Psychotherapy and Memoir

The Talking Cure and the Writing Cure

reading-in-madisonWithout wishing to sound freakish or weird, I liken my vocation—writer and psychotherapist—to conjoined twins. Born in my midlife, they developed from the same fertilized egg, gestated in the same amniotic fluid, were nourished by the same placenta. They share the same interests, the same reading lists, and, dare I say, the same soul. Most importantly, they share the same heart, which makes separating them impossible—one of them would die in the process.

For over thirty years, I have had a private practice of psychotherapy. I work with women, many of them artists and writers.  For ten of those years I myself worked with a Jungian analyst. I have written many articles, essays, and wrote or co-authored four books of non-fiction that weave women’s psychology, mythology, poetry, literature and dreams into published works. I have written about what it is like to write a memoir, but I have NOT written about what it is like to work as a psychotherapist.

First of all, I am averse to the stereotypes that “therapist” conjures, or the category itself, often constructed from a mash up of clinical training, dubious methodologies, rules and regs, projections of others, cartoonish clichés that trivialize and diminish the work.  So what, you might ask, am I doing with the people I work with?

The writer and feminist Monique Wittig once used a phrase I find apt. When we engage each other in authentic dialogue, Wittig says, we are “hearing each other into speech.” As I understand it, this is my mandate as a psychotherapist; I receive stories, (as opposed to symptoms).  I make a space in myself for the often fragmented, chaotic, frequently traumatic, histories of early childhood suffering, dislocation, abandonment, betrayal, tales of illness, loss, death of loved ones. This is the work of witness, which goes beyond interpretation and the clamor of shame and blame.

We are story-telling animals.  In telling our stories, in both psychotherapy and memoir, we build with elements of remembered reality. Language is the working medium, finding an invigorating  narrative structure to contain experience are their shared and persistent preoccupations. We seek to understand our stories as part of being human, we seek coherence and an authentic voice.

Because I am also a writer, I search for the underlying narrative arc, the soul’s trajectory, where its been and where its headed, the pattern of meaning-making that can be found in even the most crazy-quilted life story—including my own.

After a divorce in my midlife, I immediately salvaged my family name and began a journal.  I never kept journals during my marriage. Like silence and speech, marriage and private thought could not coexist—not because I feared someone would read my words without permission, but because I feared hearing my own voice.

Along with journals, many writers have relied on letters to help them find their voice, to experiment with ideas, to communicate their feelings. Author and activist, Terry Tempest Williams, says, “What needs to be counted on to have a voice: courage, anger, love. Something to say, someone to listen.” During my tumultuous mid-life years, I began a voluminous correspondence with my aunt Ruth, a Franciscan nun. In that correspondence, I had found someone to listen and I was gaining a voice.

Ruth was the grand exception to the conventional women in my motherline. She had gone to China in her early twenties as a missionary just as the Japanese were invading the country in 1938. She was interned in a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War. While in the camp, she met a Canadian Jesuit priest, and they fell in love and stayed in love although they remained in their respective religious communities. After the war, Ruth spent most of her life in Central America.

She spoke fluent Spanish and was often in countries that were fighting dangerous “dirty wars”—Guatemala, Honduras. Her theology was liberationist, her politics were radical, her mind and heart were wide open.

In 1984, after an increasingly intimate correspondence I wrote her saying I felt inspired to write a book about her life. My request was full of hubris. At the time, I had not entered into any kind of therapy and had not written anything except school papers and letters, much less had anything published. Ruth never agreed or disagreed with my project, but on a 2-week visit with her in San Cristobal, Mexico, she unpacked her stories, and I scribbled them into my journal.

Ten years after Ruth died, I began writing about her. I certainly never intended to write a memoir, much less a spiritual memoir. I am a private person, an introvert, a working psychotherapist with 10 years of my own therapy under my belt.  Aware of how memoir can be viewed as self-centered and narcissistic, I did not want to write about myself. I wanted to write about Ruth.  I had the access code to the blood bank: 200 pages of her handwritten letters, which could transfuse her back to life. When my agent made it shockingly clear that the book I was writing was a memoir of our relationship, I had to exhume the woman I was during my letter-writing years (1978–1990). My copious journals from that time were the raw footage of my midlife, my Gray’s Anatomy. Underline raw.

My memoir felt like an assignment from the soul factory, in service to my own healing and to something larger. I add the memoir to the greater narrative being told of women’s lives.  We tell our life stories, and we listen to what life stories tell us.

Good writing and good therapy, one written and one oral, enlarge our capacity for empathy, self-understanding, and compassion for ourselves and others.   Both offer an opportunity for repair, reparation and redemption. Psychotherapy and memoir are not interchangeable, and yet they are not all that different. They share the same heart. Both have curative potential.  The talking cure and the writing cure.

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The Lightning Notes – Interview: Patricia Reis

Life is striking. Take note. Interview: Patricia Reis Patricia Reis is a woman who believes “nothing’s wasted.” She’s also a psychotherapist and an author who just came out with a memoir, Here, she discusses her antidote to cynicism and fear, having no regrets, and veering off the conventional course. How do you describe yourself? […]

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Interview in “Next Act for Women”

After several failed marriages, Patricia went back to school in midlife and became a psychotherapist. It would take a lengthy correspondence with her aunt, a Franciscan nun living in Central America, to coax Patricia into writing her memoir, Motherlines. Tell us a little about your background… I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and entered the […]

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Patty in Costa Rica, 1965

Love Letters in Women Writers, Women’s Books

The first letter I ever wrote to my maternal aunt Ruth, was in 1965. I don’t remember what possessed me to write to her. The risk was great and the reach was far. The letter was no doubt desperate, confessing my troubles to someone who was related, but whom I barely knew, someone I had […]

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Carved in Stone?

“We are unaware of how much of the past is alive in us even when we believe ourselves to be entirely spontaneous.”   Anna Mahler I am looking at a photograph of the sculptor, Anna Mahler. She is a small woman, standing on a scaffold in front of a huge block of stone three times her […]

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Undertaking Memoir

“It helps if they are dead,” say many memoirists when asked about including family members in their work. Clearly, memoir is an undertaker’s profession: how to present the person so they look as natural as they did in life? Consider, for example, preparing the late Mickey Easterling, the infamous Grande Dame of New Orleans, for […]

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Putting on the Fiction Dress

Seeing someone wear a fiction dress, I thought how beautiful, glamorous and very sexy. Of course I wanted to have a dress like that!  I had all the material at hand, bolts of material in fact, from dense brocades and velvets to transparent silk chiffon. Like some unpaid, third-world garment worker, I became the Mistress […]

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Leaving Ragdale

PARTING Some like to opine, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” I don’t agree or disagree. Shakespeare said “(more wisely,) “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women have their exits and entrances.”  One thing is for certain, the curtain eventually comes down. Today, the cast of characters take their final bow. […]

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Ragdale Residency: Week Three

WALKING IN THE PRAIRIE  After hours of focused work, walking the linked pathways in the back prairie meadow behind Ragdale gives the senses a refreshing freedom from words. Here, as Virginia Woolf once said, “…there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” A snarl of […]

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Ragdale Residency: Week Two

The Burn In each moment the fire rages, it will burn away a hundred veils. And carry you a thousand steps toward your goal. –––– Rumi While walking toward the Barnhouse one morning last week, a strong whiff of smoke puts me on high alert. A staff member walks briskly toward the back prairie where […]

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