Interviewing My Mother for My Memoir Helped Me Start to Forgive Her
May 24, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Lilly Dancyger
Most of the people I interviewed while doing research for my memoir, I spent a few hours with. Usually one long conversation, sometimes a few follow-up questions over the phone or email. But with my mother I just kept digging, and kept finding new depths. We spent dozens of hours, stretched over years, talking about her relationship with my father, their shared heroin addiction and the shadow it cast over my childhood, their breakup, and his death. Each conversation felt like she’d finally borne her soul to me, but I always found more bubbling up later: more details, more truth, more pain, more ugliness.
If I had asked my mother for all of these details—what she and my father fought about, when they were using and when they were clean, all the reasons they split up—in a purely mother-daughter context, there’s no way it would have been a calm, productive conversation. It would have been too raw for both of us, my wronged daughter-self lashing out at her flawed mother-self. She would have gotten defensive, which would have made me push harder, until we weren’t digging toward a truth together but just screaming our own grievances.
We’d never agreed on what our life together had looked like; what she was like as a mother, what I was like as a daughter, who was more at fault for so much friction. We’d never even really acknowledge that there was friction, that there was any blame to place. We’d just moved on from the explosive teenage years—when we only spoke to each other in angry screams and passive aggressive jabs—without ever exploring the damage.
But now this wasn’t about me and her directly. Now it was about the story, and I could ask her in my detached reporter voice, “What was that like?” even if underneath, what I meant was “How could you let this happen?” The structure of interviewing in service of storytelling kept us focused, pushing calmly ahead. I was collecting these moments of our lives, even the ugly ones, to build something out of them. Not demanding apologies, just stories; just material.
We were taking the story down in chunks—years of this excavation, years of phone calls that opened with bracing questions, like “When did you start using again in San Francisco?” and “What was the last straw that ended your marriage?” But she never received these calls with hostility, or resistance, or even annoyance. She’d say, “Well!” and I could hear her settling into her chair and trying to put the words together carefully but truthfully.
I had been wary about interviewing my mother at first, had wanted to guard my project against the flood of her emotion, worried the story I was trying to tell—about my father, and his art, and all that I inherited from him—would be overtaken. And she did overtake it in a way, but not the way I’d expected. As I started to understand her more and more through these stories, I realized I was shifting the landscape of my relationships with both of my parents where I’d only set out to explore and shift one.
I realized somewhere along the way that whatever I wanted to call it—interviews, research—this was also me asking my mother all the questions that it otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask her at all until she was dead too, and I went again searching desperately for something that was gone. I thought during some of these interviews, and between them, that I should appreciate them for what they were: not just traces of my father, but honest, intimate, past-plumbing conversations with my mother.
In the midst of all of these conversations, I published an op-ed in a national paper about a viral photo of a little boy strapped into a car seat, staring into the camera, while his guardians sit nearly dead from opioid overdoses in the front seats. In the piece, I compared myself to that little boy and wrote about what it’s like to be the child of addicts—all the feelings that had been churning around about how it’s not their fault but it’s still their responsibility, and how it creates a shame that’s impossible not to inherit no matter how much you defend them, or how much you believe those defenses.
My mother called to tell me that when she first read the piece she was hurt, she wanted to argue, to point out that they never put me in that position. That most of the time they were just doing enough heroin to “maintain,” to avoid withdrawal, that they weren’t even really getting high, let alone doing enough to overdose. We were on the phone, so thankfully I didn’t have to mask the mounting rage on my face as I held my tongue while she rationalized, holding back an outburst about how ridiculous she sounded explaining that they were “good” heroin addict parents. But then, she said, she’d thought about it. She’d been rethinking a lot lately with all of these conversations we’d been having, and she’d realized that she’d convinced herself that because she did some things right, she had been a good mother. I had two parents who loved me, who cared whether I was fed and safe, who played games and read me stories. She’d focused on that part, and pretended that growing up knowing my parents were addicts, watching it tear their marriage apart and kill my father, somehow hadn’t affected me.
I pressed the phone to my ear, overwhelmed, realizing how badly I’d needed to hear her say these things. I didn’t interject; I just let her keep talking, repeating herself, explaining how her own perspective was shifting as we had all of these conversations and she was finally seeing that of course I had been harmed. Saying she was sorry.
Hearing her finally admit that she wasn’t a perfect mother, that she let me be exposed to things no kid should know about, that she’d let me fend for my own emotional wellbeing when I most needed her help—hearing her apologize—cracked something open in me. I’d wanted for years to throw all of this in her face, to accuse her, to expose her. But as soon as she admitted it, all I felt was forgiveness—flooding in through the cracks in the wall between us, cracks that had been formed by all the interviews, just enough to let some light in.
** This blog entry is excerpted from Lilly Dancyger’s memoir Negative Space (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021)
Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award; and the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger. Find her on Twitter at @lillydancyger.