From Motherless to Motherer

Rachel Louise Snyder’s Women We’ve Buried, Women We’ve Burned

One of my favorite workshops to teach is something I call “Acting for Writers.” It’s a class that investigates how to put ourselves in closer touch with our sense and emotional memory, the way actors do. After all, I explain, actors and writers are artists of the same cloth, who share clear objectives: to tell stories, to entertain, inform, enlighten, even sometimes warn an audience or to unburden themselves of secrets too heavy to hold onto.  In doing so, they seek to be authentic, honest, and believable.

Rachel Louise Snyder could teach my class simply by sharing her work.  What distinguishes that work is the way emotion emerges without being manipulative, the way observations and revelations illustrate how deeply a skilled writer can cut into the very center of human existence and bring it to life on the page.  I never fail to believe Rachel Louise Snyder. I never distrust her.  She is among the most reliable narrators I know. I take in her confidences, and I resolve to keep them in a safe place where they can continue to enlighten me.

So it is with Women We Buried, Women We Burned, Snyder’s soon-to-be-published memoir.  The story of Snyder’s life, beginning with childhood trauma – her mother’s death, her father’s embrace of evangelical fundamentalism – that led to hard-driving self-destructiveness, and then to total self-transformation might seem calculated and farfetched from a less ingenuous writer.  But Snyder’s writing is so stark, so clear, so unfettered by hyperbole of any kind that the saga resonates with irresistible urgency.

Snyder’s narrative journey begins when her mother dies. She hears her mother call out, “I can’t breathe,” and she recognizes even at the tender age of 9 that her mother desperately wants to live but has lost the battle with her disease. Rachel’s father, confused and helpless at the death of his young wife and the responsibility of raising two children nearing their teen years, tells Rachel that her Jewish mother has happily surrendered to death and resides now with Jesus in Heaven. He has almost immediately devolved to a religious self he never was before, and from that moment his young daughter intuits that she cannot trust her father to be the man her mother married, the father she used to know. 

Without warning, Rachel’s father submits himself to unforgiving religion, which he imposes on his family and enforces through the use of corporal punishment.  He loves by force of will and shows affection by exerting dominance. He marries a woman he easily controls, and Rachel’s only defense is willful defiance of everything he stands for. After she is expelled from the Christian school he has forced her into, he turns her out of the family home and refuses to let her back in. 

Endowed of remarkable resilience and empowered by ever-improving survival skills, Rachel wanders through her adolescence and experiences sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll until she finds herself in college, where she gets by, thanks to her superior intelligence and a little help from her friends.  To her surprise, she discovers a love of learning, fascination with history, and, most importantly, commonality with other women – battered and buried women, who have survived or who have been defeated. Then she binds herself to an abiding faith that she can make a difference. 

Ultimately, Rachel Louise Snyder’s story is one of evolving maternalism. The motherless child becomes mother of herself. The self-motherer becomes mother to her stepmother, to her remarkable daughter Jazz, and to the women whose stories without her might never be told.  Her story is a guide for us all.  She models the liberating power of self-acceptance and exemplifies the need for self-love.

I believe her. Every word.