When I first met Jeanne B. Guy through Story Circle Network, she told me she was working on a memoir. That was several years ago and before we became friends through our time together serving on the Executive Board for SCN, a non-profit that encourages all women to tell their stories.
This past year, I knew Jeanne had hunkered down to finally finish her book, but I still didn’t know much about it or how she was approaching her writing process. Then the book was published and I, being a good writing friend, promptly went out and bought it. I secretly hoped I would like it since I knew it might become slightly awkward if I did not. Then I began to read.
The first chapter starts with the inciting event that propels the entire story: Jeanne’s ex-husband sends her a letter that he has stolen away their two very small children and taken them back to his native Germany. He ends that letter with the words that become the title of her book, You’ll Never Find Us. Oh dear, well, that was definitely a compelling beginning. Where are we going from here?
From that beginning, Jeanne employs a braided structure that switches back and forth from the present to the past, so that we learn what is happening now and also what happened in the past to create the present situation. Half the chapters focus on the horror, frustration, anxiety and fear of losing one’s kids to someone who should be trustworthy, and the other half chronicle how that formerly trustworthy spouse slowly becomes someone filled with anger, righteous indignation, and revenge. Braiding the present with the past in this manner creates a book that is filled with tension one minute, tenderness the next; a book that shows two flawed people who lose their way with one another fairly early on but still try hard to salvage a relationship that is based on a mismatch of values and personalities. In other words, this structure, along with the unabashed honesty of the author, and the complexity of characters, creates a book that is riveting. So riveting, in fact, that I stayed up half the night reading it in bed, using the flashlight on my phone so I wouldn’t wake up my husband.
But was the ending satisfying? Was the book worth the time spent reading it?
The best way to answer those questions would be to admit that I sat sobbing at the end. Deeply touched. Also, that I felt as if I had been privy to seeing someone else’s life up close who was open enough to demonstrate how complicated life can become and how difficult situations require difficult decisions.
Mostly – and the best reason to read this book – is that I learned just how strong, brave and resilient my friend Jeanne B. Guy actually is, and how she stands as a role model for any woman who finds herself lost, alone, and facing one of the worst fears any parent ever faces – losing one’s children in the blink of an eye with no assurance of ever getting them back.
Do I recommend this book? Wholeheartedly. You will laugh, cry, be angry, and then cry some more. That’s okay because you’ll emerge feeling stronger. If Jeanne can face this horrific situation and live to write about it, then maybe it’s possible for each of us to face our own personal demons.
You can find Jeanne’s book at Amazon and other major retailers. I encourage you to buy it and read it.
Here are a few questions I asked Jeanne about her writing process. Her responses are well worth reading:
- This book has been a work in progress for a long time. What do you believe you gained by waiting until this time to finally publish your book?
It wasn’t until 2001, when my ex-husband died, that the idea to write the 1977 story began to percolate. I started writing it in 2005 because of encouragement from author Christina Baldwin at her 2005 writers’ retreat on Whidbey Island.
It’s been fifteen years in the making, so my desire to share the story has evolved over time. Originally, I didn’t care if I had an audience. It was strictly cathartic. Poet and author Mark Nepo said in The Book of Awakening, “Tragedy stays alive by feeling what’s been done to us, while peace comes alive by living with the result.” As long as I let the story fester inside me, there would be no end to the pain. It would win. But by writing and shedding light on the story, by learning about writing and myself over the years, I could know some peace.
Once I started, I had to finish. It was a creative challenge that required years of workshops, critique groups, and mentors. And as the story unfolded and grew, so did I. Also, the scope broadened over the years as I studied writing at a deeper level and researched the historical elements crucial to the story.
Though I wouldn’t recommend my backburner fifteen-year writing process, I am glad the book is coming out now at this point in time. It seems particularly relevant given its major themes, which are timelier than ever: dealing intimately with white supremacy, patriarchy, feminism, and women’s empowerment, and the still all too prevalent issue of parental child stealing.
- The structure of your book is intriguing and adds a great deal to the tension. Can you describe your process of deciding to write the book in this fashion and the challenges you faced weaving these various threads together so artfully?
I struggled with the structure over the years. The book originally began with the scene where my son calls to tell me Klaus is dead, and the story was told in chronological fashion from the day Klaus and I first met. I personally found it a bit boring; it lacked the tension inherent in the kidnapping, and encompassed too many years of storytelling. For me, a memoir is a slice of one’s life, not an autobiography. My friend, author Debbie Winegarten, who died in 2018, provided the tagline for the book when she said, “It’s the story of how your children were stolen from you and how you stole them back.” Her statement specified the heart of the beginning and the end of the story.
In order to pull off the braiding of the backstory and the kidnapping story, I needed to create effective transitions from one to the other, and succeeded for the most part. I also set up a specialized table of contents (good grief, that took a long time!) that clearly identified and helped readers stay grounded and navigate the storylines. Author Susan Albert said this about the braided storylines:
“Numbering the kidnap chapters and naming the background chapters kept them distinct and did not cause any confusion about where we were which has happened in some of the books we have read. The relentless passage of time of the kidnapping kept pulling me forward and on the edge of my seat. The background chapters provided relief as well as providing the backbone to the story.
“Another thing I appreciated about the book was [the] clear, emphatic tick-tock: Day 1, Day 3, Day 9 . . . That not only gave each of those days a special importance but gave us the sense that time was passing and that every day that passed was another day gone in your search for the kids. Another one of the story devices that kept me turning your pages.”
It took several years for the proper braiding, and my office walls were covered with sticky notes, each note representing a chapter, so I could try different chapters in different places, sometimes combining chapters. Even during the pre-publication timeframe with She Writes Press, I reread the book cover to cover, found some timing errors, rearranged things again, and made tweaks to make the two storylines come together at the right moment. I sort of drove myself nuts but am happy with the outcome!
- You are very open about some extremely personal aspects of your life in the book. How difficult was it for you to allow the reader to see these tough moments? What helped you to have the courage to get those on the page?
I have to admit when I started writing the book, it was basically about a perfect woman (LOL) and an evil ex-husband. My critique group at the time said those books were a dime a dozen, that I was the one who fell in love with him and married him – what was that all about? They encouraged me to vulnerably flesh all that out so readers could relate to each character’s humanity and flaws.
This first memoir was cathartic for me, and came from a very angry place at the beginning (hence the perfect woman vs the evil man reference). Writing about “evil” Klaus was not hard for me. Writing about Klaus the human being was difficult, yet the best thing I could have done, from both a writer’s standpoint and from a personal development/growth standpoint.
Vulnerability became key for me. It’s what allows connection with others. Sure, I worried about telling my truths, exposing my flaws, and sort of laying it all out there. I worried about what people would think of me. I also worried about getting sued (I changed some names in the book, but still…). But what good is a story if it’s not authentic? And to be authentic, my humanness needed to be exposed. Because the book took so long, the older I got, the less I cared what others thought about me. Hard but important for a people-pleaser to learn.
- How has writing your memoir aided in your personal healing? Has it helped those close to you heal as well? If so, in what way?
I’ve often commented that for fifteen years I lived “in the bubble of the book” which, you’re right, took its toll on me. There were times during the writing that I dealt with bouts of depression and anxiety, as I relived the pain and anger. I would also add though that over time I became more of an observer as I gained some distance from the experience, giving me time to reflect on things. Those fifteen years provided a pretty amazing opportunity for personal growth and self-compassion.
My children, both Tyger and Megan, have expressed a greater understanding of who they are through the reading of the book. They are both strong, courageous people and I love them to pieces. Megan (who now goes by Olive) wrote the following review of the book:
Reviewed in the United States on October 12, 2021
How much do you truly know about your parents and the struggles they endured, either before you were born or when you were too young to remember or understand? Reading this book has been an eye- (and heart) opener for me. Despite knowing how it all unfolds, I found myself captivated by the raw and real emotions my mother went through when my brother and I were taken. Growing up, she never spoke a bad word about him, allowing me the space to form my own opinions — and my own relationship — with my biological father, Klaus. I learned a lot (maybe too much in some baby-making chapters) about the events that occurred in my early years. This book absolutely confirmed what I already thought: my mom is a bad ass and she loves her children enough to track them to the ends of the earth. I see in myself — as many women will — qualities that I, too, struggle with; qualities that are rooted in a patriarchal society that seems to be moving at a snail’s pace (even sometimes backwards) to empower women and the equal rights with which we should be flourishing. This book will leave you feeling like, despite whatever challenges life throws at you, and despite the inequalities of our time, you can persevere, you can find your own strength and resilience to do — or find — whatever it is you need for your own peace. – Megan (now Olive)
- If you could have done anything differently in writing this book, what would it be? What mistakes could you help others avoid?
Starting and stopping over the years was a two-edged sword. The longer the passage of time between writing sessions, the more I lost my place, even caught myself doing repeat research. I’d recommend staying tethered to your work, whether that means writing daily (on your work-in-progress, blogging, journaling) or at least noting where you left off so you’re not beginning again over and over; you risk losing momentum.
Also, for a long time, because writing is a solo venture, I thought I was supposed to understand all things writerly, and asking for help shouldn’t be necessary. Boy, was I wrong about that. Along with vulnerability, community is key. Support and healthy critique are a writer’s friends.
- How did you get Dan Rather to write a blurb for the back of your book? This was clearly based on the role his news program played in the book. How excited were you to get that yes?
I got cocky (picture me laughing). I owe Debbie Winegarten another posthumous thank you for that cockiness because she is the one who encouraged me to make “Outrageous Requests.” After the General Counsel for Rice University, Richard Zansitis, and authors Christina Baldwin and Sarah Bird agreed to blurb the book, I went out on a limb and asked poet and author, Richard Hoffman, my professor at The Writer’s Hotel 2019 Conference. Unexpectedly, he said yes!
Then the laughable idea of asking Dan Rather hit me. I quote him in the memoir because his 60 Minutes journalism was instrumental to the storyline. “Write the damn letter,” my husband and writer friends said. I researched DR’s current work, then spent hours composing an email making the ask, but I had no email address. Who could help? I reached out to his daughter, Robin, whom I had met twenty years earlier when she was a speaker at a luncheon I was in charge of. I emailed her, asked if she’d forward my request to him, a favor she in no way owed me, and explained how her father’s work had helped me when my kids were kidnapped. She responded almost immediately and was all in. My husband, Robert, and I were ecstatic, literally jumping up and down, shedding a few happy tears.
I tell women to put on their big-girl knickers, be brave, open your mouth, and ask for what you need.
- What value do you hope your book will bring to the world today? What do you hope readers will gain from reading it?
This is a story of moving from a misguided mindset of subservience and powerlessness to finding that power. This greater theme has to do with coming to terms with the patriarchy and the psychological abuse of women. Readers are resonating with the message of the book, and it’s the broader connection with my readers that matters. I sincerely believe that in sharing my story, other women can reflect on their lives and know that they are not alone, and that they do, in fact, have the courage within to deal with what they are faced with, seek help, seek support, and make a change.
It’s as if we’ve somehow connected the dots to each other’s lives and, in so doing, increased each other’s courage. I’m truly humbled, touched, and grateful that people are realizing the power of vulnerability and accessing courage needed in their own lives.
I hope there was enough humor sprinkled throughout the book (and a bit of my natural snark) to keep you afloat to get to the end!
- Any new books in your future? If so, what and when?
Just shoot me. I want to write another memoir, one that describes the aftermath of the kidnapping. I’m headed to a writer’s retreat/conference in Santa Fe in late October to get fired up. Then NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) begins November 1st and I’ll be writing daily for thirty days straight to hammer out the sh*tty first draft. Hopefully, this one won’t take another fifteen years.