Welcome Donald R. Dempsey, author of Betty's Child, and a guest post on "Writing About a Difficult Childhood".
While I personally am fortunate to not have experienced a difficult childhood, I hope that Donald's honest and open thoughts on the subject will be able help someone considering writing about their own background.
You might think I’m being melodramatic. In fact, I’m sure some reading this will feel that way. I know people who have endured extremely painful childhoods, eventually built a life of their own, and treated their past like it was just a terrible passing storm. As if they were simply able to repair the damage and go on living like everyone else, raising families and building careers. Either able to casually talk and even joke about their childhood, or choosing never to acknowledge it, until it slips into an obscurity only those closest to them even know about.
But almost every one of those people will have a sibling who didn’t fare as well, a tortured soul who doesn’t possess the same inner fortitude. They will have spouses and children who don’t fully know the extent of what was endured. They might have bitter parents who will deeply resent having their sins bared for all to see. Most will face some combination of these elements, so be prepared for some backlash. Many people do not want to read about pain. Especially if said pain was partially or fully inflicted by them.
I like to write fiction. I dabble in poetry. I’ve often spent time plotting and framing a story, laying out notes and diving into a project. But I always get sidetracked. Run out of gas. I have chapters gathering dust. Unfinished manuscripts on the computer never even printed out. Poetry half finished. Some of these are phrases I’d like to end with, or thoughts I want to complete. I’m amused when I come across these fractured and incomplete words of mine. They’re old friends that I love to spend time with.
But my memoir was different. It always wanted to be written, roiling around within me whenever I was suffering a bout of melancholy. It whispered and nagged. I tried not to acknowledge the need to cut it loose. If I told my story I would have to relive some painful times, address some emotions I’d pushed down so deep they barely existed anymore. To be honest, I was afraid. My last thought before I began was that I would write this for me, and probably never finish it anyway.
I didn’t expect what poured out of me. The memoir practically wrote itself. I was done in less than five or six weeks. Some parts of the book I barely remember writing, and never made a conscious thought to express. The only advice I will give to someone undertaking a similar project is to cut it loose. Let it out. Anything too painful can always be edited. Many of my reviewers use the words ‘raw’ and ‘real’ when talking about Betty’s Child. What they’re picking up on is the brutal honesty of my story, and most if not all of that was just released, and not planned at all.
Expect to relive memories as if they happened only yesterday. Once released, suppressed emotions may have to be dealt with. I had a lot of trouble sleeping. As children our instincts attempt to drive away the pain we aren’t yet equipped to deal with. When that pain returns it is usually with a vengeance. Coping with the past may prove difficult. Make sure it’s a journey you want to undertake. There are parts of Betty’s Child I still have trouble reading, and I find it odd that the only book I ever managed to complete contains the only words I’ve ever written that I’m not exactly fond of.
About the Author:
Don Dempsey experienced childhood abuse and neglect first hand, but went on to have a fulfilling family life as an adult and to own his own business. "If you're lucky, you make it to adulthood in one piece," says Don. "But there's no guarantee the rest of your life is going to be any better. Abused kids are often plagued by fear and insecurity. They battle depression and have trouble with relationships. In the worst cases, abused children perpetuate the cycle." But Don is living proof that you can overcome a childhood of abuse and neglect. "You start by letting go of as much of the guilt (yes, abused kids feel guilty) and as many of the bad memories as possible. At the same time, you hold on to the things that helped you survive. For me, it was the belief that you can make life better by working at it and earning it. It helps to have a sense of humor, too."
Betty's Child is the story of one young man's ordeals with poverty, religion, physical and mental abuse, maternal insanity, and the dire need for confidence and direction as he attempts to come of age.
Donny Davis is struggling to coexist with his mother, a single woman who moves from place to place, always just a step ahead of the law, scamming churches, and running bad checks. She has already been incarcerated for these self-same illegal activities, but refuses to alter her lifestyle; a lifestyle that includes bringing home men she knows little or nothing about. One of these men eventually assaults Donny. He feels trapped, as his mother makes excuses for her boyfriend's actions, but he fears more for his younger brothers than he does for himself. Scarred and sullen, Donny shamefully attends the church his mother is scamming. He stays silent, but something within him begins to rise up, and his youthful indignation swells to an outright full rebellion. As his life with his mother grows ever more fraught with peril, Donny's world begins to completely unravel. His beloved dog is taken from him. One of his younger brothers is brutally attacked. He loses the few friends he has when the family is moved by the church they attend. And then, the very pastor who has control of them begins to accuse him of his mother's sins.