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  • [SWP: Behind the Book] Do Mothers Have a Right to Write Their Own Story?
[SWP: Behind the Book] Do Mothers Have a Right to Write Their Own Story?
Contributor
Written by
Maureen Murdock
October 2016
Contributor
Written by
Maureen Murdock
October 2016

Recently, Elizabeth Bastos confessed in the New York Times that she has stopped writing about her children because she realized that her children had not given her permission to tell their stories. When they were young she made herself the main character in their tales, the hapless heroine who couldn’t get the overalls on her two-year-old or the math dunce who couldn’t figure out her nine-year-old son’s fractions homework. She was the heroine; the story was really about her. Her children were the supporting cast. But now that her children have entered puberty, she has decided to protect their lives from her writer’s eye and pen, because her father objected to her “exposing” the life of his grandson.

There aren’t many guidelines about mothers writing about children, grown or otherwise.  The English writer, Julie Myerson, wrote about her 17-year-old teenage son’s descent into drug addiction in her courageous memoir, The Lost Child. She was excoriated in her native England for exposing him, called cruel and manipulative.  She had shown her son an early version of the manuscript, which he said he liked.  He requested only a few changes, but after it was published he was quoted as saying he opposed the publication. Myerson has said the reaction to her and to the book felt like “a bit of a witch burning.” She did not make the decision to publish the book lightly, but she and her husband felt that the importance of publicizing the nightmare of teenage drug use outweighed prohibitions against writing about their child.

The attacks on Myerson probably would not have been so vehement had the author been a father. The same inhibitions don’t seem to apply to fathers. David Sheff, the best-selling author of Beautiful Boy about his son’s addiction to crystal meth, says that he feels “the imperative to protect a loved one, particularly a child, outweighs the responsibility to tell the truth” of their lives together. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him from publishing his book. He states that he had his son’s approval to write the memoir of their family’s struggle with his addiction, so perhaps that permission outweighed his imperative.

For the last 13 years, I have been writing a book about my own son’s addiction and bipolar illness, and have always felt that I have a right to tell that story because it is my story.  It is the mother’s story. I learned a lot in the living of it and also in the writing about it. And I wanted to share what I had learned with other families. When I set out to write the book, I was trying to figure out the interconnection between mental illness and addiction and to find a successful treatment for both. I got caught up in the race to save my son, so I did a lot of research, joined family support groups, found doctors to treat him and succumbed to that greatest fear a mother has: that her child will kill himself before she can save him. My adrenalin-fueled rescue attempts became my drug of choice.

My book traces the rollercoaster of his highs and lows: lost jobs, splintered relationships, evictions, hospital stays, rehabs, jails, and finally, prison. All along the way, my hope for a cure sustained me. Throughout it all, I was the one who stood by his side, who tried to secure his safety, who made sacrifice after sacrifice both emotionally and financially.  I was the one who finally had to accept that his life was out of my hands.  

I’m the central character, not my son. But I don’t come out as the heroine of the story.  No, there’s nothing heroic here; it’s all about stamina. I muddled through, allowing myself to be manipulated, lied to, and fooled.  I wrote as truthfully as I could. I tried to tell the story as it occurred including all the mistakes I made because I am not the only mother who has traveled this road. I know there are thousands of other mothers and fathers who have dealt with children they love who are ill. I know their frustrations, their angers, their loneliness and their hope.

I showed an early version of my book to my son who clearly was not happy with my portrayal of our life together, but he corrected several of my misperceptions about his bipolar disorder and never said don’t publish this. I tricked myself into thinking he was in sync with the project because I felt that I had the right to tell my story. I agree with Susan Cheever, memoirist and daughter of the novelist John Cheever, who writes: “I strongly believe everybody has the right to their own story,” defining her material as inclusive of the intersecting stories of  her family members.

I say that I think that mothers have the right to their own story because there seems to be a taboo about mothers opening up about our lives. Mothers have a right to their own memories, and their memories reflect the lives of family members. So those memories lead to story. Many of my mother’s generation, including my own mother, ended up with Alzheimer’s disease with fuzzy memories because they never talked about their lives. I don’t mean to imply that the physical disease of Alzheimer’s resulted from the lack of our mothers’ stories. But think about it, how many of our mothers talked about their lives, their feelings, their disappointments, their desires, their wishes for themselves? Not just their wishes for their children. No one asked them about their memories or their feelings. We only remember these women as somebody’s mother.

It is assumed that mothers will be nurturing, protective, and self-sacrificing to the end.  But what about those of us who are artists of one form or another and whose art involves the family?  When I succumbed to my family’s pressure to pull from publication the book I had written about my journey through my son’s bipolar illness and addiction, my daughter said, “I’m glad you put the family before your book.” There was no discussion about what that sacrifice meant to me, the author. There was just the assumption that of course the mother would put the family’s desires ahead of her own.

I don’t think that’s fair.  And it’s not right.

 

Maureen Murdock, PhD. is the internationally published author of The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory and several other non-fiction books. She has written articles on mental illness and the criminal justice system for Huffington Post and teaches memoir writing in southern California.

 

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Comments
  • Vicki Lee

    Thank you Maureen. Yes, you understand the grandchildren bit.  I will, I have a lot of passion about it as you can see!  It's coming out more and more so I am very grateful for writers like you that help light that fire so I can get off my butt and get to it. I too think it's an important subject to explore and tap into because I am sure there are many of us out there suppressing this very thing - not just writers, I think of all those Mum's out there whose lives are disrupted by similar. By the way, I must point out that nothing has happened to my daughter in respect to our relationship breakdown, no abuse or anything her father did. Seriously, if you knew me and her back in the day, you would be shocked it came to this and my family and life long friends can testify to that. 

    Thank you Maureen for your supportive comment. It was a long comment and this will be too if I don't stop now! I did notice too I put I'm 'gong' to write... and that's not a good start, hah, so now I'm going to write.

  • Maureen Murdock

    Vicki,

    Thank you so much for writing about your struggle with your daughter. I'm pleased for you that she hasn't interfered with your relationship with your grandchildren. You have to write your story; I think it's really important to explore the mother daughter relationship and how daughters hold us to a higher standard than they hold their dads (or anyone else!).

  • Vicki Lee

    I finally got to read this. I saved it when I first glanced the title of it and thought, ooooh yes, that is for me. It resonated big time, especially the author's final sentences about the sacrifice to her as an author and assumption that the mother would put the family's desires ahead of her own. 

    I had a huge breakdown with my relationship with my daughter when she was 30 and I was 50. Huge. It culminated in her stopping me seeing my first grandson and cutting me out of her life effectively. It started over, yes extraordinary circumstances involving her real father coming back into my life after 31 years and her having never met him. Well, that's literally another story. 

    From that point on, I have gone through this drama mostly from a mother's role and all the while though, I realised the gift this was in that my role in this life came through too. My understanding and perspective on sacrifice and unconditional love that is the expectation between mother and daughter has changed. I think irrevocably too and I don't think it's a bad thing because it might be seen as a negative thing in most minds but in mine, it's refreshing and authentic.  

    If there is one thing I have been hit over the head about in recent years is this quantification almost, of what a mother and daughter relationship is supposed to be, look like and how it must play out in one's life.

    I want to write my story, tell my story as I live this story. I don't know what that story is yet, whether its fiction or non fiction (the relationship with her father is a great story!). Years ago when I had the revelation that I was a writer, I remember my daughter being foremost in my mind as to what I would write. In its simplest form I mean, such as wondering if it would be embarrassing for her (not just her of course, most of my family too) and even then, I had this niggling feeling I would never be able to fulfil my dream if I always did it with fear of judgement.

    I'm now seeing who I am, still exploring me and with that it has opened up my world or taken off the blinkers at least.  I am a peace you could say, with the estranged relationship that I have with my daughter as she continued to be the same way with me over the years and her control and manipulation issues raised their ugly head again with me when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's (ironically the same as Maureen). I have in total three grandchildren now and yes, have beautiful relationships with them all. There's a story there too of the gift that the oldest gave to me in near tragic circumstances and that brought him back into my life.  She hasn't cut me out of their lives but I say yet because I still believe she might as it is her only card she can play really, over me.  I digress.

    I don't think it's fair and I don't think it's right and I will not allow this most important of stories to be told because of this unwritten code that we must put the family's desires (especially the mother's of this world) ahead of our own. 

    Even saying that makes me question why that even is so.  Whenever we write, isn't there this unwritten guideline that we are to be respectful wherever we can be essentially?  What that means to one person can differ though and that's the key.  

    How many stories would not be told if this was in place with all writing?  Why is it that 'we' are the hardest on mother's when it comes to their writing? 

    I'm gong to write from my heart and stay respectful but purposeful.  I'm going to write as me and that ME is not just a mother; I am made up of so much more.

  • Nancy Owen Nelson

    Thank you!

  • Maureen Murdock

    I have really appreciated all of your comments, thank you for your support. There is a great book for those of you who are writing memoirs about family members entitled "Family Troubles: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family" edited by Joy Castro. It adds a lot to this discussion.

  • Nancy Owen Nelson

    All I can say is yes, indeed, you have this right....thank you for the piece and the book.

  • Dhana Musil

    Oh man. That is alot to take in. Thank you. Every time I read something like this it makes my heart a bit lighter, knowing I am not alone in what sometimes feels a very sticky and uncomfortable place. And it is. But I suppose we can write ourselves out of it if we have enough faith and support from writers like you. I just came up with a pen name for myself this morning. Not for this memoir, for the next one. Thanks so much for leading the way.

  • Maureen Murdock

    Thank you all for all of your thoughts and insights. All the names in the book have been changed (they always were) and I am going forward with a pen name. I struggled with the decision to use a pen name primarily because I already had a platform as an author but I think the story is important for other families who deal with these issues so I will be publishing it in 2017 under a pen name. My son says (at this point) that he's fine with that. I had also tried to reconfigure it into a fictional piece and that really did not work for me.

  • Lisa Thomson

    Wow, you are courageous on so many levels, Maureen. I agree that a mother's story is hers to tell. I also believe that telling our truths and publishing them make us vulnerable to stormy relationships and the fall out of our writing. It sounds as though you have done all you could possibly do for your son. Writing your story must have been healing. Is there any way to publish under pseudonym and change names? I only ask because certainly your manuscript would benefit so many other mothers and parents going through similar situations, it would be nice to share it without sacrificing the privacy of your family. I'm sure you've considered it and have your reasons for leaving it as is.

    Thanks for sharing this topic and getting us talking and thinking about our own stories.

  • Sandra Assimotos McElwee

    For this exact reason I'm writing a fiction book--the only parts that are fiction are the names that have been changed. I may even publish under a pen-name. The story isn't about my son as much as it is about my biological mother--who has veheamently opppsed me writing the story of my conception, adoption....but by making it a work of fiction I can write any ending that I decide I want to...when I finally get to the ending.

  • Evelyn Krieger

    I am sorry that I will not get to read your book about your journey. There are so many families who struggle with their children's mental illness. They, too, need guidance, support, and understanding. They, too, are looking for direction and answers. Have you thought of writing a life-inspired novel instead? 

  • Judy Gruen

    This is such an important discussion. I have written about my four kids over the years, much more so when they were younger. My first humor book was all about the typical ups, downs and sideways of motherhood, and having studied Bombeck, I did not even name my kids. But as they grew older, and the issues they dealt with more consequential, I pulled way back on including them in my work, and when I did so, I got their permission. When dealing with a child, or adult child, with very serious issues, I believe it is both the mother's story (and father's presumably) but also very much the child's. I don't feel that a mother's need to share overrides the son or daughter's need for privacy. After all, he or she still has (God willing) decades more life to live, and will have to live with the notoriety of what a parent shared. I don't see evidence that dads get away with more in terms of disclosure than moms. In terms of the valuable lessons learned along the way that could be useful to others, there are other ways to get that out there, through writing articles about various aspects of the issues and interviewing sources; writing under a pseudonym, etc. Writers all have personal pains and family issues that would make good copy, but in a case like this I would only proceed if the son or daughter involved was onboard.

  • Saundra Goldman

    Thank you for this. I have been struggling for years weather or not to write a memoir of riding the ups and downs of my daughter's mental illness. I think it will turn out to be about how our whole family went down the tubes when we were exposed to multiple mycotoxins in a house we rented while ours was being renovated, which shifts the focus. But I still want to write about my experience as a mother, what I lost and how I've endured since my daughter became ill.