There is a greater danger in remaining quiet about your traumatic experiences than there is in sharing them. One of the reasons many people feel inhibited about discussing such feelings with family, friends, and the general public is the fear that they will be stigmatized for doing so. Though we have made great progress over the years toward a more enlightened view of various forms of trauma, including mental illness, there still are powerful taboos against talking about it. We worry whether people will consider us “crazy” and think less of us, whether such candor can affect our relationships with family and friends, and whether it will affect our employment. So there remains a risk in being honest with people about such problems, but the danger in remaining quiet is far more insidious. That danger is to ourselves. Freud said that the first step to mental health is admitting you have a problem. The second step, I would say, is admitting it to other people. And the third part of that process is whether it will bring us a sense of catharsis, of healing. How did these three steps help me, and how successfull was I in them?
Writers are particularly fortunate in that we can find a public forum for sharing our stories. In that too, the advantages, in my view, outweigh the risks. We do our best writing when we are most ourselves. We can overcome our traumas to a large degree by remembering them honestly and deeply, putting them together into a meaningful structure, and exposing them to the world. But the same process applies also to non-writers. There are many ways of sharing your story. They will all do you some good, even if some people may be put off (the old social prejudices die hard) and the sense of catharsis we hope to find may never fully come. Still, it is well worth the effort, as I found in spending decades writing a memoir called The Broken Places.
It was a painful story to tell and re-experience in my memory and writing, a form of self-psychoanalysis that required ruthless, no-punches-pulled honesty. I told the story of how I had a physical and psychological breakdown in 1965 as a Milwaukee teenager suffering from the accumulated effects of family dysfunction, sexual repression, pressure to succeed in school, and damaging overwork. My breakdown sent me into a mental hospital. But as a friend of our family wrote me at the time, what at first seemed a terrible setback was actually “a fantastic stroke of good fortune.” Not only did I benefit from getting out of the house, getting out of school, and learning to relax and live more freely, I finally had the advantage of some enlightened psychotherapy. And most of all, I had the good fortune to meet a young woman who helped bring me out of my shell of inhibitions and fears and to teach me how to live.
Sadly, she was so troubled and shattered, felt so stigmatized about her condition, was so poorly diagnosed and treated by doctors, and felt so conflicted about her own afflictions and her ethnic identity that she was unable to help herself. I survived and went on to a productive life, but she did not. This extraordinary series of events was not easy for me to talk about for quite some time. I had to cope with the feelings of embarrassment and shame that often afflict people who make such experiences known. Particularly in that era, a terrible stigma surrounded mental illness. Some people I tried to talk to didn’t want to hear about it or harshly judged me or made such ignorant comments that I began to retreat from the subject. Since I am fortunate to be a professional writer, I realized that the best way to deal with it was to write about it.
My experiences with psychiatrists in my early years were not always beneficial; one of them was so troubled that he killed himself, and another Milwaukee doctor who saw me during the weeks before my breakdown thought I was “no more neurotic than the average Marquette [University High School] senior.” I realized that even if a patient finds some professional help, as I did, he ultimately has to heal himself. So my writing of a memoir was my own form of prolonged self-psychoanalysis. The process of writing is similar to unburdening yourself to a psychotherapist, since you have to dig frankly and candidly and bravely into your feelings, your psyche, and your past in order to come up with insights into your blocks and conflicts. Some of these realizations can be brutally unpleasant. Some can affect your dealings with your family and others. But the process is necessary if you are to start healing.
Many people are unable to take that first step Freud counseled — facing up to your problems without blinders on — and instead condemn themselves to lives of psychological impoverishment, denial, or delusion. But if you can summon up the strength to study yourself honestly and write about it, you are taking steps toward recovery. Those who are not professional writers can write diaries or private letters to themselves, or short accounts of key incidents in their lives and reflections on them, and then, perhaps, share these insights with trusted friends and family members. Those of us who write for a living are able to write about our lives at length and shape our memories and stories into a well-structured form that enables us to examine them with richness and depth. And if a memoir is professionally written and candid, it can be published and shared with others.
Though my process of self-exposure took decades, it was worth it. And the response has been gratifying. I didn’t know what to expect from sharing the secrets of my inner life, but it is gratifying that people have largely been sympathetic. There have been a couple of exceptions; you have to take the knocks along with the praise. That’s life and it’s something we must face if we share our stories. Perhaps most gratifying is that many people who have read the book are inspired to share their own traumas and problems with me. Most readers connect with The Broken Places because any truly honest memoir will enable us to see ourselves in it. Such a response shows that when you open up, other people will too, and all of us will benefit.
My late writer friend John Sanford, wrote several books about his wife, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, after she died. I asked John why he kept writing about her, and he said, “Since I can’t bring her back to life, I write books about her.” I realized that John also wrote about Maggie, to the exclusion of his other writing, because he had to do so. He had to find a way to express and work through the trauma of losing his longtime love and companion.
That was a major reason I wrote my story, to pay tribute to the young woman who saved me and bring her back to life in the only way I knew how. The other reason I wrote about my breakdown and the events that led up to it and followed it was more selfish: to make sense of these events for myself and help myself heal in the process. Without doing so, I don’t think I could have begun to heal myself as much as I have. That process is imperfect and incomplete, of course. We hope for catharsis in unburdening ourselves of our traumas. Did I find it?
I did find along the way that my life history became more emotionally manageable. Not only did I come to understand it more clearly in remembering and researching and structuring it; doing so helped immensely in dealing with my present life. I also found myself looking back at my younger self almost as a different person, a boy I could sympathize with and wish I could have helped, but who was no longer quite me. And yet I found there is no such thing as complete catharsis — or, to use that dangerously misleading modern buzzword, closure. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” Even as I read the book now, the pain of some of those past events pierces me anew, and suppressed memories keep coming to the fore. But what I found in my long process of self-scrutiny and self-exposure is that we can find a partial sense of catharsis and healing by sharing our stories. Having put myself through that long process, I recommend it strongly to any of you who wants to learn from your suffering and not let it control your life.