Do it for yourself
A decade before I wrote my memoir, I was watching The Judds episode on OWN where Ashley Judd told Wynonna that she wrote a memoir. Wynonna yelled at her in anger, “Why’d you have to do that?”
Ashley's answer was, “Because you wouldn’t listen to me any other way.”
At the time I thought that made so much sense. I figured maybe Ashley's mom and sister would realize how they had treated her like their slave, but now that I’ve written my own memoir, I doubt it. I also realize the person I was writing for was not the narcissist, but myself.
What is it about narcissistic people that they can't listen to others or view things from another’s point of view?
It was the scandal of the family for several years. They knew I was writing a memoir about my childhood and neither my parents nor my siblings were supportive of the project. By deciding to write the story of our peripatetic and often homeless existence, I became the scapegoat.
No one was positive about it. One sister tried to read things into my blogs and articles and suggested I was telling lies. My mom worried about me ruining the family’s reputation. One family member even went so far as to make fun of my childhood dream of wanting to be a writer like Laura Ingalls or John-boy Walton.
An Unusual Childhood
The first thing that inspired me to write my story was the fact that I had an unusual childhood. In some ways, I had more in common with the pioneers than most kids raised in the seventies and eighties. Sometimes my family lived in the woods without running water or power. It was a challenge to live in the modern world and still do things the old-fashioned, difficult way.
When I grew old enough to appreciate my unique childhood, I decided that writing my stories would give me the chance to revisit both the wonderful and traumatic events. I also longed to acknowledge the legacy my grandparents and teachers had given to me.
I Wrote to Correct a Web of Lies
The second reason I wrote my memoir was that my family history was encased in a web of lies. Lies that I myself had even contributed to by trying to keep the family peace. Those lies included telling people I was raised in Montana when I’d only lived there for a couple of years in my teens. They included making up titles for my father’s work and lying to bill collectors. But the worst lie of all (to my teenage mind) was telling people we were homeschooled when my parents never bought any school books.
I Wrote to be True to Myself
Telling lies about myself and family had stolen my authenticity. I hated the feeling that I was always hiding something. I wanted to feel free. By the time I realized I had nothing to hide, I was in my mid-forties. My siblings were not far behind me.
Part of the reason it took me so long to become myself and tell the truth was that my parents were still alive. They seemed hurt and disappointed if any of us kids brought up the past. As a matter of fact, I was told over and over to “stop living in the past.” I wasn’t living in the past as much as I needed to acknowledge the past in order to move on with my life.
I Wrote Because I Needed Support
It would be great to get support from my siblings. After all, we had endured many of these events together. But being different ages and temperaments, we had different points of view. My twelve-year-old sister viewed living homeless in a campground as an adventure. At the same time, I was an angry eighteen-year-old, because I was missing out on having friends and going to high school. We had different needs at the time.
As we grew into our twenties and thirties and beyond, my siblings and I rarely spoke about our lack of education or our struggles to be part of society. It’s a lonely journey when you’ve lived most of your growing-up years in isolation. And it’s even harder when you’ve been taught to keep the family secrets.
My siblings and I need each other. No one but a sibling knows what you’ve gone through. But the way we’d been raised, it was disloyal to speak negatively about our upbringing even when our parents were not in the house. Because of this cult-like loyalty and inability to connect, I needed to find support outside of my family.
I Wrote It for Myself
I didn’t write my memoir to get the approval of family or strangers. That’s good, because despite many positive reviews, I received some negative ones. The ones that make me laugh are the ones who think my entire memoir was made up.
One critic said she didn’t think it was true because as a teenager in a cult-like setting, I said, “I want to have sex before Jesus comes.” I’m not sure why that seems so unbelievable. But what other people think about my very real and sometimes traumatic life, is none of my business.
And strangers are the least of my worries when it comes to critics. Like I stated above, one of my sisters went on an all-out attack over my book. But the truth is whatever she thinks doesn’t matter. This was my story and she can write her own book.
I Did What I Set Out to Do
Writing my first memoir met each of my goals. I was able to reminisce, reflect, and honor the helpers in my life. I was set free from the lies my family taught me to repeat. I was able to become more authentic and stopped feeling like a fake. And I found support.
The support brought untold healing. People have written to tell me that they too have been forced to dress like a scarecrow, they too have rocked from one end of a state to another on a road trip, they too were “homeschooled” without books, or they too wanted to have sex before Jesus comes.
The greatest gift I received from my memoir went far beyond the thousands of dollars in book sales — it was knowing that I am not alone. Whether people can relate to my story or not, they write to say, “Thank you for sharing your story, I’m a better sister, mother, daughter, son, or father because I read your book.” That’s more affirmation than I’ll ever get from my family. And it’s worth gold to me.
And all of our stories are unique especially when we tell the truth — not the facts, but the pain of the sorrows, and the insecurity, and the regret of not doing what we feel we should’ve done.
Take your story and breathe it onto the page. You have a story worth telling — no matter how messy it is. Just don’t write it for the narcissist or the flying monkeys because that can get you off course from the real truth — that your story is worth hearing regardless of your critics.
Cherilyn Christen Clough broke the rules when she started writing about her family’s secrets. Some claim she sold her soul to the devil, but she prefers to think of it as gaining freedom. You can read about her strange childhood in Chasing Eden A Memoir.