Memoir: You Gotta Feel to Heal

November 2, 2017 | By | 1 Reply More

If you want to gain 20+ pounds, lose all worldly ambition, have drinking dreams after 33 years of sobriety, and hermit away with no interest in dating—except for the nights when you venture to the movies and spend the evening with a tub of buttered popcorn—then memoir may be the genre for you.

I was raised in Anchorage during the oil boom heyday. I spent the first 16 years of my life there, and it was in Alaska where I had many of the experiences that drive my writing. My daughter said I had an incredible story to tell about those years, so I began crafting my memoir in 2016.

I have always known—subconsciously, at least—that I would write about my past. Why else have I been lugging around boxes of keepsakes and cards, notes from junior high, and appointment books and journals from as far back as 1973, the year I gave my baby up for adoption?

Saving that documentation to someday scribe my past was never a conscious decision. Unlike my writer friends, who have been passionate about writing since childhood, I always hated it. To write was to feel, and I ran from my feelings like I would run from a rabid dog.

When I was in my 20s, I chased my low self-esteem, guilt, and shame with Scotch whiskey, cocaine, and Oreos. By 26, when those methods no longer worked and self-loathing amplified the feelings I’d avoided, I got sober. So here I am at 60, chunky and with no libido. (Maybe the lack of available men has something to do with the libido thing.)

I’ve also been working on my memoir with an extraordinary editor. I would never have come this far or had this much clarity about what really happened without her direction and feedback—she knew which questions would help me dig deeper. (And, ultimately, heal.)

Once I began writing, I couldn’t stop. It was as if my wounded teenage self—who yearned for healing—took hold of invisible strings, guiding my fingers like a magical puppeteer.  I began writing the hardest material first: the rape I experienced as a 15-year-old virgin. Then I tackled the knifepoint abduction that occurred a month after the sexual assault.

Completing the rape chapter took a whole winter and multiple revisions. I examined every buried detail from that night: my rapist’s smell and threats, the way the room looked, the physical pain, his shaming comments when he felt he’d been cheated because I didn’t bleed.  It also took a long time for me to realize that I had been raped—my definition of “rape” had always involved being jumped and beaten by a stranger in a dark alley, but I had known my 19-year-old abuser.

My shift in perception—realizing that I’d been raped and it wasn’t my fault—didn’t begin until my 92-year-old mother helped me relive the experience. It was as if she was leading a blind person through a minefield. Once the details were on the page, I realized I wouldn’t hesitate to call it rape if the scenario involved my own daughter. In fact, I would have delighted in stringing the perpetrator up by his balls and beating the crap out of him. For over forty years, I had recalled the abuse with my naïve 15-year-old memories of guilt and shame. It took my mother’s guidance, much reflection, and many revisions to stop blaming myself.

After reading about the recent scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, I was amazed (almost vindicated) that one of his accusers internalized her experience in the same way that I had.  Lucia Evans told The New Yorker, “I just put it in a part of my brain and closed the door. It was always my fault for not stopping him. I had an eating problem for years. I was disgusted with myself.  It’s funny, all these unrelated things I did to hurt myself because of this one thing.” Like Evans, I blamed myself, the victim, instead of blaming the perpetrator—probably like millions of women all over the world who have been assaulted. Evans opened her door by coming forward. I opened mine by writing.

This summer, my memoir research took me back to Anchorage, where I uncovered details about my past. The more I learned, the more I needed to know. I became ravenous as I devoured information, like a food addict tipping the chip bag to consume every last crumb.  I discovered details about my rapist and the tortured, nefarious life he led. I also uncovered my abductor’s identity, who is—to my horror—still alive.

I began to wonder if the memoir—and delving into my feelings—was a mistake.  I gained so much weight while writing about my rape and abduction that I feared my underwire had become a weapon of mass destruction. I always resolved to stop overeating and find my joy again “after I finish this chapter and bag of chips.” I even considered giving up on writing.

Sitting over a cup of tea in my mentor’s study, she reminded me that I’m writing to heal. The weight gain, introspection, and heartache have often made me feel the way a sliver feels when it’s lodged beneath a fingernail: painful while there, and painful during removal. But once the sliver is gone, the pain quickly dulls. I’m still extracting my slivers, but I already know that my memoir is the catalyst for my greatest healing yet.

Monica Hall works as a media consultant out of her home office in California. She is also the founder of several industry-leading businesses in the areas of natural body care and eponymous skincare. Monica has close relationships with her children and extended family, devotes much of her time to mentoring troubled young women, and is at work on a memoir about overcoming the difficulties she faced in her youth in order to find success.


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

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  1. I’ve been working with Monica on her memoir for a year now, and it has been incredible to watch her grow as a writer and see the story take shape. I can’t wait to see this book in print!

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