Coming Up Snortland: An Interview On Mothers, Theater, and Women’s Self-Defense

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Ellen Snortland Headshot (Large)Now That She’s Gone: Unraveling the Mystery of My Mother is a solo play by Ellen Snortland that ran during the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival.

Solo plays in the Fringe are a dime — more like a nickel — a dozen, and the challenge, obviously, is some kind of hook or distinguishing aspect that lends the story, as well as the performance, some deeper shimmer.

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In my review of the play for Back Stage, I wrote:

….author-actor Ellen Snortland’s script examines her tumultuous personal history as an attorney, a journalist, a recovering cocaine addict, and a stage practitioner, set against the backdrop of the American feminist movement of the 1970s and ’80s – she is a baby boomer, after all…

At precisely 90 minutes, there are moments when you wonder if Snortland will succeed in knitting together the threads of her tapestry. When she does, it’s a moment that’s thrilling in its simplicity. Yes, Snortland does learn why her mother was the cold, laconic creature she was. No, it wasn’t because the elder Snortland didn’t want a third child – or three girls, for that matter. Detective work and intuition pay off for this performer in a family story beautifully brought to the stage.

Being a review, and being disinclined to engage in spoilers, I chose to omit the fact that Snortland figured out, after her mother’s death, that her mother, whose first name was Barbro, suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. Barbro’s condition wasn’t the play’s apex; it was, and remain, the mechanism — the A-ha! moment — that allows the piece to evolve highly organically from arguably being like every other solo play into a Different Kind of Solo Play. Snortland’s realization is the glue that holds all of her disparate pieces together. It’s masterfully written, delightfully performed.

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Cut to a year later. Snortland reaches out — she’ll be keynoting the plenary session at the convention of the National Organization for Women — New York State, scheduled for Oct. 25 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Westchester, NY, she says, and also perform Now That She’s Gone following the convention. Would the Clyde Fitch Report consider a story?

Absolutely, as it’s not just the play that makes Snortland an intriguing figure. Born in Denver, raised in South Dakota, she graduated high school at 16 and headed directly for the Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, CA. She co-founded the Theater of Process, arguably the nation’s first all-woman company, then studied law at Loyola and passed the California bar. In time, Snortland ventured into journalism, writing for major newspapers and magazines and now, very often, for the Huffington Post in addition to a long-term gig with the Pasadena Weekly. In 2001, her book, Beauty Bites Beast: Awakening the Warrior Within Women and Girls, was published. It was inspired in part by an encounter with a home invasion that nearly turned deadly. That, Snortland told me, was actually one of two near-death experiences she’s had: She’s also a survivor of the famous 1972 flood of Rapid City, SD, which killed 238 and injured thousands.

Some particulars, for those interested in attending the convention: registration is $45 for NOW members, $75 for non-members. Tickets for the play are $10 for NOW members and $25 for non-NOW members. For more information, click here.

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Once you figured out that your mother had Asberger’s, what was your incentive to write it as a play?
I found my mother to be this ginormous enigma my life and I was basically always trying just to get her to react to me. After she died, I ran across this article in the New York Times about undiagnosed adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and suddenly everything fell into place. I mean, I practically turned myself into an organ-grinder monkey to get her to smile. So, with this article, I could almost make a checklist of tell-tale signs of Asperger’s, and there I was going “Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God.” Understand, my mother was never mean to me and she was never cruel, except in the fact that I interpreted her nonreaction to me as cruel. That wasn’t where she was coming from.

But you could have just filed away the information in a kind of personal place — you didn’t have to write a play about her or about your relationship with her. Realizing your mother has Asberger’s — that’s pretty intimate stuff.
I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of with a neurological condition.

What about your dad in this?
My dad, well, he was basically blacklisted for his politics. He was a lawyer, and the rumors were he was a Communist. The next thing he knew, he literally could not work, could not find work. So, he moved us, lock, stock and barrel, off to Colorado. Here was this brilliant man who couldn’t get work or feed us and now he was a tube tester. My parents were socially responsible, ardent humanitarians and liberals. I have no complaints about my parents at all — they raised me to be very socially aware and active. Without them, I couldn’t have married my love of social concerns with my love of art.

Why couldn’t someone — if not your mother, then your father — identify her neurological problem?
If you could answer that, we’d make a lot of money! There is a spectrum of autism that ranges from headbangers who have to wear football helmets and can’t interact to more functional people, which is Asberger’s: you have all the wiring for an intellect and/or an ardency for social justice or whatever your thing is that borders on the compulsive, but any wiring snuggling, for affection, all that stuff, isn’t there. My mother didn’t hold me because it wasn’t in her makeup. A lot of people in the population don’t have that wiring. A lot of them pretend they like snuggling.

It’s all just sounds so cold.
Oh, but you have to realize: it is hard to tell an Asperger’s from, say, a good Scandanavian citizen. I was this manic kid, caring about everything so much, and I stuck out so badly because my family wasn’t that way at all. If I had suggested I discovered what was going on with Mom and said out loud what I discovered — I mean, my mother and sister would not have wanted to go there. Some Asberger’s are relieved by the identification. Others don’t want to talk about it.

My mom — also — was always compensating. I couldn’t get into any of the details in a 90-minute show, but she would sit with her family and a pad of paper and keep notes. This way, even though she couldn’t know what to say back to us when we were talking about something, she could pass, you know? She compensated in so many ways. She would try to participate. Thankfully my dad was a heartfelt person and I got a lot of nurturing from him.

And therapy, right?
Oh, yeah. I live in California. I’ve done everything. I did Est, I did Landmark…

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Because one of the powerful elements of your show is how clearly you’ve forgiven your mother — the compassion and the understanding and the love you show for her now.
I’ve completely forgiven her. At one point way before she died, I just kind of said “I get it.” I said, “She’s never going to change, nor does she have any obligation to change.” For me, it was frosting on the cake to find in her a neurological condition that a lot of people have. She was normal but she wasn’t wired the way we are.

But what I was saying before is that it’s easier to be an Asperger’s person among Norwegians and harder to be one if you’re around Italians or Mexicans — you’d stick out like a sore thumb. Like the Norwegians, being able to go within yourself and not get emotional in a house with six other people during the absolute darkness of winter — it’s an asset. Otherwise you’ll kill each other or go outside and freeze to death.

Have you met other people who discovered their parent had (or has) Asperger’s?
I haven’t met many people my age who have been able to identify autism in their parents. I’ve met a couple who did say, “You know, I think that’s what was going on with my mother,” though. They think Einstein had Asperger’s, though there’s lots of conjecture about that. It has to do with him being so tunnel-visioned. Once someone has Asperger’s and they glom onto something they like, they take it the nth degree.

So was your play a writing process or an editing process? Or, since you perform it, an acting process?
I’m not a religious person, I’m not tied into a particular practice, but I feel this has been the most spiritual experience of my life to write this play. Mostly I feel like — this is going to sound so wackadoodle California — my mother kind of channeled it to me. For one thing, it was the easiest thing I’ve ever wrrtten. Once I had a handle on the piece, it was just weaving them into piece. I call it a “feminist love letter” to my mother — she wouldn’t give you warm and cuddly and loving, but she would take the time to show a 10-year-old The Universal Declaration of Human Rights because she felt it was important. It was human loving. And when I say it was the easiest thing I ever wrote, it just wrote itself.

Can you talk about the reception the piece has received? Not by critics, but by regular theatergoers.
I thought women my age would like it, like it would be a baby-b0omer anthem: “Our mothers didn’t love us.” But men love the piece, too. I’ve had guys come up to me with tears running down their faces — literally, I’ve had 70-year-old men finally forgive their mother or father. There is a universal desire to forgive, I believe, and a lot of the people who hadn’t forgiven their parents finally did it. The play has been a remarkable experience that way.

I want to change the subject slightly. You’re also the author of Beauty Bites Beast. Can you describe how that came about?
I had this life where — ok, so I’ve passed the bar exam, I’ve traveled all over the world, I’m an example of real middle-class privilege, and all that stuff. Yet not one person ever told me what to do in case somebody attacked me. One night we came home really late — this man held the knife up and I screamed so loudly the man dropped the knife and ran like hell out of the house. My husband thought I died I shrieked so much — it was that post-adrenalin shaking mode. After that, I thought, Why was I so clueless about self-protection? What’s up with that? Because if someone gets violent with you — and one in three women will be attacked sometime in their lifetime — what do you do?

Actually, watch this video:

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I mean, it’s this dark, dirty secret that no one wants to talk about. I was a segment producer for King World at the time and I had a crack research team, so I told them, “Find me the best self-defense team you can find.” They call it Impact Personal Safety, Model Mugging — different names around the country where the male is padded head to foot. I mean, I didn’t realize that I was afraid of half the population. Beauty Bites Beast continues to sell and has become a classic in its field because it counters the notion of women that they’re helpless. I’m always for the underdog, whether it’s gay bashing or women beating or child beating. It’s just not ok.

In the keynote I’m going to give, I basically premise that whatever you have half the population unnecessarily afraid of the other, there’s a cost to that. I didn’t realize before I learned how to defend myself how much time I spent being careful around men.