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the painful truth

Tell the painful truth, or why washing family laundry in public is difficult

It is not always easy to tell the painful truth

Anyone writing a memoir must face the challenge of how to tell the painful truth of his or her story at the same time as one does not want to cause harm or pain. I have written elsewhere about telling the truth in a memoir. Those posts have been more on the objective level—the theory of telling the truth.

A Sugary Frosting has brought me face to face – personally – with the challenge of telling the truth. I’m not a great fan of “silly me thinking I knew how to tell the truth before I had to face the challenge!” so this is not going there. No, this piece is simply an application of what I  already knew and have written about.

A Sugary Frosting is a book that I co-authored with Martha Blowen, my deceased spouse. The title to the book came from Martha’s journals. There was an entry in which she referred to her childhood as being A Sugary Frosting with life “having to be sweet and sticky.” This definitely was part of the painful truth.

Martha died on August 18, 2008. At the time, she had written parts of her memoir, and I picked it up and finished it. There was no title to the book, and it was I who provided A Sugary Frosting.

Martha felt very strongly that the emotional tone of her childhood had created much difficulty in her life. These difficulties may have contributed to her illness and death. That, of course, is an idea that cannot be verified. But, it definitely was a thought that Martha believed in and shared with me on many occasions. She felt that her childhood, smothered with sugary emotional frosting and the insistence that everything be “nice,” had long led to a difficulty in perceiving life. I go into that in the sequel to A Sugary Frosting which I call My Eye Fell Into the Soup—but I’ll hold off on explaining that title.

Her childhood was one in which she had been taught to deny reality in favor of making every conversation, every interaction, EVERYTHING be pleasant and nice and—especially—positive. This was a painful truth for her, and it was a painful truth for me to convey.

My perspective

As son-in-law, I experienced this compulsory reframing of whatever was happening as I interacted with her parents –  especially with her mother.

  • If one expressed something negative, she was likely to say, “But, you don’t really feel that way!”
  • If she wanted you to do something, she would not ask you to do it. She would say, “You will want to do this, I know”.
  • If one did very ordinary actions – like parallel parking, or return a damaged good to a store – she might say, “Oh, you do that so well!”

One was oddly left with the impression that she somehow did not approve of what one had just done or that one had done a faux pas.

Martha often felt that her cancer snuck up on her because she had learned to mistrust her own intuition. Whether this is true or not I don’t know. I do know that I myself often experienced doubt about myself when I was in my mother-in-law’s presence. I would have to stop and ask myself, “How do I really feel?”

So in writing A Sugary Frosting, I felt I had no choice but to place this observation—the painful truth—into the text. I knew that this was the reality of Martha’s childhood. At the same time, my own sense of affection for Martha’s mother led me to feel conflicted about telling the painful truth that is so essential to understanding Martha.

Martha’s mother was a woman of considerable talent and accomplishments (e.g., she had the equivalent of an MA), and she had been very kind to Martha and to me. Our children grew up next to their grandmother who was always so generous in childcare. This wonderful person was also the woman that I knew. She was not just the emotionally handicapped person that is occasionally described in A Sugary Frosting but she was a multifaceted complicated woman who is also now present in the book.

I have found it challenging to do the book promotion for A Sugary Frosting because of this conflict between how to tell the painful truth and honoring a relationship. The complication is all the greater because of my deep relationship to Martha and wanting to honor the truth of her life as she saw it. I could not tell her story without telling the painful truth.

Have you had a similar experience? Leave your comment below.

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2 Responses to Tell the painful truth, or why washing family laundry in public is difficult

  1. Avatar
    Leslie Williford August 6, 2016 at 1:02 PM #

    Denis, I tip my hat to you Sir. What an amazing guy to do what you did for your wife! Unexpectedly (it’s before noon I can mispell if i want) I related so much to that post of yours and may need to digest. I wanted to say first that I too have wondered if I will be able to complete my memoir in my lifetime and what would happen to all my little memory notes and bits of writing if I were to pass tomorrow or three months from now. For years I’ve been in the belly of the whale where I know what life has handed me to do but I have not wanted to get myself ready to accomplish the task. Now I have half heartedly started but even so I’m dragging my feet. What is really in my way why the truth of course. It’s a killer, it’s something like thee elephant in the room no one wants to mention. My guess is, she’s aware of her “unique yet unwarranted and unwanted remarks”. Probably brought to her attention by some gas station attendant or landscape artist at some point in her life. The real problem is it coming from you but maybe she will respect you more for having the cutspa to point it out. If not she’ll get over it.

  2. Avatar
    Denis Ledoux August 12, 2016 at 11:08 AM #

    Leslie, let me encourage you to structure your writing by scheduling a regular writing time—even 30 minutes a day can produce much over time.

    Do not let the pain of difficult memories lead you into putting off writing. Instead, let your desire to express your unique self be the guide that sets you on the path to completing your memoir.

    Good luck and keep in touch.

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