Dipping My Mother’s Hair in Ink: On Later Doubts About Memoir

February 6, 2019 § 22 Comments

zz-brandeisBy Gayle Brandeis

The boy who sat behind my mother in primary school dipped the tip of her braid into the inkwell carved into his desk, turned her hair into a brush slashing calligraphy across the back of her shirt, marking her with his intent. My grandmother told her to be flattered, said it meant he liked her, but did my grandmother worry about this boy, this ink, his intent? Did she scrub and scrub at her daughter’s shirt, hoping it would come clean? Did it ever come clean? Did the ink wash out of my mother’s hair, dark swirls of it disappearing down the drain, or did it seep deeply into each shaft, dyeing it until her mother trimmed off the ends, littering the floor with the intent of that boy? And where is it all now, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy, in what landfill, what house, what dust molecule? Have I breathed in flecks of it, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy?

The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, the memoir I wrote about my mother, her delusion, her suicide, was the most necessary book I’ve ever written; as hard as it was to write, I desperately had to get it out of my body, get it onto the page, start to find shape for the mess of my grief. Writing it helped me find compassion for my mom, helped me feel closer to her than I had in years, if ever. It helped me feel much clearer inside myself, more whole. Still, when it was published in late 2017 and interviewers asked how my mother would have felt about the book being in the world, shame crept over me, and I started to wonder: had I done the same thing as that boy? Had I dipped my mother’s hair in ink, too, used her as an unwitting pen? Was I as complicit as that boy, doing something without her consent, taking what was hers and making it my own? Were my hands irrevocably stained?

Trusting the urgency of the creative process is one thing; holding on to that trust after publication is another. While the book was received with overwhelmingly open arms and led to breathtakingly profound conversations, I also received Tweets like “Shame on you” after an excerpt was published, and “If I was your mother, I would kill myself, too.” Of course I am not alone in such trolling—it is sadly part and parcel of being a writer in the world these days, especially a woman writer—and I’ve received very little compared to many writers I know, but those Tweets got under my skin, fed the doubts and guilt already bubbling and growing inside me like a yeast. What had I done to my mother? Was I that boy, that ink?

The question of how my mother would have felt about my memoir came up again at a university reading last year, and the same shame started to re-percolate in my gut. Then my gracious host said he sensed my mom would have loved seeing her face on the cover of my book, and I realized, yes, that’s true—my mother always wanted to be the center of attention; she would likely be thrilled to see herself on the cover of a book. Something relaxed in me at this revelation. And I trust that at her best, truest self, my mother would understand I wrote this book from a place of love, from a sincere desire to fathom her, to connect. I may have started writing my memoir with a lot of anger and confusion, but every single word ultimately became a love letter. If I’ve plunged my mom’s hair into ink, I’ve also written her more deeply into my heart, tattooed her there, her presence now refreshed, indelible.

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press). Find out more at www.gaylebrandeis.com


§ 22 Responses to Dipping My Mother’s Hair in Ink: On Later Doubts About Memoir

  • Karen says:

    So glad your host set you straight! I think the trolls are that boy.

  • philipparees says:

    Very cogent for me, dealing with a similar event! The responsibility to oneself and to others, and the (sometimes) irreconcilable claims of both!

    Bought your very arresting book and look forward to reading!

  • Relax... says:

    O Lord, what a great read. Love has many faces, but one fruit: More love. Good for you!

  • colbyjack5000 says:

    I loved this analysis of a question we all struggle with at some point. I recently finished a thesis/memoir/essay collection and sent to both of my parents for some measure of approval or at least acceptance of what I had written. They are both professors, so the first feedback I got was about my lack of footnotes, but they don’t understand CNF. But in the end, they understood that no relationship is perfect, no parent has all of the answers and that above and beyond whatever negativity I delved into, it all ended in love. Even my Dad, who was the focus of most of it said he came out pretty well in the end and left me knowing that I had not done him wrong. I hope your mother would understand that this was something you needed to do, and in sharing that, you likely helped others who could not find the language they needed. That was your gift. You did well.

  • leagpage says:

    I am wrestling with similar concerns– the push-me-pull-you of writing and telling, of exposing oneself and others in the process. I’ve (mostly) reconciled it by leaning into curiosity, which, unlike voyeurism, is a deep form of attention and even love. Thank you for your honesty.

  • mksksdd says:

    My very first impression was visual with only reading this part – “Dipping My Mother’s Hair in Ink”.

    I didn’t immediately move on to the boy who did this. My thought is you’re the one that showed the connection we all have as story tellers over the generations. Using her hair, you have an integral part of her to reach back and bring the stories forward. It’s beautiful and I’m putting your book on my list.

  • Loved this exploration of the after-effects of memoir / publishing, especially the skillfully drawn parallel with the schoolboy. Thank you!

  • I had the opportunity to review your book and found it to be a compelling mystery and a love letter to your mom. My thought upon finishing it was that she would love it. You brought her into the spotlight and showed her flaws, her illness, but you also showed her energy, dedication, confidence, intelligence. As someone who has EDS, I was so happy to see it discussed. Most people, most doctors, are completely unaware of it and its many varieties. So you continued the work of bringing awareness to these conditions. Thank you.

  • annebbecker says:

    I loved this essay, Gayle, which was shared in a chat on the National Association of Memoirs Writers Facebook page. It was in answer to my own ongoing dilemma with the intimacy of memoir writing. I was addressing the issues of personal vulnerability, but I have also struggled deeply with how to write respectfully about family members. Your piece is so very loving and poignant, I am sure your book has your mother’s blessing.

  • olivia.els says:

    I loved this, I find that when people write down their most difficult struggles is when they display their most respect for themselves and much more bravery than I’ll ever have.. wonderful article.



  • Stephanie Wicks says:

    I loved your book Gayle with a heavy heart. When reading about your mother through your eyes, it caused me to reflect on who we are as parents and people in our children’s eyes. It actually gave me great relief to see that our children have their own impressions of us. My own impressions gets boring. Your mother is multi-dimensional which makes her a more vibrant character, you have the gift of seeing those things even though she couldn’t. The fact that you can see her through the pain and portray her with honesty is gift to all, including her.

  • Jeff Seitzer says:

    This is beautiful. I am glad that you found the courage to write your memoir. I am saddened by the responses you received. People do not understand how difficult grief work is and how important as well. I am sure that your mother would be proud of you for engaging with her and grateful for the understanding you developed for her.

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