Sufjan Steven’s latest album, “Carrie and Lowell,” is a poetic tribute to Steven’s mother, a woman he barely knew. A woman who suffered from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and substance abuse problems, she left Stevens and his siblings when they were very young. After she remarried, Stevens spent some summers with her in Oregon as a child.
When she died of cancer, Stevens describes his grief as something of a shock: it was remarkably potent, considering their limited relationship. Yet grappling with that grief, in all its nuances and difficulties, created the foundation for Steven’s newest album—songs that are not exhibitionist, but rather emblematic of the pains, the virtues, and the vices of our grief.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Stevens described his relationship with his mother:
She left when I was 1, so I have no memory of her and my father being married. She just wandered off. She felt that she wasn’t equipped to raise us, so she gave us to our father. It wasn’t until I was 5 that Carrie married Lowell. He worked in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, and we spent three summers out there—that’s when we actually saw our mother the most.
But after she and Lowell split up, we didn’t have that much contact with Carrie. Sometimes she’d be at our grandparents’ house, and we’d see her during the holidays for a few days. There was the occasional letter here and there. She was off the grid for a while, she was homeless sometimes, she lived in assisted housing. There was always speculation too, like, “Where is she? What is she doing?” As a kid, of course, I had to construct some kind of narrative, so I’ve always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie, because I have such few lived memories of my experience with her. There’s such a discrepancy between my time and relationship with her, and my desire to know her and be with her.
… She suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.
Image via Wikipedia Commons.
Featured columnist Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.