Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I’m pretty much an open book. That’s what I thought, too—until I started writing my memoir.
I’ve told my kids many crazy, entertaining stories from my past, but I’ve also told them about some of the bad things that happened to me when I was a teen. Initially, it was my daughter who urged me to write my memoir. I have kept a journal on and off since I was twelve, and I’d published some industry papers in my entrepreneurial years, but never had I considered writing a book, least of all a memoir. Even so, my daughter insisted that my life would make fascinating reading. I thought, how hard can it be?
I began writing and almost immediately felt an urge, like the bearing-down pains of childbirth. This story wanted—needed—to come out, and nothing was going to stop it. As I wrote, I discovered that some memories stay buried for a reason.
I had been working on the memoir for almost a year when, through a series of seemingly unrelated events, I happened upon a developmental editor, Signe Jorgenson, who earned her master’s degree in Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up and where much of my memoir is based. She lived there many years after the wild oil boom that was the backdrop for my eventful childhood and teenage years, but she had heard the stories.
I’d been told that if I wanted to publish my memoir, I should create a few standalone pieces and submit them to magazines and literary journals so I could accumulate some publishing credits and develop an audience for my work. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this, so I sent my editor one of the more difficult and painful chapters, the one about the 1972 rape that I had kept secret for fifteen years, and worked with her to turn it into an essay.
Working on the essay was like therapy, only deeper. I did about five revisions, each of which was met with six or more pages of developmental notes and a corresponding annotated version of my manuscript. I once asked my editor if she had a background in psychotherapy. She didn’t, but because of her training and years of teaching writing, she knew the deeper questions to ask. An example: When I wrote, “I hung my head in shame,” she asked me to write about why I was feeling shame. Strangely enough, the why had never occurred to me. Deeper and deeper I dug, uncovering memories that I had buried in my subconscious for decades.
My meditation practice, spiritual connection, family, and recovery friends were not enough to get me through this process. I quit drinking thirty-three years ago and I don’t take medications. Instead, I ate many, many times when I wasn’t physically hungry while working on this essay. I knew what I was doing as I sat on the couch with a fat bag of chips, temporarily numbing my pain, but I did it anyway. I would tell myself, “It’s OK. You’ll get a handle on the eating and lose the twenty pounds when you finish the essay.”
Memories are funny things. When I began writing about my rape, I still felt the shame and guilt I had felt when I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I was transported back to that time and place, and to that mindset. I would write my memories and then talk them over with my sweet 91-year-old mom, then write some more. Once I had it all on paper, every single detail of that night, from what the room looked like to the way my rapist smelled and the words he used to shame me, my mom walked me through it from an adult’s perspective.
Gradually, I began to see the rape with my grown-up mind and not my fifteen-year-old feelings. I discovered that I had never directed the blame, rage, and judgment toward the perpetrator. I had placed it all on myself, the victim.
I doubt that I will ever mend completely, but the writing and revision processes have allowed me to gain a much deeper level of healing. I’ve also found compassion for the fifteen-year-old girl who was forced to grow up way too fast.
Now I’m at work on another essay, this one about an abduction attempt that occurred just months after I was raped. I’m going through that same process of mining my memories and reconciling my teenage perspective with my adult understanding. But this time, I am not eating my way through it.