Interview: Gretchen Cherington, Author of Poetic License

About the Book:

Book cover poetic licenseGretchen Cherington’s memoir Poetic License explores the challenges of self-expression when one grows up in the home of a prominent poet—even more so when the poet is as complicated and renowned as Cherington’s father, Richard Eberhart. Cherington grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in the shadow of her father’s looming figure and on the sidelines of the lively parties her parents hosted for other literary giants the likes of Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg.

On the outside, Cherington had a comfortable, even privileged, life in Hanover, New Hampshire, where her father was the poet-in-residence at Dartmouth College. She summered with her family in Maine, and spent a year abroad at a Swiss boarding school. And yet she experienced emotional hardship in a family where her father could be brilliant, engaging, narcissistic—and could sexually abuse her.

For decades, Cherington lived with a secret as she tried to reconcile the celebrated man, and the father she had adored, with the one who violated her. When Cherington was young and still living at home, she survived by avoiding her father. She eventually fled to attend university on the West Coast, but returned to live near her parents in New Hampshire, where she created her own identity as a mother of two children, and a professional with her own consulting business.

At age 40, however, Cherington had an encounter with her father that brought back memories of his sexual assault of her when she was in high school. In midlife, she began to put the pieces together. With a trove of archival material at her disposal (her father’s manuscripts and personal correspondence are collected in Dartmouth College’s Rauner Library), she began to write about her experience.

In a memoir that took over two decades to craft, Cherington tells her story, and shares it with the poets, family, and community from whom she had kept it hidden for so long. Her memoir is a testament to the confusion of having an abusive parent, the many sides an abusive parent can have, and an author’s willingness to examine and share her own truth.

About the Author:

Gretchen Eberhart Cherington grew up in a household that was populated by many of the most revered poets and writers of the twentieth century, from Robert Frost to James Dickey. She has spent her adult life advising top executives and their teams in changing their companies and themselves, and, as a leader in her regional community, has served on twenty corporate and not-for-profit boards. Her writing has been published in Crack the Spine, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, and Yankee Magazine, among other journals and newspapers, and her essay, “Maine Roustabout” was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. Her memoir Poetic License was published in 2020 by She Writes Press. Her second memoir, Too Big to Fail is forthcoming, Fall 2022. You can find her on Twitter or at her website.


Elizabeth Kelsey: First of all, I was wondering if you could comment on the title Poetic License and the meaning behind it?

Gretchen Cherington: The book actually went through a number of reincarnations over the last 20 years. And the title Poetic License didn’t really come to me until maybe three or four years ago. I was revising the portion of the book that talks about my father’s sexual molestation of me. And I was ruminating in my head about how he could have done this, given that he was such a generous and gregarious and warm person and ostensibly loved me. In the book, I consider a couple of those questions, like, “Was it because of Anne Sexton being there that day?” “Was it because he had had too much to drink?” And then it just sort of came off my fingers as I was writing: “It was just my father’s poetic license, the license privileged men have long taken from the women around them.” So for me, first of all, it was simply a literary meaning, like “that phrase works perfectly,” because he was a poet, and he took his own poetic license. Then, as I was redrafting, and finally, completing the full manuscript for publication, I thought about it also with a second meaning of my own poetic license: taking my own poetic license in the sense that I had grown up around all these stories about him, the myth versus the reality of him, and I’ve never felt like I could speak my truth. So, in a sense, I was taking my own form of poetic license by speaking my truth. 

EK: Isn’t that what he advised you to do—speak your truth? You had asked him at one point. You had approached him and said that you were going to write about him, right? “Your only job as a writer is to tell the truth,” he said.  And he was fine with that.

GC: Yeah, I don’t think he knew what I meant. I hate to say it, but let’s put it this way: I’d asked him if he had had any regrets in his long life, and that, to me, was my opener. If he were willing to say something about what had happened to me, I was giving him that chance. He was older at that point, but he was still very with it. And he thought for a very long time, and he said, “No, I don’t have any regrets,” which surprised me, because at the time, I had so many regrets in my life that I couldn’t believe anybody wouldn’t have at least one regret in 90 years. And then that question just came out of me, “Is there anything you don’t want me to say?” And he said, “No, your only job was to tell the truth.” At the time, this was back when I was beginning this process of writing. I think when he said that, it meant to me that he was considering me like other writers, and he’d never considered me as a writer before. It felt like the kind of thing he would say to Donald Hall, or Maxine Kumin, or somebody who came to him for advice. And he would have told them, “Your job is to tell the truth.” So that’s how I took it then. I took it as a positive invitation to go down this path and figure out what I was going to figure out. At the time I was ready for him if he had said something to me about what had happened, but I wasn’t expecting it, really.

EK: I wanted to ask what your thoughts were about writing when you had such a prominent writer in the family, and you were surrounded, since childhood, with these celebrated poets?

GC: Well, they were mythic in their way. And, of course, as a little girl, they were just people. It really took a while for me to understand who they were, and also who my father was—frankly, he was just my dad. I figured everybody’s dad was sort of the same until I started really seeing other dads and other homes, and they weren’t the same.

But in any case, the writers were pretty mythic in my childhood, and part of that was because they were so lauded by both of my parents. My parents were in thrall of them, as some of them were in thrall of my parents. I grew up around this environment where literature—and particularly poetry and poets—were highly revered, and writers were the ultimate spokespeople.

I think even my dad very rarely read anything but poetry. I don’t know if he ever said this, or would have said it, but I think he saw it as a higher calling, even. Part of that was his narcissism, I’m sure, but I think there was a mythic value placed on poets and there were so many of them around and they were all prize winners.

I remember very distinctly this one moment when I was at my parents’ house. I was in my twenties, I’d dropped out of college and was living back in New Hampshire. I went to their house for dinner one night, and we were having coffee after dinner in the living room. I looked around and every single one of these people had either won a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award or some really elite award from the literary establishment.

Even if I had any ideas that my journaling might turn into something, it was squashed. It was like there was no way I can compete—it’s not possible. I’m sure there was some gendered part of that too because although there were some women around like Sexton and Kumin, it was largely a man’s club. My mother wrote one article published in Yankee Magazine that was seen as a nice place for women to get published, if they weren’t, really, quote, “serious writers.” It was such a dual picture, though, all of these things. As I’m speaking to you, I realize that even in that regard, he lauded Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Elizabeth Bishop, May Sarton, and Marianne Moore—all these women poets he really admired for their poetry. It was this very mixed view. But I think what I took from it was, that’s not my path. Also, after the molestation, I wanted to get as far away from my father, his world, the way he made his career, as I possibly could.

Headshot author gretchen cherington

Author Gretchen Cherington

EK: But also, what changed, and how did you start writing? It took two decades, right?

GC: That’s a great question. When I was around 40, I went through this divorce, and that, of course, was enough of an upheaval to really bring a lot of stuff up and have to examine it carefully and figure out what it all meant. In that process, I began journaling more and more. I went to a community college class on writing personal essays in Lebanon, New Hampshire. I made a couple of friends in that class. That was the first time that I was taken seriously by a teacher, as a writer, and I got some good feedback just on early drafts. I wasn’t yet ready to really open my heart and my soul to the writing. It was more descriptive biographical, perhaps. It was really Joni Cole’s classes [at the Writer’s Center in White River Junction, Vermont] that opened me up. She was just so amazing.

EK: What was it about her approach that was so helpful?

GC: She gave me some critical feedback, for sure. But she gave it in a very supportive way. Her whole philosophy of feedback was about focusing on what you’re really good at and continuing to do that—not putting as much weight on what you’re not good at yet. So I was a steady member of those classes for a number of years, maybe five years or so. I met a bunch of other great writers and became friends, but also just got an enormous amount of advice from her. It really was at about the point, let’s say it was at the 15-year mark, that I began to think I’m going to need somebody else to have an eye on this. And I didn’t really know then that what I was looking for was a memoir specialist. And that’s when I ended up finding Brooke Warner, my editor at She Writes Press.

EK: I wanted to talk about your formative years. You had difficulties but you also had, as we say in public health, “developmental assets”—supportive people in your life like your gram, your neighbor, Mr. Hennessey, even Allen Ginsberg. Can you comment on their roles and how those people in your life affected you?

GC: You’re absolutely right. I was very privileged to have had those assets if you want to call them that. My gram was my mentor and moral compass. Just as a young girl, growing up, watching her—she was probably a 60 or 70-year-old woman at the time, with a leadership role on the board of the family company. That was a good visual for me.

Mr. Hennessy was just an incredible person and his two children readily agree with that. He was the epitome of gentlemanliness, always dressed in a suit no matter what day it was. He had always been helpful to me in math because I was not very good at math. I would go over to his house and he helped me with my homework, so I’d gotten to know him that way. I trusted him as an advisor. When I came back to the Upper Valley and started to get into management and then was recruited for boards, I turned to him as a mentor in those ways as well. I could tell him whatever I wanted to tell him and it would be safe with him. I didn’t really know how he’d take it when I told him about the molestation, but he took it as well as anybody could ask for so to speak. He totally validated me, and at the same time, would not have shared that with anyone if I hadn’t told him he could.

EK: Around the time you were 40, you confided in him about the molestation, right? You wrote that he and his wife had always thought that your father looked at you the wrong way.

GC: Yes, exactly. He thought that my father objectified me. “Put me on a pedestal,” I think was his term. So it’s interesting to think back on that because, as a kid, I didn’t think I was being put on a pedestal. I thought I was finally gaining some attention from my father. I think what he meant was that my father’s adoration of me seemed out of the norm. It wasn’t quite like the usual dad’s adoration of a daughter should be: there was something about the look there that he caught.

Allen Ginsberg was a totally different character. At my first meeting with him over dinner when I was about 16, he validated me as a person around the table as somebody who had seen the world and knew a few things about life. I had just come back from Switzerland. He was interested in my thoughts and opinions on things. And so again, it was a different kind of validation. But I remembered that, and I still remember it.

EK: I am thinking of the effect people like that had on you, and so I want to ask about after your father assaults you on that night when you were 17. You write, “I felt  my love for my father implode. I felt my womanhood implode,” and you write how the experience had “driven nearly every decision you’ve made from 17 to 35, and was wound up in every failure.” That is the opposite of what you experienced from those other people in your life.

GC: Certainly, when I was writing that I was in the space of my 40s when I felt like I’d failed. My marriage had failed. Now when I look back on thinking myself a failure, it’s ridiculous, but I did at the time. This dream that [my then-husband] Alex and I had had together had not succeeded. I had finished my degree, but not where my parents had hoped I would have finished it from. I had gone and got my MBA, but again, not probably where they might have liked to have advertised I’d been. I’d lost a friend due to saying the wrong things. So I did feel like I had failed in things and that I had a big gap to make up in my 40s.

In some ways I wonder, postulating on this with you, whether in some ways that was motivating for me. A lot of people have asked, “how did you get from where you were at 40 to where you are now?” And I do think that being—not the same bottom as some people have, by any means—but it being my bottom, that I was ultimately motivated to not let that get in the way. It might have been getting in my way at the moment, but I was determined to succeed in some way, going forward.

That’s part of why I invested so much in therapy, and really diving into my shame and guilt, because I wanted to change. At the same time, the other thing was that I was starting to work with these corporate men in my consulting career. And I won’t say that there weren’t some of them who were a lot like my father, and I had the usual brush-ups with a couple of them who made advances. I struggled with that because I was in the early class of women kind of being equal to men. But most of them, and the ones that I particularly chose to work with over the longer term, also expected me to be something that I could aspire to.

A lot of women have imposter syndrome, and I had some of that when I started my consulting career. But I started to recognize that, wow, they’re telling me things they’ve never told anybody but their wife, and that’s a privilege, and it humbled me. I felt like they were expecting things of me that I had to stay in front of. I had to do my own personal growth work so that I could help them do theirs. And that’s really what guided me over the next thirty years, to keep doing my work.

EK: You say the bottom you experienced wasn’t as low as some, but it was tough because you had gone through this divorce after a long marriage, and you were confronting a very traumatic experience. And so I was curious about how you coped with that. What are some of the tools you’ve used? And really, not everybody would have gone to a therapist. Can you say more about what motivated you?

GC: First of all, shame motivated me. I was ashamed of my father. I was ashamed of myself, for whatever role I thought I had in it, which is, again, ridiculous. But in the beginning, I was ashamed of myself. I was certainly ashamed of him, I was ashamed of some of my ex-husband’s behavior, and how that reflected on me. So part of it was the motivation of uncovering what is this shame about and what does it mean to me. I had started by reading articles in popular magazines, by talking to a lot of women friends, some of whom had been in therapy. And the first therapist I called, I was really on the cusp of divorce, and it was for that. She helped me through the next year or two.

But it was after that, that I started getting more into what my father had done and how that shaped me. The other thing that motivated me, absolutely, was my two children. They were 11 and 16 at the time that their dad and I divorced. Of course, I’m the mom, but they are astonishing people and fabulous in their own right and I felt a personal duty to them. It was like, okay, this stuff with shame and guilt is stopping in my generation, this family myth stuff, these secrets, this misuse of women, whatever it is. I am motivated to stop it here.

There was, I think, a psychological motivation from that, to become the best I could be. And that could only help those I love. The healthier a mom or dad is, the better for the children. So that was a big part of my motivation.

EK: I wanted to visit that turning point, when you were 40, vacationing with your parents, and your father entered your bedroom one morning. That’s when it all came back to you emotionally when you were in high school when your father walked into your bedroom and assaulted you. It’s a turning point where you face the denial of the past years. That incident just hit you.

GC: Yeah, I understand that a little bit better now after years of therapy, but I didn’t at the time, it just was a feeling. It was a sensory kind of experience. This was maybe the second or third time that I had taken the kids to Florida on my own for vacation weeks to visit with my parents.

I remember the look of that room and the bed and the doorway and everything. I had gotten up early to read and then I knew my daughter would wake up first. So I propped open the door so I would hear her and could come in. So when he opened the door, there was this flood of light and his figure, and me and my bed.

That was sort of the first thing that just kind of prompted, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been here before.’ And then as he made his way around the bed. The door wasn’t in exactly the same location as in my childhood bedroom, but it was close. And there had been all that party noise and light filling the room from the hallway when I was seventeen. So, I guess what happens is that all the neurons just sort of glom together again, finally, after they’d been split off and all of a sudden, the memory is back. And that means, suddenly the experience is back.

So, you know, the difference was that as soon as I had that experience, I knew I didn’t want to be in that situation again. And I also knew that it was 7:30 in the morning, and my parents usually slept till 9, and there wasn’t a reason for my father to be in my room.

So, I said get out, and he was affronted, and he did walk out. But that was a bolt of lightning/flash of clarity that seared me to the bone. It was when I returned from that trip that I called my doctor, and he recommended a therapist.

EK: I also wanted to ask you again about the two sides of your dad, and how he carried on these open affairs—especially the one with Joy, the younger professor at the University of Florida. Again, that poetic license of his. Can you say more about that comment you made to your therapist about thinking of the two sides of him was like hearing a clashing gong go off in your head? How do you reconcile those two sides of a person?

GC: It’s hard to really describe. I never intended when I first started to write nor, as I was publishing this book, intended it to be a “my dad was just a horrible person” book. That was never my interest. It’s not who I am. It was a combination of things; one, the inner work, the therapy work, and just in my mind, every layer of the onion that gets peeled back, reconciling the pieces of my father that were both there. And I still love some pieces of who he was.

I just have scanned some of his home movies, which he took all the time when we were growing up. And it’s been kind of fascinating to look back, I’ve only barely started to look at them, but to look back at them and see me as a little girl, with him. And, you know, looking up at him, him looking down at me. It looks like an adoring daughter and her adoring father. It looks normal. So, those things, I hold on to, and I cherish in some ways. It’s clouded by the other, for sure, but it’s not like his better self had totally gone away.

I think that sort of inner work and therapy was one part of it. The other part of it was being in the worlds of many other powerful men, and seeing them in front of other leaders, you know, in their conference rooms, speaking their own truth in ways about where their companies were going, or what kind of culture they were trying to develop.

Then I also saw their dual facets: there were some of those men who were just as charismatic, as poetic, as my dad was, and, many who’d made it to the top from nothing, but they had more humility. They were open to me about their vulnerabilities.

So. I was wrestling in my consulting work with men who were challenged by their own dualities too. This is overly simplified, but for example, “I believe in solid employment and I have to lay four people off.” How do you work through that in your own mind, especially if you’re a new CEO? How that’s okay? It’s not the same as what I’m talking about around my dad, but there were all these opportunities for me to look at dualities in other men who had power in their spheres and were trying to deploy that power in a way that was the most beneficial. They were open to considering what it’s like for a woman to come on to their teams, and how they would have to change their own behavior to share that power with others. They liked diversity of opinions and people and experiences.

And all that came to me alongside this work on how could a father molest his daughter? So, it’s both the inner work and the outer work, I can’t say enough about how much that consulting work informed my life and really helped me become who I am today. I feel really grateful to my clients for trusting me in sharing their lives while I was figuring out mine. And we kept those two storylines entirely separate.

 EK: That’s interesting. I wanted to ask you about your experience of reading your father’s papers that eventually ended up in Rauner Library. What was your experience like, going through his archives?

GC: First of all, part of it was just curiosity about who was this father of mine that I didn’t really understand. Who’d done these things to me, while also, I’d thought, having a pretty stellar reputation?

I just thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s a treasure trove of material.’ Of course, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time, and I didn’t really have a plan, I was just pawing through these letters, looking for ones from people that I’d heard about. I would get diverted down some track about my grandparents, which is my second book, and go down that for a while, and then I would bring myself back. And then it morphed into, ‘I wonder if I’ll find anything that documents what happened,’ but I never found any reference to that. But I got a clear view of my father’s world.

One thing you’re really making me think about is that I’m a person who sees a lot of gray in life. I was interested in teasing out all the gray.

EK: How did you keep yourself safe as you were doing that research?

GC: I was in therapy. And I had a strong group of women around me. There were four or five I was really close to and we’d have dinner together and talk about what I was learning. These were also my prime biking and hiking years, and we’d go on fast rides to expend emotional energy. My second husband, who I was not married to yet, had been transparent about his past from the beginning, and so he heard mine and made it safe for me to be myself.

Those things were all coping mechanisms, and sometimes my adult kids would weigh-in, I’d hear “Mom, you don’t need to do this.” But, other times, they’d say, “Mom, look what you’re learning about yourself, and look what you’re learning about your dad, you know, this is amazing.” My kids were amazing throughout.

EK: I also found it interesting that with the exceptions of your high school year abroad in Switzerland and undergrad studies at the University of Washington, you remained for the most part, in this rural New Hampshire community, right, where your father was such a prominent figure, and where so many things painful and positive happened to you. Some people flee such a situation. It’s known in the recovery community as pulling a geographic. So what does it mean to you to remain in your community? And to maintain these long-term connections?

GC: When I came back, it was for a person. And it happened to be that his family had some land outside of Hanover. So that’s where we settled. But after the divorce, that would have been the time when I might have fled somewhere. But I will say that underlying all of the chaos was this community I lived in that was a steady ballast for me. There were long term good friends I didn’t want to leave.

The other part was for my children. I fought really hard to keep them in the house they’d grown up in. That was my first priority. At the time, I had just launched my consulting business and I was pretty green in it still and my income was tied to each contract. But I wanted them to maintain their friendships, which were really, really strong for them too. And at a deep level, I didn’t think I should have to leave my community. You know, it was like, this is my home. I’m gonna stay. There was that, too. 

EK: And now with your memoir, how does it feel to have spoken for yourself, and what has been the response from your family, and your community?

GC: It is 99.9 percent positive and amazing. Every day I receive a note from somebody on my website or by email from someone who just read the book for whom it resonated. And that is, of course, what you want your writing to do. I’ve had so many women tell me, “My situation was very different from yours, but you helped me understand how it happened. And you helped me understand what I need still to do to move beyond what happened.” I’ve also just had these beautiful messages from young men who have young daughters and the strong women that are in their daughter’s lives. A gift like those shows up every day. It’s all a writer needs.

The response from my family has all been positive. I’m especially grateful for my ex-husband’s response. In memoir, you have to be really careful about showing your work to people too soon. And, you know, dealing with their reactions and/or giving them too much permission to change your story because they can raise our fears to put it out there. I just the four chapters that he’s in, and he replied generously, wishing me good luck and recognizing I’d brought back both positive and negative memories, and all were important. So it’s really all been positive. I believe that in airing tough parts of our past if we do it well, it can encourage healing and growth, and I’m grateful that’s proven true for me with Poetic License.

What I hadn’t prepared for is the emotional work that continues from all these conversations. I thought it was kind of done. That I had found my place in the world and I was resolved about my past, and my life is good and stable. And it is, but these conversations—even this one with you—raise things too, and so I continue thinking about and wondering about my dad and how I’ve changed. Some of these conversations have filled in details I hadn’t known. Some have further validated my experience. Some have given a memory a little different twist, you know, to who he was. And so, all of that is good fodder for continued mental health work.

But it’s emotionally draining at times. Especially in the first couple of months after publication. Now, I’m more accustomed to the questions and not as triggered by them. It gets easier, I would say to other survivors, as you talk about it more. But it’s one thing I wish I’d been better prepared for. And had surrounded myself with more tools, like scheduled time for being outdoors by myself, and being with special friends. Of course, COVID – and the first few months after publishing a book—didn’t help in that regard. Exposing these tough issues in public brings them up again and can make us dig deeper. It’s through the telling our truth that we keep growing so I have no regrets. Like most big changes in one’s life, becoming a published author has changed me.

EK: That is all so important to keep in mind. I feel like I could keep talking with you forever, but as we close, is there anything else you would like readers to know?

GC: What I would say is that I don’t know a writer who writes any form of memoir, whether it’s for publication or private purpose, who hasn’t benefited from writing about their experience. I’m speaking particularly about survivors: I don’t know a single one who hasn’t benefited from getting it down on paper and hashing it out internally that way. I encourage anybody who has an inkling to start or keep going. We can’t change ourselves or the systems we have to live in if our voices aren’t fully heard. As I write in the book I’m “no longer willing” to live otherwise and not to bring my whole self to the table.

 

Meet the Contributor

Headshot elizabeth kelseyElizabeth Kelsey is a Vermont-based writer who specializes in mental health topics. Her essays and articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal; the Boston Globe; O, the Oprah Magazine; and other publications. Find her on Twitter or her website.

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