Secrets Laid Bare: An Interview with Susannah Breslin, Author of Data Baby

Susannah Breslin selfie
Susannah Breslin, author of Data Baby

Susannah Breslin is an investigative journalist and copywriter who has covered topics ranging from fetish porn to Pepto Bismol. She is a senior contributor at Forbes, where she writes about the business of sex. Her journalism has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's Bazaar, Slate, and countless other venues.

She is also a fiction writer. Her short story collection You're a Bad Man, Aren't You? was published by Kevin Sampsell's Future Tense Books in 2003. Her fiction has made its way into PANK, Hobart, Bending Genres, and many other places.

Susannah's work is also sprinkled throughout the Identity Theory archives—she has contributed interviews, fiction, nonfiction, and photography to the magazine.

Breslin (who, at 6'1", refers to her persona as an "investigative amazon") shows up on TV from time to time—CNN, Fox News, Politically Incorrect. She was also a journalist on the Playboy TV show Sexcetera for a stretch.

Her new memoir, Data Baby: My Life in a Psychological Experiment, investigates the 30 years she spent as the subject of a longitudinal behavioral study that began when she was a child in Berkeley. Along the way, Breslin’s "intelligently provocative memoir and investigation" (Kirkus) revisits her experience surviving breast cancer and hurricanes and navigating her complicated family relationships.

In this interview, we discuss the differences between independent and traditional publishing, the expectations of memoir writers to conform to a structural and emotional formula, and the concept of "finding one's true self" as a repulsive marketing catch phrase.

The marketing material for Data Baby describes it as a provocative quest for you to find your true self. What do you think it means to find your true self in an era when we are constantly mined for data and manipulated by algorithms?

I don’t even know how to answer this question, as the phrase marketing material made my skin crawl and then when I got to the part where it said provocative quest I thought, oh my god, is that something I wrote or did someone else write that, and then when I reached find your true self I curled in on myself and died of shame, and that’s just the first sentence of this interview. Where do we go from here?

I don’t think I believe in true selves. I think a true self is a lie memoirs use to sell books. Like, especially to women. Like: Hey, ladies, if you can just find your TRUE SELF, whatever the hell that means, then you’ll hate yourself a little less than you do because that’s what pop culture tells you to do as a woman—think of yourself as broken or ugly or fat so you’ll buy some product to fix the problem you supposedly have.

I wonder if I were to interview my personal algorithm that has turned me into the person I am today what it would say about who I am. I think the algorithm would say that I am the true self it wants me to be, not something inside of me.

Do you think it is harder for a person to find their true self now than it was 20 years ago?

There is a lot more noise around us than there was 20 years ago, with all the social media and TV channels and chattering podcasts. In my opinion, the search for the true self is a fool’s errand. And I believe people who are younger than me are catching on to that. And they don’t want that bullshit anymore. They don’t want to be their supposed true self. They want to be the person they are right now, at this moment, in all their messy, imperfect, wabi sabi glory, and I am really down for that.

I think authors of memoirs sell this baloney true self narrative to push their product, which is that, you know, it’s not enough they wrote a book—they found their true self along the way! That is the promise of the memoir. That in the end the narrator will emerge transformed into the person they were meant to be. I love books, but writing a book does not on its own transform you. I have found many other things in my life to be more transformative than writing a memoir, like, for example, having a malignant tumor inside of me but surviving that or growing up riding horses and falling off them a lot or wanting to kill myself sometimes but then my mom dying and then not wanting to kill myself so much after. Why would a book transform you? Life does, not words on a page.

What activities make you feel most like your mythical “true self”? 

At the risk of sounding contentious, most of the time I’m not trying to feel most like my true self but most like my false self. When I watch “The Real Housewives” franchise, for example, I can pretend to be a highly dramatic Salt Lake City housewife embroiled in a catfight. Or these days I’m working on a novel set in the adult movie industry, and that is really fun to do; when I am writing fiction, I am the main character, and this time that is a man, and it’s really wonderful to be a man for a time, if only in my head.

Especially as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I am a human being trapped inside this encasing of failing flesh, and anything I can do to evacuate or leave the scene is a great relief. If I had more of an addictive personality, I would probably do drugs, but I don’t. I regret to admit that when I am pissed off about something, I tend to feel more alive. But as a woman you aren’t really supposed to be angry a lot of the time, so I tend to try and keep that under wraps, but that doesn’t always work. I deal with a lot of rage.

One time I dated this guy who said his inside self was like a prism or kaleidoscope or something, and I think about that sometimes. Maybe we are not a true self or a one person but a fun house mirror pretending to be a single person but are not.

Your book chronicles tough subjects like your divorce, your battle with cancer, your difficult relationship with your mom, and your participation in a complicated and mysterious longitudinal psychological experiment. What was the hardest part of this book to write and why?

The hardest part of my memoir to write was pretty much all of it. For nearly 20 years I’ve been a journalist covering the business of sex. Around that and doing that I cultivated a writerly persona that worked for that environment, where I was sometimes around people doing illegal or unsavory or abusive things. I am six-foot-one, and the persona I created was kind of like this investigative amazon, you know, going where everyone else was too afraid to go to see the things no one else would see.

Writing this memoir forced me to shed that armor and be more vulnerable. Or at least that was the task, in theory. You know, I don’t really like memoirs, which are often written by women for women. I think of myself as someone who as a journalist has historically appealed more to men. Memoirs oftentimes are just the vomiting of emotions. I find the idea of doing that repellant. So I really struggled with the whole book, to be honest. One reviewer described my tone in my memoir as dispassionate, or something to that effect, but that was kind of the point.

If you think of the main character of your memoir as just that, a character, she must be a product of her environment. In my case, she is studied by researchers who assign her a number and spy on her through one-way mirrors. She has a mother who touches her rarely and resents being a mother and sometimes says to her daughter: “I don’t want to be a mother anymore.” Her father leaves her with her depressed mother who the main character feels like she has to parent or save or fix. Do you think this character is going to freely express her emotions, be vulnerable? No, she’s not. That has been studied, grinded, strangled out of her. There is no fixing her. She is what she is.

I was very relieved to finish the book. Actually, I find these interviews pretty difficult. It’s like being put under the microscope again. Onlookers I cannot see are judging me. But I think it’s important to share the honest truth. That this is not easy; it is hard.

Data Baby isn’t one of those touchy-feely memoirs with a traditionally happy ending, but I felt the conclusion was perfect for the book because it felt true to you. When did you get the sense—and how did you know—that you had found the right way to end the book?

Thank you! I really worried about the ending, and I know some people hated it. To them I say sorry I didn’t supply you with the happy ending for which you sought. The big turning point for me in writing the book was when my mother died. I knew almost immediately that her death gave me the third act for which I had been searching. I’m not the only one who has struggled with writing a memoir that features people who are still alive, and once my mother died, I felt like I could tell my story, for once.

One funny thing that’s in the book, obviously, is that I was born on my mother’s birthday. It was sort of like my life was never quite my own. There was some sort of overlap between us that made me feel like I had to subjugate my narrative to hers—to make her happy, to make her feel not threatened, to let her win. Once she was gone, I didn’t feel that way anymore. I celebrated my birthday as my own for the first time.

Data Baby: My Life in a Psychological Experiment by Susannah Breslin

How would Data Baby have turned out differently if it were published by a smaller independent press?

This is such a great question. Even though your question is specifically about traditional publishing versus independent publishing, it’s also a post-publication question that haunts authors, or at least it does me: What was the book I didn’t write? I’ve spent most of my writing career writing online, which is what I prefer. The internet is like this giant interconnected ball of energy, and you can create something and push it out immediately, and then other people engage with it, and I find that really exciting. A book, in paper form, is this hard, final product. So that was different for me.

Twenty years before Data Baby was published, I published a short story collection: You’re a Bad Man, Aren’t You? In 2023, Data Baby was published by one of the Big Five publishers. In 2003, You’re a Bad Man, Aren’t You? was published by Kevin Sampell’s Future Tense Books, a small independent press. Those two experiences could not have been more different. As I recall it, with my short story collection, I had written the stories already, I liked what Kevin was publishing and submitted the manuscript for consideration, he accepted it, I think he did a light edit on it, and then it was headed down the publishing pipeline. It felt like I had done a thing, and the purpose of publishing it was to share what I had done with the world. Like: This is me. And the fictional stories in that collection where really weird—about a man who wanted to eat a woman, and a suicidal pornographer, and other strange characters.

Publishing Data Baby was not like that. It was agented, it was sold on proposal, and the writing of the book took place within the confines of a business contract. In part because my parents were English professors who read a lot and I grew up in a house that had a lot of books in it and it was made clear to me early on that books were important, valuable things, I was made uncomfortable by trying to produce a book that was supposed to represent who I was but conformed to someone else’s idea of what they thought would sell. I actually started writing my memoir in a much more creative, untraditional way at a certain point, and I was essentially told that was wrong, that I didn’t know what I was doing. Because of the constraints I was under and my desire to fulfill the terms of a contract I had signed, I tried to write a memoir that conformed to the traditional idea of what a memoir is supposed to be. You know, a three-act structure. But this was the story of my life. Whose life fits into three acts?

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m totally precious about writing because in many ways I’m not. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of writing: copywriting, fiction, journalism. Years ago I got paid $100 an hour to write social media content for Pepto-Bismol, and Pepto was a character, so I was basically channeling the voice of a bottle of pink bismuth. I mean selling out is something I have done. But I didn’t want to do that with my memoir; I wanted it to be me, not a commercial product. Ultimately, I think I wrote a memoir that is two things: it’s a memoir but it also, especially towards the end, interrogates what a memoir is and whose interests it serves.

I’ll never know the book I didn’t write—the one I might have written if I hadn’t been told the way I wanted to do it was wrong—and that pains me. But the book is done, so all I can do is move on. These days I’m working on my novel about the porn business. I want the writing of it to be fun and irreverent and feel like who I am, and so far it really is. It’s my way of fixing the damage that was done to my process, and repairing my relationship to writing, which was kind of crushed under the grind of capitalism’s need to push out more and more product, regardless of its quality.

There’s so much pressure these days to get a book deal, to be published by a major publisher, to produce a book that other people want to read, but none of these things has anything to do with literature. Literature is art. At best, it transcends.

Now that you've survived the memoir industrial complex, where does your writing practice/career go from here?

Well, there’s the novel I’m writing. And I’m still a journalist, probably always will be. At this point I’m still promoting the memoir, so there’s that. I guess I’m not really sure. I definitely want to get back to my literary roots. In graduate school, I wrote experimental fiction. My porn novel, as I call it, is not experimental, per se, but I think I would like to play around with writing some other fiction that pushes at boundaries and breaks molds and such. I’ve never been very interested in doing what other people are doing, what you’re “supposed to do,” and I want my writing to reflect that.

I’ve spent a long time writing about the adult movie industry, which has changed really radically over the last 20 years. And I want to do more of that. I find the landscape in which pornography is produced—or in which it was historically produced: The San Fernando Valley—to be a fascinating place. It’s this dream factory that explores the perversions most people keep hidden. In the Valley, our secrets are laid bare.

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