Family Therapist Turned Novelist Lynne Griffin

The author talks about healing parent-child relationships

Posted Sep 10, 2010

During the past few years, Lynne Griffin has parlayed her experience as a family therapist into two highly successful novels. The latest, Sea Escape, is the story of a mother and daughter who connect over a family crisis and a cache of letters from a husband/father who died too young. It's a beautiful intergenerational story about love and loss, with an enticing mystery at the center. Here's more from my recent conversation with Lynne:

Jennifer Haupt: In your first novel, Life Without Summer, you wrote about a mother grappling with the loss of her daughter. Sea Escape also tackles how grief forever changes a family, specifically a mother-daughter relationship but other family dynamics as well. Have you experienced loss in your family that has been a catalyst for your writing?

Lynne Griffin: My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was a sophomore in high school. He went on a business trip with my mother and only she returned from New Orleans. This event disrupted our family in unimaginable ways. Each of us continues to grieve the painful loss to this day. And until my mother passed away in 2000 -- twenty-five years after my father -- she was never the same.

I began writing fiction at forty, after my mother's death stirred my fear of loss, the stabbing pain of it. Somehow writing to the heart of a story about a grieving woman and a lonely child gave me the chance to sort through things long buried, and to offer hope to others who may be afraid. Whatever you call it, a hole, the missing piece, my soul wound, I accept - even embrace-my need to continually make sense of it. And I do it through writing.

JH: You have a background as a family therapist and this has obviously provided a foundation for your writing. How often do you find that family secrets are intrinsically interwoven with grief, as in Sea Escape?

LG: Quite often unresolved issues linger because of the secrets, resentments, and other feelings not communicated between family members. What makes matters worse is when, after someone dies, there's no longer the opportunity to reveal the secrets, creating a burden of a different kind.

JH: Do you ever advise your clients not to disclose their family secrets, or is this disclosure always part of the healing process?

LG: I never tell clients what to do either way. The process of being ready to share deep and painful experiences is a personal one, a journey. I would never profess to know when the time is right, or push a client toward a situation where the fall-out from such a reveal could be consequential.

As a professional who's taught classes and counseled parents and children about healthy coping, I've always been struck by the choices people make related to the loss of a loved one -- the healthy and unhealthy ways grief work gets done. What I like about writing fiction, is that without being prescriptive, I can share different paths toward healing, by allowing characters to speak from their experiences. For example, in Life Without Summer, the grief counselor Celia, while able to guide others beautifully in facing their losses, doesn't do a very good job managing her own. She is flawed; human, just like all of us.

JH: How much are Laura's feelings of inadequacy about her mothering a direct result of her own mom's insecurities?

LG: I imagine quite a lot. You see, we learn our parenting primarily from the way we were parented. Laura is a kind, loving mother; as Helen was to her when she was very young. But like her mother, Laura is unable to face her feelings of abandonment and the impact those feelings have on her own children. Delving deep into, and working through, complex feelings is role modeled, thereby taught. Helen, for so many reasons, was unable to do that for her daughter. Thus Laura has the same difficulty.

JH: If Helen hadn't become ill, do you think she would have shared her husband's letters with her daughter?

LG: I don't know. I often feel like the muse's pencil, merely taking down the story as it comes to me. What you read in Sea Escape is all I know of my characters' experience. What I do surmise, though, is that Laura's son Henry was really breaking down his grandmother's walls. Through him-a child-it's quite possible Helen was finally ready to share her secrets with her daughter.

JH: How much of Helen and Laura's troubled relationship is due to the two women being from different generations?

LG: In the end, I think this multi-generational story illustrates as many similarities as it does differences when it comes to mother-daughter relationships. The roles women play in orchestrating family life, nurturing children, navigating marriages have certainly changed outwardly in our society, but I'm not convinced they've changed that much when it comes down to the personal expectations we have to do it all perfectly. The pressure Helen placed on herself as a young woman in the fifties and sixties was not all that unlike the expectations Laura imposes on herself in the present day story. This complex issue has been a highlight when I've visited book clubs for discussion.

JH: Helen seems to love Laura so much more than her daughter knows, yet can't express it. Do you find this to be a common problem between mothers and daughters?

LG: Oh, yes. So often women tell me that children know how much they're loved; they don't need to be told. And while I certainly agree actions speak loudly, children, in fact adults too, need to hear the love expressed. Sea Escape is a very personal novel to me because it was inspired by my relationship with my mother. Without giving the plot away to readers, I will share that near the end of the novel, through the broken speech that was the result of a stroke, Helen tells Laura that she loves her. That scene mirrored my last conversation with my mother. It was an unforgettable moment for me, and I will treasure it always.