Longtime journalist Mary Carter Bishop has published a memoir, deploying her reporter’s eye on the subject of her own family in Don’t You Ever: My Mother and Her Secret Son (Harper, 2018).
Bishop, well known to longtime readers of the Roanoke Times & World News, was named a Pulitzer finalist and awarded a George Polk award for her investigation of dangerous practices and fraud in Virginia’s pest control industry. She’s a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and is most at home researching and telling stories that most affect our lives. Today, Roanoke Public Library’s Virginia Room is home to her archived research for the 1995 Roanoke Times & World News series, “Street by Street, Block by Block: How Urban Renewal Uprooted Black Roanoke.” Earlier in her career, her Philadelphia Inquirer team covering the Three Mile Island nuclear leaks received a 1980 Pulitzer Prize.
The research undertaken for this, Bishop’s first book, is of a very personal nature. The adult discovery of a neglected half brother causes Bishop to question her mother’s seemingly dual approaches to maternal responsibility and to explore her own role in the family dynamics. Bishop mines secrets, navigates heartbreaking events, and presents the power of guilt in undermining self worth and shaping relationships. It’s an extreme case, but one through which the reader begins to assess his or her own injuries, compassion, and knowability.
On the occasion of the publishing of the memoir, Mary Carter Bishop provided some additional insight to BOOK CITY ★ ROANOKE.
BOOK CITY ★ ROANOKE: Primary to your memoir is the notion of knowability and acceptance. It seems we all want to be seen, understood, and valued by those close to us. But it’s terribly difficult. We get in our own way, time after time. What lessons can you share from first living, and then so closely studying, the situation between your brother and mother, and between your brother and you?
Mary Carter Bishop: Doug, this may be the best question I’ve ever been asked about my mother, brother and me. Such vast cultural and class differences colored all our interactions. My mom, born in Moneta, Bedford County, in 1916, was punished by the intensely judgmental thinking of her youth. My brother cast that off in large part, yet still felt profoundly condemned by it. So each of them was too frightened and wounded to reveal much of themselves — or to even regard themselves privately with a kind eye. The almost feudal class system of Keswick made us all wary of powerful forces. But because my parents blessed me with a college education, I enjoyed the ultimate luxury: the endowment of personal agency and self-expression. Mom and Ronnie each loved me, but they also saw me as something of an overindulged flake, to which I gratefully plead guilty. To them, the world was far more forbidding than it was for me. I had it easy
BCR: Yet in your professional life, you’ve worked toward that wider “endowment of personal agency and self-expression.” So go gentle there. Let’s talk about the writing of this. There’s an immediacy in the book though the events took place decades ago. That’s partially through the close presentation of your own struggles with the situation. Was it personally difficult for you to allow this level of exposure?
MCB: As I worked through drafts of the book — a 140,000-word first one (with hundreds of footnotes), then a 100,000-word rewrite, then the final version at around 80,000 words — I often felt highly vulnerable. I’m still not sure that, in the text, I treated my mother and my brother with sufficient respect and affection, or that I even cared enough way back when. That being said, I probably come across as too nice in the final book. In the earlier drafts, there was much more rawness in my feelings about each of them. But my editor persuaded me that the book isn’t really so much about me, and that the reader gets enough of my ambivalence about them. As in all human relationships, my feelings — and theirs — warmed and cooled, day to day, often minute by minute.
BCR: How has analysis helped you in taking on this book?
MCB: As I say in the book, I process my life and my feelings by writing, principally in the journal I’ve kept since 1985. I indexed most of those volumes and almost a decade ago, began adorning the story with passages from my journal, which includes many encounters with my mother, father and brother. Mining my journal helped me step back and analyze each period of time I had with my family members. Doing it that way helped me feel safe and confident. I doubt any reader will question my authority in writing this book, but somehow I take comfort in knowing that if somebody says, “Really, did that actually happen that way?” I can find my reference and answer, “Yep, it definitely did, and a whole lot more besides!”
BCR: That makes me want to get the pen out right now. How about other processing. Did your experiences in therapy shape the structure of the story in any way?
MCB: I’ve been in psychotherapy off and on for more than forty years, dealing with anxiety mostly, some depression, and a lot of self-esteem issues. Every Thursday afternoon, I still attend a group therapy session that supported me as my courage wavered in the writing of this book. I owe those therapists and group members a great deal for strengthening me each week. For one thing, they assured me that, yes, this story was worth telling, and that readers would benefit from reading it because they would see glimpses of their own families in mine. I guess the simplest answer to your question is that what I’ve learned in therapy is that when we can be our most honest in talking about ourselves, our guilt, our fears, our anger, we can then be (and there’s no way to avoid clichés here) more peaceful, purposeful people.
BCR: Cliché or not, that’s a wonderful phrase. Has the process of researching and launching the book brought you closer to other extended family or friends?
MCB: For years, I worried and even lost sleep fretting that the few cousins I have left, or the man my mother raised as his nanny, would be offended by how I described people in my book. I sent them galley proofs straight away, and each of them called with sweet affirmation of the whole story. Childhood friends also called and emailed me heartfelt remarks. The most tender came from my earliest friend, who never met my brother but knew my parents from the age of eight. She wishes she could be reunited with my late mother and could open her arms to her, bestowing all the love, affection and forgiveness my mom was never able to give herself.
BCR: I bet there will be more of those interactions now that the book has been published. Virginia readers will enjoy the Roanoke and Vinton scenes and the Albemarle County landscape. Throughout the memoir, the setting and the sensory perception of place were used to powerful effect. Did you particularly enjoy that aspect of the writing?
MCB: Oh, yes. For all my weird, class-based neuroses about Albemarle County and Keswick in particular, I love that land and many of the people. I had great fun in going back and seeing even the now towering elm that my dad planted in the front yard of our tenant house on Bridlespur Farm. I went on many research trips there and around Roanoke, Covington, Vinton, Crozet and Moneta. I especially enjoyed going through Roanoke city directories and assembling exactly the hundreds of stores, offices, restaurants and theaters that eighteen-year-old Ronnie feasted his eyes upon when he stepped off that bus late in the summer of 1953 to became a downtown barber. I visited the Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike bungalow where my mom rented a room in 1936, when infant Ronnie had just gone to live with doting foster parents on a nearby dairy farm. My husband, Dan Crawford, and I retraced the steps she took to visit Ronnie — through the Catholic cemetery, where we saw the same elaborate Italian, Irish and Lebanese tombstones my mother did, and over the same hills and dales she took, seeing the same distant mountains she saw, fending off an angry dog like ones she might have encountered. Multiply these experiences by a thousand, and you’ll imagine my pleasure in grounding this story in its eternal and more temporal features.
BCR: Your career has centered around important and tough stories. This is a difficult and rewarding book to read, yet there were definitely humorous parts. (If I laugh at the end of the musical program in a memorial service anytime soon, it will be because of your mother.) What makes you laugh?
MCB: Spontaneous, ordinary, honest human reactions (like my mom’s at that service) crack me up the most because they fly straight from our brains and out our mouths. My dad taught me to listen for those little gems. Many of my first-draft stories of bawdy, natural things old men said to him as a young man weren’t germane to the narrative, so they were deleted, but I love thinking about them. An old farmhand didn’t show up for work for a few days. His ex-wife had come back to town. She put on a filmy negligee and stood at the landing of some stairs, between the man and a sunny window. The old man, apologizing to my dad for his absence, confessed that he looked up at her, “And I got the can’t-help-its.”
BCR: This is your first book. What has surprised you about the publishing process?
MCB: There’s more waiting than I expected. Of course, my memoir lacked the urgency of a book like Beth Macy’s upcoming “Dopesick,” about the opioid epidemic, and yet even so….My first editor, the one who responded so mightily to my book proposal, abruptly left the publishing house after many years, so I waited months to be assigned a new editor. She was well worth the wait — extremely quick, sensitive and kind. There’s nearly fifty years’ difference in our ages. I’m seventy-two, and she’s probably under twenty-eight. But she understood me and my story intuitively. I didn’t know a thing about making a book, and am still learning, but Sofia Groopman, my editor, essentially took me by the hand and all but said, “Come on, honey, this is how it’s done.” The process of creating a book is accomplished with such delicious intentionality — the selection of fonts, the choice of the very paper itself, the cover design (I adore mine), the ornamental symbols used at section breaks. It’s all deliberate, and, in my case anyway, feels like rays of intelligence streaming toward one just-right volume.
BCR: What are you most looking forward to now that the book is available and will certainly have a wide local readership?
MCB: I’m most looking forward to sitting down with people who’ve read the book and hearing what they think. What do they make of my mom, my brother, my dad, me, and all the other people in the book? I’ve always thought of the writing of this book as the opening of a conversation with people about the characters and the events. I grew up a lonely kid. Now, in my old age, I get to talk with people about a deeply personal story I’ve put out there. How cool is that? Oh, and maybe somebody can help me identify Ronnie’s father. I doubt I have any of Ronnie’s DNA. Maybe I can find a hair. I don’t know. But if the name my mom listed as his father on two institutional admissions forms is truly his name (and it’s not “John Smith” or some other generic name), maybe I can figure out who he was.
BCR: Wow. You are going to have great conversations, and yes, more investigations! Any other question I should be asking?
MCB: Your questions have been such a pleasure to answer, I can add only one other matter. I’ve been wondering as I await the entry of my book into the world if I would have written it if Ronnie had not developed acromegaly. To me, it was the cosmically cruel coda to his life, because this stealthy, creeping, infuriatingly slow disease played viciously into his biggest issues. He knew nothing about his father, and now, not only did he think of himself as a “freaky little bastard,” he had to contend with head-to-toe illness, pain and deformity. And yet: If, when I found him in 1987, he had been wounded but healthy, how would our new friendship have progressed? And would I have seen a book in his story?
BCR: I think you would have. To me the book made me consider shame in my own life. There’s work the book does, and as a journalist, you would have found the angle that got this discussion into the world. But that’s just how I think. Thank you, Mary. Thank you, and congratulations.
Track Mary Carter Bishop’s Virginia appearances here.
★ July 17, 6:30 PM – Book No Further, Roanoke
★ July 19, 6:30 PM – St. John’s Episcopal Church, Roanoke
★ July 26 6:00 PM – Chop Suey Books, Richmond