Writing Lessons: Waiting for Someone to Die Before You Write Memoir?

photo-1YOUR FAMILY HAS ANOTHER VERSION of what you are writing. Your sister said it never happened that way. Your college roommates don’t remember anything from the incident. OH MY GOD, what would my in-laws say if I write that sex scene from my marriage? Are you waiting for someone to die before you write memoir? Do any of these sound familiar to you? Good. No? Read on anyway, because you’ll soon get to these questions, and when you do, you’ll realize that Judy Mandel, author of the brilliantly-titled, Replacement Child, is the voice you want to hear on this topic.

What Would Mother Think?

By Judy Mandel

Are you waiting for Mom to die before you write your memoir?

I’ve heard many would-be memoirists lament that they could only write their story after certain people were dead. A mother or father, or possibly a sibling or uncle. Or maybe the whole clan.

“I just couldn’t be honest about what happened,” they say.

Or

“They would never speak to me again.”

Both may be true. But I’m here to tell you that dead or alive, those people may still have a say. So, my advice is to decide at the outset of your project how you want to handle family reactions to your memoir. I know people who have decided never to write their story for fear of reprisal from relatives. Others, who write honestly, have suffered the wrath of family members along the way.

One writing teacher of mine told me never to show my work to family members, since their critique would stop my creative flow. I made my decision, though, at the start of writing my memoir Replacement Child that it was more important to me that I not hurt the people I loved than it was to publish a book. My husband was my first reader, and my sister had complete veto power over any passage to do with her.

My sister’s final approval was the most important to me, since much of my book has to do with the plane crash and fire that severely injured her at two, and her recovery throughout her lifetime. I was grateful that she had read the finished manuscript just before she passed away. She didn’t edit a word, and generously told me, “It’s your story to tell.”

If your deceased mother still whispers in your ear to keep your elbows off the table, you know what I’m talking about when I say the dead can still make their power known. But, for a writer, the dead can exert stronger control than you may have thought possible. My parents were both gone when I wrote my memoir, but their influence was ever present. In fact, it was the responsibility I felt to tell our story, theirs and mine, accurately and honestly that sometimes paralyzed me in my writing. After all, this was the book they had wanted me to write. Leaving me notes and newspaper clips to help me piece together the story of our lives in the aftermath of the plane crash that changed everything. When it turned out, as I followed the threads of the story, that it may not have been exactly the book they had in mind, I wrestled with how to proceed.

For instance, when I was reading through psychology books and articles trying to understand what my parents experienced when they lost their seven-year-old daughter in the accident, I discovered the term replacement child syndrome. After reading about the syndrome and the implications for children born after a sibling had died, I strongly identified with many of the indications that were described. Issues of identity, feelings of being other, or outside the family, for example. That was the point where I found my own story within my memoir and that changed the course of my writing. But, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, knowing she would have hated the term replacement as a reference to myself. And, I knew that she had ultimately loved me for who I was as an individual. My father, however, had a difficult time accepting me in place of his first-born. After much soul searching, I went ahead with my theme, and the title of the book. The truth was the truth, and I believed if we could have had that conversation in life, both my parents would have understood. Gratefully they have not manifested to voice any opposition. I wouldn’t put it past them.

In the end, it’s your story to tell. And it’s up to you how much approval you need from those who show up as characters in your memoir, and how you want to deal with their possible displeasure. I suggest that you think about whether you want their part in your story to be a surprise when they pick up the book for the first time, or whether an advance reading would help soften their reaction. If you do offer a review of the manuscript, be ready for varied versions of the story to surface. Everyone has their own memory of events, and they may differ significantly. In this case, yours is the only one that counts.

For some personal stories, especially in the case of abuse, there is no way to tell the story without tripping up some family land mines. And, if it’s an important story to tell, you must.

Replacement Child, An excerpt

Chapter Sixty-Eight

1953

In his heart, my father wasn’t at all sure they should have another child. He missed his little girl terribly—was bitter about her death. He blamed himself for not being there to protect his family. He replayed his revised scene in his mind a thousand times: my mother rushing out of the apartment with Linda rolled in the quilt while he ran back to push the beam off of Donna, lifting her up over the flames and smoke, carrying her down the steep stairway just before it collapsed.

There could be no replacement for Donna. He didn’t want one. And he thought Linda would need their undivided attention for many years.

But he wanted his wife back. He needed her smiling again. If a new baby would do it, he would comply.

My father chose the Blumenkrantz Hotel in Lakewood because he knew how much his wife loved the ocean, and because it was an affordable way to get away to the beach for a few days. They needed a change of scenery. Different surroundings to shift their perspectives, lift their spirits—their souls— from the oppressive daily grind.

“A perfect beach day, Flurry!” my father declared as they pulled in to the hotel parking lot. Entering the lobby, my mother took in the wood paneling, the leather upholstery, the Victorian grandeur of the place. She noted the indoor pool, adjacent to the formal dining room. Her hope for the weekend was renewed. Until now, she had been doubtful, but she didn’t show it for my father’s sake.

She knew he was more fragile than he let on. She remembered the night his claustrophobia kicked in as they rode through the Lincoln Tunnel to New York City. They were stuck in traffic in the tunnel for forty-five minutes. An endless black netherworld. Suddenly, my father couldn’t catch his breath and was hyperventilating—he said he couldn’t breathe at all. My mother took his hand and calmed him. She talked to him about their plans for the next day and told him when to take a breath. They would breathe each breath together until they got through the tunnel.

They checked in to the hotel, unpacked their suitcases, changed into bathing suits, and headed for the beach. My mother wore her black one-piece suit, cut in an octagonal shape at the top with a small tasteful skirt at the bottom. My father was in his only green-and-blue plaid bathing trunks. His boney white chest screamed for a sunburn.

They drove to Bradley Beach and picked a spot midway between the water and the boardwalk to lay their hotel towels out next to each other.

“We should’ve brought an umbrella,” my father said, squinting. “The sun is so strong today, no clouds to block it at all.”

At that, my mother dug into her beach bag and produced two hats, a Yankees baseball cap for him and a floppy brimmed canvas one for herself.

My father smiled, leaned over, and kissed his wife on the cheek. “That’s why I married you—you’re always taking care of us.”

My mother reached her arm over his shoulder and gave him a squeeze, “I try.”

“What other hazari do you have in that bag? A hot dog maybe? Some mustard and a Coke? How about one of those big salty pretzels?”

“Now you’re making me hungry,” my mother said and slapped him on the chest.

They left their towels and walked to the boardwalk, bringing back hot dogs and cokes and two big pretzels.

“This isn’t helping me keep my girlish figure,” my mother said, taking a bite of pretzel.

“Me neither,” my father said seriously. He stood and posed, hands on his hips, tilting his chin to the sky. Looking at his skinny physique, my mother burst out laughing, nearly spitting out her mouthful of Coke. Suddenly, she was uncontrollable—shaking, laughing, tears streaming. She put down her soda and folded her arms in on herself to hold herself together. My father was momentarily stunned, but knelt next to her to put his arms around her to calm her down. He instinctively pulled her toward him.

Their hats had fallen off and lay in the sand, and their hotdogs were getting cold. My parents found themselves in an unexpected embrace, holding each other tightly, neither one willing to be the first to let go.

Author’s bio

Judy L. Mandel is the author of Replacement Child – a memoir (Seal Press). Her writing life began as a reporter. She later worked in public relations and advertising and somehow found herself in corporate communications at various insurance companies, where she earned a living for 20 years. Her memoir, Replacement Child, grew out of early essays and the promise she made to her family to tell the story. Judy now balances her business writing for clients with writing fiction, nonfiction and articles from her home in Connecticut. She has a wonderful son, and an incredible husband who brought three fantastic stepsons into her life. She also has a very large orange cat that sometimes types long lines of zzzzzz’s by laying across her computer keyboard. You may reach her on the Replacement Child blog, or at her website.

AND THE WINNER IS…

I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.

It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.

The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.

The winner of the book is Jim Geddes. Congratulations, Jim! I’ll be in touch to send your book.

Comments

  1. says

    I have been to many book readings and heard many stories of authors who lost their families because they went ahead with their writing projects. I too have endured some displeased comments about my writing. Writers have a choice: write or suffer. What I tell them is: be true to yourself and your experience. This is how writing heals. This is a fine line. Writing badly about someone and writing your experience of a person or event are not the same thing. Readers will decide how to feel about something. A memoirist must develop a respect for her own life and tell it. The three women in a writing class I taught years ago still have not written for fear they will hurt someone through the act of disclosure. They are still suffering. My most encouraging statement: write and heal. Then talk to the person who rejected. Those who love you will understand. Those who don’t understand love will continue to rebel against you.

    • says

      Jan,
      Good advice for the memoirists in your class! It is certainly a very personal choice. Another option, of course, is to fictionalize a story. Everyone’s journey is different. Thanks so much for writing!
      Best regards,
      Judy

  2. says

    I found this article very interesting and one that many people face when they decide to write a book, even a blog, wherein family secrets will be revealed. The fear of hurting family members, or family backlash, a “how could you tell everyone that?” stops many from putting pen to paper. Sadly, a lot of horrible secrets die with the person who kept those secrets and perpetrators of evil in a family walk free while victims suffer. I’m talking here about abuse, especially sexual abuse of children. I was a victim of incest at the hands of my biological father from ages 11-24. I finally told the whole story in a book I wrote and self-published this past summer, NO TEARS FOR MY FATHER, but, of course, I did the typical thing: I waited till those involved were long gone: my father had been dead for 13 years, my mother for 7. Being an only child, there were no other immediate family members who wanted to keep it a secret. But then, I had to consider my own family now: my husband, who knew nothing about it though we’d been married over 45 years, and my two grown daughters. Luckily for me, when they learned the horrid truth, they all encouraged me to write the book to help others speak out from under childhood sexual abuse. Since writing the book, I’ve had so many other victims come forward, applauding my courage, holding me up as an icon of honesty etc and wanting to do the same, but of course, being held back by what held me back: fear of what the abusers might do, the denial, the shame the family will feel etc.

    So all said, I’m glad I waited for someone to die before writing my memoir but one also has to be sure that the living, even if they weren’t directly involved are okay with what you’re going to say.

    • says

      Viga,
      Congratulations on writing your story. It sounds like one that had to be told, and I am glad to hear you are happy with your decision of when and how to tell it. Memoir writers are some very brave souls, and you are one.
      Thanks for your comment.
      Best,
      Judy

      • says

        Thanks for the support Judy. I consider writing my book one of the best, and most important things I’ve done with my life. I have been asked to run memoir writing groups at my local library as a result of this book which I find libraries are snapping up (much to my personal pleasure and fulfillment) and hope that as I do guide others in their memoir writing, for some it will also be the therapy and healing they need.

  3. Katherine Stevenson says

    As always, love your introductions Marion and the writing lesson guest. I took to heart this quote, “In the end, it’s your story to tell. And it’s up to you how much approval you need from those who show up as characters in your memoir, and how you want to deal with their possible displeasure.”

  4. Mary Ellen says

    My version of the childhood story I’d tell would hurt my dear old Mother. Best to let her pass on, and protect her from my own feelings of being a “replacement child.” Adopted by a childless couple, I’ve always known, even now at 62, the same “issues of identity, feelings of being other, or outside the family.” Yes, Judy describes that so well. Thank you for sharing, Marion.

  5. Marie says

    Yes, in the end, it is MY story to tell. I lived my story, each member of my family lived their story, and each one is just as ‘true’ as the others’. Profound, but so very simple. Thank you Marion, for once again bringing this fact to our attention. I remember a lesson you posted, a few years ago, about this same issue, regarding how you and your sister had experienced your Mother is very different ways. It changed my life. I was able to let go of the Family Fable, and embrace my version of MY story as true and worth writing. I’m taking this as a wee push to get on with it. Thank you, Judy, for ‘getting on’ with your own story. I look forward to reading it, no matter how I acquire the book. Cheers!

    • Susan says

      The idea that each of us has a different perspective on an experience has inspired me this morning to write something about what I learned and wisdom gainied along the way. For me, this feels like a gentler, more positive way to get started on the memoir project I feel so compelled to write yet hesitant to create, despite pages and pages of good notes.

  6. says

    My mother recently passed away. When she was alive, she wouldn’t read my essays. I think she was afraid she’d be hurt. I wrote them anyway. So I appreciate the advice that it’s our story to tell.

    • says

      That is a difficult one. My father wouldn’t read anything I wrote either. But it is so important not to take on the resistance of others. Writing is healing and can help set us free. Writers have to write or they suffer. Good for you for writing what you had to. I know it takes courage and fortitude. I’d like to send you a copy of my latest book A Writer’s Wisdom. If you want to send me your address, I’ll get a copy to you. If you prefer a pdf, I can send that today. Just let me know.

  7. says

    Yes, I have so much written in my memoir and am stalled. I need to give some away to my husband to read and have some veto power on…or something. I’m stuck because of what I think people will say or what their reactions may be. Yet I don’t know – denial at it’s finest. :)

  8. says

    I find when writing stories from my family, I’m careful not to offend anyone.
    I suppose there will come a time when I will step out and share my version of
    things despite what other family members think. Hopefully it will be constructive.

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