When you are writing a memoir, your childhood comes to life, along with the stories of your family. As the narrator, you shape the story through your own experience, and tell the truth about your life as you experienced it. Most people grow up thinking that our family and childhood was “just the way it was.” Until we share our stories, and learn about the lives of others, we don’t know about the different ways that families live and the challenges that everyone faces.
We begin our writing from an internal and subjective place, but when we share our stories in writing groups or with our writing coach, we can be surprised by how they react to our story. They shine a light on the tender, loving aspects of our family members, as well as the cruelty that we learned to accept and take for granted. As we write our memoir, we learn how our family has shaped us, for better or worse. As a family therapist, I find that offering a few principles about how families work help writers understand family psychology, and can help to free them from the voices of the inner critic. Everyone has a family, and all of us have endured or exalted in the dynamics of our families.
These days, “family” is defined in multiple ways. In the past, the word “family” referred to people with a common ancestor or who were related by marriage—the nuclear family, the extended family. But people who were orphaned or raised in an atypical family are challenged about how to present their stories. They have a complex history that’s painful to face when writing their story—there’s the heartache that accompanies the early death of a parent, or abandonment, or divorce, and this can be difficult to re-experience when writing. Children can feel abandoned even when they live in the same house with their parents if the adults are so dysfunctional they can’t show up for the children. If a caretaker has a mental or physical illness the child can feel abandoned too. These layers of complexity are an emotional challenge when writing memoir.
Of course, not all atypical families are dysfunctional. Each family is unique, and most have strengths that balance the negative traits. For some people, it’s difficult to see these points of light early in the healing process because of the emotional pain that interferes with finding compassion. It’s important to keep writing, inviting your authentic voice to tell the stories that will help you to heal. Just write the basic “what happened” at first. List the positive traits. Find moments that were positive and write them along with the darker stories.
I grew up with my grandmother far away from my divorced parents, so I always felt odd, different, and “less than” other people. My grandmother acted as if she was superior to others, putting on airs to cover her own low self-esteem. Of course, I didn’t realize then what she was doing, but I knew the rules: not to talk about how I felt. Make sure I stayed silent—which I carried long into my adult life. At school I hated filling out forms where we had to write our parents’ names. I filled in “guardian,” trying not to notice questioning looks from the other kids. I imagined they thought, “What’s wrong with your family, why aren’t you normal?”
I kept the secrets of my mother and grandmother’s bizarre behaviors— screaming, throwing dishes, rushing dramatically to and from trains, and crying—these dramas happened on each visit my mother made from Chicago to Oklahoma. When I was very young, I didn’t know that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a little girl. I could see their pain, but I didn’t know what caused it. I just wanted us to be normal.
When my mother was on her deathbed, a psychiatrist diagnosed her, and by implication my grandmother, as manic-depressive. Finally, I had a name for the pain in our family. Understanding that their behavior was driven by an illness helped me to find compassion for them and helped me to heal. My story is not so different from that of many people, but until I began writing and reading memoirs over the years, I didn’t know that. Luckily, I had kept a journal through the years where I could allow some of my truths out of my mind and body.
In the seventies when I first began therapy, I learned that to find myself, I needed to confront the repressed “bad” feelings I’d carried when I tried to be “good” and likeable, hoping that I could create peace in the house, hoping for approval. I learned that we had a “True Self”—the part of all of us that is the essence of love, compassion, and understanding. It’s the part of us that remains free of the painful conditioning we encounter as we grow up. Understanding this principle helped me to feel freed of the shame of the past and offered hope that I could break patterns that had passed through the generations of my family—three generations of mothers who had emotionally and physically abandoned their daughters.
During my first therapy all those years ago, I had to write my autobiography and all the painful truths I had never told anyone, never had written. I wrote them all down, raw for hundreds of hours. This writing was the first step to uncover my anger and pain, and it led ultimately to being able to see my family as imperfect, women who were trying their best to live their lives, unaware of the harm they were doing. I was able to see them as little girls who themselves had dreams, who wanted to be happy.
Writing a memoir is a lot like therapy—this is not news to anyone who has taken on writing a memoir! As we write, we find the stories and the moments that shaped us and we put ourselves back into the time machine that allows us to create the world of the past. Sometimes there is pain involved, but when we understand that our story is about healing, letting go, a resolution of some kind, finding a way to see our loved ones as whole people, it is rewarding indeed.