Click on this link to hear an audio recording of my conversation on March 16, 2012 with Linda Joy Myers and several participating members of The National Association of Memoir Writers.
My Introduction to the teleseminar: I believe that every memoir has the writer’s family history at its core. Even if ancestors are never mentioned, they are present—even omnipresent in your true story.
That’s because the impetus for so much lifewriting, whether conscious or unconscious, is to remove the scab from a family wound and heal it. It may have been a physical or emotional violation, a betrayal of trust, or unspoken words of gratitude or love, but whatever the source of your family wound, the resulting trauma lives on in you, or perhaps most flagrantly in one of your children—as was the case for me and the impetus for writing my memoir, A Lethal Inheritance, A Mother Uncovers the Science Behind Three Generations of Mental Illness (Jan 2012/Prometheus Books).
Here’s what we cover:
- Basics and shortcuts for researching your ancestors’ lives and deaths
- How to mine versions of “the truth” different than your own
- How to fill in the gaps when key facts are missing
- The role of speculation in memoir
- How the “illness narrative” and your choice of a plot line affects healing in life and memoir
- When the story you must tell is about more than just you (e.g. science, social history); how to interweave multiple threads in memoir
- The relationship between memoirist and reader; focusing on the process of self-revelation before, during and after you write your book.
This teleseminar reflects two aspects of my professional life–as a mental health advocate and a writer of nonfiction books, most recently memoir.
Here’s a sample of the interview Linda Joy and I did before the teleseminar to give you a feel for our conversation…
1. In your book A Lethal Inheritance, you weave science and research in with your personal story. What were the special challenges of interweaving science with your memoir—and was it emotionally wearing to use your own family as a case study?
Even after I started putting the personal and the scientific pieces of this story together, I didn’t initially have the intention of going back three generations and looking deeply into my family mental health history. In fact, I resisted it. Like most people I thought of our family’s troubled past—so much depression and alcoholism, my sister’s drug use, and at least one likely suicide by a grandfather that had always been represented as a tragic accident—as “dirty laundry,” better left covered up.
However, when I looked at the connections researchers were finding between different mental disorders and addictions that appear in successive generations of families like mine—I found patterns that helped me understand why we were are such high risk for these disorders—and that it would only get worse as time went on.
Throughout the writing of this book I felt like I was doing a dance to meld these two narrative threads. Often times, it seemed I didn’t know the steps to this dance. I had to feel out the process, which is one reason why it took ten years to write. The other is that I had to make recovery as a family my priority, not the book.
2. How did you cope with other family member reactions to the historic and present day revelations?
The three generation story would have been much harder to publish if my mother and other relatives from her generation were still alive. My mother thought my going to psychotherapy was awful since I would be telling a stranger our family business. So you can imagine. To be honest, my two sons were not crazy about it either, but they said it would be okay with them if I changed their names. (And we have different last names, too). Now they’re very excited for me, although not enough to accept the invitation from the “Dr. Phil Show” to come on and “tell all.” I didn’t think that would be a good idea for them either. It’s a delicate thing for every memoirist to reckon with. I think the best plan is to be open with those you care about that you are writing a family memoir while you’re writing it. That gives everyone a chance to get used to it; and talk about it before other people are reading it.
3. How did you find a single plot line to encompass four generations with different characters and problems?
The central plot line is my oldest son “Alex’s” psychotic break at age 18, and the journey this sends me on to unearth family mental disorders and addictions, and see what the latest science has to offer by way of explaining it. I mean, really, how can one family have so many afflicted members? I had to find out. This inquiry began with my own lifelong untreated depression, which I only treated after Alex’s diagnosis with schizophrenia. This plot line then takes me through my sister’s story, to my father and grandfather’s lives, each of them tragic and cut short. It climaxes with my trip to Western Ireland where I visited my grandfather’s ancestral farm and came to peace with his legacy. The last third of the book offers the science and practice of recovery and prevention.