As part of my Memoir March challenge, I posed a two-part question to several memoirist friends. What was the most difficult part of writing your memoir? How did you overcome this difficulty? The second answer in the series comes courtesy of Judith Fein; for the first, see To Drink From the Silver Cup by Anna Redsand.
About the Book
Award-winning international travel writer Judith Fein has the burning passion and unquenchable curiosity to dive beneath the surface and push past all obstacles to find the truth. In this case, the truth is the shrouded story about where she came from, what the Old World was like, and what remains of the places so many of our ancestors left behind when they came to America.
With heart and humor, she takes us along with her as she treks through graveyards, has a private audience with the Gypsy Baron of Moldova, meets the last Jew standing, communes with the dead, quaffs cognac with Russians, wanders among ruins, and hears the call of the ancestors, driving her on.
Some Unfinished Business
I had finished writing my memoir, and I knew in my writer bones that something wasn’t right. I had done due diligence in terms of telling the story, editing, making sure it all flowed, but something was definitely missing. And addressing that problem was, to put it mildly, a huge obstacle.
It had to do with my mother, an extremely abusive, controlling, punishing person. My memoir was about my search to find out where I came from, and said mother did everything in her power to thwart me from finding out. No matter how many ways I told her that I thought ancestors are of vital importance in our current lives, she would only give me the information she had about my ancestors under the greatest duress. She insisted she hated her mother, and had no desire to talk about it. I told her this was about my life, and I knew she hated her mother, but I needed the information. Yeah, sure. I would have more success asking Mount Rushmore.
So I spent my lifetime trying to find out information on my own, and finally, finally, I found out where I came from and went there. It changed my life. I told my mother I was going to write a book about it, because it would help other people to find out where they came from, and it would greatly enrich their lives. My mother yawned, sighed, and said it was of no interest to her.
So I wrote my book, and what was wrong was, clearly, that I left out the part about my relationship with my mother. It was key to the story, because she had the wrong mother for her, I had the wrong mother for me, and it is all part of the ancestral story, and how we need to know our emotional legacy because it so impacts our current lives.
Facing Down the Demons
This was a few years ago, and my mother was very sick. I decided to call her and speak to her about what was missing in my book and tell her I had something very important to ask her. When she answered the phone, she said she was too weak and unwell to answer any questions. I said, “Ma, is it okay if I talk and you listen and you can answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no?’” She agreed.
I told her, as simply as I could, that I needed to write about our relationship as it related to the ancestral story. I reminded her that the one time she actually copped to her abuse, she had said to me, in a stunning moment of clarity, “You are a writer. You should write about what I did to you. I am surprised you even talk to me. I must have been crazy. But if it helps other people for you to tell them, do it.”
At the time, I thanked my mother for her honesty, but never did anything about it. Now, years later, I was trying to go back and insert it into a memoir, from which it was absent.
So there I was, on the phone, with my mother, who would die a year later. She had agreed, so I asked my question. “Ma, can you give me permission to write about my relationship with you, including the abuse? I feel it is necessary to telling the story. If I don’t get your permission, I won’t put it in.” She didn’t miss a beat. “Judie, I have never told you what you can or can’t write about. You have been a writer all your life, a playwright, a Hollywood screenwriter, and no one has ever stopped you from writing about whatever you want. You always write what you want.”
Change You Can’t Believe In
I couldn’t believe it. My mother had changed. Her illness had opened up her mind, and perhaps her heart. “Thank you, thank you,” I said, sincerely.
There was a pause of about 15 seconds. And then my mother began a verbal assault. “Sure. Write about the abuse. But write about the fact that YOU caused it all. It was all your fault. All of it. Everything that happened. From childhood onward. It was your provocation, your blahblahblahblahblah.” I didn’t even listen to the entire rant. I just let her do it. My mother hadn’t changed at all.
The woman who had no energy to talk was so energized it was startling. The diatribe went on for quite a while. I never interrupted her or even said a word.
When she finished, I said, “You must be tired, ma. You go to sleep tonight and have a good night’s sleep.”
I hung up and threw my fist in the air. I had gotten my permission. I rewrote the book.
About Judith Fein
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 110 publications. She is the author of the best-selling book Life Is a Trip: the Transformative Magic of Travel and The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, which garnered a gold award for best travel book of the year from the Society of American Travel Writers.
Judith’s TEDx talk on Deep Travel is about how to travel beneath the surface: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GErjagMyrYk&feature=youtu.be