Friday, November 16, 2012

The Gestation of a Very Personal Essay

By Caitlin Rother

It’s only taken me fourteen years, but I’m proud -- and relieved -- to say that I’ve finally finished a very personal essay. Frankly, it feels like I’ve completed an intellectual and emotional marathon.
It’s no coincidence that it took me fourteen years. That’s how long it’s been since my husband committed suicide, and it’s taken me that long to process and balance the emotions about my marriage and its tragic end to a healthy enough place that I could write about this sensitive and inflammatory topic for people other than myself to read.
Until very recently, I didn’t fully realize that the trauma and the aftermath of these experiences were still affecting me after all this time. I guess I should have known, because I’d stopped and started this essay multiple times, feeling like I still didn’t know how to finish it, or even what it was really about.
It needed to be about more than our relationship and his death. As I tell my students, you need to know what your story is about, but you also need to know what it’s really about – in other words, what you, as the writer, discovered while writing it, which gets incorporated into the piece, the underlying themes, and also what message you want to leave with the reader. I knew the answer to none of these underlying questions until just a couple of weeks ago.
I wasn’t always planning to write about this topic, but as a journalist who has made a name for herself writing about heavy topics such as bizarre deaths, murder, mental illness and addiction, it seemed fitting to others that I tell this story.
“You should write about it,” an editor from Cosmopolitan told me back in 2001, as we were editing a piece for the magazine about the Kristin Rossum case, which was the topic of my first book, Poisoned Love.
“Well, I guess I could,” I said.
It did seem like a good idea at the time -- what better way to heal myself than to write about the medical and psychological issues involved in my own story, to try to help and educate others in the process. But I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure why, I just knew that I wasn’t. I didn’t know where to start.
Some years later, I thought it was time. So I sat down for several hours and wrote in longhand about the various memories that I used to relate to people – the worst things, the most shocking things, because there were many. There were several 911 calls, a call from jail, a trip to the county mental hospital in the back of a police car, his numerous trips to rehab. There was fighting, lying, fear and anger. But it all seemed like a rant, so negative, and so one-sided.
As I discussed the idea with an editor I was working with on one of the memoirs I was helping someone else write about his own traumatic and emotional journey, I knew I needed to find some positive things to say about my own, but I still found that very difficult.
My husband was a talented and well respected investment executive who ran the San Diego County pension fund, and he probably loved me more than anyone ever has or ever will. But he was also a severe alcoholic with borderline personality disorder who was in a blackout when he took items from the gift shop at a resort in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was attending a conference. The sad thing was that he was so ashamed of being seen as an alcoholic that he decided to let people think he was a thief instead, and resigned from his job rather than go through the public humiliation of admitting to his addiction during the civil service process. There were so many sad, scary and awful moments during our four years together that the end was more of a relief than anything else.
Recently, I went through some things in my personal life that brought a lot of these emotions back up again, and somehow, I managed to break through the paralysis that had prevented me from finishing this story.
These events finally helped me figure out what my essay was really about. It was about me finally reaching the point where I realized I was still hanging on to emotions I thought I’d already processed, and by writing about this, I was able to deal with them, find those positive things, and balance myself to a point where I could let go and move on.
I made some changes to the essay and added a new ending, then showed the piece to a trusted friend, asking him if he felt I’d truly finished this time, and resolved the issues for the reader that I’d felt were hidden or left hanging.
As much as I didn’t want to hear this, he told me that I still wasn’t finished. That it still read like “I had my bra and panties on.” He said I needed to go deeper, reveal even more. Ugh.
He suggested that I sit down again with pen and paper and write longhand, starting with, “I remember…”
I wasn’t sure I could face that, but I did that the next day, and by golly, the day after that I added 1,500 words to my essay. In the following day or two, I remembered more, and added nearly 1,500 more words. The essay ended up being twice as long, far more balanced and far more comprehensive than it was before.
I read the new portions I’d just written aloud to another friend, and when I started to cry, unable to say those new positive thoughts, those healing thoughts, out loud, I knew I was really done. I had healed myself, and in the process, my essay as well.
So now that that journey is over, I am faced with the next step, which is trying to find the right place to publish 6,000 words of this new form of writing, the literary essay, which is a whole new challenge in and of itself for me.
But that’s never stopped me before.

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as an investigative reporter for nearly 20 years, has written or co-authored eight books: Poisoned LoveDeadly Devotion/Where Hope BeginsMy Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted TriangleNaked Addiction, and Dead Reckoning. Her latest book is Lost Girls, about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. For more information, please check her website,


Peewee54 said...

Shared on Fb as u amaze me and i am a
Fan sharing u with others-2nd time on my nook so excuse the mistakes-fan

Caitlin Rother said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Peewee54. Share away!
Best, Caitlin

Laurel Corona said...

Caitlin--you are so much braver than I am. I really admire you.

Caitlin Rother said...

Thank you, Laurel. But I think you're pretty brave too!

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