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Bringing Up the Dead

I have this recurring nightmare that my mother is alive.
She never died.
I've made a terrible mistake.
I have to call my editor.
We can't publish the book.
I don't know how I could have made such a wild mistake.
I mean, she looked dead.
I signed the papers.
I let the man from the cut-rate crematorium in Albuquerque take her body away.

But in the dream, she isn't dead.
And in the dream, she's really pissed about the book.

I can't get through to my editor. Of course I can't get through. It's too late. It's already out, anyway. My editor can't do anything.

Maybe I can hide the books.
Just walk away.
I'd been having the dream for nearly six months the night it occurred to me: it didn't matter if she was alive.
If I'd lived these many months believing she was dead, feeling freer because she was dead, writing the truth without worrying about cleaning it up because she was dead, then who cared if she was alive — or pissed?

I wrote my first memoir when my mother was still very much alive. It seems like eons ago. Even my stepdad was alive. Was it only a decade?

Atlas of the Human Heart.

It was my favorite book to date — the story of running away from a suburban adolescence full of rich bitches, tortured punks, drugs, and sexual violence to travel around Asia and Europe, in and out of love and danger. It was the story of learning, as Muriel Rukeyser says, that the only security that matters is the security of the imagination. It was the story of becoming a teen mom.

It wasn't a story about my parents, but they appeared briefly in the narrative. And because I was my mother's daughter and because I'd been trained, all my life, to stay silent about her particular brand of meanness and abuse, I went to great effort to clean her character up.

And so it was that she hardly appeared in the book and, where she did, she seemed to behave better than she actually had.
Still, she read each page as a betrayal.
I'd been so excited to show her that book.
I'd imagined, somehow, that she would be proud of me. Imagined, even, that she would call it poetry. Imagined that she'd think I was brave.
"You made me throw up," is what she said when she slammed her copy down on my dining room table. "How could you do this to me?"
I didn't say anything.
"How could you do this to your daughter?" she demanded. "How is this supposed to make her feel?"
That's when I knew I'd written no poetry.
I had written something shameful.
I thought about the review copies that were already out, the tour dates I'd already planned. But now I hoped that not so many people would read my book.
"I've called John," she announced, then shook her head. John. My stepdad. I loved him like a Sierra mountain trail. "I've forbidden him from reading this. It would kill him, Ariel."

Maybe it's ironic that, a few years later, my mother was the one to kill my stepdad.

And it took poison, not memoir.

"You shouldn't have bothered cleaning her up," my sister said. "Atlas of the Human Heart would have been a better book if you'd admitted to all the reasons you ran away. And she couldn't have been any more pissed off."

And maybe my sister was right.

My mother was already dead when I started writing The End of Eve, but she'd only been dead a couple of weeks. From a mental health perspective, I probably should have waited longer. Maybe time would have staved off the nightmares. But from an artistic perspective, I knew I couldn't wait. Very soon after my mom died, I found myself beginning to sugarcoat the whole experience. I told myself, well, maybe it wasn't all that bad. That's when I knew I had to get the story on paper as soon as I could. Part of the reason there are so few stories about the hard and crazy part of caregiving for the dying is that our culture teaches us to "get over it" — which is a kind of forgetting. I didn't want to forget.

The culture also teaches us not to talk shit about the dead.

It's quite the silencing speedball of abuse culture, if you think about it. We're not allowed to speak truth about our experience with violence or power plays when the players are alive. I mean, we wouldn't want the neighbors to find out.

But we're certainly not allowed to speak of it once they're dead.
Death renders everyone a saint, doesn't it?
And those dead saints aren't even here to defend themselves!

Here now in America — and probably in the world — so many times "family" means a code of loyal silence.

Of course I encourage anyone who wants to write memoir to go for it, but a part of me also believes that memoir belongs to us: to the quiet daughters and the caregivers, to the single moms and the runaways and the queers, to those who've only seen ourselves as bit characters in "more important" people's dramas, to the ones who know too much about the violence of life, to people who've been told over and over again to "shut up."

I'm not here to tell anyone else whether they're ready to break their own personal and familial and lover codes of silence. Not every private vulnerability cries out to be made public. But there's a power in making stories from secrets, the transmutation of shame into something beautiful and wholethere's a power in making stories from secrets, the transmutation of shame into something beautiful and whole.

When my mother was dying, really dying finally and bed-ridden and on plenty of morphine, she asked me: "Do you think memoir writing is a way to express anger or a way to pay tribute?"

At the time I told her, "probably both." But in reality I think it's something bigger than that. Ideally, the people you write about in a memoir won't read it. That's not who it's for. Memoir isn't about processing our relationships with one another. It's about integrating the enormity of everything. It's about taking the traumatic, disparate moments of life that are scattered around us and sewing them back together into something beautiful that maybe emboldens people who are going through the same thing — which we all are — because the "same thing" is life and it's hard and fucked up and delicious.

The only goal I had when I agreed to take care of my mom was to behave in a way that I would be proud of. And some days I did and some days I didn't and I wanted to write The End of Eve not as tribute or an exposé but as something else, as, Hey, this is who I am and this is what I tried to do and you might try to do the same thing one day and I have an idea that if I tell you — some stranger who lives on the planet with me — the story, it might break us both out of our self-consciousness and our isolation.

Last night I dreamed my mother alive.
My stepdad was there, too.
But there wasn't anything about my book in the dream.
I wasn't frantically trying to call my editor, trying to call something off.
For once.
My mother was just looking for a blank canvas.
My stepdad was making vegetable soup.
We were what we were so often in life — the scenes that hardly ever make it into books — just living the everyday moments between the violent breakdowns and dramatic escapes. Just looking for a canvas. Just making soup.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ariel Gore is the publisher of Hip Mama magazine. Her books include The End of Eve, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, How to Become a Famous Writer before You're Dead, The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show, Atlas of the Human Heart, and The Hip Mama Survival Guide. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The End of Eve: A Memoir Used Trade Paper $11.50
  2. Bluebird: Women and the New...
    Used Hardcover $14.50
  3. How to Become a Famous Writer Before...
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. The Traveling Death and Resurrection...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  5. Atlas of the Human Heart
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  6. The Hip Mama Survival Guide: Advice... Used Trade Paper $6.50

Ariel Gore is the author of The End of Eve: A Memoir

5 Responses to "Bringing Up the Dead"

    Parinita Shetty March 7th, 2014 at 3:11 am

    Wow. Now I can't wait to read both Atlas of the Human Heart and The End of Eve.

    Lisbeth Coiman March 7th, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    This line summarizes what those of us who have experienced abuse feel when speaking out our truth. "there's a power in making stories from secrets, ... the transmutation of shame into something beautiful and whole." Thanks you, Ariel.

    Wilma March 12th, 2014 at 11:15 am

    You can almost feel the anger coming thru the words...then they are transmuted into something wonderful, the knowledge that simply states, "I am."

    Paige March 12th, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    You are all kinds of awesome, but you knew that. Thank you for saying this--all of this, all your memoirs and reflections thereon--you're brave and true and necessary.

    Attie March 19th, 2014 at 2:46 am

    I would love to write like that! It does red like poetry, though poetry too sometimes stings the wounds.

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