Can Writing Memoir Trigger Old Emotions? Within The Hidden Landscape of Our Heart
September 22, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Mary J. Breen
In the many memoir classes I’ve taught, I’ve blithely told my students that since writing might stir up old and difficult feelings, it was good to pay attention as they can teach us a lot. By old feelings I meant flashes of anger or frustration, or the reawakened pain of old wounds. I assumed the arrival of these stirred-up feelings would be very obvious.
Then I started writing about my mother.
Some background: I was born in 1944, the only child of 41-year-old, devout Catholics. To my kind and loving father, I was a miracle; to my mother, I was a gift, but also a project. She was going to be the exemplary mother of an exemplary child, and to achieve this, she would use the same guiding principles that had made her an exemplary teacher: be completely in charge and know all the answers. And so, she set about trying to have absolute control over me: what I ate, wore, read, played, said, and learned. To get my compliance, she didn’t hesitate to use sudden hard smacks and loud anger. (I wonder if she ever understood how afraid I became of her, and if she thought this was how it should be.) When I was a teenager and later an adult, she continued her attempts to mould me through relentless criticisms of my looks, actions, thoughts, opinions, and decisions. But it didn’t work. I became her great and embarrassing failure, and a heathen to boot. Her shame, her stubbornness, and her fury increased with every passing year to the point that she wouldn’t allow me and my children to visit, and in her will, she left most of her treasured things, including her house, to people I didn’t even know.
Forty years after her death, I no longer hear her scoldings playing in my head, and I would have said that I have, for the most part, put her criticisms behind me. Of course, I’ve talked about her and thought about her a great deal over the years. I’ve also published many memoir pieces, but I hadn’t before tried to spell out in detail the exact nature of my mother’s tyranny. I didn’t unearth new significant memories during the writing process, but the writing certainly helped to give me a better understanding of my parents and their choices. It also led me to feel more sympathy for her, and it showed me that her loneliness in her later years was not all my doing. It also gave me the freedom to say publically that, despite how many people—including my dear, dear father—loved and admired her, she was wrong to have treated me this harshly. It’s even allowed me to move closer to accepting that, like it or not, she was my mother.
While I was writing, I felt neither sad nor angry nor fearful, just very preoccupied. Then, a month or so in, I began to feel nervous and vulnerable at home—but only at home. My partner would say something like, “What have you been doing today?” and I’d immediately feel afraid, sure I was going to have to account for how I’d spent my day, and sure this was the beginning of the kind of interrogation my mother specialized in that would lead to criticism and punishment. More and more, I found myself within a fog of apprehension, with moments of genuine fear when I was asked to make decisions about utterly minor things like what we might cook for dinner. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t yet connect these new feelings with writing about my mother.
And then, a few weeks later, I happened to read something that reminded me of how memoir writing can trigger old emotions, and the penny dropped: could it be that I was actually being ambushed by old feelings of fear and anxiety because I was writing about them? Could it be that the writing had rekindled the feelings I’d had so often when I lived with her? Was this why it seemed as if I had been thrown back to a time when my mother governed me and my life? With this realization, the thinking part of my brain woke up and set about reminding me that my mother would not be descending from above—as she had been wont to do in real life—ready to persecute me for whatever I had chosen to do. Moreover, it reminded me that I do not live with someone who picks on me, and reacting to this patient, kind person in my current life as if he were a threat was very unfair. As I paid more attention to the feelings, the incongruity between what I knew and what I felt became more understandable and less overwhelming. And within this process, these distressing feelings mostly faded away.
I don’t know if what I experienced is commonplace. I don’t know if feelings from the past often arrive like a kind of covert mission, infiltrate the brain unannounced, and then appear as if they belonged in one’s current life. I don’t know how long these periods typically last, nor how intense they can be. I also don’t know the best ways to handle them.
What I do know is that when my students are writing about the past, I plan to be much clearer in my warnings about how subtle and challenging these feelings can be. It certainly has been a huge reminder that we can never fully understand the landscape of our hearts.
If Brevity readers have thoughts about this issue, I, and maybe others too, would love to hear them.
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 including The Toast, Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Windsor Review. She also spent several years writing and editing easy-to-read health information. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada where, among other things, she sometimes teaches creative nonfiction and memoir classes while continuing her fruitless search for a publisher for her memoir.