TODAY’S POST is an interview with Margaret Holland & Delana Reese, co-authors of Ms. Holland’s memoir, The Brotherhood of Silence.
According to the description on the back cover, The Brotherhood of Silence “gives voice to the recollections of a woman who suffers debilitating injuries in an accident and then faces working through how to live with a disability and how to pursue doggedly the resolution of a medical malpractice lawsuit that took nine years to settle. Margaret Holland, assisted by Delana Reese, co-author, turns her personal experience, captured in the pages of a surprisingly therapeutic journal, into a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.”
Though the book focuses on the events that led to Margaret’s inability to walk and the drawn-out legal processes that followed, The Brotherhood of Silence seems to me to also be the story of a coming of age of sorts — of a woman finding her inner strength and becoming independent in spite of a series of tragic losses and malpractice by doctors.
As a teacher of journaling and memoir writing — and in particular of a class titled “Journaling for Memoir” — I was drawn to read Margaret and Delana’s book because it originated from a series of journals written over a nine-year period. In the following interview, I focus on their experiences journaling and then turning that material into a memoir, and what they learned during that process.
ALS: Before we get started talking about the book and your writing and editing processes, I’m curious — what are the reasons behind not using your real names and pictures when publishing the memoir?
Delana: The reason we used pseudonyms and provided all the characters with different names was to protect the privacy of all those involved. Since the court proceedings are public record, we were advised by Margaret’s attorney and the legal department at Lulu Publishing to remain anonymous in order to tell the story.
ALS: You wrote that you originally started keeping a journal on the advice of your attorney. When you first started the journals, were you mostly focused on keeping records for legal purposes?
Margaret: At first, I was writing for legal purposes. My attorney asked me to record all the aches, pains, inconveniences, and expenses that had to do with the rod that had been inserted into my femur after my accident. I described many sleepless nights, fear, and depression, and the fact I could no longer wear my normal clothes and shoes, or even bracelets, because they caught on my crutches. The Canadian crutches I used caused a lot of pain and eventually, permanent nerve damage to my arms. I recorded the things I couldn’t do and the places I couldn’t go anymore and how I hated being dependent upon others. These examples indicated the extent of my disability.
ALS: At what point did the journals become more than an accounting of your days and a therapeutic way to process what was happening to you?
Margaret: After three or four years writing down what I was experiencing and feeling, I was able to step away from what was happening in my marriage and disengage personally. I became an observer and could actually see the truth for the first time. I give God all the credit for this miracle. Because my husband was angry that I’d injured myself and could no longer wait on him the way I had in the past, he resented me and made me feel that I could do nothing right. He almost destroyed my self image, so I had to change things in order to survive. I stood up to him and told him that I no longer would tell him what he wanted to hear.
By resisting his humiliation, I gained more confidence. I asked him why he’d always put me down, and he said, “Because if you get to thinking you’re too good, you’ll start thinking you’re too good for me.” Expressing that was the turning point and we both knew it. I replied, “Yeah. You’re right. I’m a nice person and a smart person and I don’t deserve this. I wish you had known that.”
ALS: About midway through the book, you began talking about how you wanted to use your journals to write a book in order to encourage and help others overcome similar adversities. When did you decide you wanted to write a book, and how did that change the nature of the kinds of things you captured in your journals?
Margaret: Family and close friends who knew what I’d been going through always said “You should write a book about this.” One said, “This is going to be published, but I wonder if people will even believe it!”
The event that cemented my desire to write a book happened after a physical examination by a surgeon who would be testifying on my behalf. He said, “I have never heard of anything like your case, Margaret. I know there are doctors who will tell you they can put another hip in, but don’t let them touch you. This time they could kill you. As it stands now, there is nothing that can be done to help you. I wish there were. You have to be alert every minute you are on crutches. The possibility of infection exists… you could lose your leg. I’m sure you know that.”
I didn’t know that! After returning home, I decided to reread my journals. That’s when I discovered that what I’d written proved that my husband had been deliberately manipulating me to have control and his own way and that my fears were not in my head, as he’d always said.
Since his accident, I’d done all the errands. He hadn’t been in the grocery store or anywhere in public with his wheelchair for 27 years. When I refused to go, he came back from the store exclaiming, “Margaret, you just won’t believe what they have in the grocery stores now.” As he began going out more and more, he began enjoying it and the tension between us lessened a lot.
ALS: How did you and Delana meet and decide to become partners in the writing and editing endeavor?
Margaret: I had prayed to God for an editor who was a woman, who was spiritual and who’d been published before. I wanted someone with whom I could have a relationship who lived close by. Not having found anyone in over 20 years — although some had offered — I’d put the idea of a book on the back burner. One day when I met a good friend, the idea came into my mind to ask him if he had any suggestions about an editor. He recommended Delana, and the rest is history.
Delana: I met Margaret in 2011 through our mutual friend who told me she needed an editor. Although I had several projects of my own, I decided to meet her. I read excerpts from two of her journals, including the section about her husband’s accident. I was drawn into the tragic story because of its vivid details. Her skill as a writer impressed me. So I went home and typed up the opening chapter as I envisioned it to see if Margaret would like my approach. She did, and we launched the project together.
ALS: Why do you think it took so long, from the settlement in 1989 to 2014, to complete your memoir?
Margaret: I believed that if it was God’s will for a book to develop, He would take care of it, so after the settlement, I turned my attention and energies to creating and caring for my Japanese garden. I enjoyed that so much. However, the idea never left me. I just stopped looking and trusted in God for the outcome.
Margaret, in her garden.
ALS: Turning a stack of journals into a memoir can be a daunting task — you have to wade through so much material, choose what to include and what to leave out. What guided your choices?
Delana: I had no experience doing anything like this at all, so approached the project the same way I did when after returning to college as an adult I had to read Milton and Shakespeare for my English degree: I took a pen and a highlighter and sat down to read, hoping to find a character whose words and actions would interest me. I wasn’t disappointed!
Whatever revealed Margaret’s evolving character and her ways of coping with physical, and emotional challenges, as well as how she handled her marital problems—these were the entries that drew my attention, so I circled them in pink. The pages that didn’t add to the story received a big pink “X”.
In 1983, I found the moment of change for Margaret, when she sincerely asked God to take over her unmanageable problems and help her. From then on, her gratitude to God for the smallest things, such as the beauty of the natural world, the kindness of her family, and the hope writing her life provided, enabled her to reach out to others far more disabled than herself.
Margaret and I worked together on every decision. We decided that her husband’s accident should open the narrative because it created the context and the tension she’d experience for life. Her medical history opposed her living a normal life, so it became a character of its own, always attempting to cause her to fail. But as I read, I saw her refusing to give in to it, or the depression and self-pity that would be a normal reaction. She always found a way to overcome the obstacles, while maintaining a positive outlook. Her desire to reach out with her story is deeply embedded in her journals.
ALS: I was impressed by your level of honesty throughout the book. You did not sugarcoat your experiences or your responses to them and did not always portray yourself in the best light. Tell me a little about your thought processes here. And how much of that honesty was influenced by having a co-author and editor?
Margaret: I wrote the truth and it was painful, because revealing what was actually going on was against my nature. I always tried to portray things as perfect. I’d lived so much of my life to gain other people’s approval, so it was hard, but necessary, to break the habit.
My book is taken directly from my journals I was writing for myself. No one else had any input. Delana put the book together years later, but she was true to my writing. Her efforts made this book a reality.
[Tweet “Journaling reveals my past so that my present makes sense. – Delana Reese”]
ALS: What does your family think of the memoir, now that it is published?
Margaret’s sister: I’m ten years younger than Margaret and have always considered her my hero, keeping her on a pedestal. So I found her book inspiring. She’s had a tough go of it since birth, but she’s always been positive with a happy attitude that says, “This is not going to get me!” My husband also read the book and said it gave him valuable insight since he hadn’t been aware of the extent of her marital problems. Once he read the book, he understood much better.
K: I anticipated reading my aunt’s book for many years. As a child growing up, I was aware of the many struggles she was going through, and I always had a great admiration for her strength and perseverance through it all. I was aware she was journaling and that her goal was to someday share her story with the world when the time was right. It was a moving experience for me to finally read her beautifully written and detailed memoir. She has achieved what she set out to do. Her book is also such a valuable piece of family history. If we could all practice journaling, what a gift it would be for our loved ones.
J: Aunt Margaret is such an inspiration to me. She has taught me about never giving up when facing adversity, even when these challenges arise continuously, as they did throughout her lifetime. The journal format of her book makes it a much more personal account of the many, sometimes unbelievable events that took place in trying to get her case through the trial process. Because she stood up for what was right and fair, she made a difference for many people and future generations. The Brotherhood of Silence is rich with determination and courage, an absolute treasure.
L: I remember as a child hearing my Aunt Margaret talk about writing a book of her story. I always thought her life would make for very interesting reading. (I was only a young girl when her hip shattered.) I had no idea that she had been keeping such detailed journals over the years. She was over the moon when she found the right editor to help her organize the journals and get her on her way to publication.
When I read the book, I enjoyed so much the trip down memory lane. I could recall many of the scenes in which I was a character in the background. The camping trip to our favorite lake, the visits with my grandparents, the recollection of her trip to the Mountain Man Rendezvous, my grandparents’ funerals, and so on. Aunt Margaret is an amazing story-teller. She spoke of her experiences all of the time.
I’m so proud of my aunt for all that she has endured, showing such vivacious optimism. And I am proud that she fulfilled her dream of writing a book and telling her story.
Delana: My husband has been very supportive of my work on Brotherhood from the beginning. He kept me going and later helped by reading through twice and offering his suggestions. Now he is our biggest supporter, sharing the book with his friends around the world.
Because of the impact such a story could make on the lives of family members, he has been writing about his own life so that our children will understand their roots and what it was like growing up in another culture. That means, while completing my own memoir, I’ll be here at the keyboard for a few more years typing, editing, and collaborating with him on his.
ALS: If you had the opportunity to do anything differently in the process of journaling, writing, and or editing the book, what would that be?
Margaret: I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
Delana: Having published three inspiring anthologies through a local printer some years before I began this project, I remembered the costs were extremely high and marketing and mailing had been such a burden to me. With that in mind, I talked with Margaret and we made the decision to ask Lulu Publishing to handle our book. I did my homework and contacted several authors who’d used Lulu’s services. Each gave me rave reviews. Now that’s it’s published, we are very happy with the outcome and continued support we are receiving. I’m hoping to network with other sites like WritingThroughLife.com that are interested in journaling and memoir so I might share Margaret’s story and learn more myself.
The authors, proudly presenting their new book.
ALS: Is there anything you’d like to say or recommend to my readers who would also like to write their memoirs?
Margaret: My recommendation to your readers is to write their memoirs, and not put it off. Keeping a journal with a book in mind gave me purpose and it was priceless therapy.
Delana: I’d urge your readers to do it! Looking at my shelf stacked with journals covering the past 50-plus years, I know that as I write my memoir, I’ll find many gems waiting in their pages to open memories’ doors with fresh insight. In fact, opening one particular year’s collection, I was instantly transported back to the 1950s and from a few entries created several pages in my memoir, including the discovery of long-lost photos.
I have two different journals going at the same time. One is a Spiritual Journal that includes questions, prayers and insights inspired by my Bible studies. Because this requires personal application, my journey comes into clearer focus and I see so many possibilities. I also have a Scrapbook Journal that holds letters, articles, ideas, quotes, and a section where I can list the things for which I’m thankful.
I write to process, learn, and discover. I’m never disappointed, because I always find something worth looking at in more detail. Without writing first thoughts in my journals, I would have missed these finds. Journaling reveals my past so that my present makes sense, and the more I write, the more I see that this activity prepares me for life.
About Margaret Holland and Delana Reese
Author, Margaret Holland kept twenty-nine journals during a difficult time in her life and found the experience liberating. She determined to tell her story, based on her journals, to help others who might be suffering. This gave meaning to everything that happened and helped her let go of the past so she could start living again. She credits God for His wisdom as she discovered the positive side of tragedy.
Editor and Coauthor: Delana Reese has been a freelance writer/editor for thirty-five years. She is particularly drawn to before-and-after stories by women who have overcome adversity and who wish to share their stories to encourage others.