Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Editorial Staff
This is a summary of our podcast interview with Laura Davis talking about her latest book, The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story. It’s about healing and moving forward from an estranged mother daughter relationship, especially in later life, to enable caring for a parent at end of life. Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse
Telling this story
We all have certain core stories that live inside us and this is definitely one of mine; this mother-daughter knot I’ve been trying to untie my whole life. My mother was a really dramatic, larger than life character. She was the sun in my world, and when I was little, I was orbiting around her.
As I got older, she gave birth to another son and the two of us were in conflict about who was going to have control over my life. She had such a dramatic influence on me. We had every reason to never speak to each other again and yet we both struggled to reconcile with each other, and then I ended up taking care of her at the end of her life.
For me that question, “Can you take care of someone who betrayed you in the past?” is such a core question. It certainly was for me and I think it is for millions of other people who are facing the care of an older relative, a parent, a mother or a father. The story just was burning to come out.
I tried to walk away from it multiple times and would set it down and just think I can’t do this. I don’t have the writing chops. I can’t figure out the structure. My relatives are not going to like it. I had all these reasons but I just had to keep coming back and wrestling with it. It took me ten years to finally complete it.
When I was in my late 20s, I remembered having been sexually abused by my grandfather who is my mother’s father. I had blocked it out like many children do as a way to cope with trauma. It began coming back in flashbacks, and it was completely devastating. It turned my entire life upside down.
I wanted my mother’s support. I was going through the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. When I went to her, she chose her dead father over her living daughter, and she was hostile. She insisted I was making it up to destroy her. We had already had many challenges in our relationship. It was already a volatile relationship and that was the last straw.
Soon after that, I ended up teaming up with a writer named Ellen Bass and the two of us wrote a book called “The Courage To Heal.” This was 33 years ago and that book was the first book that helped women understand the process of how to actually heal from sexual abuse.
Not just that the abuse happened, but here’s the pathway out and it became this underground bestseller all over the world. That really was like the final straw because from my mother’s point of view and her side of the family, not only was I making up lies about my grandfather, now, I was doing it on national TV and so that led to a very deep rift and an estrangement.
Digging deep to tell such a vulnerable story
I think about things in a really deep way. I’d been wrestling with this relationship with my mother. When I first started, she was the villain, and I was the hero or the victim, depending on the point of view. I knew that I didn’t want a story like that.
In order to create two fully fleshed-out human characters on the page, I had to really do a lot of deep thinking and meditating. I went back to therapy, while I was writing this book. Some of this is just maturity because I’m much older than I was when I wrote that first book.
I had to begin to see my mother from a much bigger vantage point, not just as my nemesis or my antagonist but as a very complex woman of her era, of her generation. I looked at the trauma that had been passed down through the generations in my family, and I started looking at the fact that this perpetrator of mine was her father.
There were just a lot of factors that made me start to think of her with a great deal more compassion, and ultimately, admiration. She was really a remarkable woman of her generation, even though she was incredibly challenging to me, as a mother, there was so much more to her than that.
In terms of myself, I also had to do a lot of digging, because I had to look at why I had always accentuated her worst qualities, and really set those in stone. I had just dismissed some of her good qualities. I had to look at my habitual story about this relationship and how it was benefiting me,I needed to let go of it. I needed to begin to look at my own flaws and my own humanity.
It’s kind of like an epic struggle between these two very powerful women who had every reason to never speak again and yet both were incredibly compelled to try to find a way back to each other. I wanted to understand why and how did we do it? How did we surmount that huge mountain that was keeping us apart to reconnect and find a way to basically agree to disagree, and build a relationship around the edges of this huge dispute that had torn us apart.
I worked with a writing coach. This man wasn’t an editor. I only worked with editors for the first six books I wrote and this time, I chose a man who was an actor and a theater director because he really understood storytelling. He taught me so much about how to create a page-turner. You had to create a book that someone couldn’t put down, which I didn’t understand was a skill I had to learn.
In the beginning, when we were working together, he had me make a list of “the secret bonds between me and my mother”, and it was the things that connected the two of us that maybe nobody else knew about, or nobody else shared. I didn’t think there’d be anything on this list and it ended up being this huge list. It was things as simple as playing cards together. Bring out a deck of cards and my whole nervous system relaxes.
We both really love movies and we would go to the movies together. My mother was an actor so we would go to the theater together. We’d like to cook together. I knew that she was a closet smoker, even though she told everyone she had quit.
As I started to look at those things, I realized there actually was a lot of connectivity even though there was all this volatility too. Sometimes I say, we were two souls who couldn’t quit each other. I don’t usually talk that way but there was just something quite powerful in that mother-daughter bond, that I couldn’t just throw away as much as I wanted to. Maybe she probably wanted to at times, too, because when I look back now, I was a very challenging daughter, especially as a young woman.
She took everything I did as a personal assault. Every choice I made was to spite her or to hurt her, instead of just that I was trying to figure out who I was. When I came out to her, she said, “Oh, I will never have grandchildren now and you’ve confirmed my worst fear about you.” I have to admit, that was terrible how she responded, but within three or four years, which at the time felt like forever but when I look back now, she became my advocate,
At the end of her life, when she moved to California, she would talk about Karen, who’s been my spouse for over 30 years. She just introduced her to everybody. She would say, “This is my daughter-in-law, Karen. You two have done such a good job with those kids. Who says lesbians shouldn’t have children?” She changed. She was willing to evolve as a human being and I give her a lot of credit for that.
Coping with family estrangement
So many of us have someone in our life or more than one person who we are distant from. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing like what happened with me and my mother. It could be something much smaller like disagreements that just get papered over. These things can really fester and lead to a lot of broken and distant relationships.
I think all of us probably have someone in our life that whom we would love to be able to resolve things with. Even if we can’t do it directly with them, because there are some circumstances in which if someone is too toxic, or abusive, or they’re mentally ill, or they’ve shut the door on you and a direct relationship is inadvisable or unwise, we still can come to a place of resolution inside ourselves.
I used to think that the opposite of estrangement was reconciliation and now I think it’s peace. How do we get to that place of not feeling completely churned up and distraught when we think of that person? How do we get away from having their absence, be such a presence in our lives? And that’s what I had to do with my mother.
I hope that our story inspires people. I think it has. I’m already hearing from people who are saying they’ve read my book and they called their mother for the first time in 18 years. That feels great as an author to feel that your story is kind of cracking people’s hearts open, because I think they think if Laura and her mother could do what they did, and if she could end up at her mother’s deathbed after everything they went through, maybe I should take another look at this wall I’ve been holding for so many years.
We pulled the wall down, but not completely. This is not a fairy tale and I really want to make it clear there were ways I never felt I could be intimate with my mother. I never felt like I could really be vulnerable with her even all the way until she was very old and had dementia, and was basically a different mother than the one I had known before.
Even though I went through the motions of caring for her and was like a good daughter, there still was a wall that I kept up. It just was subtler. Things weren’t completely resolved, but they were resolved enough to be a miracle considering where we started.
I’ve learnt that there’s a natural generation gap. I have a daughter. I’m a mother and a grandmother. I look at my relationship with my daughter, who is in her mid-20s, still in the stage of separating from the family and figuring out who she is. I would say we have a very good relationship.
But I don’t know the inside of her life at all. I don’t have rummage rights to her inner thoughts or emotions. I get a press release about her life and I accept that. I’m really working not to do what my mother did, which feels like somehow she owned me. I felt she was always so invasive, and intrusive so I’ve really worked not to do that with my own children. I think pretty much I’ve succeeded at that.
One of the things I faced, which a lot of women do, was being a caregiver when my kids were teenagers. During the years I was caring for my mother I was in that sandwich generation. I was in midlife. I felt like I was in a vise. I felt like I was failing as a parent and as a daughter. Plus, I had this huge unresolved thing with my mother that was triggered all the time by caregiving her. I was running a business. It was a very challenging time. It’s a really hard time for many, many women when you are being pulled in so many different directions.
Understanding mother daughter relationships
I’ve learnt there’s always going to be a generation gap, that there are things about my daughter’s life that I will never understand. There are probably things about my life that she will never understand and that’s just the way it is.
What I’m looking for is where do we intersect? Where’s the bridge between us? And to be grateful for that. But I feel like there’s a way we’re always missing each other. When she’s at the stage of life, where she really is curious about me, I’ll probably be dead. It’s probably not going to happen while I’m still here.
After my mother died, one of the interesting things I tracked in the memoir is that after she died, I was cleaning out her things. My brother did help with that task and that was one thing he did help with. I came across this cache of letters. They were all the letters I had ever sent to her. All the letters she’d ever sent to me, which she’d hand copied. This was way before the internet or email or anything like that.
There were also first drafts of letters she’d written, and then censored and not sent so I had all this stuff. Under my office stairs were these boxes that were in plastic called Laura’s archives. I’d shove stuff in there decades earlier, I had no idea what was in there and I had saved all of her letters, and all the letters I’d written to her.
In these old musty journals were drafts of all the letters I didn’t send to her, so when I put all this together after her death, there were these two big folders of letters. I put them in chronological order. This showed me something about mothers and daughters because the written record contradicted the stories I’d been telling for decades.
Like I had said, my mother and I didn’t speak for seven years and I just proclaimed it. I am an author. I wrote it. I told everyone about it and it was like a big deal. And then I saw that we had corresponded throughout that whole time so we had had a connection in words.
I also had to see that I had remembered these really nasty letters and communications from her and they were there, but there were also these sweet loving letters that were kind, that were generous. I had completely forgotten that. I had a very selective memory, about our relationship and about who she was.
I really was stockpiling evidence to prove my version of our story, which was that she was awful and I was the hero. I had to unpack all of that and it was quite painful. I just saw what were our stories about each other. Everything I said was true, but only part of the truth. It took a lot of courage. It was my version. My version, that somehow I had benefited from, so that became part of my story as well.
Once we started reconciling and having more communication and other ways, we stopped writing letters. But during that time, a letter allows you to pause so you could read it. You could digest it. You could share it with other people. You can take a week to respond or months to respond. You can rewrite your response over and over again,
You don’t have to deal with the heat, in my case, the heat of my mother’s rage. She was explosive, emotionally and I always shut down around her. I didn’t have to deal with that in a letter. She could be really angry in a letter, but it was very different than being in a room with her or being on the phone with her.
In a way, letters were not really a real relationship. They were a filtered relationship. I’m really glad we kept that thread going, but I ended up really forgiving myself much more for the way I had categorized her because I saw that the letters did show kindness and generosity, but only at a distance.
Even after we reconciled, we still live 3000 miles apart from each other and that cushion of distance enabled us to reconcile. At the end of her life, when she moved across the country, it made things much more challenging for me, because I couldn’t get away.
Adapting to new relationship dynamics
In the early stages of dementia, people are often really argumentative. They can get into rages. They often have a lot of anxiety and confusion. It was all the qualities that had been so challenging for me about her in the past, and there they were in my face again, and yet, was it because of dementia or was it just who she was? It was really triggering. It just brought up a lot of things that I thought were resolved and started coming back up. It made the caregiving of her far more challenging for me than it might be for someone else.
I got an email from a woman and she said, “I know I’m going to have to take care of my mother and I’ve always been dreading it and now I realized it actually might be an opportunity.” It was touching.
One thing about storytelling is that you have to show the growth of your character from the beginning of the story to the end. And for me, the trajectory of a memoir on the main character is really from being close-hearted, for good reason, to gradually opening my heart, particularly to my mother.
One of the ways I demonstrated that, because you have to weave this in consciously as a writer, is how much I was repelled by her physically, in the beginning. I didn’t want her near me. I didn’t want her to touch me. If she hugged me, I would cringe. I just felt creepy, physically.
At the end of her life, I’m washing her body. I’m very intimately caring for her with a lot of tenderness. You get to see that transformation over the course of all those years. I never thought I could do it either. I really never thought I would.
When I was at the height of my estrangement from her, my brother and I met in Colorado, we were on a giant hike. I remember we stopped for lunch. Our parents were divorced by the way. I said to him, “You know, when they get old, I’ll take dad, you take mom because there’s no way I could ever take care of her when she gets old.”
I was making sure I would never be in this position. Certainly, I have become more open-hearted and more compassionate, and also more comfortable with the end of life from having gone through this experience. But also, I’ve really learned that there are surprises in life that you just could never anticipate.
When we were the most estranged, if you had said I would be wanting to care for her at the end of her life, I just would have looked at you like you were so crazy. For me, I like the idea that life is going to bring us surprises and that we really don’t know what’s possible. As I said before, not all relationships are going to be reconciled and some should not be but there was enough good between us. Both of us really wanted to be in each other’s lives and we fought past tremendous obstacles to get there.
When we lose our mothers
I remember when my mother died, the way I felt was that she was always like the sun and she needed to be. She needed to be the center of everything and I realized my whole life had been in reaction to her, so either I was repelled by her, pushing or shoving her away. Or I was pulling her to me. I was hating her, then I was loving her.
It was like so many things in my life were in reaction to her and when she was gone, I felt untethered. I felt like the thing that had anchored me to the Earth had let me go. I was like this balloon, just flying free without any anchoring.
When she died, all my internal furniture was completely rearranged and I didn’t recognize where I was. I used writing as a way to process my grief and to make sense of this incredibly complex, huge relationship in my life.
It helped me sort it out and find that grounding again. My father had died quite a bit before my mother, but now I was the next in line for death. That’s the other thing that happens when both your parents die, you’re suddenly in the spot of the next logical death and you kind of hope that’s the case. You don’t want people younger than you dying out of turn.
What I would say to people is just give yourself the time and space to understand that your world has shifted irrevocably. It’s one of the biggest changes you’ll ever experience in your life. It doesn’t matter what your relationship was with your mother. Even if you were, in some ways, estranged, or you never knew your mother, or your mother abandoned you or something else. It’s even harder when the relationship is ambivalent or unresolved.
Grief is really complicated. When my mother died, I felt clean; I felt we had as much as was possible between us; things were resolved. I was resolved with her, even though not everything was sorted out. Just to give yourself time and know that it’s so much bigger than you could imagine. We don’t get to practice for the death of our parents.
I kept thinking, I’m not doing this right, I’m doing it wrong, I’m not helping her the way I should when she was dying. Just to be present, and to just show up and breathe, just be there. That’s what I did and I’m glad I did. I witnessed every piece of her death and that was important for me. It might not be for someone else but for me, I really wanted that experience. It reminded me of birthing babies, and people dying, to me, it’s all the same circle and the energy actually is quite similar.
At the end of her life, I finally was capable of loving her. After 57 years. I was 57 when she died and finally, I was able to love her. It should be such a simple thing. It was never simple between us.
Writing as healing
I’ve been a words person my whole life, I’ve been in love with language. I’ve been in love with writing and reading. I’ve been writing since I could probably hold a pencil. It’s been a really big part of my life, both in terms of my internal process and in terms of understanding what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, how to make decisions, tapping into memories and emotions. Writing has always been my go-to modality.
Since I wrote The Courage to Heal, for 30 years I have been helping other people with their writing. I teach writing as a tool for healing and transformation. I teach a workshop on Writing Through Grief. I really believe that when we tell our stories, claim them and write them down, and then read them to at least one trusted witness, it’s very transformative. It helps things move through us.
It’s one of the most powerful ways of healing, so that’s the work I’ve been doing. For several decades, I was mostly working with women, some men, but almost 98% women. I usually do it in groups. I’m interested in the kind of transformation that happens when you get women together in a room, and they start telling true stories.
One person’s honesty kind of cracks the world open for the next person and then that person’s story cracks the world open for the next person. Suddenly, a topic that was taboo is on the table, and everyone’s writing about it.
I remember when I was teaching a retreat right before my mother died. In fact, I had to leave the retreat to be at her deathbed. I was writing about the end of her life. I didn’t know then, but suddenly everyone was writing about their aging parents, or the deaths they witnessed or the healthcare system.
All the things I was talking about, suddenly, that’s what was happening at that retreat. On my website, there’s a little logo, it says, “Healing words that change lives” and that’s the role my books have played. That’s how I tried to show up as a teacher and a facilitator.
I don’t know if this new book is entertaining. It’s a gripping book. It has humor in it for sure. But a lot of people said they laughed and cried as they read it. I hope it really touches people and motivates them to think more deeply about the relationships in their own life. And maybe it’ll inspire some people to tell their own stories, which is such a wonderful thing for women to do. We need women to testify about their own lives, the truth of their lives, much more than we have so far.
Listen to Laura Davis on the Magnificent Midlife Podcast
Laura’s website: lauradavis.net
Laura is the author of six non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal: For Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, The Courage to Heal Workbook, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be and I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation. Her groundbreaking books have been translated into 11 languages and sold more than 1.8 million copies.