Truth, Secrets, Denial: After the Memoir

Truth, Secrets, Denial: After the Memoir

 

MIssissippi River

I’ve come to realize that my choice of what to include and what to leave out of my memoir was woven from the same cloth as my history—secrets, silence, and confusion. When I went to live with my grandmother and we began the summer visits to her mother, Blanche, my great-grandmother, I felt for the first time the warm weaving of a bunch of good-humored people called “family.” I claimed my apron-wearing, plaid-shirt great-aunts and -uncles as “real” aunts and uncles—my real family. Blanche was eighty and my great-aunts, -uncles, and grandmother were all in their fifties and sixties. Nestled among them, I believed that I’d finally come home—beside the impressive Mississippi River, the rich Iowa cornfields waving golden and rich around us.

On those summer visits, home base was at Aunt Edith’s and Uncle Willard’s, at the mink farm. Their son, Billy, in his late twenties, had always lived with them. Because I didn’t have a father, the “men’s world” of Billy, Willard, and my great-uncles fascinated me. I loved watching them work with their hands, I was  drawn to the physicality of deep-throated men who had to shave, who were so different from the women I was constantly surrounded by. Their strong muscles and fix-it skills enthralled me. Day after day, I happily trotted after Billy and his father to the basement, where they mixed the mink feed, worked on carpentry tasks, or built stuff they needed for the mink. They also fixed cars and even were building an airplane!

My first summer there, I happened to be in the basement alone with Billy. When he began to caress my legs, I froze in place, caught between not wanting him to touch me like that and feeling afraid to make him mad. Fairly quickly, I sidled away, wondering if he’d brushed against me by accident. He kept smiling and chatting as if nothing had happened. I knew a little about men and roving hands, having been molested at Vera’s when I was five, but that was only once, and Billy seemed so nice, always making jokes and playing with me when the other adults were busy. I decided he wouldn’t do it again, so the next time I found myself alone with him, I stood farther away and kept on alert, but it happened again. Now I know that I, like many sexual abuse victims, had become conditioned to freeze when unsure what to do, though I always moved away. My time with Billy and Uncle Willard was precious to me, starving as I was for a father, and Billy was careful not to touch me when anyone else was around. I knew that if I told on him, I’d lose everything: I’d get in trouble with Gram, and no one would believe me; no one would be on my side. People are always saying that children lie and make up stories.

Complicating my conflict was my loyalty to Edith. Blanche had told me a secret: Edith and Willard thought of me as the daughter they never had. They’d had a baby girl who had died shortly after birth. The idea that I was wanted by someone and valued as a daughter was a powerful drug. I’d do anything to hang on to that feeling of warmth and acceptance.

Indeed, for the next forty years, I visited Edith, Willard, Billy, and the extended family, and even brought my children a few times. They were smarter than I, failing to see the family and Iowa through my idealistic eyes. They observed the hooded gaze of Billy as he stared at me, as if he might strip off my clothes. They saw the shabby world of the small working-class town, blind to the patina I’d painted over everything out of my desperate need for family.

As I grew older, the touching stopped and Billy would compliment me on how I looked, with a rather obvious scanning of my body. As the decades went by, he managed to make it clear that he was interested in more from me. I kept telling him he was like a brother to me. On one summer visit, I let him know that his earlier touching of me was wrong and had upset me, but he slid by the confrontation without much of a response. Still, I was proud that I had actually confronted him. His off-and-on flirting through the years confused me. We had some things in common, and we were family. We had fun finding the cemeteries with the old folks, driving to the family farms, which were now acres of corn, and getting out the photo box to reminisce. I kept trying to align the uncomfortable “reality” about Billy with my hunger for family until Edith died. Then everything began to change.

When Edith died, the year after my mother, I’d already begun my memoir. In some early versions, I included scenes of Billy’s caresses and advances, and on one visit I shared these early drafts with one of my cousins. We’d discovered each other at Edith’s funeral, and enjoyed catching up on our lives and sharing family stories. She told me about the sexual abuse she suffered by her father and grandfather, and in turn I confessed the secret of another uncle, who’d kissed me on the lips when I was nine and he was sixty-five. No matter how far I stood away from that uncle as we said goodbye after each visit, he grabbed a feel.

As I listened to my cousin’s story about her molestation and her mother’s, I began to realize that my “idealized” family was full of child molesters. A few months later, I found out that she’d shared my written story with several of her family members without asking permission. They had begun gossiping, she told me, about the fact that I was writing a memoir, and she also mentioned the prejudice some family members had against my grandmother and mother. “They thought they were so highfalutin, wearing furs and gallivanting off to Europe. We’re just plain people with plain views.” One of my uncles was proud of the fact that he hired Mexican laborers, who lived in tiny six-by-eight-foot cabins with their families. His comments about Mexicans, blacks, and anyone with dark-colored skin were scathing and shocking to me—I was related to these people? How different Gram, Mother, and I were from them indeed.

It was 1997, and during my visit to Iowa that year, Billy and I were alone in the house. His leering and suggestions were nearly nonstop, no matter how strongly I phrased my refusals. It rained the whole time I was there, and I caught a miserable cold. The house was full of ghosts of all the old wise women I’d loved, but there were no more big dinners, no gathering of laughing people around the table. The clocks ticked and chimed as they had when I was young, but the sounds were hollow and sad. One evening, after my fourth meal of ham-and-cheese sandwiches because there was no other food in the house, my cousin came over, the one who had shared my stories, along with her fourteen-year-old daughter.

In a kind of slow-motion shock, both of us watched Billy beg the fourteen-year-old, “Write me a love letter; here, draw a heart for me. Don’t you like me? Aren’t I special to you? We can be really good friends.” He knelt at her feet and begged her to tell him that he was special to her. Suddenly it occurred to me, and I think to my cousin, that Billy could still be dangerous to other girls in the family. I had always thought I was the only one. My cousin ended the visit abruptly, and, in tears that night, I realized that my time in Edith’s house, a place I’d called home for so many years, was over. I called a relative in another town and asked her to take me to the train early, and made an excuse to Billy. Sick, flustered, and grief-stricken, I knew that I would have to finally speak up. I was tired of protecting him, and of carrying my secret. I was afraid to speak out, but I felt I had to. I wrote a letter to him and sent a copy to other members of the family. I told him the effect of what he had done when I was a child, how I’d tried to get him to stop touching me and coming on to me. I told him what he’d done with my cousin’s daughter was wrong. I outed him as an abuser to the family. In phone calls afterward with my female cousins, they told me they’d always known Billy was dangerous. “Our folks always told us never to be alone with him,” they said.

I put down the phone, startled to find out that everyone had known about him all along but no one had said anything to me. No one had wondered about my sleeping there each summer and staying in the house with Billy?

The biggest loss was not to be able to sit in Edith’s kitchen ever again, to hear the clocks ticking, to see the way the elm tree swayed in the afternoon breeze—to never again visit the place I thought of as home even more than the house on Park Street. At Edith’s, Gram was always nicer and Mother had to watch her mouth. It was the home of all our pie making, of huge dinners where everyone gathered around the table. It never would be again.

***

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One of my goals in writing my memoir was to create a love letter to the Iowa family. I loved the Mississippi River running like a poem through the lands our ancestors had worked. I wanted to honor Blanche, who’d taught me how to love the garden, pushing a ripe strawberry into my mouth, showing me that dirt was not dangerous. I wanted to honor Aunt Edith for teaching me how to make lemon meringue pie and making me feel that I had a caring mother as she taught me her country ways.

So in my final versions of the memoir, I left out the incidents with Billy and the other men, believing it best to preserve the relationship with my extended family.

After the confrontation with Billy, I still retained a comfortable relationship with his brother, K., and his wife. After the hoopla about my letter died down, they offered me hospitality if I wanted to visit. They asked me about what I’d included in the memoir about Billy, and I assured them that I had left out his sexual abuse.

When my memoir was released, eight years after the breach with Billy, I was welcomed as an author and “local” in the town. I enjoyed a long radio interview, a newspaper interview, and a bookstore presentation. By then, Billy had had a heart attack, and his brother suggested that we try to patch things up, so I invited Billy to the reading. Tears sprang to his eyes as I read a story about making lemon meringue pie with his mother, our summer ritual for forty years. Through gestures and even a careful hug, I believed that we’d both let the past go. He was an old man now, and alone.

I knew he had been furious with me for exposing him, and he denied everything, but I was sure he knew what I was talking about. I believed that forgiveness and reconciliation, with boundaries, of course, could lead to more visits to my Iowa homeland. I still clung to my yearning for the landscapes of my childhood. It was the birthplace of all the family I had ever known; it was home.

When I presented the positive side of my family in Don’t Call Me Mother, I believed that the details about Billy were not what the book was really about. I didn’t need to include that information, out of respect for the living and the dead. And as a therapist, I had boundaries about how much I wanted to reveal. I was preserving something positive, I thought. I’d made the right choice.

Then, upon the rerelease of my book, Becoming Whole, and another bookstore event in the town, something happened. I stayed with Billy’s brother again, and found myself in a tense encounter with him at breakfast. With narrowed eyes, he grilled me again, “Now what did you put in that there book?”

His wife fluttered around nervous about his grouchy mood. I wondered how many times in their marriage she’d had to appease him. “She didn’t include anything, remember. She left it all out!” Her grey curls fluttered.

 K. growled a little and went on, “You know my brother said, sure she can come here again, but I don’t want to see her no more.”

I remembered the hug that seemed like an acknowledgement, some kind of truce. “Okay,” I said, “he doesn’t have to see me.” I grew clammy with dread as his eyes drilled into me, threatening, fierce.

“Now, what did you put in there, what did you say about him?” I denied again including details about Billy and what he had done, but I found myself remembering a conversation I’d had with K. when he told me how his daughter had begged him not to send her to her Uncle Billy’s. She was only four years old. He’d ignored her request, and he’d assured me that she never said anything more about it. I thought of all the girls who never spoke up, knowing that the grown-ups didn’t want to hear the truth.

This morning we went a third round, his wife saying, “You didn’t read it, she said she left out the stuff about Billy.” Those eyes again, mocking eyes, like bullets.

Finally, I understood what was happening: He didn’t believe that Billy had done anything at all. He thought I was lying.

The alliances were clear: I was an outsider. Suddenly, as if a deck of cards had reshuffled itself, I saw the truth about the whole family. K.’s steely eyes—the hate, the disgust at who I was to him, was palpable. I was an intruder, someone who had falsely accused his brother. He had chosen sides. My whole body reverberated with danger, with the sense that my childhood house of cards had just tumbled down.

For years, my therapist had tried to warn me about idealizing the Iowa family, but I couldn’t see it. I’d created a spun-sugar fantasy to protect myself from my losses, from my mother’s denying that I was her daughter, from having been a virtual orphan.

I had to take a walk before giving my workshop, and then quickly leave to become my professional self at the bookstore. In a surreal daze a couple of hours after the shocking encounter with K., I taught a “Writing as Healing” workshop about writing the truth, and using writing to unlock old stories. The irony of what I was teaching, given my inner meltdown, was not lost on me.

After the workshop, I settled into trying to grasp what was happening over a glass of wine at a restaurant overlooking the river. The grief of losing Iowa, Edith’s house, the town that I’d adopted settled down on me like a heavy blanket. I noticed that none of my relatives had returned my calls to visit them. I didn’t belong. I had never belonged. The “family” I’d clung to had simply tolerated me, Gram, and Mother. When Gram left my mother behind, they judged her harshly, and later, when she had money, they took her expensive presents and stuffed them in the closet. She believed in education, liked nice clothes, loved the arts, and traveled to Europe. They were farm people. They knew my mother was a little bit crazy, and then there was me: I had the nerve to live in crazy California and write books! What insane thing might I do next? Perhaps they were afraid of what other secrets I might expose. I will never know. I made up a lie about why I had to leave town early, to keep any further attacks at bay, and rushed off in my rental car.

***

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On that misty last summer day in Iowa, I visited all the beloved places that had been part of my pilgrimage to Iowa for nearly fifty years. I stood in the rain beside my mother’s and grandfather’s gravestones in Wapello and said goodbye. I drove by the house Mother had lived in as a child, and all the houses we’d visited through the years as Blanche and the other old ones told the stories of their childhood. We would haunt the old houses as a memorial to those who’d passed on, honoring our family story. I drove by the fields and little villages on the rutted roads I’d traveled since I was eight years old.

That day, I took off my shoes and let the cool waters of the Mississippi River bathe my feet as I wept my goodbyes to the landscape that had soothed me. The land, the woods, the hills, the sand—all of it had been etched into my heart. The golden waves of corn in August, the curving roads that led to farms where my grandmother was born, where she walked as a child, knowing where my roots were—all this had comforted me in the desert years of my childhood, and even as an adult when my mother rejected me year after year. I said goodbye forever to my illusions.

Since then, I have spoken to no one in the family, and they have not reached out to me. From time to time, I watch the obituaries, and finally saw that Billy had died, and then other grudge-holding, judgmental folks were gone, too. I mourned Edith’s house for years, dreaming of it, happy to be back there, but the dream would fade and there was emptiness. Finally, the pain and grieving receded. I realized that accepting these final losses were part of my story and part of my healing.

All this taught me that even if you leave out the secret stories, they’re still part of your history. I learned that you can lose everything and everyone even if you leave out the damning details!

As for Billy, I remembered a time when I thought of him as the brother I never had, imperfect though he was. And the truths that I didn’t put in my memoir remained true, if silent. The truths that I knew, the secrets and the shame that destroyed my illusions, made me wish that I had included them in the first edition of my memoir, but I know why I didn’t: I was not ready to lose everything. I knew that I would. And I did.

This cautionary tale supports the idea that writing the truth may or may not destroy anything or anyone, but leaving it all out or writing it as a novel can’t guarantee safety either. We can only expose the story we are ready to share—if the world’s ear can bear to listen. Until then, we may keep our silence. But our memoir keeps asking us to open out, to bear witness, and to tell the truth as we know it while coming to terms with what we can bear and how much it might cost to share it.

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