Putting the Demons Down–on Paper
Are family demons a gift to fiction writers? In the first draft of my post today, I wrote about my mother. In so many ways she was a wonderful woman, but—but I’m pulling back. Though she is still an enigma to me, it is my grandmother, from whom I have more distance, who is the greater mystery.
My grandmother was crazy. She was an alcoholic, physically and verbally abusive to her daughters, and suffocatingly jealous. Yet to all outside appearances, she was perfect. Her Depression-era house, with its perimeter of roses, was modest and clean; her daughters’ clothes were hand-sewn with excruciating attention to detail; their grades were excellent.
Unnamed while she lived was that trifecta of shame: mental illness, alcoholism, violence in the home. If my grandmother had wanted help—and I don’t believe she ever acknowledged she had a problem—she could not have gotten it. The devil on her back was unmentionable. And besides, no one—no one outside the home—ever saw that demon.
My mother told some of the stories of her childhood, and my grandmother’s sister a few more that predated my grandparents’ marriage. But with the death now of my grandmother’s siblings, how she because who she was is a lost story—and besides no one wanted to talk about it. When I recall her now, I see a tall, strong woman with medusa-like hair, crazy-intense eyes, and skin discolored from cigarettes and liquor. The fiery anger of her younger years had quelled by the time my mother had moved back home, though I witnessed a few incoherent drunken rages.
I can talk about my grandmother more easily than my mother (the part I’ve cut from the earlier draft) because I didn’t have that much of a role in my grandmother’s drama. Unlike my mother, I don’t have to examine the things I did to survive in such a soul-crushing environment.
I admire those writers who can peel back their respectable outer shells and expose the demons inside. It takes courage, even when those demons are expressed through fiction. I once wrote a novella about an unlikely friendship between two girls who shared a horrific experience—except that I dialed back on the evilness. I couldn’t bring myself to name it. Instead, the girls shared a bad experience, but not one so bad that they couldn’t talk about it. I justified my cowardliness with the excuse that a truly terrible experience would be the story, rather than the story I wanted to tell about evolving relationships and attitudes.
The manuscript is shelved. I still have affection for the characters and I would never want to hurt them. It was a nice story, if boring. You wouldn’t want to read it.