Interview with a Memoir Writer – Childhood with Traumatized Parents

by Jerry Waxler

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In my previous blog post, I wrote about a memoir by a woman who grew up under the terrible shadow of a tragedy. Judy Mandel wrote Replacement Child to share a childhood that had been distorted by a few horrifying hours in her parents’ lives that took place before she was born. Through the extraordinary medium of memoir, she was able to translate that trauma and the subsequent journey into a fascinating story. In this blog post, I interview Judy to ask her more about her experience writing and publishing the book.

This blog is part of a blog tour for Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child. For more information from the author, see her website.

Jerry Waxler: You had to face a lot of painful memories to write this memoir, and yet you did it anyway. Were you ever tempted to try to forget, and make it go away? How did you move beyond that impulse and face it and write about it?

Judy Mandel: In fact, I had been very successful in pushing all the memories down so far that it was like an excavation to unearth them. I can’t explain why I felt compelled to keep doing that, like picking a scab. You know there will be blood, but somehow you feel it will heal faster that way.

Jerry Waxler: Anyone who met you couldn’t possibly even imagine this tragic background and complex family life in the midst of a suburban community. Your sister Linda of course bore the signs of the tragedy on her skin for all to see, but you only had them inside. So growing up, how did that feel, having this vast amount of secret life contained within an ordinary one?

Judy Mandel: An interesting thing I discovered after I wrote the book, and many of my childhood friends read it. They knew about the accident, or some version of it, but never ever mentioned it to me in all the years we grew up together. Even my closest friends had never said anything. They were counseled not to by well-meaning parents. But I think if the discussion had been out in the open, both within my family and outside my family, it would have been a healthier way to deal with it and would have eliminated the feeling of secrecy. As a kid, I felt mostly a subterfuge that I couldn’t identify.

Jerry Waxler: Now that you have written a book about those experiences, you have transferred the scars from inside to outside. Describe how that has changed the way you see yourself in relationship to strangers. When you meet a stranger, do you feel more understood? Does the expression “more comfortable in your own skin” apply? How would you describe it?

Judy Mandel: What an insightful question! Sometimes when people ask me about myself, in the way people do when you meet, I am tempted to just give them a copy of Replacement Child–or tell them to read it if they haven’t. Other times, I almost feel like I have nothing left I can tell them about myself if they’ve read it.

Jerry Waxler: You have obviously worked hard on this memoir to create a story from all these memories and your research. From a mess of memories, you have created a coherent narrative. If possible, please compare how that feels to go from before writing it to having it on paper. Was it satisfying, fulfilling? Would you do it again?

Judy Mandel: The interesting thing is that once you give your inner story a narrative, it has a shape that it didn’t have before. And it is unchangeable. Before writing my story, my personal narrative morphed frequently, as I suspect it does for everyone. To your other questions, I would say I had no choice but to write this story and I can’t imagine doing anything like this again.

Jerry Waxler: Before 9/11, I spent zero time thinking about being struck by an airplane. After 9/11, this completely changed. The similarity of the experience to your childhood tragedy seems so strange and otherworldly. As a reader, it feels like a mini-9/11. Of course the cause and scope were different but in your individual life, the disruption had struck you in a similar way. That’s my reaction to reading the book. How did you react to that juxtaposition? When you realized that getting struck by a crashing airplane had become part of our collective traumatic experience, how did that influence your relationship to your memories? How did that affect your willingness to write about it?

Judy Mandel: I believe that victims of a tragic event, no matter the scope, are part of a club that none of us wanted to join. Realizing the very long tentacles of a tragedy, through a family, and even through generations, changes your view of the world. When I watched planes crashing into the towers on 9/11, I felt like it was my worst nightmare. I think, because of my family history, I have always believed that anything can happen–and 9/11 brought that home to me in a powerful way. When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I felt the same way, and deeply sad for the families effected. I also connect very strongly to survivors of the Holocaust and their children–replacement children in some sense. Some say that an entire generation of Jews are replacements for those lost. That’s a subject I’m delving into for possibly an upcoming project. As I wrote in a recent blog post of mine, ultimately, we have to grapple with random acts of evil, accident or nature. All we can do is realize that each day is a gift, and any day that we find peace, and our loved ones are safe and well, is a good day.

Jerry Waxler: I completely sympathize with the thousands of hours your family obsessed about your sister’s final moments. The horror played through the family psyche like a nightmare or a PTSD flashback. Through your creative passion and hard work you captured those moments in words. Shaping these scenes into a story must have been such a profound labor of love and passion. You finally contained within story the culminating focusing moment that controlled your and your family’s history. That seems so profound to me. Now through the hard work and creativity of your writing and the magic of empathetic reading, strangers like me have shared some of that pain. How do you feel about making the private hell accessible  to empathy from strangers? Does it feel like we are sharing your burden in some way? Has it relieved you from a life sentence of facing this pain alone?

Judy Mandel: Thank you for seeing the work in that way. You come close to asking why we write. It makes me think of the quote from Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” That is true for me as well. Writing those scenes, especially the more graphic ones, helped me figure out how I felt and what I thought. It was the only way I could make sense of it. Which brings me to the other reason for writing and reading, to try to make some sense of the world and the human condition.

Jerry Waxler: I have recently written an essay about the structural techniques of writing memoirs. In one essay, I show how some authors have alternated back and forth between the two time frames, telling the earlier story of their childhoods in alternating chapters with their adult timeframe.  In example of this method, I show how each of the two time frames sticks with chronological order. Your memoir uses the interwoven time frames, with more than two separate threads. I counted at least three (your story of growing up, the day of the crash, and looking back from the present while you were constructing the memoir). Could you help me and your readers understand your thought process deciding how to weave time among chapters? How did you arrive at this system as the best way to tell your story?

Judy Mandel: I started with the trajectory of the crash itself, since it fascinated me and I delved into every detail I could find. The first chapter I wrote was the actual scene in my mother’s kitchen when she heard the blast and flash of fire, and the ensuing melée. I knew I needed my childhood scenes to illustrate the different aspects of my relationships with members of my family, and to underscore my isolation and finally the characteristics of a classic replacement child. My present day chapters came last, to give perspective to the book. Coming up with the structure was a slow process. I experimented with different ways to tell the story. I did this visually, using index cards with a brief description of each chapter and posting them on bulletin boards. The boards lined a hallway in my house for months. I would re-arrange them every few days and see how the order worked. When that didn’t seem like enough information, I used the actual chapters, spread out in an entire room in my house. So, it wasn’t an easy or entirely scientific method!

Notes

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  1. Pingback: Turning a Tragedy into a Memoir of Becoming | Memory Writers Network

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