Paula Reed Nancarrow is conducting a survey concerning blogger participation in “hashtag” days (e.g., Monday Blogs). Please visit her post and answer her ten questions if you have not already done so – I think the compiled results are going to be very enlightening :)
What a lovely surprise to find this wonderful review of On Hearing of My Mother’s Death on Suffolk Scribblings by author Dylan Hearn. I don’t know who to thank for recommending it, but I’m looking at you, Geoff Le Pard! :)
At the beginning of the year I took on a reading challenge, and I asked people for their suggestions on indie books they’ve enjoyed reading. The only rules were that you couldn’t suggest more than one (like that stopped you) and you couldn’t promote your own book. The post had a great response (and I’m still looking for more, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know). One of the books suggested was today’s recommended read, the memoir On Hearing Of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened by Lori Schafer.
It was the spring of 1989. I was sixteen years old, a junior in high school and an honors student. I had what every teenager wants: a stable family, a nice home in the suburbs, a great group of friends, big plans for my future, and no reason to believe that any of that…
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Several months ago, I became temporary guardian to someone else’s pet rat. For some reason the management of the low-income housing complex in which the rat previously resided found her presence on the property objectionable, probably because in spite of their most persuasive arguments, she refused to co-sign the lease. But in any case, either the rat had to move or the family did, and since the latter would have involved considerably more packing, transfers of utilities, and changes to library cards and the like, the rat – Jane, as she is called – came to live with me. It was supposed to be a short-term commitment on my part, for Jane had allegedly been offered permanent housing and employment in the local high school’s most prestigious science classroom. However, as the months passed and no gold-lapelled chauffeur arrived to whisk Jane away to her new life of dedicated study, I began to suspect that perhaps her position had been usurped, possibly by another rat farther along the tenure track. When my repeated inquiries went unanswered, I at last came to accept the fact that I was no longer merely a foster parent.
Congratulations! It’s a girl!
I can’t say I’ve ever had any interest in owning a rat. I had a series of hamsters as a child, most notable of which was the first, the dignified Mr. Whiskers. He lived for perhaps eighteen months before being replaced by another hamster, and then another, the latter two having met their untimely demises in such quick succession that my girlish eyes had barely dried from crying over the last one before I had to go searching in my closet for a new shoebox in which to bury the latest. Finally my mother decided that performing the last rites over my unfortunate playmates was too great a trial to which to subject me on such a seemingly ongoing basis, and since my feet were not growing fast enough to keep us in miniature coffins, she refused to buy me any more personal pets.
I don’t recall being particularly upset. It was, in fact, something of a relief, for although I like animals, even a hamster is a fair amount of work, between feeding and watering it and cleaning up its pee and its poo and making sure it doesn’t get away when you let it out of its cage. You can, perhaps, understand why I’ve never been anxious to have children, who require even more feeding and watering and pee- and poo-cleaning, and ever-greater monitoring when they escape from their cages.
Jane was delivered to me in a small glass aquarium, about one foot by two, with a mesh top that could be pushed down to keep her in place. She had a wheel on which she refused to run and a cardboard tube in which she would cuddle up to sleep with her back to the world. She spent long hours each day traversing the cage lengthwise, up on her hind legs with her feet on the glass. When she tired of that, she took to sitting on top of her water bottle with her little pink nose pressed up against the mesh – the universal symbol for “I want out.” I took the hint – I took her out once a day and let her run around on my desk, trying to guess from her face when she was preparing to poop so I could scoop her up and deposit her back in her cage. It worked pretty well for a while, but as her body grew bigger, she also grew bolder. Sometimes she would dare to leap from my standing desk to my sitting one – and from there, I feared, down to the floor. I couldn’t watch her every second, but I couldn’t let her escape, either. She wasn’t my rat.
And anyway, it wasn’t enough. She grew ever more restless. If I went into the kitchen where her cage was kept, she would jump towards the lid, trying to push it off with her face. I gave her a small plastic bucket to sit on in place of her water bottle, and she would perch upon it like a vulture, her hands hanging forward as if she were waiting, waiting for something, maybe waiting for nothing. I don’t know how you tell if a rat is happy, but she didn’t seem happy. In fact, watching her began to make me feel very sad, like seeing a lion in a cage in a zoo. I began to have wild fantasies of letting her loose in the wild where she could run around all the time until she got eaten. But of course I couldn’t do that to someone else’s pet.
However, there was something I could do. One day I made some calculations. I figured the proportion between my body and Jane’s and extrapolated the actual amount of her living space from the difference between us. In relative terms, her aquarium was roughly the size of my living room. I imagined spending my whole life in the living room – with a toilet in the corner. Then I bought Jane a new cage.
I did my research before I bought it. Not knowing anything about rats, I read through customer reviews of a variety of animal prisons before buying. I had already noted that she liked building a nest, and I had long been providing her with extra newspaper for that purpose. Evidently rats also don’t like being on the ground floor, probably because it makes them feel vulnerable. I get that. I never liked living on ground floor apartments, either – especially not after those guys broke my window and started screaming at me.
The cage I selected was a beautiful split-level affair, with two landings above the ground floor and two big doors, one on top and one on bottom. Jane could build a nest wherever she liked – she could build more than one. At first she didn’t respond well to the change. In fact, she kind of freaked out over losing her customary home. But just two mornings later, I walked into the kitchen and found her sitting quite peaceably in a corner on the second floor, staring at me. She was no longer frantically running. It made me happy to see it.
After a while I began to notice that she spent a lot of time in that corner, even though it wasn’t the corner in which she liked to sleep. Maybe, I reasoned, she liked to be able to watch what was going on all around her. And I started to wonder how comfortable it was, sprawling out with her clawlike feet on that wire. One day I had an inspiration – I folded up an old dishtowel and put it in another corner of her cage as a kind of experiment. The look on her face when she lay down on that towel! For the first time, I knew that my rat was happy.
I was happier, too. I got her another towel and put it in another corner so that she would have options for changing her view. Then I found an old quilted baby blanket and folded that up for her, too. Seeing her cuddled up in the corner inside that blanket, her face peeking out, you could just tell how appreciative she was.
For a while, she seemed so content. But as time went on, and I watched her lying for hours in the corner, just staring and staring, I feared she was growing depressed. How can you tell with a rat?
She had nothing to do, I reasoned. After each cage cleaning, she would rebuild her nest. I got a kick out of tearing up newspaper for her and sticking it up on her roof so she would have to drag it down if she wanted it. Oh, she wanted it! I began giving her envelopes, too – my new means of “recycling.”
But between cage cleanings, she became less and less active. I had given her an old backpack to sleep in, and she spent a fair amount of time chewing passageways through the pockets, a true delight for a rat. But the bag didn’t require as much maintenance as her standalone nest in the corner. She didn’t even have to try to hide her hoard anymore, the pieces of food she would save from her dish every meal. Her food was given to her, her water was given to her – she didn’t have to fend for herself at all.
I decided that Jane would benefit from a bit more adventure. Some time before, I had begun saving her treats – odds and ends of fruits and vegetables, like orange rinds and pear cores. Now I began cutting them up and hiding them in places around her cage.
It helped, for a few minutes a day. But somehow it still didn’t seem like enough. Because no matter what I did, I still had to lock her back in her cage. How could I look at this tiny little prisoner and not be moved somewhere inside?
Seeing her face, her little hands grabbing onto those bars – it broke my heart. I thought long and hard about it. How could I make Jane happier?
No animal likes being in a cage. I had moved Jane into a corner, next to an empty table that formed a kind of porch in front of her door. She had never tried to jump down from there – I figured it was too high for her to make the attempt. What if I didn’t close her cage at all while I was at home and awake?
The result amazed me. She’d run around for a while outside – on her porch, on her roof, and then she’d go back inside.
It was then that I understood how wonderfully alike we were, me and Jane. She didn’t mind the cage, necessarily – she just didn’t want to be locked up in it. This is essentially how I feel about relationships, about nine-to-five jobs, about living in one place your entire life. You may choose to occupy any one of those cages and be happy to do it – until someone else shuts the door and you can’t get away.
It was a big improvement. But somehow something still didn’t seem right. At first I confess I hadn’t worried much about Jane being lonely. I don’t know how sociable rats are, and I couldn’t really imagine how she felt about not being among her own kind. But I did notice a difference after I dislocated my shoulder. For weeks I was unable to pick her up at all because she would dive right into my sling or under my shirt, and it’s pretty tough to dislodge a wiggly rat when you can’t move one arm. But there was no doubt about it – she became more irritable and restless, and even more anxious to get out of her cage.
As the weeks passed, I understood more and more how she felt. Two and a half months of being stuck in the house by myself while my shoulder is busted have made me feel the pinch of being alone. And lately I’ve wondered if Jane’s nonstop staring, the manner in which she poises herself before her closed doors, the way the bars of her cage are bent back in the corner where she’s constantly poking her nose in between them, have more to do with a desire for companionship than with actual boredom. She doesn’t really seem to need to be petted, but sometimes now I take her out and hold her a while between my hands, just so she can feel the warmth of another living creature. In the evenings I bring her into my office and set her up on my file cabinet with the little sleeping bag she rolls out for camping. She sits quietly inside it, her little nose poking out from between the folds of cloth, watching me work. It probably isn’t very exciting, sitting six feet away from your sole source of conversation. But I suppose it makes her feel less alone. I know it does me.
A few times of late I’ve even taken Jane for a walk, tucking her into my now un-needed sling, which drapes nicely around my neck, the perfect support for a rat. I know I’m running the risk of becoming known around town as “crazy rat lady” but I figure, what the heck. I can’t really go anywhere without being able to drive – a walk around the neighborhood is the best I can do. Even just getting outside for a bit makes me feel better. Maybe the fresh air makes Jane better, too.
Yes – I’ve really gone out of my way to try to make life better for Jane. And in large part, I think I’ve succeeded. She’s a happier rat than she was when I got her, and in many ways I feel good about that.
I’m generally a fairly nice person. Like anyone else, I have my moments of selfishness and my moments of caring, and like anyone else, I don’t always make the leap from caring to action. With Jane I did. And that’s exactly the problem.
It’s easy for me to have compassion for Jane because I understand her. It’s been easy for me to comprehend this poor creature’s feelings because they so resemble my own. I, too, need to be busy, need to be comfortable. I need change, and breaks in my routine. I can’t stand to be helpless, and above all, I can’t stand to be trapped. I feel for Jane’s situation because even though she’s a rat, I understand how she feels.
But what about those aspects of her that I don’t understand?
Jane will never have any children. I assume that she isn’t bothered by that, because I would not be bothered by that. But why wouldn’t she be bothered by that, like most other creatures? Who’s to say she doesn’t feel her biological clock ticking – that she doesn’t feel as if something in her life is missing? For all I know, in her mind she’s building and rebuilding her nest for babies that will never come. Maybe they’re the reason she hoards what I feed her, the reason she likes a soft bed. Maybe, in her own ratlike way, she suffers from the absence of family.
But if she does feel that way, then I don’t get it. And because I don’t get it, I would never try to solve that problem for her because I just don’t understand how anyone could want children, how anyone could long for them to the point of building their whole lives around having them and caring for them. Yet people do. Every day people do. The urge for them is so strong that sometimes they even choose bad mates, they stay in bad relationships because they want to have children – they’ll do almost anything in order to make raising a family a part of their lives. And if I’m truly honest with myself, I know that I have little compassion for them, little forgiveness for their sometimes foolish decisions. I can’t even come close to comprehending why anyone would behave that way, even though logically, I know that it’s essential to the human race for people to be driven like that.
Ironically, these same people often have compassion for me, even though it’s misplaced. They assume that I must feel bad about not having children because they would feel bad about not having children. These are the same folks who want to set you up or reassure you that it isn’t too late. Yes, they want to help – but not in any of the ways that I could use help. Because my real problems are just as incomprehensible to them as theirs are to me.
It’s the same thing with Jane. If she were a Muslim or a right-wing extremist, would I be moved to make her happier then? Would I commiserate with her if she were a Cuban or an heiress who’s hopelessly in debt?
I’m not sure that I would. Not because I don’t care about human suffering in all of its forms, but because I’m simply not capable of intuitively understanding the problems that those people face. Certainly not in the way I understand the unhappiness of an animal in a cage.
It’s easy to have compassion for our compatriots, for those of the same religion or nationality or sexuality or class. It’s easy to have compassion for those with whom we share common standards or emotions or value systems. But how do we make the leap to having compassion for those whose lives or values or experiences are completely foreign to us?
Empathy forms the foundation for compassion. It presumes that we can, in our minds, walk a mile in another person’s shoes, that we, as humans, can recognize something in someone else’s suffering that resonates with our own. But if our compassion for others is nothing more than a projection of ourselves, of our own fears and needs and desires, then we will always be limited in our sympathies. We will never be able to reach out to those who are different from us – those who, very likely, need our help the most.
We live in a time in which no one need be a stranger. In a time in which people of every type and persuasion are accessible to us, in which their stories can be shared and heard by any who care to share and hear them. But sometimes it seems as if we only listen to those stories we already know. If we want to have true compassion, we must bring humanity closer together, we must learn to listen to those people we don’t understand, those people we can’t dream of ever understanding. Those people whose opinions and values are as foreign and incomprehensible to us as those of a rat.
This post was written for Yvonne Spence’s “1000 Voices Speak for Compassion” Project. Alas, technical difficulties prevented me from getting my post up on the scheduled date of the 20th (what kind of internet do I have when it takes eight hours to upload a thirty-second video?) but, of course, the theme holds even though the date has passed. I encourage you to check out Yvonne’s #1000Speak post here , where you can also finds links to the works of other writers and bloggers participating in the project. And, as it seems that Yvonne is now planning to make #1000Speak an ongoing thing, you might consider writing your own post if you have not already done so.
Several months ago, when I was planning the promotion for my first book, On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, I decided to publish some free e-books in order to attract attention to my work. I therefore released a handful of short stories and essays, as well as a self-contained excerpt from my memoir itself.
My strategy was a strange combination of successful and disastrous. My free e-books definitely succeeded in promoting my work; however, as the reviews clearly demonstrate, they also seem to have ticked off a number of potential customers. And this is what’s interesting. Because when you sit down to analyze the reviews themselves, it becomes clear that poor reviews are often unrelated to the quality of the work itself. Bad book reviews are, more often, a result of a failure to meet a reader’s expectations.
Understanding this is crucial to achieving success as an author. We’ve all read book reviews in which we simply disagree with a reader’s opinion. But for authors, it is, to a certain extent, irrelevant if we are right and a reader is wrong. It may not be our fault if someone misinterprets our work. But it is most definitely our problem.
I want to begin here with what I think is a highly illustrative example. Back in November, I released my short essay entitled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Critical Analysis” as a free e-book. I described it as “a lighthearted analytical look at the most beloved Christmas special of all time.”
It’s a humorous essay. In fact, it’s the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, so I can say with assurance that the writing is good and the subject compelling. The e-book, however, although it earned a few high ratings on Goodreads, only received one review, and it stunk:
Rudolph December 23, 2014 (One Star)
Not quite what I was expecting when I had looked for a Christmas book to read to my five-year old daughter the night before Christmas eve.
Clearly, this is someone who saw my free e-book and decided to download it without even looking at what she was getting. Somehow she failed to notice that the cover includes the words “a critical analysis.” There is a school of thought that suggests that you should never offer books for free for just that reason – because it will encourage people to download them who would never be interested in reading them otherwise – and this is a perfect example. This woman didn’t leave me a one-star review because my book was bad – she left it because it ruined story time with her daughter.
That isn’t my fault. I had categorized my essay as humor, not children’s, and my keywords were mostly related to Christmas. However, when I was looking at the book’s page just before I unpublished it at the end of the season, I happened to notice something. In the section marked “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” I saw nothing but children’s Christmas stories. She was not the only reader who made that mistake. Which makes you wonder if I was somehow at fault, after all. Perhaps by including keywords that were related to Christmas, I virtually ensured that the people who found it were parents seeking stories to read to their children. Perhaps I would have been better off using keywords that were related to humor – which is what I will try if I decide to release the book again next Christmas.
Here’s another example. I published an essay entitled “Is Your Anxiety Real? One Woman’s Experience with Mental Disorder.” The description read “Read my story of how I was misdiagnosed with anxiety – and what the problem really was.”
The piece was exactly what it said it was. Several years ago I was misdiagnosed with anxiety and was treated by my doctor with a prescription. Nearly a year later, I realized that the problem was an excess of coffee! Now I didn’t pretend to have some magical solution for true sufferers of anxiety. In fact, the story makes it clear that I never even really had anxiety. But consider this two-star review from Amazon UK:
No help to millions of people who like me suffer from anxiety every day – without the … 28 August 2014 (Two stars)
One woman’s experience. No help to millions of people who like me suffer from anxiety every day – without the help of branded coffee.
This review is not about the value or worth of my little book. This woman downloaded it seeking relief – hoping to find something that would help her with her own anxiety. It didn’t do that, so she was disappointed. The book did what it set out to do – but it wasn’t what she wanted from it. Yet who pays the price for that? I do. Could I have avoided this problem? Probably, yes. I had left the description intentionally vague because I wanted it to be a bit mysterious. But if I had described more fully the point of my story, the narrowness of readers to whom my situation might apply, then some readers might not have gotten the impression that my book would offer them solutions to their own mental health issues. The book “sold” very well, and I wonder now if the title was a bit too compelling in the manner in which it suggests the possibility of misdiagnosis.
However, it was my memoir excerpt “Detention” that resulted in the greatest rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. The e-book did receive numerous four- and five- star reviews across the various Amazon sites, from readers who said very nice things about it like “I really look forward to reading the full book.” But it also yielded a number of poor reviews, mostly related to the fact that it was not a full book. But what really struck me were these rather bewildering remarks:
One Star, 8 Nov 2014 (One star)
Its ok but just getting into it then it ends. Did not realise it was so short.
Unexpected end 4 Nov 2014 (Two stars)
was very good to start with but became to an abrupt end was looking forward for more details but didn’t enjoy
You see the irony here. These were people who enjoyed the excerpt – who wanted to read more. They left me lousy reviews not because they didn’t like my book, but because they never even figured out that it was an excerpt. This, in spite of the fact that I stated that it was an excerpt in the book’s description, on the title page, and again at the end without even inserting a page break. Three places I said it, and they just didn’t get it. In addition, Amazon shows, right in the description, how long a Kindle book is. No one had a right to complain that they had been misled. Yet somehow they were misled, and I think I know why. The only place I didn’t state that it was an excerpt? The book’s cover. And that was probably my big mistake. Because as seems clear from my other examples, people don’t always read the descriptions of what they are buying – and certainly not when books are free. Much of their expectation is based upon the cover, and if the book doesn’t deliver what the cover seems to promise, they’re going to be disappointed, even if the author didn’t do anything wrong. Disappointed readers lead to bad reviews – and potentially lost customers.
This shows that you have to be very, very careful, not just in how you describe and categorize your book, but in the look that you give it. You can have an amazing cover, but if it gives the impression that your book is sci-fi when it’s actually paranormal romance, you’re far more likely to wind up in trouble. And the same holds true if you’re publishing a series, as is, nowadays, so often done. You need to have “Part 1” or “Part 2” showing in very bold letters, because you don’t want your readers getting to the end of your book and being angry because it isn’t the end of the story.
Finally, I want to look at one last example. This is a four-star review for my actual memoir – not the excerpt – which has been bothering me since the day it was posted. It’s a very good review, as most of them have been. However, what she says at the end really ruffled my feathers:
“I would have liked to hear more about day-to-day life at home with her mother. She jumps between big events… without covering the middle ground… It feels like the author held back because these details are probably somewhat mundane but I have a feeling that they weren’t boring details – the fact that the author felt so hurt and angry that she left home and never looked back tells me that there was a LOT that happened in between… Unfortunately, it feels a bit like her inability to trust us as readers has kept her from being very open in her memoir.”
Now this last sentence, I’ll admit, I found rather stunning. The majority of reviews have commented on how deeply personal my memoir is, and how impressed readers were that I had shared such private experiences. Now here’s someone who is complaining that I haven’t been open, that I’ve held something back.
She’s wrong. In fact, I hadn’t left anything out. After reading this review, I wracked my brain for other incidents I could include, and finally came up with two additional paragraphs. That was all. If I hadn’t described much about my last year at home, it was because my mother, as I had explained in my memoir, had to have foot operations and was stuck in a chair for nine months. A woman who can barely get up to go to the bathroom is unlikely to be physically abusive, and is certainly incapable of controlling a teen-aged daughter. There was virtually no day-to-day life to describe. She sat in her chair, and I went back to school.
I didn’t put my memoir in non-chronological order so that I could skip over events that I was reluctant to share. It’s because in many cases I don’t remember the order in which different events occurred. People sometimes seem to believe that because you’ve had a traumatic experience, that your recall of it must be flawless. It isn’t true – at least not for me. A lot of things happened in a very short space of time, and rather than pretend to the reader that I could tell the full story from beginning to end, I chose to assemble it as a series of segments telling what I remember. Yes, it is a bit fractured – but that also perfectly reflects my experience of my mother’s psychosis.
But, to be fair, I did not make this reasoning clear to the reader. The two poor reviews that the book has gotten have been from people who were simply unable to cope with it not being in order. And now that I’ve spent some time analyzing reviews, I think I understand why. Because people expect chronological order. They expect my memoir to be written like ninety-nine percent of personal memoirs on the market, most of which are not written by writers. They expect a traditional narrative structure.
I can’t provide them with that. But if I had explained in the introduction why the story jumps around, why there seem to be gaps that aren’t really there, then no one would have read it expecting it to be chronological, or expecting it to be complete in every detail. Would I have lost some customers because of that? Possibly. But I think it’s more likely that those readers would have gone into it with a more open mindset, more willing to accept a nontraditional narrative, had they been forewarned that that was what they were getting, and knowing that there were solid reasons why it was written that way. Ultimately it would have provided all readers with a more fulfilling experience – which is precisely why I’ve now added a foreword.
When I first read this review, I was also annoyed that this particular reader seems to feel that I didn’t experience enough trauma – that having my mother beat and imprison and threaten to kill me was insufficient reason for me to leave home and never look back. But then I took another look at her final paragraph:
“I hope that someday she writes a more complete story. I would be very interested in reading all of the ‘in between’ scenes and hearing about her final year at home. Not as a ‘looky-loo’ but as someone who has experienced something similar, it’s always a comfort to know that you’re not alone. That someone else has experienced the ‘spies in the attic’ delusions but also the general embarrassment of being in public (in high school!) with someone who is clearly unstable.”
Ultimately, this review isn’t about me at all. It’s about the reader, about her experience. She expected my story to be like hers, the way, perhaps, she would have written it had she been the one telling it.
There is absolutely nothing that I can do about that. I can’t make my story fit what every reader expects, nor should I try to. But this merely emphasizes the incredible importance of setting up proper reader expectations. Because if you can minimize the effect, reduce the instances of not meeting reader expectations to cases like these, which are entirely personal reactions, then you truly can eliminate a large percentage of one- and two-star reviews.
So when you are releasing your work out into the world, remember this always. Because it may not be your fault if your book is not what your readers expected. But it is always your problem.
On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness is featured on both Free Kindle Books and Tips and Bargain Booksy today as part of my $0.99 promotion. If you get a chance, I would appreciate it if you could go in and “Like” the related Facebook posts. Evidently it helps with the algorithm or something – you know how that stuff works ;)
On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness is on sale for just $0.99 for Kindle through February 17th. I’m happy to report that the promotions I scheduled seem to be working:
I’ve also temporarily reduced the price of the paperback to $5.99. What a steal! ;)
Thank you very much for the review – it’s greatly appreciated! :)
Lori stumbles across mother’s obituary online six years after her death leaving her with emotions and feelings she has not had to face for years. She also discovers she has a half-sister she knew nothing about. The tumultuous relationship she had with her mother is revisited as she comes to term with the news of her demise.
An autobiographical account of a troubled adolescence of a girl whose mother suffers from psychosis. This frank and honest account of a survivor’s journey to salvation and self-reliance is uncomfortable to read as it is inspirational.
Tackling the duality of any adversity, we experience, Schafer excels in making complex issues palatable in this short memoir focusing on her adolescence.
This book is available to read for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.