On Writing a Memoir


“I should really write a memoir some day.”  Have you ever said that?  Many people tell me this when they read my memoir.  Most of us seldom write anything longer than a five sentence email or a ten word comment on someone’s Facebook page, and then suddenly we’re thinking about writing our life story.  Other people have played with the idea of writing for a long time.  Whether we are still in our thirties or into our sixties and retired, the idea calls to us.

We humans are story tellers, going back to the days of the hunting scenes painted on cave walls, and continuing through to our Facebook posts about the baby’s first birthday party.  The memoir is heir to that tradition.  “I need to tell somebody about this.”

Maybe, like me, you’ve just been through nursing someone through their final illness, and you feel like you are going to burst with all you’ve been through. How that last afternoon you spent with your brother, eating ice-cream and listening to Stevie Wonder stretched, out like a glorious bouquet.  Or the rainy October afternoon when your mother lay back on her pillow and told you about the pony she had when she was a girl in Slovakia, before she came to the United States.  “I had a pony once,” she says. “I never told you about my pony.” She slips into Slovak and doesn’t know it. Her wan face lights up with that last day with the pony and her hand moves faintly, brushing it and feeding it an apple. “So sweet,” she murmurs over and over, her eyes closed, a smile on her lips.

Or you want to tell everyone about the day back in 1973 when your newborn baby wouldn’t stop crying. Your husband has gone back to work and you and the baby are alone for the first time. You pick the baby up and walk from the nursery into the living area, do a loop around the kitchen table, bathrobe sash dragging through the crumb-littered floor, and you look down and see her little face finally relaxing into sleep. Little half sobs, then quiet, slow breaths. You keep pacing slowly around the apartment, afraid to stop, almost asleep on your feet, until you are crying softly with a mixture of love and exhaustion.  A neighbor women you don’t know very well knocks on the door and insists on holding the baby while you take your first hot shower in two or three days.  When you emerge from the steamy bathroom, the baby is asleep in the bassinet, and your new friend has swept the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. That story needs to be told, you have said many times.  I love that woman.

The time your purse was stolen while you were asleep on a train in Germany and the old couple in the American Express office insisted on loaning you some money.  The summer you were a camp counselor and that tall, dark-eyed older boy tried to force you and you almost agreed. That horrible, sexist boss you had.

The stories are good.  Now to transform them into a good memoir.

For this we need to merge them with another tradition, that of the diary or personal journal.  Like Anne Frank, we sometimes feel the urge to pour out our souls on paper, thrashing through the disappointments and confusions of daily life with a twist–not just reciting the facts, but considering how it makes us feel.  We wonder, pen in hand, how to make sense of the non-sensical.  We relive the unfulfilled longing, the fear of death, the anguish of loss. Special moments call to us, and we return to them in our heads, finding solace, anger or melancholy in our repeated visits.

And this is what makes a memoir worth the incredible hours and hours of work to write and rewrite: finding that special story arc that zings, that blend of incident and truth-telling, humanity and spirituality.  A group of anecdotes may just sit there.  But when they distill a story of growth and change, when your heart and soul bleed onto the page along with a compelling narrative, that’s a story worth telling.

That’s what happened to me when I found myself caring for my mentally ill brother after my parents died.  And I couldn’t stop writing.  “I was shot in the head,” my brother Paul said to the daughter of his elderly roommate at the nursing home. “How awful,” she said to me when I arrived later that day.  I shook my head.  “Well, not really,” I began.…

When you find this story, keep writing.


Katherine Flannery Dering earned an MFA from Manhattanville College in 2012 and also holds an MA in Spanish Literature from SUNY at Buffalo and a BA from Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, New York, as well as an MBA from the U of Minnesota at Duluth.  Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle,” was published in 2014, and is available on Amazon ( http://tinyurl.com/pakb5ga ) and at Barnes & Noble ( http://tinyurl.com/mkdnh5o ).  She is working on some new stories in her book currently in progress.

Gender Bias Goes Deep


Word from the Trenches tells what is really happening in the ground war.  Like the doughboys of World War I who dug trenches and vowed to fight to the finish, we women need to dig in to some of the nitty gritty details of our lives in order to improve our world. In this blog I will deal mostly with the feminist issues of serious mental illness and gender bias in religion.

       We women must fight back the constant efforts of religious fundamentalists to restrict our civil rights.  The United States is not a theocracy.  While we respect everyone’s right to believe whatever they want about God and an afterlife, only our civil laws govern our conduct.  Our laws assert the rights of women to equal opportunity, justice and self-determination.  We must fight off the fundamentalists before they turn back the clock on women the way women were treated in Iran and Afghanistan.  And then we must move forward to true equality, including in our places of worship.    

       We women are also greatly impacted by mental illness.  Families of people who suffer from severe mental illnesses face terrible burdens.  We must fight 24/7 to improve the current non-system of care available in our country for our loved ones.  My brother suffered with schizophrenia, and our patched together mishmash of what is supposed to be community-based care failed him.  Our jails and homeless shelters are filled with people who, through no fault of their own, suffer from a brain malfunction that makes it almost impossible for them to take care of themselves. They need help.  

Since the onset of mental illness generally comes in late adolescence or early adulthood, the burden of care falls disproportionately on mothers.  Thus mental illness is a feminist issue. Because our society is used to seeing mothers struggle to care for their children, the sacrifices made by mothers (and also fathers and siblings) of people with smi also go almost unnoticed.

Overall, I hope this blog will strengthen women’s rights by providing a sounding board on these and other current and past events.

Wishing Stones and Tea Leaves, Part I


I’d spent six days at Crom Castle, just outside of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, with a group of women artists. We’d enjoyed our week and we lingered over our dinner our last night in the slanting evening light, not wanting the evening to end. Violet, our 70-something year-old breakfast cook, joined us as we were finishing the main course. It was almost eight o’clock, but the sun still illuminated our conservatory-dining room like late afternoon. The fountain tinkled and splashed.
“You’ll be wanting to join me for tea at my house?” Violet asked. Her eyes seemed to sparkle as she spoke.  We hesitated, eying the rhubarb crumble. “Cynthia will fetch along the crumble,” she assured us. “Come, while the summer evening lasts. I’ve something you must do before you leave.”
As the nine of us stepped out onto the crushed stone patio, someone lit a cigarette; the smoke wafted around us in thin tendrils. Stones crunched underfoot. I stood and drank in the evening air before following Violet’s lead toward the ruins of the earlier, medieval castle, closer to the lake.
Brenda, our guide, whispered, “We are lucky; violet doesn’tdo this for everyone.”     The sky began to take on an orange tinge. I felt a cool breeze and buttoned my sweater.
“My mother, and her mother before her knew about this spot, and the grand ladies as well,” Violet said as we walked. “Come along,” she urged us. “We must catch the light.”
We followed her in a line, gawky goslings following a mother goose in floral housedress and crocheted shawl. Lough Erne was a silver pool stretching off to our right.
About halfway to the ruins, we stopped at a small thorn tree, like the ones I had seen on the tor in Glastonbury the previous summer. Remnants of this morning’s rain glistened on tall stalks of grass, brown and burnt from the previous days of sun. Violet waded through the waist-high fronds, then parted them so we could see, at the foot of the old thorn tree, a grayish rock outcropping, roughly two feet across.
“This is the wishing stone,” she said, tromping down the errant grass stalks as we all caught up with her and formed a rough circle. “Come, take a look. Every lady who comes to this place must come here and make a wish, and it will come true.”
We approached the stone one at a time, the remains of the day’s shower brushing off onto our shoes and slacks. I looked down – my shoes and long skirt were all wet. “Come,” Violet entreated us. “Each of you must place all of you on the stone.” Someone was nominated to go first. “Sit on it. Pull your feet up to place them on it, as well,” she coached her.
The sky, still light, was fading to pale purple. Shadows grew. Mid-lake, the water’s mirror broke—a fish coming to the surface. The grass at the water’s edge rustled with some small animal’s movement. A woman ducked and shrieked as the evening’s first bats squeaked and flapped by through the tree branches above us.
And then it was my turn. “Touch your hands to it. Feel it,” she advised. “Don’t be shy. The grand ladies don’t mind mussing their skirts.”

The stone was hard and rough; my rear end took a few seconds to adjust to it. I pulled my knees up to my chin, wrapping my long skirt around my legs, so both feet could be fully on the stone. My calves felt cool against my thighs. “Touch your hands to it, as well,” Violet reminded me. It was rough and damp.
And there I was, bunched up onto the stone, like who knows how many other women over the centuries. Eyes closed. Hands touching the stone.
“Go on. Wish!” she urged me. The other women stood back, giving me space, like people standing back from a confessional. A bat squeaked.
“I wish that my daughters find contentment in their lives,” I whispered.
To whom, I don’t know.

Violet, our morning cook that week, is one of a long line of wise old crones, a tradition cherished in Ireland and Britain. The women artists in the group with me were from California and Kentucky, New York and Illinois. We were college educated and sophisticated people, and we found ourselves drawn to Violet and her ancient lore. Though ostensibly Christian, Jewish or agnostic, we felt a connection to this feminine seer. She was a link to a time when older women were revered, not thought of as batty and useless.  Her little traditions, part counseling, part meditation and some other part spirit, were something we had need of. An agnostic myself, at first I participated just to be polite, but as I sat on that rock I was drawn in.

This story is part of a book in progress.

See also my memoir, http://tinyurl.com/oxynw5c

Five things I learned about mental illness while caring for my schizophrenic brother


Two yearsago I published my memoir about caring for my brother Paul, who suffered from schizophrenia. (Shot in the Head, A sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle.)  Since then I have encountered several misguided but firmly held beliefs that get in the way of people understanding our fellow humans who suffer from a severe brain disorder. Here are just a few.
1. Probably the most common misconception is that if people with serious mental illness (SMI) would just take their medication, they would be all right.  For many people this is true.  Yet for 32 years, my brother was loaded up with thousands of pills and subjected to all sorts of talk therapies and counseling, and still he alternately thought he was James Bond, Clint Eastwood or a Mohican Indian (as in, the last of…). He was much worse when he went off his medication, but even on it, he could not hold a normal conversation. Trying to help him maneuver through the most basic life skills like grocery shopping or dealing with medical appointments, I was confounded by claims I had heard that everyone can recover from diseases like schizophrenia.  For people like my brother, it simply is not true. We can help people with schizophrenia, but very few truly recover.
Luckily, most people with schizophrenia are helped a great deal by medication.  But of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, about 25% never achieve any sort of meaningful recovery. About 25% have a couple of psychotic episodes but then recover completely. In between, some people manage to make a life for themselves as long as they get good support from their family and community, others are in and out of hospitals. All of these people need our support in getting outpatient treatment and effective counseling and other assistance.
2. Many people believe that mental hospitals are horrible places and all of them should be closed.  Back in the 1840s, reformers like Dorothea Dix worked hard to get the insane out of prisons and into caring psychiatric institutions. Since the 1950s and 1960s, and with the advent of modern psychotropic medications, though, the push has been to get everyone out of hospitals and into scattered housing in the community. Many people imagine mental hospitals as houses of horrors, and most of them have been closed.
Unfortunately not every patient with a serious brain disorder can make it in the community. They need lifetime housing and care. While no one wants to go back to the days of hulking bedlams, we need an alternative, smaller, homier places  with modern treatment methods.
Many people with SMI – most of the 50% in the middle – can do quite well in their own apartment if they are lucky enough to get support from social services. But for the 25% – people like my brother Paul – we need supportive congregate housing, perhaps modeled on the assisted living facilities we have for elderly people with medical or cognitive issues. Those with SMI need a home where, with assistance, they can be the best they can be.
3.  Alternatively, some people think there is nothing we can do for those who are most severely afflicted with SMI and we ought to “just lock ‘em up”. This extreme is also not true. Perhaps these people are supporters of the current trend of treating people with SMI as criminals. A very large percentage of our prison population suffers from some degree of mental illness, many of them seriously deluded. But the violence and punitive atmosphere there makes their symptoms worse.

Many people with SMI can make a life for themselves in a less restrictive environment as long as there are programs and followup care for them.  For the more seriously afflicted, supervised living in conjunction with medication can really help.  During the last year of my brother’s life, he was the most lucid we had seen him in over 30 years. He was living in a pleasant nursing home where doctors and nurses made sure he got his medication, meals and snacks were served frequently, which optimized the effectiveness of the medication, and he had a warm bed in clean and cheerful surroundings. Paul’s coherence seemed directly tied to how people around him treated him. With pleasant aides and orderlies, he smiled and said hello to everyone and expressed thanks to me whenever I took him out or visited.  I discovered he had a sweet and caring heart under all the babbling about the FBI and Mohican Indians and being scalped, and being a famous movie star (Clint Eastwood).  I would hate to think of people hurting him unnecessarily. I am very thankful he was never homeless and never ended up in jail.
4.  Does schizophrenia run in families?  While doing research about schizophrenia, I discovered that it is genetic, but not inherited. How can that be? In my family, neither parent suffered from any serious mental illness, nor any of the four grandparents, nor aunts and uncles.  Yet one of the ten children developed schizophrenia.
Scientists know almost nothing about mental illness for sure, but it appears that illnesses like schizophrenia come about due to the confluence of two factors – genetic predisposition and some serious stressors. There appears to be a spontaneous mutation at the time of the creation of the fertilized zygote which creates the predisposition. Yet studies of identical twins show if one develops SMI, there is only a 70% chance the identical twin will also develop it.
It’s not clear how bad the stressor has to be; it could range from poor nutrition in the mother during pregnancy to head trauma to drug usage. No one seems to know. According to the National Institute of Mental Health the percentage of people with schizophrenia is relatively constant at a little over 1% of the population, worldwide, so it is not due to any particular child rearing tradition or types of food.
5. When a family member suffers a psychotic break, many people think this is very unusual and somehow shameful.  We don’t want to talk about it.  When my brother first got sick, I didn’t know anyone else who had a serious mental illness. It was all very scary and confusing. Mental illness is all around us, but most people, myself included for many years, don’t know any other family going through this and so don’t feel comfortable talking about it.
But while promoting my book I have had many people come up to me at readings and tell me about their aunt or uncle or cousin or the neighbor’s son… They tend to tell me about their family member or neighbor in a whisper, as if there was something to be ashamed of. Let me assure anyone reading this that there is no need to whisper.

Nearly everyone has a family member or knows someone with SMI – there is no need to feel embarrassed. It’s a biological illness. I’ve learned that 4% of our population suffers from some type of schizophrenia, bi-bolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder or some other debilitating mental illness. And most hit between the ages of 16 and 25. So in every high school across the country, administrators and teachers should be on the lookout for the 4 in 100 who will suffer a psychotic break or initial manic episode or some other debilitating instance of onset of illness.  They should learn mental health first aid and be prepared to direct parents to help for their son or daughter.
6?  Oh, and I should add a 6th point, and by far the most important thing I learned while on this journey. I realized while caring for my brother — really realized, on a gut level — that every person with serious mental illness, no matter how difficult or perhaps even scary, was someone’s baby once, someone’s brother or sister, or a cherished and loved niece or nephew. They were a person with hopes and dreams.  And they still are. They need our help. They need our mental illness advocacy.  They need our continued care.
Stats and figures taken from Surviving Schizophrenia: A Manual for Families, Consumers and Providers (4th Edition); E. Fuller Torrey

My memoir is  Shot in the Head,a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle” (Bridgeross)

Note:  this article was previously published in slightly different form on Brainblogger.


Why is God always portrayed as male?

Recently someone posted a complaint on twitter about Jesus always being portrayed as light-skinned with straight light brown hair.  For someone who was dark skinned, it was difficult to identify.

Yet as hard as this was for a boy, for a Christian girl it was much worse. I grew up with an image in my head of God as male. We had a trinity – three different visualizations of God – and all three of them were referred to as “He.”  Women, by definition, were one off. We were created to keep a man company.

In this Judeo-Christian view of the world, women are from the man. We grow up thinking of god in male terms and by definition anything male is somehow the norm. Anything feminine is correspondingly not the norm – foolish or weak or somehow LESS. So we should strive to be more like men. From the spiritual world to the business world we are sentenced to a lifetime of being imperfect imitators.   Well.  This no longer flies

I have officially abandoned that notion.
Now, to spread the word.

Scotties Toy Box

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The Caillech Bh’arra

Ireland 2006060

The Caillech Bh’arra
It had rained the morning I visited Cladragh Cemetery, near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. But the sun had come out, and now the earth let off waves of steam into the warm sunshine. Visible through the mist, the ground was a mossy, undulating sea of ancient burial sites, gravestones all tilting at odd angles. Off to one side, two moss-covered stone statues stood guard from under an incongruous little green and white striped awning.
At about four feet, the larger of the pair was a two-sided figure, the two sides thought to be male and female. Its blank, ancient faces stared out enigmatically over the faint outline of stiff arms crossed downward over their chests. Below the waist were the suggestions of genitals. Mottled in color, the figure’s sandy beige stone was almost covered by white and green moss, and its badly eroded features were barely discernable.
Standing perhaps a foot shorter, the smaller figure was equally moss covered and even more eroded. Believed carved at the latest in the eighth century, with her protruding tongue and only one eye, the figure is thought to be a carving of the Divine Hag, known variously as the “Caillech Bh’arra” or “Badhbha,” a powerful goddess in the Irish tradition.
The early people of this place believed in both male and female deities; each deity had his or her dominion, and people dedicated their requests for assistance to whichever might seem more likely or able to help. These ancient Irish perceived a need for help at all the comings and goings to and from this world and prayed to their gods and goddesses for safe deliveries and peaceful ends. The Caillech Bh’arra, said to usher the comings and goings of this world, was humans’ companion especially at birth.
On this day, at the Caillech Bh’arra’s wide stone base, a hollowed out depression was filled with perhaps twenty or thirty coins, many of which had lain there long enough to pick up a mossy patina. A few coins sparkled silver and copper in the sunlight. Visitors had no doubt come to ask the Divine Hag to help them conceive or bring a child to term. The coins were their offerings, and the metallic sparkles betrayed relatively recent origins for some of them.
The Caillech Bh’arra is related to the Sheela-Ma Gigs, statues of goddesses with engorged female genitals once common in pre-Christian Ireland, but in the past few centuries seen as an embarrassment. Remnants of an ancient people who were proud of the female’s life-giving nature, most of the Sheela-Ma Gigs were either cleaned up and named a saint or destroyed long ago; their carving considered lewd and associated with sinful activity. Whatever Caillech Bh’arra’s past, though, she managed to escape destruction and was never Christianized. So she sits under her tent with her two-sided cousin, looking out over the shifting stones, waiting for supplicants as she has for centuries.
Shut out of any meaningful connection to their Christian churches, some local women seem to have found comfort in the old ways. I wondered if the women who had brought her those coins had been blessed with healthy children. I thanked her for them, just in case.

(except from memoir in progress)

the Janus figure

Lives of the Saints


Female sainthood, I learned from the book-
Lives of the Saints- I was given as a child,
involved primarily not having sex.
Martyrdom was another oft-repeated
approach to eternal glory, especially
via cut-off breasts or death by giant
frying pan. Good works, a definite
plus, but not a winner. The trifecta?
Need I delineate the obvious?
Good works, martyrdom and virginity.

Any two out of three might seem worthy
of attention, but lack of virginity
was almost a non-starter, widows who
gave all their worldly goods to the Church
and remained chaste henceforth,
being a notable exception.

Saintly men could live long and prosperous
lives, and now wear opulent robes in their
stained glass or mosaicked homes in our
churches. They stand proudly with their weighty
books and shepherd’s crooks, tall triangular
hats, swords and other symbols of power
and influence, while female saints carry
their own arrows or are licked by flames.

Sainted men too, at times, were horribly
tortured and martyred, but their sexual
activity was seldom noted. Female saints
were virgins virgins virgins.

St. Basil beat back the Arian heresy.
St. Ladislas beat back the Huns.
Catherine of Alexandria beat back men,
insisting on staying a virgin, for which
the emperor who desired her had her stripped,
flogged, and placed on a cart-wheel, her limbs
stretched out along the spokes. The wheel
was made to slowly revolve, and her bones
broken with blows of an iron bar.

And how to forget the story of Saint
Christina, Virgin and Martyr, who
destroyed her pagan father’s golden idols,
for which he had her whipped with rods
and thrown into a dungeon, her body torn
by iron hooks, fastened to a rack and
roasted above a fire. She was seized, a
heavy stone tied about her neck, then
was thrown into the lake of Bolsena.
Saved by an angel, she outlived her father,
who died, it was written, of spite. Later,
a judge had her thrown into a burning
furnace, where she remained, unhurt, for five
days. By the power of Christ she overcame
the serpents among which she was next thrown.
But then her tongue was cut out, and afterwards,
being pierced with arrows, she gained
the martyr’s crown at Tyro. Her battered
relics are now at Palermo in Sicily.

I am a ten year old girl, reading my Lives
Of the Saints in bed before sleep. This is the
life I should aspire to. I flip off the light
and consider my alternatives.