By Linda C. Wisniewski
When my memoir was published, I didn’t expect everyone in my family to like it. I had written about growing up with unhappy parents, in a depressed industrial town, in a punitive church school, and as part of a Polish working-class community looked down upon by many of our neighbors. That was a lot for me to push back against as I struggled to find my best life, and I knew some people might not share my perspective. I steeled myself for criticism.
But my cousin Angela’s letter came as a complete surprise. “Where did you get this information about my mother? And what does this have to with your childhood?” she wrote.
I didn’t know I had exposed a family secret until I read those words. Angela’s Aunt Lucille was my mother, a woman who believed the Church’s promise that suffering would lead to everlasting life. I learned to suffer from her, and my memoir is about my lifelong struggle to create my own happiness. To show her self-centered pain, I used a story she told me when I was small.
“My mother said that soon after they returned [from their honeymoon], Dad walked in the door with a strange look on his face. ‘My sister tried to kill herself,’ he blurted. ‘They don’t know if she’ll make it.’ His sister had planned to run away with her married lover, but the man backed out at the last minute. In despair, Dad’s sister took an overdose of pills. For weeks, her hold on life was tenuous. When she finally pulled through, the whole extended family was still reeling. It didn’t seem right to be going off to Hawaii.” (excerpt from Off Kilter, Pearlsong Press)
I didn’t use the name of my dad’s sister, who was Angela’s mother. But to my surprise and horror, her letter seemed to say she never knew her mother had been unfaithful to her dad. She was now in her seventies and I in my sixties. We weren’t close but I still felt terrible.
The letter was otherwise kind and supportive. “I wish I had known what you were going through as a child,” she wrote. “I would have helped you cope.”
I felt bad for hurting her, but I also remembered Angela criticizing her own daughter-in-law for a suicide attempt. I hoped she’d now be more supportive, knowing what she knew.
I wrote back, apologizing for hurting her. I explained my purpose in including the story in my memoir was to illustrate my mother’s bitterness. I wrote her twice but never got a response. At the next family gathering, she didn’t come near me, and didn’t make eye contact. It could have been worse. To my great relief, her husband gave me a big hug.
Another cousin was pretty harsh when I told her what happened. “It wasn’t your secret to tell,” she wrote in an email.
I didn’t know it was a secret, and never suspected it could still hurt anyone. It happened in the 1930s and all the people had passed on long ago. Angela is in her eighties now, and I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see her again. We were never close. My mother told me she was a spoiled child. But I wonder now if that’s true, along with the other stories she told me.
If I had it to do over, I’d leave that story out. Though I didn’t use my aunt’s name, the family who read my book knew who it was. My dad had only one sister. My hope is that they’ll think twice about judging others after reading it.
No matter how careful we are to avoid hurting people with our writing, sometimes we make mistakes. Just like we do when we interact with people off the page. When we do, we can ask forgiveness. And we can also forgive ourselves. For writers, just like everyone else, are human. And that has to be okay.
This essay was previously published on June 3, 2019 at the Brevity blog website. https://brevity.wordpress.com/2019/06/03/whose-secret/ It is reprinted here with permission of Dinty Moore, editor.
Linda C. Wisniewski is a former librarian who shares an empty nest in Doylestown with her retired scientist husband. Linda teaches memoir workshops and speaks on the healing power of writing throughout the Philadelphia area. Her work focuses on memoir and personal essays and has been published in literary magazines and anthologies. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage was published by Pearlsong Press. Her unpublished novel based on the life of a 19th century ancestor was a finalist for the 2015 Eludia Award. Her website is https://lindawis.com/