I write memoir. I teach a workshop in it as well. I continually hear the same nagging questions and comments from students and fellow writers. It goes something along the lines of “my [relative: sibling, parent, aunt, uncle, etc] doesn’t believe the truth about what happened. Or they say “They think I’m crazy for writing this down because it could hurt the family.” Or “they say that’s not what happened.”
They of course say all of these things and to this we have to just say “so what?”
I have a cousin, one out of a family of seven siblings. She’s faced the hard truth of what her father and mother were and did to the family. She gave words and definition to what the rest pretended didn’t happen. She tells the truth—which in their eyes make her a liar because if she is the truth then of course, they are the lie by very definition.
I have a brother who had probably a harder growing up than he needed to have. It’s not his fault that his dad was a jerk. It’s not his fault that he is put in the sad predicament of having to choose even when no one is making him make a choice. If he sides with his dad, he’s a loyal loving son and who doesn’t want to love their parents? We want to be able to do that. If he sides with me, then he loves me and he’s turning his back on his father and he doesn’t have many relatives so that’s really cutting it all rather thin. I don’t blame him for his reaction to my memoir.
But of course memoir goes really deep into memory. There is what happened. There is assigning meaning to what happened. There is writing for the sake of naming what happened so that it doesn’t eat us up and destroy it like an unnamed unfound until it is too late cancer.
My memoir isn’t shy about pointing out what shaped my world view, my personality, my desires, my foibles…and nothing in me was influenced by one singular person or one singular event but many.
But I wonder if people really know what they are actually saying when they tell an abused child—abused in any capacity–not to talk about it, not to make waves, not to name it because that person that influenced them in a very particular way is:
didn’t mean it
didn’t know what they were doing
is the loved one of someone else that you also love
Every unwritten memoir? Every time you don’t go to the heart of that story that in your gut shaped all the other stories is another day that you are lying about who you are. It’s giving the other the continual get out of jail free card while you’re still sitting there in jail for no good reason other than you wanted everyone in your family to like you so you didn’t say a thing.
It’s crazy that we have to defend our own memories, our own crying in the dark, our own fears that those days, months, and years would never subside and we’d never get out. But we do.
I tell my memoir students the only thing I can: write as if all parties are dead and none of them will ever read it. Let that first draft be all of it. You can scale back accordingly when you want to and if you want to , but you don’t have to and you shouldn’t edit to be liked by anyone ever.
Like many American girls growing up in the 70s I was shaped as much by absence as I was by presence. We all have our fears and our horrors that incubate in our heads. I happened to live in a household with someone who preyed on all my fears and horrors, someone who liked to vocalize them so I could see and feel them on the air in the households we lived in. It was an unpleasant , unrestful feeling. He planted the seed of my unrest. He made me realize people weren’t to be trusted just because they were adults. In some very twisted ways, I am thankful for this. He kept me from being naive. He made it known that adults are happy to squelch and crush children and their dreams.
My memoir talks about this. But I’m not suppose to talk like this. None of the survivors of bad parenting from nice middle class white American types that believe in god and the military are suppose to say this because these people who parented badly are NOT BAD PEOPLE. Or so other people tell us.
And I believe that. Somewhere in Las Vegas where an aunt and uncle of mine live there are a few people who live on their street that know that they are nice. The aunt asks people to pray for the sick and the dying. Her daughters have become fundamentalists, mormons, other Christians of all sorts as a way into forgiveness or a way to erase the past. It’s good to have a new life, one that doesn’t follow you around. The uncle works with people who think he’s alright. Nice guy. Wouldn’t harm a fly. And maybe they are good people now —now with their pasts hundreds of miles away in another state.
I don’t know what my stepfather is like now. Nor do I really care to know. I don’t hang out with people who are cruel to kids and I never hang with anyone I wouldn’t bring my kids around, so the problem takes care of it self. I also think when one chooses to become a responsible parent one starts to take stock in their on upbringing. What worked? What didn’t? What shaped for the better? What shaped for the worse? Perhaps writing the memoir is my way of trying to understand his behavior and the behavior of others who shaped me in the 1970s when everything was one giant experiment, act first/think later.
And yes, perhaps today’s parents over think first and act second, but was there to be any other reaction given our set up?
Write the memoir as if all are dead. If they love you, they’ll forgive you for what doesn’t mesh with their sanitized version. But you don’t need their forgiveness. You only need yours. And if they wind up hating your words take solace in knowing that most of America doesn’t read anyway. They probably won’t even know you are doing it. And if they do know you are writing/wrote a memoir and they hate you for it, they probably were going to fight you when the will was read anyhow.