Head­er image cour­tesy of stephXstitch

Tova Mirvis is the author of The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion, a mem­oir, out lat­er this month from Houghton Mif­flin Har­court. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Nev­er read the com­ments, my writer friends all advise when pub­lish­ing a per­son­al essay online. Wise words, and I fol­lowed them when, sev­er­al years ago, I wrote an essay that ran in the New York Times about my Ortho­dox Jew­ish divorce cer­e­mo­ny in which I real­ized that I was leav­ing not just a mar­riage but the reli­gious world in which I was raised.

But I hadn’t expect­ed the flood of emails.

When the essay was pub­lished, I hap­pened to be on a hik­ing trip in Cor­co­v­a­do Nation­al Park, in a remote region of Cos­ta Rica. It was a trip where for a week, I was cut off from the world — I had hiked four­teen miles into the rain for­est, spent two nights at a ranger sta­tion, then trav­eled by boat to an eco-lodge in Drake’s Bay where sloths hung from trees and tou­cans and scar­let macaws flew past.

I checked my phone only once — in the sole spot at the edge of the for­est where there was recep­tion, and saw an email from the Times edi­tor that the piece would run the next day. I was excit­ed, of course, but also wor­ried about putting the most pri­vate, painful part of my life into the world. I’d nev­er felt so vul­ner­a­ble, on the verge of such exposure.

On a lap­top bor­rowed from anoth­er guest at the eco-lodge (in an attempt to be ful­ly away, I’d left mine at home) I answered the copy editor’s queries. I sent a heads-up email to my fam­i­ly let­ting them know about the essay. But final­ly, in this remote locale where the word looked like it had been paint­ed entire­ly green, there was noth­ing to do but let go. 

When I came back to every­day life, I had hun­dreds of‘emails wait­ing for me. A few were from peo­ple I knew, but most­ly they were from strangers old and young, of all reli­gious back­grounds, shar­ing with me their sto­ries of change and trans­for­ma­tion. I had pre­pared myself for the cru­el­ty of the com­ments sec­tion, but I hadn’t expect­ed this.

One let­ter after anoth­er say­ing, I too have felt trapped. I too am on the brink of upend­ing my ordered life. I too have forged a painful change. Peo­ple I didn’t know, say­ing I am hold­ing your sto­ry, and in exchange, hand­ing me theirs. It’s all too easy to feel cut off inside the remote locales of our own lives; to look at those around us and only see the well-con­struct­ed exte­ri­ors; to dash off the mean-spir­it­ed response to some­one else’s expe­ri­ence; to lose sight of the fact that inside every­one around us, some painful ques­tion is being asked. But by telling a sto­ry in which we are made vul­ner­a­ble, we are hold­ing out a hand, mak­ing a con­nec­tion, offer­ing a direct point of entry into our lives.

A few months lat­er, I start­ed writ­ing the mem­oir which even­tu­al­ly became The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion, expand­ing on the sto­ry I’d told in the essay. I still felt afraid – inside me were the voic­es of cen­sure and judg­ment, my own inter­nal set of trolls, cast­ing eter­nal judg­ment. In order to write, I sum­moned that rain for­est in my mind, a place where I could qui­et that swirl of thought. I kept those emails as a rebut­tal to those naysay­ing voic­es, and reread them, to remind myself of the ways that telling our sto­ries can help us see, real­ly see, our­selves and those around us.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three nov­els: Vis­i­ble City, The Out­side World, The Ladies Aux­il­iary, a nation­al best­seller, and the mem­oir The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe Mag­a­zine, and Poets and Writ­ers, and her fic­tion has been broad­cast on NPR. She lives in New­ton, Massachusetts.