By Joel Williams
Lisa Zarcone’s memoir opens with the death of her brother. It’s 1972 and Zarcone is six years old, sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen. She recalls her parents coming in to the room, how they and her grandparents looked strange, like animated statues. Her father delivers the news that her brother had lost his battle with leukemia at nine years old. He breaks down. Her mother is eerily calm, muttering.
“He was my best friend. He was my protector,” Zarcone said. “My mom was always ill, so he was the one who kind of buffered me from the storm.”
Zarcone began writing her memoir, “The Unspoken Truth,” after the death of her father, when she returned to therapy.
“It brought up a lot of old memories from my past and it was things that I wanted to deal with and just get rid of once and for all,” Zarcone said. “It was time.”
Zarcone began journaling, writing in small segments, and later adding to them and connecting the pieces.
“I would have to take steps back and just stop,” Zarcone said. “Some of the information was just so heavy — the abuse was so heavy, that I literally had to say ‘OK, I have to stop this,’ because I do have post traumatic stress disorder, and some of the things I was writing about were giving me little bits of flashbacks and nightmares.”
Zarcone’s memoir deals with intense childhood trauma and is not for the faint of heart. Her mother lived with severe mental illness and had a tumultuous relationship with Zarcone’s father. The marriage ended in divorce, leaving Zarcone to live with her mother. Zarcone suffered abuse not only from her mother, but from people whom her mother let in to the home.
“I wrote my story to bring awareness to these subjects,” Zarcone said, “and also to show people that when adults who are not properly helped and cared for, and when they fall through the cracks — what happens to the children?”
Zarcone recalls her mother’s treatment for her illness. In the 1970s, therapy groups would often come to the house. Zarcone remembers her mother’s therapist Mrs. Barker, to whom she confided an incident of abuse. When Mrs. Barker suggested that Zarcone receive counseling, her father grew angry, telling her that she was there to deal with his wife, that his daughter was off limits. Zarcone’s father, and other family members, gave the idea of mental health little credence, often berating and ridiculing her over the treatment.
Part of Zarcone’s impetus to write the book was to raise awareness not only for victims of child abuse, but for those suffering from mental health issues as well. Zarcone serves as the Massachusetts national ambassador for the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (NAASCA) where she advocates for child safety and mental health issues and stigmas.
Part of the problem with child abuse, Zarcone says, is a culture of silence.
“You have to take that second look,” Zarcone said. “You have to ask the questions. If you don’t ask the questions, children ultimately get hurt.”
Zarcone’s book is written from a child’s perspective. That narrative choice puts into perspective the gravity of the situations that she was subjected to and forced to deal with, as well as the damaging effect they had. By the third chapter, the reader can see Zarcone exhibiting symptoms of PTSD when she is between the ages of six and 10.
“The first time I did therapy, I was in my early 20s, and I had some issues and things that were coming up. I went and I dealt with those and I kind of put things at bay, but I have to tell you, my first stint in therapy, I wasn’t totally honest,” Zarcone said. “Not that I wasn’t honest — I wasn’t forthcoming with everything.”
“I only gave so much, because I could only handle so much,” Zarcone added.
Zarcone stopped going to therapy for a while, but eventually returned and was able to open up a little bit more. After her father’s death, Zarcone went back to therapy, and that’s when the floodgates opened.
“Some of the stories are really, really disturbing,” Zarcone said. “So to be able to verbalize it is huge. But again, I did have to take it in steps … I think for a lot of people the concept of therapy is — first of all, finding a therapist you’re comfortable with. Second of all, take it in sections. Because if you overload yourself, you’re more apt to back away and not want to do the work,” Zarcone said.
“So if you take it in pieces, you’re more willing to put the time in, and that’s just so important.”
Zarcone will speak at the Mason Library on June 9 at 12 p.m. Her book “The Unspoken Truth” is available at the Bookloft in Great Barrington, the Yale Bookstore in New Haven, CT, and many other local bookstores around western Massachusetts.