In his stunning new memoir The Trouble with Kim: On Transcending Despair and Approaching Joy, the New Paltz writer, musician, and restaurateur Seth David Branitz goes deep into a troubled personal past. It is the story of a wildly dysfunctional New York City family from the 1970s through the end of the century, a family mired in poverty, violence, mental illness, and deepening cycles of futility and struggle. From these antecedents, the youngest child traces his own descent into addiction and inexpressible despair and longing, describing a circuitous route toward — not to — redemption, stability, forgiveness and something like happiness.
The Trouble with Kim is chronological and episodic, segmented by year and by the author’s age, but it is a chronology permissive of flashes forward and back, digressions and riffs triggered by language, image, memory, or just the ambling of the mind in that moment. This associative fluidity, working in and around the steady march through time, lends the work a quality of lyric poetry and experimental Beat narrative. Flights of metaphor, spiritual speculation, and psychological impressionism weave through vivid early childhood and adolescent narratives set in the projects and streets of Queens and environs.
For a self-plumbing memoir this deep, Branitz’s focus is consistently external. The Trouble with Kim is populated by a large cast of richly interrogated and (eventually) empathized characters led by his immediate family members (including older brother Kim), but also bringing in friends and girlfriends, bullies, drug buddies, and a few underworld figures from an older era. It renders a gritty, sensual sense of period and place — cars, institutions, fashions, jobs, and language — almost inadvertently in its approximately two-decade purview.
Branitz’s prose is a well-worn, pliable instrument. The career songwriter began exploring essay writing and oral history performance in the last decade and experienced immediate success and recognition for the unaffected pathos and lyricism of his voice and the exceptionality of his autobiographical material, winning several Moth Story Slams and a Woodstock StorySlam. The Trouble with Kim extends and connects this work into one, vibrant, difficult but ultimately irresistible memoir.
John Burdick: One thing that I really enjoy about the texture of the book is that — in very subtle ways — it presents as both a street narrative and also a very contemporary personal growth narrative, with some overtones from the self-help and new-age climates in which you and I both grew up. You never err too far in either direction, i.e., you never overplay a street-tough identity, and at the same time you never pose as guru or workshop leader, as it were, or as anyone with a prescription for healing to offer/sell.
Seth Branitz: I cringe at the prospect of trying to appear as either. I was a street reject and at least a bit ashamed about every aspect of my attempts at healing. Writing about recovery, therapy, etc., felt very risky. I could feel the eyes rolling as I wrote … and as I say this. That’s how shame works. This book wasn’t written to instruct or inform anyone. It’s just me processing a few things I went through. I hope the title doesn’t misguide anyone into thinking I’m selling anything. I went to a workshop at the Woodstock Writers Festival a few years ago and met a very nice literary agent. She and I connected, and she read some of my raw work. She told me, “You need to find your shelf. This is not going on the memoir shelf. No one’s going to buy your book over Hillary’s. This belongs on the Happiness shelf.”
I suggested that she’d confused my work with someone else’s, but she persisted. She said that while there’s no happily-ever-after, the stories leave the reader with me, still here, able to reconsider, reevaluate, move through and move on. Or something like that. But it was when I realized that I probably shouldn’t leave readers in the gutter, that we both have an opportunity to find out if there’s anything at all to be gotten from a curse. These are stories about unfortunate me, told by fortunate me.
JB: A minor but steady strand through the book concerns encounters with therapy and mental-health institutions. For a book that has a rich discovery and healing bias, you remain ambivalent about counseling and intervention, it seems, reluctant to declare it as a decisive part of your own recovery.
SB: I’m sad to hear that it comes across that way. I think any modality can be a crapshoot. and it all depend on willingness, chemistry, and luck. I had some crummy experiences with therapists I didn’t mesh with (I’ll not blame them), but I do note that I’ve been with my current guy for around a decade and I love him. I’ve yet to write about other pop-psych organizations I’ve experienced. They get mixed reviews.
I’ve seen people give all their power to healers and gurus, and my brother’s issues got lost in the system. Shit happens. People run away. People hide. People pick up on the wrong clues. But I’m definitely not down on therapy. Quite the opposite.
My wish would be that readers find common ground or simple entertainment rather than any sense of direction. Again, this is a memoir, not a self-help manual.
JB: In your book, mental illness of many kinds keeps close quarters with socio-economic marginalization, discrimination, and hopelessness. You never explicitly connect the dots.
SB: That’s unintentional and not necessarily a case I want to make. I want to make no cases. In fact, I’ve known otherwise healthy people of means and privilege who’ve suffered terribly and killed themselves. Not my dots.
JB: How did you get into this kind of writing in the first place?
SB: When my record Life Is Long came out in 2005 I was invited by Jimmy [Buff] to play on WDST. He’d read a piece I posted on social media about my father and reached out to me to say I’d made him cry. At the in-studio I began with the story of stealing my brother’s car and followed with the song “Green Rambler,” which is my fantasy of how things might have gone for him if his luck had changed or if he’d made different choices. When I finished, he said I’d made him cry twice in a week.
Martha Frankel told him that she was short one storyteller and that year’s Woodstock StorySlam, and Jimmy recommended me. She got in touch and I performed with her at the Bearsville Theater. I suddenly found myself welcomed into this community of seasoned writers and other creatives and that’s had a huge influence on my confidence.
Feedback from telling my stories there, at Moth and other live events drew more and more prompts from my personal life, especially my early life, and I wrote about them. People asked for a book long before I thought I could ever amass enough material. I now see that I could do several more. I’m working on the second one right now.
JB: How is the experience different from songwriting?
SB: When we put thoughts and experiences into a song, there’s the benefit of structure. There are repeating parts, rhymes at the end of lines, enduring tempo and the colorful dress of melody Writing memoir feels more like stuffing one thought into a sock, reflections on it in another, and maybe a conclusion in a third. Then they get dumped into the drawer and can hopefully find a harmony of their own
JB: The Trouble with Kim lands in a world obsessed with oral history, a renaissance of storytelling that locates the universal and the historical in the deeply personal.
SB: The sheer number and density of outlets for personal storytelling is encouraging. We go through life thinking certain things matter and certain others don’t, that certain people matter more than others. We think it’s all for nothing. The fact that a growing number of people are seeing the beauty in their own stories is a victory for the human race.
TMI Project is a non-profit organization that encourages and assembles stories from people we might never hear from. I’ve done fascinating true-story workshops with them over the past few years. It has been a beautiful experience, and has made me a stronger storyteller for sure.
JB: Near the end of the book, you write: “When I allow mind to run, I’m beaten. I see no way out. But when I serve and create, build and connect, I glide.” I ask, in all seriousness, do you see this book itself as more the former or the latter?
SB: I see the book as a collection of mostly sad stories. I happen to be doing better things and am also doing better myself, but I’m not bragging or selling anything. The latter is just as much an observation as an affirmation, a reminder to do what works for me.
Seth David Branitz’s The Trouble with Kim: On Transcending Despair and Approaching Joy is published by InterSection Press, an imprint of Ridgeline Creative Services. It is available at Barner Books in New Paltz and other local stores as well as at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.