The town I live in in Massachusetts has a reputation. For decades, Haverhill has been known for its petty crime, domestic violence, its unemployment and poverty. Walk the streets late at night or too early in the morning (I was up at 5 to do a photo shoot of the downtown once), and you’ll run into all sorts of characters, mostly homeless, mostly scary. I was chased down the street once on Thanksgiving by a man and his shopping cart.
I came here because it was the closest feeling I could get to the Missouri town where I grew up, the poverty, the lack of education, the threat of violence in the air. My Missouri experience was rural and this is not, but I can’t believe how much the experience translates.
I needed that Missouri feeling to finish Earth, my first novel. In Seattle, everyone around me was just too aware, too educated, too privileged. In Missouri, they called us Rednecks. Here they say Townie, but it’s the same thing. Cycles of poverty and violence that go from generation to generation. To be fair, these days Haverhill is a perfectly pleasant town most of the time. It cleaned up its image a lot since the 1970s.
Last Saturday, Andre Dubus III, author of several novels, including House of Sand and Fog, read from his new memoir, Townie, at the local Haverhill library.
Dubus grew up in Haverhill is the rough 1970s, when it was even more of a mecca of drugs and violence. In Townie, he writes about his father leaving the family (Andre Dubus II, also a famous writer), their poverty, his mother’s dejection, his sister’s drug habit, and his brother’s suicidal depression. After being beaten up himself dozens of times by local ruffians, and after a particularly horrible beating his brother got, Dubus vowed to become a fighter. He spent 10 years beating up other teenagers in a neighborhood known for nearly regular stabbings.
During the Q&A, all sorts of people who knew Dubus as a boy were in the audience, teachers at his school, his old girlfriend. A man raised his hand and told Andre that one of the kids described in the book who got stabbed was his brother. You could feel the emotion in the room. Dubus immediatley left the podium, walked into the audience and hugged the man, who visibly teared up.
It seemed to me at that moment (and throughout the event) “accidental healings” were happening. Dubus had already done a book tour across the US, and said he was both “excited and terrified” about coming back for a public reading in Haverhill. He knew people would recognize themselves, or argue with him over the veracity of his memories.
I coach a lot of memoir writers. They too can be terrified of speaking their truth, of airing their laundry for all to see. While I agree that it’s scary, it also provides the potential for such accidental healings. Even as my clients are writing their memoirs, subtle healings happen. They reconnect with an old friend from primary school. An old boyfriend gets in touch. They speak to their sisters about some event they’re not sure they’re remembering right and old wounds heal themselves.
Such healing is also true with fiction. I cannot find the exact quote now, but Virginia Woolf spoke about how writing The Lighthouse was as if she’d purged and released much of her pain over her mother’s early death. She said it was as if she’d done years of therapy in writing that book. Before she wrote that book her mother’s ghost haunted her. Afterwards, she never felt haunted by her again.
Writing memoir may be tough, but it’s an epic and profoundly healing process, for the writer and for others. I’m offering a $25 email writing course. Go here for more information: http://www.artofstorytellingonline.com/Memoir%20workshop.htm. I’m a writing coach. Contact me for a free initial consultation. www.artofstorytellingonline.com.