Blog, Memories and Memoirs

Louise DeSalvo—Memoir and Healing

Chasing Ghosts—Memoir of a Father Gone to War
Chasing Ghosts—Memoir of a Father Gone to War

It’s always exciting to talk with an author you’ve admired for many years.  Louise DeSalvo is the author of five memoirs, a scholarly book about Virginia Woolf, Writing as Way of Healing and several other books that explore the lives and works of literary giants like Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence. This year The Art of Slow Writing was published, and now a new memoir was just released last month Chasing Ghosts—Memoir of a Father Gone to War.

Throughout our lives, there are writers who make us reach—to think and reflect in new ways, who teach us something brand new or offer a perspective we’d never thought of before. We feel a bond between ourselves and the writer. I have kept returning to her books through the years for inspiration and found another book on the decades of her contributions to literature and ideas: Personal Effects—Essays on Memoir, Teaching and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo.

In the early 1990s, I read her scholarly and revealing research on Virginia Woolf in Virginia Woolf-The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work. It was a brave book that used literary research as a way to bring forward a theme that was controversial at the time, but which deeply resonated with DeSalvo because of incidents in her own life.

In 2001, I eagerly read Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives DeSalvo explored how writing had helped many well-known authors to tell their emotional truths and release long held secret stories, both in fiction and autobiography. She was one of the first people to talk about the research by Dr. James Pennebaker’s about how writing helps to heal trauma. As a therapist I was excited by discovering this research, having used writing and literature in my work with my clients for many years. I shared Pennebaker’s research and my experiences of teaching therapists autobiographical writing in my book The Power of Memoir—How to Write your Healing Story.

DeSalvo’s memoir about her childhood, Vertigo, uses a reflective style to explore layers of consciousness and the hidden truths that reside in families, and show the importance of looking at our family stories through the lens of class and culture. In her book Adultery, she offers a nuanced view about the hearts and minds of lovers and married couples and questions the assumptions society has about punishment, guilt and shame in regards to desire and sexuality.

The Art of Slow Writing supports the idea that we need to take time to create, to weave our stories, to take time to reflect and absorb the stories that are coming from us. The idea that we interact with our stories and that our stories invite us to listen deeply to our inner self is inspiring. She shows how being immersed fully in the process of writing, and listening to what is coming from within us invites us to be active participants in the act of creation. Her own work explores the messy edginess of life, and she doesn’t hesitate to write about class, sex, and secrets. Her style of writing reveals how her thought process works, not just offering the reader her final conclusion. She invites us to go on the journey of exploration with her in her essays and stories.

Louise DeSalvo
Louise DeSalvo

Following her self-exploration is like being on some kind of psychic archeological dig, teaching us that we too may benefit from circling around our material, thoughts, and dreams to discover new aspects of ourselves and the stories we carry.

Her books have recently sparked a whole new beginning in my new memoir—allowing me to reveal the process of healing and searching for layers of truth about my family and look through the lens of class and culture. Inspired by her work, I discovered possibilities for layers of my story I’d not been able to find before. I recommend that you explore her work and see for yourself the many ways that your life can be mined for books and stories.