A Toddler’s Tale

1968-1972

MY EARLIEST memory is of crying for my mother from a cot in a dark room. She never came. My second is of having crawled under my parents’ bedclothes and becoming trapped. Only this time my cries were heard. The third is of batting a faded green plastic telephone off the side of my pushchair. And I was a frequent visitor to the hostipal, not because I got my finger stuck in a dodgy tap, swallowed a penny, got a plastic bead stuck up my nose or chased the budgie until I fell out the window but becauss the nice doctor in Inverness made me wear pink eye patches that smelled funny. In the twilight of my toddlerhood, I thought that the light attached to the wall was a plant and that in order to understand what you were saying in another language, you first had to speak English.

Summer 1972

THE DAY we moved from our dickensian Harrapool cottage to a modern Limepark council house, I must have fallen asleep in transit. The shock of discovering stairs for the first time and not knowing how I had got to the top had me perplexed for hours. With three bedrooms and a proper bathroom, our new home was a palace.

I have very little memory of my maternal granny or my aunt coming all the way from New Zealand to stay within days or weeks of the move. But I do recall the visit to Aiseag Beach on a hot summer’s day, when I dropped a hermit crab down Daddy’s swimming trunks, and our wee holiday in Edinburgh. Daddy stayed at home, while Mummy, my little brother, Grandma, Aunt Judy and I stayed at the guest house on Castle Terrace. We rode the donkeys at Portobello Beach and watched Mary Poppins at the cinema, with lashings of yummy ice cream thrown in. In those days a spoonful of sugar really did help the medicine go down.

Grandma and Judy might even have turned up before we moved, or maybe we were still moving our belongings weeks later, for I could swear it was in the old house that Mummy taught me to say ‘Super-calla-fragll-istic-expi-alli-docious’.

6 October 1972

THE BIG lorry had a tipper on the back. On our return home from Daddy dropping off a load of sand in Inverness and visiting Mummy in hospital, my brother and I sat in the passenger seat. Whether we wore seatbelts, no idea. Probably not.

We stopped at the Cluanie Inn, where I wolfed a bag of salted peanuts and a glass of lemonade. Daddy had his usual pint and whisky, then we were on our way.

The peanuts an’ lemonade, then being hoisted back into the truck, are the last things I remember prior to all my senses being assaulted by the semblance of an almighty drill ploughing through the right side of my skull. Then the distant sight of a red Maxi that stopped to take us to the ferry … my baby brother and I sitting in the back seat clutching hands and staring out the window … the sensation of blood streaming down my neck … whimpering like a lost puppy … the ambliance waiting to take us across the ferry.

I teetered on the edge of consciousness. The lady with the soft platinum hair took my hand.

“Mummy.”

“No, dear, I’m not your mummy.”

Copyright (c) M K MacInnes 2020

Writing a memoir

WITH a pandemic in full swing and many of us having more time on our hands than we might like, there has never been a better time to write one’s memoir. And you don’t have to be famous to have a tale worth telling. They say that everybody has a story in them – if you can extract meaning from your life experiences, then the chances are that others will also find meaning in your words.

The whole point of a memoir is that it should be written with abandon, no holds barred – worry about reactions later. Many memoirs never see the light of day because the content is too sensitive but if a greater good can be served by sharing a universal truth, then upsetting people might be a price worth paying.

Memoirs are best written after the passage of time to allow for processing and absorption into the psyche. It involves the same level of craft as writing fiction. The storytelling devices used, such as plot arc and character development, are the same, even if they are formed from memory rather than imagination.

It is important to stress that memoir is not autobiography, which charts an entire life from the beginning. Instead, it homes in on an aspect of someone’s life or a period of it in depth.
Memoir is less bound by formal expectations of chronology or factual accuracy. However, it is universally understood that, aside from some tweaks here and there, often in the name of confidentiality or simplification, in essence the story is true. Where factual deviations occur, events and people are more likely to have been removed (or fudged!). Fortunately, for writers who wish to embellish, there exists a form of memoir known as autofiction. Here the reader cares less about what is fact and how much is fiction. What is expected though in the former is a degree of candour and authenticity that might not be found elsewhere.

For the writer, irrespective of whether publication occurs, the benefits of such honesty (even with oneself) are immeasurable. The very act of organising one’s life into a coherent whole is the best way to make sense of it and even the most chaotic life looks less so when viewed through a the widest possible lens. Airing painful experiences that have hitherto been hidden is liberating and cathartic. Writing your own memoir is in my opinion the most effective source of self-healing and it costs nothing.

And the healing can be extended to the whole of humanity. Often one person’s life experience can showcase universal truths that need to be shared. Particularly when dealing with ‘difficult’ issues such as childhood sexual abuse or modern slavery, memoirs bring them into public consciousness, emboldening others to share their stories and from where real attitudinal and social change can occur. They also become a valuable part of the historical record.

Having gone about writing my own memoir, making up the process as I went along but realising later that despite some rookie mistakes, I had largely gone about it in the ‘right’ way), I have attempted to compile this guide. It combines my own direct experience, along with a handful of sources. As my own memoir is still in mid-flow, I still have much to learn but if you’re thinking of writing a memoir, then this is as good a place to start as any. At the end of the day, writing your memoir is your journey and this page only a guide.

Getting started

– If you aren’t already in the habit, start a journal. At the very least, it will allow you to keep track of any new material (thereby making writing the sequel much easier!). Also, keep your journal, or a separate notebook, with you when you are out and about or travelling. This is often when memories pop up, so you need to ‘catch’ them before they’re gone – poof!

– Whatever you do, don’t start at the very beginning! Whatever memory or insight prompted you to think of writing a memoir in the first place, start there.

– Don’t hold back. Tell the truth and be damned. Think about the consequences as they relate to other people after you’ve written it.

– Brain dump what you already know about that part/aspect of your life (and other related areas), as it comes and in no particular order, until you can’t think of anything else. You’ll be staggered at what pops up. Add dates where you can, even if they’re only approximate.

– Record as much detail as possible:
– sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells
– intuitions, perceptions, personal insights, realisations, aha moments
– emotions, inner as well as external conflicts
– any dialogue/phrases that you can remember
– every association you can possibly think of.

– Where your story has a strong psychological or spiritual theme, look for metaphor, archetype, symmetry, synchronicity to add more depth. The more opposites (and harmonies) you have to work with, the better.

– Don’t overthink. Even if your conscious mind doesn’t know the first thing about how to structure your story, your unconscious mind does. Let it do the heavy lifting, just concentrate on getting the raw ingredients onto paper.

– Type your notes into bullet points.

– Approaching it as you would a CV, organise your notes into chronological order.

– Use external reference points as necessary, for instance, a movie that you saw the day a significant life event occurred. Googling the release date for that movie on IMDB will refine your timeline.

– If random details pop up that you cannot place, write them down anyway along with a question mark. Similarly, some details might be superfluous but rather than delete them, put them to one side, on the off-chance that their importance might become apparent later. Contradictions and ‘holes’ early on are not uncommon.

– Home in on key bullet points and repeat the process as many times as is necessary until your timeline reaches saturation point and a story structure (and your emotional journey) becomes discernible. From this point onwards, you can start to think about removing anything that doesn’t serve the story.

– By now, you should also have a clear idea of where your story should start and roughly where it ends. The best stories start with a hook that draws the reader in before going ‘back’ to the beginning. The ending should see you prevailing somehow in the face of all odds, even if it isn’t quite the happy ending you were hoping for. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt to structure the middle too much until after you have written it. Get as much detail out of your system first, then cut later.

– You can also start to think about splitting it into sections/chapters. You may want to stick to a chronologically linear storytelling structure until you have a better idea what style suits your story best. Memoir has a life of its own, so be open to your story letting you know how it wants to be told. The most appropriate way for me to structure THE LOST SECRET was through a present and a past timeline running in parallel.

– I do not recommend attempting to flesh your memoir until you have constructed the bones. Now is a good time to read up on the craft of storytelling, which I have purposely not covered here.

Writing

– Embellishing or bending the truth will catch you out so don’t even think about it.

– If you have done a thorough job of structuring your memoir, you should already have a series of bullet points that just need expanding and be able to get through the ‘writing’ phase with relative ease.

– You can pick and choose which parts you want to start writing. If there are iife experiences you can’t quite stomach writing just yet, you can come back to them when you feel ready.

– As you write, keep a note of any new memories that crop up but belong elsewhere.

– Establish your own unique writing voice. Stick to one point of view (for instance, if you’re writing about your childhood, are you speaking as the adult or the child?).

– Choose your tense carefully, bearing in mind that it is possible to use both past and present (though don’t mix them). Keep your dates as headings. Even if you intend to dispense with them in your final edit, hang on to them for navigational purposes.

– Put readers in your shoes.

– Pace the story. Don’t ramble but don’t rush a highly dramatic moment either. Establish a rhythm..

– When sharing traumatic experiences, avoid victimhood and the language of blame. While you do want to crank up the emotional impact, your story is about you and how you dealt with what happened to you, not the people responsible. If for instance, you have an abusive ex-partner, humanise, don’t demonise them. Try to remember their redeeming qualitiies as well as the bad.

– When dealing with death, avoid being maudlin.

– For more complex works and memoirs with a ‘message’, you may need to contrive signposts along the way, so the reader gets a chance to digest any takeaways.

Finally, not only will you get out of your system that which you already know, you will learn so much more about yourself. You may well be shocked at what ‘new’ memories crop up and how the version of events you’ve remembered ‘clearly’ for years is out of sequence. By the time you’ve started fleshing out your memoir, you may even notice repeating patterns (aka lessons!). As the penny drops that your chaotic life wasn’t quite so random after all, it is as if you really knew what you were doing all along …

Subscribe to my newsletter here.

Additional sources

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/6-tips-for-writing-a-memoir
https://thewritelife.com/how-to-write-a-memoir/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/14/the-naked-truth-how-to-write-a-memoir


Secrets and Lies

YEARS AGO I was fascinated by my ancestry. I still am to a point, only I have other preoccupations to take up my time! Not only did I find out who my great greats were, I discovered their stories, was able to work out what their motivations, aspirations might have been. I saw them as characters in my own story, identified with their struggles. I even learned things about myself.

Other family members humoured me, as I asked pointed questions of anyone who might still be in the know. Until that was, I got to my parents’ generation. Then I might be met with a slight bristle, disguised as concern that in pursuing it I might accidentally self-destruct. Stranger still was the reaction when I wanted to talk about events from my own living memory, things that were mine to discuss. Suddenly, the language would turn to “Don’t you think you should just move on?” or at worst “Leave it alone. What’s the point of digging up the past?” At best I might be met with a blank expression.

What they failed to realise was that I already knew damn well their reaction was a projection of their own fear of having to face up to things that they themselves might no longer remember. And secondly, the past we leave behind never goes away. That time is a great healer is a lie – what fades only sleeps, wreaking havoc with our personalities and our relationships in ways to which we are oblivious. Unprocessed memories hole up in the unconscious part of our psyche and fester. And they grow. And they fester some more. And they grow some more. Until they act out because they can be contained no more. The only way to ‘get rid’ of them is to bring them back into the conscious part of the psyche for processing. Only then can we truly ‘move on’.

* * * * *

For the purpose of this article, there are two kinds of secrets – the personalty traits, emotions and memories we deliberately hide from others and the ones we lose or ‘forget’. I will refer to these collectively as secrets. I should, of course, point out that it doesn’t necessarily follow that the content is traumatic or even painful. Positive memories too can be repressed or hidden, if they are deemed unpalatable either to society or to ourselves. But the psychic harm is the same.

In the case of secrets kept from others, a whole manner of methods can be used to maintain the facade. This might include outright lying, denial, omission and minimisation, even gaslighting. Not only can this have a devastating effect on the person on the receiving end of such tactics, it can also quietly take its toll on the perpetrator, until they are unrecognisable as the person they once were.

Forgetting is a form of repression, just one of a host of clever tactics employed by the psyche to avoid feelings of pain, shame, guilt or anxiety. Denial and rationalisation are others. This internal type of secret can be more insidious, since they are more difficult to identify but still show up in our thoughts and actions, if they are not brought back into consciousness for processing.

Of course, the perceived need for secrecy arises in the first place from being conditioned to cherry pick which parts of our personalites are acceptable to society and to ourseslves. But that is another article for another day.

The real problem with secrets, though, is that they are multi-layered, each one compounded by yet another. And another. Until the innermost core of the psyche becomes an immovable knot. Over successive generations, the knots become ever more tangled, as they digest us from the inside out.

The longer we carry our baggage around, the more havoc it wreaks; the damage done to our joints may be more than just an analogy. Unaddressed issues have a devastating effect on our mental and physical health and our ability to function properly. I am not saying for one minute that repression alone causes morbidity, but I am more than suggesting that it plays a part. All illness to some degree is rooted in the psyche; when all other avenues are exhausted, it’s the only place left to look.

Has recent history not taught us that secrets and unresolved trauma do more harm when kept under the carpet than they ever could revealed? Secrets kill. Lies kill. Repression kills. Unless it’s self-inflicted, they just do it very very very very slowly …

* * * * * *

But our forebears did just fine, this is a modern issue, I hear you say.

Bull. Shit. Where I come from, the majority of people born around the turn of the Twentieth Century had OCD, for godsakes, and it was accepted as normal! They were just as reliant on substances to get through, they just disguised it better.

My grandmother, with the benefit of hindsight, though only second hand knowledge, had all the hallmarks of undiagnosed mental health issues. This was compounded by having to soldier through the aftermath of a stillbirth before having her next child plucked from her by a man too embarrassed to have spawned a ‘dud’. After a fortune spent on specialist care, as long as it was elsewhere, the little girl was raised (in a loving environment, thank God) by her unmarried aunt, thus paving the way for my grandparents to adopt a ‘whole’ one. A woman who pretended not to smoke or drink, she maintained the illusion of piety, while in all likelihood using my father as a human shield to avoid intimacy with her husband. All the while, my father’s entire extended maternal family were sworn to mortal secrecy over his adoption while she fretted over his every move.

His adoption wasn’t the only one. Eight years before I was born, the family of the pregnant girlfriend he left behind in Glasgow threatened to kill him if he came anywhere near, let alone marry her, and so yet another generation was given away. No doubt, getting my mother in ‘trouble’ and subsequently doing the decent thing had echoes of a past he was trying to fix.

Did my grandparents take the opportunity that presented itself to come clean? No, they did not. Instead, my grandfather arranged for his cousin in Glasgow to forge my father’s birth certificate, so that when he married, the lie about his origins could be maintained. The later accidental revelation that he was not who he thought he was and that he had been ‘abandoned’ by his natural mother was the beginning of the slippery slope that would lead to my father becoming a first degree alcoholic and an abuser and ultimately to his ignominous death on a pavement with a full bottle of whisky stuffed in his coat pocket. Until some spiteful piece of work opened his big gob over a few whiskies, from as far back as early childhood he had never understood my grandfather’s jibes that he was something that had crawled out of the gutter.

My father at his core was a compassionate, sensitive, creative individual, who had the misfortune to have his true self knocked out of him, like most of hs peers, by the time he reached puberty, then latterly his identity ripped from beneath his feet. The boy who played truant just to go visit Elsa the Lion at the Kelvingrove Museum, his true nature would occasionally show through only when intoxicated or changing his mind in the throes of drowning a miaowling ball of kittens. My father’s life, in effect, was a complete fabrication, because his authentic self was hidden even from himself. For the record, his real name was Eric Abernethy, if he’d stood up to his adoptive family he could have gone to Art School and my parents’ shotgun marriage was technically illegal.

I came into this world on top of a pile of deceit and I doubt very much I’m the only one. Every family has a story like this somewhere along the line, whether they know it or not. How can we kid ourselves that our predecessors were mentally tougher than us? Resilient yes, but often lacking moral courage where it mattered and driven by motivations that have not changed one iota in millennia. I hardly think it was my father’s interests he was protecting when my fine, upstanding grandfather asked the Registrar to commit a criminal offence. The prevailing culture, I have to add, was that the sin was in getting caught; it didn’t matter what you did, as long as nobody knew about it. As for Dad, the first twenty-nine years of his life (from his point of view) wasn’t just a lie, it was a fully-fledged cover-up from which he never truly recovered.

* * * * * *

I have learned from personal experience that the only way to achieve true healing when dealing with lifetime trauma and personality disorder is to dig and this is borne out in the work of psychosnalysts such as Carl Jung. For me, writing a memoir provides a safe and structured framework through which unprocessed material can be exhumed and restored, without the need for professional intervention. This extends not only to trauma but to situations where my own actions and intentions were less than stellar. This requires a degree of honesty first with myself, and ultimately openness with the people who inhabit my psychosocial environment. And there is no room for victimhood or blame. When all the pieces are reassembled, I am both victim and perpetrator, yet neither of the above.

And yes, confession is good for the soul (though I would argue that the practice of confessing to a priest while maintaining a facade to the majority only props up the culture of secrecy). Allegedly, a tribe in Africa have got it sussed, holding mass confessionals where tribe members spill their troubles and misdeeds to all and sundry. I can no longer find the story but the upshot of it was that their health record was enviable. The other plus of communal confession is that you no longer face exposure to exploitation or blackmail. Losing the fear of what will happen to us if our innermost secrets are exposed by going public allows us to operate with complete interpersonal free will.

* * * * * *

It is said that there will come a time when all will be revealed. That time has probably come, if only because we live in an age of easy access to information and a ready supply of scandal. Each new revelation in politics or entertainment brings with it a sense of inescapability, as well as a growing recognition that the cultural secrecy racket creates far more problems than it solves.

And relief perhaps, not just for those on the receiving end. Jusk ask any high profile con artist about how much mental energy is required to remember which lies have been told to whom.

In the wake of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal of the 90s, I always had the distinct impression that in the long run Clinton felt better for the exposure, that somehow he didn’t have to pretend anymore, had to look over his shoulder a little less. And I trusted a politician with nothing left to hide a little more. Charlie Sheen fought tooth and nail to prevent his HIV diagnosis becoming public. Once it was out in the open, any reputational damage came more from the lengths he went to than for having it. In either case, the burden of denial and eventual relief must have been immense.

In the end, revealing is healing. Far better to spit it out. And if someone, or something, is holding a gun to your head, look them or it square in the eye and politely say “Bring it on”.

Copyright (c) M K MacInnes 2020