What is Missing about? The time your remote control got lost in the couch for two weeks?
It is pretty sad when the remote goes MIA. My book happens to be about my mother going missing for forty days. I was a sophomore in college when I got a call saying my mom had failed to show up for work. I rushed home, met my two older brothers, and began looking for her. We scoured her apartment, traced her credit cards and cell phone, drove around in circles, filed a missing person report, hung missing person fliers, appeared on New England news channels, and spun crazy theories of murder and kidnap. In short, it was a lot worse than a missing remote. I just wanted to change the channel and go back to my mundane college life!
The weeks crawled by without any leads. Things were not looking promising, but I refused to give up the belief that we would find our mother and everything would make sense again. She was my best friend; I talked to her multiple times a day. Not knowing her whereabouts was truly terrifying. Finally, after forty days, we found her, in circumstances far worse than anything my insomniac fears had prepared me for. A diver discovered my mother in her car, submerged in the ocean off the end of a fishing pier.
I know. The second half of the book attempts to reconstruct a life that could have ended so tragically. At the same time, I wanted to chronicle how my brothers and I grieved and attempted to move forward with our lives. The book is a search on so many levels. I guess you could simplify all this by saying it’s a search for who, what, when, where, and why.
So what made you want to write about the most horrible thing that ever happened to you?
Writing this book was more an act of necessity than desire. I needed a way to sort through my grief and get it out of my body. I also started writing with the naïve hope that by reconstructing those forty days in a chronological narrative fashion, I would have that big Aha! moment and understand how I’d really lost my mother. A rookie mistake.
So what actually happened as you reconstructed those forty days?
The more I wrote, the more questions I had. Trauma shoots holes in your memory. There were details I chose to disremember. I had to keep emailing my brothers and my father to ask about specifics. This was risky, as they weren’t happy with my need to dredge up the past and put it on paper for strangers to read.
Can you say more about your family’s reactions?
Well, they came around eventually, but imagine someone asking you out of the blue, “Can you reconstruct the day that mom’s body was discovered?” Not pleasant. All memoirists will likely agree that writing a book about your family is an exercise in pissing off the people you care about the most. I just had to hold onto the belief that they would come to understand why I felt it was so important to write this book.
And why is that?
Well, my more selfish reason was to try to make sense of my own grief through writing. But in a larger sense, I hoped that this story would resonate with readers who had lived through loss. I knew the particulars of my story—the search, the grisly outcome, the complex family dynamics—are unique, but on a more basic level, the book is also a coming of age story that everyone can relate to. And unfortunately, most of us have experienced a loss or trauma of some kind. Different details, same emotions.
Do you think you’ve accomplished that goal?
I hope so. Receiving letters from people who have read my book and related to it is an amazing feeling. One woman said she’d considered ending her own life until she read my book and understood how much that would screw up her daughter. That one was heavy. Most are just thankful that I put this story out there, as a chronicle of grief and also a sort of tribute to my mother.
What was the writing process like?
Like doing surgery on my heart for three years. With rusty tools. Miraculously, the thing is still ticking.
It’s ironic that after searching for your mother, you became a “detective” for much longer in the book writing process.
Being a writer is a little like being a detective in that you have all these clues you have to align in the right order and hope you stumble upon a narrative with a suitable tone, style, voice, pacing, etc. You also have to do a lot of research, even in a memoir. Fact-checking your own life is a pretty strange trip.
Anything you were worried about while writing?
Mostly I worried about putting my family through the process of reliving our tragedy. I hoped they’d still talk to me and invite me to Christmas dinner.
How does it feel to have this book out there in the world?
My book release party was one of the best nights of my life. Seeing everyone I care about gathered at BookCourt in Brooklyn to hear me read was truly touching. Walking into a Barnes & Noble and seeing my book on the shelf is a thrill that I hope never wears off.
So you think it was worth it to surgically remove your heart like this, poke and prod it from every angle, and then stick it back in your chest?
I don’t recommend the process, but sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you find that the thing that was missing all along was right there inside you.