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Truth and Dare

Three years ago, it was my 50th “Burniversary,” burned people’s word for the anniversary of their fire. To "celebrate", I conducted an impromptu Google search which led me down a rabbit hole - I discovered that my parents' story about my fire was not. . . well. . . exactly true. I slumped in front of my laptop, mouth agape.

All my life, I had been told that my mother put lighter fluid on a charcoal grill, but the coals did not light. So, she squirted more lighter fluid on the coals. This time, a tiny flame traveled backwards into the can of lighter fluid and exploded, burning my mother and four-year-old me. The flame shot back in the can because the lighter fluid was not properly packaged, lacking a “flashback arrestor.” My parents blamed the company for the “accident” my whole life.

“That lighter fluid was canned improperly, Lise, that’s what happened. The lighter fluid company didn't package their product safely and they knew it. That’s how you got burned.”

All of this did happen. But it turns out that my mother didn’t squirt lighter fluid on those coals. Instead she used a highly flammable paint solvent which, perhaps, she thought was lighter fluid. To be clear though, the solvent was not lighter fluid and this flammable solvent had no business being anywhere near a charcoal grill. This, then, is what caused the explosion: a misused flammable solvent, poor fire safety choices, and the lack of a flashback arrestor.

I discovered this three weeks before my mother was scheduled to die. I knew she was going to die in three weeks (That is a whole other story. . . covered in the book).

“Are you going to talk to her about it?” asked my husband.

“About the solvent? About why they called it lighter fluid?”

“Yes. It’s your only chance. She won’t be here long.”

I thought about it. I did want to know why she had poured a paint solvent on a fire, instead of lighter fluid. Did she know? And I really wanted to understand why they had always told me it was lighter fluid. However, my mother had a degenerative speech condition which made it difficult for her to talk. The chance that she could meaningfully answer seemed dim. I didn’t think she could do it physically, and I didn’t think she could do it emotionally. My mother was not one to acknowledge mistakes, at least not hers.

“What’s the point? It won’t go well. It will just upset her, which will upset me, because she won’t be sorry. She will make it seem like I am being difficult, somehow ridiculous. No. I’m not going to ask her.”

And I didn’t.

Three weeks after my mother died, after we held her service and cleaned out her apartment, I began to write my book. I had never written a book before. I had no idea what I was doing.

Words poured out of me like water gushing from a garden hose. I woke up and wrote. I wrote every morning before work. I wrote every weekend. I gave up exercising and reading so I would have more time to write. I wrote like a liberated woman, which is what I was. I finally felt liberated to tell my story.

For 50 years, I withheld my life stories. I held back those stories because I knew my parents would be mad at me if I told them. My stories are not the same as their stories. In their stories, they were gifted and brilliant, sexy and fun. And my parents were indeed all those things. But they didn’t keep us safe, me and my brother. They meant to (and it is not always easy to be an effective parent). It is even harder to be an effective parent if you are absorbed with your own needs, to the point that you can’t prioritize your children. . . to the point that you can’t see that your children are suffering. . . to the point that your children are in grave danger and you. . . look away.

What are these stories? There is casual carelessness. There is neglect and abandonment. Also, fun and adventure. Music and travel. Stunning genius (them! Not me). Tragic suicides, searing pain, and more loss. Emotional healing and rebirth. Plus, you know, that flashback fire.

Tension burns a different kind of fire inside me now. Who am I to share these secrets? Is it wrong? Will I regret this? Am I a bad girl, daring to speak ill of my parents, whom I also love? And yet. . .

I need to speak the truth about what I have gone through. I need to tell the truth about my brother and how I lost him. I need to speak the truth for my own wholeness and for the blessed memory of my brother, Marc. I survived my childhood; he did not.

Far beyond my own need to be true, I believe the truth helps people. Many people have suffered through stories like mine, and much worse. Those of us who suffer and get well can build a recovery roadmap for those who suffer now. Our roadmaps can point others toward the direction of healing. I hope my roadmap can help people trying to heal from tragedies and build themselves a better life.

Fifty-four years ago, I was burned in a devastating fire. Three years ago, I discovered the true story of that fire. Three years ago, I also lost my mother, the last member of my first family. Less than one month from now, my memoir will be published. In the meantime, I would like to share this podcast that I recently recorded for the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. We had an engaging discussion about resilience and how people can deepen their capacity to thrive after struggle. I hope you find it helpful.

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.

1 Comment

Judy Shelton
Judy Shelton
Dec 05, 2020

My main regret with my family is that I didn't leave them sooner. I clung to the hope that they would realize that what happened to me (the family scapegoat) was the result of a dysfunctional family dynamic, and that the whole family had a responsibility to understand that dynamic and to heal it. Instead, it was turned into my problem, so that my choices were to take the poison they offered me, or leave.

It's a long story, as all these stories are, and my family weren't the only perpetrators; I acted out in some really destructive ways. So I own my portion of this. But when all is said and done (plenty was!), hanging in there with them…

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