Successful albeit intensely secretive husband wires all of your money out of the country, forges your name, abandons you and your two young children, leaving you with less than $1 in your bank account, and then he vanishes—never to be seen nor heard from again. It’s as though he never existed …
A page-turner, right? Gone Girl-Meets-Not Without My Daughter. Except that it’s not fiction, it’s my story, the most haunting nightmare of my real life, not my writer life. More importantly, it is the deepest childhood pain belonging to my two daughters who are now thriving teenagers.
I have been a journalist for more than 25 years, a one-time investigative reporter and editor, and among my many gigs, I covered terrorism in the Middle East for nearly seven years. I have been blessed with an illustrious and fulfilling career, having interviewed presidents, prime ministers, VIPS, and celebrities. And yet, the one story that I wanted to write—had to write—I couldn’t.
How does a writer, who has kept a journal since she was eight, whose two favorite fictional characters that shaped her life and writing—Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew—sit on the most suspenseful, nail-biting story and muzzle it?
I was literally (and physically) exploding inside.
But there were two little girls whose needs were much bigger than mine, who desperately deserved “normal” and not a Mommy putting out a “Tell All”. I had to sit on my hands to prevent them from writing my back story.
And so it went.
I eventually remarried a wonderful man who adopted my daughters, raised them as his own (and gifted me a third daughter), turning my girls’ young damaged lives around with unconditional love—a sharp contrast to the one who abandoned them without a goodbye. I wrote a novel, Fugitive Colors, a suspenseful tale of stolen art, love, lust, deception and revenge on the ‘eve’ of WWII, enjoyed an extensive book tour, continued working as a freelance writer and started a popular parenting blog. All of this gave me great personal satisfaction … but there was that story, the one hiding in the shadows, still following me.
Nearly seven years after my ex-husband’s disappearance, my daughters were then in junior high. I asked them if I could write “our” story. They said, Yes, only if we can pick our names. Done.
I spent the next two years fervently writing a memoir, and it was cathartic. I laid it all out there—three years of survival—sleeping three to four hours a night as a Single Full-time Working Mom striving to stay afloat and remain Fun Mommy while fighting a vindictive ex-husband in five major courts—a man who never once showed his face or alluded to his whereabouts. I was combating a ghost. The memoir was a story of our trials and tribulations but really a triumph-of-the-spirit tale—surviving and ultimately thriving against all odds.
The book was done, ready to go out, and then my daughters, who had then started high school, said, “We changed our minds. Mommy, please don’t publish this book. It will be SO embarrassing.”
Bam. There it was—my kids or my work? The answer was obvious. Two years of writing down the tubes. Of course, I would never publish the book against their will. It was not just my story—it was theirs. But that piece of me, that literary spirit, the one that yearned to speak out to women, to tell them you can survive anything if you had to, was about to be shelved. And it hurt.
I called an author friend who had a similarly shocking tale that turned into a best seller. “Fiction … but not really,” she whispered, off the record. The plot was her life camouflaged as fiction. She said, “The same thing happened to me. I wanted to write my story but I had a young daughter and was so worried about how it would impact her development. So ultimately I dumped the memoir idea, reframed it, changed the narrative, keeping the same pain and gain. And it was enough.”
Would it be enough? Damn, I had to give it a shot.
So I adopted my friend’s genre of the Fictional-Memoir—and just turned in my latest manuscript. My story, and yet not my story. My ex-husband’s secret dealings, but not his at all. This novel has all the goodies—lies, deceit, intrigue, passion—my life, yet not my life.
As I hit “###” on my computer, signaling The End of my novel, I thought to myself, no one will know but this tale really is my beginning. My way-cooler-than-I-am protagonist provided me with answers to Where did he go, and why did he disappear? Jessica Roth, my determined alter ego, a savvy young journalist who follows a compelling story until the end—did what no therapist could ever do—she gave me closure.
Category: On Writing