When it comes to writing our personal stories, the question of exposure inevitably comes up. How honest are we willing to be on the page? How will others react to our stories?
This month I had the delightful opportunity to speak with MEG McGUIRE about her struggle with these very questions. Her memoir Blinded By Hope, recently published by She Writes Press, is a story about her journey as a mother through her son's bipolar illness. In addition to being a psychotherapist, Meg is an accomplished writer and teacher of memoir with five books already under her belt; she is someone whose work I admire very much. Given the deeply personal nature of this book, she chose to publish under a pseudonym (Meg McGuire). It was not an easy choice, but this was an important story for her to share; equally important was her commitment to honor and protect her son in the telling of it.
Read our conversation below to learn more about Meg's process in making this big decision.
Karin: I remember talking with you about this book seven years ago, during the writing process. At the time you were not sure how the process would unfold given the deeply personal nature of your story for you and your family. Did you always intend on publishing it?
Meg McGuire: I think I always wanted to publish it, because I have already published five books and consider myself a writer. I felt like the material was really important, primarily because I could see how difficult it was for our family to get effective treatment for my son. He's bipolar and at that time had an active addiction. In terms of the mental health field, they either treated the mental illness or the addiction. There weren't any programs at that time treating dual diagnosis. So my experience was of enormous frustration trying to get him treatment. At the same time emotionally it was such a rollercoaster for me, dealing with the fallout from his illnesses. Writing was keeping me sane. It was enormously healing for me.
Three years ago I got an agent, Linda Langton, in New York. Linda was one of the agents on a panel at the International Women's Writing Guild in the summer institute. I pitched my book to her, and she was very excited about it because she had had a partner who was bipolar and understood the issues. What she had me do before we sent it out was create a blog. She felt like I needed to have a platform in the mental health and addiction community.
I worked pretty hard on that blog, so that when she did send the book out - and she sent it out to over 30 publishers - part of her query letter included talking about my platform and my other books. Nobody was interested in it. Part of it was that it was written by the mother. Several editors wrote back and said, “Why isn't her son writing the book,” which tremendously pissed me off, because I felt like it was my story, or certainly the family's story, and that was the viewpoint that I took.
I did ask my son if he would be interested in co-writing it with me and he said no. He also was not in any shape to be able to contribute to it. I didn't realize that then, because at that time I hadn't realized the extent of his addiction. He read the first 80 pages and did not like it at all. But he did make some corrections that were actually very helpful, because oftentimes I was looking at him through the lens of a psychotherapist and misunderstanding his behavior.
But he wasn't willing to provide feedback on the entire manuscript?
No, he wasn't. He ended up in prison, six years ago now. I write about that in the prologue of the book. He was inside for almost four years. I sent him 40 pages of the book, and he said it was just too depressing for him to read. I imagine it was humiliating, particularly in the environment in which he was reading it.
What about the consequences for your son, say, in terms of employment? Was that a consideration?
That's a really good point. Thank you for bringing that up, because the lawyers who vetted the manuscript told me not to publish it until he was out of prison because they felt that would jeopardize his job prospects. That was when I was going to use my own name. The truth is, it doesn't matter what my name is. Anybody who comes out of prison has a horrible time getting a job, because on every application you do have to answer the question, “Have you ever committed a felony?” It has just been hell for him trying to get work.
When did the idea of publishing under a pseudonym first arise?
Three years ago, around the time he got out of prison, I was going to pursue publishing even though it had been rejected by 31 established publishers. I had heard about She Writes Press, which is a partnership press, and I spoke with Brooke Warner who started it. She had been at Seal Press when I published an earlier book with them. She hadn't been my editor but she knew my name. I asked her if she would be willing to look at the manuscript, and she thought it was an important book. So I signed on with them. So when I made that decision, I talked to my son again and said, “Would you be willing to look at it now?” and he said, “No, I really I don't want to revisit that time in my life.” Since he hadn't read it, he didn't realize that I had used his sentencing hearing as a prologue; when he did discover that he was unhappy. So that's when we started to discuss my using a pseudonym.
Fast forward to last August, a year ago, the publicity arm of She Writes put the book out with my name on Facebook. I didn't know this was going to happen. I happened to be teaching on the East Coast, and the way I found out was, I got a very angry e-mail from my ex-husband who said basically, "How could you do this to our son? He's getting back on his feet. This can do nothing but hurt him." And then I got a second e-mail from him citing case law for invasion of privacy. So at that point I called up Brooke and said, “I need to pull the book, because I'm not sure how to proceed. I'm not sure whether I'm going to use a pseudonym or just pull the book completely.”
I met with my son and said, “We have three options here. One is, I pull the book completely. Two is, I publish it under a pseudonym, and three, we write an epilogue together.” And he said, “I'm not interested in writing an epilogue. I'm okay with the pseudonym.” So I said, “Okay, I'll pull the book now and then I'll make the decision.”
So last August I pulled the book, which was not a happy occurrence for She Writes, because they had already sent out all of the books for review. They had to recall 50 books. They were very kind to me. I have to say my experience with She Writes Press has been a pleasure. Both Brooke and Crystal Patriarche, who is the head of their publicity arm--which is called SparkPoint--said, “We understand this is a difficult decision. You always knew that this was going to be a difficult book. If you decide to come back and want to do it under a pseudonym, let us know, because we'd like to bring the book out.”
After I pulled the manuscript, I sent it to a friend who is a novel writer, and I asked her to look at it and see how I could tweak it to become a novel. She read it and said, “It's a memoir. You're either going to have to do it under a pseudonym or let it go.”
So I sat on it for a couple of months and re-contacted She Writes and said, “What will it take to publish it under the pseudonym?” And they said, “We already have it in in galley form, we just have to change your name.” We had to negotiate a whole new publicity package, so it took another six months for them to bring it out this June. It really was a hard decision because I can't use my author's platform. I have continued to write the blog, but I obviously can't put the book on the blog. In terms of publicity, they did a really nice job of getting it reviewed. Originally they said, “Oh we've got somebody from Santa Barbara News Press who wants to come out and interview you and bring a photographer along.” And I said, “I can't do that. What do you not understand about a pseudonym?”
What are your personal ethics when it comes to writing memoir? Obviously there's a legal dimension as well.
My first question is always, “Whose story is this?” I felt like this was my story, the mother's story that doesn't get told. There are memoirs written by fathers about their child's addiction or mental illness but not by mothers. And the mother, for the most part, is the family member who has to deal with getting treatment for her child. People who are writing memoirs to embarrass family members are always wrong. But I always come back to, “Whose story is it?” If it's your story to tell, then you do have to be careful about other people's reputations. There are things that we can do. We used to just be able to change names and identifying characteristics, but that's really not enough anymore. If you can identify the person, the rule is absolute, meaning they could bring a suit against you. You do have greater latitude in writing about a public figure.
In terms of personal ethics, have you presented a responsible discussion of the other person's point of view? That gets left out a lot in memoir, and that's really something that we should all think about. If you are writing about living persons, what is your motivation? That question always has to be explored. That's why a lot of people will write their memoir and then decide at the end, “Well, I don't really want to publish this. Maybe my motivation wasn't as pure as I thought it was, maybe I really was trying to get back at someone.”
I have been asked this a lot in terms of my son, “Didn't you think this was going to hurt him?” The truth is, I didn't. Maybe that was near-sighted on my part. It could have been that I was so tied up with “What's the mother's story?” The other thing is, in writing that book I was trying to find an answer to how to treat his illness. So part of my motivation was, “Certainly I'll be able to figure this out.” Well I wasn't.
So would I do it again?
The writing of the book was tremendously healing for me, mainly because I had to come to terms with my own magical thinking, my own denial, of my own fantasy that, “Oh this time it will be different, oh this time it will be better, oh this can't possibly happen again.” I had to come to terms with that, and I think I do a fairly good job of talking about that in the book. My hope was that it would be helpful to other families, particularly to give them a language. Since there is so much stigma around mental illness and addiction, a lot of families don't talk about it and they just suffer in silence. What I have heard back from families who have walked this path is, “Oh thank God I'm not alone,” and, “Thank you for giving me language to what my whole family is experiencing.” So I feel good about that.
Once you made the decision to use a pseudonym, did it bring you closer to you son?
When I pulled the book, that certainly brought us closer. He was relieved. When I told them it was going to come out under a pseudonym, he said, “That's fine.” Whether it was really fine, I don't know. I feel like I did the most I could do and the best I could do to protect my son. That was my only concern. He has chosen not to read the book. My daughter read the book and was unhappy with me.
Why was she upset with you?
She felt like it would hurt his feelings. She's rather protective of him.
What makes it so disturbing?
I think it's embarrassment; I mean, this is our family. There's a certain element of shame. She says she is a person who likes to be happy and she likes everybody else to be happy and she doesn't like confrontation. I would say she's the “light” part of the family; my son and I are the “dark” part of the family. So she didn't want her friends to know. It's kind of ridiculous, because all of our friends know what we've been through. But she is very private. So I tried very hard to leave her out of most of the book, and from the beginning she said, “I don't I don't want to be in your book.” So I only mentioned her twice. I was very careful about that.
Do you have any regrets? Or does the overriding call to get the story out in the world transcend any second thoughts?
It's something that I struggle with all the time. I really felt an overriding call to write this book in a way that I have not felt in writing my other books. A couple of people said to me, “Oh my God, after 31 rejections and then having to pull the book, why are you continuing to do this?” I just felt like it was important; I felt like it was an important piece for families who deal with dual diagnosis. I was reading the paper the other day; fifty percent of deaths right now are from addiction. Drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States last year. It's a worse epidemic than existed during the AIDS epidemic. Luckily my son is still alive. But, just think of all those thousands of families that are having to deal with some of these issues. So that's why I wrote the book. In terms of my daughter's anger, I knew that we'd get through it. She was able to express to me that she was unhappy with it. She also said to me, “I don't want my daughters reading it,” which surprises me, because her daughters went through quite a bit of my son's episodes.
What was the most challenging part for you in the actual writing of the book?
The most difficult part was looking at myself, my investment, and how my rescue attempts were ultimately a failure. Also, coming to terms with the fact that I needed him to be well so that I could be well, and I really didn't get that until I wrote it.
That's a big revelation.
Yeah, really looking at myself and how addicted I was to his recovery. Also coming from an Irish Catholic addicted family, I didn't want him to repeat the same mistakes as my family. I denied the severity of the addiction for too long.
Did you have that revelation during the writing process?
Definitely. I had to experience that shift to be able to put it in the last chapter.
To be a writer is pretty remarkable.
Yeah, I think writing a memoir is. I've been a therapist for 32 years. I think writing a memoir is much harder than doing therapy. I don't mean doing therapy as a therapist; I mean being in therapy. I just think it's an extraordinary process, and it's a great gift to us.
To purchase the book, click here.
Read more about publishing under a pseudonym in these blog posts by Meg McGuire: