The Story Beneath the Story: Excavating the Real Truth in Memoir

For the past 50 years, I’ve been dedicated to excavating and exploring the truth in writing, whether it be in my own journals, while leading writing students in a sacred circle, or in the pages of my non-fiction books—on topics ranging from healing sexual abuse to reconciliation to parenting. But it wasn’t until I tackled the challenge of writing my first memoir, The Burning Light of Two Starsthat I realized just how difficult finding the “real” truth can be.

The Burning Light of Two Stars tells the story of my complex, embattled, loving relationship with my mother, from the time of my birth until her death. It answers the question, “Is it possible to caretake a parent who betrayed you in the past?”

This is obviously not a simple question and there were no easy answers. Not as a daughter and not as a writer. Like most memoirists, I had to unpack and discover the story as I went along. This process was complicated by what the writer Deborah Fruchey states so eloquently, “Every time I look in the rearview mirror, the past has changed.”

Anyone who’s had family members look back on a distant event knows that memories vary, sometimes dramatically, depending on people’s age, role, access to power, proximity to the event, coping strategies (hypervigilance or dissociation to name just two) and myriad other factors. As the writer Barbara Kingsolver says, “A memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”

I was confronted by this reality after my mother’s death when I discovered a cache of letters in her things. It included all the correspondence I’d ever sent to her, copies of all the letters she’d sent to me and raw first drafts of letters she’d composed but never mailed. In long-buried forgotten boxes in deep storage, I’d saved our correspondence, too, thinking, “I’m a writer. Someday I may need this.” While grieving her death, I compiled our letters chronologically, resulting in two manilla envelopes bulging with mildewed, cracked pages documenting years of handwritten correspondence.

For decades, I’d insisted/written/published/proclaimed, “My mother and I didn’t speak for seven years,” but the fat folder of evidence on my lap told a different story. Even during the bitterest period of our estrangement—beginning in my late twenties, when I insisted that her father had sexually abused me and she insisted that he had not—when our rare cross-country visits ended with her exploding in rage and me withdrawing into her walk-in closet, cursing those damn non-refundable airline tickets, we never stopped writing letters. There was always that thread between us.

I’d always recalled my mother’s hostile, accusatory letters, and they were there—but I’d completely forgotten the generous, loving advice that arrived in between. I’d recalled the angry missives I penned but forgot my heartfelt requests for recipes and advice.

There was definitely truth in the stories I’d told, but it was only part of the truth. The reality of our relationship was far more complex. My mother was more than just my antagonist.

Reading our letters shook me to my core. If I could be wrong about this, what else was I wrong about? What else had I done to justify my perspective and prove her wrong?

I became determined to weave my discoveries into my memoir. Soon, my mother-daughter story was peppered with excerpts from our letters. Although I eventually winnowed these down, I kept them as a thread because they represented the only opportunity for my mother to speak in her own voice, rather than through my lens as I recreated dialogue between us.

Eventually, my perspective on our letters shifted again. Maybe the “real truth” was closer to a both—and. Yes, we communicated in letters, and yes, we were bitterly divided. During the worst of our estrangement, letters were the only “safe” way for us to communicate. Letters afforded distance; the written word didn’t require us to face each other. I didn’t have to bear the white heat of her rage in person. She didn’t have to face my coldness and disdain. I could take as long as I needed to respond, and so could she. Replies could be rewritten, edited, reconsidered. Letters maintained an emotional buffer that in-person visits and phone calls never could.

The letters taught me something else, too. The fact that we kept corresponding when we had every reason to never speak again—families split apart every day for far less—reveals another truth: my mother and I were two souls who just couldn’t quit each other. Something tethered us to one another, leading us to reconcile against all odds. The bond between us frayed to the breaking point but never broke completely. That, too, was part of our truth.

When writing students come to me despairing that they can’t find the “real” truth, I give them the following prompts: “What’s the part you never told anyone before?” And “What’s the story beneath the story?” These questions guided me throughout the decade it took me to write The Burning Light of Two Stars. I recommend them to all memoir writers who want to write more than a revenge or vindication story, more than a book with black-and-white villains and heroes. If you want your story to be multifaceted and nuanced, these questions can get you to a rawer, more honest, more complicated truth.

This piece was first published on BooksByWomen (Women Writers, Women(‘s) Books). You can find it online here.


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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