Spotlight on Sharon Ann Wildey, Writer
Sharon Ann Wildey is a lawyer, ordained minister, conflict mediator, teacher, writer, and poet. She graduated from Indiana University with a BA in Forensic Science and a Law degree (JD). During her early years of practicing law, she found herself on the cutting edge of the “new” feminist issues of the era: equality in divorce, marriage, health care, sports, employment, and education. In 1980 she founded the Women’s Legal Clinic, which served the needs of women and children in four locations in Indiana. Later she joined a law firm in Chicago that specialized in complex litigation and space law, and also served as a conflict mediator for Cook County Circuit Court.
After she retired from the practice of law she obtained a Masters of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary, was ordained in the United Church of Christ, and developed a specialty in working with congregations that were in transition or had suffered traumatic events.
Sharon currently lives in Costa Rica, where she is building her writing career, following the path of her beloved Aunt Hellen Wildey Ochs. “Ann,” as she is known in Costa Rica, has published several books of poetry, and a travel/political/life blog called firstname.lastname@example.org. She also maintains a web site for abandoned parents at http://www.abandonedparents.net and two Facebook pages: Parents Abandoned By Their Adult Children, and Parents Healing From Estrangement.
Sharon’s five books of poetry are available online at www.sharonwildeypoetry.com. Her book Abandoned Parents: The Devil’s Dilemma, Causes and Consequences of Adult Children Abandoning Their Parents was published in September, 2014, and On the Mountain in the Morning: The Politics of Prose in Healing in 2015. Currently she is working on three more books: “Advices to Young Ladies, a Sequel,” “Abandoned Parents: Healing Beyond Understanding: Easing the Pain of Alienation,” and her autobiography. She mentors young women and men from a variety of professions and countries, and has also continued her work as a pastoral counselor.
Sharon participated in my Writing from the Heart workshop in Essoyes in the fall of 2010. She recently agreed to answer questions about her work, as well as the path that brought her to writing. JH
You’ve led a pretty interesting life, starting out in small-town Indiana, with stints in Chicago, and now Costa Rica. You’ve achieved success and fulfillment in several different careers–as lawyer, mediator, minister, writer. I’m happy to learn that you’re currently working on your autobiography because I think you have quite a story to tell. As you tell the story of your life, are you finding common themes that connect all the different parts of your life? What has been your most compelling drive? What has inspired you to do the various kinds of work you’ve done? And what connects the Sharon of today to the Sharon who started out as a girl in Indiana many years ago?
My story is very tense and often not pretty. I am not a bring-yourself-up-by- the-bootstraps person. I grew up in ugliness, both family and social. I lived in KKK country, which has now morphed into right wing religious bigotry. I struggled to become educated and to stand against all of that.
I am a person who has a deep sense of compassion–off the scale on most charts–coupled with an idealist sense of justice. This is a fatal combination, and people like me are sentenced to wander the world like the sacrificial goat, not only as a being illuminating the sins of the world but also as the reflector of truth on some scale. I find that I do not have to even speak the truth, people just sense in me something threatening. So I have found late in life, a slow burn so to speak, that writing about atrocity and hatefulness is my subject matter. People criticize me for this. My writing has been criticized as “moralistic” and “guilt producing” and a “rant.” All of which is true, I think. My religious friends wish that I could move on, close friends know that I can’t. I know that only on a minute scale am I important. On the grand scale I am nothing, and I have nothing to say. So there it is – my personal dilemma.
Can you tell us a little bit about the aunt who inspired you to write? What was she like? How and why was she important in your life?
My Aunt Hellen was my inspiration only after I was old enough to reflect on her interaction with me. Yes, she literally saved my life on a couple of occasions when my inattentive parents nearly killed me. And yes, she showed me a world where, because of the boundaries caused by my upbringing, I dared not go. She also was a hard-ass taskmaster for whom any imperfection, any slight error was damning. At the very end of her life she gave her approval of me. Women in my fraternal family have lived out the consequence of the violation of my great-grandmother who was raped and bore a child out of wedlock in a community of religious zealots. Her name was Rose Johnson. As a consequence of that my family lived in fear of social consternation and offset that fear with a hard-line Christian worldview that spread to all aspects of our life. I hope that generational legacy has ended with me.
It’s a pretty upsetting topic that you cover in your recently published works: the abandonment of parents by their adult children. How did you come to have an interest in this topic, and what made you want to write a book about it? Is there a personal story behind this? And can you tell us a little bit about the books you have written on this topic?
I have said in the first book that I was searching for something to help me understand what happened to my family. That is as far as I have gone, and as far as I am comfortable going.
The purpose of the first book, Abandoned Parents, was twofold: first to authenticate the injury, and secondly to try to form some framework for discussing and perhaps understanding this phenomenon as a developing social issue.
The book has been criticized on two levels: the first criticism is that it is moralistic, and the second is that it is not very compassionate toward the adult children who abandoned their parents, since I suggest that there is never a good reason to abandon your parents. I think both criticisms are correct. In my defense, or by way of explanation, I believe there are obligations, both moral and ethical, that come along with being in human relationships. Historically this has been especially true of parents and children.
Secondly, I think abandoning your parents is an extreme decision. We seem to have lost the art of working around or through issues that arise in families, even those that are merely annoying.
The Abandoned Parent book has now sold close to 900 copies in a bit more than a year and continues to sell at the same rate each month. There have been 50 reviews of the book, all but one of them expressing heartbreaking gratitude. I have received more than 50 emails from people who claim that the book has saved their lives. And it has been translated into French.
On the Mountain is my personal journey through despair in prose. It is meant to be helpful to those who are focusing on their own wellness. It was helpful to me, and perhaps to others as well. I do not think it is limited to the abandonment of parents, but feeling abandoned does seem to be a constant element in woundedness.
The third book, due out soon, is to be titled “Abandoned Parents: Healing Beyond Understanding: Easing the Pain of Alienation.” In this book I am looking again at the aspects of the wound, defining it in ways that hopefully will give parents a better understanding of what they are feeling in body and mind. The book goes on to suggest a pathway to easing their pain. A fourth book will be written for the adult children who have abandoned their parents. After that, I will be finished with the subject.
The personal journey of writing book such as these has filled me with a feeling of gratitude that I have been able to help others. I am blessed to be able to reach out and touch people who are desperately broken. At the same time, to engage in this level of pain over a sustained period of time has taken a personal toll.
What wisdom I have on the subject I have put in the first two books, and it will also be in the third book. The abandonment of parents remains a mysterious event that is global in nature and completely unrelated to culture, education, class, race, or wealth. In cultures that are typically known for parent honoring, such as Japan and South American countries, the phenomenon is being found on a scale as deep as in the U.S. and Europe. There are no statistics, but it is said that everyone knows at least one parent who has this problem, and at least two parents who describe their relationship with their adult children as walking on eggshells.
You’ve also published five books of poetry. When did you first start writing poetry, what inspired you to do it, and what has writing poetry given you? Why is it important, to you, (and maybe to anyone)?
Poetry for me came out of the blue in the form of my poem titled “Mary.” It popped into my mind and I had to write it down. From that time on, poems have popped into my mind and I write them down. I find that if I have to edit much it doesn’t come out right as a poem. Another view of this is that traumatized people have difficulty with brain function in that the two lobes of the brain resist communication and often speech is impaired and separated from emotions. I believe that poetry for me and other poets often reflect our brain’s compulsion to communicate using symbolic speech in place of stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But who knows where it comes from? It just is. I do not view myself as a great poet at all. I think I am a good poet, and for me it is irresistible not to write it all down.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the Washington D.C. area and Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France, where she offers Writing from the Heart workshops several times a year. This post is second in a series of interviews with past participants of Writing from the Heart sessions.