'The Vagaries of My Own Memory'
Seasoned author and recent BookLife Prize finalist Laura Davis discusses her first memoir.As the author of the groundbreaking The Courage to Heal—a guide to recovery from sexual abuse—and six other nonfiction books, Laura Davis has helped more than two million readers navigate the most painful challenges that can erupt within families. In The Burning Light of Two Stars, her first memoir and a finalist in the 2021 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest, Davis chronicles becoming the caretaker for her long-estranged mother, and what that experience revealed about reconciliation, healing, and the nature of memory.
After writing several guides to personal healing, what led you to decide it was time to write a memoir?
When writing students come to me, I always talk to them about the value of their obsessions. The things that we care the most about, that we have the most emotional investment in, are always going to be rich veins for writing. My writing has always tracked my obsessions.After my mother and I worked toward reconciliation after years of bitter estrangement, I wrote I Thought We’d Never Speak Again, a how-to guide to reconciliation—but it was basically a book featuring other people’s stories, not my own. When she was 80, she called to announce that she was moving across the country to live in my town for the rest of her life. My new obsession became: “Can I care for a mother who betrayed me in the past? Is it possible for me to open my heart when it’s been closed for good reason?”
This was a personal journey for me, so I chose to write it as memoir. I wanted to explore the dramatic and unexpected collision course we ended up on at the end of her life. I finally felt I could do our epic story justice—and that memoir was the form I needed.
The cover of your new book seems to refer to kintsugi, the Japanese art of using gold to repair something broken. Does that reflect your perspective on reconciliation?
I love that you noticed that! It was one of the last changes made to the cover in a long design process. I can’t say that kintsugi applies to reconciliation in general, but it definitely applies to my relationship with my mother: we were able to create something of beauty while still acknowledging the brokenness between us. Kintsugi also applies to the early trauma I suffered at the hands of my grandfather. My grandfather’s violation and my mother’s response to it impacted me; those experiences brought me strengths and vulnerabilities that made me the strong, courageous, passionate person I am today. But I am not the same person I would have been had those injuries not occurred in the first place. I like to imagine myself broken, but whole, with gold mending the broken places.
Caring for a once-estranged parent sounds daunting. Can you tell us what that was like for you?
Caregiving is hard regardless. Even if you’ve had a wonderful relationship, there can still be ambivalence about becoming a caregiver. And when you have kids at home, too, and you’re in the sandwich generation, you’re squeezed like crazy. That’s how it was for me. I felt wrung out and exhausted every single day. And to have something unresolved in my relationship with my mother on top of all of that made it even harder.
My mother’s decline and her new proximity pushed every button I had. I needed a lot of support. I joined a memory loss support group where I got to meet with other caregivers. And I got back into therapy because I needed help separating our past history from what was happening now. This is a core part of my memoir: honestly exploring the challenges of becoming the daughter I wanted to be.
How do you think the culture has changed for survivors of sexual abuse since you and Ellen Bass wrote The Courage to Heal?
There is so much more known about healing from trauma now—so many more resources available for survivors than there were in 1988, when The Courage to Heal was first published. We now know so much more about trauma and the brain, healing PTSD, how to heal on a somatic level. The #MeToo movement has brought sexual abuse more out into the open, and that’s a good thing.
So, on one hand, it’s a better time to be a survivor of sexual abuse, but that’s the rub: all these additional healing resources have not stopped perpetrators from abusing new children or ended sexual assault. Abuse is endemic in our culture. There are new generations of survivors needing to read The Courage to Heal, and that’s a really sad thing.
Did such close interaction with your mother change your understanding of the nature of memory? How?
Memory is a huge theme in the book. My mother had dementia, so dealing with her gradual loss of memory and loss of self is a big part of the story. But I also deal with the vagaries of my own memory, and how we construct memories of the past.
When my mother died, I found a cache of letters—all the letters she’d ever received from me—as well as raw first drafts of letters she’d never sent. I’d always claimed that my mother and I didn’t speak for seven years. But the physical evidence proved otherwise. And the letters weren’t only filled with anger and accusations; they also expressed tenderness and love.
In writing the memoir, I also had to face that I’d set my mother’s mistakes and her betrayal in stone, harping on them, repeating them, and castigating her for them, while letting her good qualities slip through my fingers like water. My habitual and oft-repeated story of us was far more black-and-white and polarized than it actually was. So, for me, writing the memoir required that I confront the way I’d selectively remembered and represented the past.
What do you hope readers will take away from this narrative?
I want them to reach the final page and say, “That was a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.” Beyond that, I want readers to be motivated to reflect on their own relationships—to consider possibilities for resolution that may seem impossible.
So many people right now are facing a similar dilemma to the one I faced: how can I reconcile the love I feel for this person with the challenges that keep us apart? My mother and I bridged that distance, and I hope our story inspires readers to believe that they can do it, too.
Many people have had an especially rough year. What emotional tools do you think are most helpful for coping and moving forward right now?
I think the answer is different for everyone. For me, it’s taking breaks from the news; getting out in nature; hiking with my pandemic puppy, Luna; and swimming. Focusing on small things that bring us pleasure and joy, and building strong communities, can help us stay grounded in the midst of so much uncertainty.
Rebecca Hughes is the author of The Kingdom of Childhood and owner of Five Points Editorial Services.