Many and Mighty and Loved

EMDR memoir reading

Stacks of my brand new EMDR memoir were on display in the front window of our local bookstore. Boxes of books had begun arriving from the printer, smelling faintly chemical, their bindings so tight they creaked when I opened them.

I got to sign the first two copies of Every Moment of a Fall to my San Francisco therapists, Connie Rubiano and Jan Cehn. We met to celebrate its release a few days before my first reading and book signing. We laughed ourselves silly, reminisced about the moments in therapy that stuck out for each of us, marveled at how far we’d come together, how much awareness of EMDR has grown since Jan and I did our sessions together. Anyone observing us would have seen nothing out of the ordinary, just three women having lunch, getting a little loud, talking with our hands.

It felt completely, conspicuously normal. I was a normal woman, like them, eating Chinese food on a Tuesday afternoon. Not a head case. Not a sad, self-loathing PTSD statistic. I was myself, easy and released from trauma. I was completely Carol, owning my name: song of joy. My fortune read, “No obstacles will stand in your way this coming week.”

All the flurry and excitement of the launch of my book—at last!—was thrilling, scary, goose-bump inducing. But maybe the best part was noticing, in the sunny window of that restaurant, how fine I felt. I was ready to share my story. Ready to look people in the eye, speak my truth and not feel judged or shamed.

In one of her columns for O Magazine, the awesome Martha Beck cites this life-changing zinger from spiritual teacher Byron Katie: “When I walk into a room, I know that everyone in it loves me. I just don’t expect them to realize it yet.” Beck challenges her reader to try that concept on for size. “Imagine how you’d enter a public space,” she writes,  “if you knew without a doubt that everyone in it adored you. How would you move? How would you look at people? What would you say?”

That’s what I resolved to do. I would enter those bookstores, stride to each podium certain that everyone in the audience loved me, whether or not they knew it yet. And guess what? They actually do. They flood me with their love, listening so attentively to my story. Asking such thoughtful questions. Coming up to tell me that I read beautifully, that my words let them experience a piece of what I lived.

I guess sometimes you just gotta roll with it: you’re A-Ok. And surrounded by love.

That’s what I’d say if came face to face with the woman who emailed me recently to thank me for writing this blog and publishing my EMDR memoir. EMDR has helped her tremendously, it turns out. So has my story. She wrote:

Thank you for having the courage to tell your story! I hope great things from it for you and countless others. . . .

I recently latched onto the thought, which has become almost an obsession, to put MY story out there, as well. It is because of the silence that the problem has gotten this far!!! And I find anyone suspect who discourages us from putting it out there! There is a reason they want us silent. . . .

I don’t have your vast experience and education, and I’ll probably never write the book I’ve dreamed of writing to share my story with the world. But reading yours makes me know that it’s no small thing to have lived an entire lifetime without true love, from and for myself, and from others.

I want her to know that she is heard, and loved—by all kinds of people who might not have realized it yet. Or are just beginning to. I bet you’ve already begun to love her yourself, reading her heart-rending words.

She sent a follow-up email to tell me that she’d kept a printed copy of one of my blog posts with her at all times “to remind myself I was not alone.”

I wrote back to tell her how incredibly thankful I am that a piece of my story made her feel like she didn’t have to go it on her own. There are so many of us walking around with similar stories, I reminded her. Far too many. Not every one of us is going to write a memoir. But whenever and however we let those stories out into the light, we become part of that light ourselves—and part of one another as well.

We are many. When we find our voices, instead of keeping silent, we are mighty. We remind one another that we walk in the world worthy of love—normal, everyday, anywhere, just-fine love.


telling family secrets - brave

I understood, going in, that telling family secrets wouldn’t exactly be a cake walk. But I believed—and still do—that the benefits of airing our truth would far outweigh the squirrelly nerves, sweaty palms or insomnia I might experience. I told myself I’d find reserves of courage along the way, as I needed them.

I had no idea how much of a coward I’ve been for years.

I just finished a course of physical therapy with an amazing woman my doctor referred me to. She helped me understand that the constant pain in my hips wasn’t caused by arthritis or an inflammatory food allergy; I was doing it to myself, clenching muscles that needed a chance to relax. Over-recruiting certain muscle groups to compensate for flabbiness in others.

She pressed her finger to the tip of my tailbone so I could feel its position. “If you had an actual  tail, it should sweep out from here and gently hang toward the ground,” she told me. But my tailbone was so tightly curled toward my pubic bone that, if I’d had a tail, it would’ve been clamped between my knees. I knew right away that I’d been holding it in that position for years. Tail firmly tucked between my legs.

A lot of people have told me that what I’m doing with this blog, and with my memoir, Every Moment of a Fall, is brave. Speaking my unsanitized truth, casting myself in the unflattering light of what actually happened rather than what I wish had happened. Opening doors to family closets that have been harboring skeletons for decades—maybe generations. But I don’t feel brave. I feel like I’ve still got my tail between my legs.

I’m scared. What will life be like, how will people treat me once the whole story gets out in the world and can’t be taken back? What will those close to me who don’t appreciate being exposed have to say about a book I’ve labored over for years, chiseling away to make it true, and beautiful? How will I be rejected, reviled, repudiated?

My husband the therapist reminds me that I don’t have to feel brave to be brave—I just need to act as if I am. Every good therapist I’ve had has reminded me of that very thing. But I can’t stop asking myself: Was it really that bad? The impulse to take it all back, to cram the skeletons back into their closets, to downplay the severity of my experience is almost irresistible. After 50-odd years of lying on the pillowtop mattress of denial, why go looking for a bed of nails to stretch out on?

In his excellent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk remembers his teacher telling him that the greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves. My guess is that it’s impossible not to be a coward when you live by a script of lies you keep feeding yourself. “If I just make it through this one more time,” you say, clamping your eyes shut, “everything will be OK.”

“We do not really want to know how many children are being molested and abused in our society,” van der Kolk writes. “We want to think of families as safe havens in a heartless world. . . . We prefer to believe that cruelty occurs only in faraway places.”

For the longest time, our family worked hard to conform to some Rockwellian fantasy of togetherness, of safe haven. From the outside, we looked enviable. People often said so. What was behind that facade, though, except a deeply desperate need (on the part of both parents and kids) to be loved and not humiliated, valued and not savaged, protected instead of thrown under the bus?

So I guess this is the shape my bravery takes: I have stopped denying the damage that’s been done. I no longer qualify or excuse it. Neither will I deny myself the right to live beyond it, to embrace my sweet life and know myself closer to whole.

I’ll act brave and tell the family secrets that aren’t serving us, that have never served us. I’ll own the part I played in perpetuating those secrets when I protected the perpetrators.  To find my  courage, I’ll go on writing these things down, running them out into the open, defusing their power. And although my knees turn to jelly, I’ll try to wag my untucked tail.

Family Reunion



The first to arrive was my cousin Sheri, who I hadn’t seen in at least forty years. She looks like her mother now (as do I), but it wasn’t hard to see the teenager with hair down to her butt who’d entranced me as a kid. We gathered at my sister Sue’s house. My brother Bruce and his family were visiting from Europe, and we’d invited some relatives for lunch.

Bruce and Sue and I made sure to discuss ahead of time how we would handle certain topics when they came up. We knew they would come up. Whenever we see extended family, someone always starts in about what a great guy our father was. They mean Arthur Fish, father #1 in the diagram above, who looked from the outside like a pious, God-fearing family man. He was a master at hiding his twisted, predatory nature.

We decided our little lunch party wasn’t the place to blow his cover. We’d intended the visit as a time to remember and celebrate our mother and her sisters. If our father came up, we’d gently steer the conversation back to happier memories.

For laughs, my husband and I devised a list of ten responses we could give if our relatives started talking about what a good man Arthur Fish was. The top three:

#3 “You know, I’m struck by how many types of people there are in the world.”

#2 “Did I tell you we have two kinds of sandwiches?”

#1 “Bless your heart!”

Because we’d talked about it ahead of time, we weren’t thrown when our mother’s cousin, in telling the story of how she and her brother had been separated as infants, praised “Doctor Fish” for reuniting them as adults. Bruce and Sue and I know it was actually our mother who orchestrated the whole thing, but we didn’t feel the need to interject.

What none of us saw coming, however, was the story our cousin Gail piped up to tell. She must’ve been five or six when it happened. She and her older sister Peggy were sleeping over in the rambling house where my family lived before I was born. Gail said she woke up in the middle of the night to find a large figure standing over her. A man. He said everything was OK. He told her to close her eyes and go back to sleep. So that’s what she did.

I was so thrown by this revelation I couldn’t speak.

Later that same year, Gail continued, her sister Peggy drowned. Gail said she now believes the figure who stood over her that night was Jesus. He came to reassure her in advance, knowing how hard it would be for her to lose her sister.

I don’t know that it wasn’t Jesus who appeared to my cousin that night. But I’d lay odds the looming figure was actually my father, Arthur Fish. When Gail opened her eyes, he shushed her and sent her back to sleep because he hadn’t come for her. That was the pattern when he slipped into the room Sue and I shared as kids. He wanted my eyes closed so I couldn’t witness what he’d come to do in our bedroom in the middle of the night.

I don’t know why I was the lucky one who got to go back to sleep. It sounds like cousin Gail was lucky that way, too.

As a writer exploring and exposing our family’s truths on the path toward healing, I often think about whether my telling of our story will resonate or collide with the versions other people tell. As I’ve said in other posts, I’ve come to believe that speaking the truth about our traumas is necessary to move beyond them. But I don’t relish the thought of inflicting pain.

I guess the only way is to respect the stories we’ve been given to tell–and the lives they entwine. To keep talking through the hard parts. To show that we’re open to meaningful connection. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t scare me, thinking about how some people might respond to my rifling through our shared past, shining a spotlight. But we’ve lived in selective silence for so long, and that hasn’t served us well.

It’s time to tell. I’ve written to my cousins Sheri and Gail. Perhaps an update post will follow as this chapter of the story fills in with new voices.