Video Excerpt & Personal Essay
by: Donna Barrow-Green
In 1981 I was fifteen years old. My mother was having a psychotic breakdown. Over the course of that year, her fixations on me intensified. At first she said I 'was' her.' She tried to convince me I would be the next victim in a string of imagined crimes. Most days, she'd describe the murder scene; how I would be killed. I'd listen to her with rapt attention, fearing that what she was saying might be true. I'd watch her eyes examine me and I never really knew if she believed the things she told me or if she just enjoyed watching fear consume me. I'd leave my house at night, my emotions frayed and bare, the fear and paranoia having settled in every muscle in my body. My heart raced and my brain remained constantly vigilant. In the midst of my trauma, I found another place. Drugs. Alcohol. Boys. I'd guzzle cheap wine and wait impatiently for it to dull my senses and grant me power. Sometimes I'd get so high that I didn't remember blocks of time. I'd sit with my best friends on the hood of our car smoking cigarettes, our feet in high-heeled Candies sandals swinging to the beat of another car's radio blaring Led Zeppelin somewhere in the nearby darkness. When the crowd began to disperse, I'd find one of the handsome boys, make out and bask in the kind of attention I never tired of. I'd extend the nights for as long as I could, the fear of my mother a constant flicker just beneath my consciousness.
AUTHOR VIDEO EXCERPT
I had an acting teacher once who told the class “When Eugene O’Neil wrote Long Days Journey Into Night, he cried tears of blood.” So, I thought that writing the play was so cathartic for O’Neil that he released all of his heartache, loss, and pain; that he was transformed through the process. I don’t know whether he actually cried tears of blood or if that is even humanly possible but in years of searching for a sense of peace and resolution about my own difficult childhood, I hoped that I could heal through writing. I had hoped my pain too would spill on to the page and it would be left there, transformed into something universal, existential.
In 2008 I completed a memoir about growing up with my mother who suffered severe mental illness. Her illness caused her to be abusive, narcissistic, and uninhibited. When I first wrote my memoir What Remains Inside, I wouldn’t say it was cathartic; it was more like channeling. It was almost direct re-experiencing of all that trauma. The process I went through was eventually transformative and healing but not in the way I suspected it would be. It was not crying tears of blood. At first, the mere act of writing about experiencing trauma as a child simply disrupted my internalized beliefs about myself. It unlocked several doors but still some remained closed.
At first, upon reading and re-reading my memoir I began to parcel out old patterns of thinking. Ideas about myself that had been fossilized and continued to influence my actions and beliefs. Until I re-read my words from the vantage of a 40 year old mother, I had continued to believed that I was solely responsible for the things I did at 15 years old, as if there I been born to be the rebel that tore through my adolescence. I liked to see myself this way. I was powerful, maybe even super powerful. I believed I was able to smash through the invisible walls that would have otherwise kept me imprisoned — and I succeeded but it had been so risky — I never acknowledged that truth. I had no idea until I became a mother myself. I wouldn’t dare to imagine my daughter doing the things I did when I was a young teenager.
Back in 2008 when I completed my memoir I was struck with a strong cognitive dissonance. Unbelievably, I had never thought of myself as having been a troubled teen. I never recognized how unusual it was that I drank and did drugs by the time I was 13 or that I'd started shoplifting at age 12. It didn't occur to me that most 15 year olds are not out driving around past 3:00 a.m.. Even in my early twenties when I worked with kids who had been abused, I never recognized myself in their “delinquent,” acting out behaviors — predictable reactions to trauma. So, initially it was not cathartic at all to write about my experiences with childhood trauma.
I also hadn’t really understood how severe the trauma I experienced was. I had always redefined reality. As a result I gave a copy of my memoir to everyone I knew. Some devoured it page by page. It kept them up at night unable to put the book down, trying to reconcile my words with the person they knew — this typical mom that volunteered at with the other kindergarten moms. I had laid bare something I hadn’t been able to see about myself. Maybe this extreme act of disclosure was part of the process of acknowledging my own experiences and how much of my concept of self was tangled up deceptions I had constructed in order to survive.
Initially, I had given the book to the wrong people. That was clear to me, after the fact. Still this painful exposure forced something to the surface that I had to — at some point in my life — deal with. I had been buried for so long underneath the possibility of being discovered, of having my painful story exposed. Some people spend their lives hiding from their painful experiences. I had been someone who announced it loudly but afterwards ran and hid. That is a horrible place to be.
Today, almost nine years later my memoir is a document of my tragic childhood experiences, a case study of a teenager’s life decades ago. Recently, I’ve begun to look at the reasons for my mother’s mental illness and I’ve discovered some things I didn’t know. So I’m embarking on another layer of personal discovery and acceptance. I am now beginning to understand the larger context, beyond my own personal suffering.
I don’t know if catharsis is possible or if Eugene O’Neil really had cried tears of blood. I think I understand that the journey is long, maybe endless. However, I see the other way around, from night to day.
What Remains Inside on WATTPAD
Author’s Note: Of course after writing this essay I googled “Eugene O’Neil tears of blood” and found this. Again, another dimension of understanding.
On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O’Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day’s Journey Into Night to his wife, Carlotta. Accompanying the manuscript was O’Neill’s letter of dedication:
Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play — write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones. These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light — into love….
(quoted directly from original post:http://www.todayinliterature.com/stories.asp?Event_Date=7/22/1941)
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