Minnesotan-by-way-of San Francisco writer Laura Flynn spoke to the Minnesota Women’s Press about her recently published memoir, “Swallow the Ocean.” The book is the story of Flynn and her two sisters as their growth into adolescence parallels their mother’s descent into schizophrenia.
In detailing her mother’s outlandish rules, her parents’ custody battle and her escape with her sisters into the protection of books and imagination, Flynn’s prose hints at the transformation the writing process provided her, allowing her to shed the shame she had carried for many years. “You can write from anger, you can write from grief, and you can write out of love-but you really can’t write from shame [because] it’s the antithesis of writing,” Flynn said.
Writing was not at the forefront of her career path. A few years after graduating from college, Flynn became involved in the movement to restore democracy in Haiti after the coup in 1991, eventually meeting and working for president-in-exile Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In 1994, he returned to Haiti and Flynn followed, spending the next five years working for Aristide during his presidency and at his foundation.
When she came back to the States in 2000, Flynn knew she was ready to write. Initially she planned on writing about her experiences in Haiti, but when she began to write, she could not quell the images of her childhood that kept spilling onto the page. “Pretty quickly, in about a week, I decided, OK, I’m going to write this book,” Flynn said. “It was a very clear kind of epiphany, like, Oh, this is what I should do now.”
The book Flynn thought would take six months to write ended up taking six years to complete. Concerns about protecting herself and her family led her to try to fictionalize her work, but a “faithfulness to the story, to the people in the past” changed Flynn’s mind. The reaction of her father and sisters, supportive of her work despite their reservations, was important to Flynn. But her biggest challenge was how to portray her mother to the world. “One of my big worries was that my mother would come off as not a full person or not a full character-you know, she’s communicating with JFK, it’s just very hard probably for a reader to feel like they could really connect to this person,” she said.
Shades of gray
Flynn hopes that “Swallow the Ocean” will contribute to people’s understanding of mental illness “in a full and complex way,” beyond the medical and scientific definitions that can limit our view of its real effects on people, their families and their lives. “I want it to push people to try to look at … experiences with greater complexity. Even when my mother was very sick, she still told me to write a novel-OK, she burned it, but you know, it’s just not all black and white.”
A measure of success for any piece of art is its potential for universality; in Flynn’s case, its ability to strike a chord with “people who have no connection to mental illness.” Flynn’s memoir speaks to what she calls the “resiliency of children,” and the idea that people are bigger than their experiences, bigger than their trauma.
“Swallow the Ocean” confronts the complex realities of three daughters, a mother and mental illness. But Flynn’s memoir also illustrates the possibility of hope and the reality of a future without shame for the past. “It is tragic, there is no doubt about that,” Flynn said. “But I wanted to be able to look at this experience directly in the eye and not flinch from it, not try to pretty it up. And then [to] be able to walk away from that-[I am] still alive and the world still has great things to offer.”