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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