The Book as Connection
May 26, 2021
With Girl Left Behind weeks from publishing, the one thing I had not anticipated was how the process of getting a book out into the world can change your life, your relationships, and this last weekend, the book itself.
With less than a month to go before launch date, I received a text message from my cousin in Germany who heard I was writing a book about our shared experience living in her father's house in Hungary.
Then she dropped a bombshell.
It turns out that for at least half the time that I was living in her family's home --from about age 5 to 7, she was living in a home --an institution is what she called it.
As she described it, there were about 300 other children living in this place. Each child had a number stitched on his or her school jacket. She was C11--a number she still remembers, a number that I think still gives her nightmares.
Why didn't I know this? The revelation made me question my own memories.
Memoir is an interesting genre. It starts with a fragment of a memory--an impression you have, a snippet. As writers, we spin this into story with a narrative, with characters, scenes, dialogue.
If we are at all competent at this craft, we will have a story that reads more like a novel, more like fiction.
And that is what worried me when my cousin dropped this bombshell on me. Had I spun my own story too far away from fact? How did I miss something so important?
I spent a week mulling this over, thinking about my cousin-- her own experiences, how she will view what I wrote?
With a month left before publication, what was there to do. How do I treat this bit of information?
Here is what I did: I got on the phone with my cousin. After 35 years, we reconnected. We talked. She verified information for me--we checked our memories against each other's; A lot that I knew, remembered, and felt was true for her as well. My uncle was a tyrant who abused not only her mother, our grandmother, but her as well. It was he who put her in a home so he'd have one less mouth to feed. I would have no guilt portraying him the way I did in my book.
Second, I called my publisher and spent a weekend tweaking the manuscript. I felt like I owed it to my cousin to get her story right -- to account for her mistreatment at his hands.
I am so glad I did this.
First, I think the book is better for it. When I asked my publisher for permission to edit the manuscript three weeks before its pub date, his only response was: "Is it important?" Equally important, he trusted me when I said yes. I am grateful for this.
My cousin's story adds a layer of depth and complexity to Girl Left Behind. Imagine a father who places his own child in a home and then takes in a child who comes with money attached, replacing her? No wonder my cousin resented me, at times took things that my mother sent from America. Just imagine how she felt.
I asked my cousin if she remembers feeling this. She says she doesn't. She just remembers her father leaving her in a home surrounded with an iron fence, and the photo he snapped as she stared after him, frightened and bewildered. And how she cried every day.
I hope Girl Left Behind will bring us closer after all these years. Perhaps the book will be a bridge to a new relationship. We're miles apart, but we now have Facebook to connect us.