Writing About Trauma

I had an acting teacher once who told the class “When Eugene O’Neil wrote Long Days Journey Into Night, he cried tears of blood.” So, I thought that writing the play was so cathartic for O’Neil that he released all of his heartache, loss, and pain; that he was transformed through the process. I don’t know whether he actually cried tears of blood or if that is even humanly possible but in years of searching for a sense of peace and resolution about my own difficult childhood, I hoped that I could heal through writing. I had hoped my pain too would spill on to the page and it would be left there, transformed into something universal, existential.

In 2008 I completed a memoir about growing up with my mother who suffered severe mental illness. Her illness caused her to be abusive, narcissistic, and uninhibited. When I first wrote my memoir What Remains Inside, I wouldn’t say it was cathartic; it was more like channeling. It was almost direct re-experiencing of all that trauma. The process I went through was eventually transformative and healing but not in the way I suspected it would be. It was not crying tears of blood. At first, the mere act of writing about experiencing trauma as a child simply disrupted my internalized beliefs about myself. It unlocked several doors but still some remained closed.

At first, upon reading and re-reading my memoir I began to parcel out old patterns of thinking. Ideas about myself that had been fossilized and continued to influence my actions and beliefs. Until I re-read my words from the vantage of a 40 year old mother, I had continued to believed that I was solely responsible for the things I did at 15 years old, as if there I been born to be the rebel that tore through my adolescence. I liked to see myself this way. I was powerful, maybe even super powerful. I believed I was able to smash through the invisible walls that would have otherwise kept me imprisoned — and I succeeded but it had been so risky — I never acknowledged that truth. I had no idea until I became a mother myself. I wouldn’t dare to imagine my daughter doing the things I did when I was a young teenager.

Back in 2008 when I completed my memoir I was struck with a strong cognitive dissonance. Unbelievably, I had never thought of myself as a troubled teen. I never recognized that it was that unusual to drink and do drugs by the time I was 13 or to shoplift at age 12, or to be out until 3:00 a.m. with boys at 15 years old. Even in my early twenties when I worked with kids who had been abused, I never recognized myself in their “delinquent,” acting out behaviors — predictable reactions to trauma. So, initially it was not cathartic at all to write about my experiences with childhood trauma.

I also hadn’t really understood how severe the trauma I experienced was. I had always redefined reality. So, of course I gave a copy of my memoir to everyone I knew. They devoured it page by page. It kept them up at night unable to put the book down trying to reconcile my words with the person they knew — this typical mom that volunteered at my daughter’s school. I had laid bare something I hadn’t been able to see about myself. Maybe it was part of the process of seeing my own experiences and how much of my concept of self was tangled up deceptions I constructed in order to survive.

Initially, I had given the book to the wrong people. That was clear to me, after the fact. Still this painful exposure forced something to the surface that I had to — at some point in my life — deal with. I had been buried for so long underneath the possibility of being discovered, of having my painful story exposed. Some people spend their lives hiding from their painful experiences. I had been someone who announced it loudly but afterwards ran and hid. That is a horrible place to be.

Today, almost nine years later my memoir is a document of my tragic childhood experiences, a case study of a teenager’s life decades ago. Recently, I’ve begun to look at the reasons for my mother’s mental illness and I’ve discovered some things I didn’t know. So I’m embarking on another layer of personal discovery and acceptance. I am now beginning to understand the larger context, beyond my own personal suffering.

I don’t know if catharsis is possible or if Eugene O’Neil really had cried tears of blood. I think I understand that the journey is long, maybe endless. However, I see the other way around, from night to day.

  • *** –

Author’s Note: Of course after writing this essay I googled “Eugene O’Neil tears of blood” and found this. Again, another dimension of understanding.

On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O’Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day’s Journey Into Night to his wife, Carlotta. Accompanying the manuscript was O’Neill’s letter of dedication:

Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play — write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones. These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light — into love….

(quoted directly from original post: http://www.todayinliterature.com/stories.asp?Event_Date=7/22/1941)

Video Excerpt of What Remains Inside, read by author

What Remains Inside — Free on Wattpad

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