by Kate Farrell, Author, Memoirist & NAMW Member of the Month for December 2010
The pull of story is evident everywhere—from a popular melodramatic TV soap opera to a compelling bestseller. Often the most evocative story is the personal narrative, the vignette or memoir. In these the human voice rings true and resonates within us, often translating moments of our own lives into deeper meaning.
One would assume that women in our culture, who appear to enjoy conversation, would excel in the tradition of personal storytelling and shared wisdom. But the seminal work of Harvard researcher, Mary Belenky, in her book, Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986), found that the first stage in female development was silence.
Significantly, women feared self-expression, suppressed through generations of conditioning, and were often denied the right to an independent voice. Women’s experiences were typically discredited and their constructed knowledge dismissed as “old wives’ tales.”
Yet what women have to share through self-reflection, focusing on generational truths communicated along the matrilineal line, is essential to the balance of our contemporary society. Women’s voices, silenced, debased and ignored for centuries, are vibrant, lively, and full.
Within my own family, I quickly learned that silent suffering was considered a feminine virtue, a way to keep the peace amid domestic conflicts. No one called this repression. When I left home for college, I found this behavior bewildering and yearned to know the secrets my grandmothers and mother had witnessed. But I was locked out.
Here is an excerpt of a memoir from that time:
The first time I visited my widowed grandmother on my own, she wept. We were sitting at a small table in the back kitchen, the original kitchen in her Victorian bungalow on Main Street. Tears streaked down her face as an unspoken pain overwhelmed her.
“Oh, Catharine, if you only knew…” her words were swallowed by sobs. “What happened…when Carl grew up….” She gazed at me with grief and regret.
“Grandmother, don’t cry,” I pleaded and began to weep myself in empathy.
My mind raced, trying to remember or imagine what she might be regretting. My father, Carl, never spoke of his childhood. What dark past there was in this small, mid-western town, I could only guess. But my grandmother, obeying some strict code of silence, never told. I held her hands and tried to comfort her, and her torrent of tears finally slowed.
Sadly, I never discovered the tragedies in my father’s past, the skeletons in our closet. What I eventually did come to learn were my grandmother’s essential wisdoms by observing her actions, listening to her remarks, jokes, and truisms over the next decade of visits. What she was able to share with me in finding her voice were thoughts she’d kept to herself for a lifetime.
Carol Gilligan, another Harvard researcher, revealed this about women in her work, In a Different Voice (1982). Women of previous generations often sensed that speaking their mind might be dangerous; they feared retaliation or abandonment, according to Gilligan’s research.
Today it is up to us post-modern women to capture the feminine legacy that has almost been lost. When we speak for ourselves and reveal our experienced truth through memoir, we speak for all women.
That is why I’ve undertaken the memoir project, Wisdom Has a Voice: Daughters Remember Mothers. My hope is that through true, powerful stories about mothers, we can find our way back to feminine memory, wisdom, and voice.
Belenky, M., F., B. M. Clinchy, N. R. Goldberger and J. M. Tarule. 1986. Women’s Ways of Knowing. Basic Books, NY.
Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MS.
Farrell, Kate. “The Angel: A Memoir of Grandmother.” http://wisdomhasavoice.com/anthology/sample-anthology-memoir/
First published in Vintage Voices: A Toast to Life. Anthology by Redwood Branch of the California Writers Club, 2007.
Kate Farrell, founder of the Wisdom project, is a graduate of the School of Library and Information Studies, UC Berkeley. She has been a language arts classroom teacher (pre-school and grades kindergarten through 12th), author, librarian, university lecturer, and storyteller in Northern California since 1966. She founded the Word Weaving Project, funded by grants from Zellerbach Family Fund, San Francisco, 1979-1991, based on her experience with storytelling and her belief in it, to encourage educators at all levels to learn and enjoy the art.
She is co-author of a monograph, Effects of Storytelling: An Ancient Art for Modern Classrooms, 1982; author of Word Weaving: A Teaching Sourcebook, 1984; producer and co-author of a training videotape, “Word Weaving: The Art of Storytelling,” 1983, distributed by the University of California, Berkeley; and author of the professional book, Storytelling: A Guide for Teachers, Scholastic, 1991. She is also senior author of Storytelling in Our Multicultural World, an oral language development program for early childhood education, published by Zaner-Bloser Educational Publishers, 1994.
Her newest publication, Girl in the Mirror, is a young adult novel, Unlimited Publishing, 2009. Currently she is a part-time school librarian in San Francisco and lives in Santa Rosa, California. She is the mother of a son who lives in the City.
Find Kate Online:
I’ve one of those women who has been working on a memoir for years and I just find it very difficult. Maybe I’m just too much of a “good girl” (or at least, self-identify as one) in that I find it hard to talk about my parents’ flaws, siblings true selves, issues I experienced with ex-boyfriends and female friends, and problems I encountered growing up. I am constantly torn between truth telling and feeling like, somehow, I have to whitewash the truth or make it palatable to others. And I don’t have some huge tragic story to tell, either. Ironically, most of what I’m writing is more on the humor side. I love writers like David Sedaris, David Rakoff, and Augusten Burroughs. But why is it that only gay male whites seem to get noticed when they publish humorous memoir type essays or books? Women seem devoid of public support when we tell our stories. Sometimes I think we’re gender bound by some crazy sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” implied spiritiual contract — as in, only play “nice.”
But isn’t it “nice” to tell our truths, unvarnished and messy? Isn’t that the message we want to send to other women, to our daughters — that there is power and beauty in fully owning your own experiences and making record of them for future generations? (And to carry shared female wisdom forward?)
Thanks for the article, Kate. This is a very important mission that you are on. I empathize and identify with the author and the previous commenter. Women have been stifled for years, conditioned to remain silent and play nice. It’s time we opened our mouths and spoke the truth–painful as it might be.
What a valuable essay to encourage women to free themselves and express their history, secrets and deepest feelings. I worked on a childhood memoir early in my writing path. Now, I write fictive memoirs of women of the Old West and find that my personal themes float to the surface in their fears, ambitions, challenges. It seems that whatever we write has the possibility of revealing ourselves to ourselves.
Congratulations, too, om being Memorist or te Month!
Congratulations Kate! From reading your short comment you deserve the award! The research you did on women and silence was very interesting to me. It reminded me of when my parents had a “fight” they wouldn’t talk to each other. The “silent treatment” was the answer for them. I always knew because my mom would blast her forties songs and also knew it bugged my Dad but they both kept silent! Fondly, Jeane
Thought provoking article Kate–I find myself writing a great deal about those enigmatic moments of silence –they manage to speak so loudly to us when we recall pivotal times in our life.
Many good wishes to you, The Wisdom Project, and the National Association of Memoir Writers
Congratulations Kate. Great article. I think the-times-they-are a-changing because of leaders like you. Also, does everyone remember the Archie Bunker Show? This reminds me of Edith and Archie. Edith always had to stifle it? But that’s when things really started to change in the 70’s. I loved it when Edith spoke up! In this respect I think my mother was a little ahead of her time. (Speaking her mind.) That created some havoc with my grandmother.
Congrats! Your work is important. Women need to tell their stories, to share with one another. I agree that is hard not to white wash the truth, but as writers don’t we want the edge that rings loud. You know when see it written – the truth. In our busy lives, we forget to remember about the women in our lives, I mean to deeply remember and reflect on what it has meant. We are a composite of all that has happened to us, the good and bad. We need to speak out. Thanks for being a part of this worthwhile endevor.
Enjoyed your post, Kate. With so many women’s voices silenced in years gone by and in many parts of the world today, aren’t we lucky to be living here, now? From the accounts I’ve heard and from what I personally witnessed and remember, I feel fortunate that the voices of my mother, my grandmothers, and my aunts were strong and open. .
Thank you for an excellent article on giving voice to your grandmother and all women of that generation who were forced to stifle their stories. The excerpt with your grandmother is a powerful example and case for sharing our own voices. I believe we get strength from each other as we tell our stories. Thank you for playing a leading role in opening that door for all women.
As this month and year draw to a close, I’d like to express my deep gratitude for being featured on the NAMW website. I appreciated the exposure and support for the ideas of the Wisdom Has a Voice project. Best wishes to NAMW for a new year of creative, personal expression within its membership, especially for those women with powerful stories to share.
Happy New Year!
Kate, I so enjoyed reading this and could feel the sadness as you held your grandmother’s hand. Secrets and keeping silent are powerful forces for families. I am a family therapist and have listened to private stories over many years; stories that have not been shared with other family members. We often say “secrets keep you sicks.” I believe it is in the story telling that we “unlock doors” and find our personal power.
I did my PhD dissertation on Mothers and Daughters and it was interesting work.
One thing that I’ve found interesting is this: the few times I’ve heard a comment like, “Why would anyone care about why you became a teen mother? I have a friend who was a teen mother and she just, you know, got over it; she isn’t writing a book!” that comment has come from women. I’ve never had a man even hint that the story I’m telling wasn’t worth being told. So, who is still invested in (some) women being silenced?