Erin Keane talks ‘Runaway’
At a greasy spoon in Louisville, Erin Keane dissects a phrase she holds in particular contempt: It was a different time. She spits it out over the clatter of dishes and shouted orders coming from the nearby kitchen, rolling her expressive eyes for good measure. The weaselly wording, she believes, offers a “get-out-of-problematic-jail free card” to people and to our culture-at-large in the face of the #MeToo movement.
She moves easily between contemporary examples and the notorious case—and subsequent cancellation—of recently deceased Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra Gail Brown in 1957 when he was twenty-two. Already, Keane points out, Lewis’s obituary is being smoothed over, just as it was when “hottie Dennis Quaid” and “Winona Ryder, the coolest girl in the world” starred in the airbrushed 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire. “At what point in time are we not living in a different time?” she asks. “We’re always living in someone’s past.”
This observation, and the need for a deeper, serious reckoning with our treatment of young girls and women, is at the heart of Keane’s debut nonfiction book Runaway: Notes on the Myths that Made Me. As editor in chief of Salon and an influential culture writer in her own right, Keane has crafted her own brand of incisive, pithy commentary on topics including film and television, the intersection of cocktails and self-care—her Fascinator is particularly good—the wholesome sex appeal of Kentucky’s Democratic governor and, more recently, a passionate ode to and defense of Standard Time. So it makes sense that Runaway, a linked essay collection, combines cultural criticism and intrepid journalism with the complicated history of Keane’s own family.
In resonant, probing prose, she recounts how her mother left her Kansas home at thirteen in 1970 to spend the next few years as a runaway, hitchhiking across the country, living on the road and in communes. Two years later, when she was only fifteen but claimed to be in her twenties, she met and married Keane’s father, who was thirty-six.
Keane’s father died when Keane was five, and the stories that sprang up in the wake of his death hovered over her childhood and adolescence. While Runaway untangles many of those myths, Keane’s observant eye, trained from years as a poet, focuses on her mother, a dynamic character who refuses to classify herself as a victim. What results is an interrogation of how Keane herself looks at her family and the world. She writes, “I keep circling back to the stories that should have been told about girls and women but were instead given over to men, and my own complicity in perpetuating these narrative imbalances and injustices.”
After receiving praise from the Los Angeles Times (“a deeply felt family memoir that also functions as an exegesis of our social texts”) and other publications, Runaway was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2022.
As her grilled cheese and fries grew increasingly cold, Keane—a previous contributor to Appalachian Review—spoke with the magazine’s editor Jason Kyle Howard about the creative and emotional journey she followed in writing Runaway, how things have changed—or not—for young girls in our culture and how the book might contribute to our current conversation about the #MeToo movement.
JASON KYLE HOWARD: The book opens with your focus on [Woody Allen’s 1978 movie] Manhattan and deconstructing that film. Could you talk about the impetus for that? When [did] you [know] this would become a book?
ERIN KEANE: 2015 was when I sort of wrote the very first…little short commentary reflecting on Manhattan in light of Mariel Hemingway’s memoir [Out Came the Sun] and the anecdote that she tells…about Woody Allen afterwards [how he attempted to seduce her as a teenager].
And going back to that movie—I think there’s sometimes a tendency, especially online, when we’re writing these sort of quick, cultural-pegged commentaries to kind of come in with the argument angle, with the opinion, the commentary on it, from a point of view of Well, any right-thinking person would know that this was problematic, and I have always known that, like I was born knowing that this is wrong. It comes from [the feeling that] you have to argue kind of forcefully to cut through the noise online, and you have to make your points really fast because people don’t give you a lot of time.
But from that I think we lose the space to talk about how we learn and how we evolve. And I think when we lose the space to talk about that we also potentially lose bringing readers along who might not have already arrived at that same conclusion of This is a problem and I’m going to tell you why. They might still be over here going like, Wait a second, I thought we all knew these were good movies, that’s what I’ve always been told.
So I just sort of felt like I couldn’t not hold myself accountable [because] I was somebody who loved this movie and cited it and quoted from it and used it as a frame of reference for a lot of other cultural writing that I had done, and I had moved away from that because I just simply lost a taste for his work in light of [his daughter Dylan Farrow’s] allegations [of sexual abuse] being sort of resurfaced. And I was able to read them as an adult and hear her adult voice [now and] not the sort of way-back time to the 90s when all of that stuff was playing out for the first time.
JKH: Do you think that that approach reaches a different segment or has the potential to reach a different segment of readers? I’m so taken with that opening and how you constructed it, and your honesty, accountability, and vulnerability. You’re functioning almost as a stand-in for people in the culture who might’ve been on the fence or in this moment of Well, yeah, I’ve heard this, but let’s go see the film.
EK: Right. There are a lot of ways that you could have dismissed the notion that maybe these films are not as harmless as they had been positioned to be: Well this is art over here, and then there’s gossip over here, or There’s the art and the artist, and we don’t have to confuse them. And in reading deeper about [this]— especially from women critics [writing] contemporaneously during the 90s when…[Allen] basically managed to avoid things falling apart for him personally and professionally but really only through what I’ve come to understand is an enormous amount of privilege and an enormous amount of power that is exerted on the press and on public opinion.
But am I trying to function as a stand-in? I don’t know about that but I do feel that it wasn’t going to serve anybody for me to come in being like so, Woody Allen movies are trash and everyone knows that. Because I wanted to leave space for people to come in and say like Look, I was also very taken, and also it’s just a way to avoid being called out for being a hypocrite too—like, This you? ‘Cause I can’t avoid the writing I’ve done, this wasn’t just—
JKH: [Here are the] receipts!
EK: Exactly. There’s no way to avoid it so you might as well just state the embarrassing truth yourself which is something we do in nonfiction writing. When we’re writing truthfully about ourselves, we make ourselves vulnerable in order to gain the trust of the reader also.
JKH: And to be invitational…
EK: Because I think also there is sometimes the tendency—and these are the dismissive tendencies, right? It was a different time. And people love to say that because it absolves literally everyone from accountability. But we know—students of history know, people who have just been alive a little while in the world know—that even during that quote-unquote different time there have always been the dissenting voices who have pointed out when things are actually morally wrong, to use a sort of word that I feel like I probably would’ve chafed against in the 90s because it would’ve felt like a morality that was telling me that I was wrong.
But…some things just violate the bonds of humanity and throughout history there have always been people to sort of say that. And that’s something that I tried to do in the book overall was to show, to really dismantle the idea of It was a different time.
I feel like that’s something that lets the people involved in the past story off the hook, but it also I think functions as this sort of get-out-of-problematic-jail free card for all of us, because at what point in time are we not living in a different time? We’re always living in someone’s past. So I think instead we can say there was a different dominant culture at work. Maybe there was a different cultural agreement because the cultural gatekeepers were cisgender straight white men—Christian men for the most part, but not exclusively—and they dictated what was considered acceptable by them and therefore what people who wanted to get along within the systems that they perpetuated had to then go agree with…
People don’t want to have to reckon with how the power imbalance has always benefitted men over girls, because a lot of times it is your own—like in mine—it’s your own family.
It’s easier to say Well it was a different time, it was more accepted that my grandma was married off at fourteen to a nineteen-year-old, twenty-year-old boy. And it’s like…why do you think it was okay then but it’s not okay now? Is there something that’s changed fundamentally about fourteen-year-old girls in the last seventy years? Not enough.
JKH: No. Not enough. When did you know that you were going to write about your parents’ relationship? Obviously, the book focuses on your mother as a runaway. But…I’m suspecting that there might have been a lot of focus in the beginning on your father, and on interpreting his story, discovering his story and then shifting to focus maybe [on your mother].
EK: Well, [the shift came] in the reporting. So I wrote that first essay in 2015—so [this is a] roundabout way back to your question of how did this become a book—and then…I put it out there and I actually didn’t show my mother that story…I sort of made an impulsive decision to lay the family out there a little bit without asking. And I didn’t feel like I did too much, but it was just enough that I was like maybe we’ll just let that one simmer on the back burner a little bit—
JKH: And see what happens, and how it plays.
EK: Yeah. And you know, it had a little bit of virality at the time. It got a lot of good mentions [online] and then it kind of went away again. And then [the] fall of 2017 the Harvey Weinstein exposé came out. So we had already been working in this mode of like there’s Bill Cosby, there’s a couple of others, Woody Allen, also, a couple of other sort of high-profile men who had had these allegations against them that had been long-standing…but I think [were] finally being taken a little more seriously. And I do sort of in a lot of ways attribute that to millennials coming of age and being out there in the media and in the workforce, being adults and reflecting back on their childhood now.
JKH: That’s right.
EK: I’m the young end of Gen X, and we are just simply not a very big generation. We had a much harder time affecting cultural sea change. But millennials could match the Boomers, you know? Because they made them. So that suddenly was like oh wait, even if there’s no conviction, it’s no longer gossip over here, it’s actually—this is news, we can corroborate, we can substantiate, we can actually build reporting out of this that can be serious and have repercussions, cultural and in some cases legal repercussions.
So when that happened I actually then started, for the first time in my life, thinking about my family’s story also in light of #MeToo. And I started this project with the intention of writing a book to try to understand how my father could have made this choice because he died when I was five. So I can’t ask him, it’s unknowable. And so I think that the unknowable and the mystery is always more attractive to me as a writer with a journalism background because I have a lot of questions. That’s where I thought all the questions [lay].
JKH: I always think about how absence is presence, you know, in a big way—
EK: He was this mythical creature in my life and in my own personal mythology, and it was this major loss that was a foundational thing to me. It was a foundational part of my identity as a writer—as somebody who wrote about loss, wrote about never remembering a time in my life when loss wasn’t a major presence in it. So I thought, I’ll start with an essay for Father’s Day. Of course it was a Father’s Day essay, right? [laughs] So I called my mother and I said, “Hey, can I interview you for this? I have questions that I don’t know the answers to.”
My mother is a great storyteller and has a repertoire of stories that she would tell about her younger life. I knew she had been a runaway…I knew that she went by Alexis, because we still have family and friends who call her Alexis from the old days. It was very normal to me to have a mother who was known by different identities to different people. But I wanted to know things like Tell me about your first date. Tell me about the first time you met. I wanted to say there’s a point you could go back to in the past where a person’s decision changes everything. And I wanted to know more about that because she had never really talked to me about that.
JKH: I’m interested in your phrasing there—her “repertoire of stories.” [What] you were kind of pushing against is probably the familiar stories that you had heard and you wanted deeper and—
EK: Well, I didn’t know what there was that was deeper yet. But I wanted to know more about him and she was kind of [the] easiest way into that. And we did an interview and I was really pushing her for details and stuff, like give me a little more about this, going back and asking follow-up questions—different from a conversation with your mother to like the interviewing your mother for the story, but I had to kind of put the compartment down a little bit and act like You’re a source, I’m trying to go back to a historic event and give an eyewitness account of it, a participant’s account to it.
And so we did that and I wrote the essay, and as I was writing the essay and kind of bringing in the details that she gave me but then also what I knew and what I didn’t know, I realized that there’s still so much now that I don’t know [about my father]…He got to die and be a mystery. Whereas if he had lived, I would have grown up and gotten to know him more and probably felt like I knew everything I needed to know about my dad. But my mom just had to continue to be my mother, which is like the most thankless thing in the world. You do get taken for granted, even when you have the razzle-dazzle stories that she has.
But [my starting to ask questions] had a lot to do with also my oldest niece, my mother’s oldest grandchild, [who] was about thirteen when I started this project. And I started to think about her.
JKH: So you’re seeing that, yeah, she was this age, she was my mother[’s age].
EK: Yeah. I think back to myself at thirteen, and also how I was treated like I was a lot older simply because, like my mother, we were tall…early and that’s really all that needs to happen in a lot of ways. But I thought about my niece and she’s hyperarticulate. She was an only child for like six years, so she’s used to having conversations with adults from an early age. She was thirteen going on thirty, you know. But she was also very unmistakably thirteen. And I started thinking more about that because my Mom’s repertoire of stories has included things like, “Well I mean nobody could tell how old I was.” And I started to question that.
I always believed that. Because my mother was always an adult since when I can remember. You don’t have that concept that like there’s a different way that a thirteen-year-old moves through the world. You can tell when a kid is a kid. So then I was like well, let’s have more questions about that. Like how did you end up in New York? How did you get from here to there? So my mother always told us why she left home was “Well I missed Woodstock in 1969. I didn’t want to miss anything else.” Which is a great line, isn’t it?
JKH: Yes. That’s a great line.
EK: But like, really? It’s a line a thirteen-year-old might have thought, but…that’s when I wanted to know: who was the girl who did that? And the things that I thought that I knew about runaways were you run away from home as a kid when it feels safer to be out on your own than it is to be home. And there were none of those hallmarks about my mother’s family.
So, Granddaddy was in Vietnam at the time, had volunteered. It was a controversial decision within the family. But it was also a clearer path to promotion up the officer chain. And so he wasn’t there—there was an absent father, but it wasn’t an absent father that was unexplained. In the army family world [that] had a very clear explanation. There wasn’t this sort of abuse or hard neglect or anything beyond the usual mid-century drinking as far as Mad Men-style of substance abuse…there wasn’t abuse in the home or anything like that. That also made me wonder why.
And that’s when I started to think, well, maybe my mother’s story is just as interesting as uncovering my father’s story. She agreed to do more interviews. She was really generous with her time. And I think maybe she just felt like, well if somebody’s finally asking me these questions…She made a decision to be open with me about a lot of things.
JKH: Was she ever trepidatious at any point about her story being told?
EK: So we did all these interviews, and I also did records-diving on my dad and interviewed other family members too [like] her brother (my uncle) and my dad’s sister (my aunt)…They knew about the project and were participating in it. And my brother, I had talked to him about it. He was two years older than me, and so [I] could check some of the early memories against his and he would remember things a little more clearly.
JKH: So it was like you had a nest of support.
EK: Yeah. I’m really lucky, my family has always been very supportive of my writing. The way my mother puts in now when she’s hyping up my book on Facebook is “To all my friends who have always said I should write a book, I didn’t have to. My daughter did it for me.” It’s a very mom thing to do. But in the end…I said, “I just want to make sure are you still okay with this.” And she said, “Well, is it going to hurt anybody?” And I was so stricken by that—that was not what I expected her to say at all.
JKH: How you place that in the book…it really strikes the reader.
EK: After all that, her biggest question was who is this going hurt? And from that I really saw the way that she [had been] cast a little bit as the villain of the story by her own parents, who—you know, love my grandparents. She loved them and they reconciled when my brother was a baby and they were always a major part of our lives. But I also saw how she really did spend the rest of their lives…trying to make it up to them [that she had run away]…
But maybe on some level they realized that they had something to make up [for] too. They were all very present in our lives, but I wished for her now that it would’ve maybe been more explicitly clear that she was the kid who needed to be kept safe, and that kids do these impulsive things sometimes and then decide that they’re going to live with it because the world has told them you make your bed, you lie in it. That at some point, though, you can rescue them from that.
JKH: One of the things [that resonates about Runaway] is how you’re telling this story and you have that thread of memoir, you have this cultural element, but [you also] write the detective work, this legwork of the journalist, into this book. We see you writing for arrest records, contacting people. We see you trying to find court records and documents, and bumping up against…the trail [ending]…
How important was it to you to do that, to show that? Because I think a lot of times…people [assume that memoir is] just flat-out storytelling…a regurgitation of a narrative or whatever, and they don’t think that there’s research that takes place.
EK: Aside from the journalistic digging, I did do a lot of research to do what my publisher calls “poetic reimaginations” of my mother’s time on the road, and I think I was successful in that…doing things from the research like what color would the squirrels be in the mountains of Colorado?—that kind of rabbit-hole-y detail we can sometimes do instead of writing but is so fun.
But…I did get some encouragement as I was working on the project overall from some smart writer friends of mine who asked “Where are you in this story?” And I thought, Well that’s a fair question but I’m not very interesting. My mother is interesting, and I am not…I guess I’m always surprised when people find the work of journalism that’s not like we’re busting [the] Harvey Weinstein case wide open [interesting] because to me it just looks like a lot of grunt work…But I’ve learned that probably in the way that someone who fishes for a living doesn’t necessarily think that their work is the most fascinating, I absolutely want to read the minutiae of like how the lines are set and what it’s like when that happens and what it feels like when you bring the catch in.
So I sort of had to get over my sense of well no one wants to hear about any of that to go ahead and show the work. But I did also want to show the work because…[it’s] not the same as writing a novel where you’re sort of supposed to generate it all from some magical, imagined space inside of you. And it’s not exactly the same as memoir where it’s like well this is my story that I’m gonna bring alive for you. This kind of hybrid work is just a little different, but I still had to kind of put myself as a character into it.
JKH: What did writing the book reveal to you about yourself?
EK: I was really about halfway through the research and recording before I realized that actually [my mom’s] life was a lot more interesting than [my dad’s]. I always had a very strong drive, and I do think still that a lot of the reporting that we do along this vein—the drive is to if you can write deeply about the man and figure out why he did the things that he did, then that will suffice in sort of helping everyone wrap their head around whatever the bad thing is that the bad man did. And that then we will feel we can move past it. But I feel like left out of that so often are the women, the girls, whoever.
To use a contemporary example, how many words have we spent on Louis C.K.’s situation, and how hard it is for most people to remember offhand the names of the women that were directly affected? And that’s, to me, such a narrative imbalance in the world, and I realize how much—how often I had contributed to that. And I felt bad, I felt sort of terrible. But I also realized that if I can change how I approach these stories—if I can change the stories that I’m looking for also, that I seek out, that I’m drawn to—we can all change these things. They’re not static, fixed truths about the universe.
JKH: Where do you hope this book lands right now in terms of our ongoing cultural conversation about this climate of abuse and misogyny?
EK: I want there to be more conversations about I was wrong about this, because I do feel like we don’t quite make enough space for that. It’s almost like maybe you need to sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done or what you haven’t done enough of instead of giving us enough space to talk about how our thinking has evolved, how we have changed. Because people are going to progress. Progress, it’s never fast enough, that’s just the truth. But I don’t think it necessarily pushes progress more effectively to try and speed past people and not let them make their own decisions and come to their own way of thinking. You hope that it’s in a timely fashion and they aren’t harming people in the meantime. But I do hope that it opens up more of a conversation about this is a thing that’s also happening all around you all the time.
There’s really nothing inherently special about Harvey Weinstein, [it’s] just because we know his name. He had outsized cultural influence, but within every community, there’s guys like that [who] have outsized cultural influence locally…and Harvey Weinstein is as much of a product of the culture as he was a purveyor of the culture. So that way when we say, well how many people let this happen?—that is always the question. How many people had to look the other way? How many assistants just signed the NDA and took the payout? How many movie execs were all too happy to let the rumors fly? I feel like then we all have to kind of take a step back and say well, how many people let this local quote-unquote “scandal” happen?
The answer is a lot of people have to not necessarily even actively look the other way, they just have to buy into the idea that a man’s comfort and standing is more important than harm against a woman, a child, anybody with less power…
When people are like I’ve been canceled, it’s like, I think you’re fine. You know? But the loss of status for important men is seen as a death. And that’s what I would hope is this book has a place in the conversation about how do we actually talk about loss of status in a way other than actual death? Because it’s not the same. We shouldn’t be treating it as the same…
We’re in the middle of [a] pretty strong backlash right now to #MeToo. And I think it’s because we maybe didn’t sit enough with what is this like in our local and personal communities? in a way that could actually affect change. I mean, you see plenty of social media callouts, but what is the work that we’re all doing? I think a lot of people just sort of don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do either—I mean I didn’t write a field guide or anything for it.
But I’m generally of the feeling that the more you talk openly about things, even the things that you might have made a mistake on or even been culpable in, if you can just be open and honest about it with the spirit of can we try to fix things? then that’s good. Progress can happen in those moments too. ■