I want to share with you the letter I wrote to my family to tell them that I was about to publish The Burning Light of Two Stars, the memoir I’d written about my tumultuous relationship with my mother, a book I knew might upset them deeply. But in order to understand my letter, I need to tell you how I came to write it and why I wrote what I did.
One of the reasons it took me ten years to write The Burning Light of Two Stars was my deep concern over how my family would react. I’d already been cast out of my family once for what I’d written—my 1988 book, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. When my co-author Ellen Bass and I published it, I was 31 years old, and our 600-page guidebook to healing took off like wildfire, becoming a million-plus copy bestseller, catapulting me to a weird kind of fame for the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
My mother hadn’t believed what I’d told her several years before—that her father, my maternal grandfather had sexually abused me when I was a child. In fact, she called me a liar and hung up on me. At 28, I was going through the worst period of my life, and my mother chose to support her dead father over her living daughter. And her whole side of the family lined up alongside her. Losing them was devastating. Knowing that I was telling the truth and that they were in denial made it easy for me to see them as the enemy. During this excruciating time in my life, I created a chosen family and relied on the few relatives who believed me.
Over the course of the next twenty years, I gradually reconciled with my mother and the members of my family from whom I’d been estranged. After years committed to a deep healing process, I no longer needed them to believe me, and they no longer needed me to recant. We “agreed to disagree” about the huge elephant in the room—the incest—and built new tendrils of connection. I wouldn’t call our relationships intimate, but we learned to be cordial. We could be in the same room, occasionally get together for a holiday. I was grateful for the reconnection at whatever level it could be.
I need to pause here to stress that the path of reconciliation is definitely not right for everyone, but it was right for me. I wrote a whole book about it: I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation.
But there was one nagging reality that I didn’t pay attention to for years—I stopped writing about taboo topics because I didn’t really want to rock the boat. I didn’t want to lose my family again. Years went by and I didn’t publish. I focused on helping other people write. But, eventually, the story that had been building up inside me—the story of my dramatic tumultuous struggle with my mother over a lifetime—needed to be told. So, I started writing in earnest about our complex, troubled relationship.
As I wrote, I told myself repeatedly, “You’re just doing this for yourself. You don’t have to publish it.” It was the only way I could keep putting words on the page.
A decade after I began, several years after my mother died, the story that became The Burning Light of Two Stars began to take shape. I realized that I wanted—no, needed—to become an author again. I wanted to publish this book. It had been nineteen years.
But I had never told my extended family what I was working on. My immediate family knew; my partner, our three kids, and my brother were all characters in the book, and from the start, I’d had their blessings and support. But there remained this pod of relatives on my mother’s side—the same ones who’d been so angry and distressed by The Courage to Heal, who knew nothing about the new book. I’d kept it that way intentionally—I’d needed that protective bubble around me. But now I was actually going to publish the book, and I needed to tell them. I knew that the topics I’d written about would bring up, once again, unresolved enmity and hurt from the past.
I said nothing until I had a publisher because that’s when the book became real. But this time, 30+ years after The Courage to Heal, the fact that “I was telling the truth and they were in denial,” didn’t trump my caring for them. I was in a different place than I’d been at 31. Who was right and who was wrong was no longer the framework through which I viewed the situation. I now understood just how hard it is to have an author in the family—especially one like me who reveals the deepest secrets, the most intimate details of family life.
So, I sat down and wrote them a letter. I wrote it and rewrote it. Then rewrote it again. I wasn’t writing to ask their permission. Rather, I was informing them. And I wanted to do it with as much honesty and compassion as I could.
Here’s what I sent them:
As we round the bend into year two of the pandemic, an impeachment, and continued lock downs, I hope this finds you as well as can be managed under the circumstances.
I’m writing to let you know that I’ve written a new book that will be published next October, by Girl Friday Books. It’s a memoir (tentatively titled The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story) and it tells the story of my relationship with Temme from my birth until her death. It traces our relationship through our estrangement and reconciliation, all 57 years of it until she died.
It’s an intimate, personal book in which I tell our story from my perspective. The memories in the book are mine and mine alone, although I’ve included some of Temme’s letters. Unlike the tribute books I created for Temme’s 80th birthday, this book shows both of us at our best and at our worst, depicting us as two loving, flawed people trying to find our way back to each other.
In the course of the story, I revisit a subject that has caused conflict in our family in the past—the sexual abuse I experienced with my grandfather. It is not the primary focus of the book, but it is a critical thread in the story, as it was a major influence on my relationship with Temme.
I realize that my decision to revisit this story publicly may be difficult for some of you, bringing back feelings that we’ve put to rest for several decades now.
This is not a choice I made lightly. I deeply value the healing we have been able to achieve in recent decades—and the family connection we have enjoyed and shared. I respect and love you, and I’m sorry that some of you may be hurt by my choices.
For many years I tried to avoid writing about painful family topics, but since Temme’s death, I’ve felt increasingly compelled to tell this story. During the years I was writing it, I didn’t know if it would become a book. It was a difficult process, and I didn’t know if I’d complete it or publish it. But now that it’s become a reality, I wanted to let you know.
Closer to the time of publication, there will be galleys of the finished book available and if any of you would prefer a chance to read it before it’s published, I will send you a copy.
I’d be happy to talk to you about the book and any feelings you may have about my choice to publish it, now or at any point in the future.
The last time I wrote about my grandfather, it took some of us more than a decade to find our way back to each other. I truly hope that’s not the case this time. We don’t have that much time and I don’t want to lose you.
While I may not make choices regarding my writing that you would prefer, please know that I struggle with these decisions, and try to balance my genuine love and respect for my family with my own identity as a storyteller and writer.
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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