The Language of Secrets was inspired by an actual event: In infancy, a friend of mine was abandoned by her parents. They were a “respectable” couple, with other children; and their marriage and family remained intact after they removed her from their lives. From the moment I heard her story it haunted me. What strange secrets would make a parent erase a child?
The first draft of Language of Secrets was completed in less than a year. I think that’s because I was writing about a character (Justin Fisher) trying to decode the secrets of an unusual, and complex, family. I’m familiar with complex families: When referring to our extended family, a British cousin once said: “They’re all quite mad, you know.”
And as the old saying goes—write what you know—my own family experience, my friend’s story, and an article by a Cornell Medical School professor about Dissociative Identity Disorder (a psychopathology related to severe, early childhood abuse and trauma—whose symptoms can include disturbances in both identity and memory) dovetailed to give me a story I’d been waiting to write.
Before The Language of Secrets, I was a television writer who knew I was supposed to write a novel. I promised myself, again and again, I’d do it—someday. Then, when I was barely out of my 30s, the lenses in both my eyes were replaced with artificial implants—a surgery usually done on octogenarians. All I could think was: If my eyes are this bad now, they’ll never last until I’m eighty. I told myself I’d answer the wake-up call and start the novel. But there were television writing jobs—tantalizing paychecks—I assumed I had a lot of ‘somedays’ still ahead. The somedays had rolled into years when I returned from a writing assignment in the UK feeling so ill that I went straight from the airport to my doctor. For no apparent reason, I’d lost 24 pounds in less than three months. An avalanche of tests began, including one for ovarian cancer. And I realized time might have run out—I might have already passed through my life and not done the thing I was meant to do.
The doctors never figured out what had happened to me; and that worried me. But I was absolutely at peace with the non-medical part of it: the warning that I’d burned through too many somedays. I had a successful screenwriting career—comedy for Howie Mandel and Damon Wayans, ideas in development with Jennifer Lopez’s and Kate Hudson’s production companies, and the creation of a drama series in England—but I knew it was time to do what I was supposed to do—resign from scriptwriting and begin The Language of Secrets. The house got downsized; two cars became one; and, often, my husband and I were in a race to see which would land first—bills in the mailbox—or the money in the bank to pay them with. But at the end of it all there was a book; a marriage tested, and surviving to tell the tale; and a life lesson so obvious, and yet so profound: Whatever it is you’re called to do, don’t wait. Do it. Don’t waste even one of the days you’ve been given.
For me, being able to tell Justin’s story as a triumphant one—as one that might make readers look for the stories behind the stories in their own families, and thus see their families in a new way—turned out to be the most rewarding writing I’ve ever done. A joy beyond description.