An Acid Trip Through Generational Trauma

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Adam F. Phillips

Ruth Madievsky’s debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy, takes place just a few miles from where I meet her in Los Angeles at Alfred Coffee in Studio City, but in a drastically different version of the town. The post-Soviet diaspora replaces celebrity culture, petulant iguanas stand in for designer dogs, and pristine cafés are swapped out for grimy bars. The fever dream of a story winds through the canyons of L.A. and walks the overgrown Jewish cemeteries in Moldova as an unnamed narrator searches for a sense of self in the midst of her older sister’s disappearance. In an impressive undertaking, Madievsky weaves together a tale of addiction, queerness, and Jewish mysticism, bound together with vibrant imagery and thoughtful prose.

Madievsky deftly injects her lived experiences — including the technical aspects of her pharmacist background — into the novel. But her most profound personal contribution is her dissection of the liminality of immigration and assimilation. Madievsky, who emigrated from Moldova as a young child, grew up in Los Angeles’s post-Soviet diasporic community. “I grew up in a hybrid culture where we spoke Russian at home, but because we came to America and I wanted to assimilate, I didn’t really own my otherness,” she says. “There was this sense of being not like everyone else, but also not like the people back home where we left. It’s a very classic diasporic loneliness of being too American for the culture you left but also too foreign for the people here.”

This is a really wild concept. How did you come up with it?

It always starts with a voice. I wrote that first line whole cloth, the one that goes, “Spending time with my sister Debbie was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus,” not knowing who the narrator was, who my sister Debbie was, what city it takes place in, what bus, having never taken acid. But I wrote that line and I was like, Okay, who’s talking? I want to know this person, and I just kind of let her keep going. I keep a notebook with arresting imagery that I hope to include in something, whether it’s a poem or fiction. I would consult that sometimes when I felt like I wasn’t sure where it was going, but I just let it unravel organically.

What cultural inspirations did you look to when writing?

Everything I like to read is very voice-forward: Melissa Broder, Denis Johnson, Raven Leilani. Sad Sapphic music for sure. Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Tegan And Sara, Jenny Lewis, St. Vincent. I think the movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for the queer longing, was helpful.

I hope Lucy Dacus reviews your book on Goodreads.

[Squeals.] I hope so! I have lowkey spent a lot of time trying to figure out who her publicist is and how to get her the book and I have come up short.

I’m always intrigued when a narrator doesn’t have a name, and I was especially interested in your book because characters make references to her name without explicitly saying her name out loud multiple times. Why didn’t you give your narrator a name?

Part of the reason she didn’t have a name is that she was always kind of a cipher to me. She says that she’s the canvas and her sister Debbie is the artist. She’s this blank slate, and she’s very easily obliterated by the big personalities around her. She’s someone who’s kind of shifty, and she’s still figuring out her identity and how to have agency.

I heard this amazing Ottessa Moshfegh quote where someone asked her in an interview, “Why does your narrator not have a name for My Year of Rest and Relaxation?” And she was like, “What the fuck was I supposed to call her, Jennifer?” It felt like giving her a name would be pinning her down a little too easily. And in my own head, she doesn’t even have a name. I was toying with the idea of what her name could be, which was the name of one of my deceased relatives, a Soviet Jewish name. But even that feels like I don’t have the right to know. It’s none of my business. I toyed very early on with revealing her name at the end of the book, but it was like, what’s it gonna be, Bonnie? Svetlana?

Your narrator and the character Sasha have very different levels of closeness to religious persecution. At the Jewish cemetery in Moldova, Sasha snaps at the narrator about not understanding her experience of trauma. At the same time, you touch on how intergenerational trauma is literally in our blood. We also meet the character Esther who keeps ending up in the ER because of Shoah grief. Where do you land on the idea of ownership of trauma?

I have so many complicated and ethically dubious feelings about it. The concept of Shoah grief I got from a friend whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors. The friend’s mom grew up in this house where the Holocaust and Jewish trauma was this constant presence that was never discussed, so it was both unspeakable and suffocating. My friend was talking about how it really affected her mom to live in this environment and how it affected her as a generation removed. That was really the first time I thought about how trauma can affect people several generations removed in that way. Even people who don’t speak the language, who have never been to that country, who don’t even know a lot of the stories but nevertheless might be living in response to it in some way.

Then we have Sasha, who was actually born in the former Soviet Union, who has that experience of immigrating to a new place and growing up in a hybrid culture where she’s kind of not one thing or the other thing. I was interested in exploring those different experiences and how people like that could have friction, because that generation removed just means that they have different experiences of trauma.

There are so many moving parts in the book — psychics, queerness, sisterhood, addiction. How did you find authority in your voice to write about it all, whether or not you’ve experienced these things?

My principle was to never write about anything where I wasn’t in community with people who have had the experiences I’m writing about. So everything from the book, either I’ve experienced it personally or I’m in community with people who have that experience where I felt like I could do it justice. But it’s certainly something I have a lot of anxiety about. I personally have not struggled with substance dependence to opioids, but I work with patients who have had that experience. I can’t say that I feel confident that this is my story to tell. I feel a little queasy about it, but I tried to write things as sensitively as possible and to sometimes read them as a less generous reader. I hate to write for the bad-faith reader, but when you’re writing about topics that are really fraught and have a lot of stigma around them, sometimes I think you have to take the other side at least to see, like, Am I causing harm in some way I might not even be anticipating?

All-Night Pharmacy is also a bit of an ode to Los Angeles. So many people tend to associate it with the ocean and palm trees, but I was really struck by your canyon imagery. What brought you back to that?

I spent more time in the canyons, in the Hollywood area. Not glamorous Hollywood, like grungy Hollywood. The L.A. that I grew up in, which to me feels still like the most visceral L.A. When we immigrated here we lived in West Hollywood in the Soviet diaspora area. My now-husband and I moved just a few blocks from my family when I was in my pharmacy residency program, so I feel a kinship with the grungier aspects of L.A. More immigrant neighborhoods, where you have Russian words on the storefronts, the Russian delis with a really mean shopkeeper. That’s the L.A. that I remember most viscerally.

I imagine writing a book is kind of like having a baby. But you also recently had a real human baby! What has it been like for you to bring both of them into the world at the same time?

It was incredible. What a blessing to have my first book come out and also have an amazing baby in a short period of time. I feel very lucky first and foremost. It’s certainly chaotic to be pitching essays and doing interviews while pregnant and then immediately postpartum. Now a lot of correspondence I’m doing is literally typing with one hand while squeezing the life out of my boob with the other. I’m gonna bring her on book tour. I’m very lucky that at the moment she’s a very chill girl. I’m excited to match her outfits to my book. I think it’ll be a special memory.

It’s also been really good for me, in terms of not stressing too much about how my book is going to do, to have a person who’s dependent on me. I really can’t sit here and be too obsessive about, like, Is my book trending with the TikTok girls? I literally don’t have time to obsess about how it’s doing because here’s someone who needs to eat 12 times a day.

How has becoming a parent changed your thoughts on Jewish intergenerational trauma?

I look at my baby who has pure, unconditional love for me. There’s nothing fraught or complicated about our relationship. I’m her everything. It makes me cry sometimes to think that, at some point, we’re gonna have beef. There’s going to be something I do where she’s gonna think, Fuck, my mom is so out of touch. She just doesn’t get what it’s like to be a person in the world right now at this age. I’m sure there are going to be things that I replicate for her that were passed down to me that I wish I wouldn’t give to her. I hope that I can give her a lot of the good, too, but I feel like that’s kind of the nature of legacies: You don’t necessarily get to choose all of what you pass down.

I do have a lot of feelings about it, and about the fact that my Russian is kind of elementary-school level. I’m really dependent on my parents and grandparents to speak Russian with her. I want her to have the language because it feels very special to me to be able to communicate with my grandparents and have this connection to these long-dead ancestors, and to be able to see documents and family photographs from a million years ago and be able to understand them. I want her to have that, even if I can’t be the one to teach it to her. I’m having a lot of big thoughts about raising the first generation born in America and wanting her to still be in touch with her culture, but hopefully not have as much guilt as me about pleasing the ancestors.

An Acid Trip Through Generational Trauma