Why write a memoir?

I’ve not written anything in eight months. Recently I was reflecting on why it’s so hard to write anything of my story, and thought I’d write about that. In past I would usually begin writing each day with some freewriting a la Peter Elbow. Since it’s been so long I will try a slightly focused but unedited approach here. Bear with me…

So why write a memoir? Well for any reader other than myself, I have thought that surviving traumas, and childhood dysfunctional family stuff, has intrinsic interest to so many people. In fact a few therapists have told me I must write my story for this reason. I had a very hard upbringing and events later as an adult were terribly traumatic. Technically I have survived, as I’m writing this. However I’ve often had doubts about the value of a story that, currently, ends with a broken person, living in isolation on disability income. Why would anyone be inspired by such a story? Well, many have told me it is inspiring, who have heard much of it. I have my doubts.

Another reason to write my story is that I am the end of a bloodline, with basically no one living who remembers my life. And despite much hardship and struggle, it’s been a fascinating life. This too, some have told me, I should write as it is amazing or compelling. And this too has some problematic aspects. Some of my story feels so unique, which in turn is wrapped up in awful feelings of what psychologists call “terminal uniqueness”, that it is scary to imagine writing a story that no one can relate to. Alienation and osctracizion have been recurrent themes of my whole life. Furthermore, some of the traumatic events of my adult life are (understandably) met with incredulity by at least half the people who have ever heard them, and can produce even very angry reactions for their implications about the world we live in. It is difficult to write about horrible things only to have some attack saying those things are clearly not real, not true, delusions. Compounded with the problem that there are those who would prefer such things not be reported to the public. I don’t know how and when to draw the line and suppress such aspects of my story from a full account of my life.

Finally I’ve wanted to write my story since I anticipate being alone in my final years, having no family left and feeling grim prospects for finding a partner, and so this whole life I’ve lead exists solely in my own brain. At times I’ve been driven to write the story so I myself could make sense of it all. Maybe be able to hand the story to someone someday who would care about me personally.

At any rate I want to continue telling my story. So far it consists of 30 or so blog postings, most of which are private, many of which are not particularly organized. Some days I’ll pick a chapter of my life, or a place or a theme, and spew everything that comes to mind, just get it down. Other days I write with more purpose. The goal is to edit in the future, write now. I make posts public months later when I’ve had chance to think about what I’m revealing and or pick the more coherent writing.

Today I want to outline the story of who I am and why my story is interesting. I will see as I go how successful I am… In general, readers are very welcome, and comments, even just to say you have read, are also welcome.

One other note: I’ve had people in support group settings on occasion over the last few years tell me, sometimes with some venom, that I can’t compare my suffering to others, that no one is worse off than anyone else (false), and other whining. I will point out that I don’t believe I am anywhere in my writings commenting, at all, on what anyone else has been through, or saying my story is worse than X’s story. I do believe my story has been pretty fucking hard, and far worse than average. And I recognize others have gone through worse things. Some have recovered, some have not. I only share what for me has been a very difficult journey.


So…

One of the most salient aspects of my life and identity was how alone I grew up. Not just lonely but seemingly punished over and over for not belonging, not being right, being a problem.

My parents both grew up in Iowa, born during WWII. As I understand the story, they attended high school together, my dad persuaded my mom to go to college — she came from parents who had not been college educated — and they went together to Carleton College. Then both went on to graduate school at Cornell, and, again as I understand it, began to date. They got married I guess after my dad had completed his PhD in English, and my mother was in her PhD program. They had me, born in Ithaca, NY, and then — get this — they separated immediately. My dad ran off with one of his grad students, and moved to central Massachusetts to teach at Holy Cross College, leaving my mother, a single child herself, to take care of a newborn baby alone while, amazingly, finishing a PhD in English herself.

So I was born the only child of an only child single mom, a good thousand miles from any extended family. My mother completed her degree and moved us to Cambridge, MA, reasoning that it would be better to be an hour’s drive from her son’s father than a 3 hour drive. I would grow up seeing my father alternate weekends as a small child, later shifting to seeing him for the summer. Because his new wife landed a job teaching at the University of Georgia, this meant my flying back and forth, spending summers in Athens, GA, and the school year in various places as my mother continually relocated us. It was a kaleidoscopic existence, where no one and nothing in my life was connected to anyone else, and the setting was constantly changing.

Being so young, I did not have any concept of what life was supposed to look like, and really it would not be until my late 20s at earliest that I really started understanding more clearly that I came from dysfunction. Which may seem crazy to others when I describe my earliest memories.

I have some flashes of memory before age 6 — getting my corduroys caught on a nail on a rocking horse; experimentally sticking a key into a power outlet; playing with friends at the Harvard Law Daycare center at age 5, making marble runs with blocks and climbing the rope netting in the playground there, going to Children’s Museum with my old friend C, and sitting in the back of a big yellow 70s car of some sort. But my first vivid memories came at age 6, when my mom began to threaten suicide to me.

It was over a period of some months. She would tell me that it was impossible raising me, and that if I didn’t get easier to raise, she would kill herself. I think that even though I didn’t understand the world or know what I should be expecting, I recognized that this threat implied my own death too, since I was 100% dependent on her to bring home the food and put a roof over our head. I had not experienced family around me and was in first grade, just meeting classmates for the very first time, didn’t know many people where we lived. There’s for some reason one incident that got burned into my memory more than the ongoing threat. She had come home late as she often did — her first job out of the PhD was as the assistant to the President of Harvard University, and I was a literal latchkey kid. I’d play outside with neighborhood kids until sundown, then sort of drift home as the other kids went in for dinner, and watch TV until mom could make us dinner at 7 or 8.

So one night I was really starving and it was dark out and she was home making some dinner and I came into the kitchen to ask if I could have a cookie. She was I guess chopping onions, and so was crying onion tears, and she swung around with this big cutting knife in her hand and angrily said “I’ll do it!! Some mothers do, you know!!” The fact that she didn’t need to spell out that she meant suicide, that there was now a recurrent established context for this threat, says a lot. I ran into my room and locked the door, if memory can be trusted, and stayed there all night without dinner. Or a cookie.

This was a very low point in my own life, and sadly is the earliest time I can remember being alive. Though I would come to experience many equally or more traumatic things over the years, this is how my experience of my own story began. In a little apartment on the second story of a duplex in Cambridge, MA, being told that my needs were a terrible burden, that I would be killed if I didn’t stop having needs, and that there was no one I could turn to for help or guidance.

I remember that year asking my dad, in his condo in Boylston, MA, dad, is mom going to kill herself? He chuckled as he replied “What? No, why would you think that?” “Well, she told me she’s going to.” He turned away and walked down the staircase as he said, “I’m sure she was just kidding.”

So I had terror over here, and apparent indifference over there. Completely absent was anyone saying that there was any problem other than myself. I was the terrible problem.


A child psychologist around this time tried to get my mother to come to therapy with him. I remember colored toys and puzzles in his office, and just this vague memory of him saying he thought my mom needed to be in therapy. She fired him and took me to someone else. This pattern of insisting I was the one needing therapy continued for the next 35 years, though she did eventually see someone herself. She told me in those later years she had also taken some sort of course or group on how to handle being the parent to a child with mental illness.


Second grade continued another pattern that would come to define my life, which was starting over constantly. I had gone from the daycare to the new school for first grade, and then my mother switched me into another school district, in Belmont, so that I could be watched in the afternoons by a friend of hers who looked after many neighborhood kids. That friend and their family were friends of my mother and me for many many years to come — we’d typically spend Thanksgiving with them, and I got to know their oldest son a bit and reconnected over the years with him. They were my closest contact, maybe only contact ever, with a truly functional, loving family. I was a bit alienated hanging there after school as the B children were all hyperatheletic and loved playing softball and kickball and touch football in the backyard whereas I probably preferred Mad magazine or watching Dr. Who myself.

It didn’t matter much as mom met a guy that year; they got close and by Christmas we were spending long weekends at his house in Brookline, with his two kids. By the following year we all moved together to the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he had got a job at Temple University, and my mom got a job with Blue Cross. So grade 3 was my 4th school, BUT, I suddenly had a brother and a sister. Sort of.

But I’m getting into the story, and was meaning to address the question, why is my story worth writing?

I will leave the chronology for now and say that my life went on like this. Relocate, make new friends, say goodbye to friends, relocate. Fly to Georgia each summer (where ironically my father and stepmother kept upgrading their house and so I’d be in a new location each year there too). Though mom never threatened suicide after I was 7, things with her were forever after pretty unstable. I loved her dearly. Loved my dad too. But if I ever asked things like “Why did you threaten suicide?” or “Why do we have to keep moving all the time?” or even “Why did you and dad split up?” I always got answers about how it was because of me. It’s hard raising a kid. I was a finicky baby. It’s expensive to raise a kid, got to go where the jobs are. When she parted ways with Bob in Philly, and I had to say goodbye to brother and sister (though they were never actually married), she told me it was because “Bob couldn’t stand you.”

I never had any safe harbor. I have lots of memories of wandering alone in the woods outside my dad’s various condos and houses. Reading, watching TV — in the summer’s I’d stay up until 5 or 6 am watching TV alone, as I had no local friends at all. I never had family members explaining to me, this is ALL fucked up, and NONE of it is your fault. I never had that message at all. At age 13, a couple months after she had relocated us back to the Boston area, this time to Needham, MA in the western suburbs, my mom once yelled at me “It’s no wonder you have no friends, you are such an asshole!!!” I’d been there two months, and had actually had a going away party in Philly with my 8 or so close friends and very first fledgling girlfriend. In Needham I only had a couple friends, one of whom committed suicide by shotgun during my first year there. I didn’t ever tell mom about him, or for that matter bring any friends home. Home was a warzone and a place of shame.


So that is the gist of my childhood on the emotional front. Upheaval, loss, toxic shaming, interspersed with vacations with dad, which were by comparison heaven. Riding my bike and swimming, seeing movies with him, talking about music and literature. Just no friends, and dad was for some reason constantly grading papers even during summer vacation. I had to learn to entertain myself a lot growing up.

On another front is the story of Genius Boy, and another dimension of lifelong alienation.

I promised disorganized and this was my first posting in 8 months, but I’m hoping it is not a dull starting point to explaining who I am. I welcome readers and comments and encouragement to write more. It’s gotten easier over the years to describe the events of my life without emotional flooding, but the full story is a doozy. Thanks for reading.