My beautiful grandmother in her 30's




No one ever saw how my grandmother looked when she was upset—hair frizzed, lips caked with coffee stained lipstick, rage pouring from her eyes as she ranted and raved. Sometimes I would stand in front of her for two hours, afraid to move. I wondered if the neighbors heard her ranting, I found out years later that they had heard the shouting and the crying, but in the fifties what went on behind closed doors was considered no one’s business.


Besides, when people act irrationally, we feel ashamed. Maybe we feel responsible—could we have prevented the outburst? I worried about what I did or could do differently to keep her from getting angry again, but some of the time it was not about me—since we lived alone together, there was no one else to scream at but me.

Forty years later I realized that my grandmother must have had something wrong with her, and it would be on my mother’s deathbed that a diagnosis came forward—for her and my mother, who ranted and behaved irrationally too—“Bi-Polar.” Naming this monster that made these beautiful women in my life so angry and sad, that made them ugly and distorted was a huge relief. It helped me to forgive them and to have compassion for them—this naming. I wondered if they had been diagnosed earlier and had some medical help, if our lives could have been different.


My mother Josephine--mid-1950s


Many of you know about the research by Dr. James Pennebaker that carrying secrets puts a huge burden on the mind and the body.  We can release this burden and come to greater health through writing. I write about this in my book The Power of Memoir, and Victoria Costello, author of A Lethal Inheritance, is going to talk about it this Friday at our National Association of Memoir Writer’s member teleseminar.

Victoria combines her research and her own family experiences with mental illness in her book, and shares the stories with us—a very brave thing to do!

Here’s a link to the book review I wrote where you can read more about her book and her story. We are going to talk about the value of finding out about your family history as you write your memoir. I have done a lot of genealogical research both in dusty courthouses and at to try to unearth layers of secrets, chipping away at the burden I used to carry.

Do you have secrets that scare you? Have you tried writing them down—just for you?

How about family history research—have you done it, and has it helped you with your story?

Join me and Victoria:

March 16, 2012
11AM PDT; 12 MDT; 1 PM CDT; 2 PM EDT

Memoir Writing: Finding Your Way through Your Family History

Victoria Costello, Author of A Lethal Inheritance