I received a lovely note from a reader in Ontario the other day who made the observation that her own immigrant grand parents and others she knew did not talk much about the ‘old country’. This rang true for me. I grew up among people who had immigrated from somewhere, England, Scotland, Russia, China, Germany, and I really don’t recall people talking much about their old countries.
Of course everyone seems to share everything nowadays, but when I was young, reserve was the norm. Yet I wondered about what older people I knew left behind, who they were before. I would sometimes ask, and would get answers like, ‘oh, that’s all in the past’, or even ‘I never talk about that.’ On my happiest days I would get to hear stories, often from people’s childhoods, and almost always about times that were innocent or happy for them, and were preserved, accurately or not, as lovely memories. But it often wasn’t just that they were avoiding discussing, say wartime experiences, but a genuine desire to leave things in the past and focus on the ‘new life.’
Perhaps many of that generation believed as my mother did, that the past was rubbish, and had no effect on who one is at this very moment. Like many of her generation, psychology was an anathema with its insistence on experiences in youth being a determining factor on behaviour as an adult. I was a typical child of the therapeutic sixties, and was a lover of the link between early experience and the lives we live. Jung, Maslow, Erickson, and Bettelheim were my heroes with their trips through childhood, the mind and mythology. “That explains everything!” was my constant victorious refrain. My mother had a genuine horror of being ‘explained’. She felt, and I am not unsympathetic, that it robs people of their individuality and their heroism.
And mostly she was able to live as though no past existed. I did not write books before she died, but I think my experience of being with her in her last moments was where the Lane Winslow series began to take root. I was profoundly moved and saddened to hear her confess on her deathbed that experiences of rejection by her father had caused her to spend her life trying to prove him wrong. In that moment I was struck by her heroism in living her remarkable life as she wanted, and at the same time by the forceful truth that everyone has a past, and it matters.
I see people as having entire lifetimes they have packed up into suitcases and pushed into the attic, both literally and figuratively. Those are the stories I want to understand more, and I try to tease out some elements of these previous lives my characters might have lived, (even if they’d rather I didn’t) because I think they throw light on the present, and for my books, on the events in the stories.
The remark made by the reader made me realize that a key feature in my books, hopping back and forth in time, comes precisely from my desire to understand the pasts that people tuck away. I believe that these experiences matter and reach into the present, and do inform how we respond and what we believe. Past experiences are fundamental to the ability to overcome and thrive. But sometimes, (especially for the purposes of my books!) they plant the seeds of disaster.