Yesterday, in a standing-room only session at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, I sat in the choir loft of the First Baptist Church, mesmerized once again by Pat Conroy’s candid and comedic telling of a life spent writing about survival. Pat was interviewed by his longtime literary agent Marly Rusoff, and shared the stage with novelist Jonathan Odell.
Like Conroy, I was raised in a family where mental illness, violence and dysfunction flourished. Unlike Conroy, I have not yet found my full voice for describing the damage and self-delusion of my parents. Conroy knows more than any writer, the danger of family estrangement that is inherent in writing novels that are semi-autobiographical. Conroy has lived a lifetime of emotional repercussions as a result of his near-mythic ability to bleed-out parental flaws onto page-after-page of heart-wrenching prose.
My debut novel hints at the atrocities of my childhood, including months spent homeless and hiding in a shelter for battered women and children. However, unlike Conroy who slaughters familial beasts with open-fisted humor, Waving Backwards swats at the underbelly of childhood violence.
Waving Backwards is a story of family dysfunction, coming-of-age, adoption search and abuse. Listening to Conroy yesterday, clarified for me the reasons (beyond my extreme newbie status in the craft of novel writing) that I did not delve into the morbid details of childhood terror with more clarity. Conroy explained how his book editor for The Great Santini, edited out some of his father’s bad behavior in the novel, because she did not believe that “any father could treat his children so badly.” Conroy went on to say that at the time of Santini’s publication in 1976, “America was not read for that kind of abuse.”
Long before editors tucked and trimmed my novel, I did a fair amount of abuse-editing. Conroy’s comments made me realize that I was seeking to protect the pro-adoption segment of American society. An an author and adoptee, I judged them ill-equipped to deal with the fact that many adoptive parents are not suited to adopt; and that sometimes a biological parent is a better care-giving option, even if they are financially needy. Abundant monetary resources do not make someone a better parent. Adoption can be healthy and successful. However, that is not my story to tell.
I have been blessed to hear Pat Conroy speak on three separate occasions, and each time I am left with a new nugget of eloquent insight into the task of writing as an abuse survivor. Like Mr. Conroy, I am a reluctant memory keeper. The daily battles that my family locked away, flourish vividly and painfully in my writer’s mind.
Yesterday, as I descended from the choir loft, I thought about sharing my book with this masterful author. In typical writer’s fashion, self-doubt reared its ugly head, and I almost decided against it. Yet, the desire to give something back to the man who has gifted me (and the world) with such courageous literature, made me open a copy of Waving Backwards and write, “For my favorite survivor. Thank you for inspiring me to write.”
Hands shaking, in what I now refer to as the ‘Conroy quake’, I handed him my book, snapped a few photos of it sitting on his signing table, and walked off in a teary cloud of giddy delight.
Thank you Pat Conroy for accepting my humble gift, and for helping to pave a path for my next novel, which will delve more fearlessly into the life-long burden of child abuse in adoption.
Blessings for less self-editing and more truth,
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Waving Backwards book trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_ufjmq0l-U