"Setting the Secrets Free, Set Me Free of Them" Dorothy Ellen Palmer Finds Liberation Through Humour in Her New Memoir
Dorothy Ellen Palmer has experienced a lot. From a long and fascinating career as an educator to her work as a tireless union activist and champion of inclusivity, her stories are many. In her new memoir, Falling for Myself (Wolsak & Wynn), Palmer takes us on an enlightening and often-humorous journey into the life of someone living with a disability, tackling her own personal history and present-day challenges with the biting wit and keen eye for observation she's long been known for.
Having spent her early years trying to cloak the ways she was different from others, Falling for Myself finds Palmer making peace with herself and her disability, baring her life experiences to the reader with unabashed, joyful honesty. From a childhood spent living with an overwhelmed adoptive family to her awakening as an activist and teacher, Dorothy Ellen Palmer's current role finds her fighting to end ableism and ageism wherever it persists.
We're tremendously excited to welcome Dorothy to Open Book today to discuss Falling for Myself as part of our My Story memoir series. She discusses how her new book evolved over time, the burden of keeping secrets, and the importance of resistance stories.
How did your memoir project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
I suppose I’ve always wanted to share my story. Even as a child, I longed for someone to listen to how adoption and disability had combined to shape my life. But for five decades I was too ashamed to do so. The first spark of change exploded when I discovered Stella Young, a disability activist who helped me see that I had no reason to be ashamed. That I could claim disabled identity with pride. It’s the right time to tell my story, not just because I’m old and better do it while I still can, but also because thanks to the internet, there is a united, international disability community all demanding to be heard. I honestly believe CanLit is on the verge of finally seeing and hearing the 23% of the planet who are disabled. As readers and as writers, we must be included if we hope to build a truly diverse literary community.
Is there a question that was central to this project? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
The questions that shaped my memoir changed many times as my own understandings grew. I began simply wanting to share my personal story. I asked myself, “How can I best make people understand the things that make me who I am?” It expanded to ask, “How can I use my personal story to best defend my two marginalized communities: disabled people and seniors?” Then it expanded again into, “How do we all learn to see, hear, examine, confront and reject ageism and ableism?”
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
It changed and evolved multiple times over the three years it took to write it. What surprised me the most about the process is a little embarrassing. As a high school English and Drama teacher, I spent decades teaching students every kind of pre-writing and organizer under the sun: word webs, content maps, T-charts, outlines, clouds, and pictograms. And I used absolutely none of them. I found I worked best simply by applying my derriere to the chair.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
If you define anxiety as whole days weeping and vomiting, yes. Falling for Myself is both about all the times I’ve physically fallen and all the times I’ve fallen short. It examines all I’ve learned from a life of hitting the ground. I’m still afraid of some of the details I divulge. It isn’t just that I know the internet can be merciless. It’s more about what friends and family will think of me. But in the end, I came to the conclusion that what has hurt me the most is secrets. Having to keep my adoption a secret. The government keeping my birth family a secret from me. Spending years of my life in hiding, keeping my disability as secret as possible. Once you share all your secrets, they no longer have any power over you. Setting the secrets free, set me free of them.
Personal essays, memoirs, and creative non-fiction in general have becoming particularly in demand and loved by readers in recent years. Why do you think creative non-fiction is more popular than ever?
I think people always want to know what makes other people tick, to see how the clocks of other lives wind up and wind down. I’m also glad that publishers are moving away from a focus in celebrity lives. We all want to hear stories from people who don’t represent dominant settler culture. We want to hear stories of resistance and struggle. Those are the stories we all need in this era of the rise of racist white wing nationalism, the harms of capitalist greed, eugenics, and planet-threatening climate crisis.
What are you working on now?
Today, I’ve got several projects on the go that I’m working on back and forth. My favourite at the moment is a collection of linked personal essays about life on my brand new ride called, Zen and the Art of Mobility Scooter Maintenance. It uses Robert Pirsig’s famous novel as a frame to look at the way I’m learning to maintain my pride and shed my shame. It’s a critique of ableism and inaccessibility fueled by humour, which always creates best kind of literary road trip.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a disabled senior writer, accessibility consultant, and retired high school drama teacher and union activist. She grew up in suburban Toronto, and spent childhood summers at a three-generation cottage near Fenelon Falls.
For three decades, she worked in three provinces as a high school English/Drama teacher, teaching on a Mennonite Colony, a four-room schoolhouse, an adult learning centre attached to a prison and a highly diverse new high school in Pickering. Elected to her union executive each year for fifteen years, she created staff and student workshops to fight bullying, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and homophobia.
Dorothy sits on the Accessibility Advisory Board of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) and is an executive board member for the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs (CCWWP) where she writes a monthly column on disability in CanLit for the newsletter.
Her work has appeared in: REFUSE, Wordgathering, Alt-Minds, All Lit Up, Don't Talk to Me About Love, Little Fiction Big Truths, 49th Shelf and Open Book. Her first novel, When Fenelon Falls, features a disabled teen protagonist in the Woodstock-Moonwalk summer of 1969. She lives in Burlington, Ontario, and can always be found tweeting @depalm.