There was a wrenching article in The New York Times recently about an infamous Irish “Mother and Baby Home.” The gentle title hid the fact that it was a punitive hell for unmarried women who had the misfortune to get pregnant. The babies born there were either given away for adoption (to the heartbreak of their mothers), or grew up in the Home, starved for food and affection.
They did go to the local school, where they were shunned by children from “decent” families. One of them, six-year-old Catherine,, offered what looked like a wrapped candy to a Home child. That hungry girl eagerly unwrapped it – and found it empty. The candy was gone. She stood there holding that useless paper, surrounded by children laughing at her.
That was many decades ago. Catherine is now a grandmother, but she has never forgotten the devastated look on the child’s face. It haunts her to this day. So she’s dedicated her life to helping the women find children who were taken from them, and the adult children searching for their mothers. Yet, despite her laudable work, Catherine hasn’t forgiven herself. She keeps searching every record to try to find that child who was her victim, but to no avail.r
Guilt is a common denominator. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t bear the memory– and scars – of something wrongly said or done. But just as Catherine has translated her guilt into selfless acts, we have the choice to translate ours by writing it out.
One way is to do this secretly in a journal. A good exercise is to describe guilt. What color is it? What does it feel like? What is it saying to you? What would you do differently? It’s surprising what ripples this can lead to on those pages.
Guilt is also a great supply of material for stories, usually in disguised form. I had a huge burden of guilt for not responding when a former friend reached out to me after a quarrel. She had accused me of not being available enough after her husband died. What made me blow up was her comparing me to a “better” friend. I never forgave her. She died a year later, a suicide.
Some time after that I wrote a story about a teenage girl who was in school when a mass murderer broke in. When bullets hit the lights, she crawled out of the room in the darkness and was horrified to realize she was crawling over a classmate lying there. She heard his whispered plea for help, but was afraid to stop . The boy died. The girl could never forgive herself, which led to a portrayal of the ruthless hold that guilt can have on us.
I’ve been asked so often where this story came from, since I’ve never been in that murderous situation. But what made the story work were my own “bad girl” feelings that enabled me to be inside the girl’s obsessive dwelling on what she felt was her failure to save the boy. Creating my fictitious heroine helped me cope with my feelings and realize how I was punishing myself. (After enough time had passed, I was able to write an undisguised story about the trauma with my late friend.)
The popular axiom is: Write about what you know. I prefer another saying: Write what you’re afraid to say. It can be surprisingly freeing
BOOKS: “Widow’s Walk”- available through iUniverse.com; “Turning Toward Tomorrow” – Xlibris.com; “Ten Women of Valor” and “Role Play”– CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com. Also Amazon Kindle.