Photo credit: Julie Keefe
I thought I was pretty damn smart. Smart about myself, I mean. For over 40 years I’ve been working as a psychologist and that means thousands of people. Thousands of people with rich family dynamics to explore. Together we dug around, examined, looked at things from every conceivable angle, lifted every rock. And when you’re doing that with someone else, it’s inevitable that you subject yourself to the same scrutiny. Truth is, I believe that most of us who get into this field to begin with are motivated, at least in part, by a deep need to understand ourselves and our family dynamics. Along with time spent with clients, I’ve had years of work with my own therapists, and endless hours mulling it all over with my sister, with my friends. I had ruthlessly interviewed myself. Scrutinized every wacky family interaction. I had most definitely led an examined life. What I mean is this: after all that time, all that work, I truly believed I had come to a place where — and I know how this is going to sound — I had no more work to do as far as my parents were concerned. Ah, hubris! Never mind the things I’ve repeated to clients too many times to count, things I wholeheartedly believe: There is no finish line where we spike the ball and do the victory dance. We are all a work in progress. There’s always something to learn about yourself.
My first writing teacher used to talk about the importance of material being digested before we can write convincingly and compellingly about anything. I remember people (read: me too) coming in with a “story” about, say, a woman going through a divorce, or the death of a spouse or a character having been molested as a child. Of course we were following the "write what you know" advice, but for many of us the material was too raw and had not been digested well enough, so the results read more like pages from a diary. When we had enough narrative distance, we were able to tell our stories more convincingly and in a way that was more likely to resonate with readers. As Mary Karr says in The Art of Memoir
: “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.” There’s a lot of discussion about memoir writing as therapy, as a cathartic experience. Yes, but. I think if I’d tried to write this story as a way to unburden myself, to vent or to confess, it would have been harder to invite my readers in. More than flinging on the page, I wanted to share my experience so that others might relate. It was not
therapy I was after.
I wrote those lines and sat. I read those lines and knew something had changed.
When I started work on this memoir, both my parents had been dead for a good number of years. I’d had time. Time to think about it all. Time to reassess the whole messy tangle of dynamics that were a trademark my rather odd family. I was clear about the difference between what I had actually
lost and what I wish
I’d had and never would. In that time, my sister and I had come to an unexpectedly much better, much closer place without the triangulating influence of our mother and that gave me a stronger sense of family. And blessedly, I had more compassion in my heart for both of my parents and for myself as well, someone whose limitations and challenges made so much sense given all. I had always been aware of the suffering of my parents, their own personal hells. That was no mystery to me. While they were alive, though, it was just too frickin’ hard to hold on to that compassion and rational perspective while I was busy frantically swatting away the crazy. So I felt prepared and ready to start writing.
I don’t know about other writers, but for me, I never know where a story is going until I get there. The end always takes me by surprise. This memoir is a nonlinear work, jumping back and forth in time and as I was writing it I didn’t have a sense of the arc or where I would eventually land. It wasn’t until I started working on what would be the final chapter that I knew that yes, this is where I want to end the book. And those words, that appeared on the page in what I can only call automatic writing, were enlightening, surprising, and unexpected:
At our Seder we close our eyes for a moment to remember the gone people in our lives… I think of my parents, recast in the forgiving relief of time and distance and feel my arms around them and my head resting on their shoulders, one then the other. And, if I hold a second longer, I see the faint line of the strangers that came before — my grandparents and their parents and the parents before them, all forming such a strong and straight line — and for a moment I feel a trace of ballast.
Mary Karr again: “You think you know the story so well. It’s a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I’ve ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it’s like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.”
It was like that for me, the walls changing shape around me, the snow globe shaken. I wrote those lines and sat. I read those lines and knew something had changed. I had changed. Yes, I had more compassion toward my parents and more compassion toward myself, more than when I’d started writing. More striking though is this: I could feel my place with them, my parents. I could feel my place with my grandparents whom I’d never met. I could feel my place with all the generations of my never-known relatives stretching all the way back in time. I could feel my place in the human family, all of us mucking around on this earth doing the best we can. I felt inexorably connected.
Damn, I did myself some therapy when I wrote this book.
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lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is a clinical psychologist in private practice by day and a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. This Never Happened
is her most recent book.