ELIZABETH ROSNER: For more than 30 years, you’ve been a role model for writers daring to break silences about family secrets. Did you have any idea that your first book (co-written with Ellen Bass), The Courage to Heal, would become such a beacon? Is it ever exhausting to carry this banner?
LAURA DAVIS: I had absolutely no idea that The Courage to Heal would take off the way it did. I never even thought it would get published. Despite the fact that Ellen and I had an agent, an editor, and a signed book contract with Harper & Row, I was certain they’d never publish the book because it was just too radical. It was 1988, and we were calling out sexual abuse and confronting the patriarchy. We were out as lesbians. I was sure our editor would take one look at our final manuscript and reject it. Instead, the book became a grassroots phenomenon, passed from woman to woman, survivor to survivor, absolutely taking on a life of its own. Over the years, as we learned more about the healing process, we kept updating The Courage to Heal, and 30-plus years later it’s still providing a map for new generations of sexual abuse survivors. I’ve always felt humbled and honored to have brought something into the world that has had such a profound impact on millions of lives. I’m still thanked for it almost every day.
I’ve created many other things in my life. I’ve written six other books, built writing communities, led retreats, created travel adventures, had children and grandchildren, but The Courage to Heal will always be a touchstone for me. It’s always felt like something Ellen and I were meant to bring into the world.
Your new book, The Burning Light of Two Stars, touches on many of the themes in your earlier work, only this time in a memoir. You talk about how many years the new book took to write, and how many ways it mutated before you truly felt complete. What do you think are the main reasons for this lengthy process? What made you decide it was finally finished?
I began writing The Burning Light of Two Stars while the events I was documenting were still playing out in real life. My memoir tells a mother-daughter story that stretches 57 years — from my birth until my mother’s death. The story explores the challenges of being a caregiver for a parent who has betrayed you in the past.
I wrote the early drafts as the last chapters of my mother’s life were unfolding. I’d sit in her doctor’s appointments taking notes about medications and treatment, and on the same sheet of paper, I’d surreptitiously jot down bits of dialogue and sensory details. Being in the room as a writer, and not just as her daughter, was a way I coped with the intensity of caring for her. Then, late at night, I’d pour it all into a daily log. That caregiving journal enabled me to craft vivid scenes years later, despite my dismal memory. But just getting the details right wasn’t enough. It took me a long time after her death to gain the insight necessary to bring compassion, balance, and discernment to our story.
Every time I had a new round of early readers — and I used three sets of readers — I always asked, “How does the mother character come across?” “How does the daughter come across?” Because the last thing I wanted to do was demonize my mother as a two-dimensional foil for me. My mother was complex, challenging, dramatic, intense, generous, loving, and loyal. I wanted all those qualities to show up on the page.
I knew the book was finished when my last set of early readers told me two things. First, that they couldn’t put the book down. That’s when I knew I’d licked the momentum problem that had plagued me for years. My memoir had become a compelling story. More important was when readers started reporting, “In this chapter, I hated you and loved your mother,” and, “In this chapter, I hated your mother and loved you.” That’s when I knew that I’d succeeded at creating two flawed, struggling, imperfect human beings on the page.
There is a continuous thread of self-examination here that is fascinating and almost humorous at times, despite the painful and even agonizing subject matter. I love, for instance, the way you refer on page 200 to your “inner steamroller” as “one of my worst talents.” Can you talk about this feature of your writing?
One of my friends and colleagues, writing coach and Joyce scholar Susan Brown, famous for her brilliant, scorched-earth critiques, read one of my early drafts and made it clear that I still had a long way to go. “It all feels unexamined psychologically,” she told me. “This book isn’t The Courage to Heal,” she said. “It’s the courage to reveal. All your books are serious in tone and your personality never shines through. This book is about you — it’s your memoir. You need to be more human and not just smart on the page. Otherwise, it feels like a self-help book disguised as a memoir.”
Susan didn’t stop there. “What you have here feels sanitized. It’s way too guarded. It’s like you’re saying, ‘I’ve just selected what I want you to see that makes me look good.’ And it doesn’t make you look good. It makes you look dishonest. It makes you look like you’re hiding something. You come off as too sanctimonious. You’ll be so much more endearing if you can laugh at yourself and show your vulnerable side. Nothing is more appealing than someone who can reveal themselves and be honest.”
I remember the day we had that conversation. I was devastated. I didn’t talk to Susan for months. I set the book aside, certain I wasn’t capable of what she was asking me to do. But when I finally returned to write yet another draft, I put Susan’s words, “It’s the courage to reveal,” up on the wall of my office. I was determined to show my underbelly, to move beyond just being the hero. That was the start of me developing the inner voice of my protagonist — the one so often at odds with what she says and does on the outside.
This book interweaves multiple timelines and sources, while also acknowledging the mysterious aspects of selective memory. Your book opens with your premature birth, and proceeds as a kind of countdown to your mother’s death. How did you decide to choose this framework?
I struggled with the structure for years. Although a memoir is, by definition, my story, I never envisioned it as a coming-of-age or childhood memoir. I always saw it as our story — the story of my tumultuous, fiery, lifelong relationship with my mother, Temme. I chose to start with my birth, because for me, that’s when a loyalty pact was forged between us. I always knew that the story in the foreground would begin with my mother’s announcement at age 79 that she was moving across the country to live in my town for the rest of her life — and that the book would end with her death. Yet there were pivotal events in my childhood and adolescence that I had to include because they set the stage for our years of estrangement.
After many failed attempts at story architecture, with the help of several editors, my brilliant coach, Joshua Townshend-Zellner, and 127 early readers, I ended up with a braided structure, moving the reader through time, keeping them guessing, “How could Laura, who had every reason to never speak to her mother again, end up taking care of her?” And, “How could Temme, who had her own reasons to doubt Laura, trust her with the end of her life?”
One of the hugest challenges in writing a memoir is what to keep in and what to leave out. Early on, I made a list of critical moments in our relationship and developed those into scenes. Those scenes became the turning points on which my characters’ evolution pivoted. But figuring out how to cut and sequence them to create maximum tension for the reader was something I struggled with until the very last edit.
At the heart of your story is the discovery of a cache of letters — an intimate, raw correspondence between you and your mother throughout the time you weren’t speaking to each other. What did you learn from those letters?
I learned that many of the stories I’d repeated about my mother for decades were just that — stories. It’s not that they weren’t true; it’s that they were only part of the truth. I’d spent years telling anyone who would listen that “my mother and I didn’t speak for seven years,” but suddenly, confronted by this stack of old, musty letters, I had to admit that wasn’t true. In my hands was evidence, in black and white, in her handwriting and mine, that we had never stopped reaching out toward each other. Even when I moved across the country to get away from her, even when our rare visits ended in accusations and bitterness, rage (hers) and silence (mine), we always maintained a written thread between us.
Rereading our letters after she died was excruciating but necessary. I had to admit that my mother was far more generous and loving than I had made her out to be. There were a lot of reasons I’d painted her as my antagonist — she did betray me at the worst moment of my life — but our story was far more complex than I’d made it out to be. As I took in the written record, I had to acknowledge that I’d reinforced my habitual stories, like grooves in a record, to keep her in the role of antagonist and to make me the hero. As I wrote in the book, “A truth teller can only tell as much of the truth as she can face at a given time.”
Reading our correspondence had such an impact on me that I wrote an entire draft of the book as an epistolary memoir, including excerpts from our real letters as well as new letters I composed to her after her death. I eventually gave up on this strategy because readers felt left out. But even when I settled on the book’s final form, a more traditional narrative, I kept a small thread of our actual letters sprinkled throughout the book, because it was the only way my mother got to have her own voice, rather than having her larger-than-life presence interpreted solely through my lens as her daughter.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in writing memoir?
Well, there are so many! Making the story more than just episodic: “First this happened, then that happened.” Finding the story arc. Teasing out the universal threads that would resonate with readers. My lousy memory and the many holes in the story I had to work around. What will my relatives say? I struggled with every one of these common dilemmas.
But there’s another predicament I rarely hear authors talk about — how writing memoir alters our memories. In committing my story to the page, I massaged each scene hundreds of times, tweaking it here, tightening it there. Starting it here, no, starting it there. I emphasized some things and de-emphasized others, eliminated characters who were present in real life because they were unnecessary to the dramatic action. I truncated things or slowed them down to increase tension. In the end, The Burning Light of Two Stars isn’t a story I remembered; it’s a story I crafted. And because of my immersion in the evolving story, the literary version I created has supplanted my original memories. When I try to recall the past now, I recall the scenes I wrote. It makes me wonder how much I have lost.
It seems genuinely astonishing to me that you would allow family members to read your manuscript in order to make suggestions/modifications, and yet I appreciate this display of willingness to be “corrected” in your remembrances. Is this a practice you recommend to others? Do you have any regrets?
I’ve gone through quite an evolution on this subject. When Ellen and I published The Courage to Heal, I was terrified how my family would react, but I certainly never considered asking their permission. I was telling the truth; they were in denial. Of course, I had a right to tell my story!
Over the next 20 years, I got some serious pushback after writing about my spouse and our three children, all of whom are private people. They did not appreciate the liberties I took in writing about their lives, and I learned the hard way that I value my closest relationships far more than I do the freedom to write about them. I promised that if I were to ever publish anything about them again, even on Facebook, that I’d ask their permission first. I think they had every right to ask for that.
My brother, my spouse, and my now adult children are all characters in The Burning Light of Two Stars, and they all gave me their blessing. I didn’t share the book with them until year 10, when it was almost in final form. I gave them the manuscript and told them they had a month to read it. I asked them to let me know if there was anything they really needed or wanted me to change. They asked for very little, and I was rewarded with their terrific, funny commentary in the margins. My two youngest are great line editors, and my son, Eli, even created a spreadsheet that helped me track the confusing timelines, ages, and dates in the story. They provided details I had forgotten and when our memories diverged, as they often did, I generally went with my version. It is my memoir, after all.
As someone who spends more time teaching and coaching other writers than with your own work, what is it like to handle that balance?
I love teaching. I love creating sacred spaces where people get to tell the truth about their lives. Building writing communities based on deep listening, safety, and trust is as much the work of my heart as writing. The logo on my website says, “Healing Words That Change Lives,” so I don’t really see a conflict. I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose in both roles.
Elizabeth Rosner is a bestselling novelist, poet, and essayist living in Berkeley. Her first book of nonfiction, SURVIVOR CAFÉ: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, was featured in The New York Times, and named one of the best books of 2017 by the San Francisco Chronicle.