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Offending the bereaved: Thoughts on the controversy around the upcoming DSM V proposed “grief guidelines”

Michael Max Dorf, a month or so before.

Who would have ever thought there could be a controversy around grief?

In the last few months, in my other (non-writing) life as a therapist, I have heard the devastating stories of several people seriously traumatized by their past contacts with the mental health system, people with a lasting legacy of pain from being (probably wrongly) prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs or placed against their will on a terrifying psych ward. I’m definitely not a conspiracy theorist, one who says things like “everything happens for a reason,” or assigns existential “meaning” to every happening, and so I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that I’ve heard so many stories like this lately. I obviously recognize that many dedicated people in the field are doing work that manages to be both life-saving and compassionate, yet these awful stories also underscore the need for folks setting the parameters in the field–the task force considering changes in the upcoming edition of the “bible” for clinicians, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (so-called “DSM V) to the various “diagnoses” around grief–to at least try to get it right.  It seems to me that those of us working in the field who are honored every day to do this work, to witness people’s deepest pain, have a duty to at least speak out when it appears that a grave and possibly for some folks dangerous injustice is being contemplated.

Partly because of the experience I mention above, and partly as a response to a wonderful “Open Letter to to the DSM Task Force” posted by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore on her own website (which I’m linking to here) , I’d like to add my own voice to all those professionals and offended bereaved people weighing in on this disturbing and upsetting controversy.

As readers of this blog surely know, I too lost lost a child, my son, Michael, who died in 1994, and I’ve been living with, and thinking, studying, and writing about grief ever since. (Let me assure the reader that I’ve also done lots of other things, including recover my sense of humor.)  My writing inspired by this includes a highly acclaimed novel, “Saving Elijah,”  published by Putnam in June, 2000.  After that I (eventually) went back to grad school to get a second masters degree in social work, mostly in order to work with the bereaved, even though I already knew from experience what one bereaved human being needs from another human being.  More recently I’ve been working on a kind of memoir, which I’m calling, “Excerpts: Complicated Grief.”  Included in the memoir is a recounting of the day I first heard in grad school that we were to label grief that lasts longer than two months (now according to all accounts of the upcoming DSM V apparently further reduced to two weeks) as pathology, call it “complicated,” call it a “disorder.”  Even twelve years after my son’s death, this felt like an accusation.  How could it not?  How could they not see that this is damaging to the very people it purports to “help?” It was as if feeling the terrible sorrow I had felt, sometimes even still felt (still sometimes feel now), wasn’t “normal.” Yet I knew full well that it was “normal,” both from my own experience and from talking to scores, even hundreds of other bereaved parents.

I’ve written the memoir in the second person, and it moves backward from the present to the day of the loss, in an attempt to show how grief can (while still being “normal”) reverberate throughout every corridor of a life, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, sometimes as a source of wisdom, sometimes as source of pain or anxiety, but always present.

It opens on what would have been my son’s 21st birthday.

October 22, 2011, seventeen years after. Stand at the dryer, slap in wet clothes, try to form an image of a strapping young man turning twenty-one today.  See only a sturdy toddler.   Like a failed magic trick.

Go to the cemetery, brush away leaves, place stones on the brass and marble marker. Stand in the thick, humid air.  Say Kaddish,  forget the last part.  Try to remember Michael but conjure up only bones in a tomb, shreds of boy and turtle, earthworms, fecund soil.  Say the word fecund aloud, the hard k sound rattling the teeth. Remember your husband falling into the grave. Wonder why you  come.  Get back into your car pursing your lips as if tasting something moldy. Think of old metaphors, new similes. Grief always comes alone to a child’s grave. Grief is no longer a thundering, hissing monster.  Grief is hollow now, like the blunt thud of rock on stone…….

The core problem comes in my view from the pathologizing of the normal human emotion of grief by calling it any kind of a disorder. And so whether you call it an “adjustment disorder related to bereavement,” and give it one year before you dial it up into an even more serious “disorder,” or whether it becomes “major depressive disorder” at two months, or at two weeks, seems to me secondary to the fact that it is called a disorder in the first place.

A child’s death?   At two weeks you’re still in shock. You’re just getting started at two months. Maybe. Actually, it seems to me that it would actually be “abnormal” for a parent who lost a child to not feel overwhelmed and debilitated by sorrow (and to experience many of the attendant symptoms that echo but are not the same as those for depression) at two months out, let alone two weeks out. I would venture to say this is probably true even at one year.  I remember visiting a friend of my mother’s who at age 100 was still talking about her fifteen-year-old son’s death in a car accident fifty years before as if it had happened that day. Personally, I would still call hers “normal” grief. And so the learned people figuring out the DSM seem to have had it backwards all along, and now seem to be doubling down on having it backwards.

I certainly agree that what people who have suffered loss need is (as Dr. Joanne says), human connection, caring, and compassion, or as the Lancet said: Time, Compassion, Remembrance, Empathy.  I believe it’s an insult to think that a pill could be any kind of substitute for that. I remember a good, well meaning friend wanted me to take medication, but even though I was suffering mightily, walking around in my bathrobe (not only figuratively) for three years, I somehow knew that it would do no good at all to try and mask the symptoms, because a certain amount of tears needed to be shed.  Luckily no clinician suggested medication.  I’m not sure what I would have done, given my state of mind, if one had.  The idea that we can “medicate” away the pain of grief isn’t about the bereaved, it’s about those who are uncomfortable with being witness to pain. As Rumi says,

We are pain and what cures pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours. I want to hold you close like a lute, so that we can cry out with loving. Would you rather throw stones at a mirror? I am your mirror and here are the stones.

In other words, the healing from the pain is in the pain.  So it is.

My favorite definition of compassion is the Buddhist one: “Willingness to be close to suffering.”  That’s what I do, what all of us who want to help do, we open our hearts to someone’s suffering.  We witness.  We don’t try to fix it.   I always say: Be present. Be humble. Be patient. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen

It seems to me that this isn’t only about the pharmaceutical industry, it’s even more about the insurance industry, which seems to be in the business of not paying for whatever it can possibly get out of. (And not just in the area of grief.)  In this case the insurance industry seems to want to get out of any paying for anything other than that which has medication as the first line of treatment, and which labels grief a “mental illness,” or a “disorder” of some kind (an outcome that can stay in a person’s record forever, with terrible, terrible consequences).

It’s a sickening conundrum, it puts people who want to provide support for the bereaved who seek it in a terrible position, and of course it puts the bereaved in an even worse position.  Aren’t we trying to help them?  Surely we are. And one of the things we must do to help them is “normalize” what they’re feeling.  Yes, I wailed at the top of my lungs in a hospital room, but so would you.

As clinicians, we have the “V” bereavement code, but insurance generally doesn’t pay for treatment if you use this as a diagnosis. To receive payment from insurance, it has to be a “disorder.” And so to get insurance to cover our effort to help people make their way through grief, we are actually forced to call it some kind of disorder, even when we know it isn’t.  (This is, by the way, actually true for many situations, for example anger management.  Insurance won’t pay for people looking for help with “anger issues” unless you slap on a some kind of a “disorder” label.

Some, no doubt, will think I’m a hopeless idealist, or a radical left winger for believing that Americans, the “richest” country on earth, ought to provide universal health care that enables people to get the health care they need, no matter what their financial or job situation.  I don’t care.  I still must speak the truth as I see it.  And there simply ought to not only be health care for all, there should be some other terminology that acknowledges the debilitating nature of what I’ve called “big time grief,” and also provides coverage for people to get the proper, compassionate psychological support they need in difficult times.

All of us can be hopeful that the outcry from the grief community around this issue will, like the outcry to de-pathologize homosexuality in the 1970s, result in a de-pathologization of grief.  From a practical standpoint, under our current disaster of a health insurance system, we are required to diagnose some kind of “disorder” or there is no insurance coverage for clinical services.  In the absence of a complete rethinking of the whole system (oh, for such an outcome!; let’s just hope the misguided politicians won’t succeed in their threat to repeal the so-called “Obamacare” coverage for everyone), we can only hope that whatever happens, good clinicians (and particularly psychiatrists with their ready-meds) recognize that the DSM is at best an imperfect guide, and can tell the difference between grief and either adjustment “disorder,” or major depressive “disorder,” whatever must be recorded as a diagnosis to get coverage.

I invite you to share your grief story as a comment.

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Survival in books: Emma Donoghue’s haunting novel, ROOM

The Bruised Muse has long been a fan of writer, Emma Donoghue. I loved and admired her novel, Slammerkin.  I was completely unprepared for ROOM. I had resisted reading this one for a long time, since I’d heard that the novel was about a kidnapped woman and her child held captive in an 11×11 cell.  I don’t generally read formulaic suspense novels any more, particularly creepy serial killer ones, and this sounded to me like a typical suspense plot.  I also wondered how a novel written in the voice of a five-year-old could possibly have anything to teach me, or even hold my interest all the way though. Boy, was I misguided.  ROOM has been haunting my dreams.  ROOM has intruded on my thoughts. ROOM makes me want to weep with envy at the author’s artistry and accomplishment. ROOM has even renewed my hope (well, a small bit of hope) that we can as a species survive. ROOM IS JUST BRILLIANT. BRILLIANT. BRILLIANT.

I’m often puzzled at the commercial success of many so-called “literary” novels I see on the bestseller list.  I wonder, What is it about this particular book that so very MANY people connect with? Why this book, and not that book?   What is this one’s magic?  What theme does this novel consider that resonates with so many people right now?  And why didn’t the book I read last week and found far more interesting, well written, engaging, or brilliant connect with enough others to make it too, or even instead of this one?

No one needs to read stories about made-up characters, of course, so it seems to me that (leaving Oprah aside) a novel succeeds commercially because millions of people recommend it, one by one (or social network by social network). That is, when one reader feels so moved that, without any reason at all (other than perhaps generosity), he or she will say to a friend, “You’ve got to read this. This is important. This will teach you something about life.” Multiply that formula by millions and you have a bestseller, in this case possibly even a classic.

ROOM is that rare book whose success is completely right and understandable. Unique, artful, poignant, authentic in its voice and characters, and beautifully, brilliantly written without flourishes or writerly self-consciousness, ROOM grabs you from the first minute and refuses to let go. Yet many (well, some) books do all that.

ROOM’S wisdom comes upon you slowly, like the light of a sunrise. In telling the story from the child’s point of view, Donoghue protects us from the horror, just as Ma protects her child. In focusing so tightly on the relationship between this devoted and inventive mother and this boy, by observing so clearly every single object and moment in its character’s 11 x 11 world, ROOM manages to illuminate the entire World.

I think ROOM connects with so many because it speaks to a certain planetary zeitgeist.  Everywhere on earth, things seem to be spiraling out of control, and Donoghue has written an unexpectedly hopeful book that speaks to human resilience in adversity, our capacity to survive. ROOM comments powerfully on our culture of gluttony, and profoundly teaches us about the nature and meaning of reality, how we construct our realities.

ROOM is also, of course, about the bond between mother and child. Most psychologists agree that failure to form a bond of attachment with at least one human being in the very early years can have devastating lifelong consequences. In my social work practice, I see many people who seem so damaged by early neglect, parental cruelty, selfishness or narcissism, and/or simple bad mothering/fathering, that it almost seems nearly impossible to effect repairs. ROOM forces you to note (and believe) that this remarkable woman, though she lives in constant personal terror, is managing to save her son by simply using her own good sense, subjugating her own needs to the needs of her child, and making the best of what she has for the sake of her child. And by saving her child, she also saves herself. And the hooked reader can’t help wonder about what will happen to Jack and Ma, even after that last powerful scene. The Bruised Muse has faith that what Ma has done will, in psychological terms, will be, “good enough.” How extraordinary. To wonder what will happen to made-up characters. Now THAT’S suspense. And suspense is another reason the book succeeds. By adhering broadly to the outline of a creepy suspense novel, yet being completely without creep, ROOM draws in the reader looking for “suspense,” but effectively turns the genre inside out.

The Bruised Muse also found that ROOM has aroused her long suppressed desire to write fiction again. (Wait. No. Don’t.  Push it away. Don’t be a fool.)

Writing for Survival: Fran on She Writes.com

I wrote the following piece on writing and my new book for a great writerly website called, shewrites.  As usual I’m out there with honesty.


I’ve just completed a memoir in essays I’m calling “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories,” in which I try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” I’ve had in my fifty-seven years. As I begin sending it out into a publishing world that’s become quite weird, I’m feeling surprisingly Buddhist. Of course I want to entertain, illuminate, and move others with published work, but finding and telling my own story in my authentic voice, sometimes using my (recovered) sense of humor, has helped me accept that I actually write to survive. Writing is my solace, therapy, coping tool, refuge, calming mechanism, path to healing, and way to make sense of life.

So what have I survived? Well, who’s counting, but just for starters we’re talking a husband’s brain tumor (1 time), the same husband’s cancer (2 times), my own miscarriages (3 times), breast cancer and a mastectomy whose aftermath nearly killed me (1 time, so far), a brother who thinks he’s the Angel of Philadelphia from the Bible (He’s not unlovable, but 1 deluded brother is plenty), and familial mental illness that I realize now pervaded every corner of our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, however in denial my father was. (3 mad aunts, 2 depressed parents).

None of it comes even close to the 1994 death of my three-year-old son, Michael. Surviving that is, I believe, one of the two greatest accomplishments of my life.

My relationship with writing has been explosive and fickle, beginning when I wrote to cope as a teenager, secretly. Like a junkie who keeps going into rehab, only to relapse every time, I’ve stopped when I lost focus on process, suffered rejection, envied another writer’s talent or success, had to abandon a project that didn’t work out, didn’t realize that everything you do, even that which fails or hurts, can teach.
I’ve even condemned and ridiculed my Muse without mercy, beaten the poor thing over the head until she shuts down, rebels, abandons me, or even hits back. Here’s a Survival Tip She-writers might find useful:

Survival Tip #1: Do not beat your muse. She’s sensitive, and doesn’t respond well to bullying. Who does?

Even during my most successful period, when I had multiple book deals, foreign translations, a German best seller, film options, nice sales, great reviews, I kept beating my Muse for not being better. I kept trying to quit.

And then came December 7th, 1993, my version of Pearl Harbor Day, the day my son had a seizure. My husband and I rushed him to a Hospital, but we arrived with our baggage in Hell.

At the time of my son’s death I had a two-book contract that I tried to fulfill by frantically finishing the second book in a few weeks. What a sight I must have been, pounding on the computer, a wild-eyed zombie—in a bathrobe, since I hardly ever got dressed. The editor rejected that violent mess of a book, and I lost my deal.

Was I thinking I could plow through such a loss, or maybe put off grief until later? This kind of grief makes you insane. And in my insanity, I stopped writing again, just when I needed it most.

I spent the next three years walking around wearing only my bathrobe and my grief, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband, like floaters in my field of vision. People suggested I write a journal, but I became enraged at anyone who presumed to tell me how to cope. One desperate day three years later, I scrawled the words “Help me” over and over in a notebook until they dissolved into unrecognizable strokes. Eventually I turned that journal into my unconventional third novel, “Saving Elijah.” Writing that book saved my life. Even so, when my next novel didn’t sell to a publisher, I gave up writing again.  Here’s another tip:

Survival Tip #2: Rejection and failure come with the territory. Art is subjective and interactive. 

I went back to school for social work, and now have a clinical practice I love. I also facilitate “write to heal” workshops. And writing eventually lured me back, first poetry to cope with the trauma of sitting with other people’s trauma, and then after surviving the breast cancer (barely), I started the bellybutton essay, to which I added Other Naked Survival Stories, including several about my son, what Hell is like, how I escaped it. The book is part memoir, part self help, with 70 or so Survival Tips based on all I’ve learned about psychology, resilience, and coping with emotional pain. Writing the tips—the real ones and even the bits of schtick I threw in for fun—was instructive for me, and I hope will be for readers, too. Here are a few tips more for writers that aren’t in the book:

Survival Tip #3: Banish all self-censorship, whether you’re “writing-for-healing,” or writing a first draft.

Survival Tip #4: Draw blood. This is the (oddly) healing part. Corollary: It helps to examine and unpack your psychological baggage when you’re forced to deal with trauma in your life, and/or when working with it in your writing.

Survival Tip #5: Learn craft. Learn more. Craft (and even art) comes with practice and study, and with a willingness to write and rewrite, examine and reexamine the material (along with your mind and heart) to shape it so it resonates emotionally with other readers. Corollary for Older Writers: Do not be dismayed that on the Internet, your writing is called “content.” Fuss with it anyway. Writers fuss because they care about each word.

Survival Tip #6: Learn to distinguish between criticism or honest reaction, and snark. Criticism can help you in your work. Snark is about the person giving it. Corollary: Don’t become overly fond of your words, but learn to stand your ground on the words that work.

Survival Tip #7: Tell the truth. Or your truth, anyway. But don’t expect to be thanked. Corollary: To tell your truth, find your authentic voice.

Survival Tip #8: Count your blessings. One blessing is that you have the gift of writing to see you through this life.

Semi-reformed cynic that I am, I feel blessed to have been able to use my writing to see myself as a survivor, rather than as victim of emotional (not to mention physical) suffering. I’ll be thrilled if readers find my new book moving, wise, funny, and (God forbid) inspirational, but whatever happens out there in the big bad publishing world, I know that I can no sooner give up writing than give up my nose. I’m definitely keeping my nose, since I no longer have a bellybutton. As for how, exactly, I lost my bellybutton, that, Sister Survivors, is a long story, which I hope you’ll read about in the memoir.

Writing Prompt: Here’s an idea I explored in my novel, “Saving Elijah.” I recommend it for anyone who’s suffered trauma, loss, illness, or emotional pain. (That would be just about everyone!) With all the creativity and imagination in She-Writes-Land, I trust we’ll see some interesting results. Post and tag your efforts so we can all enjoy them.
Imagine a scene in which you (or a character) meet God, or God’s emissary. Place the scene in any era: the 1950’s or 1500’s, the future, now. Any locale: France, Detroit, your kitchen, the New York Stock Exchange, a dusty road. Dress God in any guise: someone meaningful from your (or the character’s) past, a dead father, a purple angel or demon, a crooked old man. Now write the scene, with dialogue. You might (but don’t have to) start with your character imploring to God, “Why me?”
Why me, indeed.

Surviving the Memoir: A Writer Reacts to Amy Chua

I’m writing this post as a kind of self-courage builder. Let’s call it survival inspiration for myself.

I haven’t yet read Amy Chua’s controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but I’ve just completed my own memoir, and as I begin to send it out into world to be read and judged by agents, publishers and eventually (I’m hopeful) readers, Amy Chua gives me pause.

I’ve been a writer all my life. When I was a teenager, writing was my lifesaver, the way I secretly kept myself sane. Although my three published full-length books are fiction, I surrendered to non-fiction in 2008, after surviving the latest in a long line of personal calamities, breast cancer (diagnosed just six weeks before my daughter’s wedding) and a surgical infection after a mastectomy that nearly killed me.  My book is (well, partly) an attempt to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” in my life, including for starters three miscarriages, serious family mental illness, and the worst of the worst, the 1994 death of my son, Michael.  

And here’s Amy Chua, who seems to be everywhere these days. I even caught her the other night on Colbert, who joked to his audience, “Get back to that Mendelssohn concerto before she drowns your bunny!” I admit I laughed, even though as a psychotherapist and mother, I do find some of what I’ve heard about her “Chinese” child rearing practice appalling and even abusive, even IF the Chinese are poised to overtake us.

As a writer, however, I find it painful to watch Chua deal with the craze of Chua-abuse sweeping the nation, even hate mail and actual threats, these being an unfortunate part of the American landscape these days. She’s been called everything from a monster to a wimp, the latter by none other than David Brooks, the conservative Times columnist, who claims, “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.”

Some might look at the public reaction to Chua’s book as karma. The cynic or PR person might quote Barnum to the effect that ALL publicity, even really BAD publicity, is good for sales. Yet no matter how well Chua is selling, it still gets me in my writer’s heart to keep hearing her have to defend herself: “It isn’t a ‘how-to’ book, it’s a memoir. “

Many people, usually those who shout the loudest and get the most attention, simply lack the capability to understand nuance, the kind of emotional arc you find in most memoirs, such as the arc Ms. Chua points to in her own defense in eventually pulling back from her practices.

Mr. Brooks says he “hopes Ms. Chua’s daughters grow up to write their own books, and maybe learn the skills to better anticipate how theirs will be received.” Nonsense.  You never really know how people will react to a piece of writing.

In the case of my own memoir, these are some of my worries:  Some might be appalled at how candid I am. Certain relatives might call me a lying big mouth. Other people might object to my attempt to write a book that’s often funny and ALSO takes up the death of my son. Some might complain that exposing my brother’s mental illness is wrong, even though I attempt to disguise him by changing his name. Some might object to certain medical decisions we made for our son, even though one of the points of the book is to expose the arrogance of certain public officials who would presume to intervene in the horrendous PRIVATE medical decisions that people make everyday in this country, real decisions made by real people like my husband and me. (For the moment, research Terry Shiavo for further details.)

Writing is always an act of faith; the writer who doesn’t know that is doomed to suffering. The writer who thinks she’ll be congratulated for telling the truth is also doomed to suffering. I’m trying to keep in mind a great quote from David Sedaris: “Writing gives you the illusion of control, but then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff to it.”

I write, first and foremost, to make sense of the world (as Huxley says, to make order out of this disordered life), and so whatever happens with my memoir of survival stories, the project will have been worth doing.  As a writer, whatever the risks, you write because you simply have no choice. And this writer, in her faith, remains hopeful that most readers will find my book funny, moving and (God forbid) inspirational.

In an upcoming post, I’ll tell you the name of my book. My ex-PR man husband says I should hold off on that one. I always listen to my husband.

On grief, with “Codependent No More” author, Melody Beattie…Friends are invited to tell a story of loss

Okay, so it’s been months since I last posted, and I feel like a neglectful blog-mother, but a lot has happened that has kept me busy. Mainly, most importantly, I’ve become a grandmother! The daughter of my daughter was born on Friday evening March 5th at 9:06 PM. But I’m not writing about that today, because I need more time to process it, old-school writer that I am.

Today, I’m writing about an interview for “Bottom Line/Women’s Health” I did with a true pioneer of the self-help industry, Melody Beattie, whose book, “Codependent No More,” introduced the country and the world to the term “codependency” way back in 1986, and essentially spawned the support group movement, which has saved so many lives. (Wow! We were all wearing big hair and shoulder pads back then, and none of us had computers, let alone blogs.) Just to show the longevity of Melody’s ideas and work, I checked Amazon, and found that  “Codependent No More” ranks at #242 today. It is truly impressive and rare that more than twenty years after the book’s publication, it still enjoys that kind of sales. By way of comparison, I’ll admit that back in 2000, “Saving Elijah” got up to #730 the day after a wonderful review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but two days later sank like a stone.

During the interview, I discovered that Melody too had lost a child, a son named Shane, so we got to talking about grief. She is developing her own website about grief, which I am linking to. I sent her a copy of my essay from the Wellness and Writing Connections Anthology, “My Son’s Name was Michael — Not Elijah,” which reflects on the process and consequences of turning my own grief into fiction.  Below, I’m posting her response to my essay. (In bold are my comments and explanatory notes)

Isn’t that the beginning of a book?  I wanted to turn the page and read more.  A lovely compliment from Melody.  In fact, I am writing a kind of memoir in essays, which will include a version of “My Son’s Name.”

It took a long, long time to develop any compassion for people who say stupid things, and I still don’t have much of it, so I teach. I teach them what to say and more importantly, what not to say (and will have a section for them on my site).

I teach them what to do.

Step by step, paragraph by paragraph, I teach them how to write a comforting letter to someone in grief.

I teach people that grieving is not a “condition” nor is it wasted time. Our personal velocity changes and we move at a different pace than many other people in the world.

And the second year is worse than the first — it does not, as people enjoy saying, “get better with time.” The longer I don’t see Shane, the more I miss him, not less.

My AA sponsor told me after funeral that I needed to write out a check for each of the people who had helped me get through the week of his death so they could take a vacation, as I had “drained them.” And it would be a nice thank-you gift. Well, I didn’t feel grateful to anyone for anything, but I did as she said — and of course, the people who received a check (for $2,000) included her.

Nobody talks about how vulnerable we are.

I had a contract too — had to pay back the advance. (Here Melody, the author of 15 books, is referring to the section of my essay that talks about losing a two book contract for “Flight” and one other novel with Dutton in 1992, after Michael got sick, when I couldn’t produce a second book.

I started crying 30 days before Shane died, and couldn’t stop — and I wasn’t a crier. My soul knew what was coming, and my grief began before he left, when our souls started to say “see you” but in a different way.

And who in the hell says we have to let go completely and forever? In what book is that written? We don’t have to let go of someone when they move away, forget about them, or stop missing them.

People comfort themselves, not the person in grief. I want to help them to learn to switch that around. Here Melody is referring to the tendency of people say things that push the grief away.  People do this because it’s hard to sit with pain, very hard, it takes stamina and real compassion. My favorite quote in this regard is a Buddhist one, “Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Your story got me going. There was a real taboo in the media about the death of children at that time. Producers, etc. didn’t want to talk about the idea that children die. The world wasn’t ready for it yet. But every year, in this country alone, 250,000 people die before they receive their allotted 70-90 years of life — die before their parents do.

And God does too make mistakes. The New York Times says that 88 percent of the people we hire for assistants steal. I think that statistic applies to people generally, and not just about stealing. I think about 9 out of every ten people we meet have the ability to love and care. In the Old Testament of the Bible, which covers both Jews and Christians, it says on the seventh day He rested. Well, I think that whoever he goes to handle things on day seven went by those same statistics, so only one in ten of his workers did a good job. The other nine made mistakes. They let our children die. That’s what I think, anyway. It’s the only way I can make sense out of something so cruel and senseless. God’s assistant’s messed up, and we (and our families) became the victims of their ineptitude. Interesting theory, this one, not one I subscribe to. I believe that if there is a God, God doesn’t intervene with individuals in day to day events.  Or, maybe I subscribe to the notion that we live our lives on earth to learn certain lessons, and my own lesson may have been related to losing one I love. Of course neither of these theories explain theodicy, or the existence of evil in a world supposedly controlled by a good God.  Events unexplainable include the Holocaust, slavery, natural disasters, terrorism, or other horrific, “evil” events of history.

I hope you keep writing.

I hope you had an affair. Because if you were touched, then you knew you were still alive, whether you wanted to be or not. Here, in her lovely, supportive way, Melody is referring to the way I open my essay, with an account of a women in my town whom I ran into at Starbucks after she’d read Saving Elijah and confused my fictional character with me, and who asked if my husband took me back after I had an affair. Quoting my essay, “I looked at her, speechless. Saving Elijah, to describe it as the aggressively sensational Putnam cover copy did, is about a woman named Dinah Galligan, who while keeping vigil over her comatose five-year-old son, Elijah, “meets a seductive spirit in the hospital corridor outside the pediatric intensive care unit, one with a startling connection to her past, who claims he can make her child well again—if she’s willing to pay the price.” Near the end of the novel Dinah has a brief, desperate affair, so the question wasn’t totally weird, but I still wanted to shake her and scream, “DINAH IS A CHARACTER, YOU IDIOT.” Luckily I was not only speechless I was paralyzed.” And then later in the essay, I say, ““The question I’m most often asked now when I confess that I lost a child AND wrote a novel inspired by the experience (depending on who asks, I might leave out one or the other of those facts) is why didn’t I write a memoir? I could have, I suppose. A carefully constructed memoir can give a reader unique access to someone else’s singular experience, possibly fostering empathy, learning, understanding, growth. But reading a memoir can also make us feel safe, even smug, in the essential “otherness” of the author’s experience. Like the millions who gawk at a celebrity’s all-too-human troubles, or hoot at bad behavior on Jerry Springer, the woman at Starbucks could think, “Well, I would NEVER have had an affair.” You wish, lady. You have no idea what you would do if your child died, let alone what I would do.”

Talking to, and receiving this response from Melody gave me an idea, which I shared with her. Expanding on the idea that everyone has a story to tell and wants to tell it, it seems to me that it would be interesting to invite people (famous and not, anonymous and not) to tell a story of personal loss and discuss how it changed them, in, say, two or three paragraphs.

Any takers out there? Write me an email at frandorf@aol.com or leave a comment and I’ll post it.

Writing for Wellness Workshop

TO MY LOCAL FRIENDS, PLEASE JOIN ME:

WRITING FOR WELLNESS
A Six Week Workshop for Healing and Self-Expression
Tuesday’s 7:30-9 PM
December 8, 15, 22 and January 5, 12, 19
Jewish Community Center
1450 Newfield Avenue

Stamford, Connecticut

Write about: grief, loss, relationships, trauma, illness, spirit, life.
Exercises, prompts, and focused writing tailored to participant needs and interests.
Based on Fran’s experience as a writer, bereaved mother, and therapist.

DO IT FOR YOURSELF!

ENHANCE physical and mental well being
GAIN mastery over difficult emotions
LEARN or enhance literary techniques/craft
DEEPEN and clarify self knowledge
CREATE meaningful personal narrative,
memoir, story, metaphor and/or image.
STIMULATE your imagination.
EXPRESS and/or SHARE YOUR TRUTH

DO IT FOR FUN!

COST: $100 Members; $125 Non-Members
EMAIL: Frandorf@aol.com for more info
REGISTER at the JCC
reception desk, by calling
322-7900, or online at
http://www.stamfordjcc.org

On memoirs, reality TV, truth, exploitation, and “privacy as the new currency”

This morning, on NPR’s The Takeaway, I listened to a discussion about the riveting balloon boy hoax, specifically on whether bloggers too are exploiting their children by writing about them.  Mom 101, a guest on the show who uses her own children as fodder for her blog, made the following fascinating statement: “Privacy is the new currency. People are giving it away for free.” It’s a clever line that reminded of the old George Bernard Shaw story whose punchline is, “We have already established what you are, Madame. Now we are merely haggling over the price.” Mom 101’s statement may even be partly true, yet like so much else we hear and think clever these days, it makes little sense. How can privacy be currency if everyone and anyone can and does give it away?

As someone who actually lost a child, I am truly horrified by the spectacle of a father exploiting his child by simulating the boy’s death for the sake of publicity.  As a writer whose last novel, Saving Elijah, was inspired by my son’s death and who chose to write fiction instead of memoir partly for creative reasons and partly to protect my family, I feel compelled to say that the important issue of privacy is one that serious writers and many bloggers, myself included, struggle with every day. It deserves a more serious discussion by NPR, which I usually enjoy and which is one of the only media outlets where you can still find serious, unbiased journalism and intelligent, stimulating talk.

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of memoir in essays. Writers vary widely in their opinions on the extent to which one should use family as fodder for one’s writing. One friend says, “We write our truth, no matter who it offends,” while another says, “Always protect your family.”  I suspect that if I were to actually publish the memoir I’ve been working on, it would offend several family members, friends, and acquaintances, even if I see it as truth and/or art.  Yet I have I have so far resisted blogging in as personal or revealing a way as I am doing in the memoir.  Why?

I have spent quite a bit of my life “becoming” a writer, studying craft, honing a “voice” and attempting to make “art” that will illuminate life in some way. With few exceptions, I haven’t offered my blog readers (what few of them there are) intimate details of my life the way I am currently doing in writing a memoir, because I know in my heart that we value what we pay for, and we pay for what we value. I cringe every time I look at Amazon.com and see my last novel, very well reviewed but now out of print and obscure, offered by third parties at 99 cents.  Wow.  All my sweat and suffering now being given away for less than a dollar a pop. (Let’s leave aside the fact that the “process” of writing the book effectively saved my life after my son died.)

At the very least, people ought to at least understand the huge difference between a man who would creepily and willfully exploit his own child’s potential death just for the publicity; those who shout their intimate stories on Jerry Springer or reality television for the money or fifteen minutes of fame; those who tell their intimate stories for free or for whatever they can get out of it on a blog; and those who labor over a memoir that will possibly be published for say, a $25,000 advance. If they’re lucky.

Most people who offer their own lives for public viewing (balloon boy father excluded) may be telling their version of truth, even those who appear on Jerry Springer, but the difference between a memoir writer (and some bloggers) and the other examples above is not just in intent to tell truth, but in content, craft, art, motive, presentation, and in control over what to include.

Now here I may be showing just how out of touch I really am, since I recently received this rejection from a would-be agent for my memoir in stories.

Dear Fran,

I had the chance to read your stories this week and I really appreciate the chance. You are an amazing writer with an excellent voice. Having said that I really fear that I wouldn’t find the right editor for this. A few years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to represent this collection, but in these tough times it seems to require a huge media platform to convince a publisher. They want authors to have websites with 40k plus names and blogs that reach millions.

Now there’s irony for you.