Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Mirroring and Finding Your Peeps
At 38, I am realizing how much losing my parents affected me.
Now, I was not unaware - as soon as my mother had an aneurysm when I was nineteen, and I was suddenly parent-less, I was very clear that my life differed from those around me. Friends were either in college but went home for the summer, weren't in college but were still living at home, or, for the most part, still strongly connected to "home" as being where they grew up, and the house in which their parents lived.
For lots of reasons, certain of my friends were more "out there" like I was - divorced parents who both moved to new cities and left no bedrooms for them, people who left abusive childhood homes and had nowhere safe to go back to, etc. However, I knew no one else in my particular circumstance: parent-less.
While one of my brothers remained in our childhood home, and I moved back to live with him for a bit after Mom died, after that I stayed out on my own. I had privilege - an inheritance, a grandfather in Chicago I lived with on and off. Yet, there was a feeling I had, whether true or not, that it was up to me 100% to keep it together in my life. No one was going to save me, and I wouldn't let them help me, even if they could.
For the most part, I avoided group therapy, save one online forum in my mid-twenties when I became curious if others could relate to my situation. I met a few folks, but most of them had lost their parents much younger, and so could not relate to my particular situation. They had been in foster homes, or had stepparents or someone else in the family step up. I was in this peculiar situation: 19 is technically, legally old enough to be solo flying. And yet, most people in our society are definitely not fully adults at nineteen.
Recently I found this blog post, and it was illuminating: How to Handle Being Orphaned as a Young Adult. I came to even look for it because I have been reading Dave Eggers' memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And I got there because a student/friend happened to suggest the Earth Girl series by Janet Edwards. Both of these books involved people orphaned as young adults - in the case of Jarra in the Earth Girl series, she was abandoned as a child, and then orphaned again as a young adult, when she is just about to meet her birth parents. I keep finding myself reading orphan literature, and I am finally understanding why. Something in me is turning a corner, getting "old enough" to be curious about the effect of being orphaned at the age I was. It's a turning back and looking - which is to say, not that I don't still feel the effect but it feels like enough time has passed (in the case of my mom, nineteen years, or half my life) to let me see myself more wholly. I want to be mirrored - and I am, in Dave and Jarra - as painful as it is. I am realizing that these folks are my peeps - my peers, my cohort, the folks I relate to, fictional or real, the most in some key ways.
I have been headed here a long time. I started a novel called Orphano in my twenties (never finished). I of course have known while working on Bermuda Triangles, my memoir-in-progress, that being orphaned is definitely a part of my story. But recently in my memoir feedback group, someone pointed out that it really is the defining thing - not the relationships I set out to write about originally, but how they reflect back my being orphaned. How everything really comes back to losing my parents so young. Some part of me is finally ready to swallow that, to digest it and look at what comes out when I can fully see it, or more fully see it.
I find Eggers' writing style supremely annoying, but I am reading the book each night because his insights - and brutal self-honesty - are a mirror for me. He is showing me mentalities - particularly a characteristic of hyper sympathy-seeking martyrdom - that I would really rather overlook in myself, even a past version of me. It's powerful, though, being mirrored. Painful and powerful.
Often we talk about reading memoirs that relate to what we are writing as if it is the same thing as reading the novel genre we are writing in. It isn't. It's just not that clean with memoir. With memoir, even when we think we are beyond what we are writing about, we aren't. In the writing, in the reading and editing, all the same issues we had in the scenes we are describing come right back up again. I have relived being abandoned and surviving due to my strength again and again in the process of working on Bermuda Triangles.
I think I am finally coming clear enough to depict that in a way that an audience can read. After all, this is the difference between memoir and therapy - though the writing process may be quite similar, in the end, the finished memoir, published or not, should be more about being able to look back and depict than just process out and understand for oneself. Ideally. The line between those two, however, can be quite thin, and the process involves a lot of back and forth: the text and early readers mirroring back issues still happening now and being lived out and seen or not seen.
It's messy. I still think it's worth it.