I’ve been working with Ellen Newhouse, a Seattle healer (wwww.ellennewhouse.com) for a few years on her memoir. Every two weeks we dive into a chapter, refine the language, explore the setting, develop the characters. We relive her childhood together, remembering everything from the living room sofa to the 6th grade classroom. Remembering, too, a father, a big man, a larger than life man, a brutal man, a loving man. He’d beat his daughter. He’d dance with her. He’d scream. He’d brag and show her off.
I said to her in our last session that she’d come a long way in the depiction of her father. In the first draft, we met only the rageful man. He seemed like a monster. That’s the way with all writers. We begin with the trauma. Abuse fires the nerve endings so intensely, that there’s no other way. It’s like trying to hear a soft voice when someone is yelling. We just hear the yelling. Trauma trumps tenderness.
Somehow telling the story, as long as it takes, as many times as one has to tell it, somehow it calms these nerves, eases the energy. Then and only then can the softer stories surface. This happened with my client. Slowly, loving stories surfaced. Step-by-step a dimensional portrait emerged. No longer does the reader see a monster. Now they see a fully developed man, a difficult man, a tortured man, but a man. Not an easy feat in memoir, exploring our parents so deeply. It’s as painful as it is healing.
I tell clients: Explore the trauma fully. Tell the stories. Let them rip. Rage. Despair. Grieve. Write. Write. Write. Later, it will happen organically. You’ll remember a time, as Ellen is doing, when simple actions of love happened. You’ll remember a laugh instead of a scream. You’ll remember joy instead of fear. You’ll start to ask yourself probing questions: Who really was this person behind the rage? And you’ll find him. You’ll save him. I believe that. Even if he’s dead, by writing it all through from grief to gentleness, you’ll save his life. When you tell a story, when you tell it with clear and simple honesty, you save that person’s life. I believe we not only heal ourselves in the writing, we heal the people who’ve hurt us, too.
What a miracle writing is.