Comments on “Breaking and Entering”
Sometimes in the course of a writing day, I feel my shoulders creeping up toward my ears, a reaction to the unwelcome menace of shame. It’s always tempting to back away from the feeling, to shrug it off, take a deep breath, and sidestep the provocations of memory, but I find it’s usually better to do the opposite. For all its unpleasantness, shame tends to point toward interesting material.
That’s what happened when I attempted to write about my adolescent obsession with a Scottish pop band. What started out as an interrogation of fandom and celebrity culture took a turn when I began fleshing out the context: the period in the mid-1970s when my mother left my father for another woman.
How to say this emphatically enough to be believed? The shame of that time didn’t come from the same-sex relationship. Even then, when the term “unfit mother” applied in a de facto way to lesbians, when I was twelve and prone to all manner of adolescent embarrassment, I stood solidly on the side of love. My mother was both in love and intensely loved, in a way that was new, a way I hadn’t thought possible for a parent. I didn’t begrudge any of that.
At the same time, there was tremendous shame in the secrecy, the denials and euphemisms, the bitterness of speech and action between my parents. There was shame in the brokenness of a family and in not having a home and in everyone, including me, behaving badly. I wanted to explore that shame, to probe its complexity and nuances, but in order to get a purchase on it, I needed a narrative vehicle.
The episode of breaking into my childhood house, both perfectly legal and highly unethical, had always haunted me because it encapsulated the absurdity of the time. The challenge presented by form in this essay involved drawing out a single, relatively short, emblematic event while sketching the larger picture and developing an idea that transcends the experience.
When a memory lives inside you for decades, emerging now and then to make you cringe, it can be difficult to crack it open for meaning. It took a lot of drafts to arrive at the understanding that I can trace my identity as a creative nonfiction writer to the attention I paid during that tumultuous period. The essay was frighteningly close to finished before I hit on the truth of its final paragraph: that for some of us, the saving grace in shameful secrets may come from watching and listening and memorizing, preparing in an unconscious way for the freedom of storytelling.