While you write your memoir, your family and childhood come to life on the page. As the narrator, you present the significant things that shaped you through your own eyes and your own point of view.

Most of us grow up thinking that our family and childhood as “just the way it is,” unaware of the many different ways families live and cope with stressful events and disappointments. We begin our writing from this internalized perspective, only to find ourselves surprised by how other people react to our story. As we write a memoir, we learn how the family crucible has shaped us. You find that you’re writing a story that is giving you a new way of looking at yourself and your family. You might even find yourself re-defining what family is.

“Family” can be defined in many ways. “Family” once referred to people who had a common ancestor or were related by marriage. The nuclear family included parents and children; the extended family included a collection of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, great aunts and uncles, great-grandparents, and close friends of family.

People who were orphaned or grew up in an atypical family have a complex history that may hard to face when writing memoir. There is the heartache that accompanies the early death of a parent, abandonment, or divorce. Children can feel abandoned even when they live in the same house with their parents if they are so dysfunctional they can’t be present for the children. Mental or physical illness creates a kind of abandonment as well.

It’s important to remember that not all atypical families are dysfunctional. Each family is unique, with strengths that balance some of the more negative traits. In some families, it is 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.

I grew up with my grandmother far away from my divorced parents, so I always felt odd, different, and “less than” other people. But my grandmother acted superior, putting on airs to cover her own low self-esteem, so I couldn’t talk about my true feelings or perceptions. I hated filling out those forms where we had to write our mother’s and father’s names. I had to fill in “guardian,” trying not to see the questioning looks I got from the other kids. I imagined they were saying: “What’s wrong with your family, why aren’t you normal?”

It didn’t help that I held the secrets of my mother and grandmother’s bizarre behaviors— screaming, throwing dishes, rushing dramatically to and from trains, and crying during each visit my mother made from Chicago to Oklahoma. Early on, I didn’t realize that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a young child. I could see their pain, but I just wanted us to be normal. When my mother was on her deathbed, a psychiatrist diagnosed her as manic-depressive, finally giving a name for the pain we’d carried in our family for generations. Understanding this helped me to find compassion for them. I know that my story is not that different from that of others. Writing down all the stories helped me to claim what I’d lived through and find my voice in the present, a place where I could see them and myself through new eyes.

Like it or not, family and our childhoods train us for our adult lives and our belief systems. I discovered that I could change the feeling of otherness and abandonment through therapy, but first I had to make a bunch of mistakes along the way to see how far from normal my life had been.

My early therapy experiences showed me that to find myself, I had to confront the repressed “bad” feelings I’d carried through the years when I was trying to be “good” and likeable. Only then could I see the past clearly and to understand who I am, and who my parents and grandmother were. The idea that “Our True Selves” are loveable, and valuable gave me the freedom to search for healing and helped mem see how to change the patterns that had passed through the generations of my family—three generations of mothers who had emotionally and physically abandoned their daughters.

My first therapy required that I write my autobiography in all its painful truths, raw and visceral. I wrote in my journal for hundreds of hours which tore the veils from my eyes, and broke me down in such a way that I could put myself together differently.

When we write about our families, we embrace our own voice, and we see more clearly who we truly are. Writing a memoir means claiming all the parts of ourselves and holding them tenderly.

Writing Prompts

  1. Write about the history of your family—who married whom, who stayed in the family, who left, and when. These might become several story threads.
  2. Write about how you felt during family conflicts–in your body and in your mind. What did you think and feel? What did you do when there was conflict?
  3. What is the most important thing you learned in your family?
  4. What generational patterns would you want to change and why?