Christina’s new release, A Practice of Loss: Memoir of an Abandoning Mother, describes the death of her marriage and the abduction of her children by their father, who took them to live in the US. She describes the lengthy process of writing this story as a healing journey.
With a PhD and a Masters degree in life writing, she’s an accomplished author and editor. Her first memoir, This Place You Know, is about her childhood in outback New South Wales.
Congratulations on the release of A Practice of Loss. It must feel very satisfying to finally have your story out there.
I’ve told this story in many ways over 23 years, and this distillation of the traumatic events and their consequences captures what it was like to be that woman whose children were taken, and living with that for the rest of her and the children’s lives.
Can you please share the blurb for A Practice of Loss?
At twenty, Anna married an ambitious computer scientist. Now, twelve years later, they have three young daughters. Yet something vital is missing. He is more away than at home, and she dreams of an equal love. But she dreads the price of breaking free. Within a year, the marriage shatters and her children are abducted overseas. In the vengeful shadow of their father’s blame, how can she nurture and protect those who were the crown and comfort of her life? The true-life story of a desperate choice and its heart-breaking yet redemptive consequences for Anna and her daughters.
How is your relationship with your daughters today?
We’ve had a lot to work through. Understandably, they had ambivalent feelings towards me when I couldn’t save or protect them.
Their father had power and the law on his side, and he used emotional blackmail. He told them I didn’t want to be with them and said, ‘You can live with me or your mother, but if you leave me, then I’ll die.’ That was also how he threatened me when he forced me to leave them with him. So, they stayed with him, even though their step-family abused them in various ways.
That deep trauma is something they’ve lived out in their lives. I don’t think it’s something you ever get released from, it’s always there in different ways, but each of them has turned it into a dark gift.
I haven’t always seen it that way, but my ex-husband gave me a dark gift, too. After I lost my children – the only people I’d ever loved unconditionally – I wanted to find a man to complete me. I thought I’d found that man in my second marriage, but the relationship didn’t work out, although we had a beautiful son, so I had a second chance to bring up a child in safety and love. I didn’t lose him. My dark gift was to become my own person and not shape myself to be what someone else wants me to be.
I can’t speak to how it was a gift to my children, except for their right to be here, to be a woman and to choose how to live their lives.
My relationship with my daughters has always been loving, but over recent years we have grown the pearl, with layers of love and support through shared experiences. They are my best friends and soul sisters.
Did you ever resolve issues with your ex-husband?
He died about five years ago. When he was dying, he visited me in spirit, and I felt then and only then that he was really seeking my forgiveness. And I was able to give it. It was through writing this story that I was finally able to reach that point.
This can’t have been an easy book to write. Can you describe the process?
I built my career late because I left work to have my children. First, I went back to uni and started a masters degree in literature, but I was depressed and had an unsympathetic supervisor, so I gave up and did psych nursing for 12 years. I was lost but was helping people who were more lost than I was.
During my psychotherapy training, I told the director I was a bit depressed, so he asked if I wanted a few sessions. I couldn’t afford it, but he offered them for half-price, so I had six sessions. I can’t remember most of it, but I took away two key points. He said, ‘What’s happened is not your fault. It was the system you were born into.’ This was a turning point for me. The second revelation was that I didn’t want a career, I wanted to write my story.
Around the same time, one of my daughters said, ‘Mum, you’re my mentor, my muse, but you haven’t published anything.’ So I started writing – by hand in an exercise book.
When I was 59, I wanted to claim back the chance I’d lost and found a supervisor at the Curtin University for a Masters in Creative Arts. After a year of theory, I wanted to start writing, so I worked with Julienne van Loon, who won the Vogel award for her first novel, Road Story, and now teaches at RMIT. She taught me a lot about writing.
Mine is a fictionalised autobiography, which required many levels of artistry. One of these was to reconstruct scenes for which I had no memory. A memoirist has the licence to do that; the story would be awfully boring without it.
The most challenging scene to write was about trying to get a visa to the US. I was in a catch-22 situation. My husband was demanding a divorce before he would allow access to the children, but the consulate wouldn’t grant a visa if I wasn’t married. They feared I’d try to stay there with my children, and they’d have to deport me. That stalemate went on for a long time. I had to make up the scene because I couldn’t remember it. We often blank out traumatic events.
I tackled this scene and the eventual reunion with my children during a week-long solitary writers retreat in the Blue Mountains. Getting away from the comfort and familiarity of home helped. When there’s nothing but you and the walls, you have to write.
Peeling back the layers of the onion to reveal the truth of the story was my editing process. A memoir like this is about writing from the heart and the truth of the heart, giving it flesh and a living presence.
Were there therapeutic benefits in writing this book?
It was a healing journey. A few years ago, I woke one morning with these words in my head: ‘Marriage mortgaged me and bankrupted me; writing redeemed me and set me free.’
I believe the power of my book is not only for me, but that it will help others who have experienced trauma through the loss of their children or parents in different ways. Love wins in the end, even if it is battered and torn.
Do you have any tips for others who are considering writing about significant events? How can they get started?
Just write any memory you have in fragments. It doesn’t have to be written consecutively. You can piece the fragments together later.
Find old photos and letters and reread those. One thing that gave me a second birthing of this story was that after her father died, one of my daughters found some of my letters to him and photocopies of his letters to me. She sent them to me, and I was able to fill in a lot of the gaps where my memory had failed.
I don’t think I have another memoir in me, but you never know. There’s probably a whole book’s worth of material I’ve cut out of this one, but I don’t know if I want to write that. I’m currently focussing on editing and doing book reviews, so I can pass on what I’ve learnt to others.
You can follow Christina on:
Booksales direct from Ginninderra Press: A Practice of Loss, or email Christina to request a signed copy
Next time: an interview with Alexandra Paucescu about her children’s book Boni Goes Around the World.