The ROOT WORKER is a hard novel to read. On the surface it’s hard because it tells of the life of Ellen a young girl growing up in Detroit who is punished every day of her life for being alive. She is an awkward girl who wets the bed and then the floor when the bed is taken away and she is shunned by almost everyone. But the the true anguish comes in the power of Burton’s writing to make you realize that Ellen could easily exist in the world today. According to the author, hope is Ellen’s enemy, it is only when Ellen gives up hope and takes charge of the harsh reality that has become her life that she is able to fly. This is a stunning work. Bold and unflinching, just like the author.
Carlye Archibeque: How did you come to write this particular story? Was it something you needed to write?
Rainelle Burton: I was compelled to write the story of root working for the sake of my own sanity. I know that world quite well because I once lived in it–still live in it to the extent that I’m close to some of the people who never left. I also live in the ‘conventional’ world, and know it well. And so, most of my life has been one of moving in and out of both and never speaking of one to the other because neither, I came to realize, can even conceptualize, much less understand, the other. It’s a bothersome thing. My silence on the root working world was most bothersome to me because I could at least discuss and critique aspects of the conventional world while there, but the secrecy of root working prevents discussion even within that world. So I tried to write about it (nonfiction), but discovered there was no language for explaining such a world as the understanding of language is predicated on point of reference. I found myself trying to explain and qualify and the explanation often further corrupted the reality of what really was. How can you explain a root working world in a language whose reference point is convention? The only way to present that world, I discovered, is by taking the readers there and plopping them down in the middle of it all to see what words can’t tell. And the only way I could see doing that was by recreating that world through fiction.
CA: Your book put me in mind of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, which was also a difficult book to read because the lead character never seemed to get a break. The Root Worker, is also, in some ways, difficult to read for the same reasons. There is a feeling of helplessness for the characters, that any empathetic reader feels, but at the same time there is hope, however sparse. How do you see the role of hope in your story?
RB: It’s funny that you asked this question because it demonstrates so well the difference between the two worlds and the problems with language and point of reference that I mentioned in my answer above. Hope in the larger role is almost always seen as an answer or remedy to the problem presented. In this story–and in the real world of root working–hope IS the problem. And a paradoxical one at that, as a sense of hopelessness is the condition for exploitation by root workers (and others) in the first place, and at the same time, hope is what perpetuates the sense of despair and exploitation. People turn to the Root Worker because they have hope for a way out of poverty and despair, turn to religion out of hope for salvation,… Even the reader has hope that Ellen will be saved by someone or something–her faith, the nuns, social worker, Barbara, even by her own sense of hope. Ironically (it’s ironic only in sense of the larger world), it is always by letting go of hope that she finds relief: she gives up hope and lets James have his way with her, and he stops, lets go of her hope in God and is saved (“being nothing is like Glue” ), lets go of her hope in Glue itself, and finds relief, and loses hope in Barbara and saves herself. It seems that it’s hope that keeps everyone stuck and helpless. They can’t get out because they’re stuck in their own hope. I see this a lot in that real world, too: people stuck in a vicious cycle of hope that keeps them from getting out, moving away from the despair: hope for a miracle, for relief, a savior…. But then, Ellen returns with new hope in tearing down that world and rebuilding it. I think the role of hope here is that the only tangible hope is in actually abandoning that world and beginning anew. Hope born out of that world can only bring despair.
CA: On the matter of hope, do you see hope as being different from faith, not necessarily religious faith. For example, Barbara seems to have a lot of faith in herself and her ability to overcome and in some ways she tries to pass this on to Ellen.
RB: I see faith as somewhat different, but faith and hope can also have similarities. Faith is different from hope in that much of its base is some tangible outcome or measurable proof that provides the means for a reasonable expectation. Hope–which is void of what is tangible or measurable and has no means for reasonable expectation–is based almost solely on what is needed or desired. Your example of Barbara and Ellen illustrates both, the differences and the similarities between faith and hope. Barbara’s faith in herself has at its base a measurable means for reasonable expectation: a relatively normal beginning (supportive and understanding adult), education (funded in part by her uncle), economic stability (also supported by her uncle’s estate) and a sense of acceptance–if not complete inclusion–in a world outside of one that is defined and restricted by poverty and desperation. It seems that what Barbara tries to pass on to Ellen can be defined as what she HOPES for her, since there is no measurable means for reasonably expecting Ellen’s life to turn out as well. At the same time, hope presents itself as faith to Barbara because much of what Ellen tells her or does not tell her about herself is either false or only partially true: from her name (Shirley) about Clarissa, her friends, etc… Even when Barbara is confident that she has won her trust, Ellen presents her with another lie (“Fell in some bushes”). It seems that the one vehicle for overcoming in the novel is her alter-ego, Clarissa, who is viewed by everyone, (including Babara until the very end), as a symbol of Ellen’s pathology, rather than her ability to transcend what is pathological through her imagination.
CA: The characters in The Root Worker are so vivid, how much of what you wrote about in the book is experience, yours or other peoples, and how much is from your imagination?
RB: This is my most frequently asked question, and the most difficult to answer after, “What is your next book about?” If you asked, “Is this story autobiographical?” I could simply answer that it isn’t. But within the context of the question asked, I’ll have to give a more complex answer. None of the EVENTS in the story ever happened to me or anyone I knew. They were mostly from my imagination. I say mostly because I did actually witness the root working rituals in the novel, and the reactions and effects that they provoked. So the rituals and their symbolism are real. The references to Catholicism, such as indulgences, purgatory, Eight Beatitudes, etc. are real and from my experience (I’m an ex-Catholic). I think it was necessary to present them as they actually are because there attempts to fictionalize them would at least border on the absurd. The setting (a Detroit neighborhood) was real in terms of its historical (the mass exodus of Catholic institutions, businesses, jobs and the middle class from Detroit in the mid-1960s), cultural and socioeconomic context. In this, I used what I knew as a base for presenting and developing the framework for the story. All of the characters and other events are from my imagination. They’re not drawn from or fictionalized versions of anyone I have ever known in my past or present lives, including myself. The creation and development of each one took longer than it took to develop and write the entire story, especially their voices. I’m often asked why I didn’t base the novel on people who I actually knew, or on my own experience. That would have been fine, except experiences, whether it’s our own or those of people we know, carries an emotional attachment, which we ultimately write from. We see the world we are describing according to how we feel about and judge our experiences and shape and frame the story accordingly. I had too many questions that I needed to find answers to going into the novel. As much as I knew about that world, there was just as much as I didn’t know: How is it that such a world continues to exist even today? Why can’t people see what it’s doing them, to their children? Why the need for secrecy? To explore these questions, I needed to separate the story of how I experienced and judged that world to look at it for what it just is: in its entirety without the distortion of my feelings. I could only do that by creating new events and people with different ways of seeing that world that could take me where I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to go.
CA: You mentioned being an ex Catholic. I am Catholic and I always joke that once you’re a Catholic you always use that to define yourself: former Catholic, recovering Catholic, lapsed Catholic, returning Catholic. Do you find that to be true?
RB: I think former is more appropriate than lapse or recovering Catholic, as the latter seems to suggest an affliction of sorts that I’m struggling for control over, or something that I’m in the process of surviving. Returning Catholic suggests just that. I can’t say that any of the terms–including ‘ex-Catholic’ is what I use to define myself because I did not choose to become Catholic, it was decided for me when I was a child. So it didn’t have an earth-shattering impact on my life, didn’t leave me with anything that I had been looking for, or that I long to have again. It just was, and I have no regrets. I’ve tasted that wine and decided that it wasn’t for me and moved on. But some aspects of the experience has helped me to grow and evolve–as has the many former and present things in my life–beyond what is defined by the experience itself.
CA: From your answer about where you got you ideas from, it seems that the Root Worker is a real phenomenon? In the book the Root Worker has a serious hold over Ellen’s mother, why does she choose to give herself over to someone who is so primitive?
RB: Actually, root workers are a fairly modern phenomena, originating in northern cities in the 1930s. It is often confused with voodoo, which it is derived from. Voodoo is a real African-based religion that is based on an all-powerful God that the voodoo priest (or priestess) serves as a medium. Root working is absent of religion, except for the occasional claim that God is powerless to help what only a root worker can do. Although root workers borrow from many of the symbols, terms and rituals used in voodoo, their meaning and use is distorted, changed and made-up as they take cues from the response, fears and desperation of their ‘clients’. So what a root worker does is not an old African-based ceremony or ritual, but a half-remembered, half-made-up version of what is interpreted as voodoo. Although the root worker in the novel (and those in real life) appears to be primitive, they are actually sophisticated modern con people who are excellent at analyzing people’s weaknesses and manipulating their hopes and fears. Ellen’s mother and others give themselves over to her so willingly because they see no other hope.
CA: Your use of the game of tag, with it’s safety of “glue” in the book works so well, what made you decide to use it as a frame in the book?
RB: It was a popular game of tag in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. What made Glue so safe was that it was everywhere, and could be anything that you could imagine at any time: a clump of grass, a crack in the sidewalk, a tree, fence…. Glue was a chameleon, always changing, always safe, always there as long as you could claim it before you were tagged. That’s why it was so popular, and why kids were so sure that they wouldn’t get tagged. It was what felt self at the moment. It was a metaphor for whatever way that Ellen could make herself feel safe. As I got into the story, I realized that the meaning of Glue could change metaphorically, too, and so I played with the theme: for being stuck between visible and nothing; the substance that holds Ellen together; stuck in one place…. I liked the changing metaphor and decided to play with it, and others as well: weeds, the color blue, purgatory. It was a fun and challenging thing to do.
CA: The character, if you can call it that, of Clarissa is an incredible idea, what were you thinking when you decided to use her? Was she there from the beginning or did she develop as things went on?
RB: Clarissa was there from the beginning. I knew that the story wasn’t to be so much about Ellen as it was to be about her world. Ellen represents so much of the reality of that world and its effect on the individual, though, and it’s often mentally and physically intolerable to those who don’t conform to it. Here we have a paradox again. In that world, the victims are those who fit comfortably in it and for whom it becomes tolerable. But they have a sense of being victimized by those whose lives they make intolerable–that’s why they are so brutal. Ellen couldn’t tell the whole story if she felt her own pain; it would have been too much to ask of her. But she could if she detached from the pain (dissociation or ‘splitting’) by transferring it to someone else. That someone else became Clarissa, who not only absorbed the pain, but also bore her guilt and provided other relief (Glue) as a companion, confidant, and later as a real person became the real family that she never had and a link to hope in a world away from the one she left behind.
CA: What do you hope readers will take with them from your story?
RB: I learned a lot in writing the book. I’m still learning as the questions that it raises–my own and others’ such as yours–push me to dig deeper for answers that I wouldn’t have looked for. So every question that I answer opens up a bigger picture: about that world, about language, the human condition, even about myself. It’s an amazing thing because just when I think there’s nothing else to discover in the book, another question brings a whole new flood to wave through. The only drawback is that it keeps me preoccupied when I should be working on my next book. It’s taken me to places I would never have been in looking at the world and myself. Thank you for the experience. That’s what I want the reader to take from the story: lot’s of questions and a whole flood of stuff to wonder about, answers to seek. A whole new world to discover, especially about themselves. That would be an amazing thing. If the reader can discover something new about themselves, within themselves: a new question, an answer… I’d say the book is good. That would be too cool.