My new book, “Memoirs of a Dysfunctional Family” (the author’s preface)

During the past few years I have posted many blogs containing passages from my book on Italy:

Florence, Dante and Me.” Reader response was favorable, so much so that I decided to post from my newest book, an autobiography: “Memoirs of a Dysfunctional Family.” This book covers my life from age three to age eighteen. Three major themes are parental alienation, acute sibling rivalry with my older brother, and my own misophonia. My guess is that many readers with problem-ridden families of origin will find my book helpful (an important subtext of the book; it’s a blueprint, as it were, on how to write a family memoir.) Examining one’s life brings not only insight and healing but also the joy of remembering many pleasant things from the past. I think you will be amazed at the number of memories that you will gain access to as you write your own story.

In the posting below you will find my author’s preface to my new book, “Memoirs of a Dysfunctional Family.”


A few months ago (July, 2021) my older brother, Don Thomson, died of Parkinson’s. We had not been speaking to each other since about 1986, which is a great shame, but it was his choice, not mine. When I phoned to arrange a meeting he refused and told me never to contact his again. I didn’t and now it’s too late. He is dead.
I attended the celebration of Don’s life that was hosted by his two children, Suzanne and Michele. There were several people who went to the podium and shared their memories of him. There was no denying that he had many strong points: he had enormous energy and capacity for hard work, he became a first rate computer salesman, he had done a fine job of bringing up his children even though he did not have custody of them. At the end of the celebration I shared a few good memories of my brother and then shocked everyone present by dramatically raising the question: How is it that Don, who professed to be a Christian, boycotted me, his only brother, for the past thirty-five years?
A few days later I got to thinking of Don. Why not write a book about him? I thought that it would make a nice gift for his two daughters and their families. After writing only a few pages I realized that it would have to be a book that went beyond Don: to write about him I would have to write about myself, my mother, my step-father, and my biological father. I would also have to write about our friends, our school-teachers and other people we had known.


There was no getting around it, I would have to write a much longer book that I had anticipated. I started writing and as I did some strange things happened.

(1) I found that as I started writing more and more memories would return—things that had been buried for years. It is a strange process: you remember one thing and that leads to another and the memories just keep on coming. There’s something very satisfying in recapturing things that had been lost. You get to live it again. I found that houses and popular songs had an uncanny power to trigger recollections. As I thought of the houses I had lived in and the music I heard on the radio many long-lost memories came back to me. Mona Lisa, Nature Boy, Begin the Beguine: what beautiful music played on the airwaves in the 1940s and 1950s!

(2) I found that when I remembered certain things I would understand their importance for the first time because in the intervening years I had acquired the knowledge, (especially psychological knowledge, through readings and life experiences) that enabled me to understand them. I had been able to revise my impressions and see people in my family in a new light. What a relief this was! It pretty much put an end to my lifelong habit of torturing myself by dwelling on certain hurtful events of my youth. Good riddance!
For instance I realized that I had been overly critical of my mother in particular. When I delved into her past I came to understand her much better. This put me on the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. Blaming has a strange power to blind one to the good in a person. My mother’s story contained much loss and sadness: (a) As a girl her father was her main source of love but he died when she was only ten years old. Terrible things resulted from this death: my mother’s mother lost their large family house to foreclosure and they had to move into a small, crowded apartment. My mother had never had a close relationship with her mother so she had no emotional support. (b) When my mother was twenty-two she married a man (almost a double of the actor, Cary Grant) she did not know well but who attracted her sexually. The marriage turned sour and her husband became a sadistic tyrant. She would have to endure beatings and psychological abuse for several years before she found the strength (in 1942) to move out on her own.
This is just part of her story. In this book I describe all this in detail. By probing Mother’s story I learned to see her in a different light: with understanding and empathy, and, eventually, forgiveness. How could I continue to nurture grudges against Mother now I that I knew her story? Understanding and forgiveness: I realized that these were the kind of priceless benefits that one could get by writing one’s family story.
My greatest source of bitterness towards my mother had been her systematic attempts to alienate, a psychological term meaning to cause friction and ill-feeling between people (in this case, between my biological father and my brother and me). Mother was not well-read (and scorned psychology) and probably knew nothing about the damage alienation can do to children, undermining their sense of self-worth. My newly acquired knowledge of Mother’s early years helped me to feel empathy for her; my bitterness melted away.
This is typical of the kind of research that you will read about in my memoir. You might feel you have no upsetting family issues to explore. You are fortunate if you don’t. If you do have issues, it’s quite possible that they are different from mine. That doesn’t matter: my goal in writing this book is to show you a viable approach to writing a memoir, regardless of the darker issues that emerge.

(3) I also realized that my family of origin was dysfunctional. As I mention above, one of the main aspects of this dysfunction was alienation. Boys thrive when they are free to model themselves (to some degree at least) on their father. When they are not even allowed to see their father and hear him constantly criticized by their mother they tend to blame themselves for being unworthy and of no account. This feeling of low self-esteem was, I now think, one of the reasons behind Don’s and my acute sibling rivalry. Being almost four years younger than my brother I got the worst of it in fistfights (and there were some horrendous ones). We tended to avoid each other. Worse: our parents avoided being with us; we seldom did anything (walks, drives, baseball games, swims, restaurants) as a family.

I added my own negative influence, making no effort to contribute to any family conversation. I was the “silent wonder.” I also had a special problem: misophonia. In my case this caused me to feel extreme anxiety when I heard anyone sniffing. This might sound absurd but it’s very real and can cause havoc in one’s life. It did in mine. I liked my step-father the most but couldn’t stand to be around him for long because he sniffed a great deal. The poor man, his nasal membranes had probably been damaged from German gas attacks in World War One.

(4) It occurred to me that writing one’s memoirs can entail looking clearly into one’s own soul and admitting one’s faults and shortcomings It encourages one to be honest with oneself. I was not far into the book when I found myself writing about the deficiencies in my own character: I contributed very little to family conversation. I did little to help create an atmosphere of joy. I did not ask my parents for help even when I desperately needed it (e.g. when the Little League coach was annoyed by my arrogance and tactlessness and denied me membership on his team.) I held a grudge against my parents for this little disaster in my life and yet I never even gave them a chance to help me. I walled myself off in silence. I also had a vicious tongue and could wound people with my words

(5) I began to realize that writing a book about my youth would not be a mere exercise in self-indulgence because anyone who reads my book might gain valuable insight into their own life. This might apply to you, Dear Reader. Maybe you have similar issues that you would like to explore. If you do I hope this memoir might give you some useful ideas on to how to structure your book and what kinds of things to watch for.


Here is an outline of how I would structure the book. I don’t suggest that you follow it in detail. You probably will want to alter to suit your needs.

a. My overall approach would be chronological, covering from 1943 to 1959, although it was sometimes necessary when following a thread to jump forward and backward in time.

b. We moved five times in that period so I made each new house a chapter:
–1943-1946 (Vancouver, Dunbar Street)
–1946-1948 (Vancouver, Twenty-third Avenue)
–1948-1951 (North Vancouver, top of Lonsdale Street)
–1952-1953 (North Vancouver, Twenty-fifth Avenue)
–1953-1955 (North Vancouver, Twenty-sixth Avenue)
–1955-1959 (West Vancouver, Haywood Avenue)

At the beginning of each chapter I would write a summary of the main events and insights.
I would follow this with a detailed description of our life was like—the atmosphere, the main events, and comments on their significance. I found that I couldn’t remember everything so when I found myself stuck I moved on to another chapter. This worked well and soon I was skipping from chapter to chapter, in no particular order. I followed where my mind wanted to go and paid no attention to chronology.
Once I had written enough about each chapter I got the idea of including a section (“Miscellaneous recollections”) that I would add to the end of each chapter.

Then it occurred to me that since music (popular songs and opera) had been such a source of joy in my life that I ought to mention them I hadn’t foreseen it but I discovered that sometimes when I thought of a certain song new memories would come to mind. They were a kind of secret passageway to my past; they contained a strange power to take me back in time and remember many things I hadn’t thought of for years. To this day I can’t hear Nat King Cole sing Mona Lisa without remembering how joyfully I sang this song on my paper route the day after I heard it on the radio. What a beautiful song! Two other songs that filled me with joy were Zip-a-dee-doo-dah from 1946 and The Jones Boy (sung by the Mills Brothers) from 1953. I feel so lucky to have enjoyed such music in my youth.
I stopped this book in 1958 in order to limit its length. By that time I was eighteen and had left my family of origin to live on my own.

I hope this preface triggers your interest. I plan to post chapter one in about a week.

Robert Thomson (Your letters are welcome.)


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