Behind the Dedication: Mining for Buried Memories, Together

The final chapters of Grandson of a Ghost describe the psychotherapy sessions that inspired me to write the book. I never could have done it — nor could I have sustained the effort — without the encouragement and continuing emotional support of my therapist. 

All characters in the book have fictionalized names, and I write under a pen name to protect the privacy of my family. But the book is dedicated to Jacob Ham, Ph.D., a real-life person. And it's not much of a stretch to conclude the psychotherapist in the book — a character named Ken — is based on Jacob and the last two chapters are based on our sessions together.

Jacob observed I was finding it helpful to write down trauma memories as a means of digging out things from my past that I'd kept buried away. I still didn't understand how pulling memories up to the surface could possibly help matters. In fact, in the short run, digging deep made me feel much worse. At times I resented digging. But he explained to me that exposing memories to the light of the present day would — over time — lessen their power over me. Exposing them would allow me to file the memories away properly, instead of feeling a vague, vast pit of pain inside that I felt forbidden to access, but at the same time fueled my feelings of low self-esteem, shame, sadness and the need to hide myself.

I was fascinated by the idea that life unfolds in a sequence like falling dominoes. My childhood impacted future events because of the way I grew to perceive the world as a threatening place where I was defective — much worse than other kids — and I needed to be constantly on guard to protect myself. Abuse from a primary caregiver in turn made everything in the world very scary. And no one came around to say, "You're safe, now." Because I never shared with anyone.

This now makes sense to me, but I wanted to put words on paper to cement the idea and have something to use as a permanent reference to keep me pushing forward. I outlined the book in sequence so that I could literally follow the narrative as it unfolded. That meant starting when the abuse began, the most difficult memories first. Jacob suggested I save the first chapters for later, so I could work up to them with some momentum. But I wanted to know if I could actually face and record the pain. The whole project would collapse if I couldn't. I needed to know.

The first chapter took months to write. I trembled at the keyboard while typing. I found it particularly difficult because I had to imagine and create the mindset of my mother and how she could have been plausibly driven to beat her child. Often stories never attempt to explain the reasons behind the perpetrator's actions. Jacob and I would discuss the portrayal of my mother often. He observed I was taking care to not portray her as a one-dimensional monster. But was I going too far to justify her actions? I didn't know, but it was the only way I could complete the chapter. I had to have a reason she did it. The story would be too painful without one.

The second chapter was somewhat easier to record because I was old enough as a character to have my own thoughts and motivations. I could wrest the perspective of the story away from my mother, and work with stronger real-life recollections because my character was now age 10 instead of 5. In sessions, I told Jacob how I found myself switching to "detached reporter mode," focusing on an accurate description of the narrative, instead of reliving the scenes as a reader or participant. The technique helped to remove me from the keyboard, but I still trembled. I had to text Jacob a few times while writing for moral support. A no-no, I know, but he tolerated my process. When I finished a chapter, I would send it to him to discuss at our next session. I paid a small, symbolic honorarium fee for his time to read.

As the chapter-writing process unfolded, Jacob told me I was mining deeply into crevices — much deeper than I would have been able to dig talking face to face because of the amount of time I spent at home: typing, reflecting and recording minute details. Extracting buried memories. Finding new relevancy in past actions long forgotten because now I had greater self-awareness. 

We continued the cycle of my sending a chapter, followed by discussion. At first I attempted to just sit in our sessions, trying to make Jacob recount to me what he found interesting about the newly uncovered material. Things I had never shared. I wanted to test him so I could be sure he had read it, and didn't simply skim it. But he quickly caught on and turned the conversation to how I felt about writing it, what revelations surfaced, or what were the difficult parts. In between new chapter completions, we talked about other areas of my life: work, parents, partner. Sometimes real life would reflect or mimic events in the book, such as my avoidance of confrontations at work. The book started to become illustrative and educational.

I took special care in recounting the last two chapters. The prior chapters each cover time periods of three, five or even 10 years. But the final two chapters each cover only one. They serve as a record for me — and I hope as a general guide for others — of how Jacob was able to reach me and pull me out of hiding. How, working together, he got me to forge a connection with the world.

For that, I will always be grateful. For that, I've dedicated the book to him.