Trauma Passed Through Generations Shared by Writing a Memoir
Linda Appleman Shapiro’s memoir, She’s Not Herself is about a girl whose mother had a serious mental illness. The memoir itself raised many intriguing ideas about the children of trauma survivors, about the secrets parents keep, and about how children manage to find their way despite grave difficulties. In addition to the events that took place inside the book, I am intrigued by how the author continued to develop as an adult. How did she integrate all the emotional upheaval that took place in her childhood, and turn it into a memoir? In this interview, I ask Linda Appleman Shapiro questions that might help aspiring memoir writers, who are looking back toward memories and forward toward turning memories into a story.
Jerry Waxler: As a reader, I cared deeply for the little girl who had to grow up navigating among such complex psychological pressures. Clearly these were traumatic trainings and you had to carry the burden of these memories into your adult years.
Linda Appleman Shapiro: When you say that I had to carry the burden of my early memories into my adult years, I’d have to add that I think it’s much more complicated than that. To carry a burden one has to be aware of the burden. If one succeeds in hiding the truth from himself/herself, the memories remain locked away until one trigger or another sets them loose.
In my case: I knew that my mother became sick several times each year. At such times, I heard my father refer to doctors giving her something he referred to as “shock treatments.” At other times, when she was taken to the hospital, I was left alone with my father or shipped off to one aunt or another. I received no explanation other than “Your mother, she’s not herself today.”
Just as I was entering adolescence and the woman in me began to identify with my mother that fear for myself had begun to set in. I became conscious of living in a daily state of hyper vigilance and beyond that I was also beginning to lose my footing. Emotional swings that take place in every normal adolescent’s life soon became exaggerated nightmares in mine.
Jerry: You’ve done an incredible job in the memoir, sharing that whole journey with your readers. Now, as a memoir writer, you have clearly been on a very different journey. Memoir writers must reach back into their memories and turn them into a story.
It must have been painful to go back and look at those times, with so much confusion, suffering, and secrets. How did you face all of that when you were looking back?
Linda: I think what saved me from myself as I started to sort out disturbing memories occurred years before writing this memoir. It came from the therapy I sought in my early life when I was becoming more and more aware that the role I played in our family was interfering with my adult relationships, especially with my first love experience. I write about that in detail in the book.
I received invaluable tools from skilled professionals and for 30+ years have been a behavioral psychotherapist/addictions counselor. Based on this background, I wanted to make sense of the effects of multigenerational traumas, providing readers with hope from whatever wisdom I have as someone who has examined human vulnerability in its many disguises and has moved through and beyond trauma.
Jerry: Say more about the process of actually writing it. How long did it take? Did you love writing it or dread it?
Linda: The entire process was one of about twenty years while working full-time as a psychotherapist, living life within our family, with our daughters, in our community, and later with our grandchildren.
Throughout, I remained committed and determined to peel away the onion that was my life. There was never a time that I set writing aside. In fact, once I began, the writing seemed to write itself. As one memory emerged, others came forth . . . and there were many times when a memory was so horrific that I questioned if what I believed I was remembering actually did occur. But that didn’t stop me from writing or examining and exposing all that did happen. As one witness to human vulnerability and human strength, the process of writing it all was not cathartic. It was grueling because I forced myself to remain as authentic as possible.
By creating scenes and dialogue between my parents and writing about each of the memories they shared with me about life in war-torn Russia before emigrating to America, I got to know them on a far deeper level than I ever did while they were alive. As characters in my memoir, I respected and loved them more with each page that I wrote.
Of course, I also learned a great deal more about myself. The patterns of my life that popped off certain pages (revealing an ever present need to rescue a person or a moment, even at my own expense) caused me to feel the same concerns for that little girl who was the me that you felt concerned about.
Jerry: Now that your memoir has been published you have come a very long way, from a little girl on Brighton Beach, through your young adulthood, trying to sort out these disturbing memories, to an older adult who has crafted the story of that little girl and shared it with the world. Congratulations! What can you share about the feeling of having written a memoir that is now being read by strangers. Was it satisfying? Healing? Invigorating? Did you miss it once it was over?
With regard to how I feel about strangers reading my memoir, I have a one word response: HONORED. Actually, I believe that story telling is a part of my genetic inheritance. My father did not share many personal stories, but as an immigrant, he always tried to fit in to a new world. He supported his family by being a salesman, and he learned early on with each joke and every story he could tell to distract a customer, he’d gain a sale. Mother’s stories were all personal. She shared all of her memories with me – probably too many for a child to integrate and not feel as though I was a part of that world in Russia, reliving it all with her each time she told me yet another story. Yet, at the same time, from as early as I can remember, Mother always said that everyone’s life is worthy of a book and that if she were a writer she’d tell her story if it could help just one person.
So, to answer your question I’d have to say that I know she would be proud to know that in telling her story and mine, we are helping people take secrets out of their closet and not feel ashamed to seek the best help available for their family . . . and though much more funding is needed to deal with the epidemic numbers of young suicides and mental illness, in general, there is certainly much more help and acceptance available today than when I was growing up.
To answer the next part of your question: Every aspect of having published my memoir is “satisfying, healing, and invigorating.” Though it took me many, many years to teach myself how to write, since I never allowed myself to consider writing creatively because my brother was a writer and that role had been taken in the family. . . I am now able to identify myself as a writer.
This memoir was a labor of love and tenacity and I do miss not writing. Once I completed writing the book, I definitely experienced writer’s withdrawal and, in the hope of fulfilling my need to continue writing, I do plan to revive a blog that I’d written for three years, “A Psychotherapist’s Journey,” for which Wellsphere named me the Top Blogger in the area of mental health.
Knowing that I have speaking engagements lined up and I’m currently in the process of this blog tour, it’s not “over.” Without being overly sentimental, I’d add that it is as life itself, a work that will continue to be in process.