ABOVE: PERIEL ASCHENBRAND. IMAGE COURTESY OF MICHAEL WEBBER
Periel Aschenbrand’s latest memoir, On My Knees (It Books), is a raunchy, raucous, hilarious ride. Aschenbrand, who grew up Jewish in Queens, recounts her neurotic Israeli mom and more laid-back father in loving and unflinchingly funny detail. Yet this is more than a lightly humorous family fable. Aschenbrand has a dark, self-destructive side, too; and the book follows her chain-smoking journey through loneliness, lovers, and countless Law and Order reruns. She recounts a fun, flirty—but ultimately sort of sad—night partying with Philip Roth and writes vulnerably yet boldly about fucking up. What results is a self-deprecating but strong wisdom, a self-knowledge only those of us who have lived with ourselves at rock bottom can achieve. Brave, smart, sexy, and sharp, Aschenbrand is an expert at writing her life as a tantalizing striptease.
ROYAL YOUNG: I want to talk to you about growing up a Jew in New York.
PERIEL ASCHENBRAND: Until I was 12, I thought everybody was a Jew in New York. I went to a Jewish Hebrew day school. It wasn’t until fifth grade that I went to normal schools. And it’s weird because I grew up in Rego Park, which is actually one of the most diverse neighborhoods possibly in the tri-state area. My next-door neighbors were from India, there was a huge Russian population, people from Africa.
YOUNG: But they could all be Jewish, still.
ASCHENBRAND: [laughs] I think as a kid, you just grow up in a bubble—you’re just not really paying attention, unless your parents are really big racists. But luckily mine weren’t, so I didn’t notice any difference. Then I went to a different school and my best friend was black, and she’s still one of my best friends and the reason I met my husband. I remember trying to take her with me to the Jewish center for some after-school something, and they wouldn’t let us in. They said it was because she wasn’t Jewish. That was a big wake-up call for me.
YOUNG: Did it make you feel negatively about Judaism?
ASCHENBRAND: We were never religious. We only went to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and then my dad would sneak me out of the service because there was a Burger King right near there. It was really much more cultural than religious. My mom grew up in Israel, so I would go there like once a year since I was three. But it was never a religious thing. That experience with my friend at the Jewish Center made me irate. It really struck a very deep chord in me. That was the first time I ever witnessed racism, and it really shocked me. Here was this place I would go all the time, and it was “nice,” and then they were being really mean to my best friend. That made me pretty skeptical about religion. That stayed with me my whole life.
YOUNG: The skepticism of religion or of people?
ASCHENBRAND: Of religion. From that moment on, there was never going to be a way for me to subscribe to some religion without questioning it.
YOUNG: How did that spirit play out when you got older in terms of relationships?
ASCHENBRAND: Hopefully it turned me into a little bit more of an intellectual. [laughs] From that moment on, and maybe it was inherent in me earlier, but everything was going to be questioned. Nothing was going to be taken at face value. You telling me that this was the way things were going to be for some arbitrary reason was not going to be acceptable to me without me investigating myself.
YOUNG: Tell me more about your parents.
ASCHENBRAND: Oh, my poor parents.
YOUNG: [laughs] Let’s talk about how family reacts to your writing.
ASCHENBRAND: People’s perception of themselves and your perception of them as the person who is writing about them is very different. My mother has alluded to feeling like she needs to wear a burka on the streets.
YOUNG: [laughs] Amazing. Because she’s so recognizable now, right?
ASCHENBRAND: [laughs] Right. And I’m like Angelina Jolie. This is my second book, and I wrote about getting a hemorrhoid from having anal sex in my first book, so my parents have probably gotten over whatever trauma. I thought they would, but I’ve been having these conversations with my mother recently where she refers to my work as “exaggerated realism.” My mom reads a lot. She is very cultured. But that is the stupidest thing in the fucking world. This is not “exaggerated realism.” These are true stories. The stories that she’s most mortified by are true, otherwise she wouldn’t be mortified by them. If I was making shit up, nobody would care. My Dad is much more laid-back about this stuff in general. Or maybe my mother is so hysterical she doesn’t leave him any room to freak out.
YOUNG: Yup, that makes sense. Let’s talk about Philip Roth. That part was so fucking good.
ASCHENBRAND: Oh my god, that was so fucking good for me too. [laughs]
YOUNG: [laughs] What is it like meeting one of your icons and he’s just sort of staring at your tits the whole time?
ASCHENBRAND: I was really never a starstruck person. I became pretty cynical about this notion of celebrity as it exists in this world. Since I was never immersed in that TV and tabloid shit, I just didn’t engage in it. Someone very smart who works with a bunch of celebrities once told me, “You don’t ever want to meet the people you admire, because they’re shorter, fatter, and uglier.”
YOUNG: And meaner.
ASCHENBRAND: The only person I ever got star struck around was Vivienne Westwood. I started my first book with a quote from her, and when I met her, like a moron, I told her that. And she looked at me and goes “All right,” and walks away. By the time I met Roth, I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, I’m meeting Philip Roth!” He was just a guy in his 70s who was staring at my tits. It was a really fun. I’m glad I didn’t really grasp the gravity of what that was when it was happening. I was able to be myself and I had a purer experience.
YOUNG: You’re going to have a baby soon. How do you feel about your kid reading your stuff?
ASCHENBRAND: I feel really sorry for him. [laughs] My mother has pointed that out on numerous occasions, like, “How could you write this?” The truth is I think he’s pretty fucking lucky. I could be doing something a hell of a lot less interesting. Hopefully he’ll be cool enough to get that, otherwise I’m putting him up for adoption.
ON MY KNEES IS OUT NOW.