Authors: Linda Joy Myers
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Nonfiction, #Personal Memoir, #Retail
Copyright © 2013 by Linda Joy Myers
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The loss of the daughter to the mother,
the mother to the daughter,
is the essential female tragedy.
— Adrienne Rich
Introduction to the New Edition
It’s been seven years since the first edition of
Don’t Call Me Mother
was published. I’ve had time to reflect on the path I took writing it, and to gather the welcome responses from readers who would write to me about how their story was similar to mine, in some cases sharing the poignant stories of the points of connection between us.
During the fifteen years it took me to write
Don’t Call Me Mother
, I journeyed from someone who had a mother but felt like an orphan to someone without a mother who finally felt normal.
The title comes from a vignette in the book that happened when I was twenty years old, when my mother disclosed how she had kept me a secret from her friends in Chicago, where she’d made a new life. It had to be that way, she told me, and I shouldn’t object or complain. From then until her death thirty years later, I tried to make her accept and love me and my children. I wanted her to admit us past her gate of denial. I wanted more than just acknowledgment of us as a family—as
family. I wanted an open-armed embrace. I wanted an apology. I wanted her to tell me she was wrong to have denied me that long. I wanted acceptance. This was a fantasy I harbored as long as she lived, but as with many fantasies, none of this happened. As I see it now, the hope that she might one day accept me probably helped to keep me from drowning in the darkness of her rejection and cruelty.
Over the course of my adult life, I worked through therapy and writing to heal myself and find ways to understand my mother and my maternal grandmother. I spent hours doing research in dusty courthouses, local libraries, and in photo archives and newspapers to find clues about the breach in the mother-daughter line. I learned how to tap the story archives each year when I visited my extended Iowa family to see what morsels of truth might rise to the surface. I cobbled together my origins, and the clues I unearthed helped me to have compassion for all the mothers I knew and all the mothers that came before.
The thing about the dead is that though they can’t speak directly, they whisper to us in dreams, visit in moments of quiet. They never really leave us. I wrote my book believing that if I could come to terms with my confusing and painful multigenerational story that it might heal not just me, but us—all of us, even the dead. I’d read that if we shift our consciousness, if we dig into the depths of our hearts, we can find the light of something better than our own legacy. We can’t change the past, but we can change our relationship to it.
Many of you know my other books about writing as a healing path—
The Power of Memoir
. In these books I share research by Dr. James Pennebaker about how writing helps to heal trauma, and how it positively affects the immune system. In my “Writing as Healing” workshops, which I’ve been leading for thirteen years, I’ve witnessed how writing the truth without censorship and being received without judgment offers moments of insight, healing, and forgiveness. With my participants I’ve shared joys and sorrows, successes and failures, and watched as the room so often echoed with ahas as stories revealed their wisdom.
My own story certainly revealed its wisdom to me, something I discovered as I wrote my book. The struggles that were my life had turned into a “story,” which became objective once it lived in the pages of a book. I had tinkered with the manuscript far too long, and when it became a book, I was finally able to leave it behind and look forward. I started a new chapter of my life when the book was published. I felt less shame, and more confident, and felt I’d banished the dark shadows that had always been part of me because of my silence and shame. This was my story, yet, and I’m more than my story. After the book was published, I got to know other women who shared similar stories of struggling to rise toward the light of resolution and forgiveness. I’m grateful for all the letters about our parallel paths of healing and forgiveness.
In this new edition, I have included an Afterword—the shifts in my life that happened as a result of writing the book. Our stories go on, as do we. When we courageously pursue our healing path, we can be blessed with unforeseen riches. We can also find ourselves living with uncomfortable realities, as I discovered with my Iowa family after my book came out. Not all families are forgiving, and it seems that holding grudges and keeping secrets were part of the heritage of the extended family I’d been a part of.
There came the day when standing behind my truths meant that my illusions about that family, and my hopes to one day be a part of it, had to be left behind. The secret truths I’d left out of the book became larger than the confessions within. I stood by the Mississippi River one day in August three years after the book came out, symbolically bidding the town and the family goodbye. I visited my mother’s grave for the last time and whispered to the corn fields a final farewell. You can read about how this came about in the section of the Afterword called “Truth, Secrets, Denial: After the Memoir.”
Through writing my memoir, I finally had the courage to confront the town and the family where I’d lived when I was five, returning to a place of nightmares, only to find that ordinary people live there—with their own scars.
But the best gift from the memoir—writing it and living itand afterward—was growing a relationship with my daughter, and making us ordinary—two women who love each other and can show it. A mother and a daughter, getting on with life. I’m a grandmother who loves and is loved in return—a first in generations for my family. My goal early in my life was to change the patterns that had wrapped us in darkness for too long. As I hug my grandchildren, I know that I have done that.
Thus I come full circle—through writing, living, and writing some more. The layers of story are deep, they take us into the labyrinth of our hearts, where we can become free of the past. Free to BE.
Don’t Call Me Mother
is both a healing memoir and a spiritual autobiography, a story about pain and transformation, of darkness and light that weaves itself through generations. This book is more than a specific tale of mothers and daughters struggling with the abandonment and undiagnosed mental illness that burned through my family history. It goes beyond abuse and loss, hatred and the holding of grudges. It is a testament to my belief that, under all the hurt and anger, love is buried deep inside each person.
As a child, I could see this love. I also saw that most adults had forgotten how to find and express it. It gave me joy whenever the beauty of this inner treasure shone through in the grown-ups around me, and I felt deep disappointment when some remained stubbornly blind to it.
Now, as a psychotherapist and teacher of memoir writing, I have learned that most humans are on the same path that I traveled—trying to reconnect with the love that was lost, trying to understand how and why things sometimes go terribly wrong.
The gestation period for art and healing can’t be measured in ordinary time. The final draft of this memoir—woven through with dream and fantasy, memory, and personal history—has been “becoming” for fifteen years, ten years, five years, and two years, each version having a rhythm, direction, and resolution of its own.
For months at a time, I would try to ignore my family legacy of undiagnosed mental illness, and generations of mothers leaving daughters, despairing of any hope of resolution—but the story kept tugging at me, refusing to leave me in peace.
At first, I wrote it as fiction, until a fellow workshop member—said, “This is unbelievable. No family acts this way or does these things.”
I replied, “But it’s all true.”
“In fiction,” interjected the teacher, “the literal truth doesn’t matter.”
It was then that I knew the story had to be written as a memoir, a distillation of the truth and the history I had lived and witnessed.
Like so many children, I made a promise to not to be like my parents when I grew up. But the effect of childhood conditioning is often more powerful than will. The archetype of the wounded healer applies: like many people who are raised in dysfunctional homes, I became a therapist. Psychiatrist Alice Miller, a respected authority on childhood trauma, says that therapists are compassionate witnesses who help reweave our brokenness.
After working on the story of my life and my family through art, photography, and poetry for many years, I needed to tell the truths that resided beneath the oil on a canvas and between the lines of a poem. I needed to reveal the story that I had implied, hidden, buried, or alluded to, but never put in a scene for open viewing.
Writing the whole story helped to hasten the healing process that I’d been searching for years in therapy. Wrestling with words and images, putting myself into the story as a character, in the first person, present tense, forced me to integrate the self that I was with the witness I have become. This memoir has given me a profound sense of completion with the past and a wonderful freedom. As I healed through the writing of this book, it too has evolved into a love song to my mother and grandmother, to my great-grandmother and my aunts, my father and grandfather and friends—to all those who saw the spark of love in a little girl and fanned it into flame so I could survive. The women who had once been curses—my eccentric, wild, emotion-wracked mother and grandmother—became my teachers. I believe that the emotional pain I experienced as a child has given me a depth of compassion that benefits my clients and enhances all my relationships.
Two schools of thought exist about memoir. Some people hunger to find out how other real people struggled, lived, and came to terms with difficult circumstances. Others find the idea of a healing memoir too trite or simplistic.
As a therapist, workshop leader, and author of
Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story,
I stand in the former camp. I know that this work—writing down our lives as a journey of healing—is important to us as individuals and to the world. I humbly offer my own story as one of many that cries out to be told.
Even though the details described in this book are about me, aspects of the story are universal. I hope this book gives you hope and comfort, and helps you to know that you are not alone.
Tracks to My Heart
The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, sitting in the last car, watching the landscape move backward, as if erasing my childhood, all those times when she would board the train and leave me aching for her. Now, in my dream, we rub shoulders, her perfume lingering. The old longing wrenches my stomach.
Click-clack, click-clack, the train’s wheels on the track, the language of my past, my future.
Her face is soft. Her wine-dark eyes glance at me with promise, an endearing look that gives me all I ever wanted. The click-clack ticks away the time, the mother time, moons rising and falling as the years fall like petals in a white garden, our body-and-blood song haunting my dreams. Mommy, where are you?
Even as she is with me, she is gone.