I was recently asked during a podcast interview to "share an embarrassing moment, or vulnerable story about myself, and what I learned from it." Here's what I wrote, more as a note to myself, in response.
Here's something. It's not embarrassing, but it’s certainly personal.
For years—and by that I mean decades—I was wounded by my father's absence in my life.
As I've written about before, my dad was a child Holocaust survivor, and both my grandparents on that side were killed during WWII. My father, who was 4 when the war broke out, survived because he was hidden – given a false identity – as a Catholic child. This was in Warsaw, Poland. He was raised by his nanny, a woman who also helped to arrange hiding places for several other people in the family.
Growing up I'd heard pieces of the story, but I didn’t really identify my dad as a Holocaust survivor. Back in the 1980s the emphasis was much more on people who’d lived through concentration camps, and those like my dad were still quite young, busy raising families, and not really speaking out about their experiences.
But there was a lot going on in the privacy of their lives that seriously impacted 'hidden children' like him. For one thing, because he was orphaned so early on, my dad had a lot of trouble understanding the role that a parent is supposed to play in his child's life. He was a sweet, sensitive, courtly man, but he tended to hide out a good deal. Among other things he had a serious case of deprivation mentality, a fragile ego, and a complicated relationship to money.
All these things conspired to create distance between us. I wanted—I hungered—for his attention. My parents split up in 1985, the same fall I moved to the U.S. for college, and after that we’d often go years without seeing each other. Not surprisingly, I ended up seeking that attention in friendships with older men. Sometimes these guys were incredible narcissists, which got very confusing there for awhile.
I’m telling you this story because I had a realization, maybe a year ago, that something had shifted for me. I was simply no longer feeling stuck around my dad. There are several reasons for it, I suppose, but the biggest is that I've been in 12-step recovery and therapy for a few years, and so have had ample time to deal with the legacy of a toxic childhood with two damaged parents.
How does journaling play into this?
Well, for years and years I tried to tell the story about my father and I in all sorts of ways. For example, after my dad passed away in 2004, I thought I’d publish a book all about the year I spent mourning him (the Jewish ritual of saying "kaddish" for one's parent). Except I didn’t spend a year saying kaddish, and I gave up that particular project after a couple dozen entries.
Next I went to Poland – twice. I spent time with his nanny, Genia, who was in her 90s by this point. Both visits were profound experiences. Still, when I tried writing about these trips in essays, the writing felt stiff, formal, impersonal.
Intuitively, I understood that I was hiding in my own life in ways that reflected and amplified the hiding my father had continued doing in his post-war life. For one thing, as a result of childhood bullying, I’ve always been terrified of criticism, which has a way of shutting me down. So there was always this terrible tension between my love for personal essay and memoir, and the fact that I was scared to reveal myself, to let people see who I was, what I was about.
For years, there was really only one place where I felt free to really say what I wanted to say. And that, of course, was in my journal.
Or, at least, my version of of a journal. I’d discovered the practice of “morning pages” through Julia Cameron’s The Artist's Way, starting in the late 1990s I worked on these most days. I did that for years, and I’m still convinced that some of my best writing is hidden in these massive big black binders I keep on a bookshelf in my house.
With morning pages, you set a timer for a set amount of time—usually only 10 or 15 minutes. Or, you give yourself a set amount of pages—2 or 3, something like that. You don't lift your pen until the time (or page) is up. Keep going. That's the key.
In those morning pages, especially in the first years of writing, I focused a lot on my family, especially on what I could now see was the legacy of the my dad's wartime history, but also on the experiences of growing up as an outsider in a very conventional town during the early 1980s. All the themes I'm still obsessed with--history, monsters, weird teenage hobbies, fathers & sons, childhood abuse--first rolled into view in these pages. It's not too much to say they taught me to see who I really was.
Even today, I find doing this exercise in the morning really helps me bypass whatever strong internal censors have come up. When I'm down on a particular piece of writing, I can open up one of those morning pages binders and see the writer I want to be--passionate, irreverent, articulate, but rarely timid.
With that voice in my head I can move forward.