I could be wrong here—I’m usually wrong about these things—but I’m trying to get it right. I’m writing about my family again, two full essays within a matter of a few months, and after some intensive revision—not now, but later once they’ve marinated—I’ll submit them for review and, hopefully, publication. But when I write these intimate portraits of early family chaos, life lived without measure or reason, I begin disabusing myself of any arrogant notions that I’m allowed to expose these stories, that I have any rights to these stories or these memories.
Who said you could write about this, I ask, usually in the voices of those who wouldn’t have me write about my memories. What gives you the right?
What’s in the past should stay in the past, these voices tell me—as if our family were akin to a visit-Las Vegas marketing ploy and its boldly false claim aimed at soothing nervous Midwestern tourists: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” As if our pasts don’t follow us home, tap us on the shoulder periodically and ask how we’re doing. My past, my shadow, is with me with each interaction with my husband, friends, colleagues, and students. It lives in my fears and decisions and joys. It is alternately long and dark or nearly invisible, depending on the season or even the time of day. I could try to ignore it, but it’s always present no matter what. In the writing, it rests, it rests.
Intellectually, I know I’m allowed to write about my memories and merge them into something coherent, something that shows how far we’ve all come (or haven’t come) from those early years. But the conservative, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps training from my Midwestern upbringing begins pulling strings, stopping me in my tracks. “Don’t look back. Don’t ask why.”
Doubt. Doubt. Doubt. Writer’s friend. Writer’s enemy.
Fortuitously, I picked up a copy of Family Troubles: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family while at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in February. Edited by Joy Castro, it’s a collection of essays exploring exactly what the subtitle reveals. These writers reveal the complexity of exposing family, how family confronted them about what they believe were the writers’ misdeeds and betrayals, and how they’ve reconciled or not with their families, their memories, and their revelations.
This particularly struck me from Rigoberto Gonzalez’s essay, “Memory Lessons”:
“I am not more important than before I wrote it down, though perhaps I am a little wiser about what I have been through. It has become more real—no, it is not the truth, it is experience—human, imperfect, and beautiful. Why must I then justify writing down what I write? Why then am I frequently asked to apologize for the ability to remember? Why then do I get so defensive? I will no longer make excuses because I had no choice to be a witness. I am not a victim of circumstance but rather the participant in one of the many theaters of life. How will I know what role I played if I do not reflect upon it?”
This book restores my nerve, as if I had any to begin with. Maybe I should say it gives me nerve.
I went into this project (a memoir about life with my mother, who is homosexual but who would want me to tell you she’s no longer gay, an evangelical Christian healed by God) somewhat naïve to how others, peripheral to my experience, would react. I went into it mostly concerned about my mother and brother, needing their blessing before I continued. They consented, but I really didn’t think much past them. I should have. I should have figured that I couldn’t find protection in their blessing and that others, those outside our small unit, would react in ways I never expected. And because those reactions haven’t always been kind, I find myself in the complexity of misgivings and reservation and a need to continue, moving between rebellion and compliance. This movement often leaves me floundering in the writing. I have recently taken comfort from Paul Lisicky, who, in his essay, “At Its Center,” writes, “The lesson is obvious but simple: we have no control how others will interpret our work, even when we think we’re writing out of affection.” Even now, as I write this blog post, my palms sweat. What will they say about this post if they see it?
I read these memoirists in the Family Troubles collection and tell myself that I really should stop feeling so much anxiety every time I return to write about my family. I began writing about them several years ago and am on my third draft, but my anxiety about it lingers. And I realize, based on what Lisicky says above, that the crux of my anxiety in writing about family centers on control. I want to control how others react to what they read—a fantasy. Other, thinking people are beyond all my control. A hard lesson to accept.
So I start from square one again, reminding myself that what I have to say is, indeed, important, and that the way of no-strings-attached love, reconciliation and forgiveness is full of sharp teeth, and it bites. But it’s worth finding that path even if the ending is murky and people don’t react the way you want them to. I love how Sandra Scofield says it in her essay, “Done with Grief: The Memoirists Illusion”:
“… I decided to focus on my mother and me, to try to tell how a child takes everything into her heart and into her body, too, and how love and God and sex get all mixed up when you are trying to be like your mother before you know her, or yourself, well enough to understand what that would mean …… You think: I’ll show what life was like for us, for me, for them. I can do that, at least. An homage of sorts, a sign of respect. You think: I’ll sort out myth and truth and be honest and unflinching. You think: I’ll find a pattern, a reason, something to take away as a reward for all the work. But you just don’t know what you’ll find.”
That’s the scary part: the not knowing. I cringe when I see others thinking of my mother one-dimensionally, as if her homosexuality is all there is to her, but it’s so intricately woven into my understanding of her that it plays prominently in how I write about her. Separating her from her then-self and her now-self has become the challenge because she’s rejected her then-self so fully. She wants me to tell you she’s no longer that version of herself. And, who would, at 59 years old, as she is, claim to still be the same person they were at 19, 29, 39, 49, even as Joan Didion reminds us to stay at least on “nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
And so, I could be wrong, probably am wrong, but I’ll continue to write about her and me and our family to see what I can discover.
Why? I think it’s because in the questions, we glimpse each other and ourselves.