One day, Charlotte’s Judy Goldman was married to a man who played a mean game of racquetball. Henry Goldman, a retired optometrist, was robust, strong, independent. The next day, after a routine epidural for chronic back pain, he was paralyzed from the waist down. Days later, feeling began to return in one leg. Thirteen years later, feeling still has not returned in the other leg.
In a matter of hours, Judy and Henry’s world – and their marriage – flipped.
In the weeks following the medical mishap, the couple tacked their way across a new and choppy sea. Now Henry was leaning on Judy, who’d never thought of herself as physically strong or especially bold. In those early days, their familiar roles switched, he was depending on her for both physical and moral support.
People kept asking her: Will you write about this?
After all, she’d written an earlier memoir, “Losing My Sister,” and two novels, “Early Leaving” and “The Slow Way Back,” as well as two collections of poetry. And she’d racked up numerous awards.
“Never!” she responded to their question. She’d lived through it once. Certainly, she didn’t want to live through it again.
But one day in 2008, she was held at gunpoint at her dry cleaner’s. She escaped unharmed, but somehow the incident left her feeling sad. She’d be washing her hair or meeting a friend to walk, and suddenly her eyes would well with tears.
“Finally,” she says, “I realized that the mishap and the holdup felt the same. Both were proof that life can change in an instant.”
That’s when she knew she had to tell this story. “Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap” (Nan Talese/Doubleday. $25.95) is a book you’ll read in one sitting. It’s that compelling, that illuminating. It’s a book that could make you see your own marriage in a whole new light.
Q. In an interview with Beth Kephart in Juncture Notes, a blog about memoir writing, you mention a famous tip: Be twice as hard on yourself as you are on everybody else. You say you couldn’t do that in your early drafts – you presented yourself as “just perfect.” What happened for you to be able to reveal your flaws?
A. Writers want to be liked. It’s easy to try to be charming and forget about being honest. But a writer of memoir has to aim for candid, not charming. It wasn’t until I was well into revision that I finally focused on my behavior after Henry’s epidural. Those days in the hospital and rehab, even after I’d brought him home, I thought of us as being between something awful that had happened and something awful getting ready to happen. My only impulse was to keep him safe. Once I understood how obsessed I had become, I could allow myself to appear unattractive on the page. I could write about how I believed that if I was alert to every possible danger, if nothing escaped my attention, if I checked behind every doctor and nurse, I could swoop in and save my husband.
Q. You and Henry were in your 60s when your life changed so abruptly. But you both survived, as did your marriage. Your lives are full – friends, children, grandchildren – and you still feel a deep love for each other. What do you advise when abrupt, life-altering changes hit?
A. Oh, goodness, regardless of how old we are or where we are in our marriage, we’re going to face changes – both the slow, ordinary ones and the sudden, dramatic ones. These changes can cause shifts in how we see ourselves, how we see each other, how we operate in the world and within the marriage. So, how do we adjust? One thing I know: There are many different versions of a marriage. It’s the same husband and the same wife, but each person is constantly evolving into someone new. And not necessarily cuter. Or thinner. Or tidier. I believe we just need to pull way back, see the wide, wide picture – and keep creating our marriage as if we’re starting from scratch.
Q. In the blurbs on the back of “Together,” novelist Wiley Cash comments on your “inward gaze (that) forces her readers to gaze inward as well.” What is an inward gaze and how important is it to a good memoir?
A. The most important lesson I learned about writing memoir is that it’s not enough to simply write about events that happened. You need to turn the mirror on yourself, discover the deepest patterns of your personality – while you’re writing. It’s these brief sparks of reflection that transform a list of events into story. For example, Henry and I got engaged on our third date. We were married three months later. We hadn’t known each other long enough to disagree on anything. When we had our first fight, I thought we were headed for divorce. My job was to look back at those events and draw meaning. I suddenly recalled that my parents did not believe in arguing in front of my brother, sister, and me. That made for a peaceful home, but I had no idea married people argued. No wonder our first squabble scared me to death. We write, we reflect, we revise. The years pass, we understand.
Q. As a child, you were labeled as sweet-natured, shy and not physically strong. No surprise that you married someone both physically and mentally robust. When Henry’s strength was sapped, you became the strong one. Is that a role you enjoy as you grow older? Or have you always been secretly strong? A steel magnolia?
A. I think I’ve always been secretly strong. But the only person who didn’t know the secret was me. My grandpa called me “Flimely,” a Yiddish word meaning little bird. I believed I was too small to be taken seriously. At the same time, I knew my parents thought everything I did was great. It took writing two memoirs for me to understand that my whole life I’ve been both what my grandpa saw and what my parents saw: slight and strong, timid and bold.
Q. You’ve taught memoir writing at Table Rock Writers Workshop and at Charlotte Lit and at the North Carolina Writer’s Network conference. What can be taught and what can’t be?
A. A big part of writing is facing down almost-debilitating doubts. When I began writing “Together,” I thought, “How in the world am I going to do this?” Somewhere in the middle of the first draft, another thought took over: “This whole thing is a stupid idea.” But I pushed on. Perseverance can’t be taught. You’re either someone who sits at your desk and writes, or you’re not. What can be taught are the mechanics: the difference between memoir and autobiography; the importance of scenes; the use of reflection.
Q. You gave an impressive piece of advice for when couples argue. You said neither party should be allowed to say, “I’m leaving,” or “I want a divorce.” Maybe one day you’ll write an advice book for couples.
A. Oh my gosh, would I love that! I have an uncanny ability to know what everyone else should be doing with their lives! The main character in my first novel was a therapist on the radio. I gave her that career because I would love to be a therapist on the radio. In “Together,” I had to hold myself back from giving marital advice in every chapter. I finally settled for just one chapter where I listed all my theories about marriage. If you don’t want to buy my book, at least go to a bookstore and read Chapter 34.
Q. Especially at first, and over the years following the mishap, you longed for the doctor to look you and Henry in the eye and say he was sorry. You came to understand why he couldn’t apologize, and eventually, both of you forgave him. But that early longing for the balm of empathy from the doctor must’ve been intense.
A. Maybe that’s why I wrote this memoir. To learn to forgive. At the time, I wanted the doctor to call and ask how Henry was doing, show concern. What it took me years to understand is that he was probably just as frightened by the mishap as we were. I’ve even tried imagining what it must have been like for that competent and experienced physician to suddenly find his patient paralyzed. I tell myself he only wanted to help, accidents happen, we’re all just trying to do our best. I tell myself those things over and over.
Q. And, finally, what does Henry think of your memoir?
A. Every writer should have a husband like Henry. He’s always my first reader and my most enthusiastic. I can still see him reading the first draft of “Together,” licking a finger to turn each page, wiping tears from his eyes. It turns out there were vast swaths from that period of time that had been lost to him. Reading my memoir was a shock. He didn’t remember how, right after the epidural, I kept touching his legs and asking if he could feel anything. He did remember when sensation finally returned to his left leg, how we celebrated with fried chicken from Price’s Chicken Coop on our screened porch, the air warm, the sky navy, our happiness palpable.
Feb. 12: Reading and talk at Park Road Books. Free.
March 3: Book talk (and Charlotte Lit’s Third Birthday Party) at Mint Museum Randolph; tickets $50 (includes signed book). www.charlottelit.org.
March 16: Reading and talk. Main Street Books, Davidson; free.
April 2: Reading and talk. Gaston County Public Library; free.
April 8: Reading and talk. Sensoria Festival at Central Piedmont Community College; free.
April 27: Conversation with Tommy Tomlinson. Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, Morrison Branch. Registration required: www.cmlibrary.org/event/91767-art-memoir-conversation-between-judy-goldman-and- tommy-tomlinson; free.