Inheritance

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“Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.” Inheritance, Dani Shapiro

A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking at memoir through the lens of inheritance – genetic, ancestral, cultural, and otherwise. This, as I send off my DNA to be analyzed and journey to my two ancestral homes: Sweden, for the first time; and Sicily, where we’ve traveled as a family on several occasions while raising our sons.

I’m not sure what I’ll find in Sweden – more about that in upcoming posts. As for Sicily, I look forward to seeing my extended family again and their stunningly beautiful landscape, their small city on the sea which has been their ancestral home for centuries, and their warm, embracing culture.

I wanted to begin with Dani Shapiro’s jaw-dropping Inheritance because it is a “big,” important memoir, masterfully executed by a seasoned memoirist and novelist, about an increasingly common situation: more people are having their DNA analyzed, and some are getting huge surprises. Others are having long-held suspicions about maternity or paternity confirmed.

In Dani’s case, she learned that her father, whom she adored, was not her biological father. Which meant that her half sister was not her sister. Her beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were not her blood relations, either. Their rich, storied Jewish history and culture were not hers. (Or were they? Do true blood ties matter? Or can nurture make up the difference? Dani explores this.)

Some of Dani’s memories are especially resonant and ironic in hindsight:

At a writer’s retreat, when she was young, aspiring, and still unknown, a famous poet, observing her fair-skinned features, commented: “There’s no way you are Jewish. No way.”

At a backyard barbecue in their close-knit, Jewish neighborhood, a friend and Holocaust survivor said to a baffled, eight-year-old Dani: ““We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

After a photographic portrait session, three-year-old Dani was selected by Kodak for the Grand Central Station Colorama photo: the iconic, blonde, All-American (non-Jewish) child in front of the Christmas tree waiting eagerly for Santa.

But I found the following memory most haunting of all: it speaks of Dani’s staggering loneliness and bewilderment as an only child who had always had an innate, deeply felt sense she didn’t belong in her own family. Years after it happened, a neighbor recalled how one day Dani ran across the street to her house, frightened and crying. A home security alarm had gone off, and Dani’s babysitter had been apparently indifferent or unconcerned. The neighbor said she later called Dani’s mother, fed up with Dani’s endless string of babysitters and what she saw as parental neglect. I should say here that Dani had a challenging, contentious relationship with her mother who was, to say the least, a difficult woman.

Inheritance is an important memoir for many reasons; among other things, it raises moral and ethical questions that we, as a society, need to confront. I’ve written before about Jaron Lanier’s call for a more humanitarian focus as our culture becomes shaped and influenced in unforeseen ways by advances in technology. As genetic identities become easily obtainable, we’d do well to ask:

At what point does the quest to have children, at all costs, become morally questionable?  (There is something deeply ironic about the profession chosen by Dani’s biological father, whose identity she goes on to discover.)

Is it not the basic human right of every individual to know his or her genetic identity? Is it ever right for that genetic identity to be legally or otherwise withheld?

Dani comes to think of her discovery as a form of trauma:

“Later, I will become a student of trauma. I will read deeply on the subject as a way of understanding the two opposite poles of my own history: the trauma my parents must have experienced in order to have made a decision so painful that it was buried at the moment it was made, and the trauma of my discovery of that decision more than half a century later.

It is the nature of trauma that, when left untreated, it deepens over time. I had experienced trauma over the years and had developed ways of dealing with it. I meditated each morning. I had a decades-long yoga practice. I had suffered other traumas – my parents’ car accident, Jacob’s childhood illness – and had come out the other side, eventually. What I didn’t understand was that as terrible as these were, they were singular incidents….

But this – the discovery that I wasn’t who I had believed myself to be all my life, that my parents had on some level, no matter how subtle, made the choice to keep the truth of my identity from me – this was no singular incident. It wasn’t something outside myself, to be held to the light and examined, and finally understood. It was inseparable from myself. It was myself.

Their trauma became mine – had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot.”

Dani Shapiro now has a podcast series, “Family Secrets.”

Memoir, as a genre, is coming into its own, partly because we are finally realizing how silence and secrets can deepen trauma, with impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our larger culture.

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

  • The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold. There is something uniquely American and West Coast about this hilarious and deeply honest memoir by a fabulous writer. I’ll be looking at her familial and cultural “inheritance.”
  • My personal stake in memoir, my own writing of memoir, and what aspects of inheritance I’ll be searching for when I travel to Europe.

 

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Coming up: What I’ll be searching for in Sweden and Sicily

 

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Not far from my Sicilian ancestral home

Excavating a Life

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About the creative life and writing memoir…

“I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

“What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

“This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were.”      – Louise DeSalvo

When I was staying in Port Townsend, I picked up a copy of Louise DeSalvo’s book, Writing As a Way of Healing, at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore.

I’d heard DeSalvo speak at a free National Association of Memoir Writers teleseminar, and she was fantastic. (The founder of NAMW is my wonderful writing coach, Linda Joy Myers, who does an outstanding job connecting the best memoir writers and teachers with those of us trying to make our way through the wilderness of writing our own memoirs.)

I would say if you are writing a memoir, a novel, or any long-form work of nonfiction, or if you want to write about your life as a form of self-expression, this book is a must-read, a valuable companion to have at your side at all times while you work. DeSalvo’s voice is warm, wise, encouraging, and firm. She’ll help you develop a common sense writing practice that is less of a struggle and more intentional, self-caring, and restorative.

One of DeSalvo’s key points is that writing your story is healing and transformative, but only if you go about it the right way. As a medical librarian, I’m all for looking at what the scientific research has to say before making a claim about anything, and DeSalvo does just that.

We’ve all heard that writing can be healing, but simply venting emotions on the page may cause a writer to get stuck or even set the writer back. On the other hand, telling what happened in a dispassionate way – a mere listing of events – won’t do much, either.

Writers need to do both – honestly tell about events and honestly recount their emotions – and link them in a meaningful way. “A healing narrative links feelings with events.”

Research has shown that only when a person tells what happened with honesty, nuance, and detail that includes not just events, but feelings, and with the intention of unearthing and crafting a true, meaningful story – only then does writing about one’s life hold the possibility of transformation.

This is not easy. It requires honest self-evaluation and facing aspects of yourself you may have kept hidden. It requires putting yourself in the place of others so you can understand why they may have behaved in certain ways.

Vivid characterization, dialogue reconstructed to the best of your ability, movie-like scenes that highlight key events and emotional peaks and valleys, all woven into a narrative, is a lot of work, but it’s a way to re-experience life events that can bring catharsis, insight, and meaning.

DeSalvo points to research that suggests people who recall traumatic events in a vague, general way – without detail or nuance – have not yet begun the healing process. I was amazed when I read this, because my first drafts tend to be frustratingly superficial. As a child and adolescent, I’d numbed out to protect myself and, as an adult, to avoid grappling with painful events. Writing about them now often requires several drafts as I gradually mine through to the essentials of the experience. I thought this was a sign that I was a mediocre writer. DeSalvo helped me understand that this is a normal part of the healing and writing process.

Even though I haven’t finished writing my memoir, I’ve already reaped benefits. Writing about events that are emotionally difficult or that arouse shame indeed lose their repressive power over me once they are on the page.

Honoring people’s privacy is also a concern that can hold writers back, but DeSalvo encourages us to remember we are writing a draft, and that these issues can be carefully considered later, if we want to publish. At that time, we can make revisions to protect privacy.

She reminds us, too, that there is a lot to be said for public testimony (in a way that doesn’t harm others) about trauma and issues that society has pressured many of us to keep silent about. In the case of mental illness, for example, no one is healed and nothing can improve unless long-avoided issues are brought into the light of day and confronted.

For me, DeSalvo’s book is most valuable because she has given me a way to write a memoir without losing my mind. She breaks down the process into phases and walks me through each one: Preparing, Planning, Germinating, Working, Deepening, Shaping, Ordering, and Completing.

Not every phase is pleasurable, and if we have difficulty, we aren’t to blame ourselves, but persist. It’s just part of the process. We learn what we can realistically expect in each phase, which greatly reduces anxiety.

I’m still learning how to integrate writing into my everyday life so it becomes habitual, manageable, and enjoyable. I’m still learning how to care for myself as I write – for example, by writing in short, frequent doses so I’m not overwhelmed emotionally and by judiciously sharing my writing only with those who support my work and have some understanding of the rigors of the process.

I should add that, as I’ve excavated my life and the effects of my mother’s mental illness on our family over the years, I’ve had the help of an excellent therapist. DeSalvo encourages writers to connect with a good therapist if they’re having difficulties. Writing is not a substitute for therapy. She says: “I personally believe it is essential for people wanting to write about extreme situations to have skilled professional support while writing or to attend a reputable support group.”

There is so much more to this book. DeSalvo draws on the wisdom of psychologists, researchers, and well-known writers, integrating their knowledge into a compelling and enormously helpful guide.

Many, many passages in my copy of Writing As a Way of Healing are underlined. Here are a few:

“Sometimes the writer is unsure about precisely what happened because…she or he was in a state of shock or emotional numbness while it was happening. The most basic and important survival tactics often involve blunting the emotions, carefully watching, splitting the consciousness (watching the event as if it’s happening to someone else), even splitting the self (into two or more personae). Finding words, finding literary forms to convey these self-preserving defensive tactics, these superlinguistic layers of meaning, often seems impossible.”

“Virginia Woolf said moments of profound insight that come from writing about our soulful, thoughtful examination of our psychic wounds should be called ‘shocks.’ For they force us into an awareness about ourselves and our relationship to others and our place in the world that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. They realign the essential nature of our being.”

“In time, I learned how Zen artists and writers devote themselves to an orderly, contemplative way of life that prepares them for their work. But how doing their work, too, becomes a form of meditation. Work and life are deeply integrated.”

A quote by Henry Miller:“[Writing] lifts the sufferer out of his obsessions and frees him for the rhythm and movement of life by joining him to the great universal stream in which we all have our being.”

Note: After reading this post, my dear writing coach, Linda Joy, tried to leave a comment, but either WordPress or my comment settings didn’t allow her to. So I’m putting her words here, which I greatly appreciate:

What a wonderful essay about the essentials in writing memoir and narrating our truths. I have loved Louise DeSalvo’s book for years and was so happy when she joined us for two NAMW presentations last year! I also got the other books, Jane Eyre’s Sisters thanks to you Valorie, and love it. It offers a more accurate template for the heroine’s story, which is necessarily an internal journey, not just an external one. Thank you for illuminating these gems and what you find valuable in your lovely blog! – Linda Joy Myers

Thank you, Linda Joy.

Below are photos of Port Townsend, where I did some writing and read Louise DeSalvo’s book. Nature is a wonderful restorative when you’re writing memoir.

(By the way, the photo above shows Jane Eyre’s Sisters, which I also picked up at The Writer’s Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore. I’m still making my way through it. Jane Eyre has a role to play in my memoir.)

 

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My airbnb had a secret garden with a view of Puget Sound, which has many moods…

 

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7 a.m.

 

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Shades of pink as sunset approaches

 

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One morning I woke up and saw the Cascades.

 

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A blue and gray day

 

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I zoomed in with my iPhone so the photo is grainy, but this day was exceptionally crisp and clear.

 

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Port Townsend has many fascinating and unusual shops where you just want to linger. (Note the reflection of the bay in the window.)

 

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I bought this luscious Australian mohair in another color at Bazaar Girls Yarn Shop & Fibre Emporium on Quincy Street for my sister-in-law. They are a crafting community, crafting community. Don’t you love their tagline?

 

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The Port Townsend Farmer’s Market is lots of fun, and a good place to meet people because everyone there loves to talk about the wonders of living on the Olympic Peninsula. The musicians below are Ranger & the Re-Arrangers, a Gypsy jazz band from Seattle.

 

 

 

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