Am I Worried How People Will View Me After Reading My Memoir on Depression?
At my first book signing, a woman I work with asked a question I hadn’t anticipated. It went something like this: “Do you worry what the people you know at work – your friends and colleagues – will think of you after they read your book?”
She painted a picture for me: August comes, and the faculty and staff of our school return for the first round of meetings. People are excited to see one another and swap tales of summer adventures. I walk into the room, and it’s suddenly like a spaghetti Western when a stranger steps into the saloon. The honky-tonk piano jangles to a stop; the row of faces along the bar slowly turns my way. In the tense and expectant stillness, the sound of a single bluebottle fly sounds like a passing 747.
See, they will have read my book. They will know stuff about me – intimate stuff they may find weird or even a little upsetting. Some might be friends who are now rethinking that friendship. Others may be meeting me for the first time, and the impression they will have formed from my book might not be exactly complimentary.
“Do you worry about that?” she asked.
I need to point out this woman is a friend of mine, a gifted teacher at our school and an ardent supporter of “Boy in the Ivy.” In fact, she ordered the first copy of the book ever sold on Amazon. And now she’d come to my very first book signing. She’s a warm and caring person, and her question came from a place of real concern.
“Do you worry about that?”
To my surprise, I found I didn’t. Not even a little bit.
For one thing, I only included material that related to and furthered the story’s purpose. This means I left out much, much more than I put in. Certainly, some of what I omitted was because I didn’t want people knowing about it. So it’s out. And I know some of what I included raises eyebrows. For example, I talk about the fact that, as a young man, I masturbated to pornography. That’s not something you lead off with at a job interview, obviously, or include in your profile on Match.com. At the same time, a man my age who has never masturbated to pornography bears watching. And as for all the other men in the world who have masturbated to pornography, if they judge me for doing the same they have missed the point of the entire book.
This also goes for the more idiosyncratic revelations, like my dancing around late at night in the basement by myself. I grant that’s pretty weird. But idiosyncrasies themselves are universal. While you may never know the singular joy of being Peter Gabriel or Pat Metheny or Prince, I’m betting you occasionally take imaginative journeys that are just as goofy. Again, I wouldn’t trust you if you didn’t.
Finally, I have to consider my friend’s question on a deeper level. Essentially what she was asking, with great care and concern, is if I am ashamed of my memoir. I am very pleased to say that I am not.
In fact, writing this book was the biggest step I could have taken towards healing the shame that fueled my depression and buried me in hopelessness.
I believe in the healing power of memoir. In the process of writing “Boy in the Ivy,” I had to own my story. By this I mean I had to look at myself as honestly as I could – examine my light and my darkness, my shadow and my gold – and understand all of it as essential to my humanity. This opened a door to compassion for myself, a sure-fire counterbalance to shame. Compassion for myself enables me to cultivate compassion for others, an excellent check on grandiosity. Owning my story with honesty, understanding my story as somehow universal, and telling it as best I can have all allowed me to shake up my shame, shine sunlight on my depression, and entertain a glimmer of hope.
So I don’t feel shame around my story. Instead, I begin to heal my shame by telling it.
I still have a long way to go. Springsteen sings about one step up and two steps back. But I am far, far better off these days for telling my story. And I am very grateful to my friend and colleague for giving me the impetus to put that new knowledge into words.
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