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SunLit Interviews

SunLit interview: She finished her autobiography on her 75th birthday, thanks to her husband’s “bucket list”

Author Joan C. Lieberman tells the wrenching story of growing up with a mother who had paranoid schizophrenia. She couldn't bring herself to re-read her first draft describing the time her mother tried to kill her.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit

Joan Carol Lieberman had a 5-year-old son when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

Her oncologist predicted she would be lucky to survive five months, yet she’s alive 28 years later.

A management consultant for 40 years, she was a finalist for the Bakeless Literary Prize and invited to attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 1999. It was there she began writing her autobiography, which she finished on her 75 birthday in June 2017.

Married for 42 years, the mother of two grown children, she lives in Boulder.


What inspired you to write this book?

After 42 years of marriage, my husband and I decided to make a “bucket list” for our marriage – what we each wanted from the other before our approaching deaths. The only item on my husband’s list was the completion of my autobiography, “Optimal Distance, A Divided Life.” If it hadn’t been the only item on his list, I would have abandoned the manuscript. Writing a memoir is relatively easy, but an autobiography is the toughest task in all of narrative writing.

Author Joan C. Lieberman (Photo by Stephen Collector)

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I remain haunted by W.G. Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz in “Austerlitz” and Phillip Lopate’s Cyrus Irani in “The Rug Merchant.” For personal comfort, I have returned again and again to Julian Barnes’ memoir of mortality, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” and Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place.”

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

I chose “About Optimal Distance” from Part One because optimal distance is a complex psychological issue which pervades our lives. My life was defined by my need to find optimal distance from my mother because she developed paranoid schizophrenia when I was an infant and was episodically homicidal. We all struggle to discover and maintain a comfortable distance in our relationships – whether it be with our parents, our lovers, our children, or our friends, colleagues and superiors. The great majority of us also wrestle with spiritual beliefs and/or our concept of God and the distance we attempt to keep from death. In Optimal Distance, I have used my life story to illustrate the critical ways in which distance shapes our relationships and our lives from beginning to the end.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I have been a dedicated diarist since I was five. As an only child with an insane mother, I wrote in my diary pretending someone was listening to me. In 1989, I developed metastatic breast cancer and was told my prognosis meant my death was imminent. I stopped looking forward with hope and instead turned around and began looking back in search of meaning. My diaries helped me to uncover many important secrets and to find comfort in a fuller understanding of my existence.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book?

Chapter 4 in Part One entitled “The Bear Goes to Topaz.” Why? This chapter is a metaphorical reconstruction of a homicidal attack that my mother made on me as a toddler. I carried the memory of that attack in my unconscious until I was 50 years old. I wasn’t able to face that part of my history until persistent dreams led me to three different witnesses. After writing the initial draft of that chapter, I found I was unable to re-read it.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

As a lifelong diarist, I was able to closely examine the arc of my life in the American West from my birth during World War II to the Trump presidency. It allowed me to see repetitive patterns, as well as how frequently my existence was shaped by accidental forces or careless choices. I also discovered that in my family, proximity is destiny. Several intergenerational patterns led me to explore the science of epigenetics.

What project are you working on next?

I am working on a book about the meaning of “optimal distance” in the lives of immigrants. My theory is that those who immigrate to America from distant countries like Russia versus from adjoining countries like Mexico find it easier to become fully acculturated in American life and language than those who remain in closer proximity to their country of origin.

— Buy “Optimal Distance, A Divided Life” at BookBar

— Excerpt: “Optimal Distance, A Divided Life,” by Joan C. Lieberman”

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