• Cris Beam
  • I could only write my memoir…After my mother had died
I could only write my memoir…After my mother had died
Contributor
Written by
Cris Beam
February 2012
Contributor
Written by
Cris Beam
February 2012

I teach a family memoir class at NYU and, year after year, it’s always over-enrolled. The twenty year-olds carry around a limitless store of tales about their parents, their siblings, and the wrongs they’ve been done. But will they publish them? Probably not right away. A public airing of past struggle can be therapeutic in a class, but terrifying in the broader arena of publication—especially when that struggle implicates the living. Relatives, after all, are easily hurt or angered, they can contest your facts, and they can sue. As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “I don’t think anyone should write their autobiography until after they’re dead.”

            I’m turning 40 next month and I just published my first short memoir, called Mother, Stranger.  I had to wait for my mom to die. But this wasn’t because I was afraid of what she might do or say or even feel; I didn’t write about my mom while she was alive because I didn’t have the separate self to do it. I was too angry, too broken, too enmeshed. Despite the fact that I left my mother’s house at fourteen and never saw her again, the pain I felt about my mother kept her close. Too close to see her as both light and shadow, with edges distinct from my own. Her death gave me my voice.

            In a book review about six years back, Francine Prose wrote,

What the memoir writer knows is what readers of Grimm intuit: the loving parent and the evil stepparent may in reality be the same person viewed at successive moments and in different lights. And so the autobiographer is faced with the daunting challenge of describing the narrow escape from being baked into gingerbread while at the same time attempting to understand, forgive and even love the witch.”

 

Sometimes death provides enough distance for equanimity; it did for me. Suddenly all the unspoken bits of our shared history formed themselves into language, and death gave way to life. I could write a memoir with my mother as a living character, and imagine my way into compassion for both of us.

            I know that for some people, an obituary is the green light to finally release the monsters from the closet, since you can’t libel the dead. But I also know that keeping mum on the monsters doesn’t help anyone. Audre Lorde once said, “your silence will not protect you.” She was right, but still, silence can sometimes serve as an incubator for memoirs too raw or unformed for display. Until one day, maybe after a death in the family, that silence cracks and you’re writing, writing writing, like your own life depended on it. Because it probably does.

 

 

What allowed you to write (or begin) your memoir? One respondent will receive a copy of Mother, Stranger, available at The Atavist. http://atavist.net/mother-stranger/

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Comments
  • Joie Grandbois

    As a blogger there are many things that I simply can't bring myself to write about publicly, though I do have journals full of personal writing it is doubtful much of it will ever be shared.  I left a very abusive marriage many years ago and though I have talked with friends about it I still am unable to write about it publicly.  I am not sure that I ever will.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. 

  • Lois Roelofs

    Thanks, Chris, for your comments. I found it took many years after a painful incident in my life to write about it, but once I did, all buried pain was gone, just like that! And now that pain experience is being helpful to my readers. Thanks for your courage in writing about yours.

  • Cheryl Wright

    You've shared your story and in the process helped me to understand mine - the unresolved pain of strange and rocky relationships, inner conflicts, insecurities, dark spots. My stories involve not only my mother (a control freak and people-pleaser) but also my husband (his jealousy and emotional abuse) and my first love who captured my heart when I was 16, broke it at 17 and strolled in and out of my life for 40 years. My mother died in August 2000 and I am only now feeling the freedom to write my stories about her and our relationship. My husband and my first love are still alive. Naturally, the stories remain in my head except for a few journal entries over the years. You have encouraged me to not despair about not being able to write my stories/my memoirs. You have inspired me to jot down little snippets when I can because one day, they will help me pull everything together and write my story, my truth. Thank you Criss.

  • Berit Elizabeth

    Its perfect timing that I am reading your post now. I read it with thirst because all you say truly resonates with me. I've been wanting to write about my identity and relationships from the time I got myself out of an abusive marriage, but even though my ex has been permanently living in another country for almost two years, and I am in love with my current parter, try as I might, I could not write until the divorce papers were final.

    Intuitively, I knew that that last thread would set open the floodgates, even though we have been on other sides of the earth for the past couple of years. I got the papers in January and lately, the chapters I have been writing in my head while folding laundry or driving on the highway are coming out onto the computer screen. As I manifest my story I can craft my retrospective vision of myself and it helps me articulate better who I am now.  Thank you.

  • Barbara Shallue

    You describe so perfectly the delicate dance of our memories and the "separate self" that needs to appear to write them with honesty. Up until now I've only written snippets of memoir, woven into personal essays or blog posts. I can feel most of it still simmering somewhere inside, not yet ready to be tasted or served. I guess I'll know when it's time.

  • Deborah Hollins

    This is such a beautiful and encouraging thread of discussion.  My mother is still alive and very much in my life; yet is the cause of deep sadness and anxiety for me.  Even as I know that the voices that often plague me as I write are not mine, but hers, there are times when I am overcome and need to walk away from the page in order to catch my breath.  I have often said that my truth will not fully be revealed (not even to me) until her passing.  However, I do write and much of what I write reflects on my struggles with my Mother and my search for the greater love from the Divine.  My 'imperfect journey' has led me to understand how my mother's mental illness (undiagnosed as it is) led me to seek a love beyond this earthly world and to embrace my healing as my own.  Anyway, my blog http://divinesource.blogspot.com/ shares some of this journey...which is leading to my own memoir.  :)

  • Victoria Costello

    Well written and touched me deeply as I too had to wait until my mother (and her whole generation) in our family had passed on to write a memoir. It reminds me what memoirist Adair Lara teaches...the wait ten years rule...before writing about any traumatic event. Maybe double that when it comes to moms.

  • Grace Peterson

    Beautifully written. My mother dismissed me at 13, releasing both of us from what little there was to begin with. She's still alive as far as I know but I've written about her anyway because she may as well be dead. I know that sounds calloused and it is. My memoir is finished and I'm embarking on the query process. I wish you much success with your book and your classes. I bet both are wonderful. 

  • Ali Berlinski

    I graduated from NYU about 5 years ago and I would have LOVED to take your class, though I'm not sure I would have been ready to put into words my feelings about my family.  Growing up, I too felt that saying nothing was the best way to handle my emotions.  Alas Audre Lorde was right, my silence did not protect me.

    It wasn't until I picked up my life and moved across the ocean and out of the country to Spain, that I discovered my own voice and found the courage to stop apologizing for my mother's actions.  Recently I wrote a memoir, or collection of personal essays about my life.  The book is entitled  A beautiful Mess and talks about my very unconventional family.  However, much of the book deals with my break up with my mother.  

    Anyhow I applaude you for finishing your memoir and relate to what its like, losing a mother.   I will definitely look into your book. Feel free to sample mine at:

    http://www.pubslush.com/book/view/84

  • Rhonda Rae Baker

    I am so thankful that you wrote this post!  Explains so many of my personal emotions and why I couldn't ever write in a journal for fear my parents would read my inner thoughts.  I'm finally writing my memoirs, after trying to write them as fiction for several years.  With my parents gone for almost 25 years, I'm amazed at how long it has taken me to feel brave enough to tell my truth.  My marriage of 25 years broke up seven years ago and I'm now married to my soul mate who supports this quest for healing my Inner Child.  At this point in time, I don't care how many will scoff at what is written for it is my story.  There may be edits to cover any libel issues, but it is time for me to speak out.  I've got so many stories to tell and it all began with my parents.  I was adopted and never knew the real truth.  My mother was a stranger to me.  She acted one way when others were around and another way with my brother and me.  I married someone like her and cried for 28 years...eventually almost losing my children.  Your post here has encouraged me as it helps to know that other's have felt the same way.  Life can be a Grimm Tale at that!  TY...I would be honored to read your memoir Mother,Stranger.  Wow, isn't that the truth sometimes!