As part of the series on creative pairs, I’m subjecting a stellar writer/illustrator team—Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr of Idiots’ Books—to a series of experiments, stunts, and adventures. The goal is to shed light on the nature of their collaboration—and on the broader questions of relationships, psychology, and creativity. (Suggest an experiment here.)
To catch up on the series, check out “ Two Is the Magic Number,” the introduction, and “ Two of Us,” a three-part essay on the creative duel between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. To join the conversation, please comment below, tweet #creativepairs, join the Creative Pairs Facebook page, or follow the author on Twitter.
It’s a common dream, though one seldom realized, to be saved by a relationship. It’s an even sweeter idea, and a more elusive reality, for a creative bond to endure. Witness the partnership and “divorce” of John Lennon and Paul McCartney—two people exploding into unity and then exploding into shards. Other pairs—Don Henley and Glenn Frey come to mind (and Jagger/Richards?)—settle into a stable pattern but stop truly creating; they almost feel like stale caricatures of their former selves.
So it’s a true spectacle to find a pair who seem not only fused, but happily so, who share everything, love every minute of it, and do great work all the while. How is it possible—is it possible?—to both lose oneself in a union and to unleash the kind of expression that must, in some way, emerge from individual energies? Can a we survive without a sense of two I’s? In the equation where one plus one equals infinity, don’t the original integers need to remain in place?
I came to ask these questions in my journeys with Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr of Idiots’Books after a range of psychological experiments (see “Meet the Idiots“) and a deep “reading” of their space (see “The Idiots In Their Barn“) showed them so fused as to be impenetrable. With the water molecule, we can peer through a microscope and identify the distinct atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. What instrument, I wondered, would reveal the space between Robbi and Matthew?
I dreamed up some ambitious ideas: Could I put Matthew and Robbi in a “love lab” of the sort run by Dr. John Gottman, record every exchange for days, and cross-match the data with saliva samples and bio-feedback? Could I devise an American Gladiators-style obstacle course for creative pairs? But then I considered a far more simple—though, it turns out, hardly simplistic—exercise. What if I put them on the couch?
This August, the Idiots handed off their kids to Robbi’s parents, drove their minivan 300 miles north from Chestertown, Md., to Stockbridge, Mass., and met me in the lobby of the Austen Riggs Center, a long-term-stay psychiatric hospital. I consult for Austen Riggs on creative programs and often work with Dr. Jerry Fromm—“M. Gerard Fromm” on his business cards—who is the director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research. (Erik Erikson was a long-time Riggs staff member. And, yes, the snow-covered turnpike in James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” came from his stay there.)
Jerry Fromm is trained as a psychoanalyst. He also runs a creativity seminar every year at Riggs and can speak just as nimbly of Bob Dylan as of Sigmund Freud. Though his tradition has been portrayed as old-fashioned, for Jerry it’s as original as that most basic tool of investigation: the good question, sprung from intuition and curiosity.
A slender, silver-haired man with steel-rimmed glasses, Fromm looks younger than his 60-something years. His office reflects a blend of traditional and modern tastes. He has the oriental rug, of course. But the coffee table is a stainless-steel box and his walls are full of contemporary prints, including the image that Matthew and Robbi lingered over as we came into the office—a photograph of a fishermen’s tower in Budapest reflected in the glass of a modern hotel.
The office is spacious, often used for staff gatherings, with four leather chairs and a tan couch. I sat off to the side—in Jerry’s usual chair, I gathered, given the small clock discreetly positioned in my sight line. That seat felt right: I had resolved to play the Freudian myself, remaining silent and taking careful notes. To start, I noticed how Robbi and Matthew deliberated on where to sit. Robbi, who wore a paisley headband over her newly shortened hair and a necklace with the “?/” typewriter key in a round silver case, first moved toward a chair. Matthew, in light-brown cargo shorts and a navy-blue T-shirt that said “MZUNGU” (it means “white boy” in Swahili), moved toward another chair, then decided on the couch. Robbi joined him. Of course.
There must have been something in Jerry’s quality of attention—or maybe Robbi and Matthew felt the vibes of serious confession in the room—because they quickly went deeper than I’d ever seen before.
The conversation started with what Matthew called the “standard schpiel”: how he writes, and she illustrates; how their whole life—making books, raising babies, running a small business—is a collaboration; how they are both intensely similar (in their creative vision) and intensely different. “And then in an elemental respect,” Matthew said, and he paused. “I’m an alcoholic,” he went on, “and I was just entering recovery when we got together. I was kind of in the low point of my life, and Robbi entering my life picked me up and put me back together again. So I think we collaborate in keeping me alive”—he laughed—“and functional. I’m a highly functional person but only because she is there in my life.”
My ears perked up. I did know that Matthew was drunk (and jogging!) when he and Robbi had the encounter that led to their courtship; I knew the story of how he relapsed the summer she went away; and I knew that he was in recovery. But what was this about him needing her to stay alive? That was darker than I realized. It turned out that there were three missing pieces in what I knew of their story—three times (in addition to the one I knew about) when Robbi went to Alaska with her family and left Matthew alone; each time, within days he was drinking again. “I’ve never left him without him relapsing,” Robbi said.
“As you think about your trouble—is that part of creativity, too?” Jerry asked.
“It must be,” Matthew answered. “Probably a lot of what I write comes from a place of infirmity or a place of confusion.”
“I think we’re really similar in that way,” Robbi said.
“My demon is alcohol and hers is pie and ice cream,” he said.
“And sleeping,” Robbi said. “If I were left to my own devices, if I didn’t have anybody to be responsible to, I would eat a pint of ice-cream, go into my sugar crash, fall asleep, sleep for like 23 hours, wake up, and then eat some more ice cream. That’s what I would do.”
This surprised me, too. Suddenly, the pair who—to use their metaphor—are as meshed as tightly as a zipper on a sweater jacket seemed to come apart, and I saw two vulnerable people, both sort of shivering in the cold. The weird thing was, they brought out these revelations so casually. They both broke out laughing when Robbi finished her ice-cream confession.
Clearly, the zipper wasn’t busted. But did it work all too well? “What is co-dependence, anyway?” I scribbled in my notebook. By common definition, it’s a malady—there’s even a 12-step program devoted to recovering from it. “But how do you distinguish between a ‘co-dependence’ that’s troubled,” I wrote, “and a highly adaptive—even a sublime—collaboration?”
When I tuned back into the room, Jerry had gotten into the serious headshrinking—he had Matthew and Robbi telling him the stories of their childhoods. Matthew’s parents met in the Peace Corps in Colombia. Shortly after he was born, a coup broke out, and his parents were escorted to the border by armed guards. He spent the first months of his life traveling the jungles of South America. Soon after his parents came back to the States—Matthew was 2—they split and decided together that Matthew would live with his father, first in Pennsylvania and then in Kansas. “It was just the two of us for a long time,” he said. “When my dad went on trips, I would get hysterical.”
Robbi, by contrast, grew up in an intensely connected family. Her mother is a renowned potter in the Ikebana tradition of Japanese flower arranging. Her father had a long career as a freelance interpreter and all-purpose entrepreneur. He settled his family in the remote Eastern Shore of Maryland and took them for summers salmon fishing in Alaska—a job that pressed the whole family into arduous, smelly service. “It was great when I was a little kid,” Robbi told Jerry. “Then I started having to work when I was 8. So that stunk. Nobody likes to work their whole summer vacation.” She’s gone to Alaska every year of her life since she was 18 months old—and her brother and sister come every summer, too.
Matthew responded to the chaos of his early life by acting and performing. Robbi absorbed the oddity of her life and expressed it on ink and paper, but quietly. He craved the spotlight, and she shrunk from it. When he got involved with girls, he wanted to pour his heart out. She wanted to find someone to give herself over to completely. With his writing, he constantly creates empty spaces—holes of narrative that lack coherence even for him. She easily spots the work she likes—and often carves it into her own shapes.
Matthew’s story “Richard Nixon,” for example, started out as unhinged fragments of conversation. Together, they discovered that the non sequiturs were the point—it was about people conversing and not communicating. Robbi’s images made the story coalesce around a single couple, going through their lives, speaking at each other but never really connecting.
“It sounds,” Jerry said to Matthew, “like you have a lot of pieces and you don’t know how they fit together.” Then he gestured at Robbi. “You can trust and find threads and find the missing centerpiece that the others revolve around.” (“Matthew is like the aperture,” I wrote in my notebook, “the opening that lets light in, Robbi is the camera, adjusting and steadying.”)
“You’re the steady one,” Matthew said to Robbi. “Isn’t that scary to think?” They both broke out laughing.
“Why is that scary?” Jerry asked
“Well, Robbi has never held down a job for more than a year in her life,” Matthew said. “Technically speaking, she’s entirely dependent on me. I’m the one who makes all the money, who directs traffic in our business.”
“I’m always running into meetings sweating and apologetic and 10 minutes late,” Robbi said, “and Matthew is 40 minutes early. He writes the proposals and makes the presentations with all this grounded, articulate stuff.”
“But then she cuts through the highfalutin bullshit with a joke.”
“Matthew’s trying to make up for being from Kansas,” Robbi said.
“It’s true,” Matthew said. “The way most people see it, it’s like she’s the kite and I’m the string. She’s unpredictable, untemplated. But the kite is in charge of the person who has the string. The person who seems untethered has her feet on the ground.”
And both of them, they agree, are dark, strange creatures. Matthew is solidly sober now, but you might not know it from his work. He writes about God and nothingness in prose that spills across evolutionary time. Her art ranges so dramatically in style that it’s hard to believe it all comes from the same hand—sometimes frenetic, billowing, edging on monstrous, almost like Ralph Steadman, other times almost unbearably cute, but in an iconic way, like Charles Schulz.
She does anchor the stories—and their lives. But to the extent that Matthew is unstable and Robbi the steadying influence, he also steadies her—in part by giving her something to steady—something she can give herself to entirely. He generates the sparks that she can put her flame to.
And though she’s a wilder spirit—more open to chance and risk—he’s the more ambitious one. “Robbi is like,” he started, and then he turned to her. “You’re also the most inwardly, the most closed person. Yeah, I mean she really doesn’t have—is it bad to say? You don’t have friends.”
“I don’t like to be vulnerable,” she said. “So I pick my people very carefully.”
“How about with each other?” Dr. Fromm asked.
“Well, see,” Robbi said, “he’s my one friend. People always say to me ‘You’re so easy to get to know.’ That entirely misses the point. I’m the least easy person to get to know, but I give the impression that I’m easy to get to know. I don’t need anybody to know me that well.”
“I don’t trust very easily,” she went on. “But when I do, I depend on that person with everything. I can trust that Matthew’s not going to hurt me. He’s not going to treat me wrong. And that’s what makes me able to be so stable for him.”
“What a precarious bond,” I wrote in my notebook. “Robbi doesn’t let anyone else in—and Matthew can’t function without her.”
It turned out that Jerry and I were on the same page. “It’s like there’s nothing around you holding you,” he said. “The only thing holding you is each other. Do you remember the original Superman movie? The first appearance of Superman? Lois Lane has fallen off this skyscraper, and Superman swoops in and flies off with her.”
“And Superman says, ‘Easy, Miss, I’ve got you.’ “
“And Lois Lane shouts ‘You’ve got me! Who’s got you?’ “
“So,” Jerry said to Robbi, “who has got you?”
She answered without missing a beat: “He’s got me. That’s what makes it work.”
I went on in my notebook: “Maybe the difference between ‘healthy’ and ‘sick’ co-dependence has nothing to do with how people relate to each other, but what comes out of the relation.” I thought of the circles from our first experiment with psychologist Art Aron—where Matthew and Robbi identified themselves as almost entirely overlapped. But Robbi told me later that her answer had really depended on point of view. “To the outside world,” she said, “and how we perceive ourselves relative to everyone else, our circles are entirely overlapping. But in our world of work and, like, what we do, I have my places of power and he has his places of power. We are very, very individual in those roles relative to each other. So in that sense my circle is way out over here and his circle is way out over there and we bounce and touch each other every now and again.”
Indeed, the main product of their “co-dependency” is art that draws out the deepest qualities from each of them. If they live a dream life of a creative partnership, it’s the full flavor of dreams, including the angels and the monsters, the dim things that can never be understood, and the bolts of shocking clarity. The difference is that, with their creative work, they put both sides to use. Perhaps effective creative pairs, rather than cancel the “bad” parts of each other, actually draw them out, while more troubled couples are terrified of each other’s darkness, believing they can make a shelter to keep it out.
“From one angle,” Jerry said, “it sounds like you two have a collaboration around darkness—whatever darkness means. But you find a receptive other person to be with it and develop it. But what is art other than the effort to translate human darkness into something meaningful?”
And it’s in this translation, I realized, that they admit the world into their circle—that they open (metaphorically, and only so much as they please) the door to the barn. Idiots’Books is not just a collaboration between Robbi and Matthew, but a collaboration with its subscribers, too.
Sometimes, the works are literally puzzles, as with the astonishing “Makers Tile Game” they designed to accompany Cory Doctorow’s novel Makers—81 separate drawings that can be seamlessly arranged in any pattern. There are more solutions than atoms in the universe, and only one is correct (though the Idiots think the “wrong” answers are more interesting). Readers encounter the same endless potential meanings in the Idiots’ books. “They ultimately have to decide what the book is about,” Robbi said, “which isn’t for everybody. Some people just want to read a frickin’ book.”
“Yeah but our readers are the ones who do want to do the work,” Matthew said. “They want to take a leap.” That’s the mad beauty of this creative project. The very sense of free-fall gives them, and their work, a lasting buoyancy. And it’s the same in their relationship with each other. Even though individually they seem so precarious, they’re strong together, and being strong together makes them even more precarious.
They have jumped over a cliff together. They’re either hanging in midair, sustained only by their faith, or they’re some kind of superheroes. Or maybe both.
To give you a visceral sense of the free-fall—the endless, dizzying, criss-crossing (practically Gordian) way they create and live, I asked Matthew and Robbi for a verbal/visual map of their creative process. What they came up with turned out to both nicely illustrate how they work—and to perfectly embody their Idiocy. Tune in tomorrow for that last installment.