An Interview with Mishele MaronBy Andrew Snee, Senior Editor • February 12, 2024
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, so Mishele Maron’s first essay in The Sun, “The Psychic Is In,” was a hard sell for me. She won me over with her frank, level-headed account of being raised by a mother who took her to psychics, and of continuing to seek the counsel of mediums later in life.
And what a life she’s led. Mishele’s been employed as a professional chef, worked aboard luxury yachts that sailed the world, and raised two daughters in Seattle, Washington. In her essay in this month’s issue, “Anger Management,” she writes about some of those experiences and also about working at a mental-health clinic, where she participated in group-counseling sessions for men with anger issues. During role-playing exercises, Mishele found a talent for provoking strong emotions by portraying some of the women in the men’s lives. In real life she seems more adept at soothing hurt feelings.
When we spoke over video chat, Mishele impressed me with her nuanced understanding of emotions and her sharp analysis of the various class, gender, and other factors at work in our professional and personal relationships. We talked about her seafaring years, her older daughter’s favorite reality TV show, and why she wasn’t satisfied to vent her rage on a punching bag.
Andrew Snee: In “Anger Management” you write about working with angry men when you were a cook and a chef aboard ships. What was that like?
Mishele Maron: In that industry I was living and working with men who were uncommonly aggressive, forthright, and commanding. At certain points I had to find the courage to say to them, “Hey, you’re communicating in a way that is making me shut down.” And a lot of them were taken aback and humbled and even grateful that I’d spoken up. Not all of them, of course, but with most I established a working relationship that helped me understand how isolated these men were. Once I had built a trust with them, they started sharing personal stories with me and asking for advice on how to talk to their wives. And I saw how men, too, are systematically harmed by living inside a patriarchal paradigm. When women are harmed by that paradigm, we at least have each other. We have the language of emotion and connection, and we can talk about what’s going on. These men didn’t have that.
Andrew: Later you worked at a clinic with men who’d been required by the courts to take anger-management courses. Do you think that most of them were helped by it?
Mishele: Oh, absolutely. I would say 85 percent of the men I encountered in the anger-management program had been severely abused all through their childhoods and into adulthood and had never told anyone. They were throwing phones and saying things that were really not productive because it was all they knew. But just like the men I met in the marine industry, they had ended up being fairly successful, because in their careers they could get away with behaviors that would not be considered healthy in, say, a marriage. And many of the men, once they got over the humiliation of the court system, were fairly open to sharing what they’d been through and interested in finding the reasons for their behavior. Which is not to excuse their behaviors, but we should all be thinking about why we behave the way we do and how it manifests and affects others.
Andrew: Stand-up comic Bailey Norton suggests that women say to angry men, “Oh, buddy, big feelings.” How do you think that would go over?
Mishele: I saw that joke, too, and I did laugh. You know, we all have big feelings, whether we express them or not. Even the people who don’t say much, let’s not assume they don’t have big feelings. They might have been socially conditioned not to share them. Would it help to say that to an angry man? If it was said with love, it could. But it could also come out as really dismissive and could humiliate a proud person. Still, we laugh because it’s true, right? I mean, there are a lot of erudite explanations for why people behave badly, but the simplest answer is they’re angry.
Andrew: And their anger is covering up other feelings.
Mishele: Anger is like a suitcase: it holds a lot of things inside it—disappointment, helplessness, vulnerability, confusion. And it’s hard to tease them apart. We all need to move slower through life and more mindfully. I have to laugh because here in Seattle we are supposedly very chill and in touch with our feelings, but now on every corner there’s a pot shop, and that’s the opposite of mindfulness. It’s getting out of your mind. I’m sure it helps to self-medicate. It can numb us a bit. But it doesn’t untie the strands of anger that are upsetting us.
Andrew: So how did you get started working on board ships?
Mishele: As a young woman I was traveling around France and met some very dirty sailors in a café who were looking for day workers. They paid me ten dollars an hour to sand the varnish off the cap rail. On that particular ship the food was terrible, and eventually somebody asked me, “Can you cook?” I had grown up cooking. The next thing you knew I was making them lunch.
My very first boat was a sailing vessel, a 128-year-old Spanish brigantine owned by a retired British naval captain. It crossed the English Channel back and forth between France and England. And I was cooking for twelve to fifteen crew members, all British. I think I was probably crying every night for weeks, because their sense of humor was so sharp. Any flaw that a working-class British person can see in you, they zero in on it, and the teasing never stops. And then you cry, and then you laugh, and then you learn not to take yourself so seriously.
Andrew: Were you ever at sea for long periods?
Mishele: Not on that ship, but later I worked on a yacht that sailed around the world for three years. We’d sometimes spend twenty-two days at sea, then arrive at a place where the natives rowed up in their canoes to sell me fish and lobsters. I worked with my first real captain on that yacht, a rough-and-ready man who dropped f-bombs like they were a necessary part of speech. He was probably the closest I’ve ever had to a father. He’s the one who taught me how to speak up for myself.
It was tough being the only American on board and living with the people you work with and having your boss comment on the kinds of men he sees you talking to. But it was also good. Growing up, I’d never had anyone say, “Hey, where are you going?”
Andrew: What made you decide to give it up?
Mishele: I loved it—the travel was exotic and exciting—but it’s a very working-class existence, almost like indentured servitude: twelve-hour days and never leaving. First I was working for millionaires, but I ended up being employed by billionaires. And there’s a huge difference. A millionaire will come and talk to you. There’s a back-and-forth. The billionaire doesn’t say a word to anyone: he just calls his manager in Hong Kong, and you find yourself flying in a private jet to Singapore to serve someone a Coke. In my last five years in the marine industry, I was interacting with these wealthy, psychologically complicated people who could be from Brazil or from the entertainment industry in Los Angeles—anywhere. It got to the point where I thought maybe I couldn’t do my job without a psychology degree. But it was all I’d ever done. I didn’t know what else I could do. I loved working with food.
Then came 9/11. I was based on a large yacht in Italy, and I walked into the crew lounge and saw the bizarre image of the plane going into the building on TV. And I said, “Guys, this is not a very funny movie. Turn it off.” I was the only American on the boat, and they all realized, Oh, nobody told Mish. Suddenly I just wanted to be home. I was thirty-one and had been dealing with these lovely but complicated billionaires for years, and all of the voices and the stories and the impact of living with so many people from different backgrounds had filled my mind and body to the point that I just had to get free. So I flew back to Seattle, which is near where I grew up, and I started writing.
Andrew: Have you seen the movie Triangle of Sadness? It’s a dark comedy about inequality set in part aboard a luxury yacht.
Mishele: I haven’t yet, but my nineteen-year-old daughter recently became obsessed with the reality show Below Deck, about crew members on a yacht. I don’t think I’ve watched an entire episode. I just can’t. It’s not a trauma response; the job was a drama I chose. But, anyway, she’ll ask, “Mom, did you ever sleep with any of the deckhands?” or, “Did you binge drink after the guests left?” And I’ll choose my words carefully, maybe tell her it was a pretty “charged environment,” and she’ll say, “So you did.” I plead the fifth.
Andrew: You tried martial arts to work through your own anger, but it didn’t really work for you. Do you think we’re too quick to look to violence as an outlet for anger—like, just go hit something?
Mishele: Once I realized I had this anger inside of me, I kept asking, What do I do with this? And I thought, I’ll go to a place where violence is socially sanctioned. But I might as well have been drinking cosmopolitans for all the good it did. It wasn’t what needed to happen, which was for me to work with my emotions and learn to recognize the signals that something was bothering me. We have to sit with that to figure it out. We don’t talk about this enough in society, and we don’t teach it in schools. I also have a fifteen-year-old daughter, and I can see the effects of the pandemic on kids her age. They’re all having a ton of emotions they can’t deal with appropriately, and they’re acting out. We’re seeing the same thing in politics right now. We get upset and have these impulses, but the difference between a civil society and an uncivil society, or a civil self and an unknowable self, is our ability to hold our emotions and glean what we can from them and be with them. Most often the answer for What do I do with this? is Learn from it.
So, yeah, the karate studio did not do much for me. I think exercise can help, though. I am a huge believer in counseling, and in being present with the small communities you belong to. I do a lot of cooking when I’m mad, though I’m not sure about “rage baking.” Personally I think you’re going to bake bread and still be upset. Yesterday my daughter was having a hard time, and I told her to grab her coat, and we went outside. “Where are we going?” she asked, and I said, “For a walk. I’m showing you that you can walk with your confusion.” And she said, “Well, what good is walking?” And I said, “Otherwise you’re just going to sit in your room.”
Andrew: Did she feel better afterward?
Mishele: Not really. But at least we got some fresh air.
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