Letter From My 48th Year (April 17)
According to Instagram, it’s been nearly a month since the book went up on the wall. And since then, I’ve barely glanced at it other than a quick glimpse or two at the additional poems I might add.
I feel stopped. I feel paralyzed. I feel like to move forward will take more effort than I’m capable of sustaining.
None of which is head-true. But it’s-heart true.
So I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on.
My sister—the best cheerleader a gal could ask for—told me to prepare myself for this book to be big. Which I’m realizing now fills me with dread, the idea of people reading my book. Well, not people, my family. My dad’s family. I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m doing something wrong by writing about my father this way, by writing about all the ways I was consistently hurt by him. I think it’s true that my father can both have been a nice man and a terrible father to me, but on the verge of that statement being true in a much larger world, I’m not so confident saying it.
When I was in grad school, I had many talks with the nonfiction writers—all of whom were writing about their families—about what to do when a family member bitterly disagreed with the point of view you were exploring in your writing. If I remember correctly, one writer almost lost what had a been a close relationship with her brother over essays she was writing about their childhood with alcoholic parents. At the time, I wasn’t writing about my father, I was writing about my mother when I wrote about family. And I didn’t see any possibility of any real relationship between us so I didn’t really think about being careful about her feelings. I would always say to my friends struggling with what to say and what not to say, “This is your story. I’m sorry if it hurts them, but it your story to tell.”
For this reason, as I’ve been writing these poems I’ve removed most traces of my siblings though my sister and one of my brothers were very much involved in my father’s illness and death, and as I share a mother with my sister, she was a first-hand witness to the destruction of our original nuclear family which some of the poems also cover. Still, as I could only know truly what I felt about my father and didn’t want to put either words or feelings in their mouth, and since I could tell the story I wanted without including them, as a writer I didn’t include them (though as a sister there’s no way to untwine them from that time in my life nor would I want to.)
And perhaps it’s because they have not been part of the writing of the poems, I haven’t really thought about the impact of not just one or two poems about my father but nearly 30 of them. That will hopefully be read by thousands. And read before thousands. And discussed by thousands. And while I have no problem exposing myself to strangers–in a literary sense, that is–it feels scarier to expose myself to family who might say, “You’ve gotten it wrong. He wasn’t like that at all. But you were the one who didn’t…”
I grew up as a kid who was constantly gaslighted by her parents. I still feel like I have a tenuous grip at the very best on what actually transpired in my childhood. Because of the continual gaslighting, because of the atmosphere of fear and anger, I spent a great deal of my childhood trying to somehow be un-present. And though I’m an adult now, that idea of not being believed is still the most terrifying thing I can think of. I am still terribly frightened of doing the wrong thing. And somehow I’ve gotten it in my head that putting this book out there is a kind of “wrong thing” and will open me up to another wave of not being believed, which won’t be any less painful even if I do—hopefully—have better coping mechanisms.
Even now I’m gaslighting myself, the voice inside of me taunting, “You’re making a big deal over nothing. Everything you’ve written about really wasn’t as painful as you’ve made it seem. Seriously, exaggerate much?”
I don’t really know how else to respond but to be in my current state of panic, which I’m hiding in prolonged weeks of overeating and binge watching TV. It is terrifying to see one’s flayed self stuck to a wall with blue masking tape. It is terrifying to know you have to keep moving forward on the path that will put the most vulnerable parts of you in the hands of those that may not be as kind, as understanding as you’d like.
There is, of course, nothing to do but move forward. In my saner moments, I know the work is good and, as I’m written before, necessary. I also know that it is my fear that is demonizing my family. Still I really don’t know when this panic will subside. I should write something heroic like, “So I’m going to get back to working on it tonight.” But, really, all I can promise is that I’m going to go take a shower and wash my compression socks and leave those pages stuck up on the wall, which, the fact that they’re up there at all, is at least, something.