A Conversation with Tembi Locke

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Tembi Locke this month, whose debut memoir From Scratch hit the shelves just over a week ago, and it has already landed on the New York Times best-seller list. It is also Reese Witherspoon's pick for her Hello Sunshine book club!

Tembi Locke is an accomplished actor who has appeared in over forty television shows and films, including The Magicians, NCIS: LA, Animal Kingdom and Dumb and Dumber To. She is also a TEDx speaker, and her talk, “What Forty Steps Taught Me About Love and Grief,” traces her journey as a cancer caregiver. She is the creative voice behind The Kitchen Widow, a web series and grief support community that has received mentions in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Tembi's debut memoir From Scratch chronicles three summers she spends in Sicily with her daughter, Zoela, as she begins to piece together a life without her husband in his tiny hometown hamlet of farmers. Where once Tembi was estranged from Saro’s family, now she finds solace and nourishment—literally and spiritually—at her mother in law’s table. In the Sicilian countryside, she discovers the healing gifts of simple fresh food, the embrace of a close knit community, and timeless traditions and wisdom that light a path forward. All along the way she reflects on her and Saro’s incredible romance—an indelible love story that leaps off the pages.

Photo: Jenny Walters

Photo: Jenny Walters


Karin Gutman: When I first met you, you referred to yourself as a Grief Advocate. Can you describe what that is? 
Tembi Locke: It’s a term to explain the work I do as a public figure advocating for greater care and connection for family caregivers and grieving families, especially at end-of-life care. The work is born of my direct experience as a long-term caregiver, mother and now widow. I use my personal story to inspire people, communities and health care professionals to call on the art of comfort when it matters most.
Karin: What do you mean by ‘the art of comfort’?
Tembi: “The art of comfort” is a term that refers to the lost art of knowing how to comfort and care for another human being through grief and illness. I borrow it from Val Walker's wonderful book, The Art of Comforting.
Karin: You are an actor by profession, so I’m wondering if moving into the world of writing was a big leap for you?
Tembi: Writing was not a big leap because both acting and writing are, at their core, storytelling. As an actor, I tell a story through behavior using given circumstances. In my work as a writer, I do the same only the characters are on the page.

About three years into my husband’s diagnosis, I started writing to make sense of my lived experience as a young mother and primary caregiver. I thought that I would perhaps write a book on caregiving. That book never got written. However, FROM SCRATCH, as a fully formed book idea, began to come into my imagination years after his death, longer still before I gave myself permission to write it.
Karin: What is the underlying theme of the book? What is it really about?
The book is a cross-cultural love story set largely in Sicily. It has interlacing themes of family, loss, motherhood, identity, forgiveness and the search for home. And it is also a love letter to the natural world and the food I shared at the side of a chef. It has been called Eat Pray Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking and Under the Tuscan Sun. So there’s the sense of embarking on a journey of self-discovery. However, this is one that is prompted by deep grief and plays out through the lens of motherhood.
There is no way to prepare yourself for the internal landscape for life after death. Life is fundamentally different. The book is my attempt to make sense and meaning of such a deep and life altering love and then loss.

The title, FROM SCRATCH, also has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it is directly connected to the theme of food in the book. But it is also about building an improbable love and life from scratch and then having to start over from scratch.
Karin: Can you describe your process of writing the book?
Tembi: Blessedly, I work well with deadlines. Once I sold the book, I created a page count schedule and mini-deadlines in order to deliver the manuscript on time—literally pages per week/month. I dreaded the idea of falling behind or feeling any additional overwhelm than I already felt. So I held myself accountable by working with Shawna Kenney as my weekly coach. She kept me accountable to the schedule. Then I met my “pages per month” goal any way I could. Lots of espresso. Lots of time thinking about the book away from the page. It was challenging, I won’t lie. I often felt the pressure to get more writing in. I had panics in the middle of the night, but learned to use short chunks of time and submitted to the creative fits and starts of it all. And because parts of the story are emotionally wrenching, I also allowed for the light writing days or no writing at all. For me, excavating memory has to be a gentle process.
Karin: Did you document your journey as it was happening? Through your husband’s illness and after his death?
Tembi: I have journaled off and on my entire adult life. Those journals were instrumental in my being able to access memories, as were letters, texts, photographs and emails. I also had over five years of writings and essays from workshops and classes at UCLA.
Karin: What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?
Tembi: The most challenging part was psychologically convincing myself I could do this—so hard. And it was making peace with the very haphazard writing practice I had while also auditioning, working on set and being a mother. The most rewarding part was when I held a galley of the book in my hand for the first time. There is no feeling like it. I danced and drank champagne.
Karin: Since you’re writing about family, did you need to get permission from family members to put this story out in the world?
Tembi: I chose transparency. My book is set in two countries with three languages. I knew every family member would not be able to read the book. So I felt I had to tell them I was writing the book, share its intent, and be specific about the parts of their story that touched on my story. And, in certain cases, I asked some people if it was okay to include a specific detail.

Karin: Were you ever concerned about writing about your daughter?

Tembi: The book is a love letter to my daughter. I was always aware of her, as both a part of the story and as a future reader.
Karin: What did you discover about your story and yourself through writing the book? 
Tembi: I discovered a bravery I didn’t know I had. And honestly, that I am an awful mess during copy edits.


Meet Tembi!

Upcoming Book Events

May 17th / Los Angeles: Diesel Books Luncheon in Los Angeles, 12pm

May 18th / Pasadena: Pasadena LitFest, 3-4pm

June 14th / Houston: Brazos Bookstore, 7-8pm

August 7th / New York City: Bryant Park Reading Series, 12 pm

October 26-27 / Austin: Texas Book Festival

To learn more about Tembi and upcoming events, visit her website.

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A Conversation with Amy Wallen

Years ago, I met Amy Wallen through mutual writer-teacher friends. At the time she was producing a spoken word series based in San Diego called DimeStories, which she also founded. Amy had published a novel and was also hosting salons at her home featuring her delicious pies (hence the name, Savory Salons). Like me, she was creating community through storytelling and I felt I'd met a kindred spirit.

Next week Amy's debut memoir When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories is being released into the world through the American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff. In the interview below, I had a chance to ask her about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, how she found the keys to structure, and what advice she would have given herself in retrospect. You'll also find her upcoming readings and signings in LA and across the USA! 

Amy E. Wallen is the author of the soon-to-be-released memoir When We Were Ghouls (University of Nebraska Press, March 2018). She is the associate director at the New York State Writers Institute and teaches creative writing at the University of California, San Diego Extension. Her first novel, Moon Pies and Movie Starswas a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Amy is the creator of Savory Salons, an intimate gathering with a conversation springing from the author’s latest work. If you want to be invited, message her and she'll put you on the list!

When Amy learns her parents are grave robbers and her memory is out of focus, she tries to figure out what truly happened. When We Were Ghouls, A Memoir of Ghost Stories is about a search for family. It follows a family that has been dispersed around the world, a family who, like ghosts, come and go and slip through Amy’s fingers making it unclear if they were ever there.

"Lyrical and haunting."—Booklist

Buy the book


Karin Gutman: Tell me about your book!

Amy Wallen: When We Were Ghouls is, as the subtitle suggests, a memoir metaphorically in ghost stories. The book opens with a memory I have of my family digging up a pre-Inca grave in Peru. I soon discover my memories are not quite what I thought and yet at the same time frighteningly just as I remembered, so I start to dig even deeper into my family’s adventures. As a young kid my blue-collar family was transferred to Nigeria, Peru and then Bolivia. All of my family members, like ghosts, came and went during this time. I begin to question everything that happened, although the physical world suggests my memories are real, the stories seem unbelievable to me. The stories suggest that my family were looters, grave robbers and hideous people with no regard for humanity. The opening scene/chapter is exactly how the story came to me. I had no intention of writing a memoir, but I soon realized that’s exactly what I had to do. 
I know you have also published a novel. Can you describe the difference between writing fiction versus nonfiction?

I struggled with the transition from fiction to nonfiction. Not because I didn’t want to tell the truth, and not because I wanted to make things up (although I do find that to be more fun), but because I had a hard time with the narrators of experience and innocence. I had learned psychic distance in fiction but those characters felt more stagnant or controllable, maybe. To apply that to myself, to who I am now AND who I was then was a mind-bender for me. I had to learn compassion for my complicity, for my family, dig inside deep to admit to how I felt then versus how I feel now, or rather how I felt as I wrote the book. I say the last bit because I think even as I look at the pages now, a few years after they were written, I have a new way of looking at the story, but I had to realize that was the story I was writing then. Once it clicked, once I realized the juxtaposition versus the commonalities, once I realized that I was writing the story that I had to tell at that moment about that part of my past, even though it would be different at every stage of my life, I felt right at home in the genre of creative nonfiction. It’s a very “of the moment” genre and yet is about the past. Or at least, that’s how I came to decipher it.

What does your writing practice look like? Has it morphed over time?
My writing practice varies with my life, somewhat, but also stays the same. I believe in writing every day because otherwise I lose the momentum. But I have also learned that I can’t always make this happen because life gets in the way, and mostly I get in the way of myself.  I wanted to get another book started so it wouldn’t take me as long as it took me to write this last book. So, this time I’m writing every day but not putting on any pressure and I’m just committing to 250 words - no matter what. That’s about a page a day and so I figure at the end of a year I’ll have at least 365 pages. I usually write more than 250 words, but even if that’s all I have some days, then at least I’ve kept my finger in the pot and the momentum going. So far it’s working. I’m on page 73 and I started Dec 29, 2017 so I’m about 35 pages ahead of where I thought I’d be.

Writing memoir at times can be painful, as we go to our most vulnerable places inside. How did you take care of yourself during the process?

I’m not very good at self-care, then again, I’m too good at it. I tend to be a workaholic, but I also go to a lot of spas and get a lot of massages. As far as taking care of me as a writer, I really focus on only showing my work to the people I trust and only when I feel it’s got enough heft that the input won’t turn it to dust. I am way too sensitive and take everything that people tell me about my work to heart. So instead of trying to teach myself to be tougher, I try to find ways to receive input that isn’t going to make me quit writing, but instead will make me a better writer. Sometimes though I wish I had one of those mothers that would just tell me everything I do is perfect. 
To me, writing a memoir is about uncovering the deeper underlying truth of our experience… how did you do that?
I agree with you completely. I think I did this by doing what I mentioned above—showing drafts to only people I trust. When I say I trust them I trust that they will tell me where to dig deeper, where they want to know more, where I am being superficial. I think I also asked a lot of questions about myself and why my memories would be so distorted. I assumed that the answers were inside of me. I kept to the truth by realizing there is never just one truth—that everyone’s point of view and reality is valid. But the story I was telling was my reality and my truth wrapped up inside all those others.

What kind of feedback did you seek out along the way? Are you a part of a writing group? Did you work with an editor?
I have a very close reader and we share work. We have read each other’s books probably over 10 times. We have seen them at every stage. I did pay another good friend who is a professional book reviewer to also look at a later draft. He gave me the keys to structure. Then, after I got my book deal through the University press, the peer reviewer gave me comments that pushed the theme to a whole new level and I felt took the story to a much deeper and honest place. So yes, I sought feedback along the way, but very carefully. I belonged to a writing group when I wrote my novel and they were incredibly helpful, and I also learned the key to having trustful readers along the way. It’s not good to have the blind leading the blind, but to have a fabulous guide and teacher and a group of intelligent readers and writers—that’s invaluable, whatever form it comes in.

I am curious about what “keys to structure” you received?

It was David Ulin and he gave me the idea to start with the grave digging as the opening scene and then use the metaphor of digging up the remains of my family’s history throughout the rest of the memoir. It seemed so obvious when he said it, but it also seemed somewhat awkward at first since it changed the order of how I had it structured. Originally I had started with the grave digging, but hadn’t considered the slipping of memory and the continuation of the conversation with my parents in the current day. At first I tried to break the grave story up and spread it out, but I soon realized it was more about the metaphor, about slanting the details, than about scattering the physical scene. Again, another lesson learned about what memoir is about. But this “slanting of details” is something I really learned to the bone when I worked with Sue Silverman in grad school and from her book FEARLESS CONFESSIONS. She discusses the slanting of details, of taking the moment in time, finding the metaphors in the details and using them to create momentum and continuity to go into deeper and deeper places. So I guess I really was given the keys from many teachers and friends

How did you get a publishing deal for the book?
That’s always a question that I think every writer can answer differently, but still the same. I was seeking agents in New York since that’s what got me my novel book deal years ago. But this book was so different I also thought it may need a different kind of publisher. My NYC experience with my novel had been more about selling the book and getting it out into the world rather than about the words on the page. I wanted this book, maybe because it was so personal, to be treated with kid gloves. So I also researched independent presses. A good friend and mentor referred me to the University of Nebraska American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff, and they made me an offer. They sounded like exactly what I was looking for and the perfect home for Ghouls. I have found the experience to be everything and more of what I dreamed of.

What has the publishing process been like?

A university press is so much different than a New York City publishing house. First of all, they only publish a handful of books a year and publish a more narrowly focused story, like the American Lives series which is basically memoirs of a variety of Americans. They also publish novels that focus on the Flyover States.  Because of the smaller focus they can spend more time on every word and detail. Before any contract is signed, the editor sends the book out to be peer-reviewed. This is when I was given the keys to the bigger question I needed to bring to the overall story. I never got this kind of depth of discussion before. This required another round of revisions, and the possibility that my manuscript would be rejected. I guess I must have done the job right. The cover was designed by an award-winning book cover artist, the editor read the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and again even after the copyeditor had cleaned it up. All this attention was both nerve-wracking and fabulous to have such intricate attention paid to my work. I feel I learned more in this process than in any class.

How encouraging to hear that your publishing experience was so positive. Again, you mention that the peer review gave you the keys to the “bigger question” that took the theme to a whole new level. Can you share more details about that?

The first round of peer review was positive, but only recommended publication with the contingency that I needed to find a bigger overall question that threaded through the entire memoir. See above where I am considering the slanting of details. I understood what the reviewer meant and he suggested that my early question in the grave digging scene—“Are we hideous people?” which my mother keeps calling us—seems the best question. That statement hit the nail on the proverbial head for me. I immediately saw how the question, which is asked in the opening, could be asked about every scene and memory and about myself and my family throughout the whole book. It also helped me see how to edit out some scenes because they were not essential to this question. The big question helped make the memoir feel whole, feel complete. Before that, it was a conglomeration of memories. The editing was so easy with that one key question.

You say you learned more in the process than any class. Can you elaborate?

I LOVE classes and take more than the average person. I think I went back to grad school after having published my novel because I just love being in the class setting so much. The camaraderie, the friendships created, and the bonds from sharing bad drafts (being vulnerable) are essential to surviving the writing process. But as someone who works on book-length work, I have found that it’s hard to get big-picture input when a class or group is only looking at 10-30 pages at a time. I craved to have someone read the entirety to give me those keys I mentioned before: David Ulin seeing the opening scene as a metaphor for the whole story; Sue Silverman teaching me to look for the metaphors throughout, the one metaphor that repeats itself; and the peer reviewer, Lee Martin, to see the Big Question that was hidden in the grave scene and that really was the thread that pulled all the repeating metaphors together. Maybe I’m dense and should have seen all of this myself, but I think that it becomes difficult to see our own stories from a longer perspective when we are so close to them. I think classes are fantastic for providing deadlines, to give input on the prose style, the intrigue of the story and the development of individual scenes. They teach us how to write, and I am an honest believer in that as writers we never stop learning how to write.  I think Big-Picture readers are essential for the later drafts. My own frustration with the later drafts and big-picture input is why I started the 200-page workshop I do with David Ulin in my living room. I think the peer review process at the university press was ideally the best kind of reader—one who wants you to get published, wants to make your book the best it can be—not the kind that is just looking for what isn’t working, but instead looking for what will make it work.

Did you have to deal with any legalities, in terms of exposing other people? Did you have any personal concerns about telling this story?
I have not had to deal with any legalities, but I did worry about it when I was writing it. I considered using a pseudonym so that if any of the issues of what my parents did came to the attention of someone who wanted to try to cause a problem, I could avoid it. I did a TON of research on whether or not I was exposing anyone, namely my parents, to some kind of legal hassle or even jail time. I called attorneys, museums, archeologists, and of course googled every variation of negative thought I had. Everything I kept finding out was that my parents would have had to sell the artifacts they dug up in order to be arrested or even fined. But I still worry that there will be some kind of problem that will arise. My parents are in their late 80s and that would be a real drag if they were hauled off to prison. I asked my mom if she would have a problem if Homeland Security showed up at her door, and she said, “Good gosh no, I wish they’d come and haul all that stuff out of here.“

Now in hindsight… looking back at yourself at the beginning of the process, what advice would you have given Amy?
I’d tell myself to not resist whatever story wants to show up on the page, and to remember that just because I am writing a book all about myself that I’m not a narcissist, but a storyteller. And, that even though I’m writing a book all about myself, people will want to know my story if I tell it truthfully. And to be me on the page, even if 'me' is sometimes a little shit.


~ Meet Amy Wallen ~

Upcoming Readings + Signings:

February 24th, 7pm @ The Foundry (San Diego)

March 3, 5pm @ The Book Catapult w/ Jim Ruland (San Diego)

March 8th @ AWP Tampa Bookfair (Florida)

March 15, 7pm @ The Innovative w/ Samantha Dunn (Orange County)

April 26, 7pm @ Book Culture w/ Philip Lopate (NYC)

See full details



To learn more about Amy Wallen, visit:

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Publishing a Memoir Under a Pseudonym

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:

Unfortunate consequences: writing memoir about family members

Choosing to use a pseudonym for my memoir