Karen, tell us about the book you're currently promoting?
The Full Catastrophe: A Memoir Published April 2016.
The Full Catastrophe is a memoir but it is about much more than domestic abuse – it is about widowhood, betrayal, a search for truth, Jungian analysis, dreams, healing and learning to trust the Universe.
In 1981, Karen’s first marriage ended with a violent beating, leaving her with no child support, two small children to raise, and a poorly paying job. The bank repossessed the house because she couldn’t afford the mortgage payments. Two months later she met Duncan, the man who would become her second husband. No time was given to heal from the first marriage.
Though initially Duncan appeared to be the perfect partner – handsome, well-educated, a great job in the oil patch, interested in theatre, personal development, music – but he was extremely controlling and eventually resorted to yelling, screaming, insults, threats, in private and public. It became easier just to go along with what he wanted.
He did support her to go back to university to become a psychologist and then they formed a consultancy partnership. Ironically, they worked together well – it was only in their private life that he exploded, though that overlapped with public scenes of his anger. Her financial security was completely tied to him. She put on a false front to friends and clients so they would never know what their marriage was really like. They moved to England in 1995 so he could take up a position in a prestigious business school but the marriage did not improve. In 1998, she started going to a Jungian analyst and continued for the next five years of her life.
After having been married to Duncan for fourteen years, Karen thought divorce was the answer. But ten months after telling him that she wanted that divorce, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Eight months later, in the summer of 1999, he was gone. Karen hoped her problems would disappear after Duncan’s death – but instead, she found that, without his ranting, raving, and screaming taking up space in her life, she had her own demons to face at the same time as dealing with tremendous grief. Luckily, Duncan had left her the keys to her own salvation and healing – a love of Jungian psychology and a book, Balancing Heaven and Earth, that was to be her guide through the following years.
After a life of being completely ruled by her husband’s emotions, she was thrown into a life of her own – suffering from grief and symptoms of post-traumatic stress after years of abusive treatment. She was determined to heal because she knew if she didn’t, she ran the risk of choosing another abusive man.
During the marriages, she had shut herself down emotionally to cope with the abuse. She didn’t know herself – in some ways she had never grown up. So, instinctively, after her husband died she allowed herself a “young adult phase” that she had never had. For four years, she went to Jungian analysis, recorded her dreams, kept track of her horoscope, spent time with friends, and attracted new business projects. She dated, learned to sail, explored new countries like Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, Greece and even camped and hiked on her own. Yes, sometimes she was reckless, but eventually she learned to be more independent, make good decisions, and trust the universe to guide her. At the end of that time, she met her present husband on a beach on Maui, Hawaii and is extremely happy.
I have shivers just from reading that much. What inspired you to write the book?
About 7 years ago I felt compelled to write my memoir. It seemed to nag at me. I needed to understand why an intelligent, well-educated woman fell for, not one, but two, controlling and eventually abusive men. I wanted to connect the dots of my life and at last felt secure enough to do that – to summon the courage needed to troll through the memories, the journals, the photos, write it down through my tears and tell my story. I bought a book on how to write a memoir – Tristaine Rainer’s Your Life as Story and attended a local writing conference. I read out a character sketch of my late husband at an open mic session and received enough positive feedback that I had the encouragement I needed to continue.
I realised that I had to learn to write in this new (to me) genre of creative non-fiction. I had to learn all the techniques familiar to fiction writers: the story arc, scenes, character sketches, and dialogue, in order for the reader to get inside my head to discover the psychological drama of a woman trapped in a life of upscale domestic abuse. I revisited my stack of 14 journals I had kept throughout my 2nd marriage, widowhood and healing journey back to wholeness. In those journals, I had the bones of my story.
Do you have any other projects planned?
My next projects:
I have started to write short stories inspired by real life incidents from family, neighbours, friends and so on – not memoir. I also have in mind a further book, based on my family’s emigration to Canada from Ireland.
Do you have a favorite character?
My favourite fictional character changes with all the books I read.
Cathy and Heathcliffe top the list since I read Wuthering Heights at age 13 but also Scarlet O’Hara, that flawed heroine in Gone with the Wind. They introduced me to a depth of feeling that spoke to my adolescent yearnings. I lived out in the country in Ontario, Canada, and filled my time with what, in retrospect I now know, were great books. I loved stories of people who floundered, made mistakes, who didn’t seem to have their lives perfectly figured out, who sometimes loved the wrong people or who couldn’t express their love due to inner turmoil. Perhaps it was prescient that I would read about many of the very issues I would face in the drama of my adult life.
What inspires your writing?
I am mostly inspired by real life – that is the jumping off point of my work. I am particularly interested in stories that are emotional but have never been told – secrets or “almost secrets” in a family or village - incidents known but with no real appreciation showed for the impact of events, like adoption, serious operations, ”illegitimate” births, child molestation and so on.
Who is your favorite author?
Alice Hoffman is my new favourite author – just finished Here on Earth about domestic abuse. I also love Lori Lansens – so far I have read The Girls, The Mountain Story and The Wife’s Tale. I am looking forward to reading the rest of her books.
What's the biggest life lesson you've learned as an author?
The biggest lesson I have learned so far as an author is that writing can heal. This is particularly applicable to people who write about their experience of trauma. Through the writing of my book, I erased the mystery of the choices I made in my life and learned to have compassion for myself and others trapped in domestic abuse.
I also learned that I am a good writer and now combine that skill with my past career as a psychologist to teach “Memoir Writing for People with Difficult Stories to Tell” at our local writing society. My course is popular and the participants find the things I did – healing and acceptance, and the satisfaction of writing.
What do you love about being an author?
As my skill develops I can take on projects I didn’t think in the past I could do – because I started as a non-fiction writer, I initially steered away from fiction, but now I am sticking my toe into the water of fiction inspired by real events. I also love helping other people write so I have done some blue pencil sessions and mentoring of writers. There are no limits to what you can do.
How long have you been writing?
I won my first prize for writing when I was about 12 - $10 first prize for my essay on The Maple Tree!
I did a lot of writing during my academic training to become a psychologist so I knew how to research and write non-fiction and technical writing. I was asked to do a book on management consulting in 2001 and my book, Consulting into the Future was published in 2002. That led to requests for articles on various aspects of my work as a psychologist doing management consulting. Then I did some freelance journalistic pieces for historical and academic journals. Then I started to work on my memoir.
What do you listen to when you write?
Usually nothing – I like silence. If I am just re-typing something then I can do that listening to Eva Cassidy, Sarah McLaughlin, KD Lang and other women ballad singers.
Do you have something to say to your fans?
Write, then write again. Get feedback. Listen to the feedback. Don’t be too proud or stubborn. Keep going. Dig deep, then go deeper still. Watch for details – it is the details that tell the story.
While I am used to being inspired by authors through their hardwork and their story telling, this time I am also inspired by the woman who struggled, survived, and was aware enough to look at herself and share what she saw. Mad props Karen, and thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
And of course if you would like to follow Karen you can find her at