Collected Works Interviews Teresa Bruce, author of The Other Mother
Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson
CJJ: First off, what should people know about you and your connection to the story in The Other Mother? How, for those who do not know, are you connected to Byrne, Alison, and Duncan. What role do they play in your life, both as a citizen of the world (to borrow from Goldsmith) and as a writer. Furthermore, how can these two magnetic personalities play a role in the lives of your readers?
TB: I consider myself to be one of Byrne and Duncan Miller’s collected children and Byrne to be my other mother. I’m not the only one – there are still people alive in Santa Fe and on reservations in Arizona and New Mexico that are my siblings-by-Byrne. I never set out to replace my own mother – I was a 22-year-old reporter when I met this 82-year-old former burlesque dancer. I was assigned to “cover” her husband’s fight for experimental Alzheimer’s treatments. But she pulled me onto her stage when I really needed to know that an honest, respectful relationship between a man and a woman was possible. At the time I thought of their love as a fairy-tale. It was years before I saw that part of it was choreographed, by Byrne, to protect her husband.
It was through writing the memoir that I realized how much of a role I played in Byrne’s life too. Her daughter Alison had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 40s and she chose very unconventional ways to hold her family together. By “collecting” children like me – she was able to pass along her dreams and talents without pressuring Alison to be someone she couldn’t.
It’s been so much fun to find out how Byrne and Duncan are impacting readers who never knew them in person. Byrne’s “womenisms” are great conversation starters and provoke vigorous disagreements. Younger people are infatuated with the Miller’s bohemian love story, as I was. But older readers are drawn to Byrne’s strength of character and the reality that we all need and cherish the love of other mothers.
CJJ: Before we get into the book, tell our readers a little about yourself. How did you come into the practice of writing and, always a popular subject, do you have any habits as a writer which you have cultivated to improve your craft?
TB: I started as a journalist – first print and then broadcast – and I found my voice writing long-form documentary films like “God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters.” I really credit the creative constraints of reporting for being able to ask the right questions. There’s a discipline to reporting too – we’re used to deadlines and to being edited, brutally at times. But still I had to ditch any vestiges of my documentary style when it came to this book. My editor, Susan Kammeraad Campbell gave me great advice. She made me come up with a list of defining moments in my life. She called them pearls. I thought of them as scenes.
Then she had me do the same with Byrne’s life. At first that seemed impossible, her story began almost fifty years before I was born, but in the end it gave structure and form to the years of research and interviews. The book is really a dance in two movements, mine and Byrne’s, and Susan strung together the “pearls” into the rememoir.
CJJ: Byrne Miller came to Santa Fe and found an easy in with the community. She taught at St. John’s College and at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA). Today, for a new resident coming into town, these would be near impossible feats. In that regard, can you explain a little why Byrne was so easily accepted as faculty to these two prestigious schools and, what did she teach at them?
TB: Byrne had a whim of iron and she rejected rejection. One of my favorite “womenisms” that she used to tell her collected children was that “there is not a contract on earth that cannot be re-written.” It was undeniably ballsy, the way she waltzed into 1960s Santa Fe society and demanded validity. I’m not sure either institute had ever had a modern dance or labanotation expert to compare to Byrne so they accepted her even without academic credentials. It helped that St. John’s was brand new, still inventing itself and that dance has always been deeply valued in the American Indian community.
And remember, too, that Byrne picked Santa Fe because it had a reputation of supporting emerging artists. The Santa Fe Writer’s colony thrived from the 20s through the 40s, and Byrne wanted her novelist husband to follow the likes of Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence. A major influence in Byrne’s own dance career, Martha Graham, attended parties and soirees in Santa Fe at the time. It was a place where artists supported and celebrated each other. The Museum of New Mexico held un-juried exhibitions for local artists – a marked departure from the artistic establishment Byrne had known in New York. No wonder she gravitated to Santa Fe and fit right in.
CJJ: How did the Santa Fe community (circa 1965) respond to Duncan and Byrne. Those who live in Santa Fe know that it can be a hard community to engage with and find a place within. Was that so of the middle 1960’s?
TB: It’s hard to say how much of Byrne and Duncan’s success in Santa Fe was the town’s openness or Byrne’s bull-headedness. But within a year of arriving, she managed to snag Duncan a job writing and directing the Fiesta Melodrama so they quickly associated with other artists and writers. She mingled across age groups too, cocktail parties with established writers one night and rehearsals with young actors and dancers the next. When she opened her dance studio on Canyon Road, it was still a dirt road dotted with mostly hand-built homes of other artists. A gallery owner I interviewed while researching the book said that where Byrne and Duncan lived they would have heard gunfights spilling out of bars on a regular basis.
CJJ: At the time of their (Duncan and Byrne’s) arrival in Santa Fe the State Capitol that we all know was quite new. Duncan and Byrne got to play a very imaginative, yet crucial role in its initiation into Santa Fe society. Could you talk a little about that unique role?
TB: Again it’s hard to imagine essentially two expats in their own country, waltzing into Santa Fe and criticizing its controversial attempt to integrate native design into the state’s architectural identity. How Yankee of them! I cringed, a little, reading the subtitle of Duncan’s fiesta melodrama satire “the sinister secret of the sawdust sepulcher.” But they were nothing if not confident in their own opinions and without that artistic intensity I doubt Byrne would have made as much of an impact as she did. It was a harbinger, when you think of it, of the audacity of a Jewish, former burlesque dancer from New York introducing modern dance to the public schools in Beaufort, South Carolina – her next move after Santa Fe.
CJJ: During their time in Santa Fe Duncan and Byrne witnessed an annual event that, at that time, was relatively new to the Santa Fe community. I am speaking, of course, about Zozobra. The pair found something in the ritual of Zozobra that spoke to them, that seemed, if you will, to inform or mimic their own lives; what was that?
TB: Zozobra couldn’t have been more personally meaningful to the Miller pair. The idea of burning regrets to start anew resonated, especially since Byrne Miller was beginning to understand that her husband’s mental and emotional state was on a collision course with literary success. She found Santa Fe freeing and exultant and it’s no accident that it was here that she reinvented herself and founded the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. It was in Santa Fe, also, that she let go of the idea that she could reverse her daughter Alison’s schizophrenia. I chose to juxtapose Zozobra with that revelation in this passage:
“As the embers of Old Man Gloom swirled around the feet of the fire spirit dancers, Byrne wondered if Alison’s absence as the reason she felt lighter. She looked to the sky and instead of a foreboding darkness, she saw only a lack of color. When she shuffled into the inner patio of her adobe house the next morning with a cup of tea, the sky that greeted her upturned eyes was not the heavy blue of expectation and disappointment but the brilliant blue of peace and purpose.”
CJJ: In Santa Fe, in 1969, Byrne and Duncan were involved in an accident. What happened to them is something that continues to be an endemic problem in Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico at large. This occurrence separated the creative pair in a major way. What was it that occurred, how did it affect their lives, and what residual effects did it have?
TB: Byrne and Duncan’s lives were ripped apart not once, but twice, by rural highways and drunk drivers. The first was the accident in Santa Fe that put Duncan in the hospital for months and the second was in Colorado and resulted in the death of Jane, the Miller’s younger daughter. I didn’t even realize the full significance of the Santa Fe accident until another “collected” sibling filled me in. He said that after it, Duncan was never the same again. So when they received a major settlement, Byrne used it to buy a cottage on the river in Beaufort, SC in part so that Duncan could recuperate near the water. But Byrne always wondered if leaving the artistic fulcrum that was Santa Fe killed Duncan’s chances at literary success. In South Carolina he felt abandoned in “an unanswering sea” without like-minded, driven artists all around him.
CJJ: For those living in Santa Fe and engaging with your book, is there any place (i.e. museum or archive) that a Santa Fe or Northern New Mexico resident could go to further engage with Duncan and Byrne’s legacy?
TB: In spirit, yes, among the fire dancers at Zozobra’s feet, in the rhythms of the jazz festival on the campus of St. Johns College and in the beauty of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. But Byrne’s papers were donated to the District Collection of the Beaufort County Library after she died, so historians and interested readers would have to come out here to see the beautiful photographs taken from Byrne’s time in Santa Fe. Ironically the same photographer who made those images is the curator of probably the last surviving copy of Duncan Miller’s Fiesta Melodrama – Robert Nugent. It’d make a fascinating research paper – I hope the book ignites more interest in the artistic nomads that have contributed to Santa Fe’s legacy.
CJJ: Finally, I have focused on questions that deal with Santa Fe and New Mexico, but that is a very small portion of the book. What else would you like our readers to know?
TB: We don’t get to Santa Fe until 278 pages into the book but hang in there! Santa Fe is so pivotal to the book, mostly because it was here that Byrne began her life as an “other mother.” Her first collected son was a Navajo dancer at St. John’s College named Ben Barney, who went on to a distinguished career as an educator and cultural preservationist. What I found fascinating about her relationship with Ben is that she wasn’t very good at othermothering, at first. She was a determined woman who didn’t take the time to understand his cultural misgivings about dance as performance. In Ben’s tribe, dance is reserved only for those chosen at birth to use as a form of healing and yet she bulldozed him into performing at the Great Hall of St. John’s College. I don’t suppose she was the first transplant to arrive in Santa Fe and think she knew best. In the end, though, I think Ben’s dance was a healing ceremony – for Byrne Miller. It was a transformation for Byrne that couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Santa Fe and by the time she collected me, decades later, she had become the wise, supportive, championing mother that showed me who I was meant to be.
CJJ: You use very descriptive scenes such as Alison's (I think) hand as it coasted in the wind out the car window on the way to CO. These would seem to me to add a fictional element to your story, or rather something other than hard-nosed journalism or history. I think, for my part, that that makes for better more even reading. I am curious about your style.
TB: You’ve hit on why the book is subtitled a “rememoir.”It’s the truth as I remember it or as Byrne shared with me. And since I’m also a screenwriter I think in visual scenes, imagining how a director would film the characters and events on any given page. So when Byrne told me of her journey west, to Santa Fe, with her troubled, recalcitrant daughter – I could picture Alison’s ambivalence and unease. I visualized her as a young woman, scared and sulking, buffeted by forces beyond her control like a hand surfing in the currents of a rolled-down window. It must have worked, or you wouldn’t have remembered that scene!
I’m actually not a fan of memoir, at least not the kind written by celebrities. I miss the creativity of fiction when a story is recounted and spelled out for me so I wanted to give my readers a different experience. I’m actually thrilled when men (and it’s usually male readers, for some reason) don’t realize that “The Other Mother: a rememoir” is non-fiction until they hit the photographs that ground and connect it all. There will always be a place for traditional memoir and biography, and they are art forms in their own right. But in this age of instant access to information, I think we crave human stories that show rather than tell.