WRITING LIFE: My (Real) Life with the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis

I have been a Lincoln Family fanatic since I was in kindergarten. I went to Lincoln Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois (the land of Lincoln!), and would often stand on tiptoe so I could touch the jacket of the penny-colored Lincoln statue that stood on the landing, the metal cool and smooth against my hand. I had convinced myself my dad was Lincoln reincarnated after Lincoln’s eyes reminded me of my dad’s in a particular portrait. I figured the fact that my dad’s initials were AIB— “Abe” if you say it phonetically—made it official. And Lincoln was shot on my birthday, April 14. That had to mean something. But for all the years I had connected my dad with Lincoln, I had never thought to look into how my mom might be like Mary.

The similarities were eerie—both had delusions of grandeur, including serious delusions about money. Both were fans of the finer things in life—“flub dubs,” as Lincoln called them – and often ran into trouble because of this. Among the many delusions that surfaced in the early 1990s, my mom thought my dad was hiding millions of dollars from her, keeping her from the lifestyle she felt was her birthright (never mind the fact she had been born into a staunchly blue-collar family). She made it her mission to find that money and discredit my dad. And, like Mary’s family, we tried without success to get her the help she needed.

* * *

I wanted to write a memoir called My Life with the Lincolns, paralleling my family’s story with the Lincoln family’s story. My agent was excited about this possibility—“Books about Lincoln sell,” she told me. “And dogs.”—but my mother asked me not to write about her, at least not while she was alive, and I just couldn’t get past her request. She held a lot of power over me, even when she was being delusional; maybe especially so. Then, a character started whispering to me, a 12-year-old girl who thought her family was the Lincoln family reincarnated – a girl who had some similarities to me but was born a decade earlier and was steadfastly her own person – and I decided to write a novel instead. I figured I could still write a memoir someday, when I was ready, when my mom wasn’t around.

* * *

It turns out, a few months before my novel My Life with the Lincolns was published, my mom hung herself in the midst of a psychotic break, only one week after I had given birth to my youngest child. When the book came out, I was still grieving and postpartum hormonal and wasn’t up for much self-promotion. The advance reviews of the book were good, but I felt numb, stuck in a mournful rut. Then, two days after the book’s release, my husband Michael’s mother had a heart attack and fell into a coma. Michael and his sister had her removed from life support two days later, the day I was supposed to have my first event for the book, which I canceled. We were in shock, but decided to move ahead with my short Midwestern book tour a couple of weeks later. I wanted to see my sister, and I wanted to see Chicago, to be back where I and my parents had been born and raised. Michael was born in Michigan, so it was a chance for him to connect with his roots as well. A homecoming felt like the right thing to do.

* * *

At my reading at a bookstore in Ann Arbor, when I got to the part in the novel about Mary carrying lots of money around so she wouldn’t feel poor toward the end of her life, I looked up and locked eyes with my sister and we both started to cry. Our mom had thousands of dollars on her when she died, and I had never made that particular connection with Mary until that moment. Thankfully, we didn’t make too many people uncomfortable. We had grown up learning to avoid making people uncomfortable; if something was too hard in our family, we simply didn’t talk about it. I was still feeling the repercussions of this in so many ways—it was this, as much as my mom’s request not to write until after she was gone, which had kept me from writing the memoir that burned inside of me.

* * *

In the 2013 film, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, there’s a scene where Lincoln sits haunted on a porch with Ulysses S. Grant after a solemn ride through the body-strewn remains of a battlefield.

“You knew what it was,” Grant says. “Intimate and ugly. You must have needed to see it close when you came down here.”

I watched this scene when the film came out and knew it was time to look at myself in a much closer way—intimate and ugly and real. I was recognizing ways in which I hadn’t been as honest as Abe, ways in which I’d let myself shy away from telling my truth throughout my life.

I finally began writing the memoir about my mother I’d been wanting to write for years; I was finally ready to be brave and open and honest on the page. “Determine that the thing can and shall be done and then… find the way,” said Lincoln, which resonated with both my personal and creative life. When I sat down to write, I realized I didn’t need the mediation of the Lincolns’ lives to help me get to my own story. I could face my own life head on.

My memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, was published this past November. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and the most meaningful. I remind myself that the memoir has already given me everything it needed to—catharsis, forgiveness, a deeper appreciation for my mom, a sense of wholeness in my life. This book helped me work my way through my anger and grief, helped me crack my heart open wider than I imagined possible, helped me craft my pain into something I could call art. Nothing can take that away, even if the book falls into a black hole, never to be read again. “I am not bound to succeed,” said Lincoln. “But I am bound to live up to what light I have.” Whatever happens now that this book is in the world, I will be forever grateful for the process of writing it, for how finally allowing myself to dive into the dark helped me reach toward my own light.

 

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press), and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles.
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