By Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD
This book was born in 1983, when my 68-year-old divorced mother-in-law announced her remarriage. Ironically, her second wedding coincided with my divorce– from none other than her son! I’d always assumed her life as a divorced woman was lonely and difficult, but she opened up and dissuaded me of that belief. Her message was clear: single life could be fun! I joined a writing group and began writing about her (working title) Between Marriages: The Diary of a Mid-Life Woman. A month into the group, I switched gears and began writing about my mother. Two of the key stories in The Girl in the Red Boots were written then.
Between 1983 and The Girl in the Red Boots, I published two books and dozens of articles. In the background, I continued writing about my complicated relationship with my mother. Flash forward to 2013. Following my mother’s death, I decided to assemble my writing. Nervous about revealing my personal issues, I enrolled in both a fiction and non-fiction class. In writing two versions of the same story, it became clear that memoir was my stronger voice.
Writing this book became my ritual of mourning. My mother’s last years were difficult. She spent a decade battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia; it was a slow, sad, debilitating ending. I was the loyal and devoted daughter who was also despairing and resentful as I plunged into what is now a familiar journey: accompanying our parents to the gates. I grieved for my mother as she deteriorated, I grieved for myself, too, as I tenaciously stood by her. Giving myself time to write helped me sift through her life and our relationship.
The subtitle of my book is Making Peace with My Mother. In writing this book I learned it wasn’t my mother I needed to make peace with so much as with my ambivalent feelings towards her. I’d always loved her but I’d struggled with my angry and resentful feelings. I puzzled over why I was unable to let go of my grievances. Now that I’ve written the book, I understand why: it’s difficult to let go of a traumatic experience without processing it.
For much of my life I’d helped patients understand that one doesn’t have to be victimized by cataclysmic abuse to be scarred by trauma. Unwittingly, I’d minimized the impact of events in my own life I would later understand as traumatic. Writing has always helped me release and process my feelings—and helped me face my blind spots. Ultimately it’s been a lifelong resource.
The main message of this book is that it is possible to heal a wounded relationship. The centerpiece tells the story of how I healed my relationship with my mother, and The Girl in the Red Boots is filled with stories of how I helped my patients, young girls and women with eating disorders, heal as well. Working with patients offered me the opportunity to reflect on my relationship with my mother. A breakthrough moment occurred when I asked myself why I was able to be compassionate to my patients’ mothers but lacked compassion for mine. Asking this question shifted something important in me. Sometimes simply asking a new question is enough to create change.
Part memoir, part self-help, here are five takeaways:
- It’s never too late to change your story and change your life. Even if your parent is dead you have the opportunity to revisit your story and rewrite your life.
- Love is always imperfect. All of us are flawed, limited and have blind spots. Speaking about creating compelling characters in her compelling memoir, Wild Game, Adrienne Brodeur quoted Vivian Gornick’s advice, “You have to show the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the victim.” While writing my memoir, I kept those words taped to a bulletin board above my desk. Ambivalence is part of all relationships.
- No one is as bad as the worst thing s/he has ever done. For many years I held onto “Bad Mommy” stories, They reinforced my dissatisfaction with my mother. I carried a limited single story. Broadening my perspective helped me heal.
- We are all imperfect narrators. Your story is simply a story. Now is a good time to examine any stories you tell yourself repeatedly. Do your stories reinforce your grudges? Are you telling a story as a victim or a survivor? Change your story, change your life.
- Stories are our best teachers. Every story you hear has the possibility of changing you. The necessary ingredients are a curious mind and an open heart.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD, is a clinician, author, writing coach, speaker, and workshop leader. In addition to her New York City private psychotherapy practice, she offers remote consultations for writers, clinicians and families. She has published dozens of articles for both the public and professionals and has authored three books, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother (She Writes Press, 2021), A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope and Healing in Psychotherapy (Gurze Books, 2002) and Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex (New Harbinger Publications, 2012). A sought-after speaker and workshop leader, Judy speaks at national and international mental health conferences and runs workshops at spas, colleges and universities and retreat centers. Please visit: https://judithruskayrabinorphd.com