Casey Gerald went viral in 2016, for his TED talk “The Gospel of Doubt,“ in which he discussed social inequality and his work connecting business-school grads to entrepreneurs across the country. At the same time, he was in a rough moment; after losing a close friend to suicide and struggling with his purpose in life, Gerald shut down his nonprofit organization and moved away from New York City in search of some peace.
Gerald’s tale is undeniably inspirational: born into a broken family in small-town Texas, Gerald attended Yale on a football scholarship, got an M.B.A. from Harvard, started a nonprofit, and worked for a few prestigious companies, all by the age of 29. But his new book, There Will Be No Miracles Here, is like no other memoir by a conference circuit speaker. It is a literary and often dark look at the effects the national virtue of self-reliance can have on the people who live according to it, with particularly moving passages about the atmosphere of stress, pain, and racial divides on college campuses.
Gerald knew he wasn’t alone—according to a Center for Collegiate Mental Health report, depression is rising among young people heading to college at an alarming rate. Instead of suggesting policy solutions to the problems he identifies with the educational system or in business, Gerald said he is trying to bear witness to what is really happening in America’s most elite institutions.
Vanity Fair: When did you decide you wanted to write a memoir?
Casey Gerald: I started it just because I knew something was wrong with me. I had done all these things, or achieved all these things, but I was very cracked up. . . . I disappeared from New York, and moved to Austin to trace the cracks with words and try to deal. So I spent two years, not just writing the book, but on my own—a bit like a monk, but not holy. In some ways, it’s bizarre for it to be thrust into the world, but you have to do it. I surely would not have written the book just to hide it behind my own little door.
I knew early on that I didn’t want to write a standard memoir. Not because of any violent opposition, but I don’t buy the standard. I don’t think it works, this idea that you’re going to go chronologically from the beginning to end—this happened, that happened—and not have any confusion. Personally, my mind is all over the place. Our minds are not linear, so it’s always seemed strange to me that personal narrative might be anywhere near coherent, let alone linear.
I thought a lot about Kendrick Lamar on Section.80—“I’m not on the outside looking in, not on the inside looking out / I’m in the dead fuckin’ center looking around.” That’s the perspective I wanted to take. I didn’t need to write one of these social studies of a marginalized person, even though I had grown up and lived grown as a poor black, queer, damned near orphan, I hadn’t lived on the margins of anything. So I wanted to take a reader right there into the center of a human consciousness, as crazy and incoherent and associative as that is.
That’s why the book seems more literary than many memoirs, like you used the tricks of the modernists to write it. Where that really kicks in is about a third of the way through. The timeline interrupts and you insert a dream. Where did that idea come from?
I had gone to trace my own cracks, and a few months into that exercise, one of my closest friends—like a little brother—committed suicide. He came to me in a dream not long after that. I had gotten to the part in the book where the typical Horatio Alger material pops up, but I couldn’t write that day, and I didn’t really know why. So I took a nap, aided by bourbon, admittedly. He came to me in the dream, and he was sitting in this diner. It was almost like he had come to explain to me why I was feeling the way he was. He said, “You know, we did a lot of things we wouldn’t advise anybody we loved to do.” I knew what he meant. So this book became a confession. It became my job to make plain: we’ve been prescribed a path to success—certain things we have to do or certain people we have to be—but the cost of that prescription is ourselves. So many of the ways we’re taught to live are killing us.
Oftentimes, it can seem self-indulgent to talk about elite universities—so few people actually attend them. And yet, they represent high achievement to so many people. How do you balance those ideas or justify the focus on the schools you attended?
The other day, I was talking to a Dutch-Congolese kid thinking about applying to Harvard Business School, and I said, “Listen, someone once said that business is to this age what the church was to the Middle Ages.” I tend to believe that. If that’s the case, a place like Harvard Business School is like the Vatican. What’s important to know is that if it is the church, it’s in desperate need of a reformation.
Every time I go back to Yale, every time I go back to Harvard, I’m reminded of my feeling that our elite quote-unquote educational institutions are committing malpractice. Every time I talk to young people who are there, I try the best that I can to stoke some kind of rebellion, which is the only reasonable response that any young person on any college campus should have at this moment. The prescription that has been given to the top students in America is toxic.
Yet you are very intellectual and seem to have benefitted a lot from your formal education. Are there any places you think are educating free people? If you had kids, where would you send them?
Well, first off, I would never have children. And if you ever hear that I have, send the psychiatrist immediately, and have me institutionalized. I love kids, but I cannot justify bringing kids into this world. It gets me into trouble with my friends, but to be clear, I have nothing against children, but maybe something against the world.
But it does actually get to a deeper point, which is asking a question about whether I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater by being so hostile to educational institutions. Part of what I’m trying to do with this book is help us to divest ourselves from the belief that our worth, our basic human value, is tied to institutions and spaces which were not designed for us to be free or to thrive.
The society is designed to make black children believe they are worthless, designed to make queer children believe they are worthless. It’s important that we work overtime to be very wary of tying our worth to the schools we go to, for the jobs we have, to the parties we get invited to after. It doesn’t only de-value the young people that might not go to Harvard, it also demeans the ones who do.
When I was [an undergraduate], there was an attack on campus. Somebody spray-painted “Nigger School” on a [wall], and this was unacceptable to a great many people. So these protests were organized . . . and I went. The most iconic sign I saw that day said, “I Don’t Spend $50,000 a Year to Be Called a Nigger.” What’s interesting about [that] is that it shows that somewhere in this person’s subconscious was a belief that because they spend $50,000 a year, that in and of itself excluded them from being niggers. That’s not going to work—either all of us have to be niggers or none of us can be niggers for any of us to be free. That’s the intervention I’m trying to push with this book.
So, in the hypothetical horrific world where I have children, whether or not I send them to Harvard or not is a separate question from how do I, in a world that is not designed for them to behold a deep sense of their self-worth, how do I imbue that in them. That’s a much more interesting question for me than, Where do I send the kids to school?
What would you say to someone who feels trapped by the idea of success we have put forth? Or to someone who feels cracked up like you did when you started writing?
I don’t know how this is for anyone else, but I seem to go until I just can’t go any further. It wasn’t that I thought righteously, oh my god, this past is destroying me, and I want to go and be a good person. It’s that you feel the sadness, you feel small, and you feel miserable every day for a long period of time. It’s much more primal than it is philosophical. There is a line in the book that says, “I have a radio, and it only plays two stations: life and death. I turn the death off now that I know the sound.” This is why I meditate now—it’s a constant process of being in touch with how I feel. So often we’re told to ignore the fact that we’re miserable in our job, or with the plan we’ve set out to do, or in this relationship or whatever it is. We’re told to ignore it because in the long run, it will be worth it. I really reject that, and what this book is saying is if it’s death in the short term, it’s going to be death in the long term, too.
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Photograph by Tim Hout.