A Writer's World

By Molly Moynahan

Writing about the Unbearable

“I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigated pain. It is important to share how I know survival is survival and not just a walk through the rain.” Audre Lorde

During the nineteen-eighties I found myself putting an embargo on dead children books. For some reasons there were multiple novels featuring dead, kidnapped, abused children and I could not get past that plot point believing it to be completely plausible yet somehow manipulative or, possibly, unbearable.

My sister told me that after I had my own child I would find myself unable to sit through films depicting children in peril, deceased or otherwise in bad trouble. I was very pregnant when I went to see Schindler’s List with my then husband and during the scene where they took the children away from their parents and drove them off to be gassed, I became hysterical and had to sit in the lobby, the faces of the parents reflected my own deepest fears of losing this unborn baby. There was the contrast between what I envisioned for my little boy--soft blankets, cuddles and lullabies--and what can happen to children in a brutal society--death, terror, separation and abuse.

Writing about tragedy is very hard and frequently feels ridiculous to me, and yet, after my first novel was published I was told repeatedly that I had a handle on the subject of grief that few could duplicate.  But I didn’t want that gift because the price I’d paid was much too high. Both my best friend and my eldest sister had been killed in separate accidents when I was in my twenties and both deaths had left me in a state of devastation, unable to recover from the idea that both these women had deserved to live while I, an untreated alcoholic who made terrible decisions, should have been the victim.  Yes, this was a narcissistic and immature reaction but I was both narcissistic and immature and, until I stopped drinking and went to therapy, I was unable to write about anything beyond my own loss.

When my first novel was published, Parting is All We Know of Heaven, I sat in my therapist’s office in a rage and sobbed to her that the book had done nothing but hurt me and others. I pointed out the obvious fact that the book had not restored my sister to me and the less obvious fact that I had written the novel to make my father admit he loved me. She held up the book and said, “You wrote this,” and I was silenced. I had taken a personal tragedy and made it live on blank white pages. At what price? The book nearly destroyed me. I wrote it while I was having panic attacks, a depression so severe I could barely function and planning my own suicide. Also, through a miasma of guilt believing I was using the deaths of my most loved to create a work of art. But I lived and wrote and there was the beginning of my career as a novelist, a dream I had never articulated since it seemed so absurd.

I look at the sweet face of the little boy killed by the Boston bombing and I read the words of the writers trying to articulate loss and I can only wish his family will discover a way to survive this tragedy.  Honestly, I feel as if the entire nation, if not the world, needs to find a therapist like the one that saved my life, to talk about how to move forward and stop trying to destroy what is so fragile.

Life and loss cannot be summed up in words or pictures. It is breath and hope and dreams and struggle. Maybe it was cowardly for me to flee that movie, while the Nazis were separating the children from their parents. I did return and watch the rest, my hand resting on my stomach, aware that I had to protect but not hide this child from the world. Writers can’t restore the dead but we can, in our imperfect way, sometimes lead people back towards a sense of hope and wonder.

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