After I got my eye condition in November 2004, I was possessed by a fierce need to write about my relationship with my mother. This relationship towered over my life. It had shaped the way I perceived the world and myself in it, how I thought and felt, who I befriended, how I lived, what I wrote about, how I developed as a writer, everything. It was so all-consuming that nearly all my female heroes were orphans. Occasionally they had fathers. One of my heroines had a mother, who banished her from home in the first sentences of the story. That absence, which stirred no comment from my writing friends, was the fanged and leather-winged bat hanging from the ceiling of my imaginative life.
So when this need to write about my own mother seized hold of me, I struggled with it, and lost. I understood that my eye condition had given me an opportunity to do something about this relationship other than run away from it.
it took me persistent effort to get to a place where I could write about her in a way that meant something to me. During those years, I had to learn how to write memoir. I had trained as a fiction writer and had dabbled in some journalism, but memoir was and is something different. First, I had to learn the technical side of writing memoir. That tremendous mental effort paled next to the psychological training it demanded of me. I met internal resistance every way I turned. Who would be interested in my mother and me? I kept asking myself. Who would be interested in the dull, everyday, sordid details of our relationship? Those details seemed at once tedious and repulsive.
I tried to write the story as a straightforward telling in chronological order of events in my years at home. After sixty pages I gave up. Something more compelling was needed. Something that bound these events together in a way that made the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
I tried my hand at some personal essays. I read a lot of them and got hooked on the form, which I enjoyed far more than any other short narrative form I had read. I wrote a few and sent them to a friend who wrote very good memoir. She was kind and patient but she said, ‘You keep leaving yourself out of the story, Sydney. You have to put yourself in the story.’ She went through each of these pieces and in scene after scene wrote, ‘How did you feel about this?”
I was so upset by her comments that I looked for someone else who would tell me what I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to be told my memoirs were good. I wanted someone to tell me I could write without including myself. I could tolerate being the observer in these pieces. I was reduced to tears whenever I tried to be a player in the drama.
After two years of trying to write on terms I could accept, knowing they were the wrong terms, I wrote a long essay about a reality TV show called Wife Swap USA. This show appalled and fascinated me. It wasn’t about swapping wives, with all its unfulfilled suggestiveness. It was about mothers who were insane, or distressed in some other psychological way, their struggle against mental illness to do the right thing by their families, and their effect on their children. So many of them reminded me of my own mother that I wished I could call my brothers and ask, “Have you seen this show?” I could imagine the laughter we would share. My brothers and I had grown up using laughter to deal with our unstable, violent, and wretchedly unhappy mother.
The first part of my essay analysed the show. The second part took a reality TV camera into my home when I was sixteen. In doing this, I broke the resistance that had gripped me for more than two years. I sent it to Griffith REVIEW, which published it despite its being over 7000 words long.
That wasn’t the end of resistance. This kind of self-protection takes many forms, and I used all of them to resist writing about my mother and me. Eventually, I overcame it and wrote The Lost Woman.
Now I’m at that place of resistance again. This time, the memoir subject is my personality disorder. I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to write those two words just now. All sorts of evasions came to mind. But the best piece of advice my memoir-writing friend ever gave me was to write toward the pain