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.

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§ 21 Responses to On Publishing My Memoir While My Mother Is Living

  • Wonderful post! I don’t think there is a subject that is more difficult to write about than difficult mothers. Keep up the good work and keep working to be free! Well done.

    Sent from Mail for Windows

  • Heidi Croot says:

    I would travel a great distance to have coffee with you. Freedom wears so many luminous coats. Admire your steely resolve. Great piece. Saving it.

  • Anne Van Etten says:

    I am happy for Ms. Ewans that writing about her mother has helped to set her free. But what about forgiveness? Writing about my mother, long after she had died, helped me to forgive her for never revealing to me that she was not my biological mother. We can write about the shortcomings of our mothers and others, but forgiveness is the path to true freedom.

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Hi Anne, I have a sense that what may be most important these days is for *all* women to speak their truth – and that includes mothers and daughters. We writers are well aware that if 7 of us are in a boat going down a river, at the end of the trip, if we each write about the experience, we’ll have 7 different stories. And just because they’re different stories, doesn’t mean each writer shouldn’t write their own truth – and in fact by doing so we empower ourselves. We claim agency over our own stories.

      I wonder if the fact that we’ve been dominated by patriarchal hierarchies for the past 4,000 years – which insist that there is one truth – ONE WAY of doing things and seeing things, and this is the ONLY “right” way, and the only acceptable way – I wonder if this is what has brought us to this place of not being able to hold paradox.

      I love the quote that Dinty Moore shared recently: “Writing a memoir is an act of love … because it requires empathy and compassion. An act of love because it strives to tell the truth in all its complexity. ” ~ Lee Martin

      • Anne Van Etten says:

        Yes, a memoir requires empathy and compassion. In mine, (not yet published and not only about my mother) I seek to explain and understand why my mother acted as she did, in ways that were appalling and unexplainable to others. She did not have the opportunity to tell her story or read my version. By seeking to understand and forgive her through my writing I also understood and forgave myself.

    • sonyaewan says:

      I do agree with you about forgiveness and it’s nice to read that you’ve experienced “true freedom.” I’m confident that I’ll get to that point someday, as well. But today, my mother is alive and in my life (at a distance)… and still attempting to manipulate me.

      • Anne Van Etten says:

        Sonya, I do hope that you will be able to forgive and also understand your mother some day. One way to do that is to move as far away from the physical place associated with painful memories as possible. I moved from Norway to Hawaii. I saw her only on brief summer vacations, and the atmosphere of secrecy and incessant criticism was tolerable that way. I should mention that I am much older than you, and we tend to be more forgiving and maybe wiser as we near the end of life. We are all flawed and stumble through life as best we can. I wish you much success with your book and your life.

    • Heidi Croot says:

      There are as many individual paths to forgiveness as there are to freedom, those paths surely overlapping. I felt kinship with Sonya Ewan when I read her closing quote about “writing this book in order to be free.” She has arrived in a place of relative tranquility, on her own terms. As the not-to-be-trifled-with Elizabeth Bennet says in a blaze of integrity, “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.” All we’re equipped to offer one another is respectful curiosity in the hope our path may help to illuminate another’s. I define forgiveness in a way that is specific, meaningful, exhilarating, freeing and revelatory to me (yes, I did try to trim that list). Who else can possibly know what it is to be me? Or any of us?

    • Jessica Errico says:

      Anne, I agree. Forgiveness is the path to true freedom. I always knew that my mother/daughter memoir would have to wait till after my mother’s passing. Even six years after our final “Goodbye,” it took a depth of humility and vulnerability beyond what I expected. I’d like to know more about your memoir. Mine is titled, “The Mother Gap.” Blessings.

  • marilyn801 says:

    I like to think that BOTH of my parents would’ve appreciated my blog, and what I’ve shared about them in particular; the good AND the not-so-good! ❤️ After all, they had a lot to do with how I turned out!!

  • Brava, Sonya! You have something worthy to say and you courageously said it! I can’t wait to read it!

  • Charlotte Wilkins says:

    Love your blog, Sonya. The dominating presence of a narcissistic mother is more than challenging! My favorite lines: . . . she’d prefer the college version of my memoir to the modern, post-therapy version. HAHA.
    . . . more convinced that she would be writing about experiences that had little to do with me. SO TRUE.
    . . . but I’m finally at a place where I value myself more than my mother’s feelings. AMEN, SISTER.

  • Sally Showalter says:

    I applaud. I firmly believe to write to publish when the time is right, whether there are ‘living’ or not. I will be anxious to read.

  • lgrizzo says:

    I’m glad you’re braving publication. We memoir writers have to stand up for ourselves!

  • Dickson77 says:

    I don’t like to bring up my past about my mother. She had a peculiar way of helping people and criticizing people that didn’t see her way. Anything that was brought up about the past among family
    members certainly brought back off stories about the events
    I accepted her behavior and kept everything involving her on a very light basis. I stay positive as much as i stick to focusing on family in a growth mindset. I enjoyed and appreciated your story We only have one mother They mean well, have tons of experience and strong opinions. I just would have liked her being more civil, less critical, and just got along with everyone. She had her favorites. I’m glad my younger brother was there for her.

  • Nick says:

    Thank you for the amazing article.

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