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.

26 thoughts on “Why write a memoir?”

  1. I can tell from what you wrote that there’s a lot more to say and I’m interested in reading more to fill in the blanks. There were a lot of parts that stood out to me:

    “I am the end of a bloodline, with basically no one living who remembers my life.”
    –This sentence seemed really poignant to me and this is a very important reason to write, even if it’s just for posterity.

    “It is difficult to write about horrible things only to have some attack saying those things are clearly not real, not true, delusions. ”
    –People are so in denial about horrible things, I just can’t with them. I hope their delusion doesn’t affect you too much. I guess they are able to just ignore anything bad that happens to them or think ignoring something means it doesn’t continue to exist.

    “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.”
    –These are great reasons to write more!

    “I can’t compare my suffering to others, that no one is worse off than anyone else (false), and other whining.”
    –Let’s say someone IS suffering more than you, it doesn’t affect your pain and that you are hurting. Your feelings and hurt are still just as valid and it’s not a game to see who’s worse off. I didn’t think you were comparing your suffering to anyone else’s from your entry.

    “Not just lonely but seemingly punished over and over for not belonging, not being right, being a problem…..I did not have any concept of what life was supposed to look like”
    –I just really relate to both of these statements. They’re general enough for others to relate to as well.

    “..experimentally sticking a key into a power outlet”
    –I did that too and got electrocuted!

    Thanks for letting me read and comment!

    1. Hey Jay, glad I could finally read this. I relate so very much to a good portion if what you’ve written so far. The isolation, the dysfunctional parent pushing their crap onto you, making you feel needy, wrong. It’s despicable how people can treat their children. I have three siblings, but they had a very different experience than me, so that’s been an issue. I’m the outcast, the problem, the burden. What I really am is a reminder, but nobody likes that 😉

      1. It’s also hard that for me, I want to love my parents, want to not have ever turned them into monsters. I’ve met people in support groups who have this attitude of, oh, fuck the toxic terrible people who raised you. But I don’t see how one could ever feel whole with that perspective. Especially when you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Hurt people hurt people, and no one intends to be a force of destruction to their loved ones.

          1. I would have assumed it does that by default. I’m not sure, I may need to investigate options for my blog soon.

        1. I think it’s hard for some people to understand how you could love someone (whether it’s a spouse, a parent, etc), when they’ve so clearly mistreated you. I also think it’s ok to admit that you loved your parents despite the hurt that they caused you. While it doesn’t excuse what they did, they were your parents and a huge part of your life. It’s very easy for others to dismiss it as toxic behaviour and say well “screw them”, but it’s not their parents or their life. I’m sure that all you wanted was to be loved and love them in return. For that, there is zero shame. ❤️

          1. I don’t have any shame about loving them. However my being is filled with shame for being the bad object whose parents did not act as parents should. In the broad sense, that sums up every human being I’ve ever met so far, but for me, there is a lot of shame. Like, even being able to tell myself, as I did, that things my mother told me or blamed me for were obviously the result of her own unexamined wounds, I still cannot seem to act in the world as if those things were completely false.

            Of course, adding school bullying and later, lost loves and friendships to the list of people who rejected me, sometimes but not always spelling out how I’m terrible, leaves me with this quicksand of a story where the dividing line between when it was all about the unhealthy other vs. when it was about me being terrible becomes very blurry. Cut to 2017 where I unambiguously acted horribly with someone I loved a lot, and ironically some of my confidantes told me I was blaming myself too much… It’s part of why I want to write my story, to untangle it all.

  2. The way that we are treated as children has a huge amount of influence on who we become in our adult life. Parents play such a pivotal role in moulding our sense of self worth and confidence. I know this all too well from my own experiences and from having lived with someone that had extreme ptsd from childhood trauma. I’m sure that at times it must seem completely insurmountable to you. While I can’t entirely relate to everything that you’ve been through, I do have a considerable amount of empathy for you. I don’t have the answers, but you know where to find me if you want and/or need a shoulder.

    1. Thanks Muriel. I hope I can continue to share the saga, and gain readers. It’s therapeutic to tell the story, but scary AF since I have a lifetime of my needs being invalidated, dismissed, or abandoned. Lost most of my friends in recent years in my darkest hour and so it helps so so much to have people giving any sort of positive feedback for my sharing a dark story.

  3. I think it’s brave and important for you to sort out your life story and share it with others. I tend to think to leave my past in the past because most of my memories are fuzzy and I don’t need them haunting me. What stuck out for me the most so far was when your mother blamed you for her wanting to kill herself. That is an experience that I believe forever impacted you. When I was 7 years old my mom was in a psychosis and ranting and babbling and laughing and my dad said to me “do you see this, so you see how your mother is? That’s your fault”. I distinctly remember my 7 year old brain saying, “oh, so this is how your life is going to be.” That changed me completely as a person at such an impressionable age. So my heart is sad for you that you lived through something similar. I hope for those miracles we talk about that you can process and heal from your hurtful past. Peace and hugs to you.

    1. Thanks Sarah. Yes I too remember as I came online at age 6, and these things were happening, feeling very insecure. This world is not safe and I better be careful about what I ask for. Of the many messages I’ve gotten over the years when sharing any aspect of my childhood, when people will say “oh, you can’t let what others say or do tell you who you are” or “it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react” — I would think about my situation from the earliest days, where I have no one, no extended family, no good parent to balance the scary one, no siblings, am moving about once a year, there is just this one person in charge of EVERYTHING about my existence, and she’s telling me I’m a pain because I’m so hard to raise she’s gonna end it all. And I think even then I was at least aware enough to recognize, my mom has problems, and is blaming me for them. Even with that awareness, even as a child, years later I would still feel this insecurity about the world, fear of being abandoned if I ask for too much, and a long history of sacrificing my own needs to keep sometimes abusive or uncaring people in my life. What are parents say and do, and the messages they give us, can persist forever even when we fully understand they were wrong.

  4. Im having a second bash at making porridge without burning it, and so I’ll make this brief. imo your story is fascinating, well told, and heart breaking. And also, a story which, some specific details aside, many folk will relate to. It is 100% worth telling and making widely available.
    On a more personal note, your mum blamed you for things that weren’t your fault and in some cases appear to have been in her head. She, and consequently others, labelled you as mentally ill and difficult, when it sounds like it was she who had severe mental illness and was perhaps unwittingly abusive. How your mum treats you, and represents you, especially when you are very young, can imprint on your mind and self worth in a way which seems idelible. But, imo, it is not and you have already gone a long way to healing. Tc man. Bob.

    1. Thanks Bob. Yes I think she took her traumatized, borderline, narcissist problems and put them into me. As the story of my life unfolds there will be ways that I experience true mental illness — depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis. But having lived it and studied psychology quite a bit I would say my problems all stemmed from this upbringing. But yes I was made the scapegoat by both parents and ultimately my mom’s cousins who would be my only remaining family but they disowned me when she died, telling me I was crazy. I want to make sense of it all.

  5. You are brave to sort it all out on the page. I have a memoir in the making. But I haven’t shared it yet. Getting to a place where my own story makes sense to me is one of my goals as well. Keep at it!

    1. Thanks Raven. It isn’t easy. I feel silent judging and ignoring from people who think you should not share negative stories.

  6. Well, like i pointed out before, expectations and the intent of others can shape our reality more than physical actions do. I hope u can see that you had nothing to do with the choices ur parents made for themselves. Yes, raising kids is hard. But, thats the case everywhere. Someone once told me that many people make the mistake of expecting kids to be an extension of themselves. The truth is, they become a responsibility, and in parenting u more often become a slave to this duty. Its not supposed to be the other way around where the kid has to contribute to the lives of the parents. Your dad didn’t help by deflecting what was happening thru meaningless comments. The truth is he didn’t care about ur mom. His denial was the easiest way to absolve his responsibility about it to you.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing. Even though some sections made me tremble as those early childhood traumas send ripples long into our adulthood, it is good to recognise and aknowledge things how they were and for what they are. It is hard that you were left completly alone after your mom died and not having anyone around who has seen what you have been through in your life. Just for that please keep on writing, some of us will find similarities of our experiences in your story and accept it with you. You are excellent writer by the way. The abandondoment, fear of it, and isolation is something I have struggled with most of my life and can relate. Those things that happened to us very early on seem to have made the deepest programs in us how we behave and relate in this world. As always, wishing you best and that you finish this memoir.

    1. Thanks Sedam 🙂 And thanks for being one of like two people to leave your actual name.. I think?

      It is encouraging when others share how they can relate. I think that is ultimately what I’m seeking, is the shared humanity. Decades of being told I was good at math or writing or art or music but also decades of people saying what the hell is wrong with you I’m out of here… People who rarely knew much if any of my story. And I continue to ask myself, what *is* wrong with me?

      Thanks for reading and compliments on the writing. Hope you may read more.

  8. I can relate, just like many others will Jay, to your important story. Your writing “voice” is engaging and I like your book/blog title. I hope you have or soon find good support to help you keep on writing (like a mentor or a writing group) and also good therapy support so the emotional triggering of the memoir writing process will become very satisfying and cathartic and not too painful. I’m not great navigating the on-line world and I cannot keep up with my email account (900+ unread makes it practically impossible to find things) due to disability, so I may not see your future blog segments or any reply if you have one. But know that you have one more reader out there who’s rooting for the success of your writing project. May you feel well and prosper 🙂

    1. Thanks Ariana. Yes I can write, and in fact can write a lot better than these posts, but am intentionally writing and not editing, as I need to cover a lot of ground. A year ago it was just for me and easier to get away with this, and I set goal of getting out 2000 pages before beginning to edit. With showing people the blog now I will have to balance need to get pages out with need to not be incredibly tedious and long-winded.

      I sort of have emotional supports — a group online and one offline that I have been intermittent with. I don’t really have great emotional grounding and writing this stuff is triggering a lot. But readers help a lot, cheering it on. And yeah my inbox is ridiculous, I’m also on disability and have trouble keeping up with anything, I hear you.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  9. I can relate on many levels to your story-my mother also was suicidal-attempted many times-dad was in denial-had to keep it secret when mom went in for treatment. We has to say mom was on holiday. Having no validation for the reality that happens in a home is crushing and confusing to a child. Being blamed is something we seem to never get free of.

    Kudos to you for writing your memoirs. It is important to express your feelings, experiences, and life changing events. Keep writing as it is a healing thing to do. Much love to you. Take care.

    1. Thanks for reading MyLife. I’m sorry you went through those things. Yes it is a compounding thing to both have such traumatic/scary events and then never be able to talk about it to anyone out of shame. Something I also have not yet written about is that my parents were also good people, who I loved. It can be hard to reconcile the good and the bad when a parent or caregiver caused a lot of harm to us. For ourselves and in telling anyone else about our childhood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *