On Memoir Writing: Do We Have to Call It Therapy?
March 13, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Mary J. Breen
I teach memoir classes with seniors. People who hear about these classes are forever telling me how much they approve. “Writing is such good therapy!” they say, one after another. But is it useful to call it therapy? I don’t think so, and I think it’s time we stopped.
My students tell me they want to write their memoirs for many reasons. Often they want them to be gifts for their children and grandchildren; sometimes they want to honour someone now dead, and sometimes they want to give voice to people whose stories haven’t been heard. Some people want the opportunity of taking a good look back at their lives. I’ve never had anyone say they were there because they thought memoir writing would be therapeutic. They’re there to write.
And they’re right. The focus of a memoir class is supposed to be the telling and the writing of true stories—not judging the lives people have led. Keeping discussion away from psychoanalyzing keeps the focus on the page where it belongs.
Therapy is what we need when something needs to be fixed; physical therapy, for example, might help regain the use of a broken wrist; family therapy might bring a family together again. I don’t think we should suggest to our students that they are broken and need fixing in any way.
Framing memoir writing as therapy suggests students should be looking for problematic topics to be addressed. I want my students to feel free to explore and write about—or not—whatever they choose. There is no question that catharsis can result from thinking about and writing about difficult events, but catharsis isn’t a daily occurrence for any memoir writer. I don’t want students to feel disappointed when their writing doesn’t feel “therapeutic” or “therapeutic” enough. Expecting therapeutic change, for example, may be unrealistic for someone writing about the many ways she and her big sister had such a hard time getting along, or for the writer describing a relationship with a neighbour who showed him never-ending love and acceptance while he grew up in a difficult family. These are perfectly good topics for a memoir. I don’t want students or teachers waiting for the “therapeutic” moments, and rejecting those that are not.
In my teaching experience, many people—especially older people—do not want to delve deeply into the painful parts of their pasts. I’ve often heard students say they want to remember the good not the bad, and as a teacher, I don’t think it’s my role to challenge this. This is especially important because some memories are so painful that they should not be recalled without care, and certainly not in front of a class. I remember asking a student if she was going to write about what happened to her as a small child in Germany during World War 2. She looked at me with alarm and simply said, “Oh, but I can’t.” When I saw the fear in her eyes, I realized how deep this old pain was, and I saw that pushing her in any way would have been very wrong. I have since learned that returning to memories of extreme trauma can lead to re-traumatizing—a painful reliving or even re-inhabiting of a terrible situation and the trauma that came with it. Few teachers would be adept at dealing with this.
Therapy suggests an intervention by expert professionals whose viewpoint is, by definition, outside the client. Referring to memoir writing as “therapy” moves the expertise away from the writer and into the hands of those who are on the outside looking in. Of course, experts can sometimes perceive things about us that we’re unaware of, but I want the writer to be firmly established as the authority in his/her life. I want decisions about what matters and what doesn’t to remain with the writer.
Older people are bombarded with advice about what we need—exercise programs, proper diet, vitamins, medical tests—in order to enjoy “healthy aging,” and I’m unwilling to lump memoir writing in with these prescribed behaviours. Like music and yoga and spending time with grandkids, memoir writing can be interesting and useful and fun, but it doesn’t need to be viewed as one of the approved ways to grow old correctly.
I’m not saying that writing can’t be “therapeutic.” There is no question that writing can take us deeper into what we know and who we are and have always been. It can illuminate things and let us examine parts of our past we hadn’t known were there. Some say that writing their memoirs was how they reclaimed their past. Others even say it saved their lives. Writing about our past can help us figure out our motivations and our fears, and it can give us a stronger sense of ourselves. It can also help us live more easily with what hurt us. If these things are “therapeutic,” then great. Even so, I prefer to talk about memoir writing as a chance to revisit your life, to start accepting yourself, warts and all—to look back and to look forward. The results can be a new and helpful perspective on who you are and who you want to be. Memoir writing is often enjoyable, interesting, illustrative, and even transformative. As memoir teachers, we have the privilege of helping people examine their lives—in whichever way they want. We are not therapists. We are teachers-cheerleaders-guides-coaches-listeners-witnesses, and I think this role is very important just as it is.
Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines, and she has written two books about women’s health. She has taught creative non-fiction and memoir courses for the past 15 years.