We're excited to have Lara Lillibridge (Nonfiction ’16) guest blog this week. Lara has a memoir forthcoming in April from Skyhorse Publishing (available now for preorder from Amazon and Barnes & Noble). Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home is Lara's first book, and in it, she explores her childhood and her family. When Lara attends conferences, many people ask her what it is like to write about her family and what kinds of responses she gets from those family members. The below post is her answer.
They say you never know someone until you divorce them, and it seems you never really know your family until you write about them. It’s similar in a way--you are making your own needs, you own art, paramount. Both are a betrayal of people you love. Different paths, of course. But perhaps the same conclusion.
When I left my first husband, his requests were simple: I was to return his last name and give him the house. I was warned that if I tried to go after his Harleys, he’d take me down any way possible.
My second ex-husband and I fought over everything--including the kitchen broom--with one exception: the children. We co-parented even more smoothly apart than we had together. He wasn't the right man for me, but he is still the right father for our children. (And he kept the broom and the vacuum cleaner, for the record.)
How they reacted--the ex-husbands in our divorces and my parents, brother, and half-sister when I wrote my memoir--was exactly in keeping with who they had always been to me, only without pretense.
I created space between my parents and myself when I started writing. I had to, to write it honestly. I had to immerse myself in my history and revisit the scared, wounded child I had been without worrying about their anxieties. I can't tell you the number of nights I was up all night, frantically wishing I could unwrite my own story. But that terror meant that I was writing what I needed to write--the shame and fear and convoluted boundaries.
I asked my mother, who is also a writer, if she wanted to write my memoir with me--alternating chapters, each of us describing the same time period. I thought it would show a balanced look at the family. She wasn’t interested, but she urged me to write my story. She did not ask me to hold anything back. She told me that she wished she could write about living with a bipolar spouse, but felt it was too much of a betrayal. Still, I should write our story because someone needed to.
My mother’s partner, the bipolar spouse in question, was adamant that I should write my truth. She told me over and over that I have every right to do so. We discussed her biggest parenting regrets, and again she told me, “You must write it.” So, I did.
I did not send my parents drafts. I didn’t want to be influenced or pressured while changes were still possible. My mother couldn’t wait to read my book. She texted and emailed and asked about it on the phone. And when it was done and the last revision submitted, I sent it to my mother. She decided not to read it.
Instead of reading it, she texted me with anxiety about what the book may or may not contain. I told her, as she always told me, the only way to overcome fear of the unknown is to face it head on. I told her of the positive responses of my early readers. Then she read a few chapters and put it down. Read a little more and put it down. It’s been three months, and she has not yet finished it. Now she says she can’t read it because she doesn’t have Wi-Fi, but I know Wi-Fi is not needed to read a PDF file she downloaded three months ago. Perhaps the excuse makes her feel better, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.
Her partner has begged my mother not to tell anyone I wrote it. They have informed me that they will not attend my book release. They are proud and ashamed at the same time. My mother will be there in spirit, but she needs to stand by her spouse, which is historically, the path she has always chosen in our family. In some ways, my parents’ reaction eases my anxiety--it corroborates everything I felt was true about my mother’s loyalty and my ranking in her life.
I gave a copy of the book to my brother to read while it was in-progress--he was the only one I gave editorial veto-power to, because we were children together, and he was just as innocent as I was. He started reading it but decided that he didn’t want to relive our childhood. He’d gone through it once and didn’t need to do it again. I understood this completely. But my brother posts about my memoir on Facebook often and proudly. He will come to one of my events and publicly admit to knowing me. Since he’s a chef, hopefully he’ll bring snacks.
My half-sister has read the most relevant parts of my book. She has had long discussions with me about what she remembered, being eight years older, and fact-checked my memories. She, too, is proud of me and reassures me that our story needs to be told.
My father’s wife is accusing me of slander (through my sister--she hasn’t spoken to me directly) and thinks I shouldn’t air my dirty laundry in public.
I’ve read many books about the ethics of writing about family. One of them said--and I'm paraphrasing--that the relationship you had with your family before the book will be the same relationship you have after the dust settles. In my case, this is proving to be true. My mother always chose her spouse over her children. My father’s wife sees him as the victim. I always knew I could count on my brother and sister.
Writing the memoir has released my fixation on the past--the memories that I couldn’t stop thinking about are now contained on the page, and I don’t have to think about them anymore. I am convinced that someone out there is waiting to see themselves and their family in a book, and that everything I went through and wrote about will have tremendous value to some unknown reader. If the price of that is that we can no longer pretend that we are a close, loving family, so be it. Our relationships haven’t changed, just our honesty about them.
Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest and The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. She also was a finalist in both Black Warrior Review’s Nonfiction Contest and DisQuiet’s Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She has had essays published in Pure Slush Vol. 11, Vandalia, and Polychrome Ink; on the web at Hippocampus, Crab Fat Magazine, Luna Luna, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Airplane Reading, Thirteen Ways to Tell a Story, Weirderary, and Brain, Child magazine’s Brain, Mother blog. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and for more on Lara, visit her website.