Letter to My Father (the Perp)?

You never know. The item that just crossed my virtual desk is a call for submissions to Letters to our Fathers from Daughters: A Pathway to Healing and Hope. Phew! I feel like a large hand has just met the small of my back and given me a push forward. Whether this is an invitation to take a giant step or to fall and scrape my face is not yet clear.

Nonetheless I started roughing out such a letter. In it I tell my father that disturbing memories came to me after he died twelve years ago. Some of the memories carried clear details, while others were unclear yet vivid body-memories. I remember the hushed night-time conversations between him and my mother, stuff like “She’s too young to remember,” “It’s not like she was raped,” and “She’ll be OK, just let it go.” I need to tell him it’s not like that: I wasn’t OK. I did remember.

I need him to know that his incest did affect me big-time and long-term. Sometimes I wish he were still alive, if we could have that ideal conversation survivors long for—the one where he abjectly apologizes and wonders how he can ever make it up to me. Where he acknowledges my pain and the damage he did.

Lacking that conversation, am I ready to proceed in this letter, and in the memoir I’m writing? Am I ready to go to the next chapter where my love for him comes back through? I don’t know yet.

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The Inner Child and Christmas

I don’t need to tell you about holiday stress—everybody knows it. And people who are in touch with their inner kids know that the holidays, especially Christmas, bring up lots of feelings for these little ones. There is so much mythology about happy families that those whose families were unhappy get their noses rubbed in expectations that will never be fulfilled.

And when families are mixed—partly happy and partly unhappy—as so many are, the Christmas is a confusing time for little ones. My dad was like a child inside (for better and for worse). He loved to give things. But he hated to shop and he put it off till the last moment, then got furious with himself and took it out in anger and grumpiness with everyone around him. I had no idea as a child what was going on—I could just feel the anticipation, both mine and his, and then the waves of anger. What was happening? Had I done something wrong?

It’s supposed to be a time of togetherness and giving. But for some of us who were abused as kids, closeness was danger, so how can we rejoice? It’s supposed to be a time of parents giving tenderly to their kids, but if the parents are warped, how can they give in a simple heartfelt way? Parents may give with an edge of anger, or set up highly unreasonable expectations that the kids will be completely happy and good. They may give many presents but withhold that most important ingredient—love.

This most generous of holidays reminds us all the more of our deprivation. It’s an important time to make space for the inner child and to nurture him or her with love and attention, not so much with material things.

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Incest and the Inner Child

When a child growing up is traumatized by incest, usually he or she is forced to hide the trauma and “act normal.” The wounded part gets split off so the pain and shame can become secret, even to the child herself. Sometimes actual memories of abuse are suppressed or lost, while for other people it’s more like the feelings get lost somewhere. A part of the growing person gets stuck in a young place.

Later, events that remind us of what happened to the suppressed part can trigger reactions that feel disproportionate to the circumstances—a good clue that young feelings are involved. For me, for example, when a large man looms over me I often feel vulnerable and fearful, even when in fact I have the position of power.

Getting in touch with our wounded inner children can be scary when it lets out those feelings of fear, anger, and sadness. The feelings seem huge because they’ve been bottled up like genies for all those years. But listening to the child-parts brings wholeness over time.

I’ve also found that the joyful and free parts of my inner child got lost in the split. Those parts came back slowly when they saw it could be safe.

Adapted from my booklet “Caring for the Child Within—A Manual for Grownups.”


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Father-Daughter Incest and Mother's Betrayal

It’s a curious thing that many survivors of father-daughter incest seem even angrier at their mothers than at their fathers. I speak from experience. It’s puzzled me for a long time why my mother’s passivity and lack of protection seemed to hurt me even more than my father’s acts of violation.

Here’s how I understand it now. My father’s incest broke my world, but my mother’s lack of recognition and protection broke my mind and spirit. If I had had one witness to stand with me and vouch for my reality, I could have kept my sense of self intact. But when I tried to tell her (I know though my memories are vague and fragmented), she could not hear me. She told me to forget it, pretend it didn’t happen.

Any ground I had to stand on was shattered by my mother’s betrayal. As in many families, there was no one else in my family to go to. (Now I understand the poem “The Attic” by Marie Howe in which her brother’s silent witness is the thing that keeps her sane.) That’s why my mother’s betrayal felt worse than my father’s.

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Life, Death, and the Inner Child

In my recovery memoir, I’m now writing the chapter in which my mother dies. She was an odd person—loving but distant, smart but subservient, isolated. We all knew she was dying, which sharpened our feelings and our roles. I was the dutiful daughter and Good Girl, driving two hours each way to visit her and to help with all the things she needed.

I wanted very much to help her have the kind of death she wanted. I also wanted to use this last chance to get closer to her. She’d always been closed about her past, never one to reminisce or tell stories. I wanted to understand her life better and I hoped to feel more warmth towards her.

The kind of death she wanted was to keep going just the same way as long as she could and then just die. Her idea of a good way did not include much life review or communication. So my two goals were incompatible.

Meanwhile I was living with my recovery process. My inner child was just learning how to trust after the huge betrayals of my childhood (my father’s abuse and my mother’s denial and lack of protection). This little girl was furious that my mother was getting all the attention and she wasn’t getting enough. She desperately wanted to get closer to mother, but mother wasn’t having any. I had my hands full with taking care of mother, taking care of my inner child, and working full time.

In the end, my mother died peacefully pretty much on her own terms. She had told me a few things about her life, mostly about her relationship with my father and how he dominated her. Now I’m using the memoir-writing to sort through this relationship with a woman dead for five years.

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"Will the Inner Child ever grow up?"

A friend of mine asked me that question the other night at dinner, and I could feel my little girl inside giving a feisty answer, “No, never! You can’t make me!”

My friend was asking whether the goal of inner child therapy is for the child to become a grownup. Interestingly, her point of reference was in the world of art and creation, where the inner child is respected as a source of energy, life, and creativity.

“No,” I said, “I don’t want my inner child to have to grow up. When I get in some situation where the little girl inside is angry or scared, I can listen to her and understand how she feels. That way I don’t have to act it out, the way some people do.” We laughed.

When I first started the work, my inner child seemed always sad or angry, but later the creative and joyful spirit came back. Now all the little ones are with me and I’ll always be young inside.


Thanks to Ruth for asking the question.

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How to write the end of a memoir, when you’re still alive

Here’s the problem: I need to find an ending to this memoir of healing from sexual abuse. But there is no ending. There is no place where the door closes and life just goes on. Life does just go on, but that door is now always open, the door to memories that cloud and clot my days…but it’s more than that.

I’ve spent ten years now in the zone of ugly memories and somehow in the last year, my work has released the other ones—the love that was there, too, during my childhood. Driving to my writing workshop today, hearing classical music on the radio, I remembered how the only record player my family owned was in my room, so I could put on the huge heavy 78 rpm disks and play the Dvorak New World Symphony over and over until I knew every note. That was love. So was the careful sewing of my school clothes.

So the door is always open now, and the memories come and go, the terrifying ones and the loving ones, passing in and out of the doorway to the past.

And at last, the ending is the beginning. I’ve known from the first that my book ends at the point when I begin writing it. There is something necessary in this, not just a gimmick. There was a moment on the Merritt Parkway driving to New York to visit my son where I was given the idea to write a memoir of my time of revelation and recovery. That’s the ending and the beginning.

But ending there in 2001 means, I think, that I need to flash forward somewhat to show how life unfolds past then. I don't know how to do this. I won’t know until I know. It only scares me if I try to figure it out. If I let it ride, I know it will be OK, that new ways will present themselves just as they have before at each impossible juncture.

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A Blessing for Memoir Writers

May all kinds of doubt be banished.
May you enter fully into your own world
so you may bring it into writing
for yourself and for others.
May you take the risks to write
with your heart’s blood on the page.
May you find the images to translate
and speak the language of soul to others.
May you feel the faith that others have in you
and carry their blessings on your way.
May you know that every effort to manifest
your deepest dreams is an effort for the good of all.
May you carry a bit of the dreams of everyone as you walk.
May you show again that expressing pain as well as joy
is necessary for the picture to be true and vivid.
May you know that your work is beautiful.

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Memoir with Compassion

Compassion, that’s the big one. In this memoir of recovery, I am writing a chapter about my relationship with my mother as she aged and went blind. I need to love myself, so confused and trying so hard, love the little girl in me who was emerging then. And embody some compassion for my mother while also showing how angry I was at her. Do I have the largeness of soul today, in this moment, to write it fully?

It is odd how writing this memoir is different from everyday writing. Every day I write for enlightenment and I find out as I go. With the book, it’s research and assembly, swimming in the pieces, finding an order, refining—but the biggest compassionate step, it seems right now, is in the editing where I bring the colors out. This stage contains judgments on a very heart level. I need to hold contradictory feelings fully and safely, empathizing but with a little distance so I can describe them fully and fill scenes with sound, sight, words, body, emotions.

It’s one thing to write a journal entry just for me with total openness—though that took some learning, too—and it’s another to turn to a reader and gently explicate on all those levels—my old anger at my mother’s helplessness, my knowledge of her needs, my desire to be helpful, my inner child’s need and liveliness. But if I don’t have compassion and complexity, why write a memoir?

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Forums for Abuse Survivors

Just lately I finally joined some on-line forums for survivors of abuse. These are amazing resources, as many of you probably know already. In these spaces I feel a lot of compassion and companionship. People speak the language of recovery, of Inner Child, of triggers and feelings. I feel like I’ve found my people.

When I first looked at sites, they felt a bit overwhelming, but I found two that seem safe to me. They have moderators who pull out communications that are threatening or weird. That’s important. The people who post are willing to tell difficult things about themselves and ask for help. There is a lot of detailed and heart-full support. People also challenge one another when someone’s behavior seems risky or likely to cause harm to self or others.

isurvive.org is a fairly large site, with many active threads (topics) on the forums. It is moderated and feels both safe and lively to me. Sections for General Discussion, Our Stories, Positive Transitions, Physical/Emotional/Verbal Abuse Survivors, Survivors of Incest and Sexual Abuse, and more. isurvive also has a chat room for real-time conversations.

Survivors and Friends Forum is another place to have conversations with abuse survivors and their friends. This one is relatively small and feels safe. Different sections for Female Survivors, Male Survivors, Partners of Survivors, and Parents of Survivors.

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Anger and the Inner Child

Anger is a very natural part of the healing process. Looking from the outside, what could be healthier than getting angry at the unbearable hurts we suffered as children? But often anger feels huge, outsized, or monstrous. My therapist explained to me that this is child-logic. The child who cannot express her normal anger starts to feel that anger must be extremely powerful. Anger that’s been stuffed down for years can feel volcanic.

It’s probably different for some people, but it took my inner child a long time before she felt safe enough to get angry. And then the anger seemed enormous and endless. I wanted to smash and break “everything in the whole wide world,” my inner child said.

How to deal with such anger? First, it’s important to recognize that your anger is really not as dangerous as it feels. You can find ways to express it that don’t hurt anyone. You can hit a sofa with an old tennis racket. I like to lift up a fat pillow and whack it on the floor. You can yell (into a pillow if you’re worried about sound). You can make drawings, you can write repetitive strings of anger-words.

This is how it felt one day: “In the evening I sit with my inner child. Rage, undifferentiated rage. I need this. I want to break things and throw things. Then quiet and I want comfort. Then more rage. I make Xeroxed copies of photographs of my father and mother. I paste them into my sketchbook and draw zigzags of purple and orange and yellow and black. Over my mother’s picture I write whiner, weakling. I mark all over the photos of my father and write, I hate you! Smug face molester. This man is not to be trusted. Smash it, break it!”

Second, some of the anger may spill over onto people who don’t deserve it. Therapists are great for that, as I slowly learned. It was extremely scary to get mad at my therapist, but she knew better than to take it personally. She knew I needed practice at being angry and having it be safe. So I ranted, “Why did you have to be late? It feels like you don’t care! It hurts my feelings!” Other people close to you may catch some of it, too, but they can be very understanding if you tell them it’s your old anger, not really about them.

My therapist said that expressing my anger would make me feel stronger. It didn’t feel that way at first, but over time, it was true. It makes me feel more anchored in myself.

This entry is also a new addition to my booklet "Caring for the Child Within--A Manual for Grownups."

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Inner Child grieves over incest

Lately I’ve been remembering how much I loved my father, the same man who sexually abused me. In ten years of healing, I have gone through many phases of anger and grief, beginning with grieving my image of a happy childhood in a normal family. I have worked hard to listen to my inner child, believe her body-memories, and learn how to take care of her.

It was important to build my own world based on my knowledge and apart from my family’s myths. Just now in writing my memoir of recovery, I’m writing about exactly that turning point where I learned to distance myself psychically from family and create my own reality. It was wrenchingly difficult.

So now I’m going around the spiral again, closer to being able to hold both feelings—the pain and anger in response to abuse and the love I felt both before and after. My father was a fascinating man—smart, interested in all kinds of people, a wonderful teacher, boyish and curious (and of course, irresponsible and self-centered). What a terrible loss that he made me withdraw my wholehearted love from him.

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In Recovery, Slow is Fast

I feel I’m getting towards the end in writing my memoir about healing from sexual abuse. I am excited and scared about ending. It’s been eleven years since I realized I’d been abused, and over four years I’ve been writing this memoir. The writing has been obsessive and wonderful, frightening, sad, and joyous.

Then I started telling people “I’m getting close to the end.” Soon I felt I had to believe it and hurry up and finish. Bad move. Today I am feeling as slow as mud and just about that inspired.

How many times do I need to relearn that slow is fast? I have an Eager Girl inner child who is always running to the next thing, always wants to be out there experiencing something new. She needs to take a nap. I need to remember how tender and sacred the writing is and let it unfold on its own time.

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Free Play

One of my favorite books, Free Play is about creativity and improvisation in art and life. Stephen Nachmanovich is a violinist. He writes vividly and compassionately about fear, inner critics, patience, and the necessity of practice—but don’t think of it as the Western “practice makes perfect”—think of practice as the meditative kind, the repetition of an inner discipline of concentration and of dedicated play with your chosen materials, be they melody, tone, clay, words, or colors. My inner child loves the idea of this serious play.

Yes, it’s a manual on creativity, on how to keep the juices flowing through dry spells, doubt and the different stages of creation. The stories and metaphors have comforted and sustained me through many stages both wet and dry.

It’s also a praise-song that joins improvisation with spirituality. Nachmanovich asserts lyrically and persuasively that the kind of absorption that comes in the process of creation, the freedom from the nagging voices within (or at least their being placed at a distance), the loss of self-consciousness that happens almost paradoxically when one gives over to the creative state—these all are very close kin to, or are, the Samadhi of the meditative practice, the loss of self into a greater whole. The process of creation unites us with something much larger than the small-s self, while being exactly an expression of Self.

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Forgiveness for abuse?

I am working now on the final section of my memoir about recovery from childhood sexual abuse. The book will end in 2001 at the time when I decided to begin writing this memoir—six years after I had first recalled the abuse.

It’s time to begin the layers of ending, bringing closure to a topic that never closes completely. I need to say how I regard my father now. Need to show the compassion I feel for my mother’s limitations, which were given to her by a life cut off at every pass—the dying father encased in the household as she grew up, no money for college, of course, in the Depression, and then the depression and anxiety.

How do I regard my father? I need to speak to him, dead though he is, and see how the relationship has changed. How does one regard a molester who acts like a little boy not grown up?

Boyishness was attractive on him. He had the enthusiasm and wonder, the love of frogs and boats and gadgets, the dreamy impracticality that made him both a wonderful father and a terrible—what? a terrible provider and protector, because he was involved in “his own little world” as my mother sourly put it. A good playmate but a poor father. But then, a fabulous teacher, setting out little problems to be solved. The back of his shop was littered with cigar boxes built into gadgets of flashing lights, taking up space just because he loved to teach any stray young person.

Part of my task is to recognize and write about the love that was there between us and still is. But forgiveness? It doesn’t feel right. I don’t absolve him; he has to bear the burden of responsibility.

What do you think, reader?

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The Transformative Power of Writing Memoir

I believe in writing—it’s almost like a religion. A quotation I have on the side of my frig says, “Talking to paper is talking to the divine. It is talking to an ear that will understand even the most difficult things. Paper is infinitely patient…” (Nina Holtzer). Journaling has saved my mental health over and over. I love having the details there in the notebook, just for myself. And I love the process of writing in which I start out confused and just write without stopping for 20 minutes (“freewriting”—thank you, Peter Elbow), almost always arriving by magic at some new understanding.

And then writing this memoir of recovery from abuse is another layer of writing and understanding. As I read and transcribe my journals, I relive my growth of the past ten years. Time and again, I spiral up into a new level of understanding and of peace with my history and respect for myself. Crafting the story from journals into a narrative that someone else might enjoy reading is another layer of work. It both challenges me to grow as a writer and reminds me of the beauty inherent in personal growth.

A friend of mine today described writing about personal trauma as a process of translation, transforming something fundamentally indescribable and wordless into a skein of language. So it is.

So I want to say a great big thank you to the writing community out there, to all who blog, and to all who read.

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Safety and the Inner Child--Part II

Feeling safe in the world is a sweet sensation. As I said in the previous post, I used to have a certain lack of fear-response, but it was an artificial bravado. It was only when I worked closely with my inner child in therapy that I began to have higher standards. Safety is not only a lack of overt threat—it is a feeling of positive well-being and protection.

Here are some of strategies that can helped my inner child to feel safe:

o Be in my body—safe, here, at this moment, feeling the solidity of bone and muscle. (However, I know that for some people, to feel in-body can be scary.)

o Put scary things away in a box or some container. (I’m not very good at this.)

o Listen to the fear—sit with it, write it or draw it. I like making drawings with words in them to name the parts of the fear.

o Find a fierce protector inside. I have one who is a dragon who is so big that he doesn’t have to be aggressive—he protects just by his presence.

o Find an imaginary safe and welcoming house or cave or some other place. Furnish it with safe people and objects. Revisit often.

Be extremely patient and understanding with your inner child about her fears. These fears are not trivial, even though they may arise around incidents or situations that seem small from a grownup perspective.

When you learn to find the safety in a few places or a few moments, it will begin to spread out into your life. It won’t happen quickly, not at all. But in months or years you may be surprised to feel that deep-inside relaxation in a situation where previously you would have been tense or protectively spaced-out.

Safety and your Inner Child—Part I

I remember the first time my therapist told me to find a safe place inside myself. I looked at her with disbelief. What did she mean? How could I do that? Nothing felt safe.

Kids who are abused and threatened—in violent or in subtle ways—learn coping strategies. Some kids become timid, some become fiercely brave. Since survival is such a deep instinct, these responses become ingrained in our souls and our everyday behaviors.

When I was a girl, I learned to be brave and scoff at fears. I am grateful for my bravery, since it let me do many things, like backpacking alone and taking physical risks. But underneath the fearlessness was an ingrained fear of people which I could not even recognize until I learned a little bit about safety. The sense of danger was so deep-rooted in me that it felt normal. It was just when I was getting in touch with my fear that my therapist said, “Find a safe place inside.”

It took me several years to find a fairly secure sense of safety—first with my therapist and then inside myself.

As I learned to parent my inner child, she presented me with lots of fears. They often felt overwhelming. I had to find ways to cope with fear and to build my inner child’s sense of safety. (Some of these are in my booklet, Caring for the Child Within.)

Early in the process, I used to think that finding a safe place inside was kind of silly. How could that help? How could it change the way the world is? But I realized the fears are inside of me. Indeed there are dangers out there and the world is unfair, but my fears were with me when I was actually safe, threatening me when there was no real threat. It began to make sense to find safety on a more magical, imaginary level.


Why are memories of abuse so hidden?

This has been one of the hardest questions for me in my recovery process. How could such a big betrayal remain hidden in the back corners of my psyche for years and years? Can I really believe it if it has been hidden so long?

Over time, I’ve come to believe my inner child more and more firmly. When I don’t believe her, I feel crazy and torn up. When I do believe that the abuse happened then I feel pain but I don’t feel nuts. I can sit with my inner girl and soothe her.

For some people, the actual memories are not hidden, but the feelings may be covered over or disappeared.

The book that helped me the most with the question of recovered memories was Betrayal Trauma, by Jennifer Freyd. Freyd explains that forgetting is useful to the child because it enables her to remain in contact with the family that is essential for her survival. The closer the relationship with the abuser, the more important it is to forget the abuse in order to keep that relationship working, problematic though it is. Freyd even found data showing that kids whose abuse was reported to authorities often forgot it for years, and the closer the relationship to the abuser (father vs. cousin, for example), the more likely the forgetting.

Isn’t that stunning? Yet it makes total sense. I had to keep eating cornflakes every morning opposite my father and relying on him for food, learning, and yes, love. I could not allow myself to remember the abuse in the night.

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Lather, Rinse, Repeat!

Writing this memoir about healing from childhood sexual abuse continually reminds me of the spiral quality of inner work. Just now I’ve been working on a chapter that has a lot about my mother in it. Now there’s a topic that requires revisiting!

I’m writing about a time when she was quite old and I was being a dutiful daughter. At the same time I was doing intense work in therapy about the abuse. I would go visit my mother one weekend a month and do a lot of chores, manifesting my love for her but also feeling acutely the pain of her betrayal and lack of protection when I was young.

I began to learn how to detach from her and turn towards taking care of my inner child. I needed my primary loyalty to be to myself, while I still took care of my mother's needs.

How many times did I need that message? How many more times do I still need it? It took a long time to get this memoir chapter together, not because of technical difficulties with the writing, but because I needed to go around the spiral yet another time and find more compassion for my mother as well as myself. Finally, I wrote a letter to her (she’s dead now) with a lot of appreciation for her strengths and for the privileges I have had that allowed me to go beyond her limitations. That writing freed me to finish the chapter.

The Tricky Part, by Martin Moran

How does he do it, show the light in darkness? A story of a boy, as he says, falling from trespass into grace. A boy exploited, given too soon to the knowledge of the body—betrayed, as he felt, by his own body. And this man, the one who showed him his strength and wonder, then used his beauty like a Kleenex for his disposable desires.

Grace, then. No, first, despair, the attempts at suicide, the empty hours in the echoing school hallways full of crosses, holiness, and distance. Even in those places, an occasional light and this is what he shows gorgeously—the old nun telling him, at the kitchen table, that everything he does is already blessed. No disclosure, no healing stories, but this Light poured upon him.

More despair, more thoughts of killing himself. Then the tryouts for the school musical. A voice is found, a wonder arises in his soul—what is this miracle? I am seen and loved. The lights pick me out, the people laugh and clap. Maybe I should put off my suicide until after the fall production. The voice teacher witnesses his singing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, she urges him to take lessons. She has to repeat her urging at the next musical in the next season before he takes it seriously, then goes trembling to her house.

Voice lessons, lessons in projection of spirit. She says, this is you in the universe, this is your soul coming out of your mouth. You have a gift to give to the world, Marty. You have a beauty of soul.

How does he do it, this Martin Moran? The light and love pouring through a living room with grand piano in Colorado are made manifest in the lines she says, the wonder he feels. Not uncomplicating anything, he holds the lust, the love, the exploitation, the forgiveness, the unfolding all in his hands.

Writing! Is there any more powerful act in the world? Well, there is acting. The first I knew of Martin Moran was his one-man show of The Tricky Part—painfully, beautifully open.

Thank you Martin Moran. Thank you for living into a full life as an actor, singer and writer. Thank you for showing us how you made it by the grace of what we might call God except that invokes the catholic Big Guy in the beard, the one whose church and sense of sin helped to make this story into a near-tragedy. But can we wish it had happened otherwise? No, that’s the Tricky Part of the title of the book. We can’t exactly wish it had happened differently.

The book is The Tricky Part: One Boy’s Fall from Trespass into Grace (Beacon Press).


Inner Child distress calls

Some stuff came up in my family recently where I felt I was being dragged back into my old roles as Good Girl and The One Who Fixes Things. The situation didn’t look dire on the surface, but it raised volcanic, overwhelming feelings. Ah, the inner child calling!

The next few days seemed very long—Shouldn’t I be over this by now? Do I really have to stay with all this? But I listened to my little girl tell me how scary it was to be sucked back into old binds. I held her and let her cry and rage. I re-read my booklet “Caring for the Child Within” to soothe the little one. My therapist also told my inner child she understood how these feelings would come up, but things are not the same now. Nobody’s going to come invade my house and force me to do things.

Besides listening to the feelings, my grownup self had to formulate a plan to speak up and defend my space. My current family issues aren’t resolved now, but they feel more nearly on a normal scale, not so huge and terrifying.




Georgia O’Keeffe and memoirs

Last fall I stayed at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keeffe used to live and paint. On a tour of the ranch, we compared the landscapes both with her paintings and with photographs from the exact spots she painted (see Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico, by Lynes, Kempes, and Turner). The paintings beautifully captured the contours and the life of the place, while the photos often seemed flat.

In creating her vivid paintings, O’Keeffe abstracted features, simplified, played up contrasts, and even played some tricks by moving hills slightly—all to serve a sense of place. In some places, O’Keeffe changed things so much that the piece is called an abstract.

I’m finding writing memoir to be similar. Not every detail can be rendered or should be, or the result will be flat. Some of the scenes and conversations need to have their edges sharpened. Just how much art vs. how much literal accuracy? When it is changed beyond a certain point, then the writing becomes fiction—a tricky line that will be drawn differently by individual writers and readers.

The Inner Child and Spirituality

When I read spiritual guidebooks, mostly based on Buddhism, the same objections arise in me every time. They ask us to “move beyond personal story” and to let go of old hurts. Well, I sure want to wriggle free of the stickiness of the old stuff, but I have to work a lot with it before I’m ready.

An example is Tolle’s The Power of Now, which is a fine book about being present, but again, he doesn’t acknowledge the necessity—or perhaps I mean the power—of staying with old, core issues.

Then my inner child asked me to write a booklet telling how to care for her, a booklet like the spiritual manuals but focused on inner child work. In writing "Caring for the Child Within, A Manual for Grownups," I thought a lot about the work. I realized that the inner child work, the way I practice it with daily "sitting," has similarities to other spiritual practices—specifically

o sitting with feelings, not trying to “fix” them;
o unconditional love for who I am;
o patience;
o listening inside;
o consistent practice.

It feels a bit risky to say it, but for me, the work with the inner child is spiritual work. It leads to connectedness, calm, and love.
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The elements of memoir

I love Judith Barrington’s book, Writing the Memoir. In it, she observes that the basic building blocks of memoir are scene, summary, and musing. That is, there are detailed scenes we write to give the reader a vivid sense of being there. Sometimes, we give shorthand passages or summaries, like “That winter, I spent a lot of time hiking and thinking.” Both of these elements are very similar to those in fiction.

But the third element, musing, is different from what usually appears in fiction. In reading memoir, Barrington says, people expect the narrator to get somewhere psychically—there is a journey, there are realizations. People read memoirs in order to see life patterns and to understand them. Therefore, the writer of memoir is not only allowed to muse, she is encouraged to do so. The trick is not to overburden the story with insights that the reader can get directly from the story.




My Eager Inner Child

Among the kids who crowd inside me, the one I call Eager Girl has been making a lot of noise lately. She wants to go for it all, all the time, everything. She wants lots of stimulation, attention, and play. She’s a delightful spirit but she doesn’t know when to slow down.
I first met her in a dream about four years ago. I’m coming back from a backpacking trip, walking down to the trailhead. The little girl who is with me dashes ahead towards my red car. She wants me to throw her the keys so she can open the car, but I don’t want to throw them to her—it’s getting dark and I sure don’t want those keys to get lost in the leaves.
When my therapist heard the dream, she said, “I love her spirit. But the little girl isn’t supposed to drive the car.”
These last two months, I’ve been working on writing yet another difficult part of my memoir of healing from sexual abuse. Meanwhile I was working on a new booklet, "Caring for the Child Within" while also designing my website. Then Eager Girl got the idea for this blog. She wanted to start right away. I hugged her firmly and told her she’s not allowed to drive the car. I held off beginning this blog until I felt clearer on my purpose. Sometimes our Inner Children need loving restraints.

Why “inner child” memoir?

It’s this way: I’m writing a memoir of recovering from sexual abuse, abuse I didn’t identify until I was an adult. So my process involved going back and reinterpreting my family, my role there, and my relationship to love and trust. I had to reinvent myself with the new knowledge somehow integrated.

That’s the abstract, grownup way of saying it. The emotional way to say it is that I needed to find and love the inner child. The young child was the one who suffered the violation and betrayal. She was the one who had to hide it and “act normal.” She had to grow up as best she could, hiding the knowledge even from herself. Once I found this girl, she needed a lot of care and attention in order to grow up again, this time with respect and safety.

My memoir is that recovery story—not a reconstruction of the distant past but a present-day journey to healing. In this blog I want to give voice to the adult who’s guiding the writing process and also the child who is at the center.

Truth, Fact, and Memoir

This is as good a place as any to begin my blog. I’m writing a memoir that involves a lot of uncertainty—what happened, who did it, when, and for God’s sake, why? How does a writer cope with this uncertainty in writing? I guess some people cope by making up the details. But I need to be scrupulously clear about what I don’t know—for me it’s part of truth-telling. I don’t know when certain events happened, exactly, but I do know it was in a particular house, so I must have been three or four. I don’t have videographic memories, but I do have some audio. And so on.

But fact and truth—are they the same? No. I mean, in the James Frey controversy I come down squarely in favor of factual exactness. There is no excuse for claiming he spent months in jail when he didn’t—that’s not a slip, it’s a lie. But as Judith Barrington said in her book Writing the Memoir, you can’t just record conversations verbatim (even if you could do it accurately) and have it come out readable. Any writing involves condensation, arrangement, and editing—just as magazine editors work to shape those “casual” interviews with celebrities. Writing involves abstraction in the same sense that paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe abstract the essence of landscapes. (More on this later.)

So I’m transcribing my journals of therapy sessions five years ago and in the journals I’m saying the same stuff over and over, the insights gaining ground slowly, the feelings shifting inch by inch. I can’t just spew that all out into a memoir—no one would ever read it, nor should they have to. So I take the pages of transcript and, with feelings of mixed dread and delight, I snip, snap, and shuffle to try to convey the true feelings and the “truth” of how it happened. That’s why the process of writing memoir is exciting—the abstraction from the facts requires vision and art. But in service of truth, not self-aggrandizement.