When Kathleen English Cadmus found herself sitting across a table from a bounty hunter she was hiring to find her missing daughter, she was shocked by the surreal turns her life had taken.
She’d lost her son Shawn to a tragic accident, endured a divorce from her college sweetheart, and now she was trying—again—to track down Laura, the beloved daughter she had adopted from Korea and who was in flight mode brought on by bipolar disorder.
Like all moms, Kathy’s experience of motherhood is at once unique and universal. Her debut book, Intertwined: A Mother’s Memoir, is a raw but loving tribute to the pain and beauty of motherhood and to the way a mother’s life and her children’s lives are distinct yet inseparable. Here, Kathy describes her writing process and shares what she hopes readers will think, feel, and learn from her memoir.
What inspired you to write your memoir and share your story with the world?
I started out a few years ago wanting to write about my son Shawn’s life and sudden death. I felt there was something there that might help other parents who had lost a child. My daughter, Laura, and I enrolled in two online writing classes at our community college. This led to my enrolling in graduate school and earning my MFA in creative writing five years later. As I became braver and bolder in my writing, and with the help of my writing mentors, I came to understand that Shawn’s life was the backstory to my unique mother-daughter journey. It was the writing and reflecting that made me realize my journey could help others. Writing inspired me to want to share my story.
What was the most challenging part of revisiting the difficult moments in your past?
In terms of the writing process, the most challenging part of revisiting these difficult moments of my past was knowing what to include and what to leave out. Intertwined spans a thirty-year period, which makes using the right words in the right place in the book crucial so that those “difficult moments” are reflected correctly and are conveyed at the time when the reader will most benefit from hearing about them. To help me decide what to take out or what to leave in, I challenged myself throughout the writing process with my mentor, Thomas Larson’s, question: “Does it serve the story?”
In terms of the emotional process of writing memoir, the most challenging part of revisiting the difficult moments was dealing with the pain that comes to the surface so abruptly when pulling up the old memories again, and in addition, processing the change in perspective on those memories that comes with the passage of time.
Was there a therapeutic aspect to your writing process?
Absolutely! And pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction when your thesis is memoir is the best, albeit most expensive, form of psychotherapy available. I would have found it very difficult without the support of a writing community who understood the emotional transformation that most often accompanies the writing of memoir.
How did writing Intertwined affect your relationship with Laura? And with your sons, Pete and Ryan?
Writing Intertwined strengthened my relationship with all of my children. I would consult Pete and Ryan whenever I wrote chapters centered on their brother Shawn. They would provide a different perspective on the events or remember other details that I had forgotten. Sharing those perspectives with them as the adults they now are brought us closer and increased my understanding of the experience of their loss.
Since Laura is ten years younger than Ryan and fifteen years younger than Pete, she has no memories of the years surrounding Shawn’s death. She has read most of my completed memoir and has encouraged me to tell events that help the reader understand the situation, even when those events are painful memories for her. She has clarified events and made suggestions on my writing. It’s not easy being a character in a book! There were sections where I felt I needed to hold back or minimize events, but Laura would encourage me to write more. “It’s your story, Mom!” is what she has repeatedly told me. She is amazing. But Laura is a writer too and is currently completing her own MFA in creative writing. Laura and I share our writing with each other. It is one way to share our thoughts and feelings that is natural for both of us. This has given us better understanding of each other and brought us closer. And, I believe it has made us both better writers and stronger and better humans.
What did you learn about motherhood as you looked back on your life as a parent?
Writing about my mothering involved intense reflection on my own childhood and how I was parented. What stands out most to me now is the awareness of how fortunate I was to have both a mother and a father who trusted me and believed in me. Because of the parenting I received from them, I grew up believing I could do anything I chose to do. But, more importantly, I grew up feeling valued for being me. I believe that is reflected in my parenting of my own children. Writing this memoir made me more aware, sometimes painfully so, of how the joys and traumas of my own childhood shaped how I responded to each of my children’s joys and traumas.
How did your experience as a nurse, especially someone with expertise in mental health, inform your writing about Laura’s bipolar disorder?
As I wrote about Laura and her anxiety, depression, and subsequent diagnosis, I tried to provide a balance between the objective facts and the subjective experience of the emotions that both she and I experienced. Since most of my career has been centered in the mental health arena, I had to be reminded at times that the reader needed more explanation. It was a challenge for me to give the reader information about bipolar disorder without sounding too clinical and have the information still serve the story that needed to be told. I am also aware that many readers have had their own issues with depression or anxiety and bring that experience to their reading of my book. There may be similarities with their experience, but hopefully the reader comes away feeling everyone’s experience is uniquely their own.
What has been the most fulfilling aspect of writing and publishing your memoir?
The most fulfilling aspect of this experience has been the effect it has had on my relationship with my daughter, as well as with my sons. I love writing and what it does for me. The cherry on top for me is knowing that my story will give other grieving parents hope and that the short but full life of my son Shawn will help others.
What is the primary takeaway you hope readers get from Intertwined?
Most people who decide to read a memoir do so to get lost in a real-life story, to learn something, and/or to be inspired. I want readers to experience all of this and come away instilled with hope regarding their own human experience, whatever that may be.