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.
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.
It’s 1966, March 4th, and the snow is silently falling, whispering down onto the deserted University of Illinois campus at 8 AM on a Saturday. The moment captures me in its powerful silence, the snowflakes as large as cars, perfect and whole and individually sprinkling to the earth. It’s a black and white etching of a day, the spindly trees reaching toward a grey sky, the substantial brick buildings of the campus suggesting solidity and time.
In those days, I was a bereft girl, still unaware of the toll my childhood had taken on me by the absence—and the wars—of my parents and grandmother. It was a blessing to be unable to know it fully yet, still protected with what I now know as “defense mechanisms.” I had pushed the darkness away in my mind but it always hovered with hints of its dark secrets, putting its hand on my body which led to being sick a lot.
This moment on March 4th seemed to suspend me from my chattering mind, endless spools of worries, the tension that made my back ache. The silence had invited me into it and caused me to reflect, to take in that perfect moment of snow and quiet, my monkey mind at peace. I was connected to the whole world.
Today, as I always do on March 4th, I celebrate this day as my “spiritual holiday,” a celebration of being alive, of “marching forth into spring.” That day so long ago had always seemed special, and I celebrated it as many Midwesterners do after such long cold winters—eager to embrace the nascent spring hiding just under the snow. In my memoir writing, I’ve tried to capture that moment many times, but it’s like music—just out of reach of adequate words. I’ve painted it, and created etchings of bare branches in snow, comforted somehow by its starkness.
I was surprised today with a new insight about this event that happened so long ago—and I can blame many things for it—particularly memoir writing and the gifts it keeps on giving.
People liken memoir writing to “peeling the onion,” a term often used in psychotherapy to describe the gradual evolution of the story being told and the insights gained. Or it can describe the unraveling of the persona that we wear in the world, as the work of insight, grieving, and finding new perspectives continues. I tell my memoir students to just keep writing and see what new stories and ahas rise up unannounced out of the muck of the confusion of our memories and reflections.
Finally, I found the timeline and context of my March 4th memory—which was linked to the theme of my memoir!
The urge to celebrate marching forth had everything to do with the incident I describe in my book Don’t Call Me Mother—where my mother refused to introduce me to a jeweler friend of hers, leaving me miserably by the cold door of the shop where the real and metaphorical cold wind of Chicago froze me out. As we left and I confronted her about her cold shoulder, she said, “You know that I go by ‘Miss Myers.’ No one knows I’ve been married and so I can’t have a daughter, can I? Don’t make a fuss, my life needs to stay the way it is.”
In shock, I tried to understand her then, and for the next 30 years, I’d try to change her. I’d visit her in Chicago and endure her whisking me through back doors, and later she did the same with my children, admonishing us not to tell anyone that we were hers. This theme winds through my book, and informs much of my life.
I began to realize that my forward-looking promise to “March forth” every year, which I have celebrated since 1966, was about the need to move forward despite my mother’s rejection—which had occurred a few weeks before that first snowy March 4th. In the silence that blessed me that day, my spiritual self, or God, or whomever it is that helps bereft and lost children, touched my heart and mind, offering me hope that if I marched forth, I would make it. I would find my way.
I wish you all a Happy March 4th, and may you march forth into healing, into joy, and find your true voice.
As I watch my grandchildren gather around the tree to inspect the packages, lifting, smelling, shaking each one, I think of how symbolic our celebration is at Christmas—the way that we offer gifts, receive them, and count them. What are we measuring? Zoe and Miles are a good example of this: “Nana, do you love Miles more than me? He has six presents and I have four. You need to give me two more.”
This leads to several discussions about whether she actually believes that I love him more and her less—reluctantly she says she knows it’s not true. But does she really?
It must be a universal, this doubt. When I grew up, I observed the ongoing conflict between my grandmother and mother, first the arched eyebrows, the tension in the room, the buildup to a rollicking fight, the explosion. I didn’t know it then, but the unfinished business of my grandmother leaving my mother when she was young was the subtext of all fights. It was about failures in love—feeling unloved, feeling guilty. And the struggle not to feel any of it.
It’s a blessing to immerse myself in a holiday with my daughter now, after a delicious train ride from the Bay Area to San Diego. She loves sparkly lights, decorating the tree, the house, the trees outside of the house, making cookies, wrapping presents. I had to learn how to celebrate holidays by watching how other families “did” Christmas, wrapping presents, and holiday food , trying to create a meaningful holiday as a single parent with three children. We had our traditions—cookies, a decorated tree, one present opened on Christmas Eve. Movies and a big dinner on Christmas. Year after year, the echoes of the Christmases of my past would grow dimmer as we created new memories.
It’s important to know that we can heal the past by creating a new present, but for some, the healing will be long, or never. As I watch my grandchildren’s happy putterings about Christmas, I can’t help but think of families who have lost their children, particularly the Sandy Hook families who are grieving the impossible loss of their children. We think too of the broken hearts of everyone who suffers loss. The happiness we feel, interleafed with the awareness of the suffering of others, is a way to dig deeper into the meaning of Christmas and all the holidays of this time of year. To hold in our hearts the whole of humanity, represented by our family. To hold our love with compassion for others, to realize that the wish of everyone is to be happy, to be loved, to be at peace.
What are your special moments this year? Your blessings?
What traditions are you creating for your family that break from past traditions?
Have a wonderful holiday! And capture your special moments in writing, with photos for future stories!
The release of The Power of Memoir–How to Write Your Healing Story has given me the opportunity to answer questions about memoir writing, from truth to secrets, from families who support the writer to families who threaten to sue if the memoirist tells “the truth.” I’m posting some of the questions every few days to help memoir writers caught in the dilemma between truth, memoir, family, and fiction.
Many writers are torn between the desire to tell the truth and the internal/external pressure to keep family secrets. What do you recommend they do?
It’s important first for the writer to get her story on the page, to write her own truth. Each person has a point of view and his own story that no one else can tell, so he needs to claim it and discover its wisdom by writing about it. This process creates a new perspective that brings forth layers of memories and insights. Exposing these layers is part of the healing process.
And there’s the hot topic in all my workshops: secrets. Secrets are energy magnets. The force it takes to keep secrets hidden is energy that could be used for growth and creativity. So often though, the shame and guilt associated with secrets keep feeding the darkness and the fear. Secrets maintain a great power over us, and we are diminished by them. We become co-conspirators to family dynamics that we don’t agree with and want to break away from. So we get caught in a conflict—to speak or not to speak? Do we remain closed and complicit, or open up and take the risk of losing friends and family, of being ousted from the family, or shamed once again into submission? These are choices that we need to make consciously and with care.
I tell my students to be open to writing two versions of the story: first, write for yourself, to clear out your emotional closet and sort the events that are jumbled up in your mind. Research has shown that writing the unadorned truth is powerful and creates changes in the brain—in other words: it’s healing.
When you put real people in your book, especially if they are identifiable, they should be notified. Even if all the portraits are positive, we’re exposing a real person to the eyes of the world. The convention is to have people read the sections they appear in, if you are on speaking terms. If not, change the names and identifying characteristics, even if that means changing names for the character, the streets, town and anything that exposes them. If published, the legal branch of the publishing company can vet the manuscript as well, but since so many memoirs are self-published, I think it’s important for people to keep these ethics in mind.
Putting the publishing concerns aside for a moment, I think the writer first needs to listen to the voice within, the true author of the story–yourself. Write what you have to say as if no one will read it–you can review it later. You will be different from the writer who began the story. Writing the story will transform you, heal you, and give you a feeling of empowerment.
Be brave–write your story!