Sprawled odalisque-style on a body-engulfing leather and wood camel-back Chesterfield in her condo in midtown’s venerable Belvedere Hotel, Mikita Brottman reaches over its side to play a vigorous game of tug of war with her 8-month-old French bulldog, Oliver.
Outside, an Artscape soundstage throbs a few blocks away, while inside, the strains of Bach drift in from an adjacent room, as Brottman, wearing a little black sundress with sandals, discusses her new book, “The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals” (HarperCollins), available in October.
Composed of 26 short chapters arranged alphabetically by dog name (Atma to Zemire), “The Great Grisby” functions adroitly on three levels: engaging accounts of the relationships between real-life figures or literary characters and their dogs; conversational tract, where Brottman ruminates on the multifaceted human-canine dynamic; and endearing memoir, detailing the intricate bond she experienced with her previous French bulldog Grisby.
“I was interested in the interaction between owner and dog, because it reminded me of my feelings toward Grisby,” Brottman explains in clipped, measured tones that betray her native England.
With each of the book’s dog owners—poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, artist Frida Kahlo and composer Richard Wagner—among the better-known personages, Brottman says she was “looking for a relationship between a dog and person where the dog is pretty much the person’s primary relationship. Even if they’re married or have a family, the person is still more engaged with the dog on a daily basis than with other people in their lives.”
The dog-person dynamic, Brottman notes, “is more complicated than it seems, and people haven’t really probed it very much psychologically—it’s not always pretty. All dogs represent something in our lives; we can never really relate to them just as dogs.”
And while she readily concedes that humans can bond empathetically with other animals, especially cats—in fact, her two cats, Bartleby and Queequeg, roam through her book-lined study as she speaks—she maintains that dogs respond to us best and “seem to reciprocate your need for them.”
A professor of humanistic studies at MICA and co-director of the school’s critical studies program, as well as a practicing psychoanalyst, Brottman, 47, discovered dogs late in life, obtaining Grisby in 2005 via PuppyFind.com. The two quickly became inseparable: She took him to her classes, to literary readings, to friends’ houses, to the beach, jogging—everywhere.
“When we’re apart, I’m sure I suffer more than he does,” Brottman writes of Grisby in the chapter “Douchka,” about mid-20th century French author/feminist Colette Audry and her tortured relationship with her irksome German shepherd, “missing all the little signs of his presence—his small sighs and grunts, the sound of his claws on the floorboards, his jingling collar, his soft ears rubbing against my knees.”
Born and raised in Sheffield, in north central England, Brottman, the daughter of schoolteacher parents, earned her bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in English language and literature at Oxford. (She later added a PhD in psychoanalysis.) But after teaching in Cyprus and London, she relocated to the U.S. in 1998, weary of both the dismal English climate and what she calls the “parochial nature of life” in the U.K. In 2001, Brottman joined MICA’s faculty following brief teaching stints at universities in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Now she lives with her longtime partner, David Sterritt, the retired film critic for The Christian Science Monitor, current MICA art history professor and film scholar/author (his “The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America” is scheduled for publication in November).
Given Brottman’s pronounced fascination with the macabre and transgressive aspects of society and culture, as manifested in her prior books (“Offensive Films,” “High Theory/Low Culture”), journal articles (“Is the Internet a Portal to Hell? Inner Space, Superstition & Cybersex”) and MICA courses (“Banned Books: The Literature of Controversy,” “Understanding Suicide”), Grisby by comparison, seems positively genteel.
“I’ve written in workshops with Mikita for a few years now, and I’ve seen her write about a fictional twist on the Manson murders, serial killers’ victims, prisoners and, of course, Grisby,” says Baltimore writer John Barry. “Her insatiable curiosity and disciplined and discursive writing style invite readers into worlds they may not be familiar with. You feel like you’re walking into a funhouse, and she doesn’t want you to freak out—just place it in the context of the literary canon.”
About those “prisoners” Barry mentions: Brottman already has completed and sold her next book, “The Maximum Security Book Club,” an account of her two years reading literature (not surprisingly, dark works) with criminals at Jessup Correctional Institution. HarperCollins expects to publish it in early 2016.
While she continues to participate in the prison program, Brottman also is gearing up for MICA’s fall semester and the publication of “The Great Grisby.” Regrettably, Grisby himself won’t attend the book launch; he died this past January at the age of 8 1/2, four months after she finished writing the manuscript.
In the “Douchka” chapter, Brottman muses, “I found myself wondering whether, when Grisby dies, I’ll look on our relationship with sorrow and regret, or whether memories of him will fade away fast as I move on to my second dog.”
As it turned out, both reactions occurred. “I was not as upset as I thought I would be,” Brottman explains. “I think that was because I had spent so much time imagining what it would be like when he died—and imagining all the things that I was going to miss about him—that I felt like I had already lived through it.”
One month later, along came Oliver (Grisby’s original name at Puppy-Find.com), “a dog as close to Grisby as possible,” she admits. “I still think about Grisby all the time, but I don’t miss him. It was a very rewarding relationship, and I like to think that it was mutual.”