I talked to Kathleen Frazier, author of Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist, recently on her lunch hour from her administrative job at Columbia University, where she has been accepted into the Masters of Science Program in Narrative Medicine.
Congratulations on the publication of Sleepwalker and its continuing success. I read that your agent signed you after reading your piece about sleep disorders in Psychology Today. Very nice story.
Thank you. I originally wrote that piece for Modern Love [the New York Times column] but they turned it down. It really belonged in Psychology Today. My proposal was based on that essay. Years before, in the late 1990s, I’d begun writing down my memories from sense memory exercises at The Actors Studio. But I felt too much shame to share the sleepwalking publicly so I turned the memories into young adult fiction. The teen protagonist was a sleepwalker but the material was too dark for the young adult market, though it wouldn't be now. The turning point for me, in regard to my decision to write the memoir, was the tragic death of Tobias Wong, who hung himself in 2010, most probably while sleepwalking. Soon after, I took an essay writing class and my teacher pointed out that my memoir was really a love story. (I'd met my husband just days after a severe accident I had in the middle of a sleepwalking/sleep terror episode.) My agent helped me focus the story on my sleep disorders as they related to my relationships and my fear of intimacy. I was especially terrified of being seen as a freak, even as a child.
How common are sleep disorders?
More common than people realize. Dr. Mahowald, who wrote the foreword to my book, was a Principal Investigator in the first national study ever conducted on nocturnal wandering in the United States, in 2012. The research showed that almost thirty percent of Americans have experienced at least one episode. Sleep disorders, especially insomnia and sleep terrors, can often be related to trauma. You see them in PTSD and chronic trauma, for example in victims of child abuse, domestic violence, rape, and other crimes. And, very much in the news, we see debilitating sleep issues associated with our soldiers returning from war. Sleep is inextricably linked to our mental health.
The book raises the question of whether there’s also a genetic component to sleep disorders. You write that your father was an alcoholic and your mother also suffered from night terrors.
Yes, it does raise the question of genetics. My father got sober, which was unusual for that time. Later he relapsed on sleeping pills, though at the time no one recognized this as a relapse. He suffered terribly from insomnia, from the trauma of WWII. Both my parents survived alcoholic homes and both had unpredictable fits of rage.
Acting seems like an odd choice for someone who wanted to be invisible as a child, as you write.
I used to sing as a child, at a neighbor’s house. Some part of my spirit wanted to express itself that way. Doing work on stage made me feel so happy and connected to that part of my spirit. I was “bit,” as they say, the first time I was on the stage as a senior in high school.
You were afraid to share your sleep problems with anyone, afraid of being diagnosed as mentally ill. Did you really think you were mentally ill, since you functioned pretty well during the day?
I did the best I could, but I was functionally affected. There was a lot of denial. I had read about my sleep disorders in Psychology Today when I was sixteen and the message was to tolerate them. By the time I finished theater school in New York, I was constantly exhausted, unable to go for auditions, even though they were important to me. My insomnia worsened for fear of having episodes. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. I began self-medicating with alcohol and became promiscuous in a city that was burgeoning with Aids. This was self-abusive and a hidden cry for help.
And now? Are you fully recovered?
I still have an occasional night terror when I’m under stress or get triggered, for example by violence in a movie. I haven't left my bed in over 20 years. Still, I remember how unsettling it was to be told that I did something while sound asleep without any recollection. Just as frightening was to wake up during a night terror, like waking up in the middle of a horror movie.
What are you working on now?
An historical novel called Selkie Girl inspired by my Irish grandmother, about a girl at the turn of the last century whose unwed mother commits suicide on the night she’s born. She’s ostracized by her village and forlorn that her mother abandoned her. A kindly grandma figure consoles her, and tells her that her mother was a selkie, a seal which, according to Celtic legend, sheds its skin to become human on land. I won't say anymore—don’t want to spoil it—but the book incorporates a lot of the intergenerational trauma that I explored in Sleepwalker.
What about acting?
I participate some at the Actors Studio, but lately my creative attention has been towards my writing. I've had the challenge recently of using voice-activated software because of wrist injuries. I also narrated my book for Audible and am creating a podcast about sleep which will focus on people's narratives.
Has Sleepwalker helped a lot of people?
My dentist recommended it to a patient. Another dentist I know had a patient whose teeth were ruined because she would get up during the night and chew on ice chips. Some people make and eat whole meals while asleep. Readers seem to identify with my story, with the connection between trauma and sleep problems, and they pass it along to others who might benefit.
Shortly after this interview a family reached out to Ms. Frazier to tell her how much her book comforted them after the tragic death of a family member while sleepwalking. Ms. Frazier wrote in an email: “The fact that my book came out only two months before this death is for me a sign that it has the potential to educate, comfort, and I hope maybe prevent injury and even death by sleepwalking. I am very, very grateful that sharing my story could bring this family any bit of comfort.”
The Editors at The Intima are in turn grateful to Ms. Frazier for sharing her thoughts and ideas with our readers.—Priscilla Mainardi