Happy Tuesday, y'all.
Today I want to tell you about Megan Pillow. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was a broke, recently divorced Ph.D. student with two kids to care for.
Until that point, her parents had watched the kids so she could work on her dissertation at the University of Kentucky. But they had to isolate, and Megan — spoiler alert: now Dr. Pillow! — found herself stretched ridiculously thin as she cared for her children, one of whom has Down syndrome, while writing deeply challenging work that could determine her future, cooking, cleaning and worrying about her parents.
And she was a lucky one. Her then-boyfriend flew across the country to help and eventually she and the kids were able to move in with her parents and her elderly aunt. As she looked around, she saw how many other caregivers were struggling. Were submerged.
Who would save those stories? Whose stories would be preserved? Would we just hear about sourdough starter or would we also remember Black and Hispanic women who were disproportionately on the frontlines while also caring for their own families, for example?
I spoke with Megan about being Submerged, the American archive, whose stories get collected, what it’s like to be Roxane Gay’s editor, and exactly how exhausted she is.
What you’re creating isn’t just an online blog. You’re trying to build an actual archive. How did you get interested in archives?
For my dissertation, a lot of the research that I had done, which I hadn't anticipated, was in archival studies, and I was really, really interested in the work that Black archivists were doing because until the National Archives was established in 1934, there was no archival preservation in the United States. There was not anything that was widespread, not anything that was cohesive.
What we had instead were different organizations and universities that focused on document preservation. So, for example, Declaration of Independence people understood and revered that document, but they didn't understand and revere entire collections of materials.
The one exception was white, elite families who had their materials preserved at historical sites about a hundred years prior to when the National Archives was founded. So one of the things that just kept kind of niggling at me, like in the back of my brain, was the whiteness, and the wealth of the American archive. There’s so much we need to dig into.
I've always been curious about archives. You hear about authors, for example, donating their papers to whatever institution. Do certain people know to preserve their things? There's no way I've been keeping track of my emails and letters over these years in case I get famous!
There is definitely knowledge. There's also the privilege of having some place to store your materials. When we think about white families and generational wealth, if you have a family that is passing on a house or the money to buy a house, you automatically have a place to store materials. If you are part of a family in this country that does not have any generational wealth passed on to you, where are you going to store stuff?
In my family we don't have a lot of money, but we do have a lot of what I would call historical privilege. My grandmother was an amateur genealogist, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she proved 12 lines of my family back to the revolution and kept as many of those materials as possible. So we have all the stuff in our house, my mom's house, that is like a legacy of that history. But the older I get, the more I realize how many families did not have that privilege and that generational wealth.
So you were thinking a lot about archives when the pandemic hit. How did that inspire you to create Submerged?
When the pandemic hit, I lost my caregivers because my parents had to isolate for a while. My boyfriend at the time flew across the country to be with me to help. But it got me thinking about, again, privilege. In this case the privilege of having someone to be able to care for your children while you're doing something important. I started looking around and so many women around me couldn't get their work done. They could barely think because they were so stressed caring for their families, trying to figure out how to keep everybody safe during a pandemic and trying to kind of fit in work where they could.
I also started seeing these early digital archive projects pop up online, and I started thinking about who was telling the stories. Who has the privilege of telling their stories? It's the people who have the time to sit down and write something, and that is generally not caregivers. It is just kind of socially accepted that the moms and caregivers just don’t have any time. The pandemic just exacerbated that and brought it all to light.
I just couldn't stop thinking about all the women who did not have that privilege. They didn't have the help with their kids. It really made me want to do something to try to capture those stories that rarely make it into the archives of the United States.
Your questions about whose stories get to be told really resonated with me. But as a white woman, how do you feel about navigating that storytelling and whose stories get archived?
That’s weighed very heavily on me because they're not my stories to tell. Like, I should not be governing them; I shouldn't be managing them. So one of the things that I want to do is make sure that there is a layer of separation between me and the people who are actually going to be doing the archival work because I don't think that's my role. This is my idea, but I cannot do this alone. I have a background in archival studies, but I'm not an archivist myself, so I want to give considerable creative and operational control over to a Black archivist partner as soon as I can get the grant money to afford somebody.
What's the big dream for Submerged? What’s in your mind’s eye?
The big idea is actually in several stages. The first stage is to create the digital archive, which is in process. I'm actually working with a very good friend who is this brilliant person who knows a lot about archives and has worked with Osako, the open source software that I'm going to be using.
Now that we have the platform secured, the next step is figuring out how to get the stories of people who don't have the time to sit down at night after work and type out a story for me. And that question kind of led me to the biggest vision for this project: I hired a demographic specialist to come up with a survey that will be a first layer before people get to the portal where they enter their story.
This will give us completely anonymous demographic data that we can map and see where the stories are coming from and where our gaps are. We may look at it six months after we launch and say, OK, we're getting lots and lots of stories from the Northeast, but we're getting no stories from this particular demographic group in the South or this group in the southwest. And what that will trigger to me is these are the places that I need to go. I need to actually be on the ground there.
So once I kind of identify target areas where we're not getting as many stories, I will then start contacting libraries, archivists, universities in that city or region and ask to partner with them. They already know their community and how to reach them. So we would come and set up workshops with them where people could write and enter their stories.
My dream is also to bring in artists and writers to help people who may have a language barrier or communication barrier write their stories using their own words. And we'll also make sure that we can record stories and not just have them written in case people prefer that. I would like to have some visual representations of stories if people prefer to submit art instead of text.
Have events of the past year made you think differently about the archive and how it's put together?
I'm living in Louisville, Kentucky, and I was at a lot of the protests last year after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed, and what I saw was the work that Black archivists were doing to preserve the stories of state-sanctioned violence. The archivists weren't going out and doing interviews themselves necessarily, but they were training people to be what they called “citizen archivists” and to gather stories on the ground and then submit them to archives.
So it's not just about saying we are in control of this process. It's also about taking this pedagogical approach and saying, You know your community; you know what stories are the important stories to tell even more than we do. So if we offer some very basic workshops on how to be a citizen archivist, people can help us capture caregiver stories from people who could never make it to a workshop.
Hopefully people can then take the skill that they've learned and go on and capture whatever stories they want or create something in their community that helps to preserve the histories and stories that.
I had this grand idea, which I knew wasn't a new idea; I'm just borrowing from other people and applying it to this particular subset called caregivers. All of this is rooted in Black archivists and their work, and I want to make sure as I go through this entire process that I am honoring, respecting and lifting up the people who gave me the original knowledge to even start this.
So initially people will be delivering stories to you more than you going out and collecting them?
In phase one, yes. Once we launch and we've got a little data to kind of see where our big gaps are, then the plan is hopefully to roll out a regular travel schedule where we will be going and doing workshops in various cities just continuously throughout the year. Hopefully as we do this, that the word will get around a little bit more and people will then again come to us more, too. But I want a regular travel schedule and a regular workshop and teaching schedule to be part of this project.
When do you expect to launch?
Honestly, it depends on how quickly I can work to get the digital archive constructed. I’m using an open source platform commonly used by archives and librarians, so it should be accessible and has a lot of the add-ons available that I’ll need to get this off the ground, and they’ll also handle our hosting and tech support. But it’s just me right now, me and one very kind and very brilliant friend with a history and archives background who’s helping me, so we’re moving at a two-person pace! My hope and plan is that we’ll have this ready to launch sometime in the first quarter of 2022.
Are there any themes that have emerged from the stories you’ve collected so far?
At first, the universal theme was shock. The story that I heard over and over again was absolute shock that caregivers were being expected to take the burden of a society that had no systems in place to support people and that they were expected to fill that role on top of what they were already doing. That shock then gave way to this sense of betrayal and eventually anger.
As I moved farther into the pandemic and collected more stories, I saw a transition to this kind of fierceness, a determination to figure out how to live differently. Some people told me about decisions they were making to leave jobs and go back and live closer to their families. Often their support system had been their friends, and their friends were now all in the same position. They all had young children. They all had nobody to rely on. And so it was this group of people who were already at their limit who were then expected to just take on everything.
Was it the same for you? Did you go through the same transition of feelings?
Honestly, yes. But I count myself lucky because even though I'm living at the intersection of three kinds of caregiving right now, I got divorced before the pandemic and that gave me other support mechanisms that I did not have in my marriage.
I think about my experience compared to my friends who have children and I do not know how on earth you were able to do it.
People have asked me that: How do you do it? And as I said, I count myself lucky. For example, I just dropped off my children with my ex for five days. They were with me for five days. So I pack everything into those windows when I don't have my kids so that I can be as present for them as possible when they're here. And it's still overwhelming. I feel like this is going to do sustained damage to people, to caregivers. I do not know how people who have been living with this and have had no breaks will ever be the same again.
Have any stories that have really stuck with you?
There are several, but one in particular is a young woman who, in the middle of this pandemic, had to figure out how to care for her mother with dementia. She had to basically take over as her mother's guardian at age 27 because she had nobody else in her family. She had to hold down a job while watching her mother deteriorate mentally and become violent. And this young woman is Black. Her mom is Black. So then she had the additional burden of deciding when to call the police for help. Is it when she has pulled a knife on me? Is it when she actually hurts me? What does she do?
Thankfully now her mom is in a facility that's a good fit. This young woman is able to see her mom regularly but doesn't have the direct responsibility of making sure that her mom is cared for every single day.
I just hear these stories and I think how broken the system is and how people must absolutely feel like they don’t matter because there is no support to undergird them.
Yes. I think caregivers in general — I don't want to overlook the caregivers of the elderly, men who are caring for their children, because I know that there are many of those, too — have taken a sustained blow from this. But it has really impacted women because so many women have given up their careers. And then when you see things like the six-week abortion ban in Texas playing out, it's like, You don't want to allow us to stop having kids and yet you will not help children when they're here? What are we supposed to do? There's no way that we can win. There is no way that women in this country can win right now.
How exhausted are you? I can't even imagine.
I do not know what I would have done if I had not had family to help me. I would have ended up in a shelter or something. But how many stories are there of women who went through something similar but didn't have a support system? What happened to them? What happened to their kids?
That's one of the reasons I want to do this project. I want to know what happened to those people. We have to know those stories. It is our obligation because those people matter. And then we need to build systems in this country. Systems, not just little programs, that support everyone who is caring for people. That's my ultimate goal: I want this to be an archive that can be used for political persuasion eventually. I want it to be used as a lever to push people to fund programs for caregivers and kids. I want that, point blank.
Typically a project of this scope and ambition would be created by research faculty at a university. But you’re doing this outside of academia. How is it building an archive without university support?
I’ll be honest, it's challenging. I am not convinced that academia wants people like me, though. And I say that not because I don't think academia wants smart, capable people. But because I've always been a black sheep. I was a black sheep in my program because I was a parent. I was married. I was a commuter. I was older.
But I also am kind of a strange bird when it comes to scholars because I write a lot of creative work, too. And I write risky creative work. I write a lot about sex. I had a nude photo essay that Dr. Roxane Gay published in 2019. It was art for me, but universities don't always look at it that way and then they don't know what to do with someone like me who does ambitious, risky, creative work, but also considers herself a serious scholar when it comes to projects like this. So while I would love to have institutional support looking at the trajectory of colleges and universities right now, I think it's laughable to think that I will ever have it.
I teach at Michigan State University, and when I speak with colleagues across the country, they say they feel that academia has abandoned everybody and laid bare a lack of support.
I think that is true especially for junior scholars. I mean, I think tenured scholars are having trouble, too. And that says something very dangerous about the entire system. But the way academia has always worked is that junior scholars take on the bulk of the responsibility at the same time they're trying to earn tenure. And now that burden is even weighing even more heavily on them.
In some ways being outside academica gives me more freedom because I do not believe that I would be doing some of the writing that I'm doing. If I was still in academia, I would have to focus my writing and my work on tenure-specific responsibilities to try to earn status, to get some job security. And even though being a freelance editor and writer is like the Wild West right now, it does allow me to pursue the projects that I want to pursue and do things without having to worry about what my institution thinks about it. And I don’t have the timetable that an institution might have or worry that they will try to take credit for the work. So it's challenging, but being independent also gives me a certain amount of freedom.
Let’s talk about your writing practice. You write so many different things. I just reread the one about the girl detective. Thank you for writing that; it was so much fun.
Actually, I actually tweeted something about this just yesterday because I was thinking about writing practice. I don't write every day, but I engage in part of my writing practice every day. And when I say that, I mean, I read, I take walks and think about things. I take notes. I listen to things that inspire me. All of that to me kind of feeds into my creative engine.
But when it comes to actually sitting down and working, I tend to be kind of a cyclical writer. I'm kind of like a field wherein I have very fertile periods and then I have periods where I have to be fallow. And I've been in a fallow period for several months and am just now coming into a fertile period. I've been writing frantically for the past few days, and that's always a sign to me that I'm getting ready to jump into what I always do, which is I always have multiple projects going. That is, to me, the most fruitful way for me to work.
Do you separate your academic and creative writing?
When I was working on my dissertation, I would take breaks from that scholarly work and go and write something creative to give my brain the opportunity to rest a little bit. So after I've done a lot of work on the archive for a while, for example, I will then take a break and go and do something creative. I'll go to my notes and pull an idea for a story or an essay and work on that because I need to switch off the scholar for a while and just turn on the creative writer for a little bit, because those are just integral to my person.
Is there anything you found during the pandemic that has been generative for you that sort of helped you recharge?
Yes, actually, and I never thought that I would say this, but it’s running. I've always run off and on throughout my life, but I've never been a consistent runner until now. I don't think I'll ever be like a marathon runner, but sometimes I just have to get away from all of it. I am a kinetic thinker, so I think more clearly, and my best ideas come when I'm moving.
What does it mean for you to belong? Is there anywhere that you feel like you particularly belong?
That is a really challenging question. I spent most of my life not feeling like I belonged anywhere. I didn't feel like I belonged in my family. I didn't feel like I belonged in my marriage or with my married family. I didn't feel like I belonged with my friends. And for a long time, it made me feel like there was something wrong with me.
What I realized as I got a little older and entered therapy was that my lack of belonging had to do with not feeling like I belonged in myself. I felt like my external person and my internal person were completely mismatched. I was performing a person who I wasn't really. And so for me, belonging had to start with being honest about who I was. Therapy did a lot to help me learn how to align the person that I was on the inside with the person I was on the outside.
Once I started doing that, I started finding my people. I started having better relationships with family members. I started finding my writing voice and finding my writing community. So for me, whenever I think about that, I think about how that sense of belonging has to be with yourself first before you can feel like you belong to any community or group.
Thank you. I feel like I've struggled with that over the years, too. So it's interesting to hear it described through somebody else’s lens.
For a long time, that lack of belonging allowed me to blame other people. That allowed me to love other people and say, like, either there's something wrong with me or there's something wrong with them if they weren’t kind enough or fair enough to me. But you also have to be willing to do that to yourself and look and see how you are culpable for whatever the situation is that you're in. And that really is very hard. And it is very hard to do that therapy. But it helped a lot.
This is kind of a fangirl question, but what's it like working with Dr. Gay? It seems like being one of Roxane Gay’s newsletter editors would be one of the most intimidating things in the world.
I'm going to be honest with you: It is. It’s also wonderful. She is one of the most generous, supportive people that I have ever met and that I've ever worked with. She's the best boss I’ve ever had. What I really admire most about her is the amount of work that she does behind the scenes for emerging writers that she doesn't ever publicize. She’s, I mean, nobody's perfect, right? Nobody nobody is like a God. But she is generous. She's hardworking. And I just love the way that she supports emerging writers even when nobody's looking. That to me says so much about who she is. So I feel very lucky. I feel very lucky to get to do this work.
I'm so relieved! That's really wonderful. Ok. I assume you’re fundraising for this project. How can people help support the Submerged Archive?
Thank you for asking! We’re not an established nonprofit yet — that application process will start once we’re live — so I’m doing all of this from crowdfunded money right now. People can sign up to support me at my Patreon, if they feel so inclined.
So far, I haven’t taken any for myself; I’ve saved it to pay for the demographics specialist who assisted me early on and to pay my friend for his time helping me to build the digital platform. 100 percent of the money is being put back into the project right now. And the more I raise at this point, the more I can put into my search for a Black archivist who might want to join me — first probably on a contract basis, but eventually as a full-time employee.
I’d appreciate any support I can get! And if people can’t support it? I understand that, too — money is tight for a lot of folks right now. But if people would take the time to share the news about what I’m working on, it would mean the world. I want to create something that will help everyone remember how caregivers carried this country on their backs, with no support, while the whole country crumbled. And I want to do whatever I can to galvanize people to help.
This is the Tuesday edition of Bar\Heart. If you enjoyed this conversation, please consider subscribing and telling a friend. Each week, I feature stories, conversations and dispatches from the American experience and contemplate what it means to belong here. Plus, on Friday, we have Cocktail Hour. Cheers 🥂