When a split in her marriage seemed to turn her entire life into a lie, Christine Benvenuto starting writing down the truth in order to get her story, and her groove, back.
This was the final question of an interview, and the first one that stopped me in my tracks.
The interviewer, a reporter for a small NPR affiliate, was asking why I had told my family’s story as a memoir, with its brutal demands for truth, rather than as fiction, with it’s entirely different demands for another kind of truth altogether. I write fiction as well as personal narrative so that wasn’t why her question surprised me.
So. Why write a memoir?
As I note in the book itself, I could have been voted “Least Likely to Write Autobiography.” I am shy by nature and secretive by culture: What happens in the family stays in the family. That might have been my operating principle.
Then I got divorced, and a few things changed. Three things changed: the future, the present, and the past.
Rather, it was the first moment in our conversation in which I considered the possibility that the reporter, despite all indications to the contrary, didn’t understand a word I’d been saying, aloud or in print.
When she later chose to suppress the interview instead of airing it, under pressure from my former husband (yes, as city people noticed at the time, I live in a very small town, small enough that when the local radio station interviews you, your ex hears about it and has an opportunity to squash it), the question of why I hadn’t chosen to suppress myself – to tell my story as though it hadn’t actually happened – became doubly ironic.
In the wake of divorce, the past looks different to most of us. We don’t turn the pages of those photo albums with the same fond smiles. Recalling funny anecdotes from our early years together, the light-hearted laughter gets stuck in our throats.
Depending upon how and why “Happily Ever After” became “Never Again,” we can lose the past entirely. That’s what happened to me.
I had been happy in the past. I had trusted and loved, built a marriage and a family and a life. Those memories soured under the harsh glare of now, a present in which I knew where that intimacy, those promises were heading. But my loss of the past went much further than that. This was a split that churned up secrets and lies. The man I once loved and thought I knew better than anyone told me he’d never existed. Told me he’d been a fake, and so had our story.
If that was true, who had I been with those years? Who had I been those years? If my life, my story, had never happened, how could I ever trust my own perceptions, let alone anyone else, again?
I couldn’t go forward without understanding my past. Without reclaiming it. My story is my groove, and I needed to get it back. As a writer, I got it back by writing. By reliving it one more time and transforming it, word by word, into something I could send into the world.
Along the way I created a new life, with people who challenged my jaundiced take on humanity. I got to know men who caused me to dare to think that getting burned by one member of the sex might not require giving up on all of manhood. I learned some things about strength and survival.
These were all things that I felt obligated to offer to other people in the midst of watching the lives they’d lived walk out the door. I had to tell what I know: That, after all, is exactly why I write.
Writing my story and sharing it with others made it mine again. Made my life mine again.
And now I can’t wait to get back to writing my novel.