Regan Burke: Political Memoir Reveals Personal Triumphs And Struggles
A renowned campaign strategist for Bill Clinton reveals her own personal triumphs and demons in a new memoir.
Tuesday, Nov. 24, 4 p.m. CT
A few years ago I finally transitioned away from chronic pain through bibliotherapy. Dr. John Stracks, the CEO of my Bibliotherapy Transition Team, introduced me to the writing-for-healing workbook, Unlearn Your Pain.
One of the book’s first lessons asked me if I had any particularly stressful or traumatic events in my childhood. If I answered yes to that little ditty, my next assignment was to describe any of the following: deaths, moves, taunting, teasing, emotional or physical abuse, changes in schools, or changes in family situations.
Every time I completed a paragraph, pain slipped away not only from the sciatica ripping down my leg but also from the stenosis at the base of my backbone that had been squeezing the life out of the nerves in my spinal canal. The mysterious agony of fibromyalgia began to subside as well.
I was writing away my pain.
The next part of my transition team came with a memoir writing group. On my first day I came with no writing of my own and listened to stories about the family cat, road trips to the West and baking cookies with Grandma. My stories were about an alcoholic family that turned out alcoholic children. I had no fond memories of family vacations or beloved family pets. I slid out of that classroom into the endless dark corridor. A class member caught up to me and urged me to come back the following week.
“I can’t write like that,” I said, “my writing is too dark.”
“Everyone has their own story to tell. Come back and tell yours.”
And so I did. My classmates read their written stories out loud. I heard my words fall loosely on the table in front of me. Shame kept me from lifting them up and out. Pain relief continued at a more dramatic pace as I wrote and shared stories of my distressed childhood. A year or so in, my words managed to reach across the table to the writing teacher, then to Veronica, then down one side of the table and up the other. I created my own blog and posted my weekly writing for public view. Public! Readers nurtured me with their comments, wanting more. More!
“You should write a book,” friends said.
“A book? Never thought of it,” I said.
And then I did.
Writing teacher Beth Finke included one of my stories in her memoir, Writing Out Loud. When I submitted a writing sample to Tortoise Books, publisher Jerry Brennan emailed, “I heard you read your story from Beth Finke’s book at the Book Cellar. Send me your manuscript.”
Manuscript? I had written 500 words a week for four years but I didn’t have a manuscript. Beth told me to find a big room, spread all my stories out, then pick them up one by one in chronological order and number them.
“Then you’ll have a manuscript,” she said.
From Jerry Brennan’s edits, I revised, revised, revised. Each sentence brought its own ache. This twenty-five-year old physical torment transitioned to an end with the final chapter of In That Number.
I have enormous gratitude for all those beautiful and gracious souls in my transition team.
After my first few writing sessions in Beth Finke’s Memoir Writing Class, I asked her why there weren’t more stories about alcoholism. It seemed I was the only one reporting on this particular form of family madness in our weekly writing group. Beth assured me that alcoholism has been a common theme in several of her memoir writing classes over the years.
Ok, so that helped, to know that I’m not the only one. As an alcoholic myself who grew up with two alcoholic parents, I always start from a position of feeling like I don’t belong, like I’m too different to belong. The stigma of alcoholism and addiction doesn’t help. I’ve been sober for 42 years and I still feel like it’s a shameful condition, even after years of knowing it’s a medical condition, a mind-body disease.
Last week Beth sent me an essay by author Leslie Schwartz whose latest memoir is about her relapse and jail time. She writes, “In my case, addiction and the mental illness that
follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time.”
Leslie spent her 37-day jail time immersed in reading the work of fellow writers who suffered from alcoholism/addiction (Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff). She studied the recent research about the link between mental illness and creativity by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison. Plenty has been written about expressive writing as a form of release from mood disorders—James Pennebaker, Dr. Howard Schubiner and others. Indeed, the Fourth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps suggests writing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” as a way to shake the yoke of guilt and shame. It works. After writing a few Fourth Steps, I continue to write memoirs to be free from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia as prescribed by Chicago doctor John Stracks. It works for that too.
I love that Leslie Schwartz uses the words “addiction” and “mental illness” interchangeability in her essay. “When I write, I feel sane,” she writes. “When I don’t write, I am lost.”
We desperately need addiction/alcoholism and mental illness to be thought of in new ways. Senator Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick (the one who very publicly slammed his car into the U. S. Capitol under the influence), founded the Kennedy Forum in an effort to wipe out the stigma of alcoholism and mental health. By promoting the medical evidence verifying that alcoholism/addiction/mental illness are brain disorders, the Kennedy Forum hopes to reduce the shame induced by the stigma that keeps alcoholics/addicts from getting help, keeps teens from telling their parents, keeps employees from using their medical insurance for rehab. I’ve been sober since 1976 and it seems to me that the stigma is worse than it was 40 years ago. How do we break this? One way is for people in recovery programs like AA to stop acting like they are in a secret society and to open their meetings to those who are simply searching for information on how it works. Another way is for writers like Leslie Schwartz, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr and Brene Brown to keep writing their stories so people like me feel free to write ours.