Gretchen Cherington Explores Trauma and Healing in Memoir ‘Poetic License’

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In her debut memoir, Poetic License, Gretchen Cherington grapples with reckoning the public image of her father with her private experience of abuse at his hands. This abuse changed the course of her life, and it took many years for her to fully revisit the trauma embedded within every aspect of her adulthood because of that abuse. Cherington realized while working as a consultant to corporate executives that meaningful change cannot occur within a company’s culture if its leaders do not know themselves. She needed to do the same for herself, first by dealing with the trauma itself, then by learning more about her father – how two disparate images of the man came to be.

Cherington’s father, the former Poet Laureate Richard Eberhart, had a larger-than-life personality, one bolstered and solidified by the fantastic stories her parents told about his globe-trotting travels and interactions with other poets. Cherington recounts a childhood during which she rubbed elbows with some of the most famous writers of the 20th century from Robert Frost to Anne Sexton. Eberhart was ambitious, driven; he was determined to make a name for himself by advocating for his own work and the work of other poets. He cocooned himself in the literary world, taking very little notice of things that did not relate to him directly.  Later in her life, Cherington observes that his drive sprung from a certain self-centeredness, a narcissism that perhaps made the poetry possible but also made him believe he could take anything whether or not it was being offered – the “poetic license” to do exactly what he wanted.

This entitlement – something society as a whole can recognize across all facets of industry and art – leads to the abuse Cherington discusses in this book, and she spends decades trying to understand her relationship with her father after her trust has been stripped away. She believes that talking about her father’s abuse will destroy her family, so she buries it until a stretch of upheaval in her life forces her to confront the past. When she does tell her story, she finds that her father’s closest friends are supportive of her need to tell her story – to allow two versions of her father to exist.

Cherington writes about her past fluidly and with grace, particularly her childhood and young adulthood. As readers, she transports us to a world populated by famous writers in idyllic spaces but draws a hard line underneath the edge of the narrative by asking what the truth of that image is versus what her parents projected for the world to see.

Her memoir highlights something vital during a time when people’s ideas of public figures and even those in our private spheres are being torn every day: people are complicated. They are capable of great things and atrocities alike. Both can be true. We can love them and hate them in equal measure. What Cherington points out here – what many people have pointed out lately, particularly women – is that people must be allowed to tell their stories. They should not be silenced if their experiences with an individual clash with the prevailing image of that individual. We cannot move forward as a society if we don’t allow ourselves to see the truth of things – to absorb uncomfortable histories rather than just the favorable ones. She quotes Anne Lamott in the memoir’s final pages: “You own what happened to you…If people wanted you to describe them warmly, they should have behaved better.”

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