“Stop acting like Cinderella! I am not an evil stepmother!”
Inside my head the white noise machine that was my coping mechanism revved up, humming over top of the slurred words, the tinkle of ice in the glass, the tap of the cigarette on the ashtray’s edge.
Captive, staring straight ahead, I said nothing, my face frozen in a neutral expression, its blankness suggesting neither fear nor defiance.
“I won’t let you tell stories about me. You are lucky to have me as your mother instead of that woman. Don’t pretend to be a victim. Stop making things up!”
Her eyes narrowed into slits, the corners of her mouth puckering as she took a drag. I had been through this before. I knew that I could wait her out, remain calm, deaden any urge to counter her narrative. It wasn’t worth it. My power lay in my ability to endure, to let her have her say while I tried to hang on to my own version of the truth.
I never really understood what stories she thought I had told, and to whom. I wasn’t the kind of child to tattle. I had an active imagination, and a rich inner life, but I only shared it with my imaginary friends and my marble composition book.
But at times a small voice inside whispered, “It isn’t that bad being her stepdaughter. After all, she never hits you.”
“Maybe I am imagining things,” I would think. “Maybe she is right.”
My stepmother’s persistent effort to reframe my experience so as to exonerate herself instilled in me a lifelong fear of mischaracterizing situations, of becoming what she called me, a liar. Writing my own story, my memoir, I fight sporadic attacks of panic that perhaps I am prevaricating, making things up.
The word memoir comes from the French “mémoire” meaning memory or reminiscence. As a literary genre, memoir falls into the category of creative nonfiction. That, by itself, reveals the complexity of the task: the work must be factual, not fictional, but must also reveal the inner life of the narrator through the recreation of scenes from memory. Writing about childhood is an especially fraught exercise. How do I know that what I remember is truth, not the fairytale that she accused me of seeing myself in?
Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, wrote a 2012 New York Times piece on the importance of accuracy in narrative nonfiction. He recommended 3Rs: Research, Real world exploration and a rigorous fact checking Review. For the memoirist, these 3Rs can be daunting. People are dead, places have become unrecognizable. Decades of change have bulldozed the landscape of one’s youth.
And then there is the Rashomon effect. The famous 1950 Japanese film retold the same sequence of events from the perspective of several characters, each of whom viewed the story in personal, subjective terms, often with contradictory details and emphases.
Despite my stepmother’s efforts to distort my understanding of reality, her gaslighting, she was never able to completely douse the flame of belief I had in my own ability to perceive reality, though the flame does still flicker when I dig deep into difficult moments.
I remind myself that I am not making things up as I reclaim my own narrative. I am entitled to state my own reactions and reflections as my truth. I do feel an obligation not to state as fact the motivations of others; I choose to speculate rather than impugn. Through research and attempts at corroboration, I do try to maintain fidelity to what can be known about what happened so long ago. Just the same, my readers deserve a warning when I am entering the muddy terrain of the unknowable. The use of words and phrases such as “perhaps” or “it may have been that” act as signposts that conjecture is replacing authority. One needs to be a credible not just compelling narrator in conveying one’s truth.
As for the stories my stepmother and others might have wished me to tell, I have embraced Anne Lamott’s advice:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”