Much of my generation knows Mariel Hemingway as a celebrity who uses her status to advocate for mental health and mindful living. While we certainly remember her grandfather, iconic American writer Earnest Hemingway, I realized in preparing for this interview, not all of us were aware of the depths of the Hemingway family “curse” of mental illness and suicide.
Mariel’s new books: “Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family,” and “Invisible Girl,” a similar memoir written in her own teenage voice, show us how a legendary family wasn’t above a stigma that plagues so many families.
After reading her books and having the pleasure of speaking to her, I’m touched by the poignancy of Mariel’s story, told with graciousness and understanding toward her family. By shining a light onto her own dark history, she’s helping countless people open their hearts, be conscious, and learn to heal.
Amity: In one way or another, every one of us has been affected by mental illness. Yet most of us are scared or embarrassed and don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been watching the reaction in the brief time since the book has been out, and it’s tremendous. You’re connecting with SO many people.
Mariel: Thank you. You know, it’s time for this. People want to talk about this issue. It’s been around longer than any of the diseases we put time and energy into, and yet, it’s the one we want to pretend doesn’t happen.
Amity: Your perspective in the books is almost like reading your journal. It’s beautiful how you were able to write about your parents and sisters in an objective, yet kind and compassionate, way. How do you think you remained less affected than the other members of your family?
Mariel: I think some of us put ourselves in a world where we want to get better. Some people grow up embedded in deception and denial. It’s the reality of what we’re taught and what we perpetuate. It’s really hard to make the choice to change. It isn’t a place to think you’re better than anyone else or the people you came from.
If you want to be healthy – body, mind, spirit – and really connected, you have to do that digging and discovering. And it’s so rewarding.
Memories really can’t hurt us. They’re so scary in our head, but the minute you say them or write them down, it’s like, “Oh that’s not so bad. Nothing came out and bit me.” So we have misconceptions. Our fears are the fears of things we allow to be buried. But they kind of have a voice and they speak to you, so you push them away. Ultimately you can push something away so long that eventually it slams you. And the outcome of that can be physical illness, mental illness, poor relationships, inability to communicate.
There are so many ways it manifests, but we all have the choice to change. We all have the choice to be healthy. We really do. And that’s just becoming conscious about all the choices we make. How we parent, what we eat, whether we remember to breathe or take time to be silent. The things that seem little… but they’re actually big and have a profound effect on our growth and expansion into the world.
Amity: Our readers are quite interested in food, and I know they’ll be interested in your thoughts. In the books, you talk about how you used food as a way of exerting control in your life. So you had lots of rules about what you would or wouldn’t eat. We joined you with Dr. Greene and Ed Brown for a webinar last year, and you’re very involved in the real food movement. Are you at a healthy place in your life with food?
Mariel: Yes, for me food is all about local – gardening, farmer’s markets – doing what you can to be connected to your food. Again it’s about nature. How do we make the circle back? I’m not vegan anymore. I used to be everything with a rule or regulation. But now it’s like: How can I just be mindful? Can I eat fewer animals? And when I do have meat, can I choose animals that weren’t abused? So it’s just about being conscious.
Amity: Having taken on the caregiver role when your mother had cancer, you seemed to be formulating a plan of how you were going to parent your children. So often that pattern is repeated, but you raised your daughters in a completely different way.
Mariel: I think there’s always someone in a family that says, “I don’t want to carry this on.” You’re not conscious of it when you’re young. You live in fear, you don’t feel safe, but at the same time you don’t know anything different. So you think maybe feeling unsafe is normal… until you realize that’s actually not how you’re supposed to be.
Amity: How old are your daughters now?
Mariel: They’re 25 and 27. I remember all of it like yesterday. You never lose that connection. Actually, Langley and I just did a Mother’s Day project for Coach. They interviewed us separately. It was so cool to hear what she said about me, you just get choked up when you realize you did a pretty good job and your kid likes you!
Amity: Of course she does! Your thoughts on mindfulness and spirituality completely inspired me. Can you share more on that?
Mariel: I don’t think of spirituality as a separate thing we do. Everything we do is related to everything. Spirituality is an extension of eating good food in the morning, taking a mindful approach to all that you do. You know, “Chop wood, carry water.” Do one thing at a time. I think our lives are so complicated now because we have technology up the wazoo and nobody knows when to turn it off. I’m as guilty as the next person. But we have to learn to compartmentalize and also learn to take time for yourself, when to be conscious, when to slow down, when to speed up, when to make all kinds of choices. To me, living life is a spiritual experience if you’re living in the present moment.
Amity: It’s perfect, truly. Another way you inspire us is your Instagram feed. It’s so calm and peaceful. Our whole team just breathes more deeply when we look at your photos. And your sweet dog!
Mariel: No, I love your magazine images with kids in nature!
Growing up, that was the only thing I had that made sense to me. Nature was like, “Ahhh, this is real. This is life.”
It’s always there, it doesn’t judge. I feel like nature is such an important part of our lives that we’re not paying enough attention to. I really feel like nature is where God lives. That’s where I feel a connection. That’s my religion, and where I can feel most still and grounded. So I think when you’re trying to find a place to tune in to your instincts, that’s where you go. That’s what will allow you to hear your inner voice.
Amity: And that constant of nature is grounding, too. The stream you sit by is the same today as it was yesterday, and last year, and maybe even from when you were a child. Something that remains unchanged feels really important in a world where your Twitter feed is completely different in five seconds.
Mariel: It’s true. And it’s all about allowing, with no expectation.