Surviving Memoir

Updated: Oct 12


I think it started in the late 1980s—the recurring dream of a shape-shifting house I visited periodically over the next few decades. It could be a single family home, apartment building or a warehouse. Some were in strange towns I had never heard of. Sometimes I would recognize it, sometimes not, yet it was always a place that I knew—even if I didn’t. I would find a room or a hallway of rooms that I had never known about. Once in a while I would look out a window and see an entirely new stretch of land with gardens, lawns, and clusters of plants and flowers that I hadn’t known was part of my backyard.

The rooms were like a secondhand store with the kind of stuff you find at estate or garage sales and where, with patience, all sorts of treasure could be found. There were collections of mugs, stacks of books and magazines, piles of clothing, kitchenware, old furniture, worn rugs and all manner of chachkas. The kitchens had cupboards full of mismatched dishes, crystal glassware, yellowed recipes, scarred pots and pans, and one had a drawer filled with intriguing stacks of old letters I knew I wanted to read. With the exception of those letters, I don’t remember seeing any item that I knew had belonged to me and most of the time I didn’t see anything I wanted to keep.


At some point I believed that the dreams—gently obvious in their universal symbolism—were telling me that my own inner unexplored rooms needed to be opened. As the years went by I’d wake up with a feeling of urgency that I needed to clean my internal house, decide what to keep and what to discard, but felt completely overwhelmed about how to do it and where to begin.


And then I stumbled into it.


We started to write in 2009. Two years earlier, my husband, Ed had taken the jazz world by surprise with the release of his first CD. Astonished jazz writers, club owners, musicians and jazz fans wondered how a 77-year old man with a voice like his had been undiscovered for so long. His voice alone, flecked with bits of Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett and Johnny Hartman, should have been enough. But his story about growing up in a middle class African American family, his 40-year heroin addiction, four times in state prison, 25 drug treatment programs and several mental hospitals, getting into recovery in 1986, and his unreserved willingness to tell it publicly, begged to be told and re-told. Critics and jazz fans clamored for more. And then came the inevitable, “You should write your story.”


That actually sounded like something we should do. Before and beyond the music period, ours was a story of addiction, codependence and recovery, and the struggle for a relationship that just about everyone believed was doomed. Maybe if we did this we could help others.


We had no idea how much it would help us.


Telling our own stories in our own voices was the only way we could have done it. After our first 18 years of marriage, divorce, lies and loss of trust, the truth was we didn’t really know each other very well. The failures, fighting, revolving door of separations and temporary reconciliations had been relentless. Despite therapy, encounter groups and treatment programs, neither of us understood what was driving the other until we each got into our own recovery programs. And even then, we never really talked about it in any depth.


We wrote slowly, as time and work schedules allowed. For a long time, I saw the main story as being the drama of Ed’s life. I wrote about how culture and family influenced me as I grew up that made it so natural to become the enabler I was. But in contrast to Ed, who openly wrote about things many others would never have allowed to see the light of day, it didn’t occur to me to do anything other than to keep my own secrets safely secret, and I fully intended to keep all of it buried forever.


When Ed joined a memoir writing group in 2014, we had a 63-page rough draft of what would be the first quarter of the book. Clearly motivated by the group, he began to write more regularly. I joined two years later, my first ever writing group. One day, after reading one of my new chapters, Ed asked when I was going to write about the uncle who seduced me and about the young law student I had been involved with who killed himself.


“Never.” I said. “No way.”


He stared at me for a moment. “You have to.”


By then I had a better understanding of what memoir was about and knew he was right. Thus began one of the most emotionally perilous journeys I’ve ever inflicted on myself. As anyone who has ever tried this knows, there are no guarantees about what will happen when you choose to deep dive into the past and deliberately uncover and revisit things you didn’t want to get too close to again. I’d get so lost and unable to find my way back, that sometimes the pain of remembering and writing about it would keep me stuck for days. I wondered how other writers get through it, what happens inside when you relive and retell an unspeakably terrible event, no matter how long ago it happened.


My body never felt big enough to contain the emotional upheaval that was suddenly exploding inside me. Some days I’d be caught in the highest of highs, feeling I couldn’t contain the exhilaration of finding my own voice and the joy of writing; other times I’d go to the lowest of lows, lost, spinning around in the different me’s of the past. There is no way to know how much space the emotional weight of carrying so much old stuff around for so long takes up inside of you, inside your heart, your soul, whatever it is, until you scoop it out.


The scooping out was a two-step process: first, the writing; second, the reading. Out loud. In a room of people I barely knew, but was learning to trust because they always kept me safe. There were times after reading an especially sensitive chapter that I felt I had come into the room naked.


I was lost and disoriented a lot that first year—or more. Sometimes all I felt capable of was to spend a day or two curled up in the fetal position. During those times, when I was spacy and distant, Ed would ask, “What’s wrong with you?”


Of course, Ed also experienced his share of angst as his past strong-armed its way into his present, and sometimes he found it hard to separate the two. On more than one occasion, he looked up from reading one of my new chapters and, forgetting that the events he was reading about happened 40 years before, asked, “Do you want a divorce?”


I know the support of this incredible group helped me to at least keep my head above water. Michael once wrote to me: “The pain comes from the honesty that shines through both of you, and is the reason it is a story that can reach and teach. Because I want to read it, I wish you both the courage to continue.”


And Norman sent this strangely comforting quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir that made me laugh. “No one ever died of writing in her notebook what is hidden or dangerous. You might cry—or laugh—but not die.”


There’s a reason we keep our darkest memories buried; what we don’t expect is their staying power. During the harsh years of addiction, we couldn’t articulate why we continued the unending sad dance that had each of us stuck. Even when it was over and we recreated our lives as seemingly “normal” people, we only really began connecting all the dots when we started writing. At the end, the whole long process of memoir had emptied me of what I had been carrying ─ out of shame, out of sadness, out of the inability to talk about it.

You don’t know how much heaviness there was, how much it weighed you down, until it’s not there anymore. It felt strange; I had the sense of wide, joyful inner space.


That’s when I knew.




And that’s when the dreams stopped.

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