How we rationalize the privacies we invade

I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy. Privacy from the perspective of a memoir and personal essay writer who is revealing family secrets, breaking silences that were intended to protect (or at least that’s what I’ve chosen to believe) but have done more damage than good.

I’m thinking about my aunt, my Titi who is very much a surrogate mom to me. When I told her I was writing a memoir, she said, “Be careful what you write.”

“I’m not being careful.”

“I know.” She looked at me with those loving eyes of hers, no judgment, but no understanding either. Then she walked out of her kitchen, a plate of food in her hand. The heaping plate she’d just served me sat on the table, heat rising off the rice in smoky tendrils.

Two years ago, I showed her the picture I found in Meryl Meisler’s exhibit, “Bushwick in the 80s.” Meryl had gotten the picture mounted on cardboard and gifted it to me. Titi gasped, “Oh my God, look at your mother,” she said, pointing at her sitting on the garbage cans in front of the building I grew up in and mom still lives in.

Bushwick After The Ashes

“Do you remember him?” I pointed to the old man in the window. He’s looking at the camera. His stare is so piercing, your eyes go to his unwantingly, you can’t resist.

“Yeah, that’s Valentín, Millie’s uncle.” She brought the picture close to her face to examine it. I imagine the slideshow of memories the picture prompts.

“That man molested me,” I said, interrupting her nostalgia.

She dropped the photo onto the washing machine like it was suddenly scalding her fingertips. She walked to the stove and checked the flame, like she hadn’t just lowered the rice and checked on the chicken in the oven.

“Ay, that never happened to me, thank God,” said Titi’s best friend Aria, who’d been listening quietly until then. Aria has a deep Bronx Boricua accent and is my age. She said she knew someone who was molested by her cousin. “It fucked her up for a long time.” They clutched the metaphorical pearls around their necks, then they walked passed me and out of the kitchen where I was still standing in front of my aunt’s washing machine, holding the picture in my hands.

My aunt didn’t make it the few steps to her living room before she turned around and walked back to the kitchen. She put her hand on mine. “I understand why you’re writing this book.” From her eyes, I knew it was true.


You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.

Whenever I see this quoted as a status or a meme, or offered as advice to a memoir writer, I say a quiet, “Carajo yes!” and throw my right fist up in a battle cry. See, I too have given this advice to my students. I’ve followed that with “but it’s a lot easier in theory than it is in practice.”

I think about my mother.


Guilt. That’s the overwhelming feeling I get when I answer the questions in the book The Emotionally Absent Mother which I’ve been reading and working on for a few days now.

Is Mother where you turn for comfort and refueling? No.

If not, do you think she would be there if you did? No.

Do you remember her being there for you? When Carlos died, for a short spell until she rejected me again like she has so many times.

She couldn’t have been that bad, Vanessa.

I question myself: Am I exaggerating? Am I vilifying her? I don’t wanna vilify her. That’s not what this is about, Vanessa. The inner dialogue turns to scolding rather easily. And you had Millie so…

It’s the same shit I’ve told myself over the years. The same playing down and denial of my feelings, my memory. The same pushing down. No, you can’t say that, she’s your mother, Vanessa.

I hear her in my head, “I’m the mother!” Mom still has an accent though she’s been in this country almost 45 years.

Still, the little girl in me reminds me, insists, “No, this is how it really was. This is how it really felt. Yes, it was that bad…”


The first essay in my memoir is called “How Imagine It.” It’s my mother’s story that I’ve pieced together over the years from overheard conversations, secrets revealed in whispers, and confessions told when I was already years into adulthood.

I was 33 when mom told me the story of how she met my dad. When I asked about him when I was a kid, she’d push me away and tell me he was a sinvergüenza who left us and that’s all I needed to know. At some point, I can’t remember when, she told me he tried to kick me out of her when she told him she was pregnant. He accused her of setting him up, lying that she was on the pill. Truth is I was conceived on the pill, mom took the pill for four months before she realized she was pregnant. That’s why I was in the NICU for much of my first year of life.

It wasn’t until I was 33 that mom finally confessed, “He loved me, Vanessa. It was my fault too. No podía tener relaciones. Lloraba. Por ese desgraciado.”

And that was when I finally started seeing my dad’s humanity. He was a man whose woman would cry when he touched her.

Mom never talked directly about the rape that bore my brother until he was in the hospital dying.

My brother Carlos told mom that I was working on a memoir. She didn’t make any comments about it or ask any questions until last year. I was 37.

We were on the train. She asked about the 50 pages I had due for my residency at VONA/Voices. I told her I had them in my backpack. She reached for it, “Let me see.” I yanked it away. We both laughed.

“How do you feel about me writing about you?”

She shrugged. “I don’t care. Just don’t use my name.”

It was so uneventful. I had imagined her flipping out, hurling her body at me, screaming, “Traicionera! Como te atrevez?”

Then she started telling me stories, filling in the blank spaces with stories of her childhood, how she met Millie (who was her partner for more than 20 years), why she was so hard on me.

On the cruise we went on as a family two months after Carlos died, mom said, “I’ve never gotten over what happened to me.” She stared out at the ocean; the moonlight glistened off the tears on her cheeks.

How could you have, mom?

I walked around with a journal for the entire eight days of the cruise. I sat on the upper deck and wrote in it for hours on end. Sometimes, I’d just sit and listen to them talk, las mujeres de la familia—my mom, grandma (mom’s mom), my Titi, and a family friend from way back when they were just girls in La Ceiba, Honduras. More than few times, I snatched out my journal to capture a line or a new memory shared.

On the last day of the cruise, as we were packing, mom asked, “Why are you writing this book?” She kept folding and unfolding the same t-shirt.

“Because I can’t carry it anymore, ma.”

She looked down at the shirt, folded it again and tucked it into her maleta.


The other day, I met a poet friend for breakfast. We both suffered devastating losses last summer within days of each other—me, my brother, him, his best friend in a murder-suicide. My poet friend had also lost his older brother the year before to drugs and reckless living. I told him about the three months my brother and I shared before he died.

“It’s all in the memoir. My brother’s death shifted the book so much.”

“You’re including that in the memoir? The rape, too?”

“Yes. I’ve already written most of it.”

“Woah.” He raised in eyebrows in that phew way, as if to say “oh my God” or “oh shit” or “wow, that’s a lot.”

I wondered if he knew how many times I’ve said those very things to myself.

“This is how the books starts,” I said, fidgeting with the napkin on my lap. “When I told my brother what I was writing, he lit a cigarette and pulled on it so hard, I thought he was gonna burn it to the filter. Then he said, ‘Write it, sis, maybe somebody’ll fuckin’ talk.’”

My poet friend was quiet. He looked down at his now empty plate and took a sip of his strong-ass French coffee. (It was so good, I drank three cups.)

“Word,” he almost whispered.


See, it’s not that I haven’t thought about it, turned it over in my head and heart, the decision to write this. I’ve dissected these stories, written and rewritten them, sat with them, prayed with and for them. Trust me, I‘ve thought about all of it, how it’s going to affect my family, my mother more than anyone. These are her secrets I’m revealing, her shame, that silence that has eaten through us like gangrene, a flesh-eating bacteria.

This silence killed my brother.


I had a dream last week, except it wasn’t a dream. I was awake or mostly awake. I saw her in the corner of my room, diagonal to my bed, where I was lying down. I saw her two braids and brown skin, her face lined deep with arrugas, she is la madre. She’s come to tell me that what I am doing, what I am carrying, is old, el dolor de las mujeres de mi sangre, generaciones de mujeres. Mujeres who were raped. “Nos abusaron,” she says, “Y nadie nos ayudó.” I suddenly notice those lines aren’t just wrinkles, they are tear trails, dozens of them.

Silence has been carried down for generations in my family. This vieja, la madre, has come to tell me she knows they’re asking a lot of me. “You’re the only one who can do it.” They chose me because I can.

I fell asleep with her watching over me. I still feel her lingering in my room as I type.


David Sedaris typically writes about his family. In his essay “Repeat after Me,” he writes about the struggle we non-fiction writers have with the privacies we invade in our work. “In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people I love voluntarily choose to expose themselves. It’s a decision much harder to maintain when a family member is in the audience.”

See, we don’t take it lightly though it may come across like that.

In the essay, Sedaris reveals what so many of us are afraid of: facing our true selves, who we are with all our flaws and our ugly. We like to think that we are noble and just, but are we? Am I? If my mother didn’t give me permission to write her stories, would I write them anyway? I already had. If she told me she didn’t want me to write about her, would I have stopped? I don’t think I would have. I didn’t respect her wishes when she asked me (albeit, roughly) to not post pictures of her on my Facebook. She thinks the internet is evil. “Te voy a dar un consejo de ese Feibuk…”

Sedaris is really asking us this: What will it take for all of us (himself included) to take a real, genuine, unflinching look at ourselves, rot and all? And what will it take for us to take it even further and change?

I may still be called an atrevida and traicionera. I hear my brother’s words on loop in chest, “Write it, sis, may somebody’ll fuckin’ talk.” I feel the guilt and the shame dig their claws into me. They make my fingers tremble as I type. I clench my jaw. I hold my breath. I see my daughter’s face and remember the why…she can’t carry this silence like I did. I won’t allow it. I write on.


  1. There is a fine line between telling the truth and not wishing to injure those we love. But I believe that when you tell your story, you are giving someone else the courage to speak up. I can feel your struggle with this and I believe that out of this will come a world of good.

  2. to write a memoir seems to give the truth too much power for me. i’d rather re-write it all and fictionalize it and devour it and make it what i wish for.

    your memoir is going to knock the sky into the depths of the ocean.

    i’m so so proud of you and excited for the tsunami.

    • I hear you, sis. I wish the truth didn’t have so much power. I wish the silence around the truth wasn’t so devastating. I wrote fiction for many years because I was running away from this memoir. I had to stop running. The stories followed close behind.

  3. Thank you for writing about this journey. It gives me courage. And it makes me admire you even more. I love the quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” I echo you: “Carajo yes!”

  4. Vanessa, a huge thank you for writing this article. Writing memoir goes so against the grain of silence and asks that we be, well, honest. Which is not an easy thing to do in the face of denial that often reaches back generations. I so appreciate how your piece here makes that palpable. I will share it with my students at Writing Women’s Lives, where I show women writers who are done with silence how to free their voice and claim their truth so they can tell their story with confidence, craft, and consciousness. Your piece underscores how writing memoir is an incredibly worthy act of consciousness that grows us into who we are, both on the page and off the page. I am so grateful that you are writing your memoir, and I can’t wait to read it. Indeed, write on!
    Best, Marilyn
    p.s. Do you mind if I re-post your blog in the “Feature Article” section of my newsletter? You can reach me at

  5. Really touched by this. There is therapy in writing and sharing it with others helps break the silence.
    Which I could say something amazing here that would be an appropriate response to all you suffered, but sometimes words just don’t quite cut it.
    I am sending you love though and I hope people listen. X

  6. Well said! Telling my story in multiple places has ended some relationships for me, but it has freed me and made me a better mother. There is no value in keeping secrets that involve evil, and those burdens should not be passed down to the next generation. It is scary, it is hard, it has value. I discovered that the relationships that ended only existed because of a shared secret. I am sad there was so little go let go of. Sometimes telling the truth allows us to let go of the fairy tales we wish for, and that can be the biggest piece of grief… reality.

    • Your sentiments are exactly how I feel. “There is no vale in keeping secrets that involve evil, and those burdens should not be passed down to the next generation.” At some point, we have to begin living in the truth and not “fairy tales,” lies that we tell ourselves because the truth is difficult to process, but at the same time, it’s difficult because family members are involved and there’s a good chance they will choose not to remember…

  7. A beautiful blogpost. Writing memoir can be a very scary thing, to some extent betraying confidences and from an at least somewhat biased opinion. Thank you for so expertly delving into this topic.

  8. Vanessa, I was deeply moved by your essay, and it stirred up a lot of buried pain and emotions. Though I’ve been writing for decades, the visual arts have been my vehicle for processing difficult experiences. Visual imagery can be vague and metaphorical… subject to various interpretations based on the viewer’s personal experience. Fear has held me back from anything else (at least while certain family members are still living).

    I’m 56 years old, and I’m learning (especially this past year) that healing is a lifelong process. An important step is in reclaiming my voice (which was stolen from me as a small child). I need to find a copy of the book you are reading, “The Emotionally Absent Mother.” Would you be so kind as to tell me the name of the author?

    Thank you for sharing your most inner thoughts and struggles…las lágrimas y el dolor en el corazón… you are very brave indeed… you give me strength.

    Thank you,

  9. This is such an amazing piece, Vanessa. I have struggled often with telling my truth when it overlaps someone else’s. It’s hard to stay in integrity and also not gloss over important details that tell the heart of the story. Secrets kill. Secrets overpower hope. But some aren’t mine to reveal and I struggle with that. But like you, I can’t keep silent just to keep the peace.

    • Oh Karen, I don’t believe that secrets overpower hope. I can’t believe that, but I do understand what you mean. It’s been a journey to get here and I still carry so much guilt and angst over it, but I know it’s time. Finally.

  10. “the struggle we non-fiction writers have with the privacies we invade in our work.”

    This is powerful, you’ve reined me in with the earnestness of your words. I am grateful that you’ve chosen to share this with the Universe, this is power!

  11. I believe many of us writers have tragedy in our lives and that’s why we become writers. It releases us from our pain. It allows us to relive the past, but provides an internal and moral cleansing so we can embrace today and look forward to our future. I have thought of many ways to start my memoir, but I always stop and return to my works of fiction instead. I know that day will come though when I’m ready. It’s a hard choice to make because we not only expose our demons, but we also expose our loved ones’ demons in the process. It is a very private thing, and we unveil this privacy according to our memories and interpretations. However, as writers, it’s our job to interpret and to relive those memories that connect us. Sometimes, we have to take them to the uncomfortable places we once visited. As we do so, we’re exposed, weak, and unsure of ourselves. We may piss people off and make them angry, but such is our burden. We cannot stop ourselves from that exposure any more than we can stop ourselves from putting words to paper. You are making the right choice, so take a deep breath and embrace yourself for the aftermath :). Good luck!

  12. Whew. This is powerful and gives me pause. I feel like I can only write about the dead — after my husband’s suicide — writing about that and addiction (oh those secrets people love to keep) and as the years pass and more people die, that gets easier. But something is missing because I hold back for the living and maybe it’s even my ‘own rot’ — this is inspiring indeed. Thank you!

    • Tricia, what helps me everyday when I put my pen to paper is to think about how these secrets have broken my heart and broke the heart of my first best friend and advocate, my brother. I can’t let them break my daughter’s heart. No. I will write on. I hope you will gather the fortitude to do the same. ❤

  13. I find it serendipitous that I just saw this on “Freshly Pressed” after not looking at it for months. You want your writing to help others- and it just did.
    Thank you for both your personal story and sharing quotes and input from other writers on this topic. I look forward to more of your writings.
    Bonny Rose MacDonald

  14. Your piece is amazing! It’s right where I am right now. Now that I’ve finished writing my memoir, I’ve been worrying about my family’s reaction. In fact, it’s been plaguing me. Your piece gives me courage to keep moving toward publication. Like you, I simply can’t hold on to it any longer. Bless you for sharing out of your heart. (I would love to read your memoir when its published.)

  15. In my head, I’m not my mom’s favorite daughter. Truth is I’m not sure my mom understands how she’s affected my life. Not necessarily in a good way. When I try to think about good memories the bad ones push forward. Today I’m back home for a short visit to help my mom recover from a surgery. It requires so much from me emotionally I want to jump back on the plane and return to my life. Just two months ago I was here with my husband and three kids. My mom ranted on to my husband about what she thinks of me. We left for home in our far away state early. Painful doesn’t go far enough. What am I hoping to accomplish being here to help her? Maybe affirmation from my mom that she sees me, loves me, believes the good in me, and appreciates that I’m here. I’m here because I love her though saying or thinking that sends painful twinges to my heart. Thank you for sharing your story.

  16. Families are the source of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, scandalous and interesting stories. My family is filled with all sorts of people with amazing stories. I only wish I had the courage to step up and tell them like you. I might not have a family left if I ever do.

  17. The passage Why your writing “Because I can’t carry it anymore, ma.” Is how I felt when I started my blog, I also hope one day to summarize it into a book. Thank you for sharing! I hope you will go lighter true life!

  18. The passage Why your writing “Because I can’t carry it anymore, ma.” Is how I felt when I started my blog, I also hope one day to summarize it into a book. Thank you for sharing! I hope you will go lighter true life!

  19. As much as it takes strength and bravery to confront the task of recording the secrets – the real skill is in being able to dig them out! I know, 3 generations of my family have been destroyed by secrets, and even now that I am in my 50’s, the secrets are still protected better than Ft. Knox!

    • Thanks for commenting Vernon, though I can’t agree that the digging requires more skill as it is altogether very difficult work. Also very necessary work. Secrets are like gangrene–they eat at you. Good luck in your dig. 🙂

      • Congratulations on your own success, but I’ve hit enough brick walls with my head to risk a concussion. I’ve quit trying to get at those family secrets, and instead have disconnected from all family members who protect them. It was all I could do to save my own sanity.

  20. I think that you are brave ,I also think that it takes alot to change generations of secrets and dysfunction , and the only way to make Chang is give that change a voice , I really identify with your struggle with the telling of other people’s stories that are so intertwined with our own . I like this so much I’m going to reblog on Brokendollshouse

  21. I love this peace. Well said, and filled with honesty. Sometimes you have to just get it out and that will make it easier to let things go. At least that works for me. I just sent this to my mom. I think it will help her. She went through a lot in her younger years, and it has affected, or better yet followed, her all the way into her adulthood. I’ve heard bits and pieces and I think it needs to be told. Too many generational secrets and curses need to be released in order for true healing to begin. GOD gave us a mouth for a reason.

    • Thank you for sharing with your mama. Also, please be patient with her. It’s so very hard to reveal these generational silences. We often keep them out of some sense of loyalty or shame that is in no way logical but has been instilled in us from childhood. Releasing ourselves of them take time & patience. Much luck and love to you and your mama. ❤

  22. This story impacted me in many ways. My father was severely abused as a child. His story is one I have wanted to write so many times. I too understand the challenges that exist when so much is held in, the gaps that are created when trying to tell a story of such import. Nice job! I was truly moved

  23. Reblogged this on Il Dolce Far Niente and commented:
    I came across this post when I was going throught the freshly pressed. I think this is so relevant to me because I’m taking a creative non-fiction class this semester. This post is an eye-opener for me somehow.
    Reading this made me realize that writing CNF (a memoir, specifically) posts more danger to me as a writer and the people that I will drag down with me if I write about them.
    It is really difficult for me because I got so used in writing blogposts which, honestly, I don’t really pay much attention to in writing very well.
    But what the hell. Maybe this class will help me.
    So thank you, Vanessa. 🙂

    • Writing memoir and personal essay is very difficult. I’m wary of the “drag down with me” language you used. It’s not about dragging people down. It’s about writing the truth, even the stuff that isn’t pretty. Yes, it’s something to put a lot of thought into. I always ask myself: What are your motives? and that helps me decide what to reveal and what to keep to myself. Good luck in your class and your future writing. Big hugs!

      • Leerte me ha hecho recordar una hermosa canción que hoy quiero compartir contigo. Se llama “no más llorá” de Bebe. Un abrazo desde Colombia.

      • I only said it because I’m not very confident about my writing as of now. I’m afraid that if I am to be required to pass a memoir in class, i won’t be able to write well about them, and won’t give justice to their significance in the story. Thank you very much for your reply!:)

  24. Would you be surprised if I said that I’m not always confident with my writing? I write anyway. I write because. I write. I write a lot. Then I write some more. Oh yeah, I read tons too. 🙂

    Good luck, lovely. You will give justice to those stories in due time. xo

  25. Wow. This was so powerful it gave me chills. I attempted to begin writing my story by creating my blog, but quickly became stuck. And in reading this, I now think I know why. Protecting my family from secrets I did not think they would want me writing about. Maybe it’s time to give it another shot. Thank you.

  26. The first part of your beautiful memoir forced me to read all of it… It was thrilling. Writing a memoir takes out your soul from your body..It is hard and I know that. Thumbs up to you for writing this wonderful piece.

  27. “…I finally started seeing my dad’s humanity. He was a man whose woman would cry when he touched her.” I am 50 and just realized this about my father in the last year or so. Putting myself in someone else’s shoes and healing enemy images has become my spiritual practice. It’s hard. It’s not something that comes easily in our culture. Nor is it very popular. But for ME, it is the crux of the matter.

  28. Wonderful post, so honest and pure! I’ve so often wondered the same thing when it comes to writing – what is and isn’t allowed? I have to agree with you, silence doesn’t do anyone any good. I can only imagine how liberating (although scary) it must feel to write such a heavy memoir. Kudos to you for your courage and bravery. And thank you for this quote, it truly is an eye-opener:

    “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

  29. The Sound of Silence is too painful and piercing to ignore sometimes. It may be fair for others to write “conservatively”, but the writer suffers most often. Whether it be by holding back their true words or by opening themselves up to other’s opinions. The writer’s struggle is real…

    “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” – awesome! My fist is in the air to meet your enthusiasm!

    Thank you for sharing!

  30. Pow – er – ful.
    Depending, memoir can be a scary – as well as uplifting – journey. Among the fears, exposing guilt and specifically the guilt for exposing others truthfully. It uplifts me then, your comment – Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
    Thank you.

    • Hi Mike. I can’t take credit for that quote as that was Ann Lamott, but, yes, the rest was all me. As a memoir writer, I agree that the genre can be both scary and uplifting. Personally, I’ve seen secrets do more damage than good, and thus I am in the business of exposing them to free myself and future generations from their chains. Enough is enough.

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