I know I’m crazy. I try to align events with my body’s tension but can’t remember properly, my racing heart or late-night brain awake with calculations for escape. What if I just walked out, took my body with me? I could wait until my mother and sister are asleep and leave, breathing stealth into the front-door latch. The foyer’s hardwood creaks, and before I could get to the elevator, my sister would emerge from her room and ask, What are you doing? Afternoons I toss from our fourth-floor window my action-figure Catwoman to see if her cape works (I made her a cape; it doesn’t work), and she clatters and splays on the cement. I go downstairs and outside, round the corner, collect her pieces, and come back up.

“Fearless writer, that girl, getting it all down.”

I spend the night at friends’ houses, eating Popsicles, playing Careers, dreaming my friends’ dinner rituals and mothers to be my own. I ask to stay extra nights, school nights. Lynn’s mother holds me in the mornings before we leave and smooths the front of my coat and kisses both my cheeks. Elizabeth’s mother takes us ice skating on winter afternoons, laces our skates up, and stands at the railing to watch us. My mother, daytime, nighttime, lolls in her sheets, drugged or drugging, flying on coke and jabbering on the phone or limp in an opiate sleep from which I cannot rouse her– an experience I’ll learn in adulthood registers in a young child as a death, as terrifying as death, repeated over and over. My mother dies each day, and then she wakes up. I wish she were dead so I wouldn’t feel this collision of fear and love, desire and rage, hatred and suffocation; so I wouldn’t be crazy.

I’m crazy to want out when my needs are addressed, whims indulged. I go to arts camp and work backstage, I go to tropical islands and try to water ski; I have a new parka, bathing suits from Bloomingdale’s, theater tickets, airplane seats, doctors’ care, a happy school which sends us for five whole days at a time to stay at its farm and learn to milk cows, talk back to goats, butcher chickens. We bake bread. I visit Monte Carlo to see my grandmother, who buys me silk dresses and velvet hair bows and clutches me and kisses my head. I have friends and a list of boys I like. My sister and I eat chocolate-shelled Haagen Dazs bars and watch “The Love Boat,” as if something true might be revealed there.

“I write stories and share them… trying to make visible what I know I see… using language to craft myself as whole, not as part of my mother.”

When I’m 11, my mother gives me a blank journal. It’s bound in maroon cotton, the bright yellow pages unlined. I write about boys, about my sister, about A Chorus Line and Chicago, my pet mice. There’s so much to say, to pronounce. I list books I read, number the movies I see in order of favorites. I write that I want to go to the Bette Davis double feature with Lynn and Elizabeth, but Mummy says we’re going to her boyfriend’s country house. He has a midnight blue Ford Mustang convertible, I write. I write that she says I’ll get to ride a horse, and I do ride that horse, who is so tall I’m scared, but then, atop him, I’m not as scared. I don’t remember rereading these pages, just writing.

My collection of diaries grows, record books and ledgers and more clothbound volumes. I keep them in chronological order on my shelves. I sign each entry with my full name, to practice my signature. I am practicing a self. In my mid 20s I tire of the daily record, abandon the diary, box up the volumes. I write stories and share them with encouraging teachers, trying to make visible what I know I see, to make legible what I feel, using language to craft myself as whole, not as a part of my mother. My mother’s addled nonsense and drug use go on, her spidery provocations continue. She wants me close. I write love poems and anger poems, and sad, sad poems and lost-girl short stories. I am writing to create a personal space, to reach in my own head what is untouchable, to understand. The writing is the long river of my story, its tributaries, creeks, trickles, joinings, and it doesn’t stop until I give birth to my first child when I’m 31. My son, a joy, is a new tale, a new way of naming frozen fields and the frightening chasms. I care for him, a lot of work, and I try not to trip over the vacant places for which I still have no explanation. It’s so much work, but with him here I want to uncrazy myself.

“My mother dies each day, and then she wakes up. I wish she were dead…
so I wouldn’t be crazy.”

When he is nine and his brother five, I am writing a memoir and open the diaries to fact check. A lot of things I haven’t remembered accurately, because memory is like that, a subjective refuge, but I meet the 11-year-old me, the 15-year-old me, waiting. They have stored the events until I return to collect them. The handwriting is seeded with exclamation points, trimmed with doodles of kissy-lips, but it contains the young reporter’s notes: my mother punched me in the stomach, again, again. Over years she slapped me, hit me, used her sexual touch all over my body. I had un-known this, all of it. No memory. Her overdoses, the ambulances, the uniformed men in our apartment, the ongoing terror of her violence and vanishings, the times she said she was raped, said she was beaten by a boyfriend, the time she called from the hospital after a beating. Fearless writer, that girl, getting it all down. I read and read and know I was never crazy. I was saved.

Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of two memoirs, Her Last Death and She Matters: A Life in Friendships, both New York Times best sellers. She teaches online writing classes in Memoir, Revision and Generative Prompts, which you can investigate at susannasonnenberg.com.