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Guest Blog by Daniel Tomasulo, author of Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir
My first popular press book came out earlier this year. Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir was published by Graywolf in May and was well received.
In the six months since it has been released I have received a number of good reviews from around the country, sold out readings at several chain and independent bookstores, and was recently informed that the first printing just sold out. About as good a start as a debut author could hope for.
But something else happened I hadn’t planned on.
My other books and articles were all of an academic nature with very little in the way of an emotional connection to the material. As passionate as I might be about a topic I never had feelings, deep feelings, emerge when I presented a paper or workshop at a professional meeting. It took ten years to write the funny, sad, and tragic parts of my life.
The book laid out in detail my memories and dramas, and they are told in varying time lines making connections between my life as a child, my family now, and my work as a therapist. The funny stories were easy to read in public. I had been a stand-up comic and comedy writer for years before finishing my PhD, and the art of telling stories to make people laugh was second nature.
But losing my mother and father to cancer and heart disease respectively, partying with my second cousin, Gary, the night of his overdose from heroin, and the grief following the lose of a patient to addiction, have not been read in public.
Each time I rehearsed these stories I have struggled to get through, and haven’t yet had the guts to read them to an audience. I like to entertain with the stories that make people laugh or think, but reliving the sadness of these other stories has been difficult.
As a therapist I deal with the trauma and depression of my patients by holding their feelings for them as they work through the particulars of their lives. But as an artist presenting what I have lived — the emotional pain of accessing the material again becomes overpowering.
My original plan for the memoir was for it to be a collection of comic essays, but while on a teaching fellowship at Princeton for the 98-99 academic year, I studied over in the famed writing department which houses such luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon (and at the time Jack Klaff and Christopher Durang.)
Needless to say it was an inspiring time and the portfolio of work I was able to produce during that period -all comic in nature – was what I used to apply for an MFA at the New School in NYC. Twenty years after completing my PhD I re-entered graduate school as a creative non fiction student, and began to give the material the time and dedication it would need to become publishable.
Along the way I was lucky enough to have Dani Shapiro become my thesis advisor. (Her memoir Slow Motion was an early Oprah pick). As the manuscript took shape I was also graced with having a course with Lucy Grealy whose critically acclaimed Autobiography of a Face was a deeply moving account of her bout with cancer that disfigured her features Lucy pushed us in her class to write about the darker aspects of our lives. When I protested she stared me down through her cancer ransacked face and delivered a line that could have come from Jung himself: “Our darkness makes us whole.”
For Lucy’s class I wrote a piece called Kettle of Fish about the infamous bar in Greenwich Village Gary ran in the 70s. The story was about the night we partied at the bar, and his accidental overdose of heroin afterwards.
Lucy loved the story and encouraged me to submit it for the university chapbook competition. I graduated and won the contest. Lucy died of an accidental overdose of heroin the following year at age 39.
I have practiced reading Kettle of Fish dozens of times but have never made it through without the dark memories percolating in my psyche. A knot forms in my stomach when the image of my cousin lying in his coffin is described in the story. The knot finds it’s way to my throat, and more often than not my tongue will have to snare a salty tear from running off my face.
But I want to read this story; I want to tell this tale. But the struggle is to tell it in my voice without reliving it. The difficulty is reclaiming the material. Consider that this barely 900 word blog entry took over three hours to compose and finally send off.
The Fellowship gave me the time I needed to get my words on paper, and the New School gave me the structure to produce publishable work. Finally, Lucy pushed me to write about the darkness. But it seems that I have to find my reading voice on my own.
My publisher and I have recently contacted the owner of Kettle of Fish (still in the village) about my doing a reading of the story there next year.
This will give me time to practice. I’ll report back here on my progress.
For more information about Dan Tomasulo please check out the website.