Gail Straub is co-director with her husband, David Gershon, of the Empowerment Institute, the co-author of Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, and the author of The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self, Connecting with Society as well as Circle of Compassion, a book of meditations. Her memoir, Returning to My Mother's House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine, was the 2009 Nautilus Silver Award Winner in the memoir category, the 2008 Winner in the National Best Books Women's Issues Category. It was also a finalist in ForeWord Magazine's 2008 Book of the Year in the Category of Family and Relationships. For more information visit her website.
Read Lisa Shirah-Hiers's review of Returning to My Mother's House for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 09/01/2011
You've said you wrote Returning to My Mother's House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine to honor your mother. Can you talk more about that?
I wrote the book to get to know my mother. She had died 36 years before, when she was 55 and I was only 23. There was a long period when I just denied that loss and really hadn't grieved her. When I was approaching the age of 55 I really started thinking about her, poring back over her life; it was a very healing journey. Not only did I grieve her, but perhaps equally important, I got to know her. It became apparent to me that her story, her loss of this instinctual, intuitive wisdom, was universal. Not only had she lost it but I was beginning to lose it and women all around me all over the world were experiencing that same loss.
In the book you talk about your mother's transition from a free spirited artist to an exhausted working mom, struggling to compete with Wilmington high society. That seemingly led to a figural and literal breaking of her heart and ultimately to her death from a rare heart condition. Why do you think you're mother switched from the inner directed life to the outer?
I think that it's many, many things, and that they're complex. Some of them were my mother's own personal demons, her own personal psychology, and some of it was the dominant patriarchal society that conspired to steal all of that away from her. It was a combination of both. For most of us, whether we lived in my mother's generation or my generation or your daughter's, it will be a complex confluence of influences that challenges us to stand up for the feminine and protect the feminine. At some point I say that perhaps my mother was just doing the best she could. Many readers say to me that they come to a point in their healing journey where they can say that—not just about their mothers but also about themselves.
What do you most hope that readers will get from your book?
I've gotten a lot of email from women who've read it. What they always say is they understand their mothers more after reading the book. I think that was my greatest hope—that women would become more deeply aware of this primordial, archetypal bond and that the love and connection between mother and daughter could move to another level.
There's been so much wounding between mothers and daughters. Do you think this is harder in our culture because of the way we devalue the feminine or is it just a universal experience?
I think it's inescapable. I mean it goes back to Greek mythology. Right? One of the rich and mysterious themes of the human condition is the mother-daughter bond and the way all the wide spectrum of human emotion is called forth in it, from deep love to hate, from understanding to complete lack of understanding. It's as if this bond in all its complexity is a way we can grow and live the full human experience. It's not easy. I never met a mother and daughter who could say to me "this was an easy journey for us."
What did you learn yourself from doing the book?
I learned—so many writers have said this before me—that when someone dies physically, yes, there's this enormous loss; you don't have their physical presence, but they're still remarkably available to you emotionally and spiritually. Writing is such a profound way to keep that link alive. I wouldn't have known before writing the book that I would get to know my mother through writing about her. I also learned how a personal story is so often also a universal story. I started out thinking it was going to be a story about my mom and me perhaps, but then it became equally a story about the universal loss of the feminine.
I've seen this over and over in SCN, that no matter how diverse the religious or cultural backgrounds, when women tell their stories, other women can connect with it.
Absolutely. It's the power of story, that it is simultaneously unique and universal, perhaps in equal measures.
It's also very validating for the woman telling her story to realize she's not alone in her experience.
I think that's an intrinsic part of the healing of stories. In my own classes in story telling and writing we work with the trilogy or trinity of writing the story, then giving voice to the story (literally reading the story out loud), and third, having it heard and witnessed. We connect emotionally much more when we actually give voice to the story. You know, I had a funny experience with that. After I wrote the book I did all these readings in book stores and for different groups. I found I often connected more deeply emotionally when I was reading the passage aloud—even more deeply than when I wrote it. That three-way synergy is very strong.
What was the biggest challenge for you in writing the book?
It was the same challenge that all writers face. I had to find the voice. That took some time because it was about my mother, but it was also about me, but then ultimately it also was about the universal loss of the feminine. And of course, there was the other great challenge that all writers face—I had to keep peeling deeper and deeper layers to find deeper truth. Because the response that a reader has, as we know, is to deep truth. I went through any number of drafts to get to that deeper truth. And then I was mighty nervous when it was published because I said to myself, "Oh my god. All my dirty laundry is now hanging out for the whole world to see." But it was okay, because so many people can connect with the deep truth that you're telling. Still, that was scary in the beginning.
Why is it so important for us to connect with our voice, to put our own truth out there?
I think there's a tremendous loss of imagination in current culture—not just in the West but in other parts of the world as well. Any artist—a painter, a musician, a writer, a film maker—in some way is helping people to reconnect with their deepest imagination. And the imagination is where vision and healing and creativity live. The challenges we face in society today are so immense, so challenging, that we need that untamed, unbridled imagination to help us think outside of the box, to give us new solutions and ideas for how to live. At its best, any art form can do that.
Is this lack of imagination the cause of the apathy we see in society today?
I think that so much of the spiritual malaise, the spiritual emptiness of the times we live in is because of social apathy. So much has been written about the fact that narcissism leads to emptiness, while active engagement with the challenges of the world actually leads to more meaning and more fulfillment. I wrote another book (The Rhythm of Compassion) where I talk about how to balance self care with caring for the world. When those two things are in balance we seem to be most fulfilled. There's a sense of meaning and connection. Engagement is the greatest antidote to apathy—and really to emptiness as well.
What do you say to people who scoff at the idea of a separate feminine experience?
My whole point is that both men and women need the masculine and the feminine. The feminine archetype emphasizes emotion, intuition, the invisible and the intangible and a respect for the interior life. Obviously, men need that as much as women. The masculine archetype emphasizes intellect, rational process, what's visible and tangible and a respect for the exterior life, and clearly, women need those as much as men. So my simple answer is we all need both in balance to be healthy, creative people. The problem in western culture—because this is not true in some of the parts of the world where I work—is that the masculine values and attributes are more dominant. It's so poignant. Many men who've read the book have said to me "I need this. I need to open my heart and balance my heart with my head. I need to nourish and respect my interior life. I'm burned out, I'm all outer." So I think the journey to understand and respect and protect the feminine archetype is something that serves both men and women.
Let's talk about the Imagine program.
My husband and I started this empowerment work thirty years ago. Over those years we've developed a very elegant and precise methodology which allows behavior change to take place. A year ago our very dear colleague, Dr. Anita Shankar, encouraged us to take this strategy for behavior change to the poorest, most disenfranchised people in the world. She explained that in most development programs women are given money and education and very strong and effective outer strategies, i.e. the masculine. But they're not taught how to take their fate back in their own hands, to develop the interior courage, strength and resiliency they need to go back to school, get a job, teach their children and all those outer things. In development language this is called agency: the capacity to effect interior behavior change. Our Imagine program is a strategy to deliver agency and behavior change to some of the poorest and most disenfranchised women in the world and so in a very interesting way our conversation has come full circle. Because agency is about the interior. We've spoken throughout our entire interview about the need for men and women to balance the outer and the inner, so here we are coming back to that with these women. They also need a balance of agency—the capacity to work with their interior beliefs—as well as the outer skills of aids prevention, health, microfinance and so forth. But I'm very passionate about it because the women there are just extraordinary. They've lived through genocide, gang rape and marriage at very young ages to men 20 and 30 years older—just extraordinarily difficult life circumstances and yet their resilience is intact. I wake up every morning and their faces are in front of me and they inspire me to do my best and to offer my best. So they've become the fire in my soul.
To find out more about Gail's memoir visit her website. For more about the Imagine Program see its website.