My guest this week is Sue Stern, who at the age of 80 is hitting her stride as an author. When she wrote The Child Who Spoke With her Eyes, a memoir of the all-too-short life of her daughter who suffered from cerebral palsy, she called forth a great deal of pain mixed with the joy of her memory. Along the way, she found a spiritual path through the journey she took with her daughter.
Every week I interview a member of ALLi to talk about their writing and what inspires them, and why they are inspiring to other authors.
A few highlights from our interview:
On Writing the Memoir
It was joyful. I felt as though I was with her again. The only upsetting, sad part was the last two chapters when she died and what happened afterwards. Every time I read that I’m in tears, but the rest of it gave me great joy. It was like I was with her again.
On Her Religious Quest
I began to feel a sort of emptiness and I needed something, something more, and I became involved with all kinds of religious groups. Catholics in France, I work with young pacifist Catholics in the north of France, where I hitchhiked to. Oh yes, we were vegetarian as well, which was really unusual in the 1950s. We were really quite outsiders and I continued sort of looking.
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Listen to My Interview with Sue Stern
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Subscribe to our Ask ALLi podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Player.FM, Overcast, Pocket Casts, or Spotify.On Inspirational Indie Authors, @howard_lovy talks to 80-year-old author Sue Stern, who wrote a memoir of the all-too-short life of her daughter, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Click To Tweet
About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Sue Stern: Hello, my name is Sue Stern, and I’ve been writing seriously for about 20 years. I’ve always wanted to write. When I was a little girl, at the age of seven, I made my first book cutting my mother’s diary and using the diary cover for the cover for my own book. And when I was a teenager, about 12, I wrote a play, which quite amazingly, was put on by some local Brownies a few years ago. I also wrote very voluminous diaries.
I studied modern languages, French particularly, and lived in France. Whilst I was in France, I also wrote a lot of details in my diaries of people I’ve met, and began to write poems and short stories at this time. I came back, did a postgraduate certificate in education, and began to teach French to adults and English as a foreign language also to young adults, which I loved, particularly. I married quite late for those times, long ago. most my friends, including my university friends, were married and certainly engaged by the age of 21. When I came back to live in Manchester in the north of England, it was about 24 and I met my husband and we married when I was 26. I was really on the shelf.
Howard Lovy: So she and her husband began their life together. Their first child was born, and they named her Deborah Vanessa.
Sue Stern: And she was very beautiful and she had a wonderful blue eyes and long black lashes fringing her cheeks and a sort of little princess face.
Howard Lovy: But it wasn’t long before Sue and her husband realized that something was not quite right with their child.
Sue Stern: We didn’t find out that she was disabled or that she had cerebral palsy until she was five months old. It was a difficult pregnancy, difficult delivery, and she was given, what I discovered after, was oxygen for about half an hour and 40 minutes. And then she was taken away and we didn’t see her, I didn’t see her for two or three days.
Hospitals in those days in 1967, certainly in England, were very hierarchical. There was, you know, the surgeons, the consultants, the matron at the top, the nurses, the sisters, and then the patients were at the bottom. And we weren’t told anything. We were just told to sort of wait and be quiet and we’ll find out eventually. Yeah, we did find out. On the third day, the sister came to see me and told me they would have to baptize her. And I actually am Jewish, but at that time, I knew little or nothing about Jewish religion. I knew about Jewish history and culture, but my family were very left wing. My father was an avowed atheist and I had no traditional upbringing whatsoever. But I somehow knew that it was wrong for this little baby girl to be baptized and I told them and they went away and I think they spoke to my husband eventually.
And on that day, very distinctly, I remember and I said this, I found myself saying, “Awake, awake, Deborah.” And I didn’t know where this came from. I discovered later that was from the Hebrew Bible and it was what Deborah the judge said to herself in her song, to encourage herself to be strong, and to fight for the Jewish people at the time. But I found myself saying this to this baby, and she did survive and she began to pick up and she began to feed and we’re able to take her home after about two weeks.
Howard Lovy: As you can hear from her story, her spiritual or religious consciousness began to form right when Deborah Vanessa was born. It was the beginning of a spiritual quest they would embark on together. But first, they had to get somebody to tell them what was going on with their baby. In those days, it was not so easy.
Sue Stern: I don’t know what the 1960s were like in the US but in the north of England, it wasn’t the swinging ‘60s. It was a very simple 1950s life with blackened streets and smoke coming out of the chimneys and women worked only if they had to. So this is what it was like at the time. Eventually, we had to go back into hospital a couple of times because she wasn’t feeding and then one day a consultant came to see me, he said, “Mrs. Stern, could I have a look at your baby?”
This was the first time anybody, any doctor had really shown any kindness or empathy, and he examined her and said, “There’s some kind of stiffness in her legs. Would you like to bring her to my consultancy at the Duchess of York Baby Hospital?” and I said, “Of course.” When we got back, Vanessa was round and chubby and eating well, and I couldn’t see there was anything wrong with her.
But I took her around to see this Dr. Ben Epstein and he told me after examining her that she would be profoundly mentally and physically handicapped, because she had the primitive reflexes of a newborn baby, but they were accentuated. And I, somehow, at that time, I somehow, though, it was a shock and stunning and I didn’t know how to respond, at the same time it wasn’t really such a shock, because somehow, I felt that this baby was destined to come to me, but I didn’t know why.
Howard Lovy: Over the years, although she couldn’t speak, Deborah Vanessa learn to communicate with her eyes. And as her daughter grew, she kept a diary, or what Sue called an outline of their life together.
Sue Stern: It was about 60,000 words. I didn’t really know anything about publishing though I was very interested in writing. I sent it to one publisher who said they had just published a similar book so she couldn’t take it, and then I put it away in the drawer.
Howard Lovy: The story of her daughter may have been in a drawer, but Sue sensed that although her daughter’s life would be short, she would make her live again in writing. So even after her daughter died in the early ‘80s, she began work as a volunteer with the disabled.
Sue Stern: My daughter was born in 1967, and she died in 1982, a few days before her 15th birthday. She had a remarkable life for such a disabled little girl. She enjoyed life tremendously. After she died, in the sort of 1983 to ‘84, I felt as though I had not completed my task and I knew about this voluntary agency and I started off as a volunteer and then went to work with them for a few years, working supporting families with disabled adults, actually.
Howard Lovy: But it wasn’t until 2014 that she was able, with the help of a writers group, to revisit her old notes and to write a book about her daughter.
Sue Stern: It was joyful. I felt as though I was with her again and I had the blueprint of the piece that I’d written in the ‘80s. I had all my diaries, I did go back on my diaries and discovered things that I had forgotten. The only upsetting, sad part was the last two chapters when she died and what happened afterwards. That was, you know, every time I read that I’m in tears, but the rest of it gave me great joy. It was like I was with her again.
Howard Lovy: And part of the joy was also a rediscovery of her roots as a Jew. Her journey with her daughter was also a spiritual one.
Sue Stern: Before I was married, I was looking for a spiritual way. Having been brought up in the socialist, very left wing, anti-religious household, which I accepted when I was about 18 and when I went away from home to study, I began to feel a sort of emptiness and I needed something, something more, and I became involved with all kinds of religious groups, Catholics in France, I work with young pacifist Catholics in the north France where I hitchhiked to a, oh yes, we were vegetarian as well, which was really unusual in the 1950s. We were really quite outsiders and I continued sort of looking.
And then, of course, I happened to marry somebody Jewish. We got married in the synagogue, for heaven’s sake, which, you know, because my father was just aghast that his precious daughter, it was the reverse of the usual story. We then moved into a suburban area where there were quite a few Jewish people and I began to meet other Jewish people.
We didn’t go to synagogue, hardly at all because my husband was working, but little by little, and also because of my mother in law, who was a Yiddish speaking woman from the East End of London, who had come to London when she was nine, I think, from Warsaw, little by little, I became part of the Jewish community, which pleased me because I sort of belonged somewhere.
Howard Lovy: Sue says that when it comes time to write the narrative of your life, especially if you’re looking back from the age of 80, there are tricks you can use, like drawing pictures of your childhood home to remember what it all looked like. Whatever it takes for you to remember details. Those are the things that will make your narrative come alive.
Sue Stern: You will be surprised how happy you will be to rediscover your younger self, even the sadness of your life at that time. And also, I think you, like with all writing, you have to be very persevering, and just keep going and keep going and keep going which is what I did. I wrote the book as almost like fiction. I wanted people to turn the pages and this is what people have told me now, they just couldn’t put the book down, which, of course, is wonderful as a writer to hear that. Some people write memoirs on themes. But I didn’t do it like that. I wrote it, chapter by chapter from the beginning to the end, as a narrative and I think that worked really well.