Here’s a story I’ve never told—
A loud intersection in New York City. The middle of morning traffic. I see the white crosswalk figure lit, the faded white rectangles spread out across the street. I see my daughter at four, her blonde blob a blur, her pink dress, her white sandals running, running, running, not knowing a crosswalk has a countdown. I see her arms raised in the air as if the wind lifts them. Slow motion now. Her last silly steps toward the sidewalk. And then it’s there: the wail of a yellow taxi, its scolding horn. I can still hear it, can still see my daughter’s hop to the curb, free from the taxi that misses her by inches.
But my memory projects an impossibility, a vantage point from the middle of the street behind the rush of the traffic as if I were standing in the middle of West 53rd where cars brake and honk and bottleneck and a taxi rushes the light to turn, turn, turn, not knowing this girl, this child, my child, how the two of us have never been to a busy city, have never considered that big city intersections have their own rules, or no rules at all, and in the last lane she leaps through as the countdown ends, a car careens. I must have been following her. I must have been unable to keep up with her glee amidst the sky-bending buildings, the theater of storefront windows, the surprise of another Starbucks not two blocks after the last one.
The surprise of a tragedy missed by seconds.
I still wake up in the middle of the night and see it, that moment a projector suddenly turned on in a dark room showing that scene on a loop, my little girl running, a taxi turning. I hold my breath as the horn wails across the years. My little girl no longer little. This, too, a surprise. I sit up in the dark and shake my head, a useless attempt to loosen an image that always comes back, the memory of that near miss on repeat, a reminder of how close I always am to losing her.
How close I have been.
How can it be that I never told this story when I’ve written so many others?
My labor, too, dangerous, because in the final hour, her heart began to slow each time I pushed, the two of us, it seems, unwilling to separate after 32 hours. I closed my eyes and spoke to her inside my body. I willed her to come out, to live. The two of us weary, the two of us fading, the doctor and her team suddenly stopping—emergency cesarean.
When they pulled her from my body, there was no sound, not from her, not from anyone. The nurses, I remember, made a wall of their bodies, shielding me from seeing what, I assume, was a still, perhaps purple, body. From the corner, the pediatrician’s urgent whisper, Come on, come on, breathe. I closed my eyes and spoke to her again. I told her to live. And suddenly, her first cry broke through the room. The world resumed.
Is it possible I avoid writing the near misses because I broke down while writing that last paragraph, dreaded the description of that crowded New York City street? The pinch in my chest sharp. Even now, I want to call my daughter, Indie. I want to tell her I’m sorry for the ways I have failed her.
Do no harm. As a mother my job is to keep my children safe. To keep them from harm. Especially to not bring harm upon them myself. Can I do it? No chance. No one can protect their child absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try. I lie awake at night worrying, and when something harmful happens to my children, I feel I have failed.
And there are all kinds of harms, so many possibilities.
Clare at her seventh-grade field trip riding her bumper car right into a wall and breaking her nose. The call: your daughter accelerated for reasons we don’t understand and rammed right into the wall with such velocity that she broke her nose, dislocated her shoulder, and the bruises on her face have already started to bloom. Could you come get her?
Before that: the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck tightening each time I pushed.
At four, falling out of the loosely screened window of our friend’s house into the wading pool that just happened to be full of water and cushioned the impact. And later when she had left home and gone to South America and fell again, a repeated theme this falling, this time off a balcony onto the patio below that shattered her arm.
Why can I tell you about these? Because she survived? Because they didn’t mar her life or face or body irreparably? Because the damage was physical rather than emotional and the scars haven’t altered her beauty? Because I didn’t push her out the window or drive her into the wall? It was my body she was inside, my pushing which caused the tightening of the cord—yet it was beyond my control, and in the end, she suffered no lasting harm. My first real experience of the way our lives were intertwined.
What makes writing about my children potentially harmful? What has stopped me in the past? What kinds of stories won’t I tell and why?
Why haven’t I written about when my son was a little boy, not even two years old, and he took my neighbor’s son’s hand and walked towards the back-porch steps? Lynne and her two sons lived across the alley from our house and the three little boys played together in our sand box or the swing set. Lynne and I would stand outside together in my stamp sized yard talking while the boys did what little boys did—push dump trucks, dig holes. Her youngest Lyle and my David settled into an easy largely nonverbal friendship. But one day when they were holding hands, Lynne told her son to stop it in an alarmed voice and knocked her son’s arm away from my son. Both boys looked confused—I don’t think either one of them knew how such a simple gesture of friendship could be wrong. But it was clear from Lynne’s voice and actions that she thought something was wrong. David walked over to my side and Lynne took her boys and went inside their house and nothing was ever the same again.
How can it be that I never told this story when I’ve written so many others?
This cloud of wrong descending upon our little alley troubled me more than the squabbles my daughter occasionally had with girls in the neighborhood, even when Stacey nearly ruined her sleepover birthday party by demanding to go home in the middle of it. Why? Well, as disappointing as Stacey’s behavior was, it could be named—she was homesick, not ready to spend the night elsewhere and it had little to do with Clare. David couldn’t name what had happened when Lynne swatted Lyle’s hand away from his, he could only feel some vague sense that what the boys were doing was deemed wrong. What was it and why? Being affectionate? Being friends? How are these wrong? We see girls walking hand in hand all the time and think nothing of it. But boys—well, that’s another matter. David and Lyle were too young to process what had happened. I wasn’t too young, I was just stunned. Why did Lynne react the way she did and why didn’t I? A whole world of difference opened between us on the opposite sides of our shabby alley in Morgantown, West Virginia.
A lesson in stunting the flow of affection in boys. A lesson in how shame starts early. A lesson in how the sorting starts young. A lesson in the role mothers play. And yet, I never wrote about it until now.
I doubt David remembers the incident. He might not even remember Lyle. But did the incident affect him unknowingly? It affected me. I don’t know what David thought or felt when Lyle dropped his hand. He probably went on with his day. But I didn’t. There was harm in Lynne’s behavior towards our boys, small though it was, it foretold other harms that were waiting, that would descend upon David and I didn’t think there was much I could do about it. And while Clare’s nose healed, I didn’t know if David’s sense of self, his inner happiness and confidence, would do as well with the battering and breakage that was coming. The harm went deeper, the cracks and breakages would run inside where no one could see them. And I felt helpless before this world of hurt.
What have I never written, and why? I’m sorting through the drawers of memory, fumbling through photographs of cities and states before settling on Indie standing on the front steps of a house in a blue-striped shirt and lime shorts, a bright yellow backpack. The first day of sixth grade. The house is not ours.We rent a room in the basement. This is Chicago, a place we’ll stay for only a year. I have made the wrong decision, moving us from northern New York, knowing it the minute we opened the basement apartment to discover that “Furnished” meant one twin bed in a corner. For a year, my daughter slept on a mattress on the floor, and I balanced on an air mattress atop the box spring. I will always look back at this decision as selfish, when my ambition thwarted all other considerations, when I convinced myself that the sacrifice of cutting my salary by nearly fifteen grand would be worth the prestige of a Writer-in-Residence position at a school with a strong program, a famous faculty.
How many nights in New York did I pull tape across boxes knowing we were going in the wrong direction? And how many nights since leaving Chicago have I run into Indie’s room to wake her from the nightmares she carries from that year?
One morning, I received a phone call only thirty minutes after I had watched Indie disappear into the double doors of the building. The school nurse. Indie had hit her mouth on a desk, breaking her two front teeth. I rushed the two blocks to the front office then walked Indie home while she cried through a wet paper towel she kept pressed to her mouth. I put her in her bed and covered her with blankets, then paced the room trying to find a dentist who would see her, eventually exchanging tense phones calls with my university’s HR department, my insurance not yet settled. I remember the worry and fear and something else in Indie’s eyes, how they seemed like a reckoning of my decision to move us from a two-bedroom house with a large backyard to a single-room basement with a hot plate and a shared laundry room. I remember the glare of the white room at the dentist and a difficult battle under a fluorescent light, Indie’s fear and pain. On the way home, she told me she had been laughing so hard she hit her mouth on the desk. But I know my daughter’s laughter—it is contained, almost inward. I said nothing.
On the afternoon we moved away from that house, we drove in silence until we were beyond the grip of the gray city, and as the highway flattened out to the plains of the Midwest, we both began to breathe easier. Indie told me what she had never before wanted me to know, how one of the girls announced at recess early in the school year that no one liked her. Then this girl, the kind that can rile up an entire grade to follow her, stomped away from Indie, leaving her to eat lunch alone under a tree. From that day on, Indie worked to be invisible, knowing how impossible that had become.
Hurt and harm, these are my keywords, as a writer, as a mother. Try to do neither. Know you may fail.
What I can’t shake is the image of another girl’s hand on the back of my daughter’s head, slamming her face into a desk. I do not know if this is what really happened, but I have pictured it so many times I’m convinced it did. And didn’t I, by moving us there, cause my daughter that pain? A pain that still finds her in her sleep?
These questions—a crowded drawer that won’t close.
Hurt and harm, these are my keywords, as a writer, as a mother. Try to do neither. Know you may fail. There are some things you don’t do as a writer, there are some things you don’t do as a mother, even if others do. No one hands you an all-purpose writer’s manual or a how to guide when you become a mother. You look around and see what others are doing and decide whether that is a road you want to travel. You decide what is most important to you, what you can live with and what you can’t. In other words, you decide based on your character. I suppose you decide based on the person you want to be.
In the field of creative nonfiction, writing about others is a hot topic. Each year at AWP and other conferences around the country, in online groups for writers and in workshops, some variation of the subject is being discussed, the rooms are always full. Advice is handed out, guidelines are established, questions are answered, nevertheless, the topic is never exhausted, and never retired, such is the anxiety of writers writing about their lives which inevitably entails writing about others who largely did not ask to be written about and who might be hurt and harmed by being written about. It’s a conundrum at the dark heart of the genre.
Writing about children, specifically one’s own children is an even more vexed problem. What might fly about writing about one’s parents or ex-husband or former teacher, all adults who can respond in a variety of ways including breaking off the relationship, don’t apply to a child who might still be dependent upon the writer-mother. Some writers argue that their child gave consent. But what can consent mean when it is given by a young person too inexperienced to know what the costs of being written about might be? And how many children will struggle refusing a mother and end up capitulating against their own best interests? No, the consent of children is suspect, and parents should see that and not put their children in an untenable position.
I remember when Julie Myerson published The Lost Child chronicling her son’s drug addiction. Her son condemned the book and a public debate ensued: is it inappropriate and even harmful (there’s that word) to expose the private lives of minors? It must be noted that the private life being exposed in these cases are always rife with difficulty. She wasn’t writing about her child’s triumphs. She was writing about a painful chapter in his young life, one he might like to keep to himself and not have follow him wherever he went, and his mother’s justification that airing his story might help others was no solace or meaningful rationale to him. And yet in the debate writers say with relish that everyone is fair game for a writer. No one is off limits for the writer. And the story is the thing—everything must be sacrificed for the story to be realized.
Writers hear these kinds of pearls of wisdom trotted out all the time to justify whatever must be done to bring a story to light. They’re often used as a battering ram to suggest to a writer who is wavering about using certain material that they aren’t really writers, they lack the courage and boldness necessary to be a writer. A real writer will make the selfish, difficult choice because they answer a higher purpose.
I’ve known writers who knew they were causing their children pain by writing about them—the material was unflattering, shattering even—and they did it anyway. They believed in the worth of the story. Later they were baffled by the damage that had been done in their relationship with their child, a damage that couldn’t be mended.
Some writers say that they’ll write about their children up until the age of 10. After that, the story is no longer theirs—it belongs to their child. That feels a little arbitrary to me. Some things happened to me before the age of 10, and I would not have liked my mother writing about it as if it was her story. That said, I’m the first to acknowledge how what happens to my children in some sense happens to me. It’s hard to draw a strict line between whose story it is.
For example, I was abused when I was in the second grade. I didn’t tell my mother, but if I had told her, what happened to me was now something that happened to her. How did she feel, what should she do: this material would have been something she felt she wanted to write about because it mattered, and yet, to do that she would have exposed a painful incident in my life, and I would not have wanted her to do that. After all, I didn’t tell her in the first place, I kept it a secret, a secret for a very long time.
As a writer, I’ve tried to burrow my way through the complications and come to conclusion that are right for me. And for me my ambition is to arrive at the end of my life and have my children think I’ve done no harm to them through my writing. I can’t protect them from all sorts of calamity, but I can try to do no harm to them through my writing. In my writing I’m like the guy on the beach with a metal detector combing the sand—looking for anything that is not mine to tell.
That year in Chicago, a creative writing program invited me to read at their journal’s spring issue launch party. I couldn’t leave Indie behind, and I couldn’t afford airfare, so I decided we’d make a road trip out of it and drive the ten hours south. Let her miss a couple of days of school. I knew it would be the first time I had been in a room as the two people I usually kept separate—writer, mother. And it would be the first time that Indie heard me read one of my essays.
I would be reading the essay from the journal’s new issue, an essay with a story I’d rather not tell, a self I’d rather Indie not know, about a night when I drank too much after putting Indie to bed in her crib and made a phone call I shouldn’t have made to her father, the man who had abandoned us months before and lived a state away with another woman.
In the essay, Indie appears—two years old in her crib one morning—in the final paragraph. Indie’s muffled cries begin, and they grow louder as she comes out of sleep. The essay details the night before, when I celebrated my birthday alone on the front porch with a bottle of wine, when I opened another bottle deep into the night, when I watched the sprinklers sputter on at three in the morning. I watch the streams crisscross the lawn, the sidewalks darken. When I left words on a voicemail, though I didn’t remember making the call. The next morning, Indie’s father called, anger and irritation in his voice. I understand my message has been listened to, but not by him. The essay closes quickly as I hang up and walk into Indie’s room.
I think of Didion—“Writers are always selling somebody out.”
How do you tell your daughter a story you assumed you’d share when she was older, if at all? How do you recount a dark night and a blackout phone call? There is the persona, and then there is the person. Because one is driving south on I-55 in March, and one is crumpled on the porch of a corner house in July.
We write alone, and we write from inside ourselves, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this—when I write, I am unaware there’s a world beyond the keys of my laptop and the screen and the music of minor keys in the background. Dangerous territory, the dark heart of memory.
On the road I kept thinking, I have 10 hours to tell her the story. So as we crossed one bridge and then another into a new state, I told Indie I needed her to hear the story before she sat in a chair in a row surrounded by strangers while I stood behind a podium and read it. I even gave her the option to step out of the room when I read if she wanted.
My conundrum—as a mother, in certain moments, I’ve been a mess. I once had an editor ask me to interject a line or two in an early paragraph to assure the reader that I am a good mother, that Indie and I are alright. I ended up pulling the essay after explaining that so much of my essaying involves taking a sharp look at myself as a mother and worrying about those times when I failed Indie and failed myself. Indie and I are alright, better than that. Best friends. Of that I’m certain. What’s more uncertain is what I delve into on the page. And what happens once those pages are published.
After the reading, after Indie stayed in her seat to listen, and after we left the party and were walking back to our car, I asked her something out there in the dark: I know it’s probably too late to ask you this, but how do you feel about me writing about you? Her answer: It’s an honor.
Indie turned 17 last month.
A few weeks ago, she came home with a nonfiction reading list and an assignment to choose a book from the list (Alvarez, Burroughs, Didion, Gay, Krakauer, Sedaris, Strayed, et. al) or another approved work of nonfiction. “What if,” Indie asked, “someone in class chooses your book?”
“I don’t want anyone doing that,” she continued. “I don’t want anyone knowing more about my life than I do.”
And in that moment, I was again, both a mother and a writer. And both of them were sorry.
Surveying what I have written I see that my children rarely appear. David is prominent in only one essay called Impromptu Mourner published in a small Unitarian magazine. He was seven years old at the time and sometimes didn’t come home for dinner. Usually one of us went out looking for him and dragged him home. But this evening, a cool one in November, we couldn’t find him, and we sat down for dinner in the dark without him. Eventually he wandered in hungry. When I asked him where he had been, he told quite the story. Our neighbor Sara Gifford, whose husband Roger had died that fall, snagged David on his way home and recruited him to help her bury Roger’s ashes in her backyard next to the ashes of their dog. David dug the hole and threw the dirt over the box and then she took his hand and they said the Lord’s prayer, only David didn’t know it. Later she came over to berate me about the inadequacy of David’s religious training.
I did not say but I wrote—Knowing how to feel in desperately sad situations and how to comfort those in need of comforting happens surprisingly early in life for some, and for some a lifetime isn’t enough time to learn. David knew how to feel from the beginning. He may not have known the Lord’s Prayer, but he knew churches aren’t the only sacred places. He knew the most sacred place is the one he carried inside him and that he could stand with an elderly woman burying her husband and say his own prayer.
When I was in junior high, my mother pulled a note from the back pocket of a pair of my jeans, a note a friend had given me in the hallway between classes, a short letter on blue-lined paper, artfully folded. My mother’s warning as she held it up—Never write anything down. She explained that if I wrote something down, anyone could read it. Someone might get hurt.
My mother grew up in a secret—her mother’s drinking, her father’s indifference. In a white house along a farm road, she learned not to talk about things, to avoid speaking of the storm looming in the back room, to ignore the damages of its aftermath. My father grew up in a Methodist parsonage, where he learned to hold his tongue and bow his head. And I grew up in a suburban home where I learned to keep so much to myself, the silences hovering like shadows.
This, I am certain, is why I became a writer. To call the storms from their corners, to name them.
I think of Didion—“Writers are always selling somebody out.”
The shadows I write the most are my own, so in that way, the somebody I sell out more than any other is myself. My first book, a collection of essays, had one question at its core: How did I end up a single mother in rehab at the age of 35? Of course, Indie’s in the book, but as an infant, a toddler, a person not yet aware of the truths around her. My next book, a memoir published in 2015 when Indie was 13, has many questions, most of them unanswered.
On the day I received the contract for the memoir, I explained to Indie that the book was about us, and that people would be reading about our lives. I had no idea what would become of the book, but I worried about making her so visible. So before I signed the contract, I needed her permission. She quickly gave it, explaining all she wanted was to read it before it was published.
I began working through the chapters, revisiting all the states of our lives as if watching a film reel, asking her often to read certain sections to make sure I had captured a night or a move or a basement in a way she recognized. In every instance, she nodded that I had. But by the time I completed the manuscript and offered her its pages, she had changed her mind about reading it: “There are memories you have that I’m not ready to have in my head.” And so the words linger in those pages, waiting for when she’s ready. As children, we’re always being warned. But whether it’s crossing streets or being careful with our words, we still run out into traffic.
I want to warn Indie about the words I have written.
I worry their impact may be a collision I never considered.