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.
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.