Memoir contains a magical ability to heal
Memoir is a form of non-fiction based on the writer’s memory. Memoir is different from autobiography because memory is seated in the senses and emotions (in other words, subjective), while biography is purely factual. Memoir is also a powerful therapeutic tool to supplement any other healing work. It is important to note that for your safety, it is not recommended that you do this without taking part in therapy if revisiting these events produces a strong anxiety based response.
Why would I want to revisit my past through memoir?
If you’re anything like me, you may feel that the abuse—that time period in which you were abused, the place, the people from that time are alive inside you. I truly felt as I was walking around in my functional, adult life that there was this whole other world inside me, like a doll house of my childhood home from the 90s with my parents wreaking havoc on my childhood self and my adult psyche. Carrying around this other world inside me was preventing me from fully enjoying the nice, peaceful life I carved out for myself. Carrying around this other time kept part of me there in that other time being abused.
I have done a great deal of healing, both traditional (therapy) and alternate modalities (such as hypnotherapy, coaching, etc.) and those were all so beneficial to my healing. And still, there was just something about writing my memoir that pulled it all together for me and allowed me to take those memories from inside my body and put them on the paper. That time, place and people are no longer alive inside me because they are alive on the paper of my memoir, Fullness. I cannot stress how much of a weight this lifted from my shoulders. I highly recommend that everyone do this, even if you never intend to publish your story. Many people desire to write their memoir so that it can be passed down to their children so that they may understand the courage it took to leave that environment and abuse cycle behind. Even if you plan to burn what you write, it is still a worthwhile exercise.
How does using memoir for healing from abuse work? Simply put, you tap into your memory and write details from that memory when revisiting:
- The place of your abuse
- Abuse event(s) and/or
- Your abusers
Again, if this immediately produces a strong visceral, anxiety response, it may be better to first speak with your therapist or to do this activity with your therapist.
Have a pen and paper ready and visit the place, event and/or people involved and write what you remember. Don’t worry about it being perfect, or even connecting into a story. Even if the output is a list of sensory details, this will be an invaluable exercise. “Details” is the key word, really focus on all of the details. Some questions that may help you along with examples from my memoir, Fullness, are as follows:
- What took place? Elaborate. You could say something like “and then he pushed me into a corner” but it is much more helpful to move this experience from your body to the paper with a play-by-play description. Example: “He flew up out of his chair and reflexively, I flew out of mine. As he came toward me, I backed up until my back was against the wall. He then stuck his finger in my face, so close I thought he might poke my eye out.”
- What visual details stood out to you, even if they have nothing to do with the abuse in particular. People– remember this can be physical and character in nature. Example: “He was six-feet tall but seemed so much taller. He was around 185 pounds but seemed so much bigger. He was a dead ringer for Robert Redford, if Robert Redford perpetually wore a hardened, furious scowl on his face with hate radiating from his black-pitted grey eyes that held you in a fixed glare. He had an eagle’s beak nose and white capped teeth surrounded by gums that were grey and black from decades of smoking. His face had that wrinkled, weathered look from years of fishing in the sun. He always wore a Tom Selleck mustache which underlined the permanent scowl he wore. He wore the same clothes for decades. Not the same style of clothes, the same clothes. He was incredibly intelligent having earned a double PhD… He didn’t smile, not even for pictures. He had the ability to size people up, to see into their soul and determine their biggest fears and insecurities. If he sensed non-compliance, he was at the ready with the most below-the-belt criticisms ever spoken. Your heart was the bull’s eye, his words were his arrows, and he was a sure shot.” Place– “The house had a dusty, stale smell and thick energy people usually use to describe haunted houses…Though it was the nineties, the house was a seventies time capsule. A basket with dried fuzzy burma reeds sat beside the front door on the faded pea-green carpet. The couch had vertical brown and tan lines like a Mexican blanket. The chandeliers had long dangly strings of capiz-shells, which jingled if doors were open or you passed on the stairs beneath them too quickly. The kitchen floor of cold, white hexagonal tiles was framed by carrot orange counter-tops. The walls were decorated with abstract paintings and driftwood art that looked like grey corpses.”
- What smells can you remember? Example: “My eyes fell to his plate. Half of it was a flattened pancake of nonfat cottage cheese with so much black pepper that it looked equal parts black and white. The other half was burnt boiled brussels sprouts that gave off a lifeless gag-worthy stench.”
- What tastes can you remember? Example: “I was in bed swirling my index finger in an economy-sized jar of peanut butter and bringing a dollop to my mouth so huge that it almost dripped off before it got there. I could almost re-feel the sadness, fear, loneliness and despair melt away into creamy peanut butter bliss that was the closest thing to a giggly hug from my grandma. The closest thing and not even close.”
- What sounds can you remember? Example: ”We heard the thundering sound of him coming down the stairs and held our breaths. The thuds continued past the room and on down the hallway. My brother and I sighed in relief although I could see in the glow from the TV that he was still looking at me wide-eyed.”
- What touch sensations can you remember? Example: “He leapt up and lunged at me and poked me in the fleshy part between my chest and shoulder, just like he used to do to my mom.”
- What emotions do you remember feeling then? Example: “’Why can’t he just die!’ I whispered in desperation. ‘Why can’t he just die?’ And I meant it.”
- How are those emotions the same now or shaped by your adult perspective? Example: “When it’s your parent who [abuses you], it’s not binary like that- love or hate, but both simultaneously. I did hate him, and yet I didn’t. I don’t think that what I felt for him was love, exactly. It was more of a longing for him to love me, mixed with admiration and obligation to do right by him.”
The more alive you can make it on the paper, the more the aliveness of that memory is transferred from you and onto the paper.
I hope that you find memoir to be a useful tool in healing from the abuse you suffered. Wishing you the very best in your healing journey.
Writer and Coach
Azure Moyna is a writer and coach about issues relating to food, body, mental illness, familial dysfunction, societal treatment of overweight people, and the healing journey. Azure is the author of her memoir, Fullness.