Are there Secrets in your Family?



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




Healing through Creative Writing (It helps to get inspired by writing in Paris)

Tips for Finding the Creative Spark Within

As a memoir coach, I’m blessed to meet so many people with a passion for creativity and writing. But to live that passion, we often have to conquer a fierce adversary: the inner critic! It demands perfect grammar and eloquent language. If we were “real” writers and if we were really creative, we think it should be easy to write, that things would just flow.

In my workshops, I ask what people think a “real” writer is:
• A real writer is already published.
• A real writer effortlessly sits down every day to write for hours.
• A real writer is published by a large New York publisher.
• A real writer is someone super-confident who writes 20 pages a day without confronting any obstacles.

You can see how these beliefs will slow you down. Pick up your pen and write, or take out your computer. In the photo above, I was writing at the cafe where Hemingway used to write in Paris–Deux Magots.

The Inner Critic

All writers and creative people struggle with the inner critic. That voice intrudes into the mind, and too often we believe it. Some typical critic voices writers and artists talk about:
• You’re boring.
• Why bother?
• Who cares?
• Who do you think you are (to try to be a writer)?
• How dare you write our story!
• Quit being such a navel gazer.

Writing can feel like being on a battleground, so of course it seems easier to garden, or clean the house. We need to feed our creativity and we need to learn how to cope with these problem messages banging around in our head. We need to unleash our authentic voice and speak our own truths, despite family members telling us to keep secrets.

In my workshops I see amazing breakthroughs. Perhaps the safety and support of the group bypasses the pesky inner critic. Or the intense passion of the writer is ignited by the group process, which invites  stories to burst out.

I talk about how to heal the inner critic in my book The Power of Memoir — write down what the critic says, and then answer it back with positive affirmations. It’s important to argue with it, to take a more positive stance. If you do this for all those inner voices, you create a tool that manages them, even if they are not silenced. Just know that all writers and all creative people have these voices and they have to learn not to listen to them or believe them.

Quick, Powerful Writing

Freewriting or writing quickly blows us on by the critic. It’s often a surprise how a really wonderful vignette can be written in just twenty minutes. These snapshots of authentic life astonish us because they are fresh and real. In one of my groups, a woman wrote about her young son, a golden boy of eight—how important he is, having come into her life after she thought couldn’t have children, and about the joy he’s given her after years of grief about possibly never having children. The group held her in respectful, embracing silence while Kleenex was passed silently from hand to hand, the room filled with compassion. She finally looked at us and wiped her eyes.
“Wow. I guess I took up a lot of time. I’m sorry.”
Everyone began telling her how deeply the story had affected them. As she was witnessed by the group, she smiled. “I’ve never told anyone this, I’ve never had the space to do this before.”
This woman felt the healing power of writing, and the power of a group witnessing her with compassion. She wrote: “Attending this workshop gave me the opportunity to reach deep inside and draw a circle of words around my heart. I shared my deepest feelings with a group who received me and held me with compassion and acceptance. I left the workshop feeling fuller and more whole.”

Write from Love, From Your Creative Spirit

If you write, you are a writer. Invite yourself to dip into the flow of words in your head and write them down. You’ll be amazed at the wisdom that resides within you just waiting to be tapped. Brenda Ueland, in her wonderful classic If You Want to Write, says that everyone is talented and original. All of us need to share our ideas with the world; it is part of our right as human beings to express ourselves. Ueland says that criticism destroys creativity, and that so-called helpful criticism is often the worst kind.

I read Ueland’s book over and over to get inspired through the years. It’s full of wisdom and a lively positive spirit about our unique creativity. She says we must write freely, as if to friends who appreciate us and find us interesting. We should write as if they are saying, “Tell me more, tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.” It’s an invitation to be ourselves, be authentic and write our truths.

If you want to write, create space for writing in your life. Set a time and a place to nurture this spark into a roaring blaze. Focus inward and listen to stories that whisper to you—capture your grandmothers’ kitchen, your mother’s face, or your father’s love of golf. The days of your life that give you meaning and joy. The creative spark is alive. Feed the flame! Read Ueland’s book and be inspired!

Writing Invitations
1. Write about what being a “real” writer means to you.
3. List the critic voices. Get them out of your head. Write your affirmations.
4. Keep listing the stories that you always wanted to tell. Write for 15 minutes a day.
5. Write about the happiest day of your life. Be sure to use sensual details of smell, sounds, feelings in your body, and colorful descriptions.

Jaycee Lee Dugard—Her Memoir as Survival Testimony

Video of Diane Sawyer and Jaycee Dugard
Millions watched as Jaycee Lee Dugard told her story to Diane Sawyer on national television. Diane, and perhaps most of the audience, seemed amazed and impressed at her composure, honesty and wisdom.

It seems clear that the eleven year old who had to endure isolation, imprisonment, and rape found some strong coping mechanisms that enabled her to survive—for eighteen years. To have children and raise them in captivity. She mentions a spider, kittens, and a journal that connected her to the small but important things she could find that gave her hope. When she gave birth at age 14, she finally had someone with her. “I wasn’t alone,” she said.

While we can watch the video version of Jaycee’s story, the real behind-the-scenes story is in her memoir A Stolen Life. Through her account, she wanted to support other victims and to give hope to others who have suffered abuse. Too often in the news we see children victimized by adults who use them for their own selfish needs.

Drawing upon my years of working with people who are healing trauma, in my book The Power of Memoir I discuss the importance for a victim of abuse and trauma to write down what really happened as a testimony to the injustices suffered. I quote Alice Miller’s work on how important it is to be witnessed with compassion and understanding for the injuries suffered. When we are witnessed, we are no longer alone. Writing offers us witnessing—as we tell the story of how we suffered and coped. As a writer-narrator, we are witnessing ourselves and healing the past.

The studies on writing as healing by psychologists and brain experts all underscore the need to write your stories, to search for and tell the truth. How healing it is to hear your own authentic voice! And when you’re ready, you can share your story so others can learn from your experiences.

One of the things that happened to Jaycee is that the Garridos took away her name—something most of us take for granted. It’s fitting that she begins the book with claiming her name once again, writing the book herself and naming all the things that were done to her, all the wrongs that were committed in nearly two decades of her life. Yet Jaycee is not bitter. Her face is full of light, and her goal is to live fully from now on. She is full of love—and is an amazing inspiration for everyone who’s trying to heal their past. Forgiveness, when we’re ready for it, opens up the pathways to the heart. People who’ve been abused need to find their way to themselves, to reclaim the parts that were lost in the past, and in so doing, they reclaim their lives.
I’m moved by her words, the video, and the calm authenticity she demonstrates. No doubt there is much more healing to do as she continues to discover freedom and the joys of living, but Jaycee shows us how it’s possible to live a new life in freedom and light. Through her story, we may find slivers of our own, and learn new pathways to our own healing.

Writing as Healing–A Series

Writing and Healing, and Dr. James Pennebaker’s Studies
Part One—Introduction

In this series, I’m celebrating the research that started being publicized in the late 1990s about how writing helps to heal the body and the mind, and celebrating my books on this subject. One of them is a decade old! And my recent book, The Power of Memoir just passed its first birthday. Join me in learning more about this powerful means of using words to create new worlds.

Writing your true story is healing! Though we know this intuitively, research over the last decade has proven it to be true. In this series of articles we will investigate the ways that writing helps to heal, and connect different ways of writing with layers and levels of healing. “Healing” can also be seen as “Getting a new perspective, finding a new point of view, letting go of the past, forgiveness and compassion.”

Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, is one of the most well known researchers on the topic, and in 2000 I asked him about the research he was doing during a visit in Austin, Texas. We sat across from each other in the student cafeteria. He brushed back his red hair from his face, talking and smiling about his work.

What he called “expressive writing,” writing that integrates your emotions and insights with memories of events that occurred in your past, improves the immune system and has a positive effect on diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, and asthma, among others, and he forwarded me to the site of some of his articles.

We know that self-disclosure and confession have long played a role in relieving stress. People sometimes resist confession, but for many the ancient church sacrament helps to unburden shame and guilt, allowing them to face forward with new resolve, relieved and invigorated.

In the confessional, we speak the unspeakable. Confessional words can pierce the darkness, opening our hearts to hope and forgiveness. Through confession and unburdening, forgiveness can begin, for ourselves and others.

Psychotherapy has been called the modern day confessional. Like a priest in the darkened confessional, Freud positioned himself in the shadows of a dimly lit room—a sacred, private space in which clients could reveal hidden truths. His treatment rule was that they were to speak freely about whatever arose in their minds. This was a revolutionary, even dangerous, idea in Victorian times, when repression and suppression of thoughts and desires were the order of the day. In therapy, as in the church confessional, deep feelings, worries, and the secrets of the soul could finally be formed into words.

During the 1990s, Dr. Pennebaker began to wonder if writing would offer the same relief as spoken disclosure. For a decade, he and his colleagues had been investigating the therapeutic benefit of writing in various settings and with a large range of populations, including prisoners and crime victims, arthritis and chronic-pain sufferers, new mothers, and people with various physical illnesses, across different social classes and demographics.
During one such experiment, members of the control group were instructed to write lists or plans for the day, while the expressive writing group received the following directions:

For the next four days, I would like you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different traumas each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.

Both groups wrote for fifteen minutes on each of the four days of the study.

Despite Dr. Pennebaker’s background as a psychologist, the intensity and depth of the trauma expressed in the subjects’ stories surprised and moved him profoundly. Students wrote about tragic and traumatic events, such as depression, rape, suicide attempts, child sexual and physical abuse, drug use, and family violence. They often wrote of powerful emotions associated with these stories and many cried, yet almost all of them were willing to participate in the study again.

The researchers found that it is indeed healing to translate our experiences into words, to put events and feelings into perspective using written language.
In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker discusses how writing about emotional events relieves stress and promotes a more complete understanding of events. He concludes that simple catharsis, the explosive release of emotions, is not enough. Feelings, thoughts, and a new comprehension need to be integrated in our minds with memories of the events that occurred in order to create a new perspective. Pennebaker compares the effects of writing to psychotherapy, where emotional disclosure and the release of inhibition are part of the healing process, along with the ability to integrate new insights into current behavior and beliefs.

As far back as Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) psychologists have suggested that repression and suppression of emotion contribute to stress and emotional and physical imbalance. In a primitive fight-or-flight system, powerful chemicals surge through the body to protect an organism against a perceived threat. When the threat has passed, the body retains the pattern of tension and vigilance, especially if there was ongoing trauma. When stress is released, the immune system responds in a positive direction, toward balance and ultimate health.

In 1999, an article by Joshua Smyth et al. in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” about the effects of expressive writing on arthritis and asthma sufferers made a rousing splash in the writing and psychological communities.

In their 2002 book The Writing Cure, Smyth and Stephen Lepore present more recent studies showing that while writing about trauma and negative emotions causes emotional pain and distress for a short period, both mood and physical health improve. Furthermore, writing about positive emotions and a positive future also lead to improvements in physical as well as emotional health.

The research also showed that our personalities affect these benefits. If a person tends to withhold emotions, writing about negative experiences will likely have a positive effect on that person’s health. If a person generally focuses on negative feelings, writing about a positive experience or a happier life event may have a beneficial effect. Therefore, there is no single “right” way to use writing as a healing tool.

Freewrite: A freewrite means to write freely without stopping or correcting your work. To let your hand sweep across the page, or your fingers to rush across the keys. Do not delete or correct. Save and move to the next writing idea.
When writing the invitation, freewrite and enjoy!

Writing Invitations
1. List five reasons you want to write stories about your life.
2. What kinds of stories do you like to read, and why?
5. Describe the town, city, landscape you grew up in. Include buildings, weather–all your favorite things about this place. Try to feel this place again as you write. Use descriptions and sensual details.
6. Think about and write about how the place where you grew up shape you into the person you are today?
7. Eavesdropping as a child—did you do that? What interesting stories did you hear? Write some of these stories.

You can read more about this amazing research in my second book on the power of writing to heal: The Power of Memoir–How To Write Your Healing Story.

Check out Ashley Judd Speaks Out About Incest And Abuse In New Memoir

Memoir Writers:

I want you to take a look at: Ashley Judd Speaks Out About Incest And Abuse In New Memoir.

She reveals details about herself that were not accepted or believed when she was a child. How often this happens! I hope memoirs like this can help to educate the public about the importance of listening to a child.

It sounds like Ashley has used writing her memoir to help to heal herself from her own repressed memories, as well as to let the world know that sexual abuse is real, that parents may not realize what kind of danger their daughters might be in if they are not watching. It is not about just pointing out blame or responsibility, this kind of book, like some of the others we have been talking about here on the blog, helps to bring awareness, we hope, especially when the author is famous. This is a celebrity memoir that might be delivering a lot of important information.

Are you interested in reading it? How does this review present the book different from the review discussed below? Even if you are not an abuse victim, would you read a book like this?

Review and Debate about the Controversial Tiger, Tiger

Based on an article from The Guardian, I decided to discuss the issues brought up by the review of the controversial and best selling memoir Tiger, Tiger. I’m discussing issues raised in the review, not the book itself, as I have not yet read it. When we read a review, we are assessing whether we want to read the book, so I posted the link and some questions on Facebook to get a sense of how people were reacting to the article.

The title and introductory paragraph to the article “Tiger, Tiger: What is the point of reading this memoir of abuse?

Tiger, Tiger, the graphic account of an abused child’s relationship with a 51-year-old pedophile, is already being hyped as the most controversial book of the year. A writer, a psychologist and a survivor give their verdict.”

As the article continues, it offers several points of view about writing prurient, explicit sexual abuse as three people weigh in on the memoir asking questions such as what is the focus of the book? Who does it help, if it does help? Who is the audience for the book?

As a therapist, I have worked with abuse victims for over thirty years and have observed various stages that must be passed through on the way to being healed. It’s hard to know when reading someone’s book what stage they were when they wrote it. I thought the article posed some pithy questions, and I added some of my own.

  • Will this kind of writing about abuse help to inform the public and create change or transformation?
  • Can writing about abuse change the world? If so, what kind of writing helps the most?
  • Which is better– subjectivity or objectivity — to shift a factual work into an artistically written piece?
  • After reading the review, would you read this book?

I received a range of different responses from people on Facebook, from thinking the book sounded like porn, to hoping that writing such a book would heal the writer, and that if it’s true, we can and should write our experiences. But the biggest questions were: what will it deliver to the reader? Will we be transformed by the book somehow; will it add to our body of knowledge, awareness, and consciousness in some significant way? Of course, what one person might enjoy, or feel they need to read, will be different from another’s reading preferences, but are there principles in writing memoir—true—stories that we should pay attention to?

Writing about sexual abuse is particularly dicey—because of political issues—for many people. If the book is prurient, if it’s the kind of text that’s a turn on, it could be viewed as a way to continue the pattern of abuse. We would need to look at what the subtext is about abuse between the lines of such a text.  And, we might wonder if a woman who’s been abused has a balanced  attitude about sexuality, perhaps unaware that she might be contributing to the very thing she’s fighting against in the book—the mistreatment of women and misuse of power. Or is the book more of a “this is what happened to me” story, rather than one that takes the reader to a new place of understanding? I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t think that abusing little children is acceptable, and without reading the book they would agree to that. So will there be new insights, new knowledge gleaned, and if so about what?

Unless we decide that we want to read the book, we won’t know the answers to some of these questions. As memoir writers, asking these kinds of questions can be important to decide how we angle our narrative when we write personal stories, especially those that are about abuse. I know that writers worry about how many details about physical acts of abuse to include, and rightly so. In my workshops, we discuss how language can be used to elucidate truth and make truths more clear, and also how language can be use to suggest reality without being in your face, as if filming a scene through a gauze curtain.

There is no one right way to write about abuse, but each writer needs to wrestle with issues of how much detail, what kind of truth is being revealed, and if the writing exposes personal privacy issues that puts them in legal jeopardy. There may be other legal issues to keep in mind as well.

I know that some of my clients won’t be reading this book because it will trigger their own bad memories or their PTSD, but some people may indeed find redeeming value in reading it. Perhaps it can be a teaching how about a little girl can be brainwashed and that without protective adults, how easy it might be to do this. Perhaps the author is naming and showing significant issues about how a girl in that situation thinks and feels. The only way to know for sure is to read the book. Do you want to read it? If so, why? If not, why not?