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Bernstein On Love and Loving Rachel

Professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon, Jane Bernstein is the author of three non-fiction works about her daughter, Rachel. She has also published two novels and has work in The New York Times Magazine, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, amongst other publications. Bernstein gave a reading in JRC 101, this past Thrusday.

What motivated you to start writing about Rachel?
It was an accident. I was writing fiction and my agent suggested that I do it. At that point, memoir was not a genre as it is today. I just, at some point, started thinking that I had something to say and that I would try to work from life rather than inventing things. It was a stretch for me. I had not really written non-fiction. I wasn’t really interested in it. So it was a stretch for me to train myself to write how a fiction writer would write, except that it would be on real events. Once I’d trained myself to do it, it opened something in me and I became really interested in the idea of using myself and my life as a way of writing about something that was larger than myself or my life.

One of the summaries I found for Rachel in the World began with the question: What happens when love is no longer enough? Do you think love can be enough?
No. It never is.
Yeah. It’s one of the sad lessons of life. You need food. You need housing. And that’s at a basic level. Let’s go a little bit further. I’m not even talking about disabled versus nondisabled. But you need … meaningful activity. You need friends. You need a community.

But can’t those things be characterized by love?
No. If you … totally fall in love with somebody and you want to spend the rest of your life with that person, and neither of you have employment or means of money coming in … how will you do that? And then if you have no community or friends.

But couldn’t friends and community be a product of love?
Yeah, but here’s an example: Did your parents push you to do well in school?

Yeah, I would say so.
See, well that’s the difference. You probably didn’t feel it as love, but think about the parents who say “I love my kids. I let them do whatever they want,” and a parent who says, “I love my kids, but I have to make sure they can have a life when they’re not living with me.” So I have to do things that [Rachel] doesn’t necessarily like, I have to push her, I have to do this and this and this. You can say that love is underneath it. But just saying, “I love my child,” is never enough under any circumstances. And with a child with disabilities, there’s so much that’s necessary to help your son or daughter have a meaningful life that just the fact that you love your kid is not currency that’s valuable. You have to know how to work the system, find appropriate education. I mean, it’s the same thing as raising any kid. It’s work. So you can say that your parents do these things because they love you and want the best for you, but it’s more than that. It’s more than that. It’s the sense of responsibility, and the sense of looking at your kids as having potential.

How does Rachel make you rethink people?
Oh, that’s a fabulous question. That’s probably the biggest and most positive change for me. That my sense of what it is to have a meaningful life, to be on this earth, is so different from what it had been. I think before Rachel, I had this equation of productivity equals life. It was a very narrow view of what it means to be alive. But now, after being in her world, … I just think there’s a lot of ways of being on this earth. Those of us who can have a responsibility to help others who don’t have the means to make their own lives, to make their own happiness, necessarily, to help them find it. I think Rachel’s life is just as valuable as mine.

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