My mother often told us that she had a 28-inch waist when she married my father. She also said that the man could completely encircle her waist with hands that never saw the sun or manual labor. I didn’t know how to respond to this remark which was born in war-torn London during the Blitz. After seven children my mother had every right to reflect decades later on her youthful physiology. Perhaps her reflection is even more remarkable given the fact that she had four children before she met my father.
Mother wasn’t sitting on a straight-line personal narrative. Her life was filled with war, rebellion and hardship. Her first husband died from the effects of war, leaving her with three children who were placed in Catholic orphanages with one daughter soon sent home due to illness. Another daughter would be born a few years later. Her father was never mentioned and no one in the family wanted to disturb that fiction.
I became close to these three daughters and a son. To a person, they said my father treated them well, including the two who were returned home from the orphanage at the requisite age of fourteen. For the two who grew up in orphanages there nonetheless was anger and distancing. The daughter decided early not to get married or have children. The son, a delicate, generous man, never seemed to get over the cold and isolation of the orphanage, made worse by war and deprivation. When I asked him what he most longed for when confined, he said a fresh tomato.
Recently I listened to a writer on “Fresh Air,” the PBS radio show talk with Terry Gross, about how he uses biographical details in his works. First he uses the surface stuff, the events of daily life. Then he appropriated and built on the quirks of family members and friends. Then he tried to deal with the deeper emotional and symbolic material that collects in our personal unconscious. The latter is most charged and dangerous because it touches on family pathologies and vulnerabilities.
The writer interviewed on PBS spoke about the “necessity” of exploring the darkest areas of our psyche, even if it causes pain to family and friends. That, after all, is the task of a writer; to go where it hurts; where the shadows and demons reside. I recall a psychologist saying that writing a novel is like standing naked in a bull ring. I don’t fully get the analogy but understand the feeling.
About two years ago, a childhood friend who lived in Verona, Italy, asked me why I had not mentioned or referred to him in my coming of age novel “Limey Down.” After all, I had referred indirectly to friends we had grown up with in London. Why not him? I told him that I valued our friendship too much and building a character around him would seem like a betrayal. He died two years ago, but I don’t think my position would change if I began the novel today.
Writing about parents is much tougher. A vengeful and unconscious father who feels wronged by the orphanage kids showing up at the front door hangs over “Limey Down” like a biblical shadow. Time plays a role here. My father died when I was fifteen, and it has taken decades for me to put him in my fictional universe.
My mother survived two husbands, three wars and seven children. These literal and symbolic markers are warning enough not to mess with the lady. But that’s just part of it. She had a very difficult life and displayed more tenacity than anyone I have ever met. Talk about a Mother Complex!
My two brothers and I joined the military out of economic necessity but, as I now know, we needed some distance from the home front. Within a few months, I was in the Western Pacific with the Navy, gleeful at being 7,000 miles away from my home in Pittsburgh, PA. But that didn’t mean I could leave my mother behind. Decades later I wrote “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” loosely based on my naval adventures. The main character is running away from his mother. After she dies he receives her ashes aboard ship. He then proceeds to sprinkle them into the South China Sea hoping that the ocean currents take her somewhere else, preferably towards India.
As adults we move out of our parents’ psychological orbit. That’s normal and healthy. But they don’t disappear. In my experience, they just go underground. I’ve been studying Jungian or archetypal psychology for twenty years and have been recording my dreams for the same period. The writer on PBS, referred to earlier, who mentioned the pathological family stuff seemed to be talking about family secrets we want to bury. Dreams are different in a way because they are by definition images, metaphors, and outrageous fictions that reside in our personal and collective unconscious. Dreams, whether fantastical or not, are symbolic and therefore distancing devices. They are the perfect raw material for the fictional landscapes beyond morality and my infantile memory.
However, this doesn’t mean I can twist and shape a dream into anything my heart desires. In his “Healing Fictions,” psychologist James Hillman refers to the morality and ethics of a dream. He cautions that we should not let our egos take over the content of a dream and rid it of its natural soulfulness. This is the task of the writer; to allow the dream its symbolic voice and room enough to roam.
A decade ago, I wrote a novel entitled “Putting Parents to Rest.” I tried to take a basic Jungian, archetypal approach to the subject, dropping in some dreams to spice things up. It was awful. I hid it at the bottom of my sock drawer. Only recently have I been able to return to the subject but not the manuscript. Time has had a role in this, of course, but Hillman’s advice was equally important. I needed to forgo the muscular approach and let my literal parents rest in peace. I had to give up those childhood tics and the notion that my literal memories were gospel truth. I had to display more humility and allow the dreams to discover meanings and truth that had eluded me.
I have completed “Dancing with the Dream Family,” which will be published next year. The novel comes from a patient waiting and listening to my inner voices. Parent and family shadows, to be sure, are still there. However, the psychological container that holds these forces is now more robust and tolerant.
Writing this book was a dance and a rebirth, not a mournful graveside anthem.