Back from Hell: An Interview With Authors Claire and Mia Fontaine
by Phoebe Varinia DeMund
Lately, I've been recommending Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Hell and Back, by Claire and Mia Fontaine, to all of my friends. Come Back is a joint memoir by a mother and daughter (Claire and Mia, respectively) who chronicle the daughter's sudden transformation at fifteen from straight-A prep school student to runaway drug addict, the depth of her mother's sense of betrayal and loss, and the decisions and process by which they each recover their own lives, and ultimately their relationship. Though I originally thought I would be unable to relate to their story, once I started reading, I could not put the book down. Approximately the first third of the book deals with the causes and results of Mia's descent into hell, including early sexual abuse by her biological father—and details Claire's chase after her. The rest of the book is an amazing testament to a private kind of heroism undertaken by both Claire and Mia; namely, the pain-staking work of defining one's own life's story, assuming accountability for one's choices, and the liberation that results. Rather than a tour of drug addiction and the effects of abuse in a specific family, I found the book an inspiring account of how these two people came to accept that we live in a world in which evil can touch the lives of the people we love most, specifically our children and ourselves, and what it takes to overcome that experience rather than suffering as its victim. As I read, I also found myself gently called to account for how I interact as a mother, daughter, wife, friend, woman and human being—an effect, I discovered, which is not uncommon among their readers. Amy and Sheri asked that I interview Claire and Mia for mamazine.com.
mamazine.com: When the two of you decided to write Come Back, how much were you motivated by a desire specifically to let other people with similar experiences know that they were not alone and give them hope, and how aware were you of a more universal appeal to your story?
Claire Fontaine: I wanted the book to give hope to those struggling, whether with addiction, abuse or strife in the family, to let them see by our example some new possibilities for themselves. I felt the best way to do this was by chronicling not just the events, but how, literally, we were transformed by them. We described our process of changing, our light bulb moments, honestly and in a detailed, step-by-step way, that we hoped others could able to their own lives. One of my biggest motivations for the book, however, was to speak to mothers and daughters. I learned so much about how to have an honest, joyful relationship with my daughter that I wanted to share it. I also learned how to be in relationship with myself and the world differently. Basically, I learned to "be" differently. What I wasn't aware of until the book was out was how universal my issues apart from being a mother were. A lot of our reviews and emails come from women, and men, whose response is similar to yours, Phoebe. It's been a nice surprise.
Mia Fontaine: Initially, my sole motivation in writing the book was to reach out to "troubled" individuals in general and survivors of sexual abuse in particular. People that have been sexually abused, especially in cases dealing with incest, are frequently given the message to be quiet, to not upset the family, which means they're punished twice—first by their offender, then by society. I want to help take away this stigma. Also, because when you're struggling it's often hard to see past it and imagine being or living any other way (without which there's no incentive to change), I wanted to share my story to exemplify this possibility. It really wasn't until we began receiving numerous emails from readers whose life circumstances were often radically different, that the more universal appeal of our story became clear to me. By turning yourself into a character and your life into a book, you're allowing people to feel what you felt and, hopefully, learn what you learned. What I learned from my readers is that people are people and though we all experience different events, the emotion underlying these events is fundamentally similar. From something as extreme as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse to never getting as good a report card as your sister to being called fat growing up, the linking factor is generally that what holds us back is what we choose to believe about ourselves based on the event. And these are universal—I'm not good enough, not pretty enough, worthy enough, smart enough, not enough, period, just as I am. Or that I'm damaged, dirty, or shameful.
mamazine.com: Come Back is also a unique study of a mother-daughter relationship. What kinds of response have you received to this aspect of your story?
Claire Fontaine: What mothers most identify with is how I move heaven and earth to save [Mia]. Every mother knows what it is to fear for her child, that fierce protectiveness. I think mothers, especially those with small children, find it affirming and comforting to hear how a mother's love can conquer anything. Older moms have learned that this isn't, in fact, always true. Especially heartbreaking have been emails from mothers of teens or adult children that either didn't make it or made it through damaged. That they are able to share their stories and still cheer us on usually made us bawl like babies. Conversely, many moms who've read the book have expressed the sense of "there but for the grace of God go I."
mamazine.com: One of the really effective aspects of your memoir is how honest the two of you are about things you felt about each other throughout the process (as well as others in your life) that most people wouldn't ever admit to one another; much less publish in a side-by-side memoir. What was it like to write this book together? In re-living some of your experiences as you wrote about them, what did you learn about each other than you hadn't known and how did you deal with the painful aspects of that?
Claire Fontaine: Writing the book was like a year-and-a-half long seminar, with ups and downs and breakthroughs. We got to see how we still get in our own way, how old patterns return when we're stressed. What's changed, however, is our level of awareness and our willingness to be called on it, acknowledge it (usually laughing), and move on. When deadlines loomed, I sometimes wanted to control things, I went into fear mode and Mia's old patterns, manipulation and stubbornness, came up. Thank God we no longer have the same issues! And that we don't feel "made wrong" or "bad" by being told when we're being (insert here: victim, martyr, unaccountable, complete ass). That's what's made it easy to write such an honest memoir; the program [by which Mia recovered and in which Claire also participated] makes you pretty embarrass-proof. Neither of us feels that telling our story with complete honesty diminishes us in any way. In fact, we feel privileged that we were able to use our experience to maybe do some good in the world.
For the most part, however, [the writing] was a tremendous process of discovery. We learned things about each other, as women and as colleagues, not just as mother/daughter. We learned how much we think alike; we came up with the same ideas, independently, so often that it was uncanny. Some of what we learned was very painful. I never knew everything that happened in Indiana [the location of some of Mia's darkest days]. I also learned more about her time in the schools [where Mia was sent to recover], both what she loved and how frustrating some of it was.
Mia Fontaine: People are impressed when they learn I've co-authored a book. Their eyes really widen when I tell them my co-author was my mother. For most daughters my age (23), their mother's the last person they'd think to share the intimate details of teenage escapades with. Thankfully, between the amount of "revealing, healing, and dealing," I did in the program, the sensitive subject matter wasn't as big an issue for us as it might have been for others. Nonetheless, we both learned some very painful things about each other that we hadn't previously known. She, for instance, hadn't known I was raped, while I never realized the extent of what she suffered while married to a perverse and abusive husband (my biological father).
Thankfully, the reverse of this kept us going through the more stressful times as remembering how close we came to losing each other—and later writing about how we mended our relationship—allowed us to re-learn some lessons and renew our appreciation of each other. Also, because in some chapters my mother wrote about a time in her life when she was only a couple of years older than I am now, I was able to see a side of my mother that most daughters don't, and I came to value and respect her as a woman, not just a mother. It was fun reading some of her innermost thoughts and thinking, hey, my mind works just like that!
Subject matter aside, any mother and daughter working AND living together is a challenge. There's both more fun and more bickering than would exist in a typical professional relationship, as the line between personal and professional is sometimes blurred. There were times when my mom would use professionalism as a guise to continue mothering her adult daughter ("stop eating so much ice cream; it's unhealthy and TV adds ten pounds,") and there were times when I, childishly, was reluctant to listen to professional comments simply because of who they came from.
mamazine.com: Claire, how would you have defined a mother's job before Mia ran away? And how, if at all, has that changed since her recovery?
Claire Fontaine: I never really defined motherhood before all this happened. I just went on instinct, which is great to a point, but I didn't step back and objectively assess what was and wasn't working. I thought that if I just worked hard enough, loved hard enough, all would be well. What an illusion! You can control their environment and experiences (to a certain age) but you can't control how they feel; you can't control the most important thing, their inner life. You can't "make" them happy or resilient. I could chase Mia to the ends of the earth, I could lock her up so she couldn't self-destruct, but only she could heal her heart and soul. Our children belong only to themselves. And we to ourselves—and that's what's changed most, the most valuable lesson I learned: that it is not what a mother says or does that has the greatest impact, but who she is, her very being. If you aren't genuinely happy, open, empowered and optimistic, how can your child be? They absorb us, our children, far more than what we say or do. I learned that my biggest responsibility to Mia is to be the way I want her to be: joyful, to see the blessings in herself and the world, to be okay with uncertainty, to trust. It's ironic that the best way to mother your child, in my opinion, is to be more like one yourself, because these are all qualities natural to a child and that we, over the years, lose.
mamazine.com: Mia, do you anticipate becoming a mother yourself one day? How do your understandings of your mother's choices and experience with you, as well as your choices and experience as her daughter, influence your expectation of what motherhood would mean for you?
Mia Fontaine: Prior to writing this book, I had always assumed that my mother loved me in the same way in which I loved her. Reading and editing her parts of the book, however, completely changed my understanding of what it means to be a parent. I think the love a child has for a parent is often selfish. You love your parents because of all they give to you; they take care of your every need, they entertain you, they discipline you, they give you someone to model and look up to.
The love a parent has for a child is, for most, almost completely unselfish. Yes, they love you for what you give to them. But, your life stops being just your own once you have a child, you can never think in terms of only yourself again and realizing all of this has made me take the responsibility of parenting much more seriously. One of the things I learned in reading what my mother wrote was how becoming a mother changes who you are; it opens you up, almost like learning you're 3-D when you'd always assumed you were two-dimensional.
Also, writing the book together truly showed me all that I put her through and, honestly, becoming a parent scares the heck out of me now. Assuming there is such a thing as karma, I should stay on birth control for life!
Nonetheless, I do plan on having children, though not anytime in the near future. There are times when I see baby clothes or a peacefully sleeping child and my maternal instincts kick in—but as soon as the kid wakes up crying those instincts go sailing out the window. I'm only 23, so I have a lot of career-building, traveling, and general life experience I'd like to get under my belt before I'd feel like the person I want the mother of my children to be.
mamazine.com: What do you most hope readers take away from reading your story?
Claire Fontaine: Never to give up, on your child or on yourself. That transformation is always possible. That breakdown and calamity can be our greatest opportunity to learn if you're open to it. I also want people, mothers especially, to really get that the one in three women, and one in five men, who were molested as children weren't molested by the predator on the five o'clock news. In over 80 percent of the cases, child sexual abuse happens within the family, something we're still not willing, as a society, to fully acknowledge. The cost of this crime to individuals and to society is enormous—read the statistics on the resource page of ClaireandMia.com. It's truly shocking.
Mia Fontaine: For me, I hope readers come away with the realization that one's past need not define their present and future. Once you truly get that events are just events (be it physical or sexual abuse or getting C's on your report card) and the only meaning they have is that which we give them, it's incredibly liberating. Growing up fat doesn't mean you still have to believe you're unlikable, being sexually abused doesn't mean you're dirty—these are beliefs we currently choose to continue buying into. And that's the beauty of accountability: once you acknowledge that you and only you control your reality, changing your beliefs about yourself based on events will truly change your life.
When Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Hell and Back is purchased through the Amazon.com link at ClaireandMia.com, profits benefit child sexual abuse charities. You may also visit Claire's blog.
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