was also expected to go into a profession. Coming from a Jewish-American family, that was the normal expectation – that or becoming an engineer. So psychology was the natural outcome. I liked it. I enjoyed helping people. But time passes and weariness sets in. I guess I just burned out. Perhaps it was partly because I cared too much.

Having always loved reading and writing, my migration into writing fiction seems pretty obvious.

When did you decide to become an author? What other areas are you going to tackle in your writing?

I’m not sure one decides to become an author. I think one day one discovers that writing is like breathing, that you have no choice but write. I write fiction; it isn’t my goal to deal with issues as much as to tell stories. However, to have bite and meaning a story usually has to be about something. My first novel, Widow’s Walk, was about the conflict between religion and living fully. It was also about war, quadriplegia, abuse of women, and the nature of love. (Just a few little topics.)

Memoirs From the Asylum is about mental health, but more importantly it is about human freedom. It is also a meditation on the nature of fate. (Again small topics.)

My next novel, which is tentatively titled Times to Try the Soul of Man, is a conspiracy novel that explores the conflict between monied interests and the community. It also is about personal growth, a coming of age novel, that explores the role of sexuality.

How does this book differ from Widow’s Walk?

Widow’s Walk is written in the third person. Memoirs From the Asylum is a mix of first and third person. Writing in the first person makes entirely different demands on the writer, for one thing you can know emotions but you cannot know future. It means that the writing has to have a specific and consistent voice, be dedicated to the person telling the story. In many ways that makes the writing more demanding and also allowing of greater artistry.

Beyond the difference in writing, the books are obviously totally different in content and topic. I certainly want readers to say of each book, “Wow, what good writing. I wonder what else Weene has written.” I don’t want anybody ever saying, “I’ve read one of Weene’s books so there’s no reason to read another.”

What would you tell anyone that was going to place a person in this type of facility?

Pray for them. Visit often. Don’t waste money by bringing them things you expect them to keep and enjoy; rather bring small and immediate pleasures. Try to make friends with one or more of the staff who might keep an eye out.

Which character in Memoirs From the Asylum is the most compelling?

I think that will depend on the reader. I have tried to create a full panoply of characters, each of whom having a unique personality and history. For me, I was totally taken by the world created by Marilyn. It constantly surprised and challenged me. For the next person? I don’t know.

How close to home was Dr. Abrose?

Not at all. He is nothing like me except for going to boarding school. I put the boarding school in not because it was like me but because I wanted to subtly make the point that there are other asylums out there, not just psychiatric hospitals.

Did you find working in this field fulfilling? Why?

Sometimes I made a difference. Sometimes peoples’ lives were better. In Widow’s Walk the nurse’s aide, Jem, says something that motivates Sean to go for rehabilitative treatment and that allows him to have a full life instead of the life of an invalid, a person without capacity. I had a similar role in a family’s life; it was certainly one of the high points of my professional life. The man involved came back from physical rehab married and employed. He and his wife had children and a normal life. That’s the kind of thing that matters.

What made you change careers and where is your main focus?

I burned out, too long, too hard, too many demands, and way too much caring. Today I still do some counseling. I do it in my capacity as a minister – pastoral counseling. But mostly I write. I write fiction, novels and short stories; and I write poetry. My focus is on letting out the ideas within me.

Did you ever work in any other type of health care facility?

I worked in a county mental health office and a pastoral care agency, but most of my mental health career was spent in private practice.

What advice would you give an author who decided to write a non-fiction book? How much research was involved in writing Memoirs From the Asylum?

First, Memoirs is fiction. There was minimal research involved because I was drawing on my personal knowledge. The writing of non-fiction is an entirely different process. In general I try to keep the amount of research necessary for a book to a minimum because it is too easy to get intellectualized and lose the quality of writing. When I do need to do research, I try to get a sense of not just facts about. Of course, there are always little details that a writer might need to fact check, but that is just detail work, not real research.