When you told XXX this morning that his memoir is equivalent to his heart, you were perfectly correct. His memoir should be his essence - what he carries in his heart with him. His parents, and his family, especially. We are made up of our experiences… we choose them, and chose them before we birthed, and we have to live and experience life to expose ourselves to our potential lessons. It’s up to us whether we, firstly, engage with the potential lessons and whether, b) we live them, and c) whether we allow ourselves to learn from the situations. We can fall at any of the hurdles. Christian - guided writing 29/01/19
As I sit here contemplating the end of my work as a memoir ghostwriter (XXX is my last client), a thought strikes me: I won’t actually stop being a ghostwriter - quite literally, I am writing the next book with a ghost. My brother.
I first had the idea to try and collect stories about Christian back in 2008, when he'd been missing in Africa for five years. I was fully aware that if he never returned we, as a family, were going to lose many of his life experiences - his boarding school days, his university days, his travels with friends - unless I made an effort to contact his friends and ask them to contribute to the 'Tales of Chris' blog.
The stories came in. Christian was remembered by so many for his kindness, his sense of fun and his genuineness. But, of course, when you have someone missing in your family, your life is in limbo and all you really want is to have the person (in my case, my only sibling) back in your life so they can tell you their experiences.
As time went on, and I got married and had two children, it became more important to me to: a) find out what had happened to my brother and, b) tell his story in a biography format.
I wanted to capture his essence. As Christian wrote to me the other day (see top quote), the best memoirs capture what the subject carries in their heart: the people and the experiences which have shaped them. I didn't want my brother to just be a 'Lost Explorer' with no grave nor memorial. I wanted to know him 'wholly'.
But I could only do so much of his biography. He was still missing. I had no ending. We had no closure. The book didn't ring true.
As my brother's trip to Africa was inspired by Mungo Park (the 18th century Scottish explorer), the loss of Christian's story inspired the memoir ghostwriting business I set up in 2011. Our first book (I work with my husband) was Dad’s life story. We had thoroughly proofread the final manuscript, before it went to print, yet there on the page, opposite a photo of Christian and Dad, was a really obvious typo in the paragraph talking about the effect Christian’s disappearance had had on him. We nervously laughed at the time… still unsure of whether Christian was still alive, or dead.
Time, again, passed on...
In 2015, for Christian’s 40th birthday, I organised a party and all his family and friends turned up clutching photos and their stories of how Christian had touched their lives. But I was still plagued by the missing part of Christian's biography. What had happened to him? He'd disappeared without a trace around Bamako in Mali and despite numerous searches by police, private investigators and friends, no evidence of his death or his continued whereabouts had been found. There were theories involving a bad element...
I set out on my path to find the truth, once and for all.
The following few years saw me undergo profound changes and I used life story writing as a therapy for myself. I had seen first hand, in my clients, how recounting your life story could release you from trauma and help you see your life from a different perspective. The first exercise I always asked new clients to do was make a list (with dates) of the major turning points in their lives: the events that shaped them and the people that influenced them. Without fail, during the subsequent interviews, tears would form as they touched on painful moments which they'd never really explored before and then, almost miraculously, once the tears and words had left their mouths they were calm.
I never shied away from asking the difficult question: "How did that make you feel?"
Truths were revealed; emotions were released; connections were made which had never been realised; light bulbs would go off; forgiveness would be given. This was especially true when they finally saw their words in print: it was a gift that kept on giving.
And so it was for me.
When I was writing, often in public, I kept in mind this piece of advice from Neil Gaiman: “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself... That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”
I became obsessed with our sibling relationship and how my ‘soulmate’ had ‘abandoned’ me when he’d gone to boarding school. I slowly began to realise how this traumatic event had negatively impacted my life, with many decisions being directly related to unconscious thoughts and feelings about my brother. It was a revelation. Once I knew how angry I was with him, how much I mistrusted him and how much I saw his African disappearance as ‘typical’ of him, I was able to change my thoughts about him. I understood him and I forgave him for abandoning me (because, of course, it wasn't his fault). I healed our relationship and other close relationships..
But all of that work still didn’t bring an end to the limbo. Christian’s story STILL had no ending. And that began to really hurt me as my children started to ask about ‘Uncle Christian’.
“Is he dead, Mummy?” my little daughter would ask.
“Was he eaten by a shark?” my son once asked.
“No, darling. There are no sharks in the River Niger. And anyway, he might still be alive.” But was that possible after all these years?
It also occurred to me that my fearful feelings about Christian’s disappearance were beginning to ripple outwards and affect my children as my son started to get extremely upset and agitated when he didn’t know where I was in the house. He would lose sight of me and then he’d panic. “But Uncle Christian disappeared… so you might, too.” With hindsight, it was these remarks by the children that pushed me to the point of desperation to get Christian's story uncovered.
To cut a very long story short (see the photo of my pile of journals!), I now have all the information I need to finish Christian’s life story. In January (this year) I retraced his final steps in Africa with 'soul Christian' right by my side. These live recordings of my mediumship and intuitive abilities have allowed all the trauma of Christian's death to be released and I was able to forgive 'George' who ultimately killed my brother.
I haven’t yet told my children the details. They know that 'Uncle Christian' is dead and in Heaven, but they are far too young to have their uncle’s death explained to them, or for them to connect with him. Christian made many mistakes in his last few months of life, and underestimated how tough his solo African journey would be. But at least I can finish his life story now and he’s given me 16 lessons he learnt from his experiences.
I won’t be changing a single word of the information I saw, heard and felt as we travelled together back to Africa. His story is complete.
And the book I'm now going to write? Well, it's going to be a joint memoir, rather than a biography. And it, like all the best memoirs, comes from our hearts. It is our essence: our experiences lived, our relationship and our lessons learnt. We didn't fall at any of the hurdles put in front of us.