In the grim locked-down winter of 2021, I drove three hours to Wales where I sat in an isolated cottage and wrestled with a memoir I could not figure out how to write. While I was there, my mother sent me a link to a two-page personal essay she’d published in a tiny but venerable magazine called the Canadian Literary Review. It was entitled ‘This Story is Mine’. After a preamble about feminism and #MeToo, she cuts to the chase: ‘In June 1964, a few weeks before my thirteenth birthday I was raped by a man old enough to be my father.’
My mother then went on to tell her life story, or the story she understands to be her life. It’s a story I’d heard many times before, one she’d published other versions of in other places.
The story is this: from the age of 12 to 15 my mother had a sexual relationship with a much older man – her riding instructor, a man I’ll call the Horseman. He was 45 and married with four children of his own, two of whom were older than my mother and attended her country school. When my grandfather discovered the relationship, he grounded his eldest daughter for two weeks and banished the Horseman from the club and the county, but unbeknownst to him the affair continued in secret. My mother and her father never spoke of it again. When my mother was 16 she met my father, a handsome boy from the wrong side of the tracks. They were engaged at 18 and married at 21. She had me and then my sister in quick succession. Twelve years into my parents’ marriage, my grandfather died and my mother bolted, leaving us, her family, behind for a glamorous life in the city.
After my grandfather died, my mother said she ‘didn’t have to pretend to be a “good girl” any more’. Thus Mum later put it to me, and anyone else who would listen. The trauma inflicted by the Horseman justified her decision to leave her children. This is how her victim narrative worked.
My mother’s story, the one about the Horseman, was not just a sordid family tale, it was presented to me as the origin and explanation for everything – the keystone in the arch of our life. Most importantly, it absolved my mother of everything. The Horseman isn’t my father, but my mother made it clear that had it not been for him I would not have been born. That’s how powerful and complicated stories are, especially in families of writers. This is what my own book is about, and this is why my mother ended the piece by accusing me, her eldest daughter, of appropriating her story – stealing it shamelessly to use as titillating ‘material’ in the upcoming memoir, the one I was trying and failing to write. She ended the piece with a plaintive cri de coeur, one so characteristic of her voice it has rung in my ears ever since.
‘I have not led a blameless life. I own every mistake I have made – every one. I feel my daughter’s pain as if it is my own… but I will say this vigorously and directly as I can: This story, this one, is mine.’
But is it? Stories, like families, like cultures, are by definition shared. In isolation they simply cease to exist. Stories reverberate and intersect, they flow into each other and, in the case of my family, form a tangled knot. Once told, a story cannot be rebottled, countermanded back into a secret. You cannot tell your daughter your victim narrative over and over again, effectively raise her to see the world through the distorted prism of your own trauma, then say: ‘But wait! It’s my story to tell.’
Within certain clearly defined limits (plagiarism, privacy laws, defamation), any story is anyone’s to tell.
When my husband Rob, who is also a writer and journalist, read my mother’s piece, he deadpanned: ‘Well, that’s an interesting turn of events.’ I gave a hollow laugh. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was.’
After hanging up the phone, I reread my mother’s piece and as I did so my nausea lifted, replaced by a sensation of overwhelming relief. It was the relief of knowing that I was now finally free to write the book I wanted and needed to write.
Because here is the truth: in accusing me of stealing her story, my mother was also doing something far more complicated and covert – she was giving me permission to write it. Like me, like Rob, like many members of our family, my mother is an experienced journalist and writer and she knows exactly what’s possible or not possible to print. By writing that piece, the one in which she accuses me of stealing her story, she was also waiving her anonymity, casting off her Jane Doe invisibility cloak. On the surface she was crying ‘No!’ but under the surface she was whispering: ‘Go on, Leah, I dare you.’
Now that my memoir is out, the question I get asked most often these days is whether my mother is alive. Yes, I say. Alive and well. The second is whether she’s read my memoir. Yes, I say, again, I sent her a first draft. She had one change and has since then refused to speak to me or my children. At this people look alarmed. I know what they’re thinking, a few people have asked me outright: what kind of daughter tells her mother’s abuse story without her consent?
Here is my answer: the kind of daughter who was raised by my mother.
My mother is not a normal mother, she is a writer who broke all the rules. I became a writer too, then broke all the rules in turn. I don’t pretend to be normal, but then again what family is?
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