Originally published in The Truth of Memoir by Kerry Cohen.
By Ellen Currey-Wilson
I grew up in a family of what could easily be called a colorful cast of characters. I often thought we should all be in a book, but I didn’t consider writing that book until I became a parent. As a new mother, I was obsessed with the role that television played in the lives of families since I had been hooked on the plug-in drug most of my life. I knew I had to write about it.
My memoir is called The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid, published by Algonquin in 2007. It chronicles the first eight years of my son’s life and my attempt to kick my television habit. The pages are filled with background from my childhood, including some unflattering, but often entertaining, portrayals of my eccentric mother and siblings.
Writing served as a fabulous escape for me and an excellent television replacement. My book took on a life all its own. I forced myself not to think about how my family and friends might react when they eventually found themselves on the pages of a memoir. To consider their feelings while I was writing would have halted my creative flow. Instead I liked to imagine that everyone would be magically overjoyed after reading my book. I’ve always been good at deluding myself.
It was only after my publisher set the date for my book’s release that I began to worry. I decided I should at least prepare those closest to me rather than surprise them. I started with my husband, handing him my newly edited manuscript along with a confession.
“I’ve written about our sex life,” I said. “Just a little bit.”
He looked wary probably because a week earlier I had told him I had done just a little bit of shopping, when I’d actually ordered new living room furniture.
“The sex parts are really funny,” I reassured him.
He looked irritated. I guess he didn’t think our sex life was a laughing matter.
“It was out of my hands,” I explained. “I was at the service of the art itself. That ‘s what dictated what had to be in the book.”
“Whatever,” he said, looking unconvinced.
Fortunately, when he read the manuscript, he didn’t recommend changing anything. His siblings, on the other hand, reacted squeamishly when he told them about the sex scenes.
“I don’t want to read what my brother does in the bedroom,” his older sister insisted.
I wondered with growing apprehension how my own siblings would react. I gave my brother the manuscript shortly before it went to press.
“You should have consulted me sooner,” he complained after reading it. “I was manufacturing high-quality meth, and you made it sound like I was an amateur! I would have explained the difference to you if you’d asked me sooner.”
I considered giving the manuscript to my sister, too, but in the end I simply couldn’t do it. If I had to change something she didn’t like, I was sure my story would be compromised. I hadn’t revealed any of her deep, dark secrets. I’d simply written about the things she had shared with me and those in her hippie community. I talked about her admiration of breatharians, for example: people who live in Nepal and have subsisted on air alone.
“Don’t you think you should at least prepare her before the book comes out?” my husband warned.
In the end I showed up at her house a few days before the book’s release and apologized for what she would soon be reading. In an attempt to alleviate my impending guilt, I impulsively offered her my portion of the inheritance our newly departed mother had left us, an impulse I regret to this day far more than anything I’ve ever written about anyone.
Aside from family, I only let three other people read the manuscript ahead of time, and they were my closest friends. As I had portrayed all of them in a positive light, I was not surprised when they told me they were pleased. Sadly, I didn’t show the manuscript to my friend Bernice (not her real name), because I knew she would be unhappy with it. I decided to at least forewarn her, which went poorly.
“You wrote about my affair, didn’t you?” she accused me.
I tried to reassure her that no one reading the book would realize I was writing about her situation.
“I gave the guy you were seeing a different occupation,” I said. “I made him an actor, for God’s sake!”
I then told her about the disclaimer at the beginning of the book, but she didn’t care. I later discovered, much to my disappointment, that most people didn’t bother to read the disclaimer. Admittedly it was a mouthful:
To protect the privacy of people mentioned in this book, characters have been combined and situations disguised, and certain names, places and other identifying characteristics have been changed.
In other words, I had license to write pretty much anything with that disclaimer. Maybe that’s why there were folks who thought I had written about them, when in fact I had not.
Even so, I had written about lots of people. I hadn’t realized just how many until the book came out. Everywhere I went, from the grocery store to the cleaners, I ran into my characters, often taking time to chat with them, all the while hoping my relationship with these people wouldn’t change, that they would never find out about the book, much less read it. I had no idea I would feel so exposed.
I remember taking my son, Casey, to school shortly after the book’s release, dropping him off at the curb. Usually I would park my car afterwards and then join some of my friends to go for a run or have coffee together. I’ve always loved my son’s school, and for the most part my memoir reflects this. I had written about Casey’s teachers in glowing terms, that is, except for his kindergarten teacher. I wondered if I would ever feel comfortable there again.
I drove to the Starbucks far away from Casey’s school and even farther away from my neighborhood and the people I had written about there.
“Where were you?” my friend Isabel asked the next day.
“I had to be somewhere else,” I said evasively, not wanting to tell her I was afraid of running into the kindergarten teacher.
In truth I was also busy. The first few weeks around the book’s release, I was giving radio interviews with NPR affiliate stations on the other side of the country and later appearing on television in England. I found it easy to talk about the “electronic babysitter” with people I didn’t know and would probably never meet again. I spoke about Baby Sesame Street and other shows that targeted infants even though the American Academy of Pediatrics didn’t recommend any television for children under two. I shared my personal experiences with television addiction and the challenges I faced raising my own child. I talked about how difficult it is for parents everywhere to raise kids without a strong support system and sufficient resources.
I wanted people to read my book. I just didn’t want anyone in Portland to read it, or anyone I knew for that matter. I didn’t send group e-mails or post announcements on Facebook about my upcoming interviews and events. When I ran into people in town who had heard about the book, I discouraged them from buying it.
“Please don’t read it,” I would say. “I don’t think it’s your type of book.”
These are not the words a publisher wants to hear. What’s worse is I didn’t like saying the name of the book.
“It’s not a very good title,” I would tell people who asked about it.
I wanted to keep my life a secret. I worried about my son, too, and the effect my book might have on him. I had disclosed intimate details of his life, of our lives together. I was pretty sure at some point he wouldn’t appreciate having others find out that his kindergarten teacher thought he was odd.
Fortunately, Casey had yet to read my book. He was only eleven when it came out, and the sex scenes alone made the book inappropriate for anyone under thirteen. But some of the parents of his friends had read it, and most had heard about it. I could tell by the way they acted around me.
“Can your son watch television at our house?” they would ask me anxiously.
“Sure,” I would say.
I wanted to tell them that if they had read my book, they would know that by the end I was no longer a zealot, just another parent trying to do her best and often falling short. I didn’t like drawing unnecessary attention to my child or making other parents feel uncomfortable, or worse, inadequate.
In writing this book I had made the decision to tell the world about my son, but paradoxically I now wanted above all to protect him. I worried that he would feel pressured to become a poster boy for TV-free living. He would think he had to live up to the ideals I had written about, always remaining smart and focused, creative and fit. These expectations could become a burden, one he shouldn’t have to carry. In addition, I had to keep my own ego in check, so he could live his life the way he wanted, not necessarily the way I thought it should be.
Fortunately after some time passed, I began to relax. I became comfortable for the most part with my friends and in my community. My friend Bernice remained angry and hurt, not only because I had written about her affair, but also because I hadn’t shown the manuscript to her ahead of time.
“You let your other friends read it before it came out!” she hissed. “You chose them over me!”
I thought long and hard about what she said and knew it was true. There were relationships I had been willing to sacrifice for the sake of my story. I had carefully chosen those I would be willing to throw under the bus, per se, in spite of my love for them, because I wanted to deliver my message in the most effective way possible. I had betrayed the trust of my sister because of her entertainment value. Maybe I had betrayed myself, too, portraying my own character in a less than favorable light at times. But I spared my husband, keeping what’s sacred between us, thereby holding on to the marriage. That was a choice, too.
As time passed most everyone in the book forgave me, and I’ve forgiven everyone, too, including myself. Even so, my friends still pause mid-sentence sometimes and glare at me.
“You better not write about this,” they warn me. “What I’m telling you is personal.”
“Don’t worry,” I reassure them.
My son doesn’t ask me this question anymore. He’s forgiven me, too, and he’s not a bad writer himself. He’s already written an essay about me, and I have to admit it wasn’t easy for me to read.
“It’s supposed to be funny,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “I guess it is.”
Writing about others can be messy at times, so I’m thankful for those writers who are brave enough to do it, to share their feelings, which so often mirror my own. I love memoirs, but I don’t intend to write another one.
These days I’m writing screenplays, and I can hardly wait to find the right audience for them. Most of all I’m looking forward to being interviewed. I can hear the questions now.
“Are any of your characters based on people you know?” the reporter will ask.
“I write fiction,” I will answer. “The characters spring from my imagination.” Then I will smile. “I have a great imagination.”