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The Dangers, Delights and Dilemmas of Mother-Daughter Memoirs
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

This guest post is by Deborah Burns author of Saturday's Child.

When the Daughter Holds the Pen

Radioactive questions bounced around like tiny atoms searching for each other, and for answers, all the while I wrote Saturday’s Child.

Mine was a unique mother-daughter relationship, and what started as a love letter to her turned out to actually be all about me. Every memoirist faces a similar set of questions when deciding to write, and one that haunted me was: If my mother had lived to read it, would she be proud of the book I wrote about her, about us?

I’m certain the initial answer would have been Yes. Before even looking between the covers, she would have relished being so remarkable, so loved, that her daughter just had to write a book. My mother basked in the center-stage spotlight, so this memoir would make her famous in a way that she had not been in life. Her legacy would be immortalized.

Once she dove in, however, her other-worldly beautiful features might cloud. No matter how well-intentioned, the memoir reveals aspects of her life that she would not have widely shared. “This was not what I had in mind at all, Debbie. Not at all. And I’m sure you never felt that way, and if you did, you shouldn’t have.”

Publishing twenty-five years after my mother’s death, Saturday’s Child is raw and revealing and clearly told from my point of view. Its scenes are packed with feelings I had never fully expressed to her—some that I never even knew were there—when we co-existed. And now, without any say in the matter, she is completely exposed solely because of my choice to write.

I fretted as I wrote and revised, trying hard to ensure that she was represented fully and well. If she were able to read the finished manuscript—and if we were able to talk, really talk—maybe she would ultimately see that it’s a love story after all, just told from the window I was looking through. But that’s a big IF.

The ever-present dilemma for memoirists—write now or only after everyone has passed on—would make every debut happen very late in life if, like me, you choose the latter. Some of us even try to fictionalize the tale instead (myself included at one point) but then often realize it doesn’t quite work because the gold is in the real story.

So, I remain in awe of the many who have written memoirs while those in question were alive. For one, She Writes Press author Andrea Jarrell wrote the brilliant I’m the One Who Got Away, and is quoted as saying that although the process was “not without hard conversations,” there was also “intense support.”

This boldness to get at the truth in the present moment translates to film as well: Gotham Chopra’s documentary, Decoding Deepak, centers on narcissism and his father, the iconic Deepak Chopra. Emmy-winning Gayle Kirschenbaum’s documentary about forgiveness, Look at Us Now, Mother, focuses on her dysfunctional relationship with her irascible mother. Kudos to them all (although for many, I bet there could be a book about the aftermath).

As I tried to understand just what it is about those who can commit their mother-daughter story to paper while their parent is alive, I found four “tolerance for risk” buckets that seem to be balanced:

  • Awareness—Is the mother cognizant of the situation? How open to discussion and change is she? Are other family members with you or against you?
  • Dysfunction—What is the degree of dysfunction in the present relationship? Could it get any worse? Could it improve?
  • Healing—Does your own recovery supersede the relationship?
  • Motive—Why tell the story now? Would it benefit anyone other than you?

And I’ve had one additional question bouncing around inside since I finished the manuscript. If I had found the wherewithal to write earlier on while my mother was alive, would I have written the same story? The answer is a definite No.

Perhaps I would have written a different story, but not this one. If she had been alive, I would still be inside the dynamics of our story. I needed to let it all unfold, to live without her so I could discover what it was that I needed to know.  

The passage of time brought the perspective to write the story I was born to tell. If I had written while I was still connected to my mother in life, she would have dictated aspects—and I would have let her. She would have steered me one way or another as I sidestepped angering her. It would not have been this honest narrative that was true for me then and now.

If atoms bump up each other forcefully, something dramatic always takes place. For me, the drama could only be revealed later in life. Only now could I find my story by telling hers.

Deborah Burns is the author of “Saturday’s Child,” a memoir about growing up with her unconventional mother that is being published in April 2019. Hailed as a must-read for every daughter who’s ever wondered where her mother ends and she begins, and by Kirkus Reviews as “Devilishly sharp … a masterful balance of psychological excavation and sumptuous description,” this PopSugar Top Ten 2019 debut is available for pre-order now on Amazon and everywhere books are sold.


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