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Sunday, June 1, 2014

I am Subject: On Writing My Memoir

I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project Here is my #iamsubject story.

I forgot her.

I hadn’t intended it. I didn’t mean to forget, or to set her aside. I didn’t plan to consign her to the fog of some distant past, or to the blur of some hazy future. I had no plans for her at all. I didn’t even realize that she was missing. I did not know that she had been forgotten.

About a year ago, this young woman I had banished from my memory returned without warning. I know what prompted it. I found my mother’s obituary online. She had died, without my knowing it, six years before.

My mother was gone. Her insanity and the cruelty to which it drove her would lie forever buried, vanquished by the final failure of her physical being; she would never return. But that young woman would.

She came to me first in the guise of a story. Not a memory, but a story, a short piece of fiction that bore a striking resemblance to a vague recollection I had of her life. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t real. How could it have been?

A short time later, she came again, with another story to tell. To quiet her, once more I put her in fiction. But I didn’t examine her character closely. She couldn’t bear examination, and neither could I. Still, she kept coming. She appeared before me month after month, in story after story, until suddenly I realized that the stories were no longer fiction. They had diverged unexpectedly into other forms, into nonfiction and narratives, essays and vignettes. Short bursts of truth expunged onto paper.

They meant little at first. A memory here, an incident there. Never very personal, and never very real, at least not to me. Events that had indeed transpired, but in another woman’s life. Not in hers, and certainly not in mine.

I continued to write them down nonetheless. They were compelling, these bits and pieces of someone else’s past. Some of them sad. Some of them frightening. But after a time it hurt, telling her stories. It was no longer merely an exercise; I began to feel it, someplace inside. Someplace I had forgotten I still kept inside.

They were horrible stories. A mother’s psychosis. A daughter’s terror. Stories of pain and isolation, of threats and violence. Stories of a woman who needed help and never knew it; stories of a girl who cried for help and never received it. Stories of hunger and homelessness, of the ever-present fear of capture and the deathly slow torture of starvation. Stories of a runaway shivering through cold autumn nights filled with loneliness and desolation. It pained me to tell them so I stopped. I had forgotten that girl and her stories two decades before. What sense was there in bringing them back now?

I put them away. But I could not put her away. She would not go quietly, as she had twenty years before, when, more than anything, I had needed to leave her behind. This time she stayed; this time she waited. Until I was ready to tell the rest of her story.

It happened unexpectedly one spring afternoon, just a few weeks ago, when the sun was shining brightly and a stiff breeze was blowing across the rooftop where I like to do my writing. The last six thousand words, the ones I had been holding back, the ones that told the rest of her story. Not of what had happened to her. That I had told already, the factual version, a clinical history of severe mental illness. No, these words finally revealed how I felt about it, of what it meant to me, deep down in places I don’t care to explore. How sorry I am for her pain. How deeply I feel for her, that young woman whose life took such dreadful and devastating turns. How deeply I feel for me, for having to remember. For how much it hurts me to remember.

I found myself weeping as I typed, weeping over a long-distant past, the words blurring before my eyes as, for the first time in twenty-some years, she came sharply into focus, that girl that used to be me. How hard it is to hurt for someone else. How much harder still, to hurt for yourself.

I had tucked her away into the deepest recesses of my mind, into the darkest corners of my heart, that unfortunate young woman I once knew so well, so intimately, that I could not have distinguished between her and me. I thought I could leave her behind, as I had left my family behind; thought I could forget, get by without her. 

But that day on the rooftop with the sun warming my face and the wind whipping away my tears, I knew this could not be. I had lost a vital piece of myself, of who I am and who I was. I had to reclaim her, to re-forge the connection between her and me, to integrate us, the former she and the current me.

The following day I added the final segment to my memoir. It depicts perhaps the most important part of our journey together because it’s the story of our transition, from her into me. The story of how a dauntless young woman somehow managed to dig her way out of a hole of despair, to hold onto hope in a sea of hopelessness, to fight a battle she had little to no chance of winning. Because what I discovered, when I opened the door to let her back into my life, was that much of my strength lies not with me, but with her. And as I find myself facing a new set of trials I finally understand how much I need her, how firmly I must grasp hold of the young woman I used to be, for she, more than I, has the power to persevere, to overcome, to survive.

Perhaps I do not like the memories she brings. Perhaps I would prefer to allow her to settle quietly into the dust of my personal history, to let her remain forever buried, as my mother is now. But with her inside me I need not shy away from fear, from pain. She copes with fear. She handles pain. She is, and always has been, subject.

I cannot be subject without her. But together, we can be.

* * *

Update: I am thrilled to announce that my essay "On Writing My Memoir" has been selected for inclusion in Diane DeBella's I Am Subject anthology! Please click the image below or visit to learn more.

For more information about my memoir On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter's Memoir of Mental Illness - available November 7th in paperback and audiobook, and available now for Kindle pre-order - please click the image below or visit the book's webpage.


  1. What a touching post. I am very lucky to still have my mother. I am sorry for your loss. Great blog btw! -Joe