In case you missed it the first time, here’s my piece that appeared at Hothouse on Aug. 7:
In 2011, a year into my MFA creative writing program, I hit a wall. It was a hundred feet tall and a thousand miles long, and I called it, “My Lesbian Mother.” Because my goal has always been to publish, it finally crossed my mind that my mother might someday actually read what I wrote. I was mortified. I didn’t just hit the wall, I bashed my head into it, repeatedly. It stopped me cold. Knocked me out.
I wasn’t only writing about myself in my thesis, a memoir. I was trying to make sense of my mother, too, which is something else entirely. It seemed like the worst kind of betrayal. And it wasn’t as if I was only writing my deepest, darkest feelings about my mother’s homosexuality in my private diary; I was sharing them with the world, strangers. How I shaped my memories on the page would ultimately help shape those strangers’ perceptions of my mother, me, and our life together.
I wish I could say I’ve come to some profound insights about how the memoirist’s disclosure is not, in fact, treachery. I wish I could offer some pithy wisdom contrary to how the shaping of a family’s secrets is part of the memoirist’s contribution to craft. I can’t. Shaping does contribute to craft. And memoir writing is an act of betrayal. The shaping is the betrayal. The memories are mine to do with what I will, albeit with a certain reverence and candor—that’s the bargain I strike with readers. How I choose to frame those memories guides readers to their own insights in the same way the act of writing guides the writer. In making sense of the memories, the memoir becomes wholly personal yet universal, belonging to us all. The writer’s interpretation of her memories become representative of the human experience. This is what makes memoir vital and yet so damning for the memoirist even as it unsettles readers. Memoir implicates the memoirist as unreliable because memories are a floating mist rather than a stationary wall. It also requires a certain amount of trust from us readers, too, while convicting us to examine ourselves and the societal and familial cultures and subcultures we’ve created.
My family’s culture was created around secrecy. It started with my grandmother’s physical and verbal abuse of my mother in the 1950s and 1960s, the 1970s when my brother and I were born and into the 1980s as we grew older and were privy to her abuse. In public she was known as a God-fearing Christian. A few years before she died in 1992 she was ordained as a minister. In private my grandmother had often bloodied my mother’s back with the buckled end of my grandfather’s belt, had once pointed a gun at my teenaged mother, and convinced her she was wholly unlovable even into adulthood. We kept my grandmother’s secrets, never bringing them to light so that when outsiders told us how lucky we were to have such a wonderful woman as a mother and grandmother, we felt weak and ambivalent. “Why couldn’t they see?” My mother and I asked ourselves. What’s the matter with them? What’s the matter with us? In reality, there was nothing wrong with the outsiders. They merely believed what our family presented to them. We were complicit in the secret-keeping. Worse yet, we never confronted my grandmother. We were all just too damned polite. Or afraid. Maybe both.
My mother recently told me about a conversation she had with her brother in which she told him I “outed” her in my last post at Hothouse and at my personal blog, Writing From the Tender Field. According to her, my uncle was less than pleased, incredulous. “And you okayed that?” he asked her.
But what was there to okay? Was it really up to her to approve my decision to write about my memories of her and us? My logical brain says, no, of course not. My emotional brain, on the other hand, needed her blessing. To move past the wall separating us, my mother and I would have to talk about her homosexuality, the specifics of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother as well as my decision to write about it. I needed her to know so I could begin smashing down the wall of fear that not only kept me from writing but also kept us in the dark about each other’s feelings about her homosexuality. Memoir breaks the cycle of secrecy for the entire community, not just for the family. The memoirist’s revelations spark disclosure from readers. We all want to know we’re not alone. Even though we’re afraid, most of us want to share our humanity with each other.
I finally told my mother I was writing about her during a two-hour car ride back home from my MFA residency. We talked on the phone for the entire trip as I explained my project. In the end her response was more gracious than I’d hoped. “You need to write this,” she said. Indeed.
Her response to my uncle was similar. As a writer, my mother understands the impulse to write to make sense of her world. She has kept piles of journals in which she’s recorded her own life. She told him, “How can I tell her she can’t write about her life?”
Even still, we have an agreement. While my mother has read a few of my pieces, she’s refused to read drafts of my memoir. She will not read it before it’s published. She says she doesn’t want any negative reaction she might have to dissuade me. She knows herself. She knows how emotionally overwrought she can become, her anxiety and depression notwithstanding. Wise, she also knows I’ll bash my head against “The Mother Wall” and not be able to write with vulnerability if I know she’s upset.
And she’s rooting for me. What else can a writer ask of the people she loves?