Author Interviews/Features

       

Meet Heather Summerhayes Cariou

Heather Summerhayes Cariou   
Heather Summerhayes Cariou was born and raised in Ontario, trained at the National Ballet School of Canada, and was a founding member of the Ontario Youtheatre and the Center for Actor's Study in Toronto. She enjoyed a professional acting career for twenty years across Canada and off-Broadway. She now lives on the Hudson River in New Jersey with a view of New York City and is working on a novel and co-producing the feature film "Make Believe" with her husband, stage and screen actor Len Cariou. She is a member of the Story Circle Network.

Visit Heather Summerhayes Cariou's website, where you can learn more about her and read an excerpt from Sixtyfive Roses, the highly-acclaimed memoir of her life with her sister Pam, who died of cystic fibrosis.

Read Linda Wisniewski's review of Sixtyfive Roses for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.

Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 03/14/2008

Your sister died in 1980, and your memoir was published in 2007. When did you begin to write? Was there a reason for beginning to write when you did?

I first began to write in 1983, the summer I moved to New York City from Canada, to be with my love, Len Cariou. I had left behind my country, my family, my friends, and my career, for a time, to explore deepening this new relationship. Because I didn't have papers to work in the U.S., there was some question of how I would purposefully use my time. (We're very big in my family for using time purposefully. I still have to remind myself it's okay to watch a soap opera and each chocolate for an hour, once in a while!)

I told Len the story of my sister asking me on her deathbed to "tell our story." She had said, with her typical use of both humor and pathos, that though she didn't think I was a bad actress, she felt my calling was as a writer. She said I wouldn't meet the people I needed to meet to become the person I needed to become if I didn't write. So, Len and I are sitting in this bistro in Chelsea, and he took my hands in his, and told me I MUST write this story. Though we had no idea where our relationship might take us, he promised me solemnly that he would support me in every way possible while I undertook this. We laugh now about the fact that he didn't know it would take me twenty years.

I stumbled around that first summer writing a draft of the story (at the level of a high-school composition) on an IBM Selectric typewriter that Len bought for me. The next year I found the International Women's Writing Guild, the Remember the Magic Conference at Skidmore College, and workshop leader June Gould, and it all took off from there. June has an alchemical way of teaching that led me to discover the writer's voice inside me. A paragraph I wrote in her class that summer is still in the book. At the end of that conference, June gave me an assignment to return the next year with 100 pages. I did, and I've been returning ever since. This will be my twenty-fourth year. I owe my writing life to Len, and to the Guild, and to the women of Skidmore.

The writing itself clearly took enormous courage. What aspect of it was most difficult?

I relived everything entirely. Science tells us that when we remember, the body can't distinguish the difference between the real incident and the memory. That's why it hurts to remember. The memory is in the body, so we go through the same pain as if we were experiencing it for the first time. There were many, many, many days when I sat down to write, and then just lay on the floor wailing and crying, and then got back up and finished the paragraph. But I couldn't not do it. I had promised. And I thought if my sister Pam had found the courage to live her life, I could find the courage to write about it. She was always with me in spirit as I wrote, telling me I could do it, believing in me when I didn't believe in myself. So was Len. So were my best friends, and the women of the IWWG. The courage wasn't mine alone. It came as a gift of love from a lot of other people, and I didn't want to let them down. Oh, and the other thing that was difficult was learning to write metaphor. I knocked at that door for a long, long time.

At the end of the book, you name a number of women to whom you owe a special debt. What roles did they play in the book's writing? In its publication? Do you think that women need a women's support network in order to tell a difficult story?

Well, I go back to the women of the IWWG again, and to several close women friends as well, some writers, some not. I couldn't have made it without them—to cry with, laugh with, drink with, walk with, and talk ad infinitum with. I can't say that women need a woman's support network to tell a difficult story, but at the same time, I can't imagine doing it without one.

But there were men supporting me too. My husband, for one. My friend Scott Rozman. Two of my teachers, the writers Ted Conover and John deGroot. The men and women in my writer's group. All of them gave me valuable feedback on my work. They encouraged me to keep going. They proofread manuscripts. They shared their own inspiring work. One woman gave a Yoruban Blessing over my query packages before I sent them off to agents! Another friend drove me and my queries to the Post Office. It's just amazing the kind of support I was given in this task. It's also interesting though, that my literary agent's company, and my publishing company, are all staffed by women. And both my publisher (McArthur & Company Canada) and my agent (Anne McDermid) have been fantastic. I've heard such horror stories, and my experience has been absolutely wonderful.

Has the publication of this very personal memoir changed your life (public life, private life) in any way?

Unquestionably. I have found my calling, as my sister predicted. I feel validated, not just by the warm response from readers and critics, but because I DID IT! I stuck with it the whole way, and I validated myself by doing so. I am proud of myself for what I produced, and I know that I can grow to be an even better writer than I am now. I'm so excited by the prospect. And I absolutely love making personal appearances, being out in front of an audience, talking about the writing process, and what I learned from my life and from Pam that might help and inspire others not to give up. So I feel I didn't waste those years when I was an actress, because it's all coming together now in a way that feels authentic. I have a sense of true self-worth, perhaps for the first time in my life, at the age of 55. Also, because I am more comfortable with giving than receiving, I've had to learn how to revel (graciously) in some of the attention I'm getting. And believe it or not, that's been a challenge for me.

When your sister was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, you write, "It was as if my family had crossed the waters to a foreign land. We became immigrants in our own lives, leaving behind our identities and relationships as we had known them." That's a powerful description. What do you mean by it? Do you think that all families in similar situations experience such a disruption? What advice would you give to a family that might keep them from becoming dysfunctional?

A diagnosis of catastrophic illness changes everything. It's a thick line drawn down through your life, separating the before and the after. After, your dreams and goals are altered, or the path toward them may become more rugged. The course you take throughout life, the way you make choices, your strengths and vulnerabilities, are all informed by the illness. Not necessarily defined by it, but definitely informed by it. And often your past choices, and your relationships as they are, become crystal clear. You see everything in a new light. You get different ideas about what's really important. And you find out very quickly who is going to peel away and who is going to stay with you for the long haul; who's going to stand up and who's going to crumble. Even what aspects of yourself you can count on, and which you can't, it's all new, almost foreign.

The idea of this description came out of a writing exercise I did with Eunice Scarfe at Skidmore one summer, when she wanted us to write about an immigrant experience. For me, the immigrant experience was entering the country of Cystic Fibrosis. I believe every family suffers this disruption to a greater or lesser extent when an illness or addiction or tragedy presents itself. Some families face it head on, and others may freeze in denial. Some may fall completely apart, while others may pull together in a way they never imagined they would. As for dysfunction, every family has some, illness or no, and the best way to deal with it in my opinion is with lots of humor and a good therapist. We all need to learn to listen to each other with our hearts, to leave our assumptions at the door, and to base our expectations on who the people in our family are, not who we want or need them to be.

Throughout your girlhood and teen years, your relationship with your mother was profoundly troubled. "She had no idea how much I needed to be held," you say at one point in your book. At another, you describe her as "scouting my room from time to time like an army sergeant seeking contraband"—another strong image, suggesting how controlling you felt she was. Yet your mother urged you to "tell the truth" in your book. Did she read the memoir as you were writing it? In what ways did the writing itself change your relationship to her? Her relationship to you?

My mother is my hero. She is so completely, beautifully human. She feels every feeling completely. She embodies both the practical and the spiritual and knows when the time has come to be one or the other. I have learned so much about her from writing about her. That's how I discovered her as a human being. We all tend to mythologize our lives. In writing Sixtyfive Roses, I attempted to get past the myth, and in doing so, I found out things about my parents I hadn't known before, that had been hidden from me by my own false assumptions and flawed perceptions.

Mom and Dad both read sections of various manuscripts. Understand, over twenty years there were many drafts. At first they tended to take the writing as an indictment of their parenting, and they were quite upset. The book caused them a lot of painful soul searching. But they were always open to discussion, and I am so blessed and grateful for this, because now I don't think there is anything important that isn't out in the open between us. And we got a chance to work on forgiveness, of our selves and each other. When I gave them what I thought would be the final draft, my mother told me it was wonderful, but that they felt I was holding something back out of fear of hurting them. She told me then I had to stand in my own truth, whatever it was, and that she and Dad would find a way to deal with it. She told me to go back and write it again. It took two more years, but it was worth it. They do feel a bit exposed with the publication of the book, but they are intensely proud and supportive. I'm very close to my Mom now. We talk several times a week. Recently, she shared with me that when she hears the song "For Good," from Wicked, she thinks of me. I suggest you all download the song and listen! I've got it on my ipod now, and I cry every time I hear it, and think of my Mom.

"We want so much from our families," you say, as you write about your extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. "We want to be heard by them, supported, accepted, and embraced." Yet your extended family repeatedly let you down—and not just you, but your sister, your mother and father, your brothers. How difficult was it to write honestly about them and the ways they hurt you? How have they reacted to this memoir?

It wasn't difficult to write about them at all—once I got what I call "The Agenda Draft" of the book out of my system. It was important for me to write my way toward forgiveness. It's what I believe is our highest calling; because it's the hardest damn thing to do. My cousins Gail, Holly and Nancy and I have found our way there together, and they've been lovely about the book. There are other family members I haven't heard from. Oh well.

Not long after your sister's diagnosis, your parents established the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, partly as a support network for themselves and other families, partly as a way to deal personally with the catastrophe of Pam's illness. You describe your home as both "welded to the foundation" and "fractured by it"—two very strong images. Looking back, do you think that you and your sister and brothers would have been better off if your parents hadn't created the foundation?

No one would have been better off without The CF Foundation. My parents literally changed the world with their efforts, and thousands of lives have been transformed from despair to hope because of it. Whatever price my family had to pay for that had to be paid, and I don't think any of us would have had it any different, even though, in some ways which I won't go into, we are still paying. And Pam's life, and my brother Jeff's life, were physically better than they would have been without the research and clinical care provided by the Foundation. Pam certainly wouldn't have lived as long as she did, and my brother probably wouldn't have just celebrated his forty-sixth birthday. I believe that the foundation gave my parents a vital sense of power and purpose in a situation that often fosters powerlessness.

You write that you learned "to relinquish the right to own my own physical pain, and suffered the death of my ability to voice it." Can you say a little more about that? To what extent has writing this book given you back your pain, and your voice?

When you are a caregiver for a person with a painful illness, your own physical pain gets sublimated; it appears less important by comparison. Over a long period of time, this can become incorporated into one's behavior. I was shocked out of this when I finally went to see an osteopath about a knee that had been in pain and swollen for over six months. He was incredulous that I had lived with this condition for so long without seeking attention. I told him my history, and he said, "Don't you know you have the right to own your own pain?" I burst into tears. This was the first time I had been validated in that way, and it was a turning point. I had always been quite vocal about emotional and psychological pain, yet stoic about physical pain. I still have a very high physical pain threshold, so I don't think writing the books has "given me back my pain," as it were, but I have become better at acknowledging pain and seeking help when I experience it. I value myself more, so I give my pain its due. I guess the book has done that for me, in a way.

Your relationship to Pam, you write, was made up of "equal parts" compassion for her and guilt for the "unspeakable gratitude" you felt for having been spared her fate. There is also love, jealousy, anger, resentment—a whole range of difficult emotions that would be challenging enough for a mature adult, much less for a child. How difficult was it to face up to these emotions as you were writing?

It was extremely painful, but I had the support of a wonderful therapist during those years of writing, and again, I cannot overstate the support of the women at the IWWG Skidmore conference who held me time after time as I wept after excavating yet another piece of the story in one or another writing workshop. I also knew that facing these emotions were part of my healing.

"Memory has a voice, a vocabulary, its own reflective narrative," you write. "Epiphany may occur in crisis, but reflection cannot. The reflective voice is useless in the face of calamity." Given this fact (and I do agree with it), how do we deal with the difficult challenges life hands us? Do we all have to wait twenty years, and then write a book? Or is there a way we can find the reflective voice in the midst of calamity?

Pam used to tell me when I was in crisis to go somewhere quiet and listen to my heart. That was good advice. I deal with the difficult challenges in my life now by remembering Pam's legacy: that you can't control life by being afraid of it; that the only true power we have is our power to choose our response to our circumstances; that we must understand the difference between surrender and giving up; and that though there are times when people or dreams must be surrendered, we must never give up. Also, that joy is there for the taking, if care to look for it, even in the midst of sorrow. I also have a card posted on my wall that says "Serenity is not freedom from the storm; it is peace within the storm." Usually, all we have in crisis is the ability to put one foot in front of the other. Meditation, yoga, a long walk, a good cry and a cup of tea, all of these things can put us in a state of reflection however briefly. But the kind of reflection I'm talking about does take time, and distance.

Now that you've written the story of your life with Pam, what stories of your own will you write?

I am working on a novel about family betrayal, based on the end of my first marriage, and my uncle's successful attempts to estrange my grandmother from my mother. As my teacher Eunice Scarfe as taught me, I will begin with the truth and then enter the lie. There's a kind of poetic justice in that, now that I think of it.

What is the status of cystic fibrosis research at this point? If a little girl of four or five is diagnosed with this disease this year, is her prognosis different from that of your sister?

The average life expectancy is now thirty-seven years, and for the first time in history we have a larger adult population than children and adolescents. This is all great news. Clinical treatment is also vastly improved, making the chances of a good life excellent for many with CF. However, there are several hundred gene mutations, meaning there are still many children diagnosed with CF who are going to have short and challenging lives. We still need to find a cure. I hope readers will think of this, and help support us.

We hope so, too, Heather. Thank you so much for showing us something of the difficult process that was involved in writing this book and for sharing your feelings about it with us. And we'll look forward to reading that novel!

       

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