Elizabeth Wilcox has written a stunning new memoir that traces three generations of mother-daughter trauma in her family. The principal characters are the author; her mother, Barbara; Barbara’s mother, Violet; and Violet’s mother, Anna. While the book is memoir that includes scenes and conversations with Barbara and other family members along with tireless research of Barbara’s deceased mother and grandmother, Wilcox explores more deeply. “We can listen to our mothers’ stories, but to understand why those stories so visibly impact us and others, we have to use our imaginations. To be empathetic and to try to understand how others feel, we have to try to take their perspectives, as hard as that effort may be.” So, along with memoir, the book is also “an imagined history of maternal memoir that is [Wilcox’s] attempt to find truth.”
The story opens in London, England in 1989. Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth has lived in her parents’ apartment while attending college and has recently graduated. Her mother has arrived for a visit to her beloved daughter and beloved London. After talking at length, both women have retired for the night. Unable to sleep, Elizabeth returns to the kitchen to prepare warm milk with a good splash of scotch while reflecting on the evening with her mother. She’d had no patience to hear that “her nails needed a trim… or that she needed to thank her mother for another meal she had gone out of her way to prepare… or be reminded of how Barbara had worked tirelessly for her seven children as they grew up… or hear about Barbara’s childhood and how difficult life had been for her.” Finally, without saying good night, Elizabeth went to her room.
Barbara returns to the kitchen, takes over the warm milk preparation, and tells her daughter she loves her. There’s no mention of Elizabeth’s earlier impatience. Barbara already knows that this daughter doesn’t like her. Yet in the approaching hours, Barbara will ask Elizabeth to help her write her childhood story. Reluctantly, Elizabeth agrees. Later on, her father will also ask her to tell her mother’s story. I rest my hand on the outcome of that long ago conversation, the powerful memoir titled The Long Tail of Trauma.
Thus, we enter a journey during which we travel to London, England; Weston, MA; Fairlee, VT; Hamburg and Dusseldorf, Germany; Old Saybrook, CT; Wassenaar, Holland; Wales; New York; Cape Cod and more as Wilcox traces the lives of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, each of whom was separated from her respective mother at a young age.
Wilcox reminds me of a master quilter who has gathered small and large pieces of fabric through the years, arranged them with deep care—both the beautiful and the ugly pieces—into a design that she’s tenderly stitched together with honesty, wisdom, and love. She has transformed those pieces into a unique masterpiece that is a gift not only for herself and family but also to all who, like myself, have returned to the past or those who know this is a journey that needs taking. There, we learn the truth of what was long hidden and as we move through the trauma, we come to a light at the end of the darkness and we discover we have been transformed.
Just as this memoir has healed a family, I’m reminded of the brave learning about the past that is threading through our nation today as we open our eyes to the racism we’ve long failed to see or not known how to help. The Long Tail of Trauma is an exemplar story of healing for all who care about others in our world today, be they immediate family or our worldwide family with long histories of abuse—because telling our stories and listening to others with respect and kindness is the beginning of healing.