Who decides? Me or Them?

In May, 2012, I published my book, Trailing: A Memoir, which details my experience as a "trailing spouse" who followed my Doctors without Borders husband to the frontlines of disaster and disease in East Africa.  Those five years in Kenya and Uganda included, among many other things, getting violently carjacked, bearing witness to cholera and ebola epidemics, the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, finding a way to apply my skills as a psychotherapist trained to deal with "Western-style" suffering in a context of extreme poverty and unprecedented rates of HIV infection, and having my first baby - a beautiful nine and half pound gorgeous daughter - in an African hospital alongside my African sisters - all of us getting through with no pain meds, no epidurals, just hard, hard labor. Oh, life was full those five years... and then the East African chapter came to a crashing halt when my marriage bottomed out and I escaped to Paris with my two year old daughter.  Who do you think "trailed" who then?!  But I don't want to provide too many spoilers!

The story I want to tell today is how after I wrote my book, and after I came to find an agent, he delivered the manuscript to the desks of seven major publishers in New York City, all of whom rejected the book in the most flattering way.  What an incredible journey, they said.  What a great story!  But it's not universal enough: not enough women will relate to this issue of putting their husband's needs before their own.

Before I could even pick my jaw up off the floor -- what planet did these editors live on? - my agent kissed me goodbye, by email, saying, "If these 'Big Seven' won't buy it, no one will.  The bottom line is: it's your HUSBAND'S story that is interesting, not yours.  Write the book about his life as a doctor in Africa.  That will sell."

If one could reach through the phone to punch someone, I probably would have done just that.  Lucky for Mr. Agent-man that technology has not yet made that possible.  And rejected and deflated as I felt, I was not going to stand for that message.  My  husband's story is the one that matters, not mine? Oh yeah?

A little more background about me:  I am a Foreign Service kid.  My Dad was a career diplomat and I spent my childhood following him around the world, changing countries every two to four years based on where he was assigned to work.  My mother was a "trailing spouse" as were 99% of my friend's mothers in all the countries we lived in across Africa and Asia throughout my childhood.  Fast forward to my adult life when I "escaped" my own trailing path to Paris, where there is an enormous international community of expats.  I set up my therapy practice which was soon populated by many "trailing spouses," all of whom faced the issues known by any of us who have had the conditions of our lives' dictated by a loved one's obligations: Who am I as a professional? Who am I as a spouse? How do I fit into this new culture? How do I fit in back home?  Where do I find meaning and purpose in my life, especially if I am on a track of moving every couple of years because of my husband's job?

I am compelled to mention that at the very moment the "Big Seven" were passing on my book, Michelle Obama was wrapping up her Chicago practice to follow her husband to the White House.  Trailing is not a universal issue?!

I refused to give up on my book, and started looking for a small independent press. I got a tentative offer from a Minnesota based publishing house - but there was a condition: I had to be willing to spend a year touring across the USA to promote the book! No matter how much I dreamed of publishing Trailing: A Memoir, this was impossible. My husband traveled all the time for work, my kids were small, (I had had a second baby in the meantime) and I hate flying (and I still lived in France!)! So values clarification moment: I desperately wanted to see my book come alive, but not, as it turned out, at any cost. I sat on it for almost a year, and then, with the prodding and encouragement of friends and family, I decided to publish the book myself, completely on my terms. I used a professional publication service and several months later, after approving covers, interior layouts, final tweaks etc, I launched the book!

Almost three years later I am delighted to report that I have sold approximately 5000 copies of Trailing: A Memoir, and the book was voted one of the best Indie Reads of 2013.  The biggest reward of all has been the letters I have received from women all over the world saying THANK YOU SO MUCH for daring to tell the story that no one ever wants to talk about: that "trailing" is a phenomenon for thousands of us women in the world, with pros and cons, maybe, but a phenomenon nonetheless with implications on personal identity, self-esteem, and marital harmony.

The process I went through to bring Trailing: A Memoir to life sums up something incredibly important that I have learned: If you believe in your story (whatever the story is or what form it takes), see it through to the end. Don't let other people tell you whether your story gets to exist. Don't give up. Try! Find solutions! Take risks! Dare! We are given one life - and we never know when it may end - and so why not just go for it! Refusing to take no for an answer, or compromise what works for my family just to get the book published, became the perfect metaphor for what I had to work out as a "trailing spouse-" how to make the life I wanted happen, regardless of the "limitations" surrounding me.

The following is an excerpt from the back cover text:

"Something unexpected occurs when Kristin Louise Duncombe moves to New Orleans to begin her adult life as a psychotherapist: She falls madly in love with a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor, abandons all of her plans, and follows him on a medical mission to East Africa. Faced with the dual culture shock of Kenya and life with the MSF team, Kristin struggles to craft a new existence in a context of mishap, witchcraft, and the life or death stakes of the MSF world. Just when she has managed to establish a life for herself in Nairobi, a violent carjacking catapults her into a state of acute post-traumatic stress, and her life thereafter devolves into a world of intense anxiety that permeates every aspect of her existence. Forced to examine questions about her relationship, career, and personal identity, she struggles to save her marriage while facing the most difficult fight of her life: saving herself."

If you would like to read further about the book or the phenomenon of the "trailing spouse," please see the interviews on my website at http://www.kristinduncombe.com/trailing-a-memoir/



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