Sunday, April 8, 2012

Haunted by the Ghosts of Memory: Is Memoir Writing Good Therapy?

Photo by Harmony and Home

Can writing a memoir actually help heal a painful past? Is it therapeutic, or does it simply provoke bitter memories and angry ghosts that are better left alone? Like an explorer returning exhausted but triumphant from a gruelling journey, full of information about the terrain she’s traversed, I can assure you that the psychic knowledge that results from memoir writing is well worth the effort.

But there is a catch. If you want your writing to come alive, you'll need to revisit the raw trauma of the original pain, and risk being seared and burned by it once more.

To write a memoir that I considered worthwhile, I had to relive painful experiences and periods. I was aiming for a sensual, immediate tone that strongly evoked each episode (I’m not saying I achieved that – just that I tried). So I plunged myself back into each stinging memory, and consciously tried to recall exactly how it felt to be in that situation at the time.

Not an exercise for the fainthearted.

That goes for particular episodes. But what happens when you’re writing about a significant period of your life for a matter of weeks and even months? When I was 20 I moved into a share house in the inner-city suburb of Fitzroy that was opposite an estate of high-rise public housing flats. This was way before Fitzroy’s gentrification and the culture shock was immense, not only in regard to the geography but to the lifestyles of my lefty housemates. I soon developed a crush on one of them, and the intensity of those feelings is inseparable from the bohemian romanticism of the shabby iron-laced terrace we inhabited.

While I was writing the scenes set in my Fitzroy abode, I felt haunted. I was living in two eras at once, the present and the early 1980s, and two places at once, the terrace house and my current flat. The contrast between my past and present lifestyle, combined with strong feelings of connectedness with people I hadn’t seen for more than 25 years, was profoundly disorientating. I was surrounded by ghosts who would not let me go. Perhaps – and here’s the kicker – I was releasing feelings for them that I hadn’t felt secure enough to fully experience (let alone express)  at the time.

When you’re going through something like that it can feel as if it will never end. You wonder if you’ll be permanently trapped in an emotional time warp. But it does pass. Not that the feelings don’t come up again every now and again – I believe now that if a traumatic experience is sufficiently intense it creates its own momentum in the psyche, and complete freedom from it may never be possible. But for me at least the intensity is now far less, and I’m a freer human being through having released those pent-up emotions.

Not only that, but in a strange way you may gain a stronger relationship with yourself. I know myself better now. I’m Adrienne McGill who experienced certain very human emotions at a particular time, not simply Adrienne McGill who went into meltdown when she moved out of home for the first time. I’ve become better acquainted with the non-pathological aspects of my younger self; it’s like meeting a scary stranger who is much less frightening once you get to know them.

Memoir writing and forgiveness

Sometimes writing the memoir involved not just reliving old emotions, but experiencing difficult new ones. A memoir forces you to examine your personal journey with a keen and bloodless eye. While you're working out what really happened, no one can be allowed to get off the hook.

So, not the most forgiving daughter at the best of times, I was faced with powerful anger as I put together the jigsaw puzzle picture of my life. The mistakes my parents made were routine rather than extreme, but they sometimes had profound effects. For much of the time of writing I was furious with both of them in a way I hadn’t been before, but particularly so with my mother.

But understanding something cognitively ultimately allows you to move beyond it. Discovering something new about the reasons for a pathology makes you realise that your brain is much more adaptable and creative than you'd given it credit for. You begin to perceive the perverse rationality of your dysfunction, to view it as a logical reaction to circumstances. Aha you say, this is why I closed up, or this is why I acted out. You gain more compassion for yourself.

You may also end up with compassion for the authority figures that once oppressed you. It took me a long time to escape from the deep well of anger for my mother that I was thrown into. I was angry with her even before I started writing the memoir and, in the way described above, my anger intensified while writing it. I’ll never completely lose the anger, but it has now substantially subsided.

This is partly because however egregious my mum’s perceived failures, writing about her has forced me to see her as a separate human being with a life independent of me, and her own story of parental failure. (Making me less narcissistic in the process.)

But it’s also because I now own my own story. I’ve set it out, and my mother’s an important part of it, and I’ve told what I believe to be the truth about our relationship. I’m somehow freed by the fact that the story of me and her is now on the public record. And this is not dependent on some kind of public naming and shaming – it’s all been done very discreetly.

This greater ability to distinguish my identity from hers makes it possible for me to go forward with the understanding and knowledge that I don’t have to live my life as an endless response to our story and relationship. Instead, I can live my life with courage, stretching myself and fulfilling the potential of the creativity that was buried so long under neurosis.

Publishing a book can give you a stronger sense of self regardless of whether it's about your own life. Completing my first book, which was about shopping, and having it out in the public realm helped me start to separate from my family. The memoir has boosted this process simply by being another book, but its subject matter has also helped to free me from the psychoanalytic aspects of my background. I’m now an author with my name on the cover of three books (even if it’s a pseudonym for two of them). I can begin to stop hoping that my family will one day be what I want them to be, and instead get on with being the person that I am.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like You Must Remember This.

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