On Publishing My Memoir While My Mother Is Living
December 6, 2022 § 21 Comments
I’ve made accusations and judgements.
By Sonya Ewan
“Do you want to hear the introduction to my book?” my mother asked me in a recent phone conversation.
A week after that conversation, as I hit “send” to submit my memoir manuscript to an agent, I flashed back to a web link that had popped up after I googled Educated, by Tara Westover. That link directed me to a book cleverly titled Educating, by LaRee Westover—Tara’s mother. On Goodreads, LaRee writes that she has always known she would write her memoir, and that some of the impetus for publishing it is Tara’s memoir. She feels “a compelling desire to shine a light of accuracy…” and tells a conflicting story to that of Educated.
In my own memoir, I’ve shared a lot about my and my mother’s time together and—spoiler alert—the details aren’t all positive. When people learn that my mother is living, they often ask whether I’m using my real name for my book, Tall: A Memoir of Growing. After careful consideration, I’ve decided that the answer is yes. And yes, I’m nervous about that. I’ve made accusations and judgements and I’ve held my mother accountable. I’ve said that I believe she has narcissist personality disorder. I haven’t used my mother’s first name in the manuscript, but our surname is the same and what I’ve written may make our family, her friends, and strangers think poorly of her (or of me). Regardless, I’ve waited as long as I can to tell my story.
As an undergrad, I experienced a practice run with both memoir and my mother’s reaction after reading it. For an autobiographical paper, I diligently interviewed my mother, quoting her verbatim with the assistance of a Casio recorder (it was 1989), and reporting what she had described to me. Yet she was disappointed with the final product—even angry about some of what I had written—which confused the heck out of me. It was also a valuable lesson that people whom I’ve interviewed won’t necessarily interpret what I write afterward as I expect they will.
While I was writing Tall, my mother re-read her copy of that college paper. This time, she said she loved it. I figured she was hinting that she imagined she’d prefer the college version of my memoir to the modern, post-therapy version.
My mother once told me about Tall: “Write it like I’m not going to read it.” A month or so later, we debated whose memory was more accurate. “I can see I’m not going to like any memoir you write,” she snapped. Later still, my mother said, “I wish I could read your book before you publish it to be sure you remember everything accurately.”
I rolled my eyes. No one remembers everything accurately. But her statement did remind me of Augusten Burroughs being sued by the Turcotte family, whom he lived with during his adolescence and then wrote about in Running With Scissors.
I’ve fantasized about my mother reacting as Mary Karr’s mom did as she was reading The Liars’ Club. I recall from The Art of Memoir that Karr’s mom repeatedly commented, “I was such an asshole.” The reality is, Karr’s mom’s was not the reaction of a narcissist mother, and I’ve acknowledged that.
Reading reviews of LaRee Westover’s Educating, I was reassured by the abundance of support expressed for Tara. And after my mother read aloud her own memoir introduction, I was less anxious about whether she might contradict me and more convinced that she would be writing about experiences that had little to do with me.
There’s no denying that my mother will love and hate anything I write about her. No doubt the experience of hearing my mother’s reaction to my memoir will be challenging. The entirety of our relationship has been challenging. It’s taken me decades to arrive here, but I’m finally at a place where I value myself more than my mother’s feelings. Ariel Leve has said in an interview on her similarly-themed memoir, An Abbreviated Life, that, “It felt like I had to write this book in order to be free.” I second that.
Sonya Ewan has contributed features to Women’s Health and The Hockey News and was a regular contributor to Albuquerque The Magazine and East Mountain Living. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four air-purifying plants. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sonyaewan and read her introspective blog at sonyaewan.com.