Elizabeth Garden - Uncovering Epigenetic Trauma from a 75 Year Family Secret
Elizabeth Garden is an award-winning author and artist, whose psychological insight into emotional trauma and familial conflict has endeared her to survivors of childhood abuse. Her achievements include serving as the Art Director of high profile magazines, such as the Boston Herald Sunday Magazine, South Florida Magazine, Blockbuster Magazine, and Ocean Drive Magazine. Her autobiographical novel, “Tree of Lives,” is a magnificent epic of a young woman's survival and atonement of a hereditary curse that ultimately destroys her family in 20th Century America. In 2019, “Tree of Lives” entered its 3rd print edition, and was recently released in audiobook format through Audible, narrated by Garden, herself. The new edition features discussion questions designed to aid group study and book clubs. Garden studied at the Boston Museum School and the Morris Pratt Institute, where she became qualified as a certified psychic medium. A Connecticut native, Garden currently lives in Florida. As our Author of the Day, Garden tells us all about Tree of Lives
Please give us a short introduction to what Tree of Lives is about.
Tree of Lives is an epic that follows the life of Ruth, an artist from an abusive and bigoted family. Ruth struggles to identify and overcome the pernicious consequences of her father’s undiagnosed mental illness. With scant emotional support, she heals her self-inflicted wounds born of bad choices after she uncovers epigenetic trauma from a family tragedy kept secret for 75 years when her paranoid schizophrenic great uncle murdered his family in a shocking public spectacle. It is illustrated with artwork from Ruth’s career.
What inspired you to write about an artist who comes from an abusive and bigoted family?
I think there are many people, especially artists, who suffer from the consequences of other people’s undiagnosed mental illness. Luckily, art can serve as an escape hatch or at least a way to document the rawness that comes with their suffering. When something ineffable is put into words or form, the release of the pain dilutes it. Sharing it with others who harmonize in that same key, a balm of healing can happen. It’s called tertiary social sharing. Bigotry and its evil twin, male domination, are woven into the fabric of a typical white American ethos and are on full display in Ruth’s family. The ugliness of those values is withering in the glaring spotlight of this national moment, which hopefully is a time of change and awareness.
Tell us more about Ruth. What makes her tick?
In a way, it was good that Ruth was emotionally neglected. As a dreamy, mystical sort, she was left to seek her own wisdom and invent her own version of spirituality in the vacuum. In the unenviable role as the victim of an easily enraged father and two cruelly dominating older brothers, she accepted her role as a perpetual loser. Yet she wished to excel in a way no one else in her family did, which was through her art. The unachievable unity and equality of her early life became her modus operandi as an adult, though that remained elusive for decades and not without consequences. But through that gauntlet, Ruth built a wide highway to her higher self through visualization, psychic work, creating art, and a strong belief in herself.
In which way is Tree of Lives autobiographical?
As they say, write what you know! Tree of Lives is based on true events. It helped to rename my character Ruth, a person who is the opposite of ruthless. The name Elizabeth Garden is my pen name, so there is an extra layer there — I’m guardin’ my privacy.
How much influence, would you say, does one's family have on your psychological condition?
Plenty. I see childhood as a time when we are like a delicate batter. As adults we turn out according to what has been added or avoided: bitterness, sweetness, nuttiness, filth, sand, garbage, you name it — it gets baked in, it can be burned or end up undercooked. We have our adulthood to experience how that all tastes and hopefully pick out the nasty bits.
Epigenetic trauma plays an important role in this book. Why?
Millions and millions of people have experienced trauma throughout the ages. It is pretty safe to say that most of history has been traumatic.
Where does all that trauma go, once resolved, if indeed it is ever resolved?
Is it any wonder humans are so complex the world over?
At a glance, Ruth’s trauma seemed mild compared to the massive upheavals millions have experienced. Sure, she came from an abusive family headed by a perpetually angry father, but so did lots of folks, especially as modern ideas of child-rearing have evolved. But after she dug down deep and learned the reason her father was so crazy she understood the reverberating dynamics of epigenetic trauma at work.
Why did you title this book: Tree of Lives?
As an artist, Ruth was endlessly attracted to trees, playing under and in them and portraying their beautiful, dynamic complexity in her artwork.
She appreciated their stability, that they grew towards the light, and their offspring could grow up right nearby. Though she was not originally Jewish, Ruth was intrigued by the profound Jewish concept of a Tree of Life, and also by the idea of a family tree once she heard that there might be some royal lineage in her background, not surprisingly from her difficult father’s side. Later in life, Ruth was called upon to build some actual Trees of Life. That made her realize these opportunities were placed in her life path for a reason, which was no accident. Her spiritual and psychic experiences taught her to listen to things like that. I believe that the physical connection a family has is reflected in the spirit world. The fact that a branch of it came crashing down and injured the one developing right underneath it is central to the title.
Do you have a favorite line from the book, and can you explain what that line means to you?
The very first line in the book, “I give myself permission to be Beloved happy, joyous and free” was part of an affirmation prayer I used to say with my two daughters at bedtime. It pretty much sums up what it took to create the life I wanted.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Tree of Lives?
The most challenging aspect of writing Tree of Lives is getting it the attention it deserves. I think it’s a compelling and pertinent story that has proven to help people (it is being used by therapists for adult children of abusers.) But it’s not just for them — it is a story of a classic American situation, albeit a bit strange. Tree of Lives has won several awards, gets great reviews, and reverberates afterward with those who read it.
I wrote the book during and after chemo, surgery, and radiation for breast cancer. I may have jumped the gun by self-publishing but I was unsure about my prognosis. I was afraid I might not survive the excruciating process of submitting the book for consideration with an agent or a publisher.
You send it out but just never hear back. I was anxious to get my story out there, but I had no idea of the best way to do it. Typical of me, I just plowed ahead.
At the same time, it’s been an interesting process and I’m always glad to learn something new.
In this book you’re dealing with so many difficult themes – as a writer, do you feel a sense of responsibility? If so, how do you deal with this?
It really helped to use a pen name which made it easier to write this story and see Ruth as an individual. But these difficult themes all really happened.
As I said in the last line of the book, “I think they were put in my path just so I could tell you about them.”
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I am actually an artist. I may have another book up my sleeve but right now I’ve been spending my Covid-19 ennui painting in my studio. When I wrote Tree of Lives I got up at 4 am and wrote until my husband woke up. One unfortunate hangover from this was that my dog got up with me and still expects to eat at 4 am.
What are you working on right now?
Where can our readers discover more of your work?
Blog is https://www.treeoflives.net/blog.html
Note: I have to admit I’m a little lazy about promoting my artwork or
updating my design website even though I have designed hundreds of
webpages for others.