Spilling Secrets

The authors of two explosive memoirs talk about the fears that held them back—and why they wrote their books anyway. Could telling your own story be the corrective you need, too?
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Several years ago, after a long overdue visit to my sick mother, it seemed as if anxiety had brought out the worst in me and my family. My brother and I quarreled across her hospital bed; my father and I fought before we even entered her room; my mother and I barely spoke. I returned home upset over a situation that deeply disturbed me.

Being a writer, I immediately took to my keyboard to vent and make sense of the situation. Thirty pages into my work, I realized I was writing a memoir. It occurred to me then that by writing about my family issues, I could fix them—not by making them go away, but by using them as a way to reach out to others and gain some understanding. Not long after, however, I froze. The material wasn't difficult for me to access or acknowledge. But my parents' voices rose up inside of me in the way they had when I was a child, admonishing me not to tell family secrets.

So powerful was their influence over me that I put the memoir away and focused on work that wouldn't upset them. I've written numerous articles, essays and a novel. But my real work, telling the story of my life—the reason I became a writer—remains bottled up inside. And because I didn't spill the family beans or hurt anyone's feelings, I don't know if finishing my book could've been a corrective measure in healing myself or my relationship with my family.

Now, two years after my mother's passing, I deeply regret not having shared my feelings with her. My chance to fix us is gone. But I can write my book for myself and for others who might relate to my experiences.

If you're like me—unable to move past the personal story you want to write—read about two published memoirists who viewed their stories as correctives and put them out into the world. It might just give you the push you need.

TACKLING TABOO "I never planned to sit down and write The Kiss. In many ways, it was a book I planned not to write—one that I was maybe trying to repress," says Kathryn Harrison, novelist and author of a memoir that's garnered equal amounts of acclaim and criticism. Just before writing the book—about her consensual incestuous relationship with her estranged father—she'd spent a year and half on a novel that wasn't coming together.

Harrison told her editor that she wanted to write a nonfiction book about her relationship with her father. Because the editor had published Harrison's autobiographical first novel, she asked if she was sure she wanted to do that.

Harrison was sure. In fact, she'd been trying to write about her father in an essay but felt she was trying to do too much in too short a space. Feeling as if she'd betrayed herself and her story by first writing about the affair as fiction, she had a compelling need to set the record straight. "We live in this world where incest is taboo," she says. "When it happens, we all agree tacitly that it doesn't really happen. There was this young woman who was part of me, who I carried with me, who was betrayed by my silence."

Harrison convinced her editor to publish the memoir. She discarded the novel-in-progress and began the process. "It was exhausting and exciting because I allowed myself to write down something I'd been articulating and revising in my head for years. Having pushed [the experience] aside, there was a relief in psychic pressure in facing it."

The Kiss was the corrective Harrison needed to move forward. No longer blocked in her writing, she moved on to write 11 books, including two more memoirs, Seeking Rapture and The Mother Knot. And while publishing wasn't a cure, she offers this advice to aspiring memoirists: "One of the solaces that art can offer you is the chance to make something out of what's hurt you. You can objectify an experience, put it on paper, craft it and shape it. There's perhaps an illusory control over it. But it is significant."

WHAT'S STOPPING YOU? If you get squeamish at the thought of making the personal public, ask yourself what's stopping you. One of my worst fears was that I would destroy my already fragile relationship with my mother. While not completing my book was a way of protecting myself from the abandonment that I imagined would follow, it was also to protect my mother's feelings.

If you, too, are concerned with outing those who harmed you, the words "bear witness to the truth" might cast a new perspective on your dilemma. In her book Writing as a Way of Healing, author Louise DeSalvo suggests asking yourself who your loyalty is for and what truth you want to bear witness to. I always understood that in remaining silent, my loyalty was to my mother. But the truth I wanted to bear witness to was my reality.

THE UGLY TRUTH While Harrison waded through years of avoidance before she was able to write The Kiss, Koren Zailckas, author of Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, began writing her memoir soon after memories began tugging at her.

Like Harrison, she felt compelled to write her memoir as a corrective. Her story about her alcohol abuse from ages 14 to 22 wasn't written to correct a family story she was keeping bottled up but rather to respond to a story she'd read.

An article published in a national magazine in 2002 about teenage girls and drinking didn't sit right with her. "It said girls were drinking more because we're so liberated and self-confident and bursting with girl power. That wasn't my reason," she says. "I was drinking to mask my lack of self-confidence."

Soon after reading the article, she had a recurring memory of her dad taking her to the hospital when she was 16 to have her stomach pumped. That memory prompted her to write a short story about the experience. She quickly realized, however, there were many more issues to explore than she could cover in the story. That's when she decided to write a book. "It's hard to say the writing process was therapeutic," she says. "I cried a lot. I was very emotional while writing."

She prepared her parents by showing them the manuscript while it was still in galleys. Reading her story was difficult for them, but it did open a dialogue in which her mother told her, "I know what you're going through now, and I get it."

With Smashed having hit the shelves in February 2005, Zailckas is still processing the aftereffects of publication, fielding both positive and negative reviews. "Admitting you're a woman who's had problems with alcohol opens the door to 'You must be promiscuous or lacking in self control,' " she says. "But I also knew that when you write a memoir, you don't just get criticism of the book and the writing. It becomes criticism of you and your character and your perspective."

Most meaningful for her, however, is her experience of giving readings on university campuses. Students put notes in her backpack, relaying their similar experiences. And then there's her book's effect on her. "Any time I have a doubt as to how alcohol has messed up my life," she says, "I have 300 pages to remind me."

After talking to Harrison and Zailckas, I feel pumped up about finishing my memoir.

"You're taking this trauma and turning it into something else, as if it were this great mass of clay that you threw down on a potter's wheel and started pushing around to making something out of it," Harrison says. And therein lies the corrective I've been hoping for.

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