I'm talking today to Allison Pataki, the author of the utterly amazing memoir Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith, and Resilience. Allison chronicles her experience coping with her husband’s stroke at age thirty while she was pregnant with their first child. A novelist, Allison has written several bestselling works including Sisi, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Accident Empress as well as two children's books and a book she cowrote with her brother. She graduated from Yale and now lives in Upstate New York with her husband, Dave Levy, and their daughter Lily, age two. She is now pregnant with her second child.
Allison, it’s Zibby Owens. How are you?
Allison Pataki: Hi, Zibby. I'm doin’ well. How are you?
Zibby: I'm good, thanks. Thanks so much for doing this interview for "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Allison: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Zibby: Of course. I know you're short on time, so I'm going jump right into it if that's okay.
Allison: Perfect. Ready when you are.
Zibby: Your book Beauty in the Broken Places was just amazing, so moving, eloquent, relatable, honest, open. I loved it. What did it feel like for you coming out with such a personal story after writing historical fiction?
Allison: Thank you, first of all. It was not a book I ever intended to write. As you said, fiction was my jam. I had done four fiction books. I love historical fiction. I never really considered nonfiction. Obviously, it was also not an experience that Dave and I intended to live through, at least in the way that we did. It started as a very personal thing. It started with the letters that I was writing to Dave that were intended for our family and for Dave, and to preserve that memories that he couldn't make on his own, and to communicate with Dave in a really dark moment in our lives when I couldn't communicate with my actual husband; that was the person, my partner, with whom I wanted to speak.
I figured I would write it all down. I would write it to Dave in the hopes that someday if he came back, he would be able to read and understand what we had been through. From there, as with all of my books, the writing project took on a life of its own. In some ways, it became the book that even though I hadn’t intended to write it, it became a compulsion. I realized, yes, this is actually the next project that I feel like I need to be working on.
Zibby: I loved when you wrote the following in your book. You said, “I love stories. I love weaving narratives with the written word. My whole life I've been driven by a desire to learn people's stories, to get to the bottom of who they are and how they got that way, to ask questions and seek to understand what a person deems important.” I totally agree. I could've written that myself.
How do you think that inherent interest in others informs your writing? When do you find that most useful?
Allison: I initially thought this would lend itself to a career either in detective work, or people often said I should be a lawyer. I thought journalism. I thought interrogating people, asking people, trying to get the bottom of a story. That was the first path I went down, was journalism for several years. I worked on that when I was in college on campus. Those were my first internships. Those were my first full-time jobs in New York City. I realized journalism is a very specific type of writing, particularly the type of journalism I was doing. There was so much emphasis on deadline, and live, and breaking news, and advancing the story to move it forward.
What I was craving was depth and time to explore, to get to the bottom of the story as opposed to just scraping the surface, giving the people the bullet points and moving on. I realized that exploration of character and personality and plot and conflict, all of that I could actually do in a much more satisfying and gratifying way, to me, through the longer form of fiction writing, and character development, and plot development, and storytelling, and narrative in a fictional capacity.
Zibby: It’s nice to be the beneficiary of that decision of yours.
Allison: I'm actually a beneficiary of it as well. It’s a way better lifestyle than breaking news.
Zibby: I have to tell you, I also went to Yale. The descriptions you gave completely brought me back to that time and place. I was literally in that same hall where you were memorizing slides for Scully’s art history class.
Allison: Oh, my goodness. You took that class?
Zibby: I did. I took the same class. I was standing there memorizing. How am I supposed to memorize a million slides up on the wall like that with so many other people around me? Knowing that's where you and Dave really noticed each other for the first time, reading the book, it gave me goosebumps. I could picture it so well. Even how you wrote when you went back to the Harvard-Yale game that had Dave not made it so far out of recovery, how you would have felt going back versus how you did end up feeling.
I was wondering with your experience at Yale as an English major, do you feel like what you learned at Yale helped with your writing career? Was it more the people and people like Dave and your friends and all of the interpersonal things that shaped who you became as a result?
Allison: It was both. It was absolutely both. You could make a very strong case for the fact that I've never been more inspired and motivated and intimidated than in some of those small, higher-level English major seminars just by the classmates around you and the way they think, and the way they investigate language, and ask questions, and the way you really have to explain or reason through how you arrived at your conclusion. It’s a hard-fought conversation or paper or whatever it is that you're presenting as an English major at Yale. You really are going to be challenged and motivated by your peers and your professors. It was absolutely in an academic setting where I was inspired to go deeper into text, and language, and analysis, and character, and story.
I also think that so much of the education that you reap at Yale is through the osmosis of just being there on the campus with your peers, your friends, in my case Dave, who was my significant other, the passive learning that happens from being surrounded by these people all around you where it’s cool to be curious. It’s cool to be inquisitive. It’s cool to be a nerd. It’s cool to like school and to like the books that you're reading for your English homework. It was all of that. Yale for me, I went in not knowing I wanted to be an English major. I was inspired by the courses and the professors and my classmates. That was really where I fell in love with the story both as a reader and as somebody who, now what I do in my life is write about it.
Zibby: That makes sense. I was telling my husband -- I read, now, two books a week as I'm doing this podcast. He’s like, “How are you going to keep this up?” I was like, “You should’ve seen me in college. This is nothing.” The amount we had to read in college…
Allison: I felt so privileged when we got to Yale. I was like, “My full-time job now is just that I have to read and that I have to be a student.” I worked on campus too. I worked all four years. Really, your main priority every day is to read, as an English major. I thought, “What a great good fortune. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.”
Zibby: I want to jump ahead to parts of your book now. First, do you want to tell listeners who might not know exactly, a synopsis of what happened with you and Dave on the airplane and what followed after that?
Allison: At five months pregnant, Dave and I took a last flight, a babymoon before becoming parents, a last trip to take as a couple before this new season of our life and our marriage. On the plane, my husband who is thirty years old, healthy, a doctor, an athlete, a healthy eater, he turned to me and he said, “Does my right eye look weird?” His right eye looked freakishly weird. His pupil was so dilated, but just in one eye. It was a very bizarre thing. A few minutes later, Dave lost consciousness. We were at 35,000 feet in the air. We had no idea what was going on. I had thrown out the worst-case scenario thinking that it would be quickly debunked. I said, “Is Dave having a stroke?” The answer was very quickly, “Yes. This might be very serious. This might be a stroke. This might be life-threatening.”
We made an emergency landing. We’d been flying from Chicago towards Hawaii. We made an emergency landing; nearest airport, Fargo, North Dakota. Dave was in a coma. It took a while to deduce what had happened because it was such a rare, life-threatening stroke, particularly in a patient of Dave’s age and profile. Dave did eventually wake up. What happened was when he woke up, his mind had been wiped clean. His brain was less functional than a newborn. He was completely in a state of amnesia.
I began writing to Dave in this desperate effort to talk to my husband, but also because I knew he couldn't make new memories and had no understanding of what was going on. I also had no understanding of what was going on, really. I worked my way through this with Dave by writing to him. That became the skeleton of this memoir about our experience of regrowing Dave’s mind, regrowing our marriage, regrowing our family, and what happens when at age thirty the life that you had planned for and thought that you had worked for and were going to be able to have completely crumbled around you, what happens through the process of rebuilding.
Zibby: I have to say I'm so sorry that you had to go through this experience. My heart goes out to you. I just had to say that I'm sorry. Throughout most of the book you were this stalwart, optimistic, go-getter caregiver, always there for Dave, running the show, managing your own pregnancy, totally dealing.
One of my favorite parts of the book came later when the drama, the adrenaline of the crisis had ebbed a bit and you and Dave and the baby are back at home. You went from what you called, “The cool calm that comes with being in the eye of the hurricane and perhaps even from being in a state of semi-shock, to the deep freeze of dark January, adjusting to life with a new baby and facing a new year when your patience began to fray.” You thought, “Was this going to be my life forever? Was this going to be my marriage forever?” It was such a relatable moment, that feeling of “Is this it now?”
Can you tell me more about how you felt during that time? Then, what helped you get through it?
Allison: After the stroke, the moment you're talking about, this was about seven, eight, nine months later. The adrenaline wears off. We’re through the acute physical crisis. Dave’s survived the stroke. He’s going to survive. Physically, he will be okay. The support network that had initially rallied around us that had been by our side every step in the beginning, everyone had moved on. Dave was seeming to be doing pretty well. Physically, he was strong. Everybody had to get back to their lives, including us. We had to settle into our new normal. Brain injury is such a long, devasting, non-linear road and recovery. Yes, months after the fact, Dave looked healthy. People saw him and said, “Dave, it’s so good to see you back to yourself.” Mentally, emotionally, cognitively, Dave was not himself. That was what was so hard for Dave and for me, was exactly the question you pointed to. I thought, “Is this going to be our life now? Is this going to be our marriage?”
I mentioned earlier, Dave had to start from newborn, less than newborn. He couldn't swallow. He couldn't breathe. These are things that newborns can do on their own. Dave couldn't when he woke up. He had to literally regrown his brain from minus, from negative. Where we were in the moment where you say the deep darkness of January, Dave was at about a high school student in terms of his brain and cognitive function. He didn’t have executive functioning. He couldn't manage his life. Think about high school students. They don't have the thoughtfulness to pick up their dirty clothes, or to get a job, or to manage their own lives. Imagine you have a newborn whose brain is growing from zero. You have a husband whose brain is growing from zero. You don't want your partner to be an inconsiderate, reckless, thoughtless teenager at that moment in your life. That was not the man I had married. There was also this very hard tension at that point where like with many teenagers, Dave thought maybe that he was doing better than he was.
It was a very difficult position for me to be in as a wife who wanted to encourage him and believe in him and respect the hardship of his recovery, but also still have to be this caregiver. Now, I'm a caregiver to a person who resents having to be cared for. There's that tension. Dave sees it as nagging. I see it as trying to help him continue to push his recovery forward. That was actually when I learned a very operative and helpful term that's relevant to all of us, executive functioning. That's something everyone gets maybe senior year of college, maybe mid-twenties, executive functioning, where if you think about it you click into being the manager of your own life at that point. You're not necessarily like that at eighteen, or early on in college, or in high school. Dave was not there yet. It was a very hard position for us to be in.
I was caring for a newborn. I had some postpartum depression. I was exhausted. I was scared. I didn’t know what Dave’s career hopes would or could be. I didn’t know if I was going to be taking care of Dave and this newborn on my own forever. I was lonely. It was winter in Chicago. It was twelve degrees out on a good day. We weren’t going outside. It wasn’t safe to take a newborn outside. We were cooped up in this new apartment that we had just moved into, just the three of us. Our little family really struggled in that moment. I was very honest and open about that because if we were going to tell this story, we were going to tell it truthfully. It was not all roses, and triumph, and running on treadmills, and healing, and recovery. It was lumpy. There were moments that were not pretty. Dave and I were very adamant that we were going to be honest about those moments as well.
Zibby: You also had great advice for friends who were trying to help you, or not, or not knowing how to do it the right way. You say in the book how you grew tired of comments like, “I could never do what you're doing,” or “I don't know how you're doing it,” or “We’re worried about you,” in vain attempts to help.
Tell me how you wanted to respond to those comments. What would've been most helpful for you to hear? How could friends have helped you through this more, so that we all know how to respond better the next time to be there for people we care about?
Allison: This is such a learning experience for me. It’s so well-meaning when people say, “I admire how you're getting through this,” or “I couldn't do it myself,” or “How do you do it?” As you said, it doesn't really help in that moment. What I wanted to think was, “You could get through it if it landed on you. I didn’t choose it. It’s not like I have some grand plan, and I have any idea what I'm doing, and I know how to get through it.” If you have to get through it, you'd have to get through it just the way I have to get through it. I didn’t choose it.
Probably what would've been most helpful was for someone to remove any of the burden on me saying, “How are you doing it?” or “How are you doing?” and just say, “I'm coming over. I'm dropping off this dinner. I'm going to come over and hold your baby for an hour so that you can take a shower or so that you can take a nap. I'm going to drive Dave to rehab this day so that you can stay home with the baby.” When people are struggling on getting through every day on the calendar, sometimes the greatest act of grace is the practical hands and feet of helping on the ground. “You don’t have to worry about this one logistic of your life because you have so many things on your to-do list. Let me take that one off your list,” whatever that is whether it’s “I'm going to bring over some milk and groceries. I'm going to take you out to coffee.” For me, that was what was most helpful, was when the person removed any burden of asking me what I needed or telling me that they were worried about me, and instead taking the active role where they're like, “I'm going to take this one thing off of your plate.” I appreciated those moments.
Zibby: In times of loss or injury or any of these stressful situations, there's a group of people who instinctively ends up knowing what to do, and then a much bigger group that feels unsure of how to interact and afraid. People say, “I'm afraid to get in the way.” A friend loses someone. In my life when I've had losses, as we all have, no one gets in the way. You still check email. I don't know if you went through this. People say, “I'm going to leave this person alone because they're going through so much.” For me at least, I don't know about for you, that doesn't help.
Allison: That's so true. I appreciated in the middle of the crisis when I was being flooded, people putting in their emails, “Don't respond to this right now, but I wanted you to know I'm thinking about you.” Here's their email. They send you their words of love and support, but they remove the burden of you needing to do anything in return. I appreciated that. I completely hear what you're saying. I agree. I know from my perspective too, grief or hardship or conflict, it can be so awkward and difficult to know how to react. I completely get that. I've been on the other end too where I've wanted to provide support or lend my shoulder, but then I don't really know how. It’s very difficult.
The most important thing is making yourself available but with no strings attached, no expectation. I appreciate the people who reached out and were like, “You don't need to respond right now. I'm here as soon as you're ready or as soon as you need me,” and made the open offer. Even the check-in, “I'm thinkin’ about you. I'm here. Let me know if you need anything.” I would emphasis removing the burden on the person, but just extending the support and the love and the offer. It means so much. It helps. It matters. It can be awkward when you're the person on the receiving end. I was very uncomfortable with being so vulnerable and open about my needs, and about being the one who needed and was vulnerable. I didn’t like being in that position where I felt like I was being the taker. I felt like I was putting people out or imposing on them. It’s helpful to hear from your tribe and your support network that they want to be there to help you in whatever way you need, and that you're not putting them out because were the tables turned, they'd call on you as well.
Zibby: You said a little bit later in the book during one of your dark moments, “Have you ever wanted to just trade lives, to say, ‘I can't do this anyone. Can someone take over for me?’” When did you feel like this the most? How did faith help you pull through this difficult time?
Allison: I felt it probably nine or so months out when I had newborn and I had a husband who physically looked good but was mentally, emotional, cognitively still not himself, still not my partner, still not the man I had chosen. I was just tired. In the crisis, you go into hyperactive overdrive. You're running on adrenaline. Once that dissipates and fades a little bit later, you begin to process. The blinders of the crisis come off. You think, “Oh, my goodness.” That was when I first took stock and assessed.
Our life is unrecognizable from what we thought it would be. Our hopes for what Dave had worked for for the past decade of his life went up in smoke with all of the work he put into premed and medical school and residency. We didn’t know how that would affect our family and how that would affect our trajectory on plan A. That was when I thought, “This is when faith gets real.” Faith, by definition, is something that you can't prove and that there's no evidence for. I could go around saying, “Life is good. God is good. Everything's good.” Up until that point in my life, that wasn’t really faith. That was just agreeing with the overwhelming evidence.
This was a moment when things didn’t look good, and when I was scared, and alone, and sad, and confused. I had to decide, do I believe that life will get better? Do I believe that god is good? Do I believe that Dave and I are going to stay in this marriage for better or worse? Do I believe in the vows that we made, “In sickness and in health?” That's when it got all real and where the rubber met the road for how I felt about my faith, my family, and position in this marriage, and in motherhood, and our life together. That was when we really took stock and were like, “We have to rebuild from here.” The foundations come down. We’re in the rubble now. Now, we begin to rebuild.
Zibby: Now to go to more nuts and bolts type question, the structure of your memoir -- I'm sorry not to be talking about your other amazing novels, but I'm focusing on this one the most -- how did you pick the structure? It worked so well how you weaved the story of your relationship as it went on and grew into this beautiful marriage, and then at the same time the passages where you're in the hospital and dealing with the day-to-day and all the medical things. How did you decide on that to make it work so well?
Allison: Thank you. The reader loses Dave as a character pretty early on. He had his stoke and loses consciousness first chapter. In order for the story to work and for the reader to know what it was that we lost in Dave and in our relationship and in our life and our marriage, we had to provide some context and some backstory. That was why we had the idea to weave in the past, and moments of our meeting, and our courtship, and our marriage, and what had gotten us up to that point when Dave’s eyes shut and he lost consciousness. We interwove the story from the past with the present, and the crisis, and moving forward from the stroke.
What I've heard from readers is that it worked because you need a little bit of a break from some of the more intense moments of dealing with near-death and some of the real physical and emotional hardship of the stroke. It’s good to have a reprieve every few chapters with something that's a little bit more light and little bit more positive. Ultimately, this is our specific story in terms of Dave’s stroke and certain phases of our life, and our marriage, and our journey through healing and recovery. Really, what we wanted it to be was more universal than that. This is sickness and healing. This is fear and hope. This is love. This is family. This is parenthood. This is marriage. That was what we really tried to do with both aspects of those stories.
Zibby: You’ve learned a lot, obviously not by choice necessarily, but about traumatic brain injury. I know you're crusading for this cause more now. Are there organizations you've found or something that readers at home can do to support others in this situation?
Allison: One of the big things we learned about, which I had no idea prior the stroke, was the concept of neuronal plasticity, which is something that we all have. This is not just relevant to stroke and brain injury survivors, that's the fact that our brains are plastic. Our brains are changing. Our brains have the ability to adapt and heal and recover. We use such a small percentage of our brain. When part of it is battered and bruised by injury, whether it’s stroke or something else, the neurons have this ability to heal and recover and build new bridges. The brain is the least understood and most remarkable organ in the body. That's why it’s so important, the brain, obviously. That's why it’s so devasting when your injury affects the brain.
The brain also has this capacity for miraculous healing in a way that no other part of the body does. To stimulate neuronal plasticity after injury is so important to try to trigger those neurons to fire up and come back online and form new connections. Anything that forces you out of your routine and forces you out of the road rhythms of your life is going to stimulate neuronal plasticity. This is not just for stroke survivors. Even just turning the doorknob with your non-dominant hand, or taking a shower with your eyes shut, or brushing your teeth while standing on one leg, these are all things that are going to challenge the brain and stimulate neuronal plasticity. We learned that. That was our buzzword, our lifeline, our mantra throughout Dave’s recovery. That's so important, the educational aspect of life after stroke or life after brain injury, that you can do these things on your own to trigger your own neuronal plasticity.
Even those who haven't suffered from stroke can also know this about brain health and know this about keeping your brain young and fit and active and agile. It’s so scary after an injury. What do we do? You open up your computer. You go on Google. You go down this rabbit hole of researching information. You don't know what's credible. You don't know what's bogus. I almost tried to not do too much of my own independent research and mostly went through doctors who were reliable and vetted. The American Stroke Association is incredible, and so is The National Stroke Association. We were really, really fortunate that Dave did his rehab at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, which also has a national presence. They were wonderful. Now Dave feels very strongly about speaking out, and speaking to survivors and caregivers, and supporting those who have walked a harrowing road that he walked himself.
Zibby: How is Dave doing now?
Allison: He's doing so great. He is back at work. We’re three years out. We’re celebrating Dave’s Alive Day, anniversary of his stroke, in just a couple weeks. He’s back to work in medicine. He’s not practicing orthopedic surgery. He’s in medical consulting. He’s also very adamant about writing and speaking with stroke survivor groups. He just spoke with The American Stroke Association last week. We’re expecting our second baby. I didn’t even know if Dave would survive to know our daughter. When I was pregnant, he almost died. I thought, “Even if I lose Dave, thank god a piece of him will live on in our daughter who will be born in a few months.”
I was so grateful that Dave survived to know his daughter and that my daughter knows her father. I never thought we would be able to grow our family and have another child. We consider this second pregnancy such a blessing. A few weeks ago we hit the twenty-two-week mark, which is exactly where we were when Dave had his stroke. That night we just sat. Dave wept. We were like, “From here on out, you're experiencing this pregnancy for the first time. You never made it past twenty-two weeks last time around.” I’m experiencing it from the perspective of the partner. Thank you. He’s doing very, very well. The brain is miraculous. He's made a miraculous recovery.
Zibby: I'm so happy. Last question, what are you going to do next? Do you have any quick advice to aspiring writers?
Allison: I'm turning to fiction next. After dwelling in this world of Dave’s stroke and recovery and speaking and meeting so many stroke survivors and amazing people with their own stories of “the club of the bad things,” fiction feels like jumping back into a hot fudge sundae or something. I'm working on my next historical fiction, which I will be able to speak about very soon. My next most immediate launch is obviously our second baby who’s due this summer.
My advice to aspiring writers would be what was impossible for me to hear when I was an aspiring writer, which is do it. If you have a story, sit down and write it. If that means writing at night after work or writing on weekends or writing when you have time off, put pen to paper. Tell your story. Be forgiving with yourself. Work in drafts. Don't expect it to be perfect with your first draft.
Zibby: Allison, if you could go back in time to the day before you boarded the airplane on which Dave had a stroke and tell yourself one thing that would help you get through it all, what would you have said to yourself?
Allison: Oh, my goodness. I would hug myself. I would say, “It will be hard. You will be okay. Your family will be okay. I promise you that.”
Zibby: That's so beautiful. Thank you so much, Allison, for sharing not just your story but your time today and being so inspiring. Thank you so much for creating this work of beauty.
Allison: Thank you. I'm sorry that my voice is breaking a little bit. I get a little bit emotional still.
Zibby: Of course you do. It’s completely understandable. How could you not?
Allison: Thank you for telling my story.
Zibby: Of course. Take care. Buh-bye.
Allison: You too. Bye.