When I read for review Judith Ruskay Rabinor’s memoir, The Girl in the Red Boots, I was fascinated by her advice to her patients in her psychotherapy practice as well as her personal stories about her own relationship with her mother. In this interview, Dr. Rabinor talks about her challenges in writing her book and gives more observations about the mother-daughter relationship.
The Girl in the Red Boots combines memoir with advice for people who want to start conversations about important issues with their own moms. What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
My biggest challenge was creating a compelling story to engage the reader. This is the mission of all writers: to figure out what makes a reader turn the page rather than put a book down. Did my story offer a universal message? And what was my message? Was it clear? Does one person’s suffering automatically generalize to a universal principal? Questions multiplied and created more stress: How would my story and my message teach readers my message: Transformation is always a possibility. We are never too old to change, revise our stories and grow: “change your story, change your life.”
I worked on this book for many years before I understood how writing changed my story—and me. That was a big revelation. Pause. My story had changed. An earlier version of this manuscript opens at a deathbed scene: I sit by my mother’s side for four days, reflecting on our relationship. As I wrote I realized that my mother’s death was not the trigger to my transformation. I decided to start at a crisis point and then I knew where to start this book.
Years earlier a writing coach had suggested that a deathbed scene is mundane, almost cliched.. But I couldn’t follow her advice because I wasn’t ready to see my story differently. What is important to convey is how the very process of reviewing my relationship with my mother prompted me to ask new questions and it is new questions that open up our stories. In the writing and rewriting, I came to many moments where I was filled with awe and new awarenesses–an appreciation of my mother’s love for me and of my own blind spots.
Tell me about how you decided to weave your own experience along with the stories of mother-daughter relationships from your practice.
Sharing my own story was a decision I deliberated over, slowly. Initially I was hesitant to share my own personal experience thus I was indecisive- would I write a memoir or fiction? I began by writing both and I registered at a local JCC in a memoir and a fiction class, unsure of which direction I should pursue. What gave me the expertise to write the book was my professional work as a psychologist, with decades of experience treating mothers and daughters. On the other hand, my own personal struggle gave me a different yet deeper credential. My own journey taught me to accept my ambivalent and loving feelings: resentment, frustration and disappointment can exist alongside of tenacious loyalty and love.
Sharing my personal experience created a lot of anxiety for me professionally. I worried about my professional identity. I was trained as a psychologist (in the 1970’s) and had learned that therapists should maintain a “blank screen,” an invisible presence. Therapeutic anonymity was the norm. Self- disclosure was frowned upon. But as I became a more experienced therapist, this perspective made little sense to me. Sharing personal information often opened up our relationship. Early on in The Girl in the Red Boots I discuss this issue: when I shared my own experience being bullied as a teenager, a patient spontaneously revealed hidden aspects of her eating disorder.
One things that bothered me about my own mother was her perpetual sunny nature. I experienced her as inauthentic. Her reliance on the pithy philosophy “everything will turn out fine!” was maddening. It made me distrust her. Giving advice and support to others carries more weight when the speaker—author or therapist—has been genuine.
Did the process of writing it open up new observations for you about your relationship with your mom?
I began writing this book with a need to mourn my mother and to vent my anger, frustration and disappointment with her. By the time I completed the book, I realized how deeply I loved her. Writing the book actually facilitated my own transformation. I was able to applaud the fact that my mother supported me (and metaphorically gave me my Red Boots—and a zest for life), but I don’t think I was aware that she actually was my role model. In the course of writing, I came to appreciate my mother’s strengths and see her limitations differently. At the end of the book I sum this up:
“… I have revised my narrative from a “Story of a Disappointed Daughter” to a “Story of a Grateful Daughter.”
There’s so much readers can take away from The Girl in the Red Boots. Is there one message you hope they glean from it?
The main message of The Girl in the Red Boots is that it is never too late to develop a deeper understanding of yourself. “Change your story, change your life,” is the logo on my website. As it’s easy to get stuck in a “story” which may not convey the whole, complicated, messy truth. Learning to live with the messiness of life means we have to abandon idealized images. Ultimately we must live with a messy truth.
Do you believe the observations and advice in your book apply to relationships beyond the mother-daughter one?
Understanding and untangling your relationship with your mother will help you with every other relationship in your life. A cornerstone of all psychological theories is that we are all profoundly impacted by our early experiences. When the mother is the primary caretaker (as is still generally the case in the Western world), this relationship serves as a template for all other relationships. As Bruno Betteheim said, “The ways we were loved—and not loved—has shaped our expectation of how we expect to be loved and how we love.” Understanding our mothers ultimately translates into understanding what we bring to every relationship—the strengths, vulnerabilities and expectations we bring to our connection with husbands and wives, children, friends, colleagues.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers at MotherDaughterBookClub.com?
Writing this book was a healing journey. As a therapist, I’ve been in the business of facilitating transformations for decades. I know people read books to find answers to their own dilemmas. For me, it was actually the writing of this book that opened my eyes and allowed me to reevaluate my story. This book offers far-reaching lessons that are not limited to the mother-daughter relationship—but are applicable to all kinds of important relationships:
#1. Its never too late to make peace with anyone. Even when someone you love is no longer alive, it’s possible to make peace with your own feelings. And if you are at odds with someone you love, if you want to repair the relationship, take a risk, reach out and make the first move. .
#2. Developing compassion for your mother may help you develop compassion for yourself.
#3. All relationships are imperfect. Expect disappointment, frustration and ambivalence to be part of most relationships.
#4.No one is as bad as the worst thing they’ve ever done.
#5. We are all capable of revising our stories.