Today’s blog is not a pretty picture blog because I am going to share some of the ugly reality about writing a memoir and dealing with angry relatives. If this is not your mug of mocha, please excuse this and know I will try to write about blue skies and fluffy koalas in the future, but for the sake of those who are writing their own memoirs, here are some thoughts I had after my sister’s three hate-mails last week.
Writing a memoir is not for the faint of heart. It involves accessing both our sad and happy memories and it requires an honest telling of the truth–all of which many people find difficult. The best memoirs include the author telling on his or her self. This is because a memoir is not a rant or hate biography in which you list every terrible thing that has happened to you, but rather a story about how your character woke up and changed over time through these events. Memoir is not about mean the things that happened—it’s about making meaning out of the things that happened.
One of the most difficult issues with writing a memoir is that your family might not appreciate it. And if they are narcissistic or afraid of you telling the truth, they will attack your character and try to make you out to be a bitter and hate-filled person when in reality you might be one of the healthiest people in the family because you cared enough to do the hard work to understand your own issues.
My sister’s hate-mails accused me of lying because I said a cat was thrown against a fireplace wall. My sister says she is “dead sure she remembers it exactly like it was yesterday” even though she was nine and I was eleven. The conflict came about because she says it was a freestanding cone-shaped fireplace, while I maintain there was brick wall, but the thing is most freestanding fireplaces have a brick firewall behind them. The point is not really about the wall, but the event that happened there. When people want to nit pick and right talk, you know they wouldn’t believe it if Jesus himself came down to settle the argument. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
“I deal very little in facts, facts can obscure the truth, you can tell so many facts you never get to the truth, you can tell the places where, the people who, the times when, the reasons why, and never get to the human truth which is love and pain and loss and triumph.” -Maya Angelou
This was one of the most traumatic events in my childhood. For my parents to deny it is one thing, I’ve come to realize they either don’t remember things or choose to not remember them, but for my sister to attack me and send me hate-mail full of false accusations and evil surmising was a shocker. Even if no one else in my family agrees with me—that’s okay, this is still my story, not theirs.
My family members have chosen to NOT have a relationship with me now for years. I’m sharing this information for my readers who are writing their own memoirs to show how two people can both be telling the truth as they see it and still disagree.
Another thing my sister mentioned in her hate-mail is “You’re not the only writer in the family”–insinuating that she could write a memoir about me and all the things I did in our childhood. So for open disclosure, yes, I hit her once with a metal spoon when we were kids and made her bleed and in college I stole her quarters, but I later admitted it and apologized. Mind you, most of these events happened over forty years ago and we’ve spoken about this several times and she has told me she forgave me. Now, because I am writing a memoir, she is suddenly calling me a monster.
My past crimes are worth mentioning because they prove the point of my memoir–we grew up with a violent father who told me to make sure the other kids finished their chores before my parents got home. I was given permission to hit them. I regret it now and I did not use the belt, but I did hit them–usually with my hand. I was not happy to do it, but if the chores were not done, I myself would be belted. There are only five and a half years between my youngest sibling and me. To put me in a position to make them do their chores wasn’t fair to me or them. It stole my right to be a child along with my siblings and forced me into the adult role of enforcer which also affected our relationships. I was asked to play a game I could never win.
My issues with my parents are not as much from thirty years ago as they are from the last decade. They have continued to lie about me to cover up their own lies. They have continued to call me mentally ill in hopes distant relatives who don’t know me will believe them. They are the ones who wrote a letter to judge lying about me, so this puts me in the odd position of being lied about for telling the truth.
It was this treatment and lies in my adult life that triggered me to look back at my childhood and discover how our entire family was held together by a web of lies. My parents have not apologized or owned the stuff that they did to me in childhood or my adult life. The last time I saw my mom and mentioned how it hurt me that they did not let me go to school and then refused to allow me to even talk about my pain, she just said, “High school is not all it’s cracked up to be.” Which might be true, but she got to go to highschool. She has friends from her teen years. Because I did not go to highschool, I have neither. I realize they can’t fix the past, but they sure as hell could show some empathy to their children for their choices which hugely affected our lives.
Once again, why share this crap publicly? Because for the readers who want to write a memoir, you need to realize how volatile it will be when you tell the truth. Your real life character will be drug through the mud and your sanity questioned by people you never dreamed you would hear such garbage from.
There are only two explanations for my sister’s hate-mail, she is either a flying monkey or actually a narcissist herself. I’d rather not dwell on it too much because the result is the same—a broken relationship. And I do mourn the loss of relationship with all my siblings and my parents but I have a new standard since my awareness of all the dysfunction in our family—without respect and honesty, we’ve got nothing.
I can also tell my sister is triangulating with my parents because she knows I am not mentally ill—but she ended one of her hate-mails with “I really hope you are mentally ill, because that’s the only chance I will have of seeing you in heaven.” My dad, whenever I didn’t agree with him in my teen years and adulthood, has called me mentally ill and he always believes God is on his side.
As for God locking me out of heaven for writing my memoir–-the God I know is NOT like that. God is not arbitrary and he cares about our hearts which is more than I can say about my parents or my sister. So I think I will leave my fate and the fate of others with God because he is a good God who takes everything that has happened to us into consideration. The saddest part about that statement is if she really believes God is going to shut me out of heaven for telling the truth about our childhood, then she has bought into the lies about God that my parents believe. And that makes me the saddest of all.
My sister is welcome to write her own memoir—although if she just wants to write a rant about all the things I did to her in our childhood it would not be considered a memoir, but a hate rant much like her letters last week. So here are a few things she (you know she is reading this so she can look for more things to criticize) and others might want to know about writing memoir.
If you want to write a memoir the main rule is to tell the truth as you see it. This means you can’t make up events, however you can give your own slant to the events that happened. An example of this is telling a backstory. You are not obligated to stick to the chronological order, but the events had to have happened.
A memoir is not subject to the same standards as say a newspaper. This is because memoir is about someone’s memory and no one’s memory is perfect. What some people fail to realize is someone else’s memoir is not about them–even if they had a part to play in the events that happened, but rather it is about the author and their memories, reactions and emotions. No one else gets to say what another person saw or felt.
Think of it like four witnesses at a traffic accident where each stand on a different corner. Chances are each will have experienced that accident differently and have a unique story to tell. This is true of the events in memoir. Even if someone thinks they remember how everything happened like it was yesterday, they have no more credibility than the author. And even if several people in the family ban together to say they all remembered it exactly the same, yet differently from the memoirist, they still have no say how the memoirist remembered this event or how it affected them. That is because the memoir is not about their memories, but the memories of the author.
If the family is led by a narcissistic person, the chances of memories agreeing with the narcissist over the memoirist is quite suspect because many people who write childhood memoirs are writing because they have been ostracized and scapegoated in the first place.
So is it worth writing a memoir to prove a point or get even with someone who has lied about you? No–at least not in my opinion. If you just want to write an angry rant about narcissistic abuse, you could finish it within a week or two. A true memoirist takes the time to read other people’s memoirs and learn the craft.
It took Jeannette Walls five years to write her memoir “The Glass Castle.” It took me five years to write down all my memories and for the last two years, I’ve studied the art of memoir by reading lots of memoirs and then books about writing memoir. I will give you a list of books at the bottom of this article. I’m sure others could write their memoirs faster, but part of my work was to make meaning of the events that happened. It’s not a memoir if it’s just a regurgitation of events or a bunch of isolated incidents.
A true memoir will have a theme and a beginning and middle and an end much like a novel. Some writers describe memoir as finding the plots in your life, while writing a novel is making up plots. To find the plots, we must first do a lot of work to discover what it is that hurt us in childhood and how it has framed the way we look at life today.
If you are having trouble understanding what a memoir is, think of it like a series of snapshots that make up a theme in your life. Two people can both go to the same wedding with cameras and come home with completely different pictures from different points of view. Is someone lying? No, they were both sincerely recording different things at the same event. Each could make a photo album of the event with a different theme. One might focus on the relatives at the event, while the other could be taking pictures of the decorations and food at the event. Neither is lying, both saw and focused on different things.
If you are planning to write a memoir, it’s not enough to just jot down events because there are specific hallmarks of the genre. Here are a few books to help you learn more about the art of writing memoir.
If you have favorite books about writing memoir or have written a memoir yourself, please feel free share it in the comments below with a link so others can read it too.
Good luck and enjoy your writing journey!