I’ve been teary today as I watched the crowd gather at the Supreme Court, as I watched people celebrate all over the United States, as I listened to President Obama speak about this momentous day where the law finally affirms full respect of LGBT people. I find myself thinking of Don and Bruce, and the other boys I knew in the years I was in the arts—music, musicals, the theater.
I write this post in honor of the sensitive and lovely boys I knew as a young girl in Oklahoma—the boys who played music, loved ballet, and beamed sweet smiles. They were boys who were living with a secret that many of us never knew until they killed themselves. This is for Don Z. and Bruce T., who died too young. And it’s for Roger S. who moved to San Francisco to more openly live his truth, and the other boys who would have covered up the signs they were “sinners,”–the way they would have been judged at that time. They would have been outcasts. If the truth of their sexual orientation had been discovered, they would have been shamed, shunned, and humiliated. Some preferred to die rather than face a world who would treat them that way.
When I grew up, the word “gay” did not exist. Strongly sheltered in the small town where I grew up, I didn’t know that same sex people could have sex or love each other. I didn’t know any words to describe that alternative world until I was eighteen years old. In contrast, my eight-year-old granddaughter understands that some of her mother’s girlfriends love each other. They’re married and adopted children. To her, that lifestyle is nothing special. But today’s Supreme Court decision to allow marriage equality is a gigantic step in the history of the United States, and is now a matter of law. It changes everything.
Don’s face comes to me today, his reddish blonde hair falling across his forehead. I see him playing his trumpet in the orchestra, I see the face of a sixteen-year-old boy and feel his sensitive soul. Bruce’s fingers were amazing as they flowed across piano keys. His voice was higher than some boys’, his sensitivity to the nuances of music was something to emulate. I knew these boys in my innocence, and never thought that they were different or strange or anything but what they seemed to be—kind, talented young men. Years after their deaths, I learned why they might have died so young. It left me infuriated once again at a town and world where prejudice ruled.
Prejudice was everywhere—against the “Negroes” who lived in the unpaved section of town, the “Indians” who were seen as drunk and dirty. The Christians in that town taught us to cross to the other side of the street if you saw either one coming toward you on the sidewalk.
The word “lesbian” was one of the nastiest comments you could make about someone. That kind of person was supposed to be avoided and shunned. You should never speak to any of these kinds of people, nor should you keep company with anyone where there could be a whisper of scandal. I found it hard to understand why the girls who were at the top of the social echelon could get away with having a shotgun marriage, while a working class girl would be shunned.
It’s a new world now, a world where young people know that prejudice is no longer “in.” Where people of all colors and preferences will be treated as full human beings.
This is “Mental Health Week.” It amazes and pleases me to see that there is a week set aside in our culture where we’re invited to celebrate health of the mind. In contrast to the fifties when I grew up, nowadays we’re informed about things that previously could not be named: depression, bi-polar illness, anxiety, and PTSD among others. PTSD is a condition that only recently has been given a name and treatment plan in the diagnostic manual used by therapists and doctors.
Having grown up in an atmosphere of extreme shame and silence, with only the term “eccentric” to apply to the extreme behaviors and patterns of my grandmother and mother, it still amazes me to see ads for medicines on TV in that promise to combat these conditions. I loved my mother, who left me when I was six with my grandmother, and I loved Gram too. I don’t know if it was karma, payback or simply synchronistic timing, but I was the same age as my mother was when Gram left her behind to seek her fortune in the big city of Chicago. I grew up in an atmosphere of arguing, broken dishes, weeping, and watched the two women I loved tear each other apart when my mother came to visit us. I also watched my grandmother literally sink into a hole in the couch in the living room, endlessly smoking. She’d pace, rant, and seemed lost in some kind of darkness that I wanted to escape. They both had abandoned their daughters. My mother denied me as her daughter. These behaviors and conditions had no name.
Years later, during my own career as a therapist, and as I was writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother to try to shape what happened into a story that made some kind of sense, my mother was diagnosed on her deathbed with manic-depressive illness. Finally, this thing that had haunted us for decades had a name.
I’m grateful that depression is not a dirty word like it was when I grew up—though I never heard the term until I was in my twenties. At that time, it seemed to apply to suicidal people like Virginia Woolf or Hemingway, which meant it was a very bad thing, something that could lead to death, but only for “other people,” many of whom were famous. No one in our own family would/should/could have such a problem. The stigma against mental problems of any kind was paralyzing. Even when a classmate and good friend of mine killed himself when I was sixteen, the word “depression” was not uttered by anyone. And within a few weeks, people were trying to get back to acting cheerful despite this tragedy that I mourned for years. It was understood that the good people of my small town didn’t want to be tainted by discussing the death of a boy who was so desperate that he took his own life. And none of us knew he wanted to die.
There’s still a huge need for more education about what mental health and mental illness is. People need to know that there is a continuum and that each person’s struggle is unique. No two people experience anything in exactly the same way. It’s interesting that “OCD” has become a household term that we can claim as an issue without having to die from shame. It’s become a joke: “I clean my house a lot, I’m a little OCD about it.” People now speak about depression more openly—there are memoirs, movies, and blog posts about it, but still, depression is still a grey cloud that hovers over people all over the world, and too many people still struggle in silence.
Amy Ferris, editor of Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue has set out to do something about this silence and loneliness and shame. Last year she put out the word to friends and writers who have stories about depression and suicide, and many people responded with a huge range of stories—naming what could not be named, offering hope and support and community that will help others who are still lost in the silence. Seal Press will release the book in October but you can pre-order it.
I am inspired by the quote by Louise DeSalvo, author of The Art of Slow Writing and Writing as a Way of Healing, who explored the psychohistory of Virginia Woolf and her family in Virginia Woolf-the Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work. In her introduction, she says, “…as [Virginia] put it near the end of her life, ‘Only when we put two and two together–two pencil strokes, two written words,…do we overcome dissolution and set up some stake against oblivion.’ Virginia Woolf was engaged in a lifelong effort to put together those words which helped her overcome her own feelings of dissolution, which set up her own stake against oblivion. And, fortunately, we too can read her words.”
I believe that writing and exploring the deep truths of our lives, especially the ones that society wants us to keep silent, is a way to help the world heal from the stigma that only words can offer.
FREE Memoir Webinar June 1 at 4pm PT | 6pm CT | 7pm ET
Is Memoir on Your Bucket List?
Have you been thinking of writing a memoir, but aren’t sure if you should, how your family will react, or where to start? These are typical places where people hesitate about writing their story. But you can get help for all these problems.
I am excited to join with my colleague Brooke Warner again to offer you a free webinar this next Monday, June 1 that addresses the places where people who want to write typically get stuck. It doesn’t help either when other writers broadcast that you have to be well known, or an experienced writer to write your own story.
Take it from us—and we have coached over 150 people in our Write Your Memoir in Six Months classes—all you need is the desire to write and be willing to jump into the project you have always been meaning to do: write your story, share the family stories you know so well, help others learn from your wisdom and life experience.
The details are below. Hope to see you on the call!
FREE webinar June 1 at 4pm PT | 6pm CT | 7pm ET
Is Memoir on Your Bucket List?
If so, let this be the year you make it happen! This free 1-hour is a celebration of the memoir phenomenon, and an exploration of why now is a fantastic time to start and/or finish your memoir.
What we’ll be covering:
• The reasons why people write memoir.
One that we encounter often in the baby boomer generation is the desire to leave a legacy for the family. Maybe you want to explore who you were forty years ago, and to go deeper into your experience to sort out who you were and what your dreams were, and how you evolved into who you became. Another reason people write memoir is to find a way to tell a story that no one has ever told before—about themselves, about an experience. Do you have a story that’s full of inspiration? That might help or inform others? What are your stories? We invite you to consider this question and explore with us.
• Understanding what memoir is.
There is still, amazingly, a lot of discussion about who should and shouldn’t write a memoir; whether people who aren’t likely to get picked up by a big publisher should bother to write. There is speculation that there is too much memoir being written now, and that somehow it’s reserved for people who have a “valuable” story to tell, which immediately puts a judgment on memoir. We know that each story is valuable. Each story has something to offer the reader. In our classes we teach about how to engage your readers, and refine what you’re writing, but first you need to get clear on what you have to share with the world.
• 5 solid strategies for getting started.
Every writer is different and every story needs a beginning. But do you know where to start? Or maybe you’ve started, and you need some tips for getting restarted? These strategies work for that too. We will discuss the ways that you can begin and develop your memoir. We’ll give you pointers for ways to sort out your hundreds of thousands of memories into your story—with themes, turning points, and lessons for the reader.
• Success stories
Many of the writers we work with have finished their memoirs. Some have found agents, while others have gone on to publish their work with publishers or on their own. Many are working on their final revisions. Writing a memoir is an ongoing creative process that’s demanding at times, and other writers’ stories are often the inspiration and push you need to believe that you can do it too. We’ve worked with students who didn’t consider themselves “writers,” who learned the techniques of good writing and developed their craft and now fully own that title. When they sign with a publishing company or win prizes—as many of our authors have—we celebrate in their success. Writing a memoir does not have to be a dream you have, something you hope you might do one day; it can be a reality!
Hope to see you on the call!
If you read my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, you learned about the fragmented mother and daughter relationships in my family. My great-grandmother Blanche told me that my mother had been left behind “when she was a baby.” Curious about my mother’s past, I researched our family, eager to learn “the truth.” I searched in courthouses and libraries and read microfilm newspapers where my family had lived in the early 20th century.
The clues told me that when my mother’s father remarried, my grandmother, Lulu, left my mother, Josephine, with family and went to Chicago where she was a clerk, a telephone operator, and later a glove buyer in Europe. At least I think that’s what Lulu, who became Frances once she left Iowa, was doing taking ships to England for several years in the 1930s.
I have heard about how mother and my grandmother fought when they were reunited when Mother was fourteen. They were listed in the census as living in a boarding house, but Lulu remarried a few months later, taking mother with her. There is no record of mother’s elopement and brief first marriage when she was 17, but I track her through the decades until she marries my father.
Why does all this history matter? I have asked myself this question many times, especially when people wonder why I’ve been so obsessed with what happened so long ago. As I watched the three generations of mothers react to the frayed edges of their relationships, I wanted to understand why they were all so upset by things that had happened decades earlier. I saw the past as a live thing operating upon these beautiful women as they cried and fought, and even showed tenderness from time to time. When I was ten, I made a decision not to re-enact the mother-daughter fray I’d grown up with. I felt that knowledge could help me avoid it, and even change our legacy, but the history was so fraught, so frayed. I wanted to understand these two troubled women who were both my mothers.
Until my mother died, I tried to get her to claim/love me. When I was twenty, she’d made it clear that no one in Chicago where she lived knew that she had a daughter, and I was not to call her mother—thus the title of my memoir. I loved my mother despite her rejections when I visited her in Chicago over the years. I was convinced that one day she’d say, “Oh, I’ve been so wrong. I love you and I’m proud you are my daughter.” When I was little, I couldn’t wait for her visits–I grew up with my grandmother, her mother, after my mother left when I was five. I’d inhale her sweet musky scent and purr as she lovingly scratched my back. She was beautiful with her dark eyes and perfect complexion, so lovely I was sure I could never be as beautiful as she was. When I was older, I realized she was troubled, perhaps marked psychologically by being abandoned. On her deathbed, she was diagnosed as Bi-Polar, which now I know has plagued our family for decades.
As I completed my memoir, one of my writing coaches questioned why I was so gullible in wanting my mother to love me, why I felt she’d finally claimed me as her daughter in her last days. When she asked this, I felt ashamed that I’d always held such high hopes for my mother and me, despite everything. I believed that at the end of her life, she finally allowed me me to be her daughter. I worried that perhaps I had dreamed up a positive ending to our story, that I was some kind of Pollyanna.
As I’ve been organizing my files this last week, I found my mother’s letters again. They date from when I was five years old to the last few months of her life. I see a woman different from the scary, critical, hysterical woman who appeared in person. I was afraid of that mother, never knowing when she might attack me or reject me or even slap me. In some of her letters, I find a tender mother who wrote loving letters, calling me baby and Miss Pudding, and signed her letters, “Love and Kisses, Mother.”
I find this other mother in fragments of four letters:
Dear Baby, hope you are looking forward to a happier future. It is best to forget the past, bad as it may have been, and look forward and not make the same mistakes. I don’t know what to say to you to make things better. You are living life and learning about it—as does everyone and it’s full of ups and downs and joys and troubles, and that’s just the way it is. But you have to try to be happy anyway. You are so pretty and charming and nice so things should be better…
Anyway, I suppose it is all my fault in the end. I hope you will forgive my mistakes and errors in judgment, and that I have not lost your filial affection, which would be another tragedy for me, altho perhaps deserved. You need to understand that in the past friends knew I had been married and had a daughter but later I didn’t want to tell the new people I was divorced, so how could I have a child?…
I guess I am not a very good mother… If I were only married and leading a normal life which includes … attending my daughter frequently. But guess maybe this may never happen—I seem to always fall in love with the wrong people and can’t love the right ones, or something.
Hope you had as happy a birthday as I had happiness on this day so many years ago. Perhaps I haven’t realized that I have not been articular enough to you. Be assured that every day I think of you and have always missed you…
I love you,
All these years later, as I read decades of her letters, I remember how irritating it was when she gave me orders writing in all capital letters or strongly criticized me—those letters are part of the record too, but now I hear my mother’s voice in a new way as I read these more loving passages. She was trying as best she could to be a mother. This was not a woman who could tolerate cuddly intimacy. In the letters signed over and over again in her perfect flowing handwriting “Love, Mother,” I see her as simply doing the best she could. it was easier for her to be a mother from a distance. I’d forgotten that she had apologized to me in one of these letters, despite rejecting me in person until her last days. But in the letters, she is the loving mother I yearned for. I was not imagining her. I wanted her to be that mother, and now she can be.
I take the blue and white stationery, the yellow legal paper, and the delicate air mail papers and tuck them away again in the files, wishing her a happy Mother’s Day.
I’m happy to announce that I’m speaking for Nina Amir’s Nonfiction Writers University March 17, 3 PM PST. I’m focusing on one of the most challenging parts of writing a memoir: the Muddy Middle!
The Muddy Middle—this is where you wrestle with truth, the inner critic, family and how to bring a focus and universal message to your story. Here is where your healing and transformational journey deepens and you find yourself exploring the larger territory of your story and your life.
During this teleseminar, you will learn about these issues:
• You find out that you’re writing a healing memoir after all.
• You’re starting to see new perspectives on the past and how you want to tell the story.
• Truth—you have been wrestling with it alone, and now you’re doing it for a memoir? Yikes.
• Family—what will they say; will they cast you into the darkness?
• The inner critic—what if it’s right?
• The now narrator—you were feeling brave and wanted to share your knowledge about life…but now?
• You make surprising discoveries—that are not so comfortable.
In May, I present the final section of these talks about “The Three Stages of Memoir Writing.” This series is based on my book Journey of Memoir–The Three Stages of Memoir Writing. We’ll be talking about the final stages of writing a memoir: Birthing Your Book—this stage includes developing your platform, and the revision and editing process that leads to you having a book that’s ready to be published and shared with the world. This stage is usually longer than we wish!
Sign up for this FREE event by clicking this link: http://writenonfictionnow.com/landing/nfwu-teleseminars
It’s a new year, and if you’re like most people, you’re either making new resolutions or resolutely deciding not to. But let’s face it—many of us take the opportunity to begin a new calendar year to reflect on our lives and creative projects and start to think ahead about what opportunities, books, blogs and projects we want to commit to. It helps to weave our right and left brain together as we consider our ideas. To feed the right brain process, we need to get into a reflective mode and take some time to refresh and reconnect with our creative flow.
The first weekend of the year, I attended a writing retreat that offered time to write and time for silence and meditation. We were invited to sample the art materials at the center, which included paper making, collage, and calligraphy. The focus was on going inside our own silent creative process. We had our own small room and plenty of time to write, but we also had group time when we could share bits from our journals, make paper and create collages together. There were even “adult” coloring books with complex mandalas and flowers. I couldn’t believe that I spent over an hour coloring! It was so refreshing and fun. The retreat was not about production, it was about taking the time to slow down, reflect, re-energize, and reconnect with what needed to come through us. We need to be able to do this in our daily lives too.
Committing ourselves to an ongoing practice of inner listening enhances our creativity. There is so much stimulation in our lives now—TV screens, tablets, phones, loud musak in every store—it’s hard to tune out so much noise. The challenge in “everyday” life is to find ways to connect with our creative muse regularly, to create openness and enough silence to hear our emerging thoughts and ideas. I made a promise to myself that I would turn off the noise makers every day, and early in the evening. It was refreshing to make more time to sit in silence to listen in to what I might want to write.
• Find some time to walk in a garden, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, keeping your focus only on your steps, and banishing thinking from your mind. When you start thinking or obsessing, focus on a flower or tree branch and take a deep breath to return to the present moment.
• Take a long luxurious bath, staying in the moment as you listen to the water and feel it relax your body. Sink into the quiet and the warmth of this time to be with yourself.
• Set aside moments to write in your journal, time to reflect, let go, or create something new several times a week.
• Buy flowers to put in vases around your house and enjoy the fragrance and colors they add to your environment. Write a poem or sketch your flowers.
• Turn off your screens—TV, computer, tablets, and phones during the day if you keep them on “for company” and again early in the evening. Lessen the amount of time you are stimulated by electronics. Read or write in your journal during that time.
• If you like to draw, paint, sculpt, work with clay, save some time each week to go non-verbal and listen to what your art wants to manifest.
• Buy a beautiful journal and give yourself permission to write in it—whatever needs to come out. Don’t save it for “perfect” writing!