I have a friend, a single man in his late forties, who still broods over the love he didn’t get—still doesn’t get—from his emotionally inaccessible parents. They are the cause of all his suffering, he believes, the cause of his failed relationships. Even as I nod compassionately over our herbal tea, I want to shake him and scream, “They’ll never change! Don’t waste any more of your life! Get a new story!”
But if I’m honest, I know that—after years of writing about my own family—I’d really be screaming at myself.
I recently finished writing an essay in which my parents made only the faintest outline of an appearance. I was ecstatic, sure I was entering a new, more adult stage in my development. I would become one of those charming old people who tell the stories of their childhood—traumatic or idyllic—with the cadence and emotional distance of a fairytale. My parents would shrink to reasonable proportion in my history; they are, after all, just two ordinary people in a human family of billions. Now I could begin my real work: Waiting for National Geographic to ask me to write about arctic foxes or oil spills or peculiar algae or disappearing indigenous languages. Activism! Environmentalism! Anything more meaningful than my own small life.
Then, in my newest piece of writing, my mother returned like a zombie, dominating in all her horror and glory. She was stubborn and unyielding and I had no powers against her. After I’d wallowed around in the shame of my retrogression, I decided to re-examine my assumptions.
I began with my teaching. I teach creative nonfiction to high-school students, and in their writing, as in their lives, they generally try to avoid their parents. They write about breakups, bullies and ballgames, about the traumas of middle-school friendships, about the kindergarten teacher who terrorized them. Their parents hover, phantom-like, at the edges. But those edges are often where the real stories hide. When I conference with my students, I, who have been attempting to ignore my family, want to know about theirs. “Tell me about your parents,” I say. And they do. The affair. The stepparent. The young, single mother. The brave immigration from China or Russia. The long shadow of grandparents lost in the Holocaust. Boom. There it is. Suddenly, their story has a center, dimension, depth.
Then I looked at my reading: I haven’t yet tired of family-centered memoirs. In my current favorite book of essays, Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, I meet trapped suburban mothers, Midwestern farm mothers, mothers with dementia, mothers who have been murdered; fathers who are pedophiles, fathers who are homophobic, fathers with hooks for hands. The stories are painful, yes, but full of value: beautiful, complex, poetic, redeeming in their truth-telling.
Even so, I resist returning again to my parents as a topic. I feel repetitive, self-indulgent, small-minded . . . un-evolved. Even worse, I fear I am imposing something unsavory on the reader, adding to the darkness in the world. But poet Mark Doty helped. In his essay “Return to Sender,” he writes about his struggles to write Firebird, his childhood memoir about his distant father and alcoholic mother: “Sometimes I’d catch myself saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have to write that, who wants to read it?’And then realize that in projecting these doubts outward onto readers, I was actually protecting not the potential reader but myself; I was the one who didn’t want to read about whatever it was that was troubling me.” So perhaps my self-judgment and anxiety is really a cover for a deeper fear: of the material itself, the discomfort of revisiting pain, the uncomfortable truths the stories hold. Doty ends with, “Once I understood that, I did want to read it, and to write it.” I can’t say I’m there yet, that I want to write it, but I am writing it, and that means something.
If I step back from my fears, I know that when we write honestly and richly about our families, we also write cultural history. While wrestling with my memoir about my hippy parents’ attempt to live off the land in the Canadian wilderness in the early 70s, I discovered that to truly understand my mother and father, I had to know the forces that shaped them: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the divisions and disillusionments of the Vietnam War; the rise of modern feminism; the movement toward an eco-spirituality. I began to see my parents not merely as individuals making choices, but as players in a larger cultural movement—pushed and pressed by their families, neighborhoods, religious backgrounds, cultural messages, by the books they were reading, the music that moved them. My father would not have been the man I knew without Jack Kerouc’s On the Road. So, ironically, by striving to know two individuals deeply, I inadvertently became a historian. So here’s a justification for writing about our parents: we flush out a history too narrowly defined by charismatic figures and dramatic events. We fill in the gaps. We reveal the pattern, texture, variety—the more layered truth—in our shared, global story.
And by understanding the stories we have inherited, we understand ourselves better. All cultures have their origin stories, their creation myths, which reveal their foundational beliefs about human nature, good and evil, power hierarchies, and the qualities of a hero. Our family story is our personal origin story. When we examine it, we see more clearly the assumptions—faulty or inspired—by which we live. To a comic book fan, an origin story is the tale of how villains or heroes acquired their superpowers and what interior and exterior forces drive them to good or evil. Dissecting our own origin story, we identify the source of our power and recognize how we have been shaped by our choices and by roles others insist we play. In short, we become more conscious.
And here’s a confession: I called my parents ordinary. And yours. But they are not. They are remarkable. Fascinating. Every single person, no matter how simple he or she appears, is a vast galaxy. A breathing miracle. A dynamic interaction of cells and liquids and electrical impulses, of stories and habits and smells, of conscious and unconscious motivations, of inexplicable courage and strength and grand failure. But if we saw each person who crosses our path as the elaborate, miraculous contradiction they are, we would face such a state of raw wonder—such openness to fragility, pain or admiration—we might burst right out of our skin. We can’t bear it. So, in general, we adopt a shorthand, a reduction of someone’s being: the police officer, the cat lady, our first love.
But most of us met our parents before we could categorize, when the boundary between ourselves and others was thin and permeable. As a result, we often know them more deeply than any other human being, often more clearly than they know themselves. At the same time, we are also profoundly aware, in a way we are not with those we have so neatly tucked into simple, labeled boxes, of the vastness of their unknowable mystery. We can return again and again and never meet the fullness of them.
I believe this. And I want you to write your family story. But to be honest, I’m still hoping that my parent-centered writing might soon be over, that my most recent essay was the last unexpected wave, the last mother-zombie surge, that I will soon be getting thatNational Geographic call. I want a new story. But maybe the only way to get a new story is to transform the old one. And maybe the only way to transform the old story is by writing into it, writing into the tension and puzzles, writing through the shame or fear or confusion toward the edges of acceptance and understanding. When we write, again, about our parents, we are not narcissists: we are adventurers in the interior of the human cosmos—we just happen to be exploring the closest galaxy.
Tarn Wilson has been published in Gulf Stream, Inertia, Inlands and A River & Sound Review, as well as the anthologies Hard Love, What’s Nature Got to Do with Me?, andThe Poet’s Guide to the Birds. New essays are forthcoming in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Life Writing, and The Sun. She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.