Writing Family Secrets

When I began memoir writing I had no intention of chronicling my family’s drinking, or mine, for that matter. I wrote because my new doctor led a program in expressive writing. He said writing would cure my chronic pain. He was the last stop on an exhaustive trip that was going nowhere, so I took a chance. He was right.

As a kid, I was singled out to write the all-school letters; thank you notes to the local bakery for Christmas cookies and expressions of sympathy to teachers who had a death in the family. Once I wrote a note in French to the French teacher congratulating her on retirement. Every year I’d write an official letter to the president inviting him to visit our school.

When my sixth-grade class was assigned to write about our Thanksgiving vacation, I wrote that my family’s leftovers were wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the refrigerator where they’d stay until the smell got so bad someone would finally throw out the rotten food. Until I retired, that was the only time I wrote anything revealing about my family.

But looking back now, I’m starting to understand why so much of my memoir-writing includes stories about alcoholism. Bonnie Carlson, author of the novel Radical Acceptance, says retirement liberated her to be open about her recovery from alcoholism; she didn’t have to worry about the stigma at work.The stigma of alcoholism at work never worried me, but retirement did free me to write fearlessly about consequential decisions resulting from alcoholism and mental illness. Shame broke like a water balloon all over my writing, and dissipated into my own edited words. I’ve dared readers to accept the chaos of my family’s alcoholic life. More than that, I’ve added my own voice to the truth-telling writers of recovery whose stories help explode the stigma.

Frank McCourt’s powerful language forces us to relive his impoverished and loveless childhood in Angela’s Ashes. It’s quite a feat to write about his alcoholic father with forgiving humor. Pete Hamill in A Drinking Life, Mary Carr in The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life all give us stories of violent alcoholic behavior that make me wonder how they ever managed to get out alive, much less write about it.

“Write what you know” is attributed to Mark Twain. But I could quote all my school teachers saying it. I’ve always known it doesn’t mean to write descriptions of my school 9EC7F9F3-1257-4DA2-9AD7-FD17975A7022_4_5005_croom or home or even all the gory details about my parent’s drinking. It means to write that I wished my mother was more like I-Love-Lucy or that on most mornings I put my finger under her nose to test for life.

Writing like that was forbidden when I was a child, as were any vocal or facial expressions of the fear, the self-pity, the distress. Those emotions settled in my soft tissue and came out to physically torment me in my fifties.

James W. Pennebaker, the pioneer of writing therapy, hitches recovery from the health aftershocks of secrets to expressive writing. Expressive writing reveals feelings through events, memories, objects, or people. It’s not so much what happened as how you feel about what happened or is happening. It’s that all-important question we hate to hear from a therapist, “how did that make you feel?”

Eyeballing your feelings in your own writing can be unpredictably gut punching. It’s a fast-acting treatment though, this bibiliotherapy, a painkiller and a healer.