Writing about Someone Else’s Mom


I have accepted a huge writing challenge. One that demands an incredible amount of understanding of a certain piece of history. One that requires trying to conjure through skillful characterization a person I never met. One that needs to be done in a way that allows the reader to understand the significance of what Minnie Lee Gartley accomplished in three short years in the middle of her life. I am honored to be given the chance to do this, but I am also worried about being up to the task.

            The book I’m writing starts in the summer of 1969 and goes to the fall of 1972, during which time I was seventeen through twenty years old. Of course, I was aware of the Vietnam War, fearful for friends with low draft numbers, and horrified by body counts on the news, but I’m afraid I was not aware of so many things that were going on socially and politically around the war issue. The political divisiveness with a Republican president and a Democrat-controlled Senate was something that I didn’t worry about as much as the schism of thought between the younger and older generations. The social movements for peace, for racial and sexual equality were important to me, but they were backdrops to my becoming an adult. After reading and studying this time period, I find there are many, many versions of what actually happened. So many different perspectives and opinions. It makes me question the whole idea of “history” itself.

            In describing my main character, my heroine, I have the help of her son and daughter-in-law, some of her close friends, videos, and her personal notes, testimonies, and talks. I’ve interviewed a brilliant peace activist who worked with her and a charming reporter who befriended her husband and wrote many articles about him and Minnie Lee’s activities. The problem is everyone seems to have a slightly different image of Minnie Lee. Some images contradict other images. Do we all have different versions of ourselves? The mother version, the teacher version, the wife, the friend, the activist? And most important, and what I see in Minnie Lee’s writings, the adversary. She was a fierce one of those. I am struggling to follow her through this quagmire of political and social groups to understand how she moved forward and managed to rescue her son from a prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam.

The whole time I have been doing this project I also have a stern face in my mind’s eye. One of a strong woman from Kentucky who spent her married, adult life in Maine. One who defied her government’s admonitions and went with a peace group to Hanoi in the midst of U.S. bombing. One who looks at me and says, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”