No matter how hard we try to push down old pains, they sometimes climb out of their graves like zombies. Some people try to drown their memories, pretending not to notice that the alcohol makes their pain stronger. Some lose themselves in work, which is good for the paycheck but not so good for the heart.
Healing begins when you face these old pains and try to disentangle yourself from them. Talk therapy helps to rebuild broken spirits. And thanks to the Memoir Revolution, our culture has provided a new path toward finding meaning. By translating the past into a sharable story, memoir writers transform even the ugliest wounds into sagas that help us understand ourselves and each other.
Some pains are so hidden we don’t even know we need to explain them
There are many types of old pains. Child abuse or neglect. Loss of a parent through divorce, disease, or addiction. Loss of a spouse or a child. Memoirs have educated me about all the ways that their authors have come to terms with these experiences.
One type of old wound I have recently found in a memoir is the tormented memory of a lost love. Julie Scolnik thought she’d discovered “the one,” but after pouring her heart into a future with him, she was plunged into the darkness of disappointment. Julie Scolnik’s Paris Blue, first shows the ecstasy. Then the slow motion disintegration into pain. Losing the bliss of love left a gash in the fabric of her universe sending her on a forced march.
Perhaps Julie Scolnik’s willingness to face agony was enhanced by her training in classical music. Musicians give a voice to these wounded states of mind through the great heaving cries of an operatic solo, or the stormy clash of kettle drums and blaring trumpets during a symphony. But despite all her self-expression through music, she’d never been able to put her pain to rest.
Despair sends us on a search to find meaning
Grieving is not just one emotion. It’s a series of emotions, a journey really, through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.
The goal is for the depression to eventually give way to acceptance. But if it doesn’t, you are stuck in depression. The missing ingredient in this healing process, according to expert David Kessler, is a search for meaning. (For his complete treatment of this insight, read his book, Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief.)
After it became obvious to Julie Scolnik that her love was no longer reciprocated, she had to find a way to get rid of the pain. That need sent her on a search for meaning.
The story creates the path from pain to healing
Initially, she hoped her broken lover would remove his taciturn mask and simply explain why he walked away. Sadly his inability to verbalize his own emotions was at the heart of the problem all along. Without such an explanationm one obvious impulse would have been to blame him. What an awful man. Was he deceiving her all along? That explanation would allow her to pile bitter anger on the wound. Fortunately, Julie had no intention of going in that direction. She wanted explanations. And not just any explanation. She had the artistic sophistication, and the ethical complexity to know that simple answers would not provide her the kind of closure she needed. She decided that only the ancient power of a story would be enough to let her put this situation to rest.
I love when memoirs attempt to dive under the surface of human experience, searching for wisdom amid the pain. Kate Braestrup’s memoir Here if You Need Me tackled another great mystery. After she lost her husband to an automobile crash, she grieved. Gradually Braestrup turned her quest into an exploration of the nature of grace and the dilemma of good and evil.
Julie Scolnik’s memoir tackles a problem almost as large. If one partner is 100% committed, and the other seems to be, is it a form of emotional abuse when one of them pulls away? Was he a bad guy, cruel and insensitive to the women in his life, or was he a victim of his own emotional limitations?
Sometimes ambiguous answers fill the need
Julie Scolnik’s refusal to give up has provided her (and her readers!) with an amazing introspective workshop, where she could forge emotional suffering into a beautiful story.
Perhaps the story of Paris Blue is not just an expression of the author’s pain, but also its solution. Like the haunting emotional power of classical music or opera, or the unanswered questions of a magnificent mysterious poem, the answer to unrequited love is contained within the work of art itself.
Paris Blue offers readers a front row seat to the whole, painful, all-too-human saga, first of the initial joy of full-immersion loving, then of her crashing disappointment, and then her lifelong search for answers.
When I turned over the last page, even though she had not revealed any clear, clean answer, in some sublime way, the story itself answered the question of her pain. By letting me and other readers join her on her journey, I hope she was able to put down some of the baggage which she had been carrying her whole life. I know that by the end of the memoir I felt better. Perhaps by reading it, you will too.
For another article about the uplifting power of ambiguous end, click this link.