Q How does it feel to have your first book debut at number one on the Globe and Mail’s Canadian non-fiction best-sellers list?
A It’s really exciting. At one point, my editor said to me, “I’m going to hope we get that book on that list,” and I said, “But there are so many books out there.” So it was pretty thrilling.
Q This is an original and fascinating memoir. It begins in North Vancouver in the 1960s. Your parents separate when you are five; your father is an alcoholic and can be violent. Through Al-Anon, your mother meets Rev. Stan Sears, a United Church minister. Life suddenly contracts, becomes peculiar. Your mother moves you and your brother in secrecy to Winnipeg and later to Saint John, N.B. Your outwardly normal life is disturbed by break-ins, car thefts and worse. Your mother severs all ties with her family — but not with Sears. Then, at age 23, you meet with your mother and Sears at a hotel room in New Brunswick. He explains that your father is a mobster and that all of you are in daily danger from the Mafia. How difficult was this to write about?
A That scene in the motel room was the hardest thing to write in that book. There was just this dump of information. I went over and over [that section] . . . but I found I couldn’t improve it, so I went with it. It was too crazy, but that’s what it was.
Q And there was more drama to come, as you grappled with a furtive, fearful life of dodging the mob. Gradually, you realized that the Mafia story was entirely fabricated by Sears. It’s a remarkable revelation. What kind of feedback have you received from readers?
A It has been surprisingly and overwhelmingly supportive and caring. I was completely prepared for people to say, “Boy, were you ever naive and stupid. Why would you believe such a crazy story?” I felt that way myself at times. How could I have let that go on?
Q You now believe that Sears, who died in Gibsons, B.C. in 1995, had a rare condition called delusional disorder. Did his congregations ever suspect that he was dealing with mental illness?
A As far as I know, nobody was picking up on anything. Many of his congregations just thought he walked on water. He was very social justice-oriented, always doing cool things.
Q Your mother, Ruth Main, also became a United Church minister. She studied at the Atlantic School of Theology, was ordained in 1990 and served for nine years in several charges in Nova Scotia. Have you heard from anyone in these communities?
A No, I really haven’t. I’m actually a bit surprised. I heard from my mother’s Quaker friends. They said they were aware what a private person she was and that they knew there had been some trauma in the past that she just didn’t talk about.
Q Do you think people are a little nervous to approach you on this?
A It could be. My mother ultimately left the United Church. She retired because of her health, and then when she came to Halifax she got involved with the peace movement and the Quakers. She felt that she’d found a really good spiritual community in the Quakers. She felt very at home there.
Q Your mother and Sears became romantically involved. She needed his love very much. Why do you think she was drawn to him?
A My mother was a strange mixture of things. She was a strong person in many ways and yet so vulnerable in other ways, particularly in terms of men. Here was this guy who was so different from any other man that she’d ever had experience with. He was gentle. She was an intellectual, and he really respected that. Her father, or even my father, would never have thought [her education] was worth much. She loved going back to university when we were kids to work on her BA, which she did one class at a time. She was an A+ student. Stan supported that so much. I think she probably felt that our relationship with him was healing, coming out of a previous sort of relationship with my dad that had been so difficult.
Q How did your relationship with your mother change when you realized that all the upheaval and terror in the first three decades of your life was based on a delusion?
A After I had discovered the whole thing was a hoax and confronted my mother, and she still believed that story — and she did until the day she died — we went through a period when we were clashing. We had been so close, and neither of us was willing to give up on the relationship.
When she was dying, she came to live with me. Every night, I would get her settled into the hospital bed, make sure she’d had her medication — all those things you do as a caregiver — and every night, she would say to me, “I am so grateful to you. What would I have done if you weren’t here for me?” And so we just came to a different place. Shortly before she died, she said to me, “You must have hated me if you really don’t believe this is true.” And I said, “No, I have been really mad at you, but I’ve never hated you. I love you.”
Q Memoirs require that we open up our hearts and lives to the public. Your story must have been particularly painful to write. What made you persist?
A[After my mother died], I was trying to forget all this stuff. Then I thought, “I need to sort this out for me, and also because I need to tell my kids at some point.”
It was when I began to really think deeply about her life experience that I was finally able to fully forgive her. I was never able to tell her that in her lifetime. But we continue to have relationships with people even after they’re dead, and these relationships can continue to grow and evolve regardless of the fact [the people] aren’t here anymore. I think my ability to empathize and forgive is a direct result of having been so well loved by my mother.
Q Has your brother, Ted, forgiven your mother, too?
A He forgave her far more easily than I did. He’s that kind of guy. He has one of the most generous hearts.
Q What comes next for you?
A I’m still doing some broadcasting [for the CBC], and I’m writing. I’ve just started doing a radio tour in the United States. It’s a huge population, and you think, how many more stories like this might emerge? What is the incidence of this delusional disorder? One thing I would truly love to see come out of this is a wider understanding of the disorder. It’s heartbreaking to me to think about. I know that [young] Pauline and Ted were not the only little kids whose lives have been hijacked by this kind of thing. I’m hearing from all kinds of people with all kinds of stories.
Q Is there any insight you would offer to other would-be memoirists, people who have lived stories as difficult as yours?
A Write as nakedly honest as you can. It was incredibly cathartic for me to write this, but if I’d been making stuff up or fudging, I don’t think I would have had catharsis. After a lifetime of being told, “Hush, you can’t talk about this,” to just say, “It’s all out there — I have no secrets,” outweighs any other consideration for me. It is glorious, transformative.
This interview first appeared in The Observer’s January 2018 issue with the title “‘I know we were not the only little kids whose lives have been hijacked.'”