Memoir Week

Momma’s Boy

How I wrote a memoir about the mother I once hated.

Click here to read more from Slate’s Memoir Week.

The other week, Slate posed the following question to a group of memoir writers: How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?

When I wrote On Her Trail, a memoir about my mother, Nancy Dickerson, CBS’s first television news correspondent, I tried very hard to find my nanny Veronika. * She was my surrogate mother from ages 2 to 4, and my first memory involves her. Veronika kept several big white bunnies down by the abandoned pool house where Gore Vidal’s novel Washington begins. I loved those bunnies. One day they disappeared. I was distraught. I put out lettuce leaves. The bunnies didn’t come back. Years later, I learned that Veronika had killed them and put them in the stew. I never knew her last name, and no one in the family had heard of her for more than 30 years, so I dropped the search.

John with his mother, Nancy Dickerson

It was fitting that my first memory had a hidden back-story to it. That’s what my book is about—my memories, the family stories, the public record about my mother and how it was all upended and changed by my search for her authentic story. I needed to talk to Veronika and other sources because I didn’t trust myself to accurately draw certain periods. I had hated my famous mother during my adolescence, but by the time I started writing, I couldn’t access those emotions. We’d reconciled, I’d taken up Mom’s profession, and I had watched her slowly die for more than a year from a heart attack and a stroke. The book I wanted to write was about a journey from an angry kid to the adult who came to love this amazing woman. So, I had to find that kid. I interviewed my siblings and father. I had sessions with a therapist who helped me figure out how 13-year-old boys think. I asked a high-school girlfriend to send me copies of letters I’d written to remind me what I sounded like (tedious and mopey).

The bulk of the book is about my mother’s life and career covering the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon eras. But it’s also a memoir about discovering that history through the writing process. I interviewed her old colleagues, politicians, friends, hairdresser, and enemies. I watched hours of old film for the first time from the years before I was born, rooting for her as if she were the child and I the parent. I interviewed myself regularly—sometimes with a formal list of questions—about what it was like to uncover each new revelation and the strange sense that the character I was gathering evidence about was growing more real to me each day than the woman I knew in real life. Every turn in the narrative had two parts. To write about my parent’s courtship I had to get my father to take me back to 1961, but I also had to find a way to capture my unease at having that conversation with him after having read a stack of the love letters he and my mother had exchanged that summer in Europe.

My father and siblings saw early drafts and weighed in at length. No one could confirm the bunny story, but I went with it anyway. I learned after the book was published that my fuzzy memory was right. Money was tight for my parents when I was young, and Veronika wasn’t given enough allowance to buy food for the household and the rabbits. So, the rabbits had to go. She had a friend butcher one for stew. It was such a traumatic event she set the rest free. The next day the nanny for Ted Kennedy, our neighbor, called Verokica to say she thought the senator had gone mad. He’d come home late one night and said the lawn was filled with white bunnies. I know this story because at the first book fair I attended to promote the book, a woman in her 60s introduced herself to me. She was crying. Her name was Veronika.

Correction, June 19: The article originally misspelled the name of John Dickerson’s nanny. (Return to the corrected sentence.)