Family Fallout

As you know, I’m working on my first adult novel.  My main character is a woman who had an abusive family.

I find myself facing a dilemma.  The story isn’t autobiographical, but I’m using some of my own experiences in it.  I guess in a sense I’m fictionalizing nonfiction events.  Both of my parents are dead and aren’t here to defend themselves.  My siblings are all alive, and a couple of them are the basis for my main character’s cruel siblings.

You see where this is going?

I have no relationship or connection to the siblings in question, having gone no contact several years ago.  There is a chance, however, that once I publish this book they’ll read it.  I expect quite the s**t storm.

Now, one could argue that if they see themselves in the characters in my book, that’s entirely their problem.  As the T-shirt says, “If you didn’t want to end up in my novel, you should have been nicer to me.”  On the other hand, I’m not writing a revenge piece.  As a writer, I’m using what I know about life to flesh out my character.  I’ve made some changes to the circumstances my character lives through and have sometimes consolidated events or changed who was responsible for them.  In the book, the character suffers primarily emotional and psychological abuse.  There is only the suggestion of physical abuse.  Quite frankly, I didn’t feel like including it because the emotional and psychological were much more damaging to me. Bruises on the skin heal eventually.

I’ve made a point of making sure my main character is as emotionally damaged as you would expect her to be.  She isn’t a warm and fuzzy person.  Rather than cowing her and making her mouse-like, what she suffered has hardened her and given her something of a prickly personality.  I’m trying to find ways to soften her or at least make her more sympathetic.  If I were a shrink, I would say I was searching for some good in myself after a lifetime of being told I’m not worth anything.  Pathetic, right?

What do you think?  Is it all truly grist for the mill?  What are the boundaries, or do they even exist?

Writing this character has brought up memories of things I’d long forgotten; and of course, my view of things is decidedly one-sided.  I don’t want to hurt any feelings.  I don’t want to make a bad situation worse.  I just want to write a story that rings true.  A happy family situation wouldn’t fit the story I’m writing.  The abuse needs to exist.

Where do you, as an artist, draw the line?


Is Somebody Cooking a Novel?

While I’ve been able to get back on the writing horse since my latest disappointment, it has proved itself to be somewhat of a bucking bronco this time.

After my close encounter with traditional publishing came crashing down around me, an idea for a novel (or maybe a novella) began to form in my mind.  Normally, novel writing just isn’t my thing.  I don’t think I have the patience for it, and years of writing for kids has trained my brain to keep things very short and to the point.  I never thought of myself as having the literary stamina required to write a novel.

So what is this story idea doing in my head?  I suppose it could simply be the result of long-term stress and emotional upheaval finally looking for an exit (as if the erosion in my esophagus weren’t enough).  The plot isn’t fully formed in my head, though as usual I know the last line of the story.  At present, it’s about a woman who returns home to bury her father, clean out her parents’ now empty home, and put it up for sale.  The conflict for my protagonist lies in the fact that her mother was an emotionally abusive monster and her father a weak man who never stood up to her.  Returning home is the last thing she wants to do.

It’s not based on my life, though I’ll be dumpster diving my own memories in order to flesh out my character a bit.  It’s all grist for the mill, right?

Did I tell you there were ghosts involved?  Yeah.  So there’s a bit of the supernatural in the story, as well as the struggle to forgive in the face of injustice and learning to recognize how generational abuse is perpetuated.

Sounds heavy, I know.  It’s also meant to be allegorical.  What happens in the story isn’t meant to be a theological commentary on what happens after death, heavenly reward, or punishment.

So this is brand new territory for me.  I’m still working on the Winthrop Risk sequel, for which my serious sit-down time is reserved (though I’ve admittedly been giving the day job more attention of late).  The basic plot of the novel is still coming to me in small bits of random ideas arriving at inconvenient times that are scribbled in a notebook.  Eventually, it will all coalesce and the first draft will begin.

I’m intrigued by the idea of being able to slow the story down a bit, to indulge in more descriptive language, to give my characters more than a name.  I might be good at it.  I might suck at it.  Who knows?

It’s quite the adventure, isn’t it?

I’m Not My Mother

I recently celebrated my birthday, which reminded me that I need to send for a copy of my birth certificate. Somewhere among Fort Dix, West Germany, and Michigan it was lost.

My birth certificate is something of a puzzle to me. I have five siblings, all with a first and middle name. My first name is Mary Jane but I have no middle name. My parents told me it was because my first name was a double name and a middle name wasn’t necessary. When you’re different from your siblings, you’re simultaneously proud of the distinction and hurt by it.

I accepted their explanation until I was about 17 and signing up for driver’s training at school. I had to produce my birth certificate and asked my mother to give it to me. I took it out of the envelope and read the details of my arrival, noting that I was born in the morning. But looking at it a second time, I noticed that it listed my first name as Mary and my middle name as Jane. Middle name? I don’t have a middle name. I’m Mary Jane, or “MJ” to family and friends. I’m not Mary. My mother’s name was Mary.

Surely, the folks who printed the birth certificate had misunderstood and listed my name incorrectly. A typo, that’s all. I would have to correct it. We were living in a different state at the time and this was long before the age of the internet, so I had to write a letter explaining my problem and send it via snail mail. A few weeks later, I received the necessary form and filled it out. My mother seemed a bit miffed when I asked her to sign it, though I didn’t understand why and knew better than to ask. I then had to mail it to my father for his signature, as my parents were long since divorced. I have no idea what his reaction might have been.

A few more weeks, and I received a corrected birth certificate. I had them list my first name as “Mary-Jane”, adding the hyphen to prevent confusion in the future. It never occurred to me to give myself a middle name. I was just MJ, as I had always been.

Had my mother not reacted the way she did when I asked her to sign the form to correct my birth certificate, I might have forgotten all about it. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll know my mother and I had a very bad relationship. It didn’t start when I was a teenager. She just didn’t like me, let alone love me, and I knew that from the time I was a very small girl. Why, then, would she give me her name? I have two older sisters, one of whom was her favorite. Why didn’t she name her Mary? I find myself wondering about it. By the time I came along, my parents’ marriage was falling apart; and by falling apart, I mean they were openly hostile to one another. Did she name me Mary just to piss off my father? Did he then insist everyone call me Mary Jane instead of Mary, just to piss off my mother?

I can only speculate about my mother’s hatred for me, since it was always present. Her first child was a boy, followed by my two older sisters. Was she hoping that her next baby would be another boy? Did she think that would make things better with her husband? It was the early sixties after all, so that sort of thinking wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Her sister had given birth to a boy just a month earlier.

The funny thing is that my father doted on me when I was very small. He said I was a beautiful baby who was born with a head full of dark brown hair. I used to sit in his lap. There’s an old home movie of him feeding me ice cream when I was about two years old. We used to take naps in his rocking chair. I wonder if my mother was angry because he didn’t hate me, because he wasn’t upset that I wasn’t a boy, and yet her marriage was still a disaster.

I’ll never get any answers, as both of my parents are dead now. By the time I was five, our apartment had become an emotional minefield. My parents never spoke and my father began to disconnect himself from his children. At least I know that he loved me for a few years.

To this day, it irks me when someone calls me “Mary” (no offense to all you Marys out there), and I’m lightning-quick to correct them. I’m MJ. I am not Mary. I am not my mother.

The Season for Illusions


I’m snuggled on the couch in an oversized chenille sweater.  I have before me a warm crackling fire, a cup of hot cocoa, and a writing pad.  A cold December sun is shining, hopelessly trying to warm the air outside.  People are putting up their holiday decorations and the radio stations are playing a steady diet of Christmas tunes.  It’s the perfect setting for writing, isn’t it?

Snap out of it.  I’m yanking your collective chain.  That crackling fire up there is from a DVD I popped in a few minutes ago.  If you look closely, you can even see the computer’s cursor in the middle of the frame. The only true thing about that paragraph is that I’m wearing an oversized chenille sweater.  It’s all about the illusion.

I believe the imagination fares best in an atmosphere that is wanting.  You learn to make do with what you have.

We never had a tree house; but the arrival of a new appliance to the apartment building meant the creation of a new clubhouse.  A steak knife swiped from the kitchen was the only tool we needed to cut in a door and a window or two.  The fun would last for days, until the box began to sag or the superintendent tossed it into the trash.

We always longed for a fireplace at Christmastime.  The closest we got was the yearly broadcast of “Yule Log” on WPIX.  It was a looped video of the fireplace at Gracie Mansion (the mayor’s residence), accompanied by Christmas carols.  We watched it every Christmas Eve, even when all we had was a black and white TV.  The image was enough to sustain the illusion for a couple of hours.  We were a remarkably creative bunch, my siblings and I.  We eventually put our love of cardboard boxes to use in making a fake fireplace, complete with mantel.  We painted it to look like red bricks.  The logs were discarded cardboard paper towel rolls.  The flames were orange and red construction paper.  A little glue, a little tape, and the job was done.  Our 3-D masterpiece was propped up against the wall, and we had our fireplace.  No need for the real thing now.  We were content with what our little hands had created.

It’s a strange thing for me to sift through these memories.  When I tell you a story like this, you may come away with the impression of a an idyllic family; but my parents are usually absent from these tales.  The world we made when we played was ours alone, stripped of the drinking, the fighting, and the pain.  We pulled together memories made of cardboard, tape, and glue.  A roaring fireplace emerged in our imagination that was so real for us we even sat in front of it reading Christmas stories.

I wonder at the strength of a child’s imagination.  I marvel at the ability to turn cardboard into brick and paper into flames.  And I rejoice in the adult who can skip over the bad memories and go back to that time of make-believe.

It’s all about the illusion.