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.
“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.