Lynne Murray says:
I forget where I read about this method to aid in healing from trauma but it has always seemed to me to be extremely sensible. The formula is: “Tell people about what happened to you. Do it over and over again. Each time you talk about the experience, it will lessen some of the pain.” A friend who had suffered a childhood of abuse and neglect told me that when he read Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s memoir of a childhood at the mercy of her adoptive mother, movie star, Joan Crawford, he recognized a moment akin to one he went through as a child when he decided, “I will survive this—and escape it.”
I thought about abuse, escape, memoir and healing as I read Linda Wisniewski’s beautifully written memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace With Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage. This autobiography is justifiably compared with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, one of the best-known memoirs of the last twenty years, although Wisniewski describes emotional rather than physical starvation and emotional chill rather than the literal fear of freezing to death that McCourt endured.
A Time Magazine article describes Frank McCourt’s young life:
What kept McCourt alive then, and would make him as a writer, was his humor and his love of words. “In reality, our life was worse than Frank wrote,” said McCourt’s brother….Malachy. “Insane outbreaks of laughter saved us.” McCourt once said that as a child he dreamed of being a prison inmate in the U.S., for the food and warmth. Instead he became a hospital inmate: he caught typhoid at age 10 and spent three months well fed in a well-heated hospital. The hospital also had a well-stocked library. It was there that he read his first lines of Shakespeare and began a lifetime as a devoted reader.
For Wisniewski, her curved spine became a visible manifestation of a childhood where she could only silently absorb the verbal abuse of a hostile father and the criticism of her distant, self-effacing mother. Wisniewski felt devalued long before the scoliosis diagnosis at 13 classified her as damaged and unworthy.
I have moved through my life off kilter. My left side curves inward. On my right, I have no waist; my right side goes straight up and down. My left shoulder is lower than my right, and my left hip is higher than the right hip. I am about two inches shorter than I would be if I didn’t have scoliosis, a side-to-side curvature of the spine. When I sit, I often feel like I am about to tip over to the left. My spine is curved into a C-shape between my shoulder blades so that no matter how straight I stand, I look like I am slouching.
When I grew up in the 1950s, for some reason I have yet to understand, “having good posture” was a big deal. Perhaps because posture was so often discussed by the nuns who taught at my school, I thought that “good posture” was like having “good morals.” I stood as tall as I could, but by the time I was in eighth grade, my back was visibly curved.
I felt inadequate and even guilty. I thought, surely, if I tried hard enough, I’d be able to stand up straight. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Don’t slouch, Linda.”
As the best memoirs do, Wisniewski uses evocative details to transport the reader to the pleasures of playing on sidewalks in the 1950s upstate New York neighborhood where she grew up. Her family’s Polish, Catholic culture encouraged embracing, even inviting pain and suffering. I couldn’t help but think that her experience must have been more difficult to transcend because the abuse was internalized.
As a grown woman with educational and personal accomplishments her mother could never have understood, let alone attempted, Wisniewski describes finding physical communion with the buried creativity her mother was never able to express in the act of sewing:
The feel of the tissue paper pattern, the placement of the pins attaching it to the fabric just the way I watched her do it. The chop, chop of the scissors taking me back to the kitchen table that was her cutting board.
Using the broken yardstick she inherited from her mother, now carefully mended. “The yardstick resembles my life; it has broken parts. Nothing has been a straight line from here to there.”
In recent years the internet has helped foster a kind of grassroots self-healing movement of memoir writers, from freeform groups such as story circles to the more formal and/or commercial. Memoir coach Jerry Waxler reviews Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a harrowing description of a violent rape that police told her she was “lucky” to have survived, seeing as how earlier victims were murdered and dismembered. Waxler points out the value of writing in making sense of traumatic events.
Writing breaks down the walls that isolate you from others and it also breaks down the walls that separate you from your own experience. So by telling your story, even about something that makes no sense, in a way the story itself makes it feel more organized, more like it fits in with the way the world works. Look to the storytelling to incorporate these events into your life and keep going.
I firmly believe that writing about our lives is therapeutic in and of itself. Memoir writing provides a framework for going over disturbing life events without being overwhelmed by them.