I’m a senior in college studying creative writing. I want to write about my life. I’ve been through a lot in my 21 years: an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, self-harm and sexual assault. At my lowest point I was admitted to a psychiatric ward. I have no problem writing about these experiences if sharing my hardships helps someone else, but my parents know none of these things about me. I’ve attended therapy in secret for years, and I’m on anti-depressants.
I know we can’t blame our parents for everything, but the way they treated me is the root cause of many of these problems. My mom’s nagging and distaste for me fueled my eating disorder. I lived in a house where I was never good enough. There was constant screaming about my grades, weight and athletic performances. My parents don’t believe mental illness is a “thing,” but they do believe I’m a drug addict because I smoke weed. We live in a gated community and they are all about appearances. Everything I do is a reflection of them, as they constantly remind me, and I’ve failed them in every way possible.
How do I write about myself when my parents are oblivious to the life I really live? They would be shocked and mortified by my struggles, and livid if I wrote the truth about what they’ve done and said to me. I’m starting my first book right now, an essay collection, but I wonder what the point is if I’ll never be able to publish it for fear of my parents’ reaction. What do I do, Sugars?
Scared Into Silence
Steve Almond: You have gone through a lot in your life, starting with growing up in a home where it sounds like you didn’t feel seen or understood. I think it’s great that you’re trying to sort through these experiences as a writer. What you’re discovering, along the way, is that writing involves a lot of exposure. You have to be willing to break the code of silence that most families enforce, the ways in which we seek to avoid speaking painful and disruptive truths.
Given all you’ve endured without confiding in your parents, that code is clearly quite powerful in your family. But your job, at this point in the process, isn’t to worry about how your folks will react; it’s to tell the truth about what matters to you most deeply. In rushing ahead to anticipate the fallout, you’re actually inhibiting yourself, Scared. Which, if you think about it, is exactly what your parents want you to do: keep up appearances. So rather than worrying about some unknowable future, put your attention where it belongs: on the stories you need to tell right now.
Cheryl Strayed: Steve’s correct: Your concern at this point should be on writing, not publishing, Scared. Publishing your work is likely a good while off. Writing isn’t. So instead of worrying about what your parents will think of your final draft, focus your energy on writing the best first (and second and third and 10th) draft you can. This means writing truthfully, bravely and compassionately. It means being willing to revise your sentences as well as your perceptions. Write the true story of your actual life and see where that leads you, rather than fretting about it and possibly shutting it down before you’ve truly begun. It isn’t that your anxieties are unwarranted — indeed, I’ve never met a memoirist who didn’t grapple with some version of the question you’ve asked us. It’s that you can’t know what precisely you have to be concerned about until you have the work in hand.
SA: One thing that emerges starkly in your letter is that your parents made you feel you had “failed them in every possible way.” It’s only natural that writing about them would offer you a chance to hold them accountable. But I suspect you’ll find it easier to write about your past if you avoid mimicking their harsh judgment and seek, instead, to understand and forgive the ways in which they failed to make you feel loved. Beneath every cruelty is some hidden weakness; beneath every judgment some hidden shame.
In my work, I’ve done best when I seek to hold myself accountable before all others. The central danger should be self-revelation. That doesn’t mean whitewashing the past. On the contrary, it means being ruthlessly and tenderly precise about what happened. Writing grants us permission to be exact about our own lives. (Charles D’Ambrosio’s remarkable essay collection “Loitering” is a master class in that personal precision.) But we should proceed in a spirit of humility, with the awareness that nobody has the franchise on truth, especially when it comes to the complexities and nuances of a troubled family system. Tell the truth, but aim for mercy.
CS: Amen to that, and yet the fact of it is this: Writing about other people is a tricky business. Sometimes no matter how generous or forgiving or self-implicating you are, you have to write something awful about another person because something awful is true. This may be the case for you, Scared, and if so, the only question you must ask yourself is what’s worse — that by writing about people who have made you feel disparaged and erased you enrage them or that you allow them to stop you from writing for fear of their response? The answer to me seems clear. As the great Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” Even when it temporarily feels like it will.
Whether you publish your writing or not, you’ll need to be honest with your parents about the profound sense of sorrow and anger you feel about the way they’ve treated you if you want to continue having a relationship with them. There’s a chance your writing could help you in that cause. Your parents may be initially hurt and angered by what you write. They may disagree with your characterization of them and dispute your interpretation of your childhood. But in reading what you write about your life, they’ll also be given the opportunity to see the way you see yourself and them. Your truth-telling might compel them to reckon with the real you, rather than the person they’ve long wanted to believe was a reflection of them. No matter how they respond, you’ll be O.K., Scared. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be the author of your life. It’s yours. Write it.