STORY

Why I Had to Write My Memoir — Even if it Makes Some People Mad

A memoir is conceived when the truth can no longer be ignored. The erasure of truth started decades ago in my childhood — one little lie at a time. I’ve always been aware of these lies, but the price of admittance to the family circle was to keep my mouth shut and not rock the boat.

As I grew older, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable with the stories I’d been repeating to keep my parents happy. Some of these lies seemed practical like lying to the bill collectors. One of the biggest lies was telling people that I was being homeschooled when my parents never bought one book.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

It started when I was thirteen and it was against the law for kids my age to not be in school. I was told God would rather have me tell this “white” lie than have my parents put in jail for not giving me an education. Church people thought it was wonderful that my parents were homeschooling me — and the reason they believed this was because I was becoming a good liar. Lying to church people was one thing, but I was also taught to lie to my grandparents. Whenever telling the truth was inconvenient, I was coached to tell a lie in a convincing way by my parents.

As you can imagine these lies felt suffocating at first — but after lying for several years it got easier. If it was an issue I didn’t care much about I said whatever I was told to say and forgot about it. But when it came to things that mattered to my teenaged soul, I grew more and more frustrated.

I hated pretending I had books to study from when they never bought one textbook. I resented lying to my grandparents that I didn’t have church clothes because my parents didn’t want me to go to church with them. And worst of all, it felt creepy to tell people I was fine while I was dying inside for lack of friends and an education.

You would think I would have stopped lying as soon as I left home. I wanted to tell my truth to the world, but in order to keep my welcome at the family circle, I had to continue lying about some things as if I was still living at home. Keeping up appearances is a priority in narcissistic families and this often means lots of unethical behavior.

When we left home and reached our twenties, my siblings and I rarely spoke about the abuses we suffered in our childhood — even when my parents weren’t in the room. This was in part because we were still young and trying to understand what happened in our family — why were we so different from other families? The second reason is that our parents triangulated with us against each other. This left us not trusting each other when we could have been allies and shown more support for each other.

As in most narcissistic families with several children, our roles changed according to our parents’ needs. When we were kids, my brother was the golden child (the one who could do nothing wrong in the eyes of the parents) but when he became an adult and decided he was an atheist, he became the scapegoat. He didn’t deserve either of these roles. Another sister was often the scapegoat as a child — this was terribly unfair to her, but back then I had no understanding to help my siblings — I couldn’t even help myself.

All of these strained family dynamics had me repeating my parents’ lies for far into my adulthood. The worst part was I rarely thought of some statements as lies even as I continued to repeat them. I didn’t actively make up new lies — I just didn’t replace the ones I’d been told to use as a teenager.

My husband once said he married me because I was the scariest, honest person he’d ever met. But my parents’ lies were so embedded into my psyche that I continued to repeat them without thinking. My desire to be authentic had always been there, but the older I got, the more I woke up to the discrepancies between the stories I’d been told to tell and the truth as I saw it.

Then one day I met a new friend who asked where I went to high school and I repeated the same lie my parents had given me thirty years before. It was the age-old lie that I’d been homeschooled. I can’t begin to tell you how many people seemed to get warm fuzzies whenever I told that lie. Some of them even said, “Well, if our kids turn out like you, then we must be doing the right thing.” To justify telling this lie, I’d added one line to fill out the truth. I’d end by saying, “But my parents forgot to buy the books.” People usually laughed when I said it, but I wasn’t joking.

That’s how the conversation went that day and when I got home I felt this sickening feeling like I was fake. It was like I’d awakened out of deep sleep from some dreaded nightmare. I’d recently learned about natural laws like karma or sowing and reaping as the Bible calls it and I didn’t want to reap lies anymore.

At home, I stared at myself in the mirror, then yelled. “Why can’t you just be yourself?” The answer was that I would lose my parents’ approval if I began to tell the truth. At the same time, I’d begin to realize that lying hurts the liar — sometimes more than those who are being lied to.

The next day, when another friend invited me out to lunch, I decided to tell her the unvarnished truth — how I wasn’t homeschooled — but I’d been taught to tell people this lie. It felt good to be straight up honest about my family for once in my life.

She told me about The Glass Castle a memoir written by Jeannette Walls. When I read the book I was blown away by Walls’ ability to write the truth in love. That’s when I decided to tell my own story.

After this encounter, I think I went through a phase of telling too many people way too much. Nobody got mad at me, but I think a few wondered about me. I had hidden so much for so long that whenever I met someone new, I gave them more of an information dump than they needed to know. It took me some time to temper telling the necessary truth without verbally swamping people with my stories. Every time I told my stories, I was reminding myself that I was free to tell the truth and I didn’t have to hide anymore. In time, I realized not everyone I meet needs to hear my story.

It took seven years to write my memoir. I’m not embarrassed about how long it took. Jeannette Walls said it took her five years to write hers. Dealing with complex family histories requires time to decipher the patterns and understand what happened.

At the same time, there’s rarely a good excuse for lying. Adam and Eve were created to be naked and unashamed in the Garden. It was only after they stopped being honest with themselves and God that they became ashamed and hid. Lies bring shame. Telling the truth heals us and restores our freedom.

My book is finally finished! Most people who have read it feel it is a beautiful story and it has even been compared to Educated by Tara Westover. The best part of this for me is that I can truly say my life is like an open book. I don’t need to apologize or explain my idiosyncrasies any more — and I don’t need to tell all my stories in person. Sometimes I just tell people to read the book.

Peace and freedom!

Cherilyn

P.S. If you haven’t read Chasing Eden yet, you can get your copy by clicking on this picture

GASLIGHTING

Why You Can’t Let the Narcissist Shut You Up

As soon as you start to tell the truth
about what happened to you, it seems like
the entire universe starts to work against you.
But if you pay close attention,
it’s not the universe; it’s the narcissist.

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

It just seems like the universe because she keeps recruiting more and more flying monkeys to attack you. Remember there’s a cycle to narcissistic abuse. First, there is the Love Bombing and Flattery Stage; then there is the Being Used for Narcissistic Feed Stage, then as you begin to wake up, you will enter the Telling the Truth vs. Liar stage.

This third stage is where everything turns into a mudslide. You and the narcissist will end up in a messy disagreement; then the narcissist will start involving as many other people into this disagreement as possible. People you are related to, people you went to school with in third grade, people you met on the subway and people who live five states away, but who can still access you through social media. You can see why so many survivors feel overwhelmed and feel like crawling into a blanket fort and refusing to come out.

These attacks begin as soon as you start to tell the truth—any part of the facts, however small. The narcissist will anticipate and try to do damage control through lies even before you open your mouth. While you might call it the truth stage, for the narcissist this is the denying stage. Notice I didn’t say denial, because most narcissistic people are not in denial as much as they are just plain liars trying to deny their misdeeds.

During this Truth Telling vs. Lying stage, the more truth you tell, the more lies the narcissist will put out. It’s like a fake news service that tweets lies 24/7, and it’s ugly. This could also be called the character assassination stage because that’s what happens to many memoir writers who are writing their story.

The other day a friend told on herself. She blogged a chapter about her mistakes in dealing with the narcissist. In response, she was sent a message by someone who is supposed to be a professional informing her that she is the narcissist. Can you see what happened here? My friend isn’t a narcissist. A narcissist would never write a chapter detailing his/her own mistakes. It just won’t happen because a narcissist can’t imagine they’ve ever made a mistake—in the narcissistic mind, everything is always someone else’s fault.

The second problem with a message like this is that professional counselors are busy people who get paid to listen to people’s problems all day long. They don’t go trolling on the blogs of memoir writers to diagnose them for free. In early 2017, 1800 professionals broke this rule to sign a petition declaring the current US president has narcissistic personality disorder, but they were heavily criticized because counselors are not supposed to diagnose anyone but their clients. So any message from someone who tells you that you might be the narcissist is just more gaslighting.

We who are NOT professionals, use the term narcissist loosely because we’ve read the traits of Narcissism in the DSM-5 criteria. When we call someone a narcissist, we aren’t making a clinical diagnosis; we are acknowledging the truth for our sanity. When the person we are dealing with lies constantly, manifests a lack of empathy and imagines the rules don’t apply to them, whether they have a full-blown NPD diagnosis or not, for our practical purposes, it doesn’t matter. Without empathy, without honesty, without respect, we’ve got nothing to build a relationship on–thus we label them as narcissistic.

If you get discouraged about telling your story and go back to bed and wait for the flying monkeys to settle down and the narcissist to disappear, an unfortunate thing will happen; your story, your truth, and your honor will be lost. No one will ever know what you went through. No one will ever discover what they have in common with you. No one will ever find your story and sigh and cry and breathe to know that they are not alone. And no one will ever understand why you had to change your phone number and email address and move to the Yukon.

When you start to tell your story, those who want to control you will do everything they can to discourage you. They will attack your character and accuse you of being the narcissist, but remember unless such a diagnosis was given to you by your counselor, the charges are bogus. So go ahead, tell your messy story. Tell on yourself, but by all means, tell on the narcissist because standing up for your truth and telling your story, will set you free.

STORY

Skip the Rant and Make it a Story

One of the biggest reasons we write memoir is to tell our stories, but good memoir not only tells a story, but describes the journey the author has been on which might include their own faults along with the people who might have abused them.

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When I read so-called memoirs that simply go on and on complaining about every horrible thing ever done by the narcissistic, I often wonder where the rest of the story is that I’m missing. Oh I believe the author and I fully understand how a narc parent can make life super miserable for their child, but I just want to shout, “Where is your story friend?” The truth is I don’t enjoy the experience of reading such books as much as I enjoy those well written story memoirs that reveal actual character arcs and show us how the author herself is only human and struggles in life as well. Let’s face it, we’ve all got some fleas from our parents. None of us are perfect and growing up in a dysfunctional family will always leave some sort of a scar.

On the flip side, as much as I want to believe the narcissistic parents portrayed in such books are all bad, experience tells me that most people–especially narcissists can have a very charming side. If you doubt this, read the book “The Sociopath at the Breakfast Table” by the Drs. Jane and Tim McGregor. Whether your narcissistic parent was in-your-face-controlling or behind-the-scenes-sneaky, they probably also had some positive attributes.

Our goal in writing memoir is to tell the truth as we see it. This includes the positive attributes of our family members along with our own struggles. None of us are all good or all bad. When people write a binary story where the characters all good or all bad, they’ve missed the point of memoir–which is to tell an authentic story.

Writing about the good and the bad can give your story depth and meaning instead of just presenting a negative caricature of someone who abused you. Allow your memoir to reveal your heart against the backdrop of frail and often failed humanity while helping the reader realize how circumstances, events and choices can affect our lives.

The people we might go no contact with have some redeeming quality–even if the only good we can find is that we were born—we can speak gratitude about the gift of life. Why is this important? Because until we can be honestly grateful, we might struggle to be honest about our tragic losses and we need an honest assessment of both in order to heal and move on.

Good memoirs also encourage us to live healthier lives by reminding us we don’t have to accept rude behavior from people just because we share the same blood or believe them just because they say something is so. There are things we would never put up with when it comes to strangers—so why have so many of us allowed our relatives to tell us how to live our lives? This is part of the authentic truth we must get to the bottom of when writing a memoir.

One author wrote her memoir so authentically that she sent me on my own journey to write a childhood memoir. Her name is Jeanette Walls, and you may have heard of her memoir, “The Glass Castle.”

Jeanette didn’t make herself out to be a saint, she didn’t trash her siblings and she didn’t even assign motives or blame to her parents’ choices. She simply described her own childhood experiences. She gave us a real story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Her story even reveals a character arc where her character grew and changed over time. This is a good read and I couldn’t put it down once I began reading. If you haven’t read it, now is a good time because “The Glass Castle” is coming to theaters in mid-August.

Memoirs are modern day, authentic fairy tales. They tell us true stories about the struggles of real people. No matter how crazy your day job is or how broken your marriage, there is always a story somewhere of someone who had it worse than you who has pulled themselves up from the bottom. Such stories inspire us and give us the courage to live better lives and sometimes they even inspire us to tell our own stories.

If you’re reading a memoir, happy reading!
If you’re writing a memoir, happy writing!