This blog was featured on 11/08/2017
[BEHIND THE BOOK] Breaking Through Silence

Breaking through silence, opening secrets, and writing about all of it can be dangerous and it can be wildly surprising as I found out when I began to search for and write about the missing people in my family.


For years I was lost in other’s notions of what could and could not be known.  That changed the day I joined the slow line of silent people moving toward The Wall of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.  Stooping to read a poem written to a father who never came home, I knew that there must be many of us who’d grown up in silence as I had.  For the next several years I kept a notebook and pen in my backpack and wrote down every encounter having to do with searching for information about the missing people in my family – my father who was killed in WWII and my mother’s two sisters.  Mother was the only person I knew who had known them, but my questions threatened to open her buried pain and she responded with fury.  Writing became an internal dialogue, the way I talked with and listened to myself so I could believe that what I was experiencing and thinking was legitimate.


My first companion in the search for my father was Antigone, the woman in Sophocles’ play who was forbidden by King Creon to bury her brother, killed in battle.  Word for word, argument for argument Antigone stood up to Creon, declaring her purpose in life was to love, not hate.  Burying her brother, she said, was an act of love and she was not afraid to act.  Antigone emboldened me to search and to write in spite of the family prohibition against mentioning the missing.


Like Antigone, I got in trouble.  Unlike Antigone, I survived.  My inner and outer worlds burst into bloom when I met others whose fathers had died in the war and who had grown up pervaded by the same absence.  Word by word we opened the silence as we talked about what it was like for us to grow up knowing almost nothing about our fathers.  Believing there were more people out there who were feeling the same isolation and longing we’d felt, Ann Bennett Mix and I co-authored a book based on interviews with others like us.  Lost In the Victory became a sort of bible for American war orphans.


When an article about my own search for information about my father was published in the Washingtonian and picked up by Readers’ Digest, my family was furious and tried to silence me to the extent of attempting to sue.  While I was devastated by their response I was encouraged by the hundreds of emails I received from people throughout the country asking for help; fifty years later and so many of us didn’t know where our fathers were buried.  I knew that writing was breaking a formidable silence that needed to end. My resolve to write was stronger than ever.  I was writing for myself and I was writing for every one of us who’d grown up with few answers to our questions.


By now I had slayed the monster of silence and was writing my way out of the labyrinth of taboos but there was more; Mother’s sisters were still unknown.  I bought a new notebook, pursued clues and opened darker family secrets.  After years of searching for her grave, I discovered my mother’s sister, my Aunt Elinor, alive and well at age 94.  The family had abandoned her to a mental institution when she was 23 and the mother of two babies.  Elinor survived 72 years of institutionalization with her wit and musical talent in tact; Elinor still played the piano and sang You Are My Sunshine every night.  I filled my notebook with our quirky and poignant encounters.


Holding my breath, fearing the worst, I sent drafts to everyone mentioned in the new book, The Beauty of What Remains, expecting outrage, condemnation, and icy silence.  What I got was out-and-out encouragement.


There were many ways I could have told the story; I could have ranted about the silence, raged about the way my family abandoned its own, but what was most surprising and the way that Elinor inspired me to tell it, was the connections that were made throughout the searches and the writing, and especially the way the love that had been cut off with the silence flowed back into the family and beyond.


If you’re planning write about secrets, here are a few hard-won suggestions:

  • Head into the silence.
  • If backlash hits keep going and get support.
  • Stay in minimal touch with those whose silence you’re breaking.
  • Let the story unfold.
  • Keep a notebook and write down details, encounters, and your own reactions.
  • Publish the story, hold the book in your two hands and celebrate!


Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Dan Henkel

    Susan, you've led our entire family on a journey of self-discovery, and we're all stronger and wiser for it. I hope your advice and example empower others in their own journeys.

  • Frances A. Rove Writing

    Thank you for your courage, Secrets have such power. Your article and step by step ending is invaluable and inspiring.