Why do we write? Some people want to write the definitive work on a subject. Others want to create new audiences or business potential. Some want to introduce readers to a place or time they wouldn’t otherwise have known. Other writers want to examine the human condition. The imaginary and historical worlds we create in our writing – whether fiction or non-fiction, for children or adults – allow us to see people and societies change and grow (or stay stuck) over time.
There are two main reasons why I write: because I want to help people understand more about a specific topic and because I want to create change. When I get an idea for a book, it’s usually because there’s a problem. I write to help people think through, and then help solve, the problem. One of the biggest problems I see in society today is intergenerational trauma, where the trauma of an event is not resolved and is then passed from one generation to the next. This phenomenon is directly related to a lack of supports for healing and the way that childhood coping behaviours affect adult relationships and parenting.
In my book Legacy, I used stories from my family to illustrate the everyday impacts of trauma as defined by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. These impacts include poor physical health, increased rates of domestic violence, and family systems dysfunction such as sexual abuse, keeping secrets, scapegoating, and emotional neglect or abuse. I didn’t want readers to think that I was proclaiming from on high that “Thou must changeth” or “Thou must healeth,” so I had to let them know that I had experienced the things that I was writing about. It was necessary – but I also knew it was going to be rough.
Writing about family is different than writing about other real people. To respect the privacy of my former clients and former students in the Indigenous community, all I needed to do was create characters (e.g., two real-life school administrators became one principal that no one would recognize), switch genders, change identifying details, or not include identifying details such as location at all. Respecting the privacy of my family, on the other hand, was a piecemeal exercise that sometimes meant I couldn’t tell the full story. I opted not to write about one half-sibling at all, which meant that I couldn’t talk about narcissistic projection. (I figured that would keep me safe. It did not.) I camouflaged two references to another half-sibling because I didn’t want to blindside them with something that would seem like an accusation. (We’re estranged, so there was no chance for me to discuss these references with them beforehand.)
My mother gave me permission to write about her before she died and my father already knows what he’s responsible for, but their stories did have to be dealt with sensitively and with great care. Writing about family means writing about people without creating further harm – even when they continue to engage in abusive and/or harmful behaviours. I felt comfortable writing about my mother’s emotional and psychological abuse toward me because I also wrote about her creative abilities and successes. She was a talented painter, an accomplished musician who studied piano at the Royal Conservatory, a successful print model, and a background actor. She was beautiful and she was a terrible parent. She was not, and I didn’t write her as, a caricature of evil. She was just someone who had experienced childhood trauma and who never learned how to love herself or anyone else. She never got the help she needed to work through her anger. My father’s story is the same: he’s responsible for what he did, but he’s not to blame.
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The story I told in Legacy is a story about a family and a community of people. It’s a story that is mine but isn’t only mine. That means telling the truth while also being mindful about how that truth affects others.
Someone once told me that there are three outcomes when a writer writes about people they know: people will think your book is about them even when it’s not; people won’t see themselves when you do write about them (especially when you want them to); and when you don’t write about someone because you know they’ll be mad, that person will end up mad anyway – because they’re disappointed that they’re not in the book.
Hurt feelings and anger might happen. Harm and revictimization shouldn’t. Context is key.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Suzanne Methot is the author of Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing. She has worked in adult literacy and skills-training, as a museum educator, and as a teacher, creating a classroom program for Indigenous students experiencing intergenerational trauma. Born in Vancouver and raised in Peace River, Alberta, Suzanne is Nehiyaw of mixed Indigenous and European heritage. She lives on Gabriola Island, B.C., on the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw Nation.