YOUR 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.
“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
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.
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.