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Memoir: BREATH FOR BREATH Brenda Ferber

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This is the opening scene, introducing the protagonist and antagonist, setting, tone, and foreshadowing the primary conflict:

Dear Faithy,

This is how I remember it.

Dad and I were snuggled under a chenille throw on the black leather sofa with our two cats curled around us. The Sopranos was on TV, and you and your brothers were upstairs in bed. It was the spring of 2004, and you and Jacob were in third grade, Sammy was in second. People used to call you Irish triplets because I’d given birth to all three of you in nineteen months, but we weren’t Irish, or Catholic, or Orthodox Jews. Dad and I were simply a couple who’d dealt with infertility and then a surprise. Parenting three kids so close together was exhausting, but we loved it. We were all in. We’d give you kids everything we could, and by the time we were 51, you’d be out of college, and we’d still be young enough to enjoy the next phase of life as a couple.

That was the plan, anyway.

Right then though, we were like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, only to have it roll back down again. We relished the few relaxing moments at the end of our days. But as we escaped into a world of high drama on TV, we heard footsteps on the stairs. Yours.

Coming down after bedtime and telling us you couldn’t fall asleep was practically a nightly ritual, and we all knew our roles. You’d say, “I can’t sleep.” Dad would make a dad joke, like, “You’ll never fall asleep if you’re not in bed.” Then I’d walk you back upstairs, tuck you in again, and soothe whatever worry was bothering you. “Don’t forget to check on me before you go to sleep,” you’d say as I left the room and headed back to Dad.

That night, however, the regular script got tossed. You went directly to the kitchen and grabbed a paring knife from the block on the counter. The kitchen was open to the family room, where Dad and I were sitting. Dad paused the TV. You walked in front of us and toyed with the knife against your left palm. Tony Soprano was frozen on the big screen behind you, a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth. He looked as dumbfounded as I felt. What exactly were you doing?

“I’m a terrible person,” you said, and you squeezed the handle of the knife. 

My whole body tensed.

Your teacher had called that afternoon to tell me that you and your friends had played a trick on the new girl in your class. You’d all secretly assigned her a number: 1104. Then you’d convinced everyone in your class, including the new girl herself, to say mean things about the number. Eleven-oh-four is ugly. Eleven-oh-four is stupid. I hate eleven-oh-four.

I wished I were a mom who’d hear this story from a teacher and think, Impossible! My daughter would never do such a thing! But when Mrs. Castro told me what happened, I believed her.  

My dream had been to raise children who’d be strong and kind, children who’d be brave enough to step in when they saw bullying or cruelty. I never imagined one of my own kids would be the perpetrator. But sometimes it felt like nothing Dad and I said or did mattered. Like you and your brothers were who you were from birth, and all we could do was watch you become more of yourselves – for good or for bad.

I didn’t ask Mrs. Castro who the ringleader had been. Maybe it had been you, or maybe you’d simply gone along with the group. Either way, it was wrong. I was sad for the new girl, angry at you, and embarrassed for myself. I could feel Mrs. Castro judging me as a bad mother. She didn’t have kids yet, and I’m sure she thought her future children would never behave in such an atrocious manner. Oh, hypothetical children, always so well behaved.

Mrs. Castro told me you’d already written an apology letter, but I felt there had to be a consequence at home, too. So I’d grounded you and taken away your computer privileges for the day.

 But now, as you stood in front of Dad and me threatening to hurt yourself with a knife, I knew something had gone very wrong. I pictured you in your bed, going over the day’s events, having them grow into a dark, menacing cloud in your mind. I was glad you felt bad about your behavior, but shouldn’t you have come downstairs and cried in our arms? Promised you’d never do something like that again? We were the kind of parents who would have allowed you to start fresh.

Instead, you wanted to harm yourself with a knife.

“You’re not a terrible person,” I said. “You did something that wasn’t kind or respectful, and it’s normal to feel bad about that. But you’re not a terrible person.”

You scratched the point of the blade across your palm, not hard enough to do anything, but still.

“Faithy, why don’t you put down that knife.” Dad sounded frustrated more than anything. I knew in that moment he just wanted to relax and watch The Sopranos with me. As a corporate businessman, he worked hard all day. With the three of you kids so close together, it often felt like we were sprinting through parenthood, careening around blind curves, dodging debris. We were exhausted. Dad wanted drama on TV, not in real life. And you had a way of pushing every limit and wearing us out.

“I like it,” you said.

“Faith,” I said firmly. “Give me the knife.” I held out my hand, but I did not get off the sofa. You were small and wiry but also strong and unpredictable. The last thing I wanted was to get into a physical battle with you.

You looked at me with eyes that were both fierce and desperate. You didn’t move.

I softened my tone. “Faith,” I began again, “please give me the knife.”

You stood there, staring at us. You were just a little girl. You wore tie-dyed pajamas with chicks on them. Your long brown hair was still damp from the shower. Your chest rose up and down as you breathed, and I found myself matching you, breath for breath. You weren’t really going to hurt yourself, were you?

“Faithy,” I said, keeping my voice soft. “Do you want to maybe see a therapist?”

Your shoulders relaxed and you nodded. “What took you so long?” you asked, wording the question like an accusation.

You took three steps toward us, handed me the knife, and fell into our arms.

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Hi Brenda,

I'm hooked! I want to read more of your story. What the heck is happening? What lies in store for Faith and this family? Your dialogue was natural and came across as authentic, not coined. Super job.

I'm curious, do you have a working title? I wonder if it will hint at the story direction or simply keep me further intrigued. (Never mind. I see it now. How I missed it...several times...I dunno.

Thanks for sharing,


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@Brenda Ferber Wow - I love this! The scene starts out so innocent and normal but takes a HUGE turn. The Sopranos on the TV in the background is great symbolism to the daughter holding the knife. 

I truly want to read more. 

My only comments as to what threw me out of the scene was why the bullied girl needed to be assigned a number? It sounds like the teacher and class ultimately knew who the targeted girl was without big event of needing to connect the number to her - so why can't it be overtly directed at her without the filter of 1104? 

That is obviously a minor detail. I love this story! Would love to read more. 


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@Brenda Ferber I think you did make it clear that assigning the number made the victim to say something as well - but since we don't SEE that scene and the extra level of cruelty it must have been for the victim to realize she was 1104, then I think it might not be necessary. If you include it as a scene - that's different! (And might be an excellent add) Because then we can see the layers of the bullying. 

again - love it no matter what! 

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Wow, this was fabulous. That first line raises an immediate question in our heads. Does someone else remember it differently? And what are they remembering, because I'm immediately sensing conflict. Well done. Then you ground us perfectly in time and place, giving details of their life without hitting us over the head with it. By using the word snuggled we get an immediate sense of their relationship. Great! The pacing works so well. Set up an ordinary moment, then build the tension with that line, That was the plan, anyway. Then footsteps, and we're wondering whose? And then the scene with the knife. Wow There is no way I wouldn't want to read. And as a mom, with a daughter who suffers from mental illness, I was completely invested. And the end? I wanted to hug her too. I understood immediately the viciousness of trying to unknowingly get that poor girl to say mean things about herself. Ugh. Kids can be so cruel. I'm sorry for what you've gone through, and I sincerely hope there is a positive outcome to this story.

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Thank you @L A Wibberley. I appreciate the feedback, and my heart goes out to you and your daughter. My daughter is actually doing amazing now. She's 26 and just got her MSW. She's a therapist! It was not an easy adolescence, as you can imagine. As an adult, she manages her mental illness incredibly well, thank goodness.

Originally, she and I wrote the memoir together, alternating viewpoints. It turned out nobody wants to publish a memoir from two points of view. So we did surgery, and I finished revising my version. She is waiting to revise hers to see if I find a publisher first. But yes, you were right to pick up on the idea that there is another way of remembering the story. 

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That's wonderful news! And my girl is about to turn 26. She still struggles, Covid has been hard on her, but in the past few months she's really improved. Talking about finishing the last few classes in her  psych degree. Her goal is to also be a counselor, and I think she'd amazing at it. Best of luck to you both

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This is an intriguing beginning. I like where you start it. Is the whole book written as a letter or as if you are telling Faith her story? Just curious as this may cause confusion later if not. Also, maybe go into more detail about the conversation with the teacher. Had this happened before, therefore making you confident your daughter was involved?

Also, this sentence tripped me up a little -Like you and your brothers were who you were from birth, and all we could do was watch you become more of yourselves – for good or for bad.

I had to read it a few times to understand what you were trying to say and it made me question if her brothers were the bullying type too.

Overall, I think this is a memoir that will resonate with so many and look forward to hearing more of your story.


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I thought you did a great job setting the scene. The powerful moment of the child with the knife was chilling. And her resolution of wanting to see a therapist worked so well since she'd wanted you to guess. Beautiful work!

I don't know if I missed it, but I didn't realize the child was a girl until toward the end. Maybe we could hear her name earlier or receive another clue unless you wanted that to be a mystery.

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WOW - this is really great. I couldn’t stop!  As I was reading I felt the pace at which you intertwined the present drama (Faithy standing before her parents with a knife) with the narrative (explaining the past situation at school and other elemements; family dynamics, Dad’s job, feelings of exhaustion, etc.) was right on. We were hanging on, along for the ride, waiting for what was going to happen, yet the other relative information teaching us about who these people were, was written clear and concise. It felt important and never lost me.

One sentence I did find myself hung up on slightly was, “Like you and your brothers were who you were from birth, and all we could do was watch you become more of yourselves – for good or for bad.” Something about the wording made it fumble in my head slightly. Perhaps the repetition of the word “were” so close together? Just a thought.

I would definitly read more! Well done!

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