How Memoir Saved My Life

In case you missed it the first time when it was posted at Hothouse Magazine on July 3, here is my article about my mother, memoir and the power of writing to heal:

I’m outing my mother to the wider world, with her blessing. This, despite being evangelical Christians from the Midwest where we don’t talk about our business with each other, let alone outsiders. Midwesterners are private; Christian Midwesterners, even more so. But, my mother tells me, all the people she cares about know who she was and is. More importantly, she knows who she is, and her homosexuality is part of our history. So, why not?

During my twenties, I could hardly speak to her. We lived in the same city in northern Indiana but mostly spoke only on holidays.  I harbored so much anger toward her I could hardly write about her. When I tried to make sense of growing up with a lesbian mother through writing, the fictionalized accounts ended as a diatribe for all the hurts I nursed. I was angry because I didn’t understand her and lived in a world of shame. I was angry because I discovered she was gay when I was nine and heard her having sex with a woman and because we kept our knowledge a secret from each other. She didn’t tell me she was gay and I didn’t tell her I knew it until I was a sophomore in college in 1994 when neither of us were Christians and she thought she might rekindle an old flame. She wanted my blessing. Even though I gave it (Who was I to deny her?), anger had settled into my very bones. Her vulnerability as a closeted lesbian exposed me to a wider world that seemed too opposed to us as a family and everything she was—a single, chronically ill, lesbian mother.

Today, I don’t out my mother from the place of anger. Instead, I do so from love, a tender island I circled but on which I could never seem to land. That is, until I stopped thinking only of my own wounds and considered how being a single mother and a lesbian in the 1980s and 1990s in rural Indiana and having to stifle and hide herself may have ultimately crushed her. She still lives in Indiana, and at fifty-eight, is able to live alone even though she suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, depression, and anxiety. An avowed celibate and conservative evangelical Christian, she snubs notions of marriage equality but acknowledges her homosexuality with a bravery and vulnerability that drives our newfound understanding.

Turned out, to get past my anger, I had to talk to her about it. It took moving a state away, to Ohio, when I was thirty-four before I could begin chipping away the anger encasing me. While I live three hours from her and see her every few months, I speak with her often, most importantly about her memories of being a single lesbian mother. At thirty-eight, I’ve been writing about us based on our memories and current understanding of each other.

I discovered memoir by accident when I turned thirty-two and enrolled in graduate school to get a master of arts. I took a memoir class, the only class offered that fit my schedule, and found that this subgenre of creative nonfiction was the kind of writing I’d always wanted to do. When I finished the degree at thirty-four, I enrolled in an MFA creative writing program, where a professor suggested I read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Since then, I’ve been ravenous for memoirs by writers who grew up with gay parents, most recently Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott and The Scientists: A Family Romance by Marco Roth. I needed to see how others reconciled their childhoods, carving out a space for themselves within families and personal histories that secreted a parent’s homosexuality in shame.

Place seems to have as much to do with this shame as the harbored secrets. The smaller, more rural and interior the place, the more shame and secrets. Bechdel’s Tragicomic, whose setting is Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, attests to this. The more revolutionary the city—San Francisco—the more open the relationship between parent and child, evidenced in Abbott’s Fairyland. And though homosexuality in as urbane a place as New York City implies acceptance, it does not presume honesty within a family. This bears out in Roth’s The Scientists.

In outing my mother, I’m in some ways outing myself as a secret keeper and bearer of unnecessary shame. As the wife of a pastor working within an evangelical Christian denomination in rural Ohio, I don’t talk with my Christian friends about growing up with a homosexual parent. But, then, I often see myself as an accidental Christian, at odds with my religiously conservative Midwestern surroundings. It’s a place where people I know are fond of saying, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” It’s a place where a child’s acceptance of her mother’s homosexuality is considered capitulation to a set of corrupted values, instead of an adherence to Christianity’s “love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s a place where reading and finding peace among books by writers like Bechdel, Roth, and Abbott might be thought of as an act of compromise, a dismissal of theological precepts that demand punishment. It’s also the place from which I write to make sense of my depressed, Christian lesbian mother, my spirituality, and my place among religious people I love but don’t fully understand.

I used to live in the same space in my head as many of my religiously conservative loved ones. That space emphasizes being holy rather than loving others. For many Christians, holiness is murky. The Oxford Dictionary says being holy means to be set apart for God’s use, but many fellow evangelical Christians take it to mean pious perfection. As in, God is perfect, so go be perfect (despite acknowledging that perfection is unattainable). The Bible does, in fact, tell Christians to be holy because God is holy. It also tells us God is love. The command to love my neighbor more aptly embodies the Oxford definition of what it means to be holy. Loving my neighbor is more akin to holiness than pious perfection. When I love, I’m more pliable, open-handed. When I love, I embody my spirituality and religion.

It took reading and writing memoir in my mid-thirties to help me fully embrace the person my mother was and is. Coupled with Christ’s teachings, it occurred to me the only way I could stop nurturing my anger against my mother was to love her as I loved myself. Since I couldn’t love myself, I had no idea how to love her. That’s what memoir taught me to do. Inherent in the best memoirs is a grace and generosity of spirit born of trauma, mercy, and forgiveness that morphs from an acceptance and love for one’s self and others. The more I’ve written about my mother, the more my anger has dissipated. And in my mind, this is all the more reason to out her. While this love and acceptance of my mother’s homosexuality may run counter to the theological constructs (namely, that homosexuality is wrong) that govern much of Christianity, I’m willing to accept whatever consequences come. Not because I want to flout those constructs but because my mother is more important to me than all of theology, and it occurs to me that Christ’s teachings might be calling me to love my mother more than I love my theology.

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3 responses to “How Memoir Saved My Life

  1. Pingback: The Mother Wall Hothouse

  2. Beautiful writing. You write so well I can feel your emotions.
    I too am writing a memoir. It’s about my journey through my mother’s cancer and eventual death at 55 years young. I started writing it in hopes that one day it will be published and help others navigate the murky waters of grief. However, it has been so cathartic for me. I have dealt with my own grief and come to terms on how my mother handled her cancer through my journals and writing. Writing my memoir has been the greatest tool in getting past the hardest time in my life.

    • Thank you for sharing this with me. I feel the same way about my own writing and how it’s helped me move past anger and into love. I wish you all the best as you continue your memoir.

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