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Mignonne Breier’s Letters to My Son Launched at The Book Lounge with Dawn Garisch

Mignonne Breier

“Incredibly brave!” were the words on many folks’ lips at the launch of Mignonne Breier’s memoir, Letters to My Son, held last week at The Book Lounge. The author was joined at the podium by her friend, Jane English, who read a series of poignant extracts from the book on her behalf. The capacity crowd who had gathered to celebrate the emergence of this important narrative were clearly deeply moved.

Dawn Garisch & Mignonne BreierLetters to My SonMervyn Sloman, owner of the well-known independent book shop said, “I can’t think of anything more private than the loss of one’s child. To write about that in the way that Mignonne has done, to chart her own process, and then to put that out into the public domain is an incredibly brave thing to do.”

He believes that this book will be hugely valuable to any who have lost a child. He introduced and welcomed the multifaceted Dawn Garisch, poet, author and medical doctor, and “wonderful conversationist” who joined Breier in discussion.

Garisch observed that the topic was clearly a subject dear to the heart of many people and asked the author about her writing process. “I wrote the book I wanted to read,” said Breier.

In the days after her son Matthew’s death, she searched extensively but couldn’t find anything that spoke to her experience, in particular as she is not a conventionally “religious” person. A researcher by trade, she decided to research what it was like to lose a child. She planned a project to interview 50 people, analyse the results, and “to improve my NRF rating” while she was about it.

On setting up the first interview, she realised the woman was somebody who tried to speak to her child through medium and séances. “I was so fazed by this that I couldn’t go through the interview. I realised I had a long road to travel before I would have the objectivity to set aside my own way of grieving and listen to somebody who grieved in a very different way to me.”

A sociologist friend of her encouraged her to use the technique of “memory work”, a feminist methodology where people get together in a workshop to talk about their memories and then begin writing from there. When she approached well-known writing teacher Ann Schuster she was encouraged to get straight to work and to being writing about her son. “I started writing about Matthew’s life, sitting in a little cottage at The Grail Centre where Ann Schuster was hosting a residential writing retreat.”

Breier said, “There was a huge chunk of his life that I couldn’t remember when he was about nine years old. We had very few conversations. Suddenly I started to write to him in the middle of the night, to try to address what had happened, to talk about why we’d been unable to communicate.” She reflected that later on in the process, she realised that she was holding a kind of literary séance with her son, and was not so different from the woman she had been unable to interview.

Matthew Breier was born with normal hearing but at the age of four he succumbed to a virus that caused progressive hearing loss. By the age of 19 he was severely deaf but a cochlea implant radically altered his quality of life and he was able, again, to listen to music. His life was coming together and he was settling down. A month before he succumbed to leukemia, he ran the Two Oceans Marathon.

Garisch said she had found the book very moving and powerful. “Because you have observed a very specific relationship and situation so well, we can all feel it. The power of being very specific speaks to all of us.”

Breier expressed her enormous gratitude to her family, saying, “Without your support, I couldn’t have done this.”

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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks

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