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.