Jacquelyn Lee (19) is the author of under the influence, a self-published poetry collection about abuse, trauma, and grief. Through writing, she aims to represent and advocate for those affected by child abuse. You can find her on Instagram, @jacquelyn.lee, or on her website.
A Conversation between Jacquelyn Lee and Courtney Felle
1. Hi, Jacquelyn! Thank you so much for talking to us today! For readers who haven’t yet heard of under the influence, can you give us a brief explanation of the book’s inspiration and creation?
Hello, thank you so much! I’m honored to talk to you today and answer your questions. For those who haven’t heard of under the influence, it is a poetry book about my life growing up “under the influence” of a mentally-ill, absent mother and an alcoholic/drug addict father who unfortunately committed suicide. The title is a play on words because as my father was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, my siblings and I were under the influence of the abuse and dysfunction we were put through because of it. I was inspired to write this book and share my story with the world after connecting with so many others who have grown up in a situation similar to mine. I realized that awareness needed to be brought to abuse, addiction, family dysfunction, and mental illness in order to prevent the events that have happened in my life from happening to others. And so, I began writing in January of last year, and the book pretty much wrote itself. I poured out all of my emotions into it and before I knew it, it was self-published within the next three months.
2. You mention on your website that you wanted to “give a voice to the voiceless” through under the influence. How do you balance the personal and the universal in your poetry—how do you represent child abuse generally while also telling your own specific story?
This is a great question. While writing under the influence, I knew that I wanted to tell my own story and at the same time make the book relatable to other victims of child abuse. So, some of my poems are about very personal, specific events that have taken place in my life. On the other hand, some poems are about general ideas concerning abuse and are unspecific. Many who have experienced child abuse can relate to those kinds of poems, and I did this purposefully. I wanted my readers to be able to heal through my words and so I crafted many of my poems to be versatile. The reader can interpret them in a way that is relatable to their life, and it can help them to feel that they aren’t alone.
3. You split under the influence into three sections: addiction, withdrawal, and overdose. What inspired you to link addiction and abuse so closely? Is there something addictive about an abusive parent, something that pushes you to continue seeking love and hoping for more even when it’s impossible?
I love this question! So, the titles of my chapters actually have double meanings just as the title of my book does. Yes, addiction and abuse are linked very closely. Like I stated earlier, the title under the influence has a double meaning. My father was under the influence of drugs and alcohol while my siblings and I were under the influence of him. There is something very addictive about an abusive parent. No matter how may times they disappoint you, there is something that makes you keep hoping and praying that they’ll change. Parents who are addicts are often great liars and very manipulative. They’re good at making you believe their lies, which is what makes you keep holding on and hoping they’ll change. I actually have a poem about this on page 17 of under the influence. Anyway, back to the chapter names: addiction, withdrawal, and overdose.
The double meaning behind Addiction is that while my father was addicted to drugs and alcohol, I was addicted to my eating disorder. I give subtle hints about this double meaning throughout the chapter. The poem “while her father was addicted to doing lines, she was addicted to the lines on her thighs” is the biggest hint, which many readers may or may not have picked up on. Lines represents cocaine and stretch-marks. I was obsessed and addicted to my body image, and looking back, I used this as a way to cope with the trauma I was going through.
The double meaning behind Withdrawal is that the definition of withdrawal, when it comes to drug addiction, is: the process of ceasing to take an addictive drug. The reader may assume that Withdrawal meant my father was getting sober, however, Withdrawal in this case represented the fact that my father was withdrawn from his children, while we were withdrawn from his abuse. The chapter starts off with the story of what happened the night my father lost his children.
The double meaning behind Overdose is probably the easiest to pick up on. You’d expect that because my father was a drug addict, he overdosed. Many people assumed this when they heard the news that he’d passed. However, he didn’t overdose on drugs. In fact, he overdosed on life. Life was all too much for him, so much so that he took his own life.
Overall, these chapter names have a whole lot of meaning behind them. They split the story into three sections: life while we were living under our father’s abuse, life while he lost custody of us, and life while and after he committed suicide.
4. Many of your poems are addressed to a shifting “you.” I noticed it specifically in a snippet you recently posted on your Instagram: “Contrary to what you believe, you did not live my life.” Were you thinking of a specific “you” when you wrote these poems? To whom is under the influence addressed?
"You” is used to represent many different people throughout the book. Most of them are family members of my father. My father comes from a family of fourteen children. He was the second youngest out of all his siblings. His family treated him terribly and didn’t help him at all through his addiction. However, when he passed away, they all acted like none of it ever happened. They acted like my siblings and I were never abused and tried to discredit everything we’ve been through. They all pretended that they were close to my father out of their own guilt for not caring for him and his issues. In that poem specifically, “Contrary to what you believe, you did not live my life,” they are the “you.” I used pronouns like “he” and “she” as well as “you” in place of their names because I didn’t want to stir up any drama. However, they hurt me a lot and what they did to my siblings and I was a part of the story that needed to be told. So, all of the poems addressed to an unknown person, for the most part, are about one of my father’s siblings. It’s a shame that it had to be this way, but blood doesn’t always mean family.
5. I typically imagine second-person writing as drawing the reader into the story and making them culpable in the wreckage. Do you think this applies to under the influence?
Yes, I believe so. Many of my readers told me they were so drawn into under the influence that they couldn’t put the book down until they finished it in one sitting. That was the effect I was going for, and I’m so glad it worked out. However, I didn’t intend for my readers to feel any blame of their own when I used the word “You,” I simply used it in place of the names of people who I didn’t want to mention. I hope that makes sense!
6. You tend to place titles at the ends of your poems, a reversal from what readers normally expect. What does this allow that more traditional forms do not?
Many poets such as Rupi Kaur and Amanda Lovelace place their titles at the ends of their poems as well. It sort of became a mainstream style of writing. However, I believe it has more of an effect on the reader. You begin reading the poem and you don’t know exactly what it’s about. Seeing the title at the end, after reading the poem, has more of a “wow factor” in my opinion.
7. One of my favorite poems from your book talks about the dichotomy between grief and freedom:
Mourning a parent
who abused you
isn’t a normal thing
the heartbreak of
and the liberation
their death gave you
How does under the influence as a whole navigate the space between heartbreak and liberation?
Wow, that’s actually one of my most popular poems. I think under the influence navigates the space between heartbreak and liberation as a whole by conveying the message that abuse is never the victim’s fault. So many victims of child abuse have this confusing feeling of hoping their parent were gone so that they’ll be free of the abuse, yet feeling heartbroken to even think such a thought. Since this has actually happened to me and my abusive parent did pass away, I understand this confusing feeling. Under the influence is really all about the space between liberation and heartbreak. It’s almost a battle between it. It navigates it by discussing both heartbreak and liberation throughout the book. There are poems where I’m angry at my father and others where I’m forgiving him and remembering the good tines. Grieving an abusive parent is a tricky, confusing thing.
8. You wrote under the influence only a few years after the experiences you detail in the book, looking back on childhood while still temporally close to it. What advantages did this have? What makes under the influence a distinctly teenaged narrative?
Some of the events in under the influence took place just about five years ago, while others took place only a few months before I wrote about them. The advantages of this were that I was able to vividly remember so many experiences and to write about things while I was going through them. This helped me heal in so many ways. I always thought maybe I’d write a book and share my story years from now, but I never thought I’d do it so soon. It really just sort of happened. It is a distinctly teenage narrative because the experiences all came from a nineteen-year-old girl looking back on her childhood and teenage years growing up just shortly after everything happened. If I had written the book in say my 30s, the narrative would’ve been completely different. I’m glad it came from the viewpoint as a teenager because I really wanted under the influence to reach the teenage generation. I’m happy to say that it has.
9. Were there any poets who were particularly helpful or inspirational to you during your creation of under the influence?
Yes, specifically Amanda Lovelace. Her poetry book, the princess saves herself in this one, inspired me to begin writing poetry of my own about my childhood. We have similar yet different stories, and her writing made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I was able to relate to her words so much and I thought, “why don’t I do something like this?” She actually followed me on Instagram a few months ago and it made me so happy!
10. What advice would you give emerging writers who want to connect to a larger poetry community?
My best advice to emerging writers who are looking to grow their platform is: Instagram. Yes, it has its flaws and the algorithm has changed. But, it’s still the best way to connect with other writers. Use relevant hashtags, comment on other writers’ posts, follow other writers, be genuine and be yourself. Don’t stress over the number of likes or followers you have because it’ll drive you insane. I personally started out with just about 1,200 followers on my personal Instagram before I turned it into a poetry account. I slowly but surely grew it to 9K followers in about 6 months. I know that it isn’t an astronomical number; however, to me, it’s not about the number. It’s about the connections and the lives I’m able to touch through my writing. Knowing that around nine thousand people cared enough to follow my profile and connect with me is awesome. Slow and steady wins the race! Don’t worry about growing to 100K followers or more as fast as possible. Just focus on making real, genuine connections with other writers and potential readers. It’s so much better than just watching a number grow. I promise if you take this advice, it will pay off!
11. What led you to self-publish under the influence instead of seeking more traditional or established methods of publication?
Well, at first, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to publishing the book, to be honest. My grandmother is also a published author, and I knew that she spent thousands of dollars publishing her book through a traditional publishing house. Since I did this all at only nineteen, I obviously didn’t have that kind of money to spend. I had no idea what self-publishing was at first. I submitted a book proposal to two publishers hoping to get a book deal. Then, I stumbled across Rupi Kaur’s FAQ page on her website and I saw that before her book milk and honey was picked up by Andrews McMeel, she self-published through CreateSpace. This led me to self-publish knowing that such a successful poetry book was self-published. I also loved the idea of having free creative control over my book. Not to mention, the royalties are actually a bit higher when you self-publish. There were many more pros to self-publishing than waiting to hear back from the publishing houses. So, I went forward and self-published the book. It took three full months of hard work and it was 100% worth it. Months later I received rejections from the publishers and I giggled because little did they know that the book was already self-published. It made me feel really accomplished. Anything can be done if you really put your mind to it!
12. How did you find an audience for under the influence? What role did social media specifically play in promoting your book?
Honestly, at first, I just started to promote under the influence to the followers I already had on my personal Instagram and Facebook pages: family, friends, high school and college peers, co-workers. So many people I already knew were able to relate to my story and my poetry. I posted a couple of my poems and got such great feedback. Messages started pouring in from others telling me their stories. People who I knew, yet had no idea they experienced abuse the same way I had. All of these people who I knew personally sharing under the influence on their social media channels brought new followers and readers my way. I also began to run some promotions on Instagram which brought more awareness to under the influence. The thing about it is that there is no specific target audience for it. People of all ages, races, religions, and genders experience abuse. It’s for anyone who has experienced abuse, knows someone who has, or wants to learn more about someone in an abusive situation. Social media allowed me to and continues to allow me to connect with new people every day who come across my profile in one way or another. It’s truly amazing to me. Social media is thought of very negatively by many people. However, to me personally, without it, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
13. What do your plans for the future include? Do you have a second book planned?
My future is uncertain. Right now, I am no longer attending college, and I work as a waitress at a local diner. My focus currently is to save some money, write more poetry, hopefully be featured at more events, and go wherever the wind takes me.
I have many future books planned! Under the influence was just the beginning. The next book I will be releasing is actually going to be under the influence: the extended edition. It’s going to include a brand new fourth chapter titled “Recovery,” along with illustrations and new poems added throughout the book. My younger sister will be illustrating. It’s super exciting! We’ve been working on it for a while now. I’ve been writing a lot and I can’t wait to release it!
I also have plans for two other books: one on mental illness and another on feminism. I actually have the titles for these books chosen, but I can’t say just yet! I can’t wait to see what the future holds for my career as a writer. Right now, it’s only the beginning. It’s a confusing yet beautiful thing to be unsure of what’s next.
Thank you for this interview. The questions were so thought-provoking, and I enjoyed answering all of them. It’s been an honor!