The Power of Our Obsessions

More than forty years ago, when I was 23 years old, I had a poem published in an anthology by Tillie Olsen: Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother. My poem described the fear and hatred I felt as a teenager sitting across the dinner table from my mother after she’d had two Scotch rocks and a few glasses of wine—her voice slurring as the fork scraped across her teeth. At the time, I didn’t have a hint of empathy for her: my father, her husband of twenty-three years, had just walked out on her. I didn’t care.

That poem was the beginning of decades exploring my relationship with my mother on the page. At 27, I filled hundreds of journal pages describing her betrayal after I told her that my grandfather—her father—had sexually abused me as a child. She vehemently denied it, accusing me of making up lies out of spite.

A few years later, in The Courage to Heal, my 1988 guidebook to healing from child sexual abuse (co-authored with Ellen Bass), hints of my bitter estrangement from my mother were hidden within its 600+ pages.

A dozen years later, my fledging reconciliation with my mother led me to research and write I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation, a book largely built on interviews with other people: Vietnam veterans who went back to Vietnam, people who’d participated in restorative justice, family members struggling to make peace with one other. Once more, I wove a small personal thread throughout the book that revealed bits and pieces of my own mother-daughter reconciliation story.

Two decades passed in which I didn’t publish a word about my mother. But last fall, I finally released a memoir about our relationship and my experience as her caregiver at the end of her life: The Burning Light of Two Stars. Our dramatic, complex, primal, challenging and ultimately transformative mother-daughter relationship was no longer tucked into the hidden corners of a larger self-help book. Now it was front and center. I was finally telling the real truth as myself, no holds barred, in honest, visceral, and at times, entertaining detail. But it took me forty years to get there and ten years to write it.

I often tell my writing students to trust the power of their obsessions: the things they can’t stop thinking and dreaming about. Our obsessions have energy—they’re tied to our deepest feelings, wants, and desires. Our obsessions often compel us to search for the answer to a core life question. In my case it was, “Can I love and caretake a mother who betrayed me in the past?”

People often ask me, “Why have you continued to write about your mother?” Because of the intense, intractable bond between us. Because our relationship continued to evolve. Over the decades, she changed, and I changed. As we moved through different life cycles, the power dynamic kept shifting between us.

As the author Deborah Fruchey so aptly put it, “Every time I look in the rearview mirror, the past has changed.”

In a lifetime writing about my mother, she went from being a villain and my antagonist, to being a flawed, loving, generous, dramatic, memorable human being. And my portrayal of myself grew more honest over the years as well: I went from being the wronged victim and the hero of the story to an imperfect, driven, loving human being—both of us struggling to love each other.

Writing is a powerful tool for exploring the deep recesses of our heart and psyche, and for finding the answers to some of life’s deepest questions. For the past twenty years, it’s been my calling—and my deep pleasure—to help others heal using writing as a pathway to discovery and insight. I love helping people dig underneath their habitual stories and to witness their awe at what they find there. It is always worth the rigors of the journey.


The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.

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