An Interview with February NAMW Member of the Month, Martha Sarkissian
Linda: Tell us what you are working on.
Martha: My memoir begins when–at the age of eighty–I developed the courage to enter personal therapy. I once believed that the brain could not change, making seniors poor candidates for therapy. Now, in the twenty-first century, I learned from scientific research about the plasticity of the brain.
For fifty-three years, I lived for my husband, Hal. After he died, the life I’d constructed fell apart. I felt purposeless. The world didn’t need one more elderly widow cluttering it up. Then I read Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis, P.H.D., and My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. These books celebrate the possibility of developing new consciousness and awareness. When a psychologically-minded friend recommended the right therapist for me, I began tracing my guilt back to its roots. Taking writing classes and pursuing counseling have engaged my brain and given a purpose to my older years. I am releasing the writer’s creativity that I had caged for so long in my attempt to be a good wife and mother.
I am learning that I could not have prevented and did not cause the tragedies I endured on my life journey. When I was fifteen, I blamed myself for my father’s death. My baby’s crib death and my son’s diagnosis of schizophrenia compounded my guilt. Recently, I told my therapist, “I like myself better than I ever have.”
Linda: What would be the title of your story?
Martha: The two working titles of my memoir are “The Guilt Keeper,” or “Living on a Fault: A Journey from Guilt to Self-Acceptance.”
Linda: What helps you get your writing done?
Martha: I usually squeeze in two hours each day for writing. When a floundering widow, I joined a senior memoir class and learned how to focus my life story. Another senior class taught me how to build a scene. A writing retreat led by Linda Joy Myers, helped me to quiet my Inner Critic long enough to enter a contest. I am motivated by sharing a chapter of my memoir on a regular basis with writing friends. Hearing my work aloud in their presence helps me to see both its strengths and weaknesses.
Linda: What are your five favorite books?
Martha: I refused to read in first, second and third grades. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Treister, knew just what I needed. She took me to cozy corner and handed me The Little Lame Prince. For the first time I read a book straight through. The Lame Prince taught me to travel the world in my imagination. In Junior High School, I identified with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Today my spirituality stems from Thoreau’s Walden Pond, read in college. War and Peace by Tolstoy helped me to experience every human emotion. These books have nurtured me throughout my life.
Presently, I am immersed in memoirs by women. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Don’t Call Me Mother, by Linda Joy Myers, Lit by Mary Carr and poems by Mary Oliver inspire me.
Linda: Is there anyone who does not want you to write your memoir? Why not?
Martha: I was afraid to reveal my father’s alcoholism because I felt it would upset my oldest son. When I questioned him, he said, “I always assumed from the stories you told about grandfather that he was alcoholic. Go ahead and write.” My other hesitation lay in revealing my youngest’s son’s schizophrenia. He gave me permission to write about him “…as long as I do not have to read it.”
Linda: Talk about who the audience is for your memoir. Be brief and concise.
Martha: My audiences are:
- Mothers of all ages
- Women and men in mental health careers, including gerontology.
- Women and men who like to read a woman’s psychological journey.
- Families and friends of the mentally ill.
Linda: What is the most significant turning point in your life?
Martha: I have focused my life story on my most significant turning point—entering into personal therapy at the age of eighty and becoming, not an accuser of myself, but my own friend.
Linda: What are your goals for your memoir?
Martha: I want my memoir to be a support and comfort to mothers who carry a sense of guilt for a disabled child. I want them to realize they need to fulfill their own lives as well as assist their children. I want them to have someone always on their side, and to consider a personal counselor, or a special group, as that someone.
I also hope this memoir is read by mental health professionals and will help them in their efforts to understand the needs of these mothers. If my writing can, even in the least degree, diminish some of the stigma laid upon the mentally ill, or if even one person is motivated to reach out to such a person, my time writing has been well used.
In 1925 I was born daughter of Albene Guitard, a flapper who powdered her knees and danced the Charleston, and Benjamin Stickney Hunter, a corporate attorney. A native of Southern California, I was lucky to live and play in a house built on an arch over one of the few artesian springs in LA; and I graduated from Los Angeles High School. My father died when I was fifteen. When I was eighteen, my mother courageously put me on a train to attend college at Berkeley. In 1947, I graduated from UC Berkeley with an English Major, and that same year married Hrant Harold Sarkissian, an electronics engineer. We had five children, one of whom died in infancy, a crib death.
My teaching career spanned forty years and gave me amazing experiences with students of every type and age—gifted, retarded, learning disabled, immigrants, adults at risk, grammar school kids—I loved them all. I retired at the age of eighty because I wanted to spend less time teaching and more time finding the the truth of myself.
I lost the love of my life 2001. Today I live on an island in Newport Beach, California. I tutor fourth grade students and volunteer at Elden House, a non-profit cooperative where my mentally ill son lives. I am an active member of Fairview Community Church, St. Mark’s Book Club, and a Compassinate Communication practice group. Despite all this going on, I still make time to take writing classes and seminars ,such as Linda Joy Myer’s writing retreat, and I write at least two hours per day five days a week.
I take summer swims in the Balboa bay and winter walks along the water front with my collie, Kristen. We watch pelicans and heron fishing and often stop to listen to the sea lions bark.
Marta, I can’t wait to see your memoir in print. You inspire me with your courage to enter therapy at age 80 and to use this rarefied relationship to come to more acceptance of your life’s challenges. The books you are reading at present shows how current you are and willing to challenge yourself as a writer and as a woman. So often mental illness has been “closeted” as shameful. You address how you faced your son’s illness and never gave up. Congratulations on turning 85 and ever growing.
Yes, you are such an inspiration to all of us! Your prize winning piece was such a delight, and your reading at the Soul Making conference wowed everyone. You were a hit! And for good reason. I’m so pleased that we met at my retreat, and again at the award ceremony. I look forward to hearing much more about your and your writing life in the weeks and months to come.
I know this interview will inspire others to stay on the path of self-knowledge and to use writing as a way to explore the inner and outer worlds.
It’s great to see your interview on the NAMW site and learn a little more about you. I’m pleased you were an award winner in the 2009 Soul Making competition. It’s an honor well deserved. You inspire so many people with your superb writing and the energy and focus you put into your craft. My best wishes for your continued success.
I so enjoyed reading your interview, and I can’t wait to read your memoir. What an accomplishment! Also, thank for the work you with children.
Marta,How lucky I am to know you from our writing Class. You are an inspiration and a joy to be around. Congratulations.
We are so lucky to have Marta as a member of our church! Her committment to social justice is unparalleled! She has such a heart for the world. Whether she’s speaking about her greatest passion advocating for the mentally disabled, or changing her name in solidarity with the large Latino community in Southern California, or simply reaching out to a homeless family in our church -Marta is amazing! Can’t wait to get my hands on the memoir!