Judy Mandel is the replacement child for her sister who was killed in a tragic accident. It would be years before she would understand how the event, that happened before she was born, shaped her life.
A plane crashes into a family’s home. A two-year-old girl is critically burned and a mother is forced to make an impossible choice. The death of a child leaves a hole in the family that threatens to tear it apart.
In a great act of hope, the parents give birth to a "replacement child," born to heal wounds and provide a "salve for the burns." The child unwittingly plays her role throughout childhood, riding the deep and hidden currents of the family tragedy.
In this powerful story of love and lies, hope and forgiveness, Judy Mandel discovers the truth that changes her life forever and forces her to confront the complex layers of her relationships with her father, mother, and sister. When she has her own child, her epiphany comes full circle.
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What is the Line Between Fact and Fiction in Memoir?
How do you know that happened? You were not there. Did you make it up? Isn’t that fiction, not memoir?
I expected questions like these about my memoir, Replacement Child. After all, the accident that I portray happened two years before my birth. I was not, in fact, present at my own conception—which I write about. I didn’t see my sister buried under a ceiling beam in my mother’s kitchen. No one did. She died there alone.
But, interestingly, no one has asked me. After I explain that I did extensive research about the plane crash in 1952, and used the notes and letters from my family to recreate my interpretation of events, the only angst about fictionalizing events has been my own.
The dialogue I recreated in my memoir is true to the characters of the people I knew very well – my family. When I was deeply enmeshed in writing Replacement Child, I did actually hear their voices, their cadences, the words they would have used. I had no doubt that the conversations happened, and that my portrayal of them reflected a realistic version of events.
So, what is the goal of a memoir? Maybe your memoir. Is there a truth that is told best by an anecdote about your mother that you may or may not remember precisely? Does it matter if those were the actual words she spoke, or rather if they are the essence of what she said, and what it meant to you? Is it important if she wore the yellow dress with the white lace trim, or the blue with the polka dots? It makes a difference only as it describes her character. But, what was the feeling of the room where the scene took place? Was it darkened with shades drawn, open to a blinding light, or filtered strands of morning dawn? When you write, can you free yourself from being bound by minute accuracy in exchange for conveying the reality of emotion and the reverberations in your life? I say yes, you can.
Do we mold the truth to fit our stories? Or do we mold our stories to tell our truth? Yes, of course, we do both. Whether we are writers, or just creating our own narrative to explain our life in our own mind, we organize the facts in a way that will serve our needs. I know people who will deny whole decades of their lives in order to fit their need for a cohesive story; edit out that second husband in order to be more socially acceptable.
Even when two people experience the same thing, we have varied memories of it. My sister and I were brought up in the same house by the same parents, but we would describe our parents very differently. Her father was loving and open and would do anything to make just one moment of her life better. Mine was withholding and ungenerous with his love and affection. My mother showered me with unconditional love, while hers was critical and never satisfied with her.
We’ve all had the experience of relating an event shared by others, and having the story come out so differently that you wonder if you were in the same place at the same time:
“He was so belligerent!”
“He was enthusiastic.”
“She looked like a hooker.”
“She had on a really hip dress.”
Who is to say which is correct? Our perception is our own reality.
In the end, I can only write my own truth. And so can you.
Judy L. Mandel made her living as a marketing professional for over 20 years before writing her first book, Replacement Child. She grew up in New Jersey, but when she went to college in Connecticut, she knew she had found her home.
Her writing life began as a newspaper reporter. She later worked in public relations and advertising and somehow found herself in corporate communications at various insurance companies. Her memoir grew out of early essays and the promise she made to her family to tell their story.
Judy now balances her business writing for clients with writing fiction, nonfiction and articles.
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